Aliza with Child
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Miron Izakson
Translated from Hebrew by Ira Moskowitz
In Rami’s class, there are twenty-two to twenty-four students. He has not yet managed to confirm a final count; perhaps not all of them have properly registered and perhaps a precise clarification on his part would chase away three or four students, and therefore it is best to proceed cautiously and not to jeopardize the status quo. From his perspective, he would also gladly accept any auditors who may have heard by chance about his classes. The main thing is that the room would look a bit fuller. Central College, where he teaches, focuses on the fields of literature, history and Judaism.
“I’m sorry I was nearly late to class, but here I am. I’m sure you would have waited for me even longer. Just yesterday, I heard about hundreds of people who traveled for two hours just to watch fireworks on the beach that lasted about a quarter of an hour. We can assume that our classes are a bit more valuable (giggling sounds) and, in any case, what is there for you to do outside of the college? After all, none of you are seeking to repair the world, or to destroy it (sounds are heard again). I feel like – or it’s more correct to say, I’m thinking about – telling you about a charming telephone call I received today from a beautiful woman. But instead of this, I’ll tell you about another personal incident, which is more pertinent to our subject of study. So listen: Many years ago, I had a teacher I loved, one of the most prominent scholars in Israel in the field of Hasidism. He was born in Poland around the year 1930. His father was murdered by the neighbors; his mother left him with a friendly family of non-Jews during the war and fled. The child was ultimately handed over to the Gestapo and arrived at a concentration camp. He managed to escape, was caught again, and this time survived because he was left as dead in a particular pit. (A person could be considered dead in one particular pit and alive in another pit, but Rami quickly decides not to develop this direction for now. It is not appropriate, it is not appropriate.) Okay, that’s it for the first part of the story. In the second part, the young man comes to the State of Israel. Otherwise, as you presume, he could not have been my teacher for kabbalah and Hasidism. He lived in Haifa, even married a woman from a kibbutz, struggled with Hebrew and finally allowed it to prevail, and thus he was able to study and teach here. He also struggled with his weaknesses and cultural isolation, and advanced further and further in his learning. I met him when he was already a lecturer. We, the students, regarded him as successful, at least not boring, especially when he told us about his childhood. This is further proof of the fact that a person can interest others mainly when he does not engage in his principal field of endeavor. But let’s return to our main topic. This teacher would describe the past in a different way each time, and it was impossible to know when he was sticking to the facts and when his imagination got the best of him. He said that his whole internal substance was comprised solely of these memories, but that they also undergo change from time to time, according to what piles up on them in the mind or in the subconscious. As he described this: ‘A person can return only to what is already within him. But what is in him since childhood, these leftovers, also change and are not identical to the previous times he encountered them in his memory.’ These, more or less, were his beautiful words. He spoke more like a writer than a scholar, I must admit. In any case, the loss of his parents, the memory of his grandfather and grandmother in a beautiful and distant village, the riddle of his childhood, his repeated escapes from those who sought to kill him – all these returned time after time during his classes and became part of Hasidic stories and heart-rending homilies of a sort.
“And suddenly, the great bombshell. My teacher – I think he was then about forty years old – receives a phone call and a faint and trembling voice tells him in the language of his childhood: ‘I’m your mother and I’m here. I arrived in Israel three years ago and I live on the Carmel. I didn’t want to bother you, but I watched from afar and followed your work a bit. Finally, I thought that it’s not necessary to deprive myself of the possibility of seeing you. And in particular, I thought that I don’t have the right to deprive you of the knowledge of my existence. After all, this is your expertise: knowledge and what you can do with it.’ Okay, these were the mother’s words to the shocked teacher. When he told us about the conversation, he just said that the languages became wordless. He had erased his mother’s tongue from within him some years ago, and Hebrew fell silent, signaling to him that it cannot intervene in this matter, it is too late, or too early, but does not belong to the time of him and his mother.
