MEMORIAL YEAR (originally published in ARCH, 2009)
Rabbah created a man and sent him to Rabbi Zera. Rabbi Zera spoke to him, but received no answer. Thereupon he said unto him: 'Thou art a creature of the magicians. Return to thy dust.' ---- Talmud, Sanhedrin 65B
Herr Doctor Altermann was trying to persuade Yasha Schulevitz that life was neither good nor bad, but what Yasha imagined it was; Yasha parried, trying to convince the good doctor that society, mankind, the very earth both he and the doctor trod upon, was evil to its foundation. The doctor invariably quoted Hamlet in Yiddish and then English: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Then Yasha opened up the valve, quoting nearly every passage in the Bible, the Talmud, and the responsa where human life is devalued and derided, where men and women are likened to fleas and worms and maggots and the days of their lives to fleeting shadows.
Yasha thumped his foot anxiously on the couch, frustrated that he could not see his interlocutor. Doctor Altermann was a dogmatic and unwavering Freudian. He sat behind Yasha as the latter reclined, ridiculously, on a daybed lined with crackling leather. The ontological status of evil was their traditional sticking point. Yasha felt his therapy was going nowhere.
“This is going nowhere,” Yasha cried to Herr Doctor Altermann helplessly.
“We should discuss that,” the good doctor answered neutrally, but with clinical attention to detail. “Why is this going nowhere? Must this go somewhere? When you first came in here, you couldn’t speak or swallow. Now you quote the Maharal of Prague and The Book of Creation to me. Is that getting somewhere?”
* * *
Yasha was out on the street. Warsaw was stifling. A wave of stark confusion passed over him like a pail of scalding water over the crown of his head. “Is this all there is to existence?” he asked the hot air, he asked the cracked, baking sidewalk, he asked the trolley which stopped in front of him and which would take him to his room.
Yasha hopped on the running board, and as soon as his foot stepped upon the threshold the trolley sped off and Yasha nearly fell to the floor. The driver cursed in Polish. Yasha thought the words were directed at him, but suddenly the trolley came to an abrupt halt and Yasha was pitched to the ground. Now the driver was up on his feet, cursing and screaming in pungent Polish, waving a meaty fist in the air.
Yasha stood and looked out the front window. A horse and wagon carrying rotting produce had halted in the middle of the trolley tracks. The driver pressed the horse with his whip, but the beast refused to move. In one instant it was standing, taking the blows, and in the next, it keeled over on its side and died. Now all the passengers on the trolley hissed and cursed. The trolley could not move an inch forward, and in Warsaw, when a horse dies, a city inspector must be summoned to examine the corpse. It can take hours to remove the carcass. All the passengers noisily abandoned the trolley.
Yasha was the last off the trolley. He stood on the street and looked at the great dead beast. Its tongue had rolled out of its mouth, and its huge yellow eyes bulged from the sockets, like two cracked eggs about to spill their yolks. Yasha had no idea what a dead horse blocking his path may mean, but if it was a dream, and it felt very much like one, he had no doubt it would provide fertile interpretive ground for Herr Doctor Altermann. All it did for Yasha was make his feet hot and sore. So when he reached his flat, he soaked them in some rusty water he drew from the hall tap. It was after an hour like this, sitting on a chair soaking his feet, that he realized Mindel was gone.
* * *
When he finally noticed, it was not difficult for Yasha to see that she had left for good. Like the girl herself, her things were never well integrated into his life. Her objects -- a box given to her by her mother for jewelry, a paperweight a beloved uncle had given her at Chanukah -- always seemed to float on the surface of his possessions. She was a girl from the provinces who had read Yasha’s book of poems. In a reversal of what was expected, she seduced him. This was the kind of world Yasha had inherited, he thought gravely. The country girl now seduces the city man. She had quickly found an older man with more money than Yasha, and their bond, never firm, had begun to loosen and strain and break.
