by Elisha Porat
Translated from Hebrew by Dalia Bilu
In my first year at school, when I was six or seven, I learned to read Hebrew. I learned very fast. Within a few days I was putting letters together. After a week or two I could pronounce syllables. And at the end of the first month I could already read whole words. At the beginning I would say them out loud, a little broken and separated into syllables. Later I would read them silently, with my lips. And in the end in a whisper, with my tongue, without moving my lips. Today I know how
to read to myself, in my head, or some say: in my heart. With the eyes seeing and the heart reading. For myself, I don't know. Not everything I read today enters my heart. Today there are many words which I read by accident, without meaning to, just because my eyes run over them. Like smells penetrating your nose without your wanting them to. Like irritating noises impinging on your ears just because there's nothing to shut them out.
The first books I read were children's books. With vowel points and illustrations, in big black letters. The books had a special smell. To this day I don't know what it was about their smell that fascinated me. Was it the smell of glue, or the cardboard covers, or the smell of the print? And today too, whenever I pickup a new book, the first thing I do is to lift it to my nose and breathe its special smell deep into my lungs. The smell of new book fresh from the printers is one of the smells I love most, one which never stales and of which I never tire, like the smell of hot rolls in the morning, or the smell of the earth in Summer soaking up the first rain.
After the books I began to read notice-boards, candy wrappers, signposts and newspapers. Everything, every surface bearing the square letters of whose charms and secret I had so recently become aware. With the instincts of a sleuth, indefatigable, I deciphered every notice, every word, every scribble. After a few months I read very fast. I gobbled up all the books in the kindergarten. Over and over again. The kindergarten teacher began bringing me books from the school library. At first, easy, vocalized books, and then gradually harder books too, without vowel signs. Thicker, more serious books, most of which I did not understand.
Reading became a hunger. An insatiable thirst, a passion of the soul. Once I asked the kindergarten teacher for a book, and she said: "Enough. You read too much."
"But I have to read." I said.
"It's wrong to read books you don't understand." She said.
"But I want to terribly, I'm crazy to read." I said stubbornly.
"So read the newspaper."
Years later, when I was an adolescent, I read books with a voracious passion. My teacher disapproved of the speed with which I read. She thought I wasn't digesting what I read properly. The books for young people which my friends read began to bore me. I felt that I was emerging from one world and moving into another. In this new world there were new books. Dark, cruel books, very hard to understand. My teacher disapproved. "Those books aren't for you," she said. "Those are destructive books, and you're too young for them. Wait a few years, until you're more mature, and then you can read them. For the time being you must beware of them, you must keep your distance. Why don't you read Romain Rolland? And what's wrong with Tolstoy?" But I refused to give up. The forbidden books drew me like a magnet. What did they contain these terrible books, to make my teacher so afraid of their destructiveness?
The librarian would not allow me to take the books I wanted: "That's not for you, little boy. You're too young for that." At night I would steal into the library in the grip of a strange excitement and pull the forbidden books down from the shelves. Sometimes I was so eager to begin that I would open the books in the little wood and start reading them there and then, in the light of the moon. I would hide them in my bed, between the sheets, underneath the mattress. My friends would hide pictures of nudes and sex manuals under their mattresses. I would hide Kafka and Camus, and the thrilling books of Dostoyevsky. In class my teacher discussed "The engineers of the Soul", while I thought about "Amerika". My teacher read aloud from "Reach for the Skies", while I concentrated passionately on Sinous movemment of Grushenka. In the evenings the girls spoke ardently of the pure love of Pierre and Natasha, but I was haunted by the strange, provocative behaviour of the brothers Karamazov.
And a few years later, on the eve of my army call-up, I was shocked and upset by an unpleasent incident involving one of my friends. He had problems with property. Property that didn't belong to him. In my innocence I believed that words had the power to change people. All night long I preached to him. He sat there without saying a word. And I grew angrier and angrier. In the end, seething with rage, I rose and took a copy of "Crime and Punishment" from the table. I threw the three volumes at him, one after the other. "Read it!" I yelled furiously, "and start acting like a human being!" His reaction was extreme and astonishing. He grabbed a kitchen knife from the shelf and rushed towards me. A short but stormy chase ensued. Alarmed by the racket our friends came running and separated us by force. After that I stopped reading Dostoyevsky. I lost my faith in him. Fact: he had failed to reform my friend.
