Monday 26 March 2012
Radiance 8 - Blessings of breast and womb
Emma Grunfeld closed her phone and stared through her thick glasses at the full moon hovering over the Mediterranean. It’s always nice to talk to Asher, she thought, even if he doesn’t seem to want to talk to me.
At just over two minutes this conversation must have been a record, even for them. A brief hello, how are you? I’m good, how are you? I’m fine, how is everything going? Oh you know, they’re going okay, and you?… And why was he still going on about her leaving Netanya? It was getting ridiculous. You can only put down roots so many times, Emma thought, this tree was too old to be replanted.
To be honest, Emma didn’t really know what it was Asher did with himself all day. There was that blasted job with the astrological hotline but that barely counted as work; it surely didn’t pay the rent. And he was never going to get anywhere with his guitar playing at this rate. It was time to meet a nice Jewish girl, get married, maybe go back to school - become a doctor or a lawyer or a…
“He won’t you know,” cut in a thin voice, “you know where he’s going just as I did.”
Emma ignored him and tried to relax.
“This is what we’ve come to, is it? You’re just going to sit there and pretend I’m not here?”
“You aren’t here,” Emma replied a little sharply. “You’re dead.”
“Yes but it seems a little impolite to mention it,” said the voice of her late husband, Eliav.
“Eliav, we barely spoke while you were alive, why should we start now?”
“Because I’m bored,” Eliav’s voice responded, “being dead isn’t turning out quite how I expected.”
“Another screw-up then.”
“Is that what you think of me?”
Emma did not deign to reply. A young couple jogged past her, following the winding steps down to the sea. The woman flashed her a pitying look, while the man, tanned and heavily-muscled, steadfastly ignored Emma. They hurried down the stairs and were soon lost to sight.
“Now look what you did,” Emma said, “you made me look like a crazy old woman!”
“Are you sure you’re not?” said Eliav, and Emma could almost see the smirk he’d often worn in life spreading across his thin lips. “You are having a conversation with a dead man.”
It was hard to argue with that, though arguing had been one of the few strengths of their relationship - always shouting and crying, tearing old wounds open, letting new ones fester.
“It’s already begun for Asher, you know. His fate is catching up with him, just as I knew it would. The Sitra Achra is growing stronger by the day. Soon, the Bound One will rise from the deep and Asher will face his destiny, just as I told you all those years ago.”
“Shut up Eliav, just shut up and leave me alone!”
There was no response but the sound of the wind blowing in from the sea, rustling the palm trees as it drifted into Netanya. He still knew just how to push her buttons, just as he always had, knew exactly how to draw out her taut nerves. Why couldn’t he just stay dead? And if the dead were coming back, why couldn’t it have been her mother?
Despite the heat, a chill arose somewhere deep in Emma’s spine. Regretting the thought even as she had it, she stood carefully, stretched a little, and began the walk back to her flat.
The shabbat morning service was over, and Emma was helping the Sisterhood clear away the kiddush. Barbara, originally from the Boston area as she never tired of telling people, was laughingly scraping the remains of the pickles back into their over-sized jars. Nancy, born in New York, grew up in New Jersey, studied in DC, moved to South Carolina before making aliyah, was sorting the plastic cutlery and describing the latest antics of her grandchildren. Meanwhile Lena, the Russian lady, quietly got on with washing the dishes.
“And then she smeared it all over her little face!” said Nancy, leaving Barbara breathless with laughter.
“Oh you are too much!” she howled.
Netanya’s Conservative synagogue was rarely packed, and today was no exception. A regular shabbes, with no bar mitzvahs or aufrufs, as was usually the case. Having spent most of the service looking through the small glass window in the door separating the kitchen from the kiddush hall and the sanctuary, Emma was certain that while the women stayed in the kitchen to catch up on the gossip, the men did the same in the service itself.
Right now, Rabbi Flieder, usually referred to as little Yossi by the Sisterhood, was trying to do some teaching. The rabbi’s Hebrew was excellent but this was a crowd who wanted the synagogue to remain a slice of America in the Middle-East, and so he was trying to explain a rather esoteric rabbinic story in English.