“Now is the time to ask you, what do we do? Here, finally you are moving a bit in your seats, showing some regard for what I am saying – further proof that I can fascinate my students only with what I’m not supposed to teach. Then I ask: How do you turn someone who was a complete orphan into someone who is now only part orphan. And moreover, my teacher based his whole life and his work, perhaps even his academic standing, on the fact that both his father and his mother were taken from him in that evil war, murdered by history’s absolute bad guys. On the fact that Europe is what swallowed up his previous existence and left him bitten by its culture. And here, suddenly the resurrection of the dead. A mother who was taken away is suddenly a mom who returns. And I’m speaking here not only about the personal aspect, which is almost always the essence, I’m speaking about the ‘status’ of an educated and beaten man – even his absolute ruination is stripped from him. They did not even leave him the ruins as an inheritance and as a right, and the only thing he is left with now is a renewed, confusing, insulting ruination.”
The students are silent, not even showing any signs of preparing to speak. They look at Rami and are quick to avoid eye contact. Their regular and routine whispering has also come to rest. Rami usually takes an interest in the whispers among those sitting close by. He is curious to know, sensitive to any possibility of a slight to his dignity. He has a special interest in conversations conducted between those seated adjacent to each other: Two people who happen to sit next to each other in any room tend to converse a lot and to develop points of agreement relative to the others in the room, or even on worldly matters, solely due to this proximity. Absolute strangers express similar views only because they happen to sit next to one another. Rami invented a name for this phenomenon: ‘points of agreement of adjacent bodies,’ or in clearer words: ‘proximity of the buttocks.’ This chance proximity leads them to agree on important questions and to chuckle together about others.
Rami’s students now want to hear the rest of the story. They have invested good money to hear such stories. The class period is over and, to his surprise, they are still sitting, with their eyes now focused on him. He always tries to have a fascinating article ready in his ridiculous plastic bag for an emergency situation in which classroom quiet prevails and he needs to stir immediate interest in his pupils. This time perhaps he forgot, and in any case he would not feel comfortable checking the contents of the plastic bag in front of them, arousing their disdain. He has finally succeeded in fascinating the students about an original subject, and it is not appropriate to return to the rustling of the plastic bag. Someone raises his hand and immediately begins to speak: “I just want to reserve a turn to speak. I still don’t have something clear to say to you, but I’m sure I’ll have something to add. So, when everyone in the class wants to speak, don’t forget me. I’m raising my hand to announce this demand.” Rami smiles in embarrassment, others laugh. He now looks at two students: Tamar and Sarit. He remembers their names well – one of them because of her beauty and the other because of her independent views. Sarit gets up from her place, taut and precise with her body: “Excuse me, I have to go already. In any case, the time is up. Today of all days my sister is waiting for me outside. It’s her turn to be with her daughter and she asked me to join them on some little outing, nothing dramatic, but they still consider it an event. I’m sorry about the disturbance. Perhaps it would’ve been better if I hadn’t come to class at all, but I came and it was more interesting than usual. I stayed until the end, but I still apologize.”
“What do you mean you’re going now?” someone nearly shouted. “We all came in together and we’ll leave together. Your precious sister can wait a few minutes.”
“You’ve simply lost your mind,” Sarit whispers. “I said I’m going and that’s that. The very moment I feel like it!” She turns her body and stands defiantly in front of Rami. “It’s a shame that you’re unable to finish your class on time, or ever. You even need others to declare when the class is over instead of doing this yourself. One of us is always supposed to provide you with the solution.”
Suddenly the laughter is clear and loud. Most of the students are laughing. Rami chuckles. It is best for him not to respond. Anything he says is liable to trip him up, to sound childish. Nonetheless, he says a few words that are not entirely clear and exits the classroom.
