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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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