By Mordechai Beck
It was a sultry midweek afternoon in Jaffa and we were chaperoning our offspring from one set of dark mauve shadows to another, like a family of gypsies fleeing before invisible pursuers. From my wife's parents' place in a new section at the edge of town, we had driven to my wife's sister's place in Bat Yam. From there we accompanied my sister‑in‑law to the beach where her husband was teaching his son to fish and swim under the surface of the frantic sea. My sister‑in‑law was not entirely happy with this arrangement.
"Why?!" she screamed.
Rising above the white collared waves, her son laughed, and her husband, too. I would have intervened but was constrained from doing so. Even though it is family, I still felt like a bystander. Besides, why stir an already boiling pot? Only the angel to whom I am married attempted to becalm her sister, in a tone that would have consoled the Biblical Job.
"They'll be alright," she assured her.
At that moment, my sister‑in‑law's husband, a thickly built, muscular fellow with as many hairs as the original Esau, lifted his son in the air and flung him into the sea near the rocks that, as legend has it, were left there ages ago by some ancient Greek deity. His son, our nephew, was screaming, though his father was signalling to us that he was really enjoying himself. The boy's mother, stranded on the shore, and refusing even to negotiate with the foamy froth at her feet, appeared about to faint.
"Stop it! Stop it!" she implored.
Her words made as much impression on her burly husband as they did on the fish passing silently beneath the shimmering waters.
After we'd all had our dip, my wife suggested that we move on. To salve her conscience we took our nephew ‑ now fished out of the sea and slightly blue ‑ and promised to find something with which to amuse him. Leaving the beach, we heard the first shots in another verbal battle between my sister‑in‑law and her burly husband that would no doubt end up as inconclusively as all previous military engagements between them. My wife again weighed the possibility of being a peace‑maker, but I signalled to her that we would be late for the old city of Jaffa. That morning, while still at her parents' place, my wife had read in the local newspaper that, at noon, there would be a family theatre show in the old city. We could dump the children in the theatre and go to the sea on our own. My wife had raised this suggestion casually, as though offering me a choice. Furtively, I had nodded my assent.
When we sighted the wide bay of Old Jaffa, the sea was gleaming in the Mediterranean sun, with enough dashes of light to fill an impressionist painting. From the dock came the smell of the salt sea mingling with the pungent aroma of frying fish which drifted out of the many small, quay‑side restaurants. In the back seat of our car the children eagerly pointed to the far side of the quay, where the old stone pier constructed by the British in the 1930s had been spruced up by the municipality to attract business and tourists.
The fisherman had just returned with the day's first haul from the bed of the sea. "Look! Look!" screamed the children as the Jewish and Arab crews unloaded their glistening catch of sardines, mullet and eels, on to the side of the marina, where a crowd of local restaurateurs stood around, keen to purchase the freshly wrested load.
The day was still young (we had actually gotten out of my parents‑in‑ law's place at the record time of nine o'clock!). Apart from the group gathered around the fishermen, the port was deserted. We wandered around the waterfront, stopping to watch the seamen repair their nets and fishing tackle, or dabbing an extra coat of paint on their boats. Every couple of minutes, one of the children strayed perilously near the water's edge. My wife raised her eyebrows, but not as high as her sister.
We returned to our car, and by the time we reached the new cultural centre where the family theatre show was to take place, the children were jumping up and down with excitement. We parked near a long wall that, like the rest of the area, had been once covered in thick layers of mud and slime. Now the stones, freed of dirt and grime, shone in the bright summer light, creating deep shadows in the narrow passageways that linked restaurants and ice‑cream parlours, artists’ studios and shops selling jewellery and expensive trinkets.
Advertisements all over town had urged us to visit this site, promising us an unforgettable experience. The shining face of the mayor was used to endorse the cultural complex, as though his reputation were dependent on its success in attracting us.
We noticed people cramming themselves into one of many glass doors of the cultural centre, and we took this to be the main entrance. At the approach was a large sculpture depicting Jonah being tossed out of the mouth of a huge fish, and being duly showered by a water fountain located inside the fish's spout. We asked the children what the sculpture represented and they yelled the answer. Our smallest one even expressed a desire to climb onto the fish's gleaming wet back.
"Is it real?" our nephew wanted to know.
"Of course not," said our eldest child.
"Except the water," said our middle one.