Aliza is not in the least bit occupied with traffic lights or traffic light conversations. She has the things that are important to her – the store, her aging parents, and perhaps some matters involving the body. And if she does devote herself to something other and different than these, then at most she writes her feelings to herself. She does not think of them as real works of literature, but she is comfortable with the written words. Like a piano concerto, she once said to her parents, it does indeed open with a grand crescendo of various instruments, but it is clear to all that in the end the piano will come, and all the rest is only preparation. Similarly, the pieces she writes are preparation for the real thing, which comes in any case:
Not a victorious army, nor rebellious farmers
Not even tailors, nor body dust,
I put people to sleep
Like a heart with an infant-like rocking,
People with a strange fire
Those who say to my head: Hurt,
Those who beckon fear: Come here beloved.
Aliza likes to read her sentences to herself aloud, so that her ears and not only her body can feel them About three years ago, she opened the bag store on King George Street. At first, her aging parents viewed this as an embarrassing (almost pathetic) substitute for a non-existent husband and for a child who had yet to come. In her previous years, she engaged in things that did not require a commitment. She did not seek any permanent vocation for herself, nor did she receive one. And then she came across a fascinating article in an Italian magazine, which for some reason she browsed in the dentist’s waiting room. The article was about the new generation of men’s and women’s bags, and the integration of this style in contemporary art and architecture. Almost without hesitation, she traveled to Milan (departing the country for the first time in her life) to study the subject. This trip amused her, and was also embarrassing. During the flight there, she remembers, she tried to train herself to look at her watch without noticing the hour. It angered her that every time people look at their watch, even if they are only looking, ostensibly, to see where it is, they immediately must know the hour. Why isn’t it possible to just to know that there is a watch without knowing what the numbers on it indicate? Since then, she favors objects that are simply there, without them immediately communicating to us a personal message about their fate. But she must dismiss such thoughts. It is impossible to run a serious business, a fashionable store of bags, even if it is a small business, when the hour on the clock makes you angry. And if so, then back to the memories of Milan: Aliza wandered among the stores, collected addresses of manufacturers and merchants and conducted meetings. Where did I get this daring, she wonders, and everything in my limited English and theirs. And perhaps they actually identified with my relative ignorance, who knows. So, she collected data, the latest brochures and personal contacts until returning to Israel with an emerging expertise. She even arranged a bank loan for herself, without involving her parents. Only later, when it turned out she needed an additional, final sum, but a bigger one than she had planned or could handle, she approached her father for assistance, insisting that she would repay him everything, without any discounts and would even put this in writing, just like a regular business transaction. So she completed the preparations in a thorough way, like in the distant days of twelfth grade, when she decided to succeed in her exams and activated for this purpose “the special forces that triumph” – that’s what she calls them in the internal pep talks she conducts with herself. This time she also mobilized the special forces for this purpose. The store was designed primarily for women’s bags, but also wallets for men and women, and special leather products for men. After all, it is important for the place to be open to both genders, so they won’t say that only young women come here, or only young men who think about young women all day. Aliza also acted decisively in regard to marketing: She advertised herself in the local Tel Aviv newspapers, distributed nice letters in mailboxes, and lately has also been making occasional telephone calls to people who live in the area. She will get to everyone who lives in her vicinity, even if this takes a number of years. They will hear more and more from her. Indeed, each one could be a good target. As far as she is concerned, they can come just to have a look around, and then buy later. After all, it is not a costly or difficult process. It is simply a routine invitation to a new and cute store.
Aliza enjoys the calls she initiates. It is an opportunity to talk with people she doesn’t know, about something that is important to her. And from time to time there are also results. Someone comes and says: “You called me and here I am.” She nearly caresses the person entering the store, and sometimes at the end of the work day she writes more verses of excitement to herself: This is what I write, nothing complex or impressive, simply things that grow within me, within the body, and already want to come out of me in the form of letters. Perhaps all because of the empty and large place I still have inside, ready for that baby who has yet to arrive. Men also do not manage to get inside of me in the appropriate way. At least they come the right way to my beautiful store…Okay, I’m only chuckling about myself in an internal and personal conversation. Nothing will leak from me in these matters. And what is certain, thanks to the baby who has yet to arrive, words come to me that are special, sometimes even funny.