At about the same time I fell in love with a girl. A wonderful virgin love. We saw each other infrequently, but we wrote volumes. Love letters and billets doux. Would-be sophisticated comments in the margins of books, and personal interpretations of the love-poems we read. It was while writing one of these letters that I found myself one day in the throes of composing a kind of essay. I no longer remember what it was about, but I remember how one seemed to flow out other, how word followed word, and every thought seemed to grow out of one before it. From the moment I began to write my eyes misted over and there was a kind of buzzing in my ears. I sweated freely and panted for breath. I was in the grip of a strange excitement. And when I had finished, I felt a strange emptiness. A kind of ease, a release from tension and effort. I stretched my legs out in front of me and breathed deeply. Gradually I was filled with a kind of lightness. I began whistling a gay tune, popular at the time, to myself. And suddenly I stood up, went outside and started walking, almost running down the garden paths in the night. And as I walked I loudly sang to myself. For some reason, I was holding my little essay in my hand.
The love letters I wrote then have disappeared. And nobody reads the love poems in whose margins I scribbled so many notes. And the many little billets doux have blown away in the wind, and my first love, the tender love of my youth, lies buried beneath the gray rubble of the years.
Once, by chance, I met a young poet. We got into conversation, and became friends for a while. He showed me his poems, and I showed him my little essay. "Yes, interesting," he said reflectively. "Give it to me, I'll read it again." The next day we met again. We spoke about poetry, about books, about girls, and suddenly he asked me: "Tell me, have you read
Gnessin? Uri Nissan Gnessin?"
"No," I said. "Who's he when he's at home?"
Thus I made the acquaintance of Gnessin. The tormented Uri Nissan. After I had discovered him I drowned myself in him with a passionate, voracious greed. I read his letters, his translations, his first stories. And in the end, his extraordinary later stories too. They bowled me over. I felt as if the words he had written were breaking out of me. I remember that for a time I even copied his strange, beautiful signature. He would sign his letters: From me, Urinissanthine. And I almost fainted with the sweetness of it. And, shamelessly, I began signing my letters to my girl: "With love from me, Elishathine."
On dewy nights we would stroll down the roads between the orange groves together. Her hand in mine, with delicious scents wafting from her hair. My heart would contract within me under the pressure of lust and youth. And my lips would mumble:"... and the flesh, ah the flesh, it gives no peace..." Just as Gnessin had said. And sometimes I would clutch my heart, with my left hand, and I feel such pangs of pain. Love made me sleepless, and my heart skipped to a strange beat. I was sure that, like Gnessin, I too was infected with a fatal disease. For some reason, I decided that it was a heart disease. On restless summer nights I would toss and turn on my bed, unable to fall asleep. And I seemed to hear my beloved whispering behind the wall: "And when he comes home from his wanderings, back to me, I shall be at peace..."
Afterwards, years later, I wandered how Gnessin had come to write these classically feminine lines. And someone told me that the lines were not Gnessin's, but a translation he had made from some Yiddish poetess.
Gnessin's early death was like a prophecy of my own doom. An apocalyptic foreboding. I was sure that I was not long for this world. I thought about it so much that I began to really believe it. I would sit with my beloved, look into her eyes and ask: " If I die, will you emember me?" She would laugh tolerantly. My eccentricities only increased my charms in her eyes. And I asked again: " Tell me the truth: will you remember me?"
"How could I possibly forget you?" she would reply. OH! the sweetness of her tender words, her gentle spirit. In exchange I wrote her wonderful love letters, in long sentences unpunctuated but for emphatic exclamation marks, in order to make her sense my love more keenly. Thus, for example: "...love of my life all I want is to love you for ever and ever until we grow old and even after that..." Then I would go over what I had written and pepper it with exclamation marks, like this: "...love of my life! all I want is to love you!! For ever and ever until we grow old!!! And even after that!..."
Today the volumes of Gnessin are covered with cobwebs on my shelf. I hardly ever touch them. Perhaps I am suspicious of their excessive beauty. Of being crushed by the weight of longings they contain. Today other anxieties gnaw at my heart. And Gnessin's irresistible yearning seem very remote to me.
