old as the hills 2

for readers with time to spare
this is fiction

My first impression of the new place was emptiness and quiet. The landscape seemed to continue on and on to the horizon. There was the big house and a barn. But mostly, what I could see of this world… new to me… was heaven and earth. Aside from the two structures, and a few sentinel and shade trees, everything that wasn’t in the heavens was found close to the ground. The few people that I met spoke little, with little intonation in a language that was so far unintelligible. The landlady took us to our quarters, We were shown what to do by example. The first familiar voice I heard was the crow of a rooster, It was reassuring, recognizable sound.

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Time seemed to move slower than ever before. the newspaper which I saw passed from one person to another, was foreign too. Very likely, even if I could read it, there’d be nothing there that’d interest me. My bible and prayer book had been pulled out from between the shirts and the socks in my suitcase, and were now on a little table next to my bed. but I hadn’t brought pages to write on, and I longed for some connection to my parents. The one phone in the house, hardly ever used, held no promise for me. In those days, international calls were a rarity and expensive. Such things were beyond me. The radio too, which was turned on for about an hour, or an hour and a half in the evening, seemed like a special luxury, and it occurred to me that the classical music we listened to, in chairs arranged around the radio, might have been especially for my benefit. For I was asked more than once if this was the music I liked. Music was a word that I knew.

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As the days passed, the shock of landing in an unknown environment receded leaving the door open to curiosity. I began to notice that there were sounds, mostly subtle and of lower intensity, but sounds all the same, which seemed to be interwoven with the landscape. Daytime sounds and the sounds of night. A bird that sang at the approach of sundown. People here seemed to get up with the rising sun, and went to their beds not long after night had fallen. Little by little I began to realize that my first impressions had been incorrect. The quiet that at first had overwhelmed me was merely the absence of sounds I was used to. My eyes began to register distances as my feet mapped the territory from the house to the farm and from there to the fields. By way of my feet, through socks and shoes, I sensed the land. My nose and ears became sensitive to this new reality. The hair follicles on my head could recognize a gentle breeze when it came. washing face and hands was less a ritual and seemed a necessity. Some of the vile smells which at first I had tried not to smell (that was impossible) became pleasant after a while.

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In my parents’ home, my earliest associations had not been defined. Home was a medley of familiar voices and smells; routines that I expected without ever thinking about them. The warmth and good cheer of mother. I thought she knew everything, and I trusted her implicitly. Singsong voices wrapped around me like a comfort blanket. Home was familiar and protective though I often discovered new objects or signs that bore meanings, were there for me to learn. There were orders, requests, and instructions from parents to children, usually in a matter of fact voice without emotion. Punishments were so rare that I can remember only one example. But it was quite easy to read the faces of mother and father, and a message of disapproval or disappointment even if unspoken, was punishment enough. The word that could best express my relationship to parents and teachers was awe. A person who could be completely trusted was usually described as a person having awe of heaven.

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Our sages used to say, turn your home into a meeting place for the wise. This advice had been so thoroughly absorbed by the adults I knew that it never needed mentioning. As much as human beings were an integral part of our home, so were books. They could be scrolls, or pages sewn and bound together. There were holy books and there were kosher books. These were the scrolls on parchment. And there were secular books too.

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There was often a book or two on the dining table, and occasionally a group of books, some of them opened to a particular page, if someone had searched for an explanation or information regarding some obscure subject. On all the doorways of our home, except for the toilet, there was a little box made of wood, attached to the frame of the door. I had once seen this box opened. Maybe it had been opened especially for my edification. Inside was a tiny scroll. And on the scroll there was writing, black square letters on white parchment, crying out to all of Israel that god was one, and he was all encompassing. This was followed by a few paragraphs from the bible regarding how one should or could relate to that.

