Friday, December 19, 2014

Austerity, iv


                   “You muzt try to understand dis,” the man said, his bald head gleaming with sweat despite the drafty auditorium.  His great brown glasses were crooked on his face, like a seesaw which had broken irrevocably to one side.  His Hebrew had a strong Romanian accent.
            “It iz vvery important, children,” the man continued, blinking excessively.  “Hherr in Izrael, the new comer muzt get the zame dings az the nnative born.  Iz it fair, den, children, for you to get two pairz of zhoes and the newcomer one?  Oor for you to eat two eggz, and the immigrant one?  Only wit de rationing will dere be fairness in Izrael.  Only den will dere be fairnezz…”  The man paused to remove his lop sided spectacles.  His large round eyes were now small and pink without the refracting glass, as if shrunk from the incantation of his words.
            “Aand de criminalz who zell food and clothez – and I will uze da word because you are older boyz and girlz and can underztand – on the Black Market are ztabling a knife in the heart of the Jewizh Ztate.  Dey defame de six-thousand dead who fought to make dis land free two yearz ago.  Dey fight for the Arab who wishes to crush uz and drive uz into da zea…”
            When the man was finished the teachers let the classes play in the yard.  Arye sat on a stone, contemplating the high sweep of the blue, Jerusalem sky, clear for the first time in nearly a month, the hint of spring lightly kissing the damp air.  The sun sent plumes of light down upon the earth which landed, Arye imagined, somewhere over the Jordan River, on the Plains of Moab, like broken pieces of the firmament.
            “It iz vvery important,” a voice behind Arye Levin proclaimed.  “Dat hhere in Yizrael, the new comer muzt get the zzame as the nnative born…”  Arye turned, thinking that the Ministry man was behind him, watching the sun perform its ballet over the Holy Land.  Instead a short, brown boy, a fine mesh of black hair over his upper lip, which quivered with delight over his feat of imitation, was next to Arye Levin, standing squat but firm.
            “What an ass,” the boy added, sitting beside Arye on the broad stone.  “That fool can’t even speak proper Hebrew and he comes here to lecture us about who deserves what, and when.  Fucked up.  Hey, don’t I know you?”  The boy asked.  Arye recognized the facial features: the reconstituted parts of Mar and Giveret Mizrahi. 
            “Yeah, I do know you,” the brown boy continued, leaning toward Arye, his face awash with the type of placid curiosity one often finds in a dog.  “You live in our apartment block.  The Levin kid.  The older one.  I’m Ezra Mizrahi.”  The boy wore a tan sweater and short brown pants.  He had two bandages on his knees and a hole the size of a fist in the very center of his sweater.  His arm thrust out as if to shake Arye’s hand, but then it dropped, as if he thought better of the gesture.
            “You know there is a Hungarian Restaurant my father goes to for his business.  And it is well known that this place does not take ration coupons.  And who does my father see, sitting down to a plate of gulasch, but Levi Eshkol….”
            “The Minister of Agriculture?”
            “The one and only,” Ezra Mizrahi answered, his hand outstretched as if to accept a well earned bit of bakseesh.  “If the highest members of the government, the cabinet itself, don’t respect austerity, what kind of example is that for regular people?  Both da nnew commer and de nnative born, as our friend in there said.  This is a small country.  Everyone knows everyone’s business, from the Cabinet members to the street cleaners.”
            The boys stopped talking as a group of children kicking a scuffed football across the pitted asphalt. 
            “Your father is in the Black Market, right?” Arye asked, just as the group disappeared from sight behind a tree at the far end of the yard still clinging tenaciously to the shards of last year’s leaves.
            “It’s all bullshit,” Ezra Mizrahi answered, his jaw firm, his eyes cast low.  “This whole country.  This is the Promised Land, my father says, the land of milk and honey.  Milk and honey are rationed, you know, and can be found on page lamed and dalet, and are available in section 17 this week.  Shopkeepers do what they can to get around the regulations, just like that crook Eshkol.  They water down milk and put breadcrumbs in ground beef.  I heard of one manufacturer who was hired by the government to make a certain kind of boot for the army, and he figured out how to use less leather, and he sold the rest on the black market.  And this man was a millionaire! 
            “It’s all crap, and my father has a thousand stories like this.  Dov Yosef, the austerity man, is worse than Joseph in the bible, lording his hoard of food over the people, making them bow and scrape.  Joseph’s brothers in the bible were right in getting rid of him, only they should have killed him instead of selling him to those Ishmaelites.  This whole place is a sham.  When some small fry gets caught buying a coat on the black market, they force him plant a tree and the newspapers make it front page news.  What kind of country is that?  What good is a goddamned tree if it doesn’t give you fruit or if you can’t cut it down to make a house?”
            “Why do you say such things?” Arye asked, aggrieved.  “Its  unpatriotic. Israel is a desert.  Planting trees redeems the land.”
            “You sound like that cheap Jew in there,” Ezra flicked his thumb backward, as if the Romanian from the Ministry was standing behind them, breathing down their necks with his litany of collective sacrifice.  “A man needs bread and a roof, and the government makes us eat the same kind of thin black bread and forces us into their damp apartment houses, Block Alef, Section 11, Flat Gimel blah blah…”
            “Your father told you all this!” Arye spat, standing up.  “He’s fed you lies.”
            The boy chuckled.  “At least I’m fed.  Well fed…” and he patted his round belly. “Come to our flat, eggs are stacked up to here, chickens hang from the rafters… we’ll feed you lies and we’ll feed you eggs and delicious cookies from overseas…” and the boy continued to talk ebulliently of his hoard of plenty, but Arye Levin had already walked away.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Austerity, iii

