A Song of Passage
Volume 5 , Issue 1 (Sept, 1991 | Tishrei, 5752)
Air. Fresh air. It was all I could think about. If only I could escape the dingy streets of pungent odors; the aging cheese and dead chickens, the donkeys, the sheep skins. All I needed was some light and just a few clean breaths ‑ then I would be all right. I looked around the dank winding streets of the Arab Market and walked as quickly as possible in the direction which I thought would lead me out, out where,I didn't know.
I managed to bring myself to a better place, a small intersection free of shops and dead animals. Still, I was pressed by the flow of Friday afternoon shoppers and accosted by peddlers selling food. ?Bagele! Bagele!? one merchant was hawking in my ear. He looked at my pale face and must have decided that he had the cure, the cure for any ailment. He reached into his cart and pulled out a large, greasy, sesame coated bagel, thrust it in my face, and stood in front of me, his gold teeth glinting in the sun as he smiled quietly, satisfied with himself. Lifting my arms and turning sideways, I was able to escape from him. I knocked his bagel to the ground as he yelled after me. Half galloping, half limping I pushed people out of my way no longer caring whom I bothered. If you had asked me where I was going, I would not have been able to tell you, but somewhere in my unconscious lay the location of my destination, and knowing this I was not surprised when it came into focus.
I began to move more quickly as if I were a woman possessed. I found myself clamoring up a staircase, a passage used only by tourists wishing to see the view of the Old City of Jerusalem from the top of the walls which surround it. At the top, I reached by rote for the small canteen of water I had become accustomed to carrying around my waist, pouring it liberally into my open mouth, and then, pouring some on my hands, I covered my face with wetness and felt some degree of relief. Searching through the satchel of groceries I had deposited on the stone floor, I pulled out a few bland crackers which I slowly consumed, feeling the color rise up in my cheeks.
I leaned against the stone railing and peered at the street below which resembled a hive. It was swarming with people rushing in every direction, an odd mixture of Arabs in blue jeans and black and white cotton head coverings, bearded Hasidim in black coats, tourists wearing kibbutz hats and flashing pictures, young Israelis in tight jeans and sleeveless shirts and a host of others. I noticed a young Arab woman weighed down with mesh bags full of fruits and vegetables making her way from the gates beneath me to a nearby bus stop. Although she was covered completely in burgundy and green robes, her swollen middle gave away her condition, and she was struggling with every step. After a few moments, she returned to the gate leaving one small parcel at its foot and trekked on without it, apparently planning to return for it once she had deposited the rest. I looked down at my own enlarged abdomen and poked it around a bit hoping to feel the baby kick, but he didn't budge. My child was a nocturnal animal who stayed awake all night doing somersaults, but was seemingly uninterested in getting involved in 'mommy bagel encounters'. I looked back at the tired woman waddling away and thought about how similar we were, how our lives must be fundamentally alike. I wondered whether she, too, felt ill. She lifted her face up towards me once and in it I saw a great sadness, the kind which is deep seated, creating the sullen expression of an injured creature: wide eyes, a furrowed brow, and sunken cheeks. Her features were actually quite fine, and were it not for her life experiences, she would probably have been considered beautiful. I wished I could snatch her up to join me there on the wall and offer her a sip of water and a bite of cracker. If only I could help her with her packages ‑ perhaps if I didn't have my own I could but?
It was then that something struck me. It was right in the middle of that thought. It was powerfully strong and without description. I felt disoriented for a moment. Looking around, I saw that I was standing just as I had been, but somehow things were not the same. The air was shockingly silent. A few birds were gliding over my head. Normally I would not have turned to observe their flight, but as they caught my eye, I tilted my head back and saw their smooth white wings spread against the blue sheet of sky behind them, and I recognized them as doves.
The weather beaten walls and walkways of the Old City appeared golden in the sunlight sparkling, so brightly I had to squint my eyes to look at them. Beyond the city, in a small orchard, large trees were bent towards the ground with limbs straining to hold their plump figs and olives. Brilliant flowers were everywhere ‑ growing next to the shining roadways, and poking up in between the cracks of the golden stones. The sweet smell from these flowers and fruits rose up to greet me, and I inhaled the air as if I had been under water holding my breath for the longest time, and had finally reached my head above the surface. It was all so calm and peaceful, I stood in disbelief, afraid any movement might disturb it's balance and cause it to end.
From far off in the distance, a soft melody floated towards me, a melody which sounded familiar, and I began to hum it quietly to myself. From somewhere in my past the tune came to me, and I knew where I had heard it before. It gave me comfort, and brought me a feeling of security long forgotten. It was that feeling known only to young children in their mothers' laps, before they know that evil exists in the world, and that one needs to fear in order to survive.