Yasha looked at the spectacle of smeared distemper on the wall, and his feet, bare white in the chipped enamel pot, swimming in a soup of rusty water. He did not even blame her for not leaving a note. What was there to say? Words would only edify the obvious. The world was open for a girl like Mindel. She could come and go as she pleased without a passport or visa.
But what was left for him in Warsaw? There was a manuscript of unfinished Hebrew poems on the desk, whimpering like a neglected child. When it became apparent to Yasha that he could not finish them, he tried to refashion them in Yiddish in a sort of second first draft. But he did not get much further along in the tongue of his mothers than that of his fathers, so his pen remained in its sheath. Now he just had his sessions with Herr Doctor Altermann and the long, hot Warsaw summer. Yasha was at an impasse with his poetry and an impasse with his therapy. He believed mainly in external reality, while the doctor believed in the primacy of Yasha’s thoughts. He saw the doctor five times a week and was charged for missing a session. The burden of analysis was nearly as oppressive as the heat. The doctor and Yasha, after a series of mobile skirmishes, had become fixed in their positions. They charged and counter-charged across a pitted and pocked no-man’s land of stated and restated versions of reality, only to retreat to their respective trenches with no clear victory on either side. Yasha was a fighter; he would not let the doctor have his way without a struggle. But he knew the doctor held the advantage; he had the professional training, the conceptual stockpile -- and what did Yasha have? He was a poet in a recently revived language whose future survival was far from certain. And anyway the well had run dry, and all that was left at the bottom was sediment and dry bone. He had few tools to fight the doctor. He knew that eventually he would succumb to Herr Doctor Altermann’s clinical optimism, and despite the great heat, this chilled Yasha to his core.
When there was a knock on the door, Yasha froze. He imagined it was Mindel, come back to retrieve some item. What if she wanted a scene, in order to enact the fantasy of the lover betrayed? But he doubted it was her. She had not left a thimble behind. What about the doctor? This notion was simply absurd. Yasha had never even seen Herr Doctor Altermann rise from his chair, let alone on the street or in any hallway.
“Who is it?” Yasha called out in Yiddish. One the other side of the door, a man cursed in Polish about the God dammed Jews. Yasha realized it was safe, and opened the door. It was a man from a private mail courier. He thrust an envelop into Yasha’s hand and asked him to sign a slip. As he left, Yasha’s eyes followed the man descending the steep steps and muttering slurs about the accursed Jews.
Yasha slit open the envelope. A stack of German Marks fell to the floor. He was about to pick them up when he spied a familiar scrip in a letter inside the envelope. He unfolded it and read:
Father is very sick. Can you come to the Lebenswasser Clinic? Father has asked to see you. Money is enclosed for railway fare. We will take care of your accommodations --- Sincerely, Yael Kleinberger
* * *
Yasha was not pleased to hear of the illness of his former Hebrew teacher and mentor, Rudolf Moshe Kleinberger, but he was overjoyed to so suddenly and unexpectedly leave scalding, grimy Warsaw. He did not notify Herr Doctor Altermann of his departure. His face flushed with glee and shame when he thought of all those missed appointments, and the tally sheet of money growing by leaps and bounds as he dug his heels into the sandy loam of the Alps, far away from Altermann’s steely grasp.
With the new regulations in effect in Germany, he expected to be harassed by the German border guards. But when the train reached the frontier and the Polish custom officials saw his passport stamped with a J, it was his own countrymen who removed him from his first class berth. They took him to a low, dim shed and ordered him to strip his clothes as they rifled through his belongings. They quickly found the roll of German Marks, and questioned him again and again if he was smuggling currency. “What is a beggar like you doing with such a wad of Marks?” one Polish guard asked, using the Yiddish word for beggar.