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This tiny scroll looked much the same as the torah scrolls which were read in the synagogue on Mondays, Thursdays and twice on Saturdays, except for the fact that the torah scrolls had two poles and the tiny scroll was rolled into a cylinder without any pole at all. There were scrolls without poles, with just one pole, and with two poles, depending on how much parchment there was to read or study from. They were all called books. In my new home I found only one book, obviously a bible though I couldn’t read the writing. It was kept on the same shelf that carried numerous ceramic figures.

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Later, a teacher once told me, ‘we’re not here to teach you facts, but to teach you how to learn’. I wonder if I knew that then, or if it was a natural reaction to an environment completely new, but soon I was learning from the bushes and the trees, and from the vegetables whose leaves were still anonymous. How thrilling it was to discover that there were carrots, radishes and onions growing under those leaves, and a little scary to observe the tomato bugs trying to get to that fruit before we were able to enjoy them at the table. I learned to fold leaves or rub them to intensify their smell; to check the taste of leaves; to smell the barks of trees… to hold dirt in my hand. Dirt, which had always been an unwelcome intruder in my parents’ home, and whisked right out… had joined the assembly of characters who now occupied my new world.

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The language of the locals was my biggest challenge. No one talked to me, so when I heard others talking my mind would stop and stand at attention. I would try not to think at all. I would let the words enter my head like waves at the sea shore, reverberating sometimes back and forth till they were replaced by others. I would watch the faces of the speakers, discerning expressions that accompanied the sounds. It was difficult at first to know when one word ended and another began. The faces were more expressive than the sounds. Occasionally there were familiar sounds. Now and then there was a word that I thought I recognized. And then there were more. I was in no rush to speak. I knew I was different enough without spilling broken and twisted words in front of everyone.

all photos here from the Makor Baruch neighborhood
in Jerusalem

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41 responses to “old as the hills 2

  1. Self-contained, set apart yet still part of such a rich and wonderful world!

  2. This is so beautiful. You may claim this is fiction Shimon but your writing is so clear and evocative that I can actually picture the scenes playing out in my head as if it were happening today.

    You have such a wonderful talent!

    • I certainly wouldn’t want to give fiction a bad name, Anne. The way I see it, fiction and non fiction is a little like comparing photography to a painting. Photography give us the impression that we’re seeing something with our own eyes, but it can often be misleading, whereas a painting is obviously a view of something through the subjective eyes of the artist, but when it’s good we can study it for quite a while and find a new depth to the subject. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Wow … an extremely rich reflection. See the home of your parents create two opposite emotions – a sense of sadness of see some disrepair, yet a sense of joy noticing restoration. But it was the comment by your teachers that struck me the most – ‘we’re not here to teach you facts, but to teach you how to learn’. – if that were only the mission of education today throughout the world.

    • I’ve given a lot of thought to public education, Frank. And it seems to me that we are still confused about how to go about it. Some want babysitting. Others want to correct the wrongs of society. The fact that we force all minors to go through the same system turns the school into something like a jail for many for many who don’t really fit in. How strange it is that one of the services most vital to our collective future has such a poor reputation. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Very beautiful and wholly captivating, Shimon, a world, unto itself. Thank you for the privilege of visiting its interior; I wish I could have stayed longer.

    • We usually grow into our environment, Kitty. And because of that, we take a lot of things for granted, without examining them. What I tried to show here was what happens when a cognizant human being, though a child finds himself in a new environment. Thanks.

  5. As others have said, Shimon, this is strikingly written: told from the perspective of a boy away from home makes the descriptions of both home, and of the unfamiliar world all the more evocative.

    • Glad you liked this Tish. Blogging gives us great freedom. We can toss a passing mood or an idea on the page, and then go on to something entirely different in the next post. Personally, what I like best is something that can bring a smile or a laugh, though I don’t find such material often. The most elegant form, I believe, is poetry, which can share a great truth in a few lines. Fiction is a bit like a dream… we take an idea and see where it’ll lead us.