In the midst of this harmony, I was disturbed by a figure appearing several yards in the distance and walking slowly towards me. It was he who was singing and I knew it in a moment, but trembled at the thought. What would I do if it were true? Then as he came more clearly into view, I saw his face and my fear passed. He appeared not young, but youthful, his voice robust and soulful. He wore the same large woolen talis, though it seemed whiter than I remembered. He was singing his favorite niggun, in the gentle voice I remembered from my childhood. It was the first song he had ever taught me.
In my mind I returned to my grandparents' house on Wilmore Street and saw the dark hallway and the brown oak banister leading up to their second floor apartment. In the small, white washed kitchen, my mother and grandmother rhythmically moved ingredients and utensils from one location to another with the fluidity of dancers and the organization of a practiced drill team. My sisters were in the dining room setting the tables and arguing about what went where on the Passover seder plate, and my father and brother had gone down to the cellar to fetch a few more bottles of wine and revisit some of my father's childhood memorabilia. I alone was left with nothing to do, and sitting in the living room on the overstuffed green sofa in my new pink and white polka dot dress I was bored and felt left out being too young to help cook and too unsteady to be trusted with the good china or wine bottles. My grandfather entered the living room just as the automatic timer turned the lamp on. He saw my sad face. Wasting no time, he sat down on the sofa, lifted me onto his lap, and sang me a little tune. After a while he began to pick up the tempo and sing in a louder voice. He bounced me up and down on his knees and I laughed out loud until he began to substitute, ?Sing it with me, Sarahla? for the simple words of the song, and finally I did join in, voicing the melody if not the words. ?The world to come is a good thing; learning Torah is a better thing,? we sang in Yiddish. By the time my mother came to call us to begin the seder, we were holding hands and jumping up and down to the beat.
In the dining room, I took my place sitting on a thick telephone book placed atop a bench between my mother and father. We were seated at the far end of the folding table brought in to accommodate our growing number of family and friends. Across from where we sat, a card table had been set up to hold all of the yom tov candles which I was warned repeatedly not to topple. A candle was lit for each member of our extended family, turning the table into a wide square torch. I loved looking at the candles and tried to see faces in the flames or shapes of animals in the shadows they cast on the wall. I was hungry and anxious to begin the meal, but when my grandfather said Kiddush and began chanting the story of the exodus from Egypt, I felt immediately captivated. His voice was not beautiful, but he sang with great feeling, and to me he conveyed his message without the need for words. Though I didn't comprehend any of the Hebrew he was reading, my heart was the interpreter, my heart did understand. No one asked me that night if I could repeat the story that my grandfather had told, but somehow staring at the dancing flames, I felt that I could have repeated that and more.
I brought my thoughts back and found my grandfather standing in front of me, close enough to touch. He had not yet finished his song, and so he kept his eyes closed, raising his wrinkled face upwards towards God, and moving it slightly from side to side, absorbed in the moment. His talis was flapping gently against the harsh sky like the wings of the doves. As his song came to a close, his last few notes hung in the air. With his eyes still closed and palms lifted up past his shoulders as if he were offering a gift, the expression on his face could only be described as one of pure joy. When he lowered his hands and looked at me, his eyes were sparkling in the special way I remembered, but everything about him seemed more potent, more compelling.
?My Sarahla.? He smiled.
?Who else could it be? Is someone else singing you my song? Your husband maybe?? He chuckled, and I did too, at the thought of Michael singing that song.
?No Grampa, it's just??
I wanted to ask him so much: how he knew about Michael; what had brought him there; why everything looked so different ‑ but then, almost as an answer to my silent questions, I saw someone else approaching.
A man dressed in Biblical robes and sandals was walking slowly along the wall, pausing from time to time to look about and take a silent assessment. Behind his beard, he wore a staunch expression as if he were on some special mission. His eyes were dark and piercing, and when they met mine for a moment, his strength was apparent. He was more than spiritual; he was a spirit. As he passed by us, it suddenly all seemed clear to me.
?Oh my God.? The words slipped out of my mouth before I could catch them. ?What happens now? Grampa, do you know?? He looked at me with an even expression, but didn't answer. ?I know who that man is. Are you not supposed to tell me? He's Eliyahu HaNavi! Mashiach is coming, or he may already be here! That is why you're here, isn't it? T'chiat HaMeitim, the raising of the dead!? My grandfather stood in silence looking at the ground and shaking his head. ?What is it??
?He's always here.? He said still looking down.
?Eliyahu. He's always here. He walks through the city day and night, day in and day out. He is waiting.?
?He's waiting for a sign from God??