“I told you,” Yasha explained, nude and handcuffed to a stiff wooden chair. “I am visiting my sick teacher, the noted Zionist and Hebraist Herr Doctor Rudolf Kleinberger. If you call the Lebenwasser Clinic this can all be cleared up…”
The officials did not believe Yasha, but after five hours they let him go. His train had long departed. On the next train over the border he was forced to travel third class, as the train was full. The bushy-mustached German guard did not so much as blink at Yasha as he stamped the page in his passport. And so, Yasha found himself in Germany.
* * *
When the train halted in Lebenswasser, Yasha was famished. His German was accomplished, but not vernacular. He read Freud and Schopenhauer and could formally discuss in the German the fine differences between the anal stage and the oral stage, or Love as defined in the concept of the will to live. But Yasha had difficulty grasping the harsh phonetics of vernacular German, and when he tried to speak it, he found himself substituting Yiddish words for German. So when he sat at a café in the town of Lebenswasser, he struggled to order breakfast. He thought he had requested tea and sausage, but what came out was a cup of coffee topped with cream and a plate of round, tasteless biscuits. When he asked for directions to the clinic, the waiter pointed down to the river, while Yasha knew full well that it was up in the mountains. By chance he came upon a stooped old couple in front of the town cathedral speaking Yiddish. He asked them the way to the Lebenswasser Clinic and was instructed to take the funicular up the slope behind the town hall.
* * *
The funicular, clinging to the side of a steep rise, quickly left the muggy river valley behind for the cool breeze of the hilltops. Then it leveled off and Yasha turned around. From the back window, he could see the great expanse of the valley and the blue river at its greatest depth, stretching out in the shape of a lazily written cursive gimel, lamed, and mem, arranged from top to bottom. Yasha imagined that this must be the greatest height above the valley, but then the funicular entered a dark pine forest, and the rise began once more. The forest was a deep, cushioned place of muffled breeze and muted, chirping birds. Every now and again a clearing revealed a thatched peasant hut. As they climbed, the pines grew stunted, their tops sheared. Rock outcroppings thrust out of the earth, studded with moss and lichens. Near the summit of the mount the funicular stopped at a small shelter which bore the name “Lebenswasser Clinic” in Gothic letters on a sign above its lintel. Yasha stepped onto the ground and before he realized it, a young woman was standing with him beneath the shelter. She had a strong and long nose, black, searing eyes, and brown hair cut short and in Parisian style, au garçon. She wore a red and white striped jersey and a long brown skirt. She reached out for Yasha’s hand.
“Herr Yasha Schulevitz, it must be you?” she asked in Sephardic-accented Hebrew.
“Here I am,” Yasha answered, taking her hand. Unconsciously, he had uttered in Hebrew the same words Abraham used when responding to God’s call, just before the binding of Isaac.
“I’m Yael Kleinberger.”
“No,” Yasha answered, still in Hebrew. “When I last saw you, you were this high! Now you are a woman.” The girl blushed to the roots of her hair but did not avert her gaze. She started to speak in German, and then seeing that Yasha was missing much of what she was saying, switched back to Hebrew.
“Come,” she said, “this carriage will take us to Father’s lodge.”
* * *
On the ride to Rudolph Moshe Kleinberger’s lodge, Yael explained to Yasha the extent of her father’s illness, which was grave. But when Yasha saw his old teacher and mentor, thin and pale and wrapped in innumerable blankets on a chaise lounge, Yasha was unprepared. He could see in the contours of Kleinberger’s brown eyes the very fringes of death. And although it was warm on the mountain, Yasha shuddered. To Yasha, the memory of this man was a marble monument of rigorous thinking and robust physicality, and now here he was, a piece of crumbling flesh.
“Teacher,” Yasha bent down and kissed both sallow cheeks. Kleinberger examined Yasha through narrow eyes and then scribbled something in a notebook. Yasha recognized the Hebrew cursive characters as if it they were from his own hand.
-- You are too thin.
“Probably so,” Yasha answered, pretending to examine his body by opening his suit jacket. “I have had my seven years of plenty and have just entered the seven years of famine. Worse is to come.” Another note was handed to him.