  6. The sense of disempowerment is well described as are the sensations that lead from great discomfort to finding some elements of familiarity and so, some comfort. I do like the flowering of new curiosities and am interested to know where they will take the narrator in his process of settling in.

    Shalom

    • If I ever were to publish the whole story, it would evolve as my understanding of re-incarnation. People often speak of past lives as something that happened before they were born. But my impression is that within our 70 years on this earth we often have a number of different lives, each of which we leave behind as we go on to try something new. Looking back, we tell the story with the confidence of knowing all. But as we lived it, we had to constantly deal with the unknown. Thanks for your comment, menhir. Peace and wholeness.

  7. Shimon! Once again I stand in awe of your ability. What a range of senses you covered in such a short span. I have to admit, I read the first paragraph before i noticed the note about it being fiction. 😉 Kinda got me a giggle.

    • Ah Bob, you have me blushing. You know, we are constantly exposed to news programs and documentaries that try to sell us the ‘real story’, the truth about this or that. What I like about fiction is that it tells us a story and leaves it to us to decide whether it’s true or not. The stories I’ve enjoyed the most have touched me because they sparked a recognition of something I’ve known in my own life.

  8. This is wonderful, Shimon. I do want to hear more, you know…

    • Well Loisa, I’d have to think about whether I wanted to devote the time and energy to telling the whole story. Sometimes though, it’s enough to just drop a hint, and let the reader imagine what went on from there. Thanks so much for your comment.

  9. When the sounds around us become integrated into the language of the familiar, then introduction of a larger definition of ‘home’ is recognized. Not always welcome nor loving…but wise and instructive in its own way. Thank you as always…mimi

    • Unfortunately, a lot of children are born into unhappy circumstances. Sometimes the home is hostile, or the parents are fighting hard odds as their children try to find comfort in an impossible situation. In this story, the main character wasn’t a new born babe, but had the facilities to learn about his environment and to compare it to a previous reality. It’s a variation on a universal experience. Thanks so much for your comment Mimi.

  10. Good morning Shimon. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and recognised some of the same emotions from when I have lived in what were initially seemingly alien places. I loved the term – ‘awe of Heaven’. I have friends in the States who have the little wooden box with scroll outside their door – and have always been fascinated by this.
    There is something quite remarkable and magical about the moment when we begin to discover beautiful things in what was initially a place of strangeness. Like everything in life, it takes time and patience to recognise these things.
    Loved the photographs in this post…The Makor Baruch neighbourhood looks very interesting….lots of good painting opportunities.
    Thank you and wishing you and the beautiful Nechama a lovely weekend. Janet xxx

    • In an ideal childhood we start our life feeding at our mother’s breast, and extend our awareness slowly but surely to the environment around us, and eventually to include the whole world. But to our regret, many of us have to deal with a hostile environment at some stage of life, and as difficult as it may be, it sharpens our character and personality. This story is of a child who has to come to terms with a new environment after having learned a bit of life. He has customs, values and language. They’re just the wrong ones for the next stage of his life. I think others have had this experience too… especially artists. As for mezuzas (that’s what those little boxes are called), they are found wherever Jews live, and I’ve come across a few of them in some very unexpected places. Thanks so much Janet. xxx

      • My heart felt for the child as he grappled with all the new smells, sounds, language, ways of being….but as you say when life hands us such situations, it most definitely sharpens our character and personality. Ah Mezuzas….I remember my friend Cyma telling me that. Hope you are enjoying a lovely summer’s morning with Nechama. janet xxx

        • It’s a beautiful morning here today. Though we’re sorry to hear about the heat wave in Europe, we’ve had one a few weeks back, so we understand their suffering. Hoping that you too are enjoying the morning. Nechama is asleep on a chair right next to me, and seems to be just fine. Always wishing you the best. xxx

  11. Shimon, you call this fiction. If so it carries a wonderful total truth of growing up.

    • Thanks so much, Paul. That’s really the way I see the role of fiction in literature. If five people have the same experience, there’ll usually be five versions of the same story. What I like about fiction is that it doesn’t claim to be the ‘real’ story.