We dragged our smallest child out of the fountain and squeezed her dry. "Let's go in," directed my wife in an exasperated tone, suggesting that she hadn't forgotten about her plans to take me off to the beach. We pushed ourselves and our children through the crowds and into the main entrance hall.
Because of the pressure of the crowds we were forced to stand opposite a huge wall comprising a series of mirrors. When you looked into the glass you became by turn inflated, deflated, elongated or portly. At the site of their distorted images, the children burst out laughing or clapped their hands and made funny faces. Everyone was amused, except our nephew who was crying and wouldn't stop until my wife pulled him away from the walls, much to the chagrin of the other children who weren't yet ready to proceed to the next stop.
Past the mirrors was a special exhibit, a collection of holograms, in which common and not so common objects stood out in three dimensions. My wife said we should go in because it was new and who knew when we would have an opportunity of seeing such an exhibition again? Even my silent gestures in her direction could not dissuade her. The exhibit was held inside a darkened room and at first the children were afraid to enter.
"Nothing to be worried about," said their father and uncle, now reconciled to this unplanned stop. I stepped up boldly to the office and bought the required number of tickets.
Once inside, our eyes became accustomed to the light, or lack of it ‑ and to the extraordinary images surrounding us. The exhibits, mounted on invisible stands, had such high definition that they appeared more real than reality itself. This seemed to be the verdict of the visitors; many of the men, in particular, were drawn by the image of an African maiden who was portrayed, face on, naked from the hips upwards. The children, too, were fascinated, even my sister‑in‑law's little boy, who demanded to know how the holograms were produced.
I read the catalogue but was none the wiser. Neither could my wife, an experienced teacher, unravel the logic of the apparently simple technology with which these brilliant pieces had been produced. Our nephew began to bawl:
"You don’t know, and you don't know!"
He was very helpful in getting us all ejected speedily from the dark hall and into the bright lights of the indoor market.
Objects to divert our children's attention now surrounded us: clothes, posters, tourist souvenirs, and even miniatures of the comic sculpture of Jonah and his giant fish. After intense negotiations between my wife, myself and the children we came away with two T‑shirts, carrying local legends back and front, a selection of ice‑creams, two small holograms, one depicting a fairy tale and the other a Pierrot, and a primitive art poster of our native Jerusalem.
My wife and I glanced at each other, our eyes signalling that our proposed splash in the sea was still on the agenda, but only if we abandoned the idea of the theatre show. In which case we would leave our children at my sister‑in‑law's place, presuming she had recovered her composure.
We searched for the glass door by which we had entered the centre, intending to return to our car and unload our new purchases. But the entrance was nowhere to be found. Each time we turned another corner in the infuriating post‑modern building, we came across an unfamiliar passageway, or blank wall. We followed a sign indicating the main entrance, certain we were close to our destination.
"This is the way," I said, striding forward confidently, as a man is supposed to.
But no sooner had I said this, than a figure stepped out from the opposite side of the main corridor, and waved to us. He was wearing a ridiculously large hat and the costume of a Pierrot. He was shouting quite loudly: "About to start! About to start!" Next to him was a poster, familiar to us from the one we'd seen in town. I glanced at my wife and she at me.
My face fell.
"How much?" my wife asked the clown.
He closed one eye, as though weighing up our financial situation.
"Tickets for everyone?" he queried.
"No, just the children. And how long does the show last?"
Another analytical stare. "Why don't you also come in?" he asked.
My wife's neck bunched up angrily. Behind his grease paint, the clown was ready with a parry: "Reduced price for grown ups," he said.
My wife's neck remained stiff.
"Come," said the man, "you can accompany your family for free. I can see you've had a long journey."
"We're from Jerusalem," I boasted. "We have lots of excellent family theatre shows there."
The man closed both eyes and nodded with self‑assurance. "We were the best in Warsaw."
The auditorium was a big room with a makeshift stage half‑hidden behind large drapes. A handful of children, each accompanied by a self‑conscious parent or an adult family member, sat on the unmarked chairs. They sat stiff and tense, suggesting that they, too, had been enticed by the clown's generous offer of a free, or almost free, ticket.
The clown from Warsaw smacked his lips and made a gesture with his hands, apparently to his colleagues on the stage. The hall lights dimmed, an old record player began to emit a loud children's song, and a spotlight picked out a life‑size chimpanzee strutting the floor a few feet in front of us.