        Arye Levin sat in the court yard beneath his flat, under a low, tattered awning.  The rain had diminished to a slow trickle, but it was strong enough to make the boy still press deeply against the cold masonry of the apartment building.  In front of him, in a flat on the ground floor, music with a Levantine flavor was seeping through the closed windows and sealed shutters.  Apartment Block Alef-Gimel was occupied by Ashkenazim -- Jews from Europe – with the exception of the Mizrahi family -- Jews of Syrian origin.

            Their Middle Eastern quirks and mannerisms were mocked by the residents of Apartment Block Alef-Gimel.  Arye’s mother repeatedly admonished him not to play with any of the hoard of Mizrahi children. 
           Yet the very questionable nature of their origins, the stink of impropriety about their status, carried an unquestionable appeal.  Arye imagined that in Syria both Arab and Jew alike carried long curved knifes and were not shy about using them to solve a dispute.  The women, who covered themselves with brightly covered flowing robes studded with gold and silver coins, were hoarders of great beauty and allure, all the more so because it was concealed.

            The reality was otherwise.  When Arye saw Mar Mizrahi he viewed a portly, squat man in an opened collar shirt and stained tan pants.  In the winter this outfit was supplemented by a coat with the lining ripped out.  He had deep lines beneath his eyes and a cigarette, either lit or unlit, dangling between his plump lips.  The man was constantly coming and going out of his flat.  Sometimes a truck would pull up on their side street entrance, away from prying eyes, idle for a bit, before rumbling off again.  Giveret Mizrahi indeed wore a head scarf but it did not cover her face.  It was loosely draped over her head, as if she was doing mere lip service to the customs of her homeland.  A gaggle of children dangled off her like spare appendages.

            Arye never saw Mar or Giveret Mizrahi with ration books.  They were never spotted on line at the neighborhood greengrocer or the dry goods store.  The residents of Apartment Block Alef-Gimel whispered that Mar Mizrahi was a big time black marketeer.  And just this rainy afternoon, as Arye’s belly was beating the slow tempo of hunger which pounded with the beat of his heart, he saw Mar Mizrahi coming up the path with a box full of egg cartons, a ration for a family for nearly two months. 
           Beneath his bushy eyebrows the Syrian Jew spied the fair-haired Levin boy and did not bother to conceal his cache.  His eyes smiled jubilantly, with an unassailable spark of victory, which seemed to say to the world, fixed with its rules and statutes, ‘fuck you.’  Yet for all the glee on his mobile, fleshy face, his lips were set firm on his smoldering cigarette, and did not budge an inch toward the arch of a smile.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Austerity, ii


        Arye Levin knew full well that his mother suffered torments in the market.  He did not wish to make it worse by eating too much, by adding to her already unbearable burdens of work, shopping, cooking, cleaning.  She had a full book of ration coupons at the top of each month, and the Ministry of Supplies and Rationing forced her, as they did everyone in Israel, to shop at a certain stores in their neighborhoods.   Supplies were low.
            In the morning the newspapers would announce which items were available in what district: Radishes being distributed in area 10, which was the location of the Levin flat in West Jerusalem, price – 95 mils per kilogram.  Coupon – Page Gimel # 26.  Giveret Levin would dutifully trudge down to the greengrocer for the radishes. 
            There was always a line which stretched around the corner.  Sometimes she would stand for three hours for radishes, eggs, fish, and by the time Giveret Levin reached the counter the last radish, egg or fish was sold.  A crowd of disgruntled Jerusalemites would empty out into the cold winter streets, grumbling about the government, spewing Dov Yosef, the “Minster of Austerity,” the architect of the ration system for the Jewish State, with curses of biblical dimensions. 
          “Is this how we live, in Israel, in 1950!” one woman cried.  And no one had an answer.  This was the seven years of famine predicted by Joseph to Pharaoh, but not a soul could remember the seven years of plenty.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Austerity - a short story I wrote in 2008, part of my Land of Israel series

