Friday, September 8, 2017

ET: Almanac

Sometimes the facts threaten the truth. I once wrote about the real reason for my grandmother's death. My grandmother Shlomit arrived in Jerusalem straight from Vilna one hot summer's day in 1933, took one startled look at the sweaty markets, the colorful stalls, the swarming side streets full of the cries of hawkers, the braying of donkeys, the bleating of goats, the squawks of pullets hung up with their legs tied together, and blood dripping from the necks of slaughtered chickens, she saw the shoulders and arms of Middle Eastern men and the strident colors of the fruit and vegetables, she saw the hills all around and the rocky slopes, and immediately pronounced her final verdict: "The Levant is full of germs."

My grandmother lived in Jerusalem for some twenty-five years, she knew hard times and a few good ones, but to her last day she found no reason to modify her verdict. They say that the day after they arrived, she ordered my grandfather, as she would every single day they lived in Jerusalem, winter and summer alike, to get up at six or six thirty every morning and to spray Flit in every corner of the apartment to drive away the germs, to spray under the bed, behind the wardrobe, and even to beat all the mattresses and the bedclothes and eiderdowns. From my childhood I remember Grandpa Alexander standing on the balcony in the early morning in his vest and bedroom slippers, beating the pillows like Don Quixote attacking the wineskins, bringing the carpet beater down on them repeatedly with all the force of his wretchedness or despair. Grandma Shlomit would stand a few steps behind him, taller than he, dressed in a flowery silk dressing gown buttoned all the way up, her hair tied with a green butterfly-like bow, as stiff and upright as the headmistress of a boarding school for young ladies, commanding the field of battle until the day daily victory was won.

In the context of her constant war against germs Grandma used to boil fruit and vegetables uncompromisingly. She would wipe the bread twice over with a cloth soaked in a pinkish disinfectant solution called Cali. After each meal she did not wash the dishes but gave them the treatment normally reserved for Passover Eve, boiling them for a long time. Grandma Shlomit boiled her own person, too, three times a day: summer and winter alike she took three baths in nearly boiling water, to eradicate the germs. She lived to a ripe old age, the bugs and viruses crossing to the other side of the street when they saw her approaching in the distance, and when she was over eighty, after a couple of heart attacks, Dr. Krumholtz warned her: Dear lady, unless you desist from these fervid ablutions of yours, I am unable to take responsibility for any possible untoward and regrettable consequences.

But Grandma could not give up her baths. Her fear of germs was too strong for her. She died in the bath.

Her heart attack is a fact, but the truth is that she died from an excess of hygiene. Facts have a tendency to obscure the truth. It was cleanliness that killed her. Although the motto of her life in Jerusalem, "The Levant is full of germs," may testify to an earlier, deeper truth than the demon of hygiene, a truth that was repressed and invisible. After all, Grandma Shlomit came from northeastern Europe, where there were just as many germs as there were in Jerusalem, not to mention all sorts of other noxious things.

Here then is a peephole that may afford us a glimpse of the effect of the sights of the Orient, its colors and smells, on my grandmother and perhaps on other immigrants and refugees who like her came from gloomy shtetl in Eastern Europe and were so disturbed by the pervasive sensuality of the Levant that they resolved to defend themselves from its menace by constructing their own ghetto.

Menace? Or perhaps the truth is that it was not the menace of the Levant that made my grandmother mortify and purify her body with those boiling-hot ablutions morning, noon, and night every day that she lived in Jerusalem but rather its seductive sensual charms, and her own body, and the powerful attraction of those teeming markets that made her breathing tight and her knees weak with that abundance of unfamiliar vegetables, fruit, spicy cheeses, pungent odors, and guttural foods that so tormented and excited her, and those lustful hands that groped and burrowed into the most intimate recesses of fruit and vegetables, the chilis and spicy olives and the nudity of all that ripe, bare red meat, dripping blood, hanging shamelessly naked from the butchers' hooks, and the dizzying array of spices, herbs, and powders, all the multi-colored lascivious lures of that pungent, highly seasoned world, not to mention the penetrating aromas of freshly roasted, cardamom-flavored coffee, and the glass containers full of colorful drinks with lumps of ice or slices of lemon in them, and those powerfully built, deeply tanned, hirsute market porters, naked to the waist, the muscles of their backs rippling with effort under their hot skin that gleamed as rivulets of perspiration ran down it in the sun. Perhaps Grandma's cult of cleanliness was nothing more or less than a hermetic, sterile spacesuit. An antiseptic chastity belt that she had voluntarily buckled on, since her first day here, and secured with seven locks, destroying all the keys?

Or maybe it was neither the hygiene nor her desires nor the fear of her desires that killed her but her constant secret anger at this fear, a suppressed, malignant anger, like an unlinked boil, anger at her own body, at her own longings, and also a deeper anger, at the very revulsion these longings gave rise to, a murky, poisonous anger directed both at the prisoner and at her jailer, years and years of secret mourning for the ceaseless passage of desolate time and the shriveling of her body and the desires of that body, the desires, laundered and cleansed and scraped and disinfected and boiled a thousand times, for that Levant, filthy, sweaty, bestial, exciting to the point of swooning, but swarming with germs.

Amos Oz - A Tale of Love and Darkness

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