Tuesday, September 19, 2017

ET: Almanac

When he finally arrived in Jerusalem in 1933 with a fear-ridden Grandma Shlomit, he stopped writing poems and devoted himself to commerce. For a few years he successfully sold dresses imported from Vienna in the fashion of the previous year to Jerusalemite women who longed for the delights of Europe. but eventually another Jew appeared who was cleverer than Grandpa, and began to import dresses from Paris in the fashion of the previous year, and Grandpa with his Viennese dresses had to admit defeat: he was forced to abandon the business and his love of dresses, and found himself supplying Jerusalem with hosiery by Lodzia in Holon and towels from a small firm called Szczupak and Sons in Ramat Gan.

Failure and want brought back the muse, who had abandoned him during his years of commercial success. Once more he shut himself away in his "study" at night and penned passionate verses in Russian about the splendors of the Hebrew language, the enchantments of Jerusalem, not the poverty-striken, dusty, heat-stifled city of zealots but a Jerusalem whose streets are fragrant with myrrh and frankincence, where an angel of God floats over every one of its squares. At this point I entered the picture, in the role of the brave little boy in the story of the emperor's new clothes, and attacked Grandpa wit exasperated realism for these poems of his: "You've been living in Jerusalem for years now, and you kow perfectly well what the streets are paved with, and what really floats over Zion Square, so why do you keep writing about somthing that simply doesn't exist? Why don't you write about the real Jerusalem?"

Grandpa Alexander, furious at my impertinent words, turned in an instant from a pleasant pink hue to a blazing red, thumped the table with his fist, and roared: "The real Jerusalem? What on earth does a little bed-wetter like you know about the real Jerusalem?! The real Jerusalem is the one in my poems!!"

"And how long will you go on writing in Russian, Grandpa?"

"What do you mean, ty durak, you fool, you little bed-wetter? I do sums in Russian! I dream in Russian I even-- (but here Grandma Shlomit, who knew exatly what was coming next, interrupted him: "Shto s toboi? Ty ni normalni?! Vidish malchik ryadom s nami!!" --What's the matter with you? ARe you crazy? You can see the boy is right here!!)

Woudl you like to go back to Russia, Grandpa? For a visit?"

"It doesn't exist anymore. Propali!"

"What doesn't exist anymore?"

"What doesn't exist anymore, what doesn't exist anymore--Russia doesn't exist anymore! Russia is dead. There is Stalin. There is Dzherzhinsky. There is Yezhov. There is Beria,. There is one big prison Gulag! Yevsektsia! Apparatchiks! Murderers!"

"But surely you still love Odessa a little?"

"Nu. Love, don't love--what difference does it make. Chort ego znayet. The Devil knows.

"Don't you want to see it again?"

"Nu, sha, little bed-wetter, that's enough now. Sha. Chtob ty propal. Sha."

One day, in his study, over a glass of tea and kichelakh, after the discovery of one of those scandals of embezzlement and corruption that shock the country, Grandpa told me how, when he was fifteen, in Odessa "on my bike, very fast, I once carried a dispatch, a message, to Mr. Lilienblum, a committee member of the Lovers of Zion." (Besides being a well-known Hebrew writer, Lilienblum served in an honorary capacity as treasurer of the Lovers of Zion in Odessa.) "He, Lilienblum was really our first finance minister," Grandpa explained to me.

While he was waiting for Lilienblum to write the reply, the fifteen-year-old man-about-town took out his cigarettes and reached for the ashtray and matchbox on the drawing room table. Mr. Lilienblum quickly put his hand on Grandpa's to stop him, then went out of the room and returned a moment later with another matchbox that he had brought from the kitchen, explaining that the matches on the drawing room table had been bought out of the budget of the Lovers of Zion, and were to be used only at committee meetings, and then only by members of the committee. "So, you see. In those days public property was public property, not a free-for-all. Not the way it is in the country at the moment, when after two thousand years we've established a state so as to have someone to steal from. In those days every child knew what was permitted and what was not, what was ownerless property and what was not, what was mine and what was not."

Not always, however. Once, it may have been in the late 1950s, a fine new ten-lira note came into circulation bearing a picture of the poet Bialik." When i got hold of my first Bialik note, I hurried straight to Grandpa's to show him how the state had honored the man he had known in his youth. Grandpa was indeed excited, his cheeks flushed with pleasure, he turned the note this wa and that, held it up to the lightbulb, scrutinized the picture of Bialik (who seemed to me to be winking mischievously at Grandpa, as if to say "Nu?!"). A tiny tear sparkled in Grandpa's eye, but while he reveled in his pride his fingers folded up the new note and tucked it away in the inside pocket of his jacket.

Ten liras was a tidy sun at that time, particularly for a kibbutznik like me. I was startled.

"Grandpa, what are you doing? I only brought it to showyou and to make you happy. You'll get one of your own in a day or two, for sure."

"Nu," Grandpa shrugged, "Bialik owed me twenty-two rubles."

Amos Oz - A Tale of Love and Darkness

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