-- Six months in Palestine and you still speak Hebrew like a shtetl Jew.
“I have professional reasons to keep my accent,” Yasha smiled. “If I start speaking like the Sephardim, it will throw off the meter of my poetry. It could stifle my voice,” Yasha immediately regretted his last words. He was handed another note.
--- Fifty years of pipe smoking and they had to remove my vocal chords. My voice is dead and no one said kaddish for it as they will my body. You are young. The future is in Palestine. Move there before it is too late. It is too late for me. I will die soon in Exile.
“No, Herr Kleinberger,” Yasha said, shaking his head. “You will not die. God is punishing you for your Zionist heresy. He has pronounced a curse upon you, and you will be like the Wandering Jew, doomed never to die.” Yasha looked at Yael and Kleinberger. Both smiled at Yasha’s joke, but it was less of a reaction to the content than the force of its delivery. Yasha plodded on.
“I’ll work on it, starting now,” Yasha said, finally sitting down in a chair. “Yael can teach me. Her accent is sublime. I will be speaking like a burly Sephardic porter in Haifa in less than a week.” Kleinberger smiled and looked at his daughter. She held his discarded notes, reading them in order to follow the conversation.
“Do you have good doctors?” Yasha asked, and Kleinberger began to write.
-- Yes, Herr Doctor Klaus von Gesundheit. He is the best neck surgeon in Germany. He hoped he stopped the cancer by removing the vocal chords, but it has spread. The only problem is that he hates Jews…
“Well, it seems like everyone hates us these days,” Yasha answered, trying to be glib. “No one even wants to breathe air that a Jew has exhaled. But is it wise, teacher, to have such a man operate on you?” Kleinberger scribbled.
--- He wants the Jews out of Germany and doesn’t give a whit where we go. Palestine is as good as Antarctica to him. But since we want Palestine, he wants it for us too. In his own way, he is an ardent Zionist. He has helped us in the past. We want the same thing: the Jews out of Europe. He’s from an old Junker family. Duty comes above prejudice. He would never harm me; he has tried everything to save my life.
There was silence for some time. Yasha found himself with nothing more to say after a discussion of anti-Semitic Zionists. Yael held her father’s discarded notes to her chest and hugged them like a sacred book whose binding had come undone. Then Kleinberger began to write again.
-- I enjoyed Two Sisters. It is a collection of poems to be proud of, and points to greater things ahead for you. Are you writing?
“I have some things I’m working on, yes, Herr Kleinberger. But it appears my pen has run out of ink.”
-- Don’t be glib about your talents. The Hebrew Nation needs poets as much as it needs guns. The Hebrew language will unify Jews from India to England. Without it, there can be no nation. The Jewish State will need your talents more than it needs mortars! Yael leaves for Palestine soon. On the anniversary of my death, Yael will light my yahrzeit, the memorial year candle, in the land of Israel. You must leave too! Europe will be a morgue for the Jews…
Seeing what was written, Yael moved toward her father.
“Father,” she pleaded. “Please preserve your energy. We have Yasha for as long as he wishes to stay.” The old man nodded his head, but continued to write with great speed.
-- I heard from a friend in Warsaw that you were sick for some time.
“Oh, that,” Yasha waved a hand, began to light up a cigarette, and then thought better of it. “One spring morning I woke up and couldn’t speak or swallow. Nothing. Couldn’t down a pea. Couldn’t utter a peep. Every doctor in Warsaw examined me and could find nothing wrong. Then one day it ended. Just like that. It may have been a muscle spasm.” Here Yasha lied. Kleinberger wrote furiously.
-- My friend told me you that you see that witch doctor Altermann -- that gonif who charges about 80 German Marks for a missed appointment.
“Merely an exercise, Herr Kleinberger,” Yasha answered casually. “I am thinking of a cycle of poems about the analytical mind… the mind that eats itself by analysis…” Again, a piece of paper was handed to Yasha.
-- It does NOT sound promising. Poems should be brisk