Not so long ago one of my friends came into my room. We spoke about books, and life, about Josef Haim Brenner who had suddenly come to light again as if resurrected from the dead. It's a strange thing, he said to me, Brenner wrote enough to fill a whole bookcase. And all of Gnessin is contains in three slim volumes. And still, if you weigh them in the balance, the scales will come down on the side of Gnessin.
I laughed a resigned kind of laugh. Today I blush to remember how fanatical I was in the love of my youth. The other day I threw a bundle of old note-books into the fire. As they caught fire, before they burnt, I managed to read on blackening page: "...from the tortured Uri Nissan to the fear-crazed Josef Haim. one is the thorny path between my people's vineyards..." In the impertinence of my love I was guilty of falsifying the written word. For it was not Uri Nissan to whom the poet was referring, but Uri Kovner. And the word he used wasn't "tortured" but "reviled". But what of it? Love does not see with an objective eye and discipleship blurs the memory. And thus I would walk then, chanting to myself, to the rhythm of an ancient melody: "From the tortured Uri Nissan to the fear-crazed Josef Haim..." And my heart, oh my heart, would contract within me the sweetness of it all.
I started reading newspapers when I was still a small child, drawn by my passion for the printed word to this new and inexhaustible source of words and letters. The combinations of letters in the newspapers took my breath away. Long, difficult sonorous words. Strange, foreign words in outlandish Hebrew, transliterations, exotic names of faraway places, of unknown men and women, a world and the fullness thereof. In short: politics. Wherever I went, people were holding forth about politics, at the tables in the dining room, in the evenings on the lawns, and in my parent's room. On Saturdays my parents would have visitors, and a constant stream of politics would flow out of their lips, from early evening until after midnight.
Today I know that those were really terrible times. A mighty whirlwind was engulfing the world, and grinding the Jewish people to dust. And I too, a small child who had learned to read, was a witness to these world events. We had an old couple living among us in rather peculiar circumstances. They had an only son who had emigrated to Eretz Israel, and for his sake they had left their home, sold all they possessed and arrived among us empty handed, to be with him. When the war broke out, the son had joined the British army and the old couple were left alone. They hardly knew any Hebrew, nothing but a few simple words. Their sources of Yiddish were blocked by war, and the only newspapers that came their way were in Hebrew.
The old lady made a big, beautiful garden in front of their room. In it she grew fine flowers and a lot of pumpkins. She would hang the dried pumpkin shells from the roof, and when the wind blew they rattled like ancient bells. She would dry the pumpkin seeds in the sun on the lawn. Then she would roast them and divide them up into little bags. And when the children all unwitting, passed her door, she would call them in. In exchange for a bit of weeding and hoeing, scattering fertilizer, or carrying a couple of buckets of water from the tap to the garden, she would shower her gifts upon them. The roasted pumpkin seeds she distributed in their little packets were dry, salty and delicious. She would stand and watch me cracking the seeds and swallowing them. "Good mein kind, good eh?" And then she would sigh, long and low, and add: "Oy, oy, kinderlach, when will this war be over?"
Once the old man called me. I went into their hut with the an apprehensive heart. There was a huge bed in it, taking up the whole wall. You had to climb up steps to get into it, and it was covered with an assortment of strange pillows and quilts and fancy embroidered coverlets. I was overcome with astonishment. It was so different from the flat, spartan beds which were the only kind I had ever known. There were a great many pictures on the walls. Not painted pictures, but photographs of people. Bearded Jewesses with their necks encased in high collars stared at me with stern expressions. There were candles in the bronze candlesticks and milky waterfalls dripped from onto the table.
The old man, in tattered slippers, asked: "You know to read, child?"
"A little," I stammered, "only a little."
"Never mind," said the old man and held out the newspaper. "Nu, let's hear you read." I was shy and I refused. "Read, nu," urged the old man. He drew me to his enormous bed and up the steps, and sank into it opposite me. Slowly I began to read. It was a hard newspaper, without vowels, and there were lots of words I did not understand. The old man said: "Never mind, never mind, go on reading." When I finished I received a reward, a little bag of sweets and a packet of pumpkin seeds.