  12. I’ve come to discover that nothing we write is strictly fiction. It all has bits and pieces of the real world woven throughout. Each part of life presents new challenges. May we be given the insight to face whatever comes our way.

    • I agree with you completely, Bev. Fiction is a style of telling the story. It doesn’t pretend to tell all the facts, or the absolute truth, but usually it tells a story based on what the writer has learned about life. It’s much like a painting as compared to a photograph. I join you in the prayer that we’ll find the way to make the most of life.

  13. This caught my attention: “[A] teacher once told me, ‘we’re not here to teach you facts, but to teach you how to learn’.” It reminded me of this, from Plutarch’s Moralia: “The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting…”

    Your mention of the subtle sounds of night and day, the sounds that seemed interwoven with the landscape, took me back to the time after our Hurricane Ike. Of course there was devastation and chaos, but after a time, there was only silence. At night, accustomed as I was to hearing the crickets and the nightbirds, the sound of fish jumping, and the occasional protest of a heron being surprised from its perch, the silence was unnerving. The storm had blown away every living creature.

    Then, one night, I heard a fish jump, and I knew life was returning. I suspect the sound of that fish was akin to the sound of the rooster in your story: enough to begin rebuilding a world.

    • Thanks for the quote from Plutarch, Linda. Many thinkers have deliberated on the process of education, and I have a memory of a satirical cartoon from my youth, of the teacher pouring knowledge into the head of the student by way of a funnel. I looked for it on the internet and found some modern versions, but not as amusing as the one I remember.

      Yes, quiet can play a very dramatic role in our experiences. I too can remember moments of intense quiet after disasters… and once, immediately before a disaster was about to happen. Usually, in our memory, the catastrophe itself blinds us to all the accompanying phenomena, but if we study the event we can rediscover the subtle notes that accented the weight of our experience. Always a pleasure to read your thoughts.

  14. Exactly so beautifully expressed.. Photographs and your words, amazing. Thank you dear Shimon, always so nice to read you. Love, nia

  15. While reading this, the world seems to recede – drop away – and only the story lives and is heard., Quite wonderfully done.
    I loved the rooster mention – and the sitting around the radio (we did that sometimes on the farm when I was very little – it was wonderful. Listening without the distracting images on tv like people/children grow up with now)
    The contrast of his old home and the new with the importance – familiarity – the constant companionship – of books and learning – while respected and valued, kept on a shelf with china. All the little details say/suggest so much – and how observant – how astute the boy was.
    He did not discard his old, but gradually discovered the delight and wonder of the new environment. Like adding on another garment and hugging all close.
    Ah, yes, we imagine between the lines and beyond, but would gladly welcome more of your writing

  16. Beautifully written Shimon, what insight this child has. To me it’s almost as though he is waking up to nature, from the emptiness comes this beautiful cacophony of sound from the natural world, an an awareness of the land and what grows in it. Just beautiful, I was fascinated reading of the language barrier, I can imagine how hard that was, I loved the thought of emptying the mind and letting the sounds in…I have always done that when learning a new animal or bird language along with the body language. I do hope you continue this, I would love to know what comes next.xxx

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this chapter, but after having written the this and the post before it, I’ve more or less come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t work… trying to fit something so complicated in a blog post. It would have to be a book. There was a lot that I left out. And writing a book is a whole different proposition. But what you say about waking up to nature, is why I wrote this at all. When we’re first growing up, in any environment, we take so much for granted. And if we go through a great change, we have the opportunity to re-examine our reality. That is what this was really about. xxx

  17. Also….all that we see and all that we seem, is but a dream within a dream….comes to mind.xxx

    • Yes, I have come across that thought more than once in literature… and each time it touched me. so much is unknowable in life. thank you Dina, xxx

  18. I love all the pictures…
    I miss Israel!!!

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