One of the older men seemed to have fallen asleep - his wrinkled face seemed in imminent danger of falling onto the table. As Emma absently dried the plate she was holding, she watched him slip further and further, before catching himself at the last moment with a start.
She had never really tried to sit through one of these shiurim before - there was always so much to be done in the kitchen - but today she didn’t really feel like nattering. Instead she opened the door a fraction and tried to make out the words that Rabbi Flieder was saying:
“Four entered paradise,” he translated, “Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva. Then Rabbi Akiva said to them: When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say, water, water!”
Of course, it didn’t make much sense. The rabbi was always interested in the strangest texts, the more bizarre the better. Her father, alav hashoilem, would have understood it, naturally, but would never have set foot in a synagogue after the war, much less gone to a talmud shiur.
Emma blinked twice, and pursed her lips. She paid extra attention to the cloth in her hands.
“Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad. Acher became an apostate. Only Rabbi Akiva went in in peace and left in peace”.
Rabbi Yossi finished translating and looked up hopefully at his small audience. “Now friends,” he said, “what do you think it means?”
Emma closed the door and put the plate back in the cupboard. She reached over to the drying rack and took another.
“Something is wrong, yes?” said Lena quietly, not looking up from her dishes. Nancy and Barbara were still laughing.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” Emma said, a little too fast perhaps.
“You do not need to tell Lena, Lena knows something wrong, something sad.” Lena accentuated the last word, dragging it out like a prayer. “Your boy is sick maybe? Or in trouble?”
“Something like that,” Emma agreed, “but he won’t speak to me.”
“Ah the young. They do not speak and they do not listen. Still, a mother has to do, yes?” Lena passed her another plate.
“Lena, I…” her sentence trailed off, “do you have any children?”
“Once I had, yes, once upon a time. Now Lena is alone.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Yes, I too am sorry. Children need help even when they do not know it, even if they do not ask for it, yes? Your boy needs you now.” Lena finished the last plate, put down the brush and winked at Emma - “you know what you have to do. Deep down you know.”
And then Emma realised that she did.
The moon now shone through her window, breaking pale beams through the metal slats of the trisim. The TV set was still blaring CNN, though Emma had long since stopped looking at it. Shabbat was out. And yet she found it hard to begin.
“I am sorry you know,” Eliav said, speaking for the first time since last night on the beach. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way.”
She frowned. “I still don’t think you’re right, you know,” she said, “Asher’s a good boy. He’s bright and resourceful, he won’t just roll over and…” she choked up, unable to finish the sentence.
“Death comes to us all Emma, even to our son.”
“How can you be so heartless?”
“I’m dead, remember? Gives you a different slant on things.”
“No, that’s not it,” she said, “you were the same way when you were alive; removed somehow, kind of - detached.”
Silence - but for the sound of CNN and the whirr of the air-conditioning.
“So what now?” Eliav asked, after a good few minutes.
“Now it’s time to set something in motion, time to see someone who can actually do something.”
“Are you sure this is wise?”
Emma snorted. “Wise? I think we’re a little past wise - I’m not debating with a dead man any more. Be quiet or go rattle your chains somewhere else.”
She sat for a moment longer, eyes scanning the screen, before her mind became completely firm. She turned the TV off and went to the bookshelf, full of old romance novels and dog-eared classics. Reaching behind the rows of books, Emma pulled out a large leather-bound tome that looked to be centuries old. She was pleased to see that the dust had not settled on it.
Carefully, as if carrying a small child, Emma placed the book on the table and sat before it. The front declared itself to be “The Book of the Chariot” in small Hebrew characters, and it had been in her family well before they had fled the burning shell of continental Europe and settled in England. Her mother had once told her that the book had been written in the land of Israel itself, by the great and holy Ari - Rabbi Isaac Luria. She remembered her mother tracing the title letters with reverence, never daring to open the book itself, as she told a young Emma about how Elijah the prophet had revealed the deepest mysteries of the divine throne room, and how the holy Ari had transcribed the words as he was told, transmitted in secret through the generations.
Now it was hers, and she was ready to do what her mother had never dared to.
She hoped that Asher would be alright, that he wouldn’t do anything careless. But he was far out of her hands right now, and this was the only course available.
Emma Grunfeld opened the book, and began her journey to enter the inner court of the King of Kings.