Aliza likes to tell her parents about the activity in the store, and they want to hear every detail. Not only because of the momentary interest and not only because they identity with her so much, but also so that the two of them can later go back and discuss the details and to generate from them an ongoing activity. From time to time, Aliza also surprises them with a new poem of hers, though she is wary not to call the verses she reads a real poem, but rather just ‘my personal thing.” Here, they have an adult daughter, with a store and with a poem. And even if she has yet to get married, there is still something more complex about her than they previously thought.
“Like candies, I keep your verses,” her mother told her last week. “And like candies, I don’t have to take off the wrapper to know, from the very first moment, that what is inside is really sweet.”
But Aliza does not show all of the pieces to her parents. For example, not the dancing verses.
The body connection I unravel –
Now it’s your turn
To dance my movements without me.
The connection I assemble again
Like a cage on my life,
An acrobat’s net is spread for my fall
Even without me knowing.
One time I try to swell my chest
And another time to be quiet,
Like a child (whom I don’t have) shouting to his father:
You don’t know how hard it is for me to grow.
Enough with this plastic bag. Rami finally decides to buy a real work bag. After all, the thin plastic bag does not win him respect in the eyes of the students and is also not useful, and when he adds to it another plastic bag with food, the situation is truly ridiculous. In any case, there was also that telephone call from the saleswoman in the bag store, so there is no need to bother searching for a place to buy a bag. He can continue to be lazy and still arrive at the right place.
Two women are standing in the small store and Rami is not sure what the division of roles is between them. “I’m the owner and she is a good friend who is just visiting me, so don’t get confused,” the older one says. “If you prefer, she can leave immediately. Okay, I was just joking. I never kick people out of the store. Who knows, even though she is a good friend, perhaps she will also buy something from me in the end. Now I’ve really gone too far, you’ve just arrived and I’m already swimming long distances inside my humor. What can I do, I was afraid you’d feel threatened alone with two women in a closed and small place … And so I began to talk and talk. Okay, the main thing is that you came to me – that is, to my store. It’s small in space, but as the scholars say, it is nonetheless a separate and independent entity. I keep talking and haven’t asked yet whether you came to buy or to just look, or to tell me something. With all due respect, dear sir, I do tend to blabber, but the truth is that you are a professional mute, and that can also ultimately be annoying.”
Judging from her voice on the telephone, Rami expected Aliza to be short. But her body is almost tall. She is good-looking, with just a small protruding belly. Embarrassed by his focus on her dimensions, he immediately moves on to examining her hair. It is cut too short; it is good that her face remains pleasant, and even her body is able to attract in the end. “I’m just passing by. I understood from the telephone call that you have nice bags.” (He looks at the shelves to reinforce his words.) “Look, I don’t go to stores very often (except to buy food), but this time I need something, not only because you called and you were sweet on the telephone.” She is already blushing. “Look, look” (Aliza turns to her girlfriend), “what a special atmosphere there is in my store. Nothing can help all the mean people who seek to ruin it for me. And I also told you that my telephone initiative is not a waste of time and energy, but simply a correct and direct business approach. Here a dignified and educated man has come to us, and thanks to the cute store, he is pleasant and soft like a mother’s latke. I can now call you ‘my telephone prey.’ Don’t be alarmed, I have to laugh because of the pressure. Can you imagine the pressure I’m under, and how complicated it is for me to manage a store on my own?”
“Aliza,” her friend says, “I need to get back to my work. I’m sure they’re already looking for me about some inconsequential matter. It seems to me that I’m leaving you in good hands this time.”