After that I got into the habit of dropping in on the old couple from time to time. The old man would seat me on the vast bed, stick the newspaper into my hands, put a funny pair of spectacles on his nose and settled down to listen. Sometimes he would call the old woman in from the outside to come and listen too. She would chatter in her Yiddish, wash her hands and dry them on her apron, and join us on the bed. The old couple were the most wonderful audience anyone could wish to have. They would hang onto my every word with baited breath, their eyes following my lips, my finger, my little Adam's apple. Sometimes they would sigh deeply. The old man would remove his spectacles and wipe the misty lenses. And the old lady would wrap up some sweets for me in a piece of paper.
Once, when I already knew how to read writing, they asked me to read them a letter from their son. I tried, but I didn't get far. The writing was still too hard for me, too complicated. The letters were joined together so that I could not tell them apart. "Nu, never mind," said the old man, and he tore the beautiful stamps off the envelope and gave them to me. Sometimes he would stop me in the middle of reading the newspaper, sigh, and say to the old lady: "Nu, what did I tell you? Kamatz Alef - aa..." And the old lady would begin to sing a little song to herself in Yiddish. Rocking herself backwards and forwards in time to the slow rhythm of the song, closing her eyes and allowing her tears to fall unimpeded into her shawl. I no longer remember what was written in the newspapers I read then. Except for the last day. The old man was very exciting and urged me to hurry up and read. Not on the big bed, as usual, but standing up, the moment I came in at the door. And this time the old lady was there too, waiting for me begin.
I read aloud: "War over. Hitler dead." The banner headlines were in huge black letters. They took up half the page.
I didn't have to read any more. The two old people seized each other in a trembling embrace and burst into tears. They did not see me putting the newspaper down softly on the threshold and slipping quietly from the room.
Outside on the lawn my friends were playing with a ball. Their wild cries rose to the sky.
Reading brought me a friend too. Years later, in the army, I was lying and reading in my tent. It was the rare soldier who succeeded in reading a book in the army in those days: newspapers and light magazines were as much as most people could manage.
My favorite poet at that time was Avraham Ben Ytzhak. In the one slim volume containing all his poems I found a hidden treasure of beauty. I would shut myself off from abrasive surroundings and contemplate his poems. Between one poem and the next, I would look wonderingly about me and soar on the wings of my thoughts far from the army camp which so oppressed my spirits. Once I was reading "The Hills joined together around my town", when a soldier pushed past my bed. He stopped and bent down to see what I was reading that so absorbed my attention. When he saw the book his eyes widened. His eyes softened and he sat down on my bed. We introduced ourselves. Something stronger than we were drew us to each other, and we became friends. True, bosom friends.
He had the body of farmer and the soul of a poet. From our posts in Jerusalem we would phone each other on the border line, like a pair of lovers. "Listen, I want to read you something, something great," he would tempt me. "I'm listening, I'm listening." And over the telephone on the local line, he would read me wonderful pages from Yizhar's "Tziklag days", until the switchboard operator would interrupt us with typical military narrow-mindedness: "What's all this then - official business?" "Yes" my friend would yell, "very important business". I pressed the receiver to my ear. I couldn't get enough of S. Yizhar's beautiful words. Nobody had ever read Yizhar to me like this before. Later, years later, when I read the book myself something strange happened to me. The eyes skimming the printed pages were mine, but the voice which I heard reading the words in my ears was his. I laid the book down and closed my eyes tightly. The autumn wind of Jerusalem blew through the leaves on the fig-trees and the flowers on the caper bushes shone like little torches.
On our nocturnal walks he would show me the distant stars, the silhouettes of towers, and all the hills encircling Jerusalem. "Even on the darkest night," he would boast "I identify every dome, every valley, every mountain range." It was as if he had been born in Jerusalem, as if he had never seen another town in his life. I would remind him of the beginning of our friendship. Of the hills joined together around our town. And he would smile wordlessly. We would open our leaves together, wandering about the town. Walking and talking.