Our children screamed with fear and delight. The chimp thumped itself on the chest and lunged back and forth across the floor, according to instructions given to it by a voice hidden behind the stage curtain. Then the curtain opened to reveal a brightly-coloured rustic scene, complete with an arbour, and an actress dressed up like an eighteenth century shepherdess who was apparently the source of the voice instructing the chimpanzee.
From time to time the clown, still sitting at our side, would lean over and whisper, "This piece is particularly good." When he failed to impress us in Hebrew, he reverted to Yiddish. But neither language helped us divine the meaning of all the noise and activity in front of us. I glanced at my wife, hoping that she might have understood better than I the flow of the story. But all I saw of her was her back rising in that tense, angry way of hers. Had there been a break she would almost certainly have stormed out. But, seeing her children and nephew laughing and clapping and having such a wonderful time, she was loath to make a scene. I squeezed her hand to try and tell her that I understood how she felt. We were too embarrassed to look at what was happening on the stage. Yet it was undignified to leave. How could we? This was the best the Warsaw trio could muster, their life's work.
At one point, the Pierrot left us and marched onto the stage. The thought occurred to me that he shared our embarrassment and was trying to save the situation for us all. But if that was his motive it went badly awry. The children laughed and clapped when he fell with a crack onto the bare wooden boards of the stage. But I could see that he had fallen badly, and he limped off to the edge of the stage, standing there like a boxer waiting for the bell to ring. The shepherdess gestured to the clown to continue the action, but he simply refused, his face registering the extreme pain he felt in his knee. The shepherdess carried on the play along with the chimpanzee, but it was a losing battle. There seemed to be no climax, no catharsis, no denouement. The end of the play came unannounced, without warning. The two actors just stopped their action, along with the music and the alternating lights.
There was a pause, long enough to suggest that the play had probably finished. As though to convince us, the clown – who had now recovered enough to drag himself into the centre of the stage – placed himself in a line next to the woman dressed as an eighteenth century shepherdess and the chimpanzee. Man and wife stood before us in their old costumes, like two oversized puppets. They glowered at us with pained expressions, as though too large a person had been squeezed into too narrow a frame. The woman's eyes were still dark and sharp-looking. I wouldn't say evil – who knows what that means any more? – but they certainly carried a certain power within them. They were the last remnants of her youth which, to judge by the ferocity of her glance, had been tempestuous and fiery, and suffused with that unfulfilled desire I've discerned in certain women to live like gypsies.
Her husband's eyes, by contrast, were almost non‑existent. At least it was difficult to discover more than a glimpse of them between the flabby folds of his eyelids. The fire that might have once blazed in them had long ago beaten a retreat behind flesh‑filled sandbags.
The life-size figure continued to stare at the audience, her eyes blazing and his as good as dead. I looked at my wife, and then at the rest of the people, embarrassed by our collective silence. Suddenly the third figure, the chimpanzee, pulled off the head of the hirsute costume to reveal the flushed face of a young blond woman. She was good looking, stunning in fact. Her slim head shone out of her oversized costume like Botticelli's Venus emerging startled from the waves on the inside of a giant shell. A peculiar, not altogether pleasant, feeling filled my stomach. In fact, I began to feel queasy, even seasick. Was it possible that this was the daughter of the other two Thespians?
The fathers in the audience, there were three or four of us, began to clap enthusiastically. We were followed by the children and finally the mothers or older sisters. This plot I understood. Venus' accent was pure native‑born Israeli and so, in order not to put her foreign‑sounding parents to shame, she had been required to wear a costume that hid her beauty and disguised her voice. Such are the machinations of parents!
My wife pulled at my arm. We had to go. In response to her prompting I rose, but I was stared down by the wife and the husband and the beautiful blond goddess. I stood my ground, my clapping becoming weaker. The rest of the audience disappeared behind my back. I and my wife and the children were the only ones left in the large room. Everyone gathered around me, as though seeking guidance. I glanced at the children, afraid that they might have something complimentary to say.
"Let's move," I commanded.
The family inched forward.
"Did you enjoy it?"
It was the voice of the clown whom I had been trying to avoid. He had blocked our way, and I had to answer him. My wife and children had slipped behind him so that, like Jacob of old, I was left behind, as though this were my fate.
"It was fascinating," I said, looking over his shoulder at my wife and the children.