“Don’t ruin the impression. Our guest is liable to think that you usually leave me in bad hands, and only today, thanks to him, it’s different … I try to maintain a strong image,” she laughs in a loud, almost thick voice. After a moment, she stops, returning the laughter to its source.
“Now let’s get down to business,” Aliza says to Rami as if he were the only one in her world. “I need to make a living and you, as they like to say, are surely a busy man who urgently needs something from me.”
“I’m actually not a particularly busy man, but I’m definitely looking for a bag.”
“It’s not simple. After all, if it were so simple, we wouldn’t be dragging out the time like this: hesitating a bit, chatting a lot.”
“Who here is hesitating? I save my indecision for other matters. And don’t ask me what I mean by that, because I’m a bit tired. Here, I entered your store, so let me take a look at the selection. I know how to finish quickly.”
Aliza is silent. Like a radio station that decided to go off the air for a while. If she has the opportunity, or if it would facilitate the sale, she would yet find a way to get this man to talk. But now she should simply be quiet and let him proceed in his way. She completed the preparations, deployed her forces well. Any further interference is just likely to be disruptive.
Rami himself is also here, and not only Aliza the saleswoman. You can never compare a store in which there is a buyer (even only one, even a hesitant one) to a store in which there is only a salesperson. Rami, as someone who should realize the importance of this moment, is engrossed in the small display of bags. He immediately discerns that there are different levels of quality, and it is not even clear whether all of the products are made of leather. To his surprise, silence prevails. Not only has the saleswoman stopped her chatter, but his mouth too has closed due to embarrassment or laziness. And the hesitation becomes stronger: Why should he buy himself a bag at a fashionable shop? After all, he needs it only for textbooks, lists of lectures and students’ papers. What do these needs have to do with Aliza’s fashionable shop?
He sees a small photocopying machine next to the cash register. He is impressed by it and notes to himself how the corners of a room (or a store) make a greater impact than the center. “What did you discover in this small and comical machine?” she asks. “Here, I tried to be mute, but the silence was broken. Perhaps your sudden gaze at the machine spoiled it for me. I enjoyed so much watching you examine the bags, and then the disappointment from your eyes, which stray from the main thing and are lured toward something that is not really my store.”
“I’m a limited person, even my students think so. I’m impressed by steady and efficient devices like an elevator or photocopying machine, those that repeat the same action over and over again, just as we expect from them. I call them the ‘steady ones.’” (Rami chuckles a bit.)
“Everyone has his ‘steady ones.’ For me, the customers are the machines. But don’t laugh at yourself, at least not in my territory. There are rules here that I don’t allow to be broken.” (She smiles. For the first time, her lips do not twitch in anxiety.) “You have immunity with me, spatial protection within the little store. No one hurts you and you also are forbidden to hurt yourself. So we’ve agreed: You’re not a limited person and your ridiculous students are of no interest to us.”
“And this little machine” (he nods toward the photocopier) “also works, or only decorates the bags?”
“Enough, now you are already teasing me in a personal way. Of course it’s here in order to work, just like I’m here to sell (and with you, it’s not going so well – at least so far). The photocopier is simply an additional service for my select customers. Perhaps one could call it an ‘additional profit center’” (a roar of light laughter). “You see, in order to impress you, I started speaking in highfaluting words that haven’t visited my mouth for a long time.”
“Good, because I have something to photocopy, I suddenly remembered.” Rami pulls out a check from the colored plastic bag. He mumbles about how important it is to keep a photocopy of every official or bank document. The personal information of Jonathan Halutz appears on the check, including his address, home telephone and bank account number. And how could it hurt Rami to have all of the information about the college president – after all, knowledge is an advantage, and always useful. “It’s good to have the information in our hands,” he says quietly, as someone engaged in a large-scale clandestine program.
“You’re right,” Aliza responds, “but I’m a bit wary. I have a business to run, and I'm not an information booth.”