It was clear to him that we had some special destiny to fulfill. He was sure that he had something important to say, and that people would have to listen to him. He loved Eretz Israel with a burning passion. He would laugh at the various experts who knew the country by its flora and fauna, its geological formations, its history. "With me, it's in my blood," he laughed. "You can put me down anywhere in the country and I'll know where I am by sticking out my tongue and sniffing the air."
Once we were walking in an orthodox quarter on a Friday evening. The facades of the houses were already steeped in a Sabbath peace, but on the back verandahs, facing the border, men set playing cards with an absorption that looked as if it would last all night long. The sight of these men sitting in their undershirts and playing cards made him furious. "Is that we came to this country for?" "Is that what we joined the army for?" "Is that worth playing the price for?" That night something cracked in him. He told me things about himself which he had never dared to speak of before. He was very agitated, and his voice shook strangely. He told me about a letter he had written to his girl. About the words he had written her in reply to certain fears she had confessed to him. "The debt of blood, you understand? The debt of blood, that's what I believe in!" He seized my hand, my shirt, he came very close to me. "Don't you see, it's impossible to live in this country without some huge debt. A terrible debt we have to pay so that we can go on living here..."
How strange his voice sounded in that orthodox quarter in Jerusalem on the Sabbath eve. If I had compared him then to some prophet, it would have been ridiculous. But his words tore something apart in my soul. From that night on I saw him differently. You could even say that I was a little jealous of him. I thought that he had outstripped the rest of us in some mysterious way. That perhaps he had already begun to grasp things which were deeper, truer, that were perhaps the beginnings of a dimension which I too was seeking then. And seeking with all my soul.
I probed his words to find something which would make sense of the things we had done, some justification - you might almost say, some opening to a new, different faith. "And you," he asked me, "Do you feel that you owe a debt?" "Perhaps, "I said, "I don't know." And afterwards I had a bad feeling, as if I had missed an opportunity which might never return to me again. I could never speak about my private beliefs to anyone else. It seemed to me like something crude, revolting, almost indecent. As if we had come as close as possible to each other without risking collision. And then continued moving apart. Each one on his own course, moving inevitably, endlessly further away.
Years later, in an army camp we had conquered from the Arab Legion, East of Nablus, I remembered him again. In the newspapers coming out after the week of war, the names of the fallen began to appear. I read his name slowly, stammering, joining the syllables together one by one, as if I was beginning to read my first words all over again. I was sorry then that I had ever learned to read. In that orthodox quarter of Jerusalem, under those same balconies, he had fallen. For a moment I seemed to hear his voice at my side, to feel his trembling hand clutching my shirt. "Is that we came to this country for? Is that worth playing price for?" In the hills which had joined together around this town, something had been orphaned. And I seemed to grow a few years older at once.
Sometimes, although I know it's cheating, I continue my conversation with him. From the point at which I had been afraid of exposing myself then. "Yes," I answer him from the distance of the years. "Yes, I feel that I owe a debt." "The debt of blood we spoke of then?" "Any debt you like," I shout at him from my groaning heart. Happy are they who sow and do not reap, happy are they who set forth and do not return.
In the first year after the war, when I was approaching the middle of my life, I learned to read Hebrew on tombstones. I learned fast. Within the space of a few days I could read the names, the dates. After a week or two I could draw a map of gravestones. And after a month I had already covered the whole country in monuments to the fallen. At first I would read the names aloud, in a slightly hesitant voice, syllable by syllable. Afterwards I pronounced them silently, only my lips moving. And today I already know how to read them to myself, in my head, or as some say: in my heart. I myself don't know. In the attic above my room I keep yellowing newspapers from the war. Albums, souvenirs, photographs.
Sometimes, when I hear a voice calling inside me, I pick up the newspaper with the banner headlines taking up half the page. "And do you still know how to read?" the old man asks.
"A little" I stammer.
"Nu, nevermind," says the old man "read, read." And I read: "The war is over. Over forever." And then he interrupts me in the middle of my reading, sighs, and says to the old lady: "Nu, what did I tell you? Kametz Alef - aa..."
Translator's note: * Kamatz Alef: Alef, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and Kamatz, a vowel sign pronounced "a". The old man is drawing the old lady's attention to the fact that in Hebrew the pronunciation of this combination is "a", whereas in Yiddish it is "o".
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