The clown seemed to not hear. His wife had collared him and was arguing points about the production. They were joined by the daughter, who was struggling to remove the rest of her hot costume. I stood transfixed as my family, one by one, nodded to the troupe and slipped out of the door. I took the opportunity of the sniping of mother, father and daughter to slip past them and head for the door. They were still rounding upon each other in every possible combination and in a variety of languages when I took my hat and squeezed through the door and into the corridor where my own brood were patiently awaiting me. I pushed the children forward, and signalled to my wife to move. It didn't matter in which direction.
Once again we searched vainly for signs to leave the ultra-modern building, but with little success. My heart was beating fast. What if this unhappy trio of Polish refugees would catch up with us and cause a scene? I pushed my family forward, urging them to hurry as fast as possible. We were half way down an unfamiliar corridor when we heard familiar voices shouting the name of our nephew. At the next corner, my sister‑in‑law and her husband emerged quarrelling at the top of their voices, so that the whole of the centre could hear their ranting and raving. Over his swimming trunks my brother‑in‑law had slipped a loose coloured vest, leaving much of the upper part of his hairy body exposed. As we approached each other, he and his wife stared at us, as though not quite certain who we were. Then my brother‑in‑law raised his thick arms and, just for a second, resembled the would-be chimpanzee we had just left behind us. He opened his mouth and appeared to want to address us, when, from behind us a loud scream suddenly filled the hallway: “Haeeeeiii!”
Momentarily disoriented, we turned to see our svelte young actress, now fully relieved of her ridiculous costume, fleeing towards us, her ageing parents a short distance behind her in hot pursuit.
She drew near to us and stared at us as thought looking for a sympathetic face. It was my wife, the angel, whom she addressed. “They’re not really my parents!” she said in perfect Hebrew. “They took me from an orphanage, and made me their slave.”
Even my usually swift wife was taken aback at the speed of events. She began to blurt out an answer, and even tried to grasp the woman’s elbow. But the woman was too fast, and her fake parents were almost upon us, their breathing coming fast and furious. “She tell lies, lies!” shouted the mother. Her rouge and make-up were now running down her face. The father, a few steps behind and still limping, carried a knife, but it was unclear if it were a real or false one, the type actors use.
The parents swept past us and followed their fleeing charge, as we, taking the cue from my brother-in-law, followed suit. The Thespians obviously knew the place better than we did, since in no time we found ourselves in sight of the large glass front door, where crowds of visitors were still filing in and forming a large messy queue. We charged forward, plunging into the waiting crowds after our prey, and sought the entranceway on the other side. “Stop him, stop him!” cried my brother-in-law, pointing frantically to the knife now raised high in the pursuing father’s hand.
Nobody moved except for us – my wife and I and the kids, who obviously thought this was a great lark, or were perhaps just instinctively copying the grown-ups. It seemed to take forever to get through the burgeoning crowds, some of whom seemed bemused by what was happening before their eyes, as though uncertain whether or not this was part of the show they had come to see.
Outside the entrance, we turned this way and that to see in which direction the pursuers and the object of their hunt had fled. We did not have a long way to look. The parents had stopped by the statue of Jonah and his gargantuan fish. They were leaning against the statue, red-faced, breathless, defeated. We, too, stopped and allowed our lungs to suck in the hot summer air. Together, the parents and ourselves looked down the road. There, in the middle distance, their former junior partner was still running in the direction of the port. Below the stone pier, the sea glistened in the afternoon sun, its thousand tiny eyes winking at the blond goddess as though beckoning her to join the fishermen and their nets and boats, and the countless fish swimming freely beneath the dark surface of the water.
Copyright © Mordechai Beck 2011
Mordechai Beck attended art school, yeshiva and university in his native England, from where he immigrated 1973. In Israel he works as a writer and artist. His short fiction has appeared in journals in the USA, the UK, and Israel, among them: The Literary Review, Tikkun, The Jewish Quarterly, and Ariel. His poetry is currently on the web site of The Drunken Boat. Dozens of his essays have appeared in newspapers and journals, among them the Jewish Chronicle, The Jerusalem Post, The Jerusalem Review, Parabola, The Guardian Newspaper, Lettering Arts Review, etc. His art work has been displayed in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, New York, San Francisco, St. Petersburg, and Moscow, and is owned by collectors around the world, among them the Library of Congress in Washington, and MoMA in New York. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife Pnina.