?No, no, for you. He waits for you and the others in your generation to call to him ‑ to call him forth with your actions and deeds, your heart and your speech and with the truth. He does nothing but wait.?
I felt confused and disappointed. The whole thing made no sense. I had been on that wall before and never seen him. There was also no other way of explaining the city's appearance or my grandfather's miraculous presence. He had to be wrong.
My mouth was open, ready with my response, when I saw the bottom left corner of his talis shake with movement. I bent slightly to see what was there and caught a glimpse of a baby playing beneath the talis fringes. My grandfather stooped and scooped up the child, cradling him in the folds of his talis so quickly that I was barely able to peek at him.
I smiled and moved my face close to his arms, trying to get a closer look, but he was completely covered.
?Is this why you're here?? I asked, feeling that if he had not come because of Mashiach at least it might be for some wonderful purpose.
?Is this??? dared I ask.
?It's someone you'll meet in the future.?
My smile widened and my heart rushed with emotion knowing that I would soon be joined by this beautiful small bundle, this child so special that God had sent his trusted messenger to deliver his soul. I wanted to bring his face to mine and kiss his cheeks and nose. I wanted to touch his tiny fingers and tickle his toes.
My thoughts were interrupted by my grandfather's saying, ?My Sarahla, dear Sarahla, don't make God your enemy because of the evil which happens in the world. All of us need to be given the freedom to choose, even if we choose incorrectly. Don't confuse someone else's poor decision with God's will. Do you understand what I'm saying??
?Of course. Of course I understand that. Grampa, there is something else.? The words swam from my memory to my heart, from my heart to my lips. ?There is something I have wanted to say, something I've wanted to tell you. When you ? when you died, I never got a chance to tell you ? I don't know why I didn't, but ??
?Sarah, I know already. You don't have to upset yourself. In death I see everything clearly. I look at you and I see your spirit and your emotions; I see everything.?
?It doesn't matter. I should have told you ? It made me feel uncomfortable, but I should have anyway.?
?In life too, Sarahla, I saw your heart worn on your sleeve. How could I not know? How could I miss it? It's what you are. That's why it makes you so uncomfortable, because you feel it so strongly.?
?But I have to tell you for myself then, if not for you.? I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. ?I love you Grampa. I love you and miss you in my life. After you died, I used to talk to you at night before I said Shema, and one night I spoke to God and asked him to let you know that I loved you. I looked out my bedroom window into the dark, empty sky and I asked God to send me a sign, to let me know that you had received my message. Then I closed my eyes and prayed, and when I opened them the sky was no longer black. It was filled with stars. It could have been a wind that blew away the clouds, but deep down I thought it was the sign.?
?I did hear you. I did.? His eyes filled with tears as if something had touched him, some knowledge deeper than our conversation. ?You should trust your heart. You should trust yourself Sarah. I'm so sorry, I have to go now.?
??Wait, can you tell me something else? Just a few more words.? He looked quickly around the city and then pointing to the distant figure of Eliyahu HaNavi he looked sharply into my eyes and whispered, ?Never forget he is waiting ‑ and never forget I am with you.?
In a moment he was gone. Gone also were the flowers, the fruit trees, the golden walls. Gone were the Friday shoppers, the peddlers, the Old City. There was nothing but blackness. I felt as if some terrible heavy object were lying on top of me. I labored under each breath, finding that the movement of my chest rising and lowering brought with it a strong, radiating pain. I longed to be back on the top of the wall, back in the golden city.
In my mind, I cried out silently, ?Grampa! Please, why have you left me here?? Finding no response, I tried to open my eyes but found that only the right one obeyed. The first thing I saw was a fluorescent light overhead. To the right was a large picture window through which the desert was visible. A white bird perched on the sill met my eye and then flashed away. Looking in front of me I saw a painting of some pink flowers in a vase. To the left ?
Panic raced through my mind. My heart pounded hard and fast against my chest making my pain almost unbearable. The wall on the left was completely blank save for a shadow. In the shadow, I saw a tall rod holding a bottle with a thin tube leading to an arm.
I tried to remember what had happened. I could recall the man with the golden teeth, the staircase, and the canteen and crackers. Then there was the pregnant woman carrying her bags. She had left one behind and then ? then I realized. She had left it there ‑ the pregnant woman, the barer of both life and death, had left behind the explosive bundle. She had been chosen because no one would have suspected her. I ran through the events again and again in my mind, but could come to no other conclusion.
I raised my fingers trying desperately to touch my belly, my child; but I could raise them no more than a quarter of an inch. After a while I stopped trying. I lowered my fingers and closed my eyes knowing I lay alone in the bed.
Lisa Stein lives in Brooklyn.