If the Lord delights in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey – Numbers 14:8

            “Are you full?” his mother asked.  When he didn't answer, she asked again, and grudgingly, he answered.  “Yes, I am.”
            Then Arye Levin, distracted, a little woozy, stepped away from the table and out onto the covered balcony.  A smothering, cool rain blanketed Jerusalem.  He felt a gnawing pit in his stomach, taut and unforgiving, like the tightening of a tourniquet by an unkind hand. 
            While no one in the Levin family was hungry, no one could say they were sated.  When Arye Levin refused a second helping from his mother, he did so to leave more for his little brother Haim, due to arrive back from his Zionist youth outing. The group had been planting trees in the hills to the west of Jerusalem, creating forests over the ruins of Arab villages razed in 1948.  Little Haim Levin would return filthy with the mud of Greater Jerusalem and a hunger ill suited to a time of austerity.  

            Yet there was always breakfast and supper in the Levin flat.  But when the family arose from each meal for whatever appointed task their lives demanded, each retained a pit in the hollow of their bellies, a reminder that no one could eat their fill.  His mother, the keeper of the larder, jealously guarded her ration coupons bound in a flimsy book of cardboard, as insubstantial as the food it allowed them to purchase.  
           On two occasions, Giveret Levin had lost a coupon from the delicate book; it had slipped from its binding during her workaday journeys, and her sorrow at the loss was as if she had abandoned a child.  So when it was not in her purse on the way to the market, she hid it in the cupboard beneath the unused copy of the Shulchan Aruck a religious uncle had purchased for the Levins with the dim hope that they would keep a kosher kitchen.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Bride for One Night

Ruth Calderon’s “A Bride for One Night” was titled  Market, House, Heart in Hebrew, which is probably a better title than the English translation.  Overall, Calderon takes extremely short stories from the Talmud which present gender and sex in some sort of problematic light, she translates the passage, then writes a sort of modern Midrash or expansion of the passage, and finally, examines it from a variety of interpretive angles.

For anyone familiar with some of the Talmud’s more provocative tales, Calderon’s book presents these stories in a new and fresh light.  They are about men, women, and their complex interactions. That is why Market, House,  Heart, is such a great title.  These are the three arenas in which men and women in traditional societies would meet, fall in love, fall into conflict, and resolve or live with those conflicts.
Calderon’s work is a refreshing read on some old stories.  She also abides by Jewish tradition by the very Jewish act of questioning it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Gaha: Babes of the Abyss

Gaha: Babes of the Abyss showcases Jon Frankel’s unique talents and vibrant imagination.  Frankel creates an entire world, down to the nuts and bolts.  It is this attention to detail that makes this novel a standout.  Frankel does not cut corners or skimp; he gives you a complete world that is both a brutal and enchanting.

While giving us this detailed world, Frankel does not ignore the big picture: the arc of the story and the development of the characters.  Elma, Irmela and Bob start off as somewhat conventional hard-boiled, dystopian figures, but under Frankel’s steady hand, they become fully fleshed characters, going through transformations both good and bad, lending them credibility and vibrancy.

So, Frankel’s novel holds a great deal of fulfilled promise.  He exploits Elma, Iremela and Bob to the fullest.  At the end their experiences have transformed them into new beings. Reading this novel will give you, the reader, a similar experience.  It is a dive into a powerfully disturbing and exciting new world.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Great English Short Stores

Great English Short Stores, part of the Dover Thrift Editions, is an odd assortment of stories which certainly reflect the time and place of their composition.  

Many of the tales here present the dark underbelly of Victorian and Edwardian England.  There is an obsession with ghosts and the occult.  As English society grew more industrialized, rational, and secular, the need for the occult grew in proportion.

The stories in this collection are deeply concerned with class, a very English preoccupation, repressed sexuality, an undefined but ever present misogyny and fear of female sexuality.  In fact, if anything can be said to hold his collection together, it is this constellation of English anxieties which run through each story to a greater or lesser degree.

So, although this collection often reads as very staid, in actuality there is a great deal of tension brewing below the surface.  It is worth reading, especially for the final story by George Eliot which brings many of these anxieties to the light of day.