Rami appears at ease, almost satisfied. The bags and wallets allow him a few moments of simple interest, something different. He photocopies the check, seriously and meticulously, and puts it back in the envelope.
“You suddenly look like a slightly mysterious type,” she says with kind eyes, “but let’s get back to the main thing. I have a surprising offer. Don’t think, heaven forbid, that I’m speaking from desperation. I’m simply a charming young woman. So listen, buy now a work bag for yourself finally, and the photocopy will be ‘on the house’ – that is, without any additional payment. But if after this whole visit the only thing I get is a small photocopy, then I’ll have to charge you a high fee and take into account both direct and indirect costs. So, what do you think about my straightforward approach?” (Aliza is not smiling or laughing this time. She looks at the wall, as if the answer to her question is going to be projected there.)
“I’m not sure,” Rami says. “I don’t know if you’re really serious, or teasing me a bit. There is logic in your approach, but you are also liable to lose a good customer.”
“Right. I admit that I don’t really understand customers, particularly when it comes to men. Otherwise, I would not have reached the age of thirty-eight without marrying at least once.”
Rami quickly chooses for himself a bag that looks like a school bag, though perhaps a bit more impressive. He hesitates whether to purchase it immediately or to ask the saleswoman to put it aside for him until he decides.
“What are you debating?” she asks, interpreting out loud what is shut inside him. Her voice is new and businesslike, as if only now she discovered this bag on the shelf and for some reason made no use of it. “Take it now. If you want, you can return and exchange it. In any case, we’ll meet again – that is, even without a connection to my store. After all, you’re part of our neighborhood.”
Rami is silent, discovers that there is no need to respond, that it is possible to listen to words and not reply.
But the saleswoman is insistent, refusing to allow the store space to remain without a sound. “Perhaps I get too excited, even begin to press. People have already told me this and I really apologize. It’s the excitement of someone who wants to support herself in dignity.”
“Is your name really Aliza?” Rami asks, switching to a sort of new channel of conversation.
“Ah, you already heard my name and you’ve been concealing it till now? You really are a secretive type. Yes, that’s my name in the store and also my name outside the door” (and she whinnies like a young colt). “Not Louise and not Louisa, but a clear name, full and cheerful, and certainly not Lizzy, though I’m not responsible for everyone who wants to call me by strange names. I know that there are a number of neighbors and acquaintances, even adjacent storeowners, who think that my real name is something else, and that Aliza is only a compromise, but on this issue I have no compromises. And perhaps tell me at last your name too and you’ll be able to receive an official and orderly receipt for your purchase (and you can even make a photocopy for yourself…) Here, you’re departing from me with a lot of possessions already: a charming bag that will enhance your status in the students’ eyes, interesting and surely harmless chatter, and also an official and festive receipt.”
“Thank you, Aliza. You’ve managed to confuse me a bit, I admit. But my name I still remember. Rami. A teacher at the college. Nothing impressive. And your bag, which now becomes mine, will have to become accustomed to very boring pages lying in its belly.”
Copyright © by Miron Izakson
English translation copyright © Miron Izakson
Published by arrangement with The Institute for The Translation of Hebrew Literature
Aliza with Child (Heryona Shel Aliza) was originally published in Hebrew by Hakibbutz Hameuchad in 2009.
Miron C. Izakson was born in 1956 to a family that was among the first orange growers in pre-state Israel. He studied law and Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Tel Aviv University. At present, Izakson lectures in the literature department of Bar-Ilan University. He is chairman for literature on the Israel Culture and Arts Council, a member of the board of Bar-Ilan University, and serves as Honorary Consul for Luxembourg in Israel. Izakson has published many books of poetry and a number of novels, to widespread literary acclaim. Four collections of his poems have been set to music by various musicians and released as CDs. Izakson has been awarded the President's Prize (2001), the Nathan Yonathan Prize for Poetry (2012), and the Brenner Prize for Poetry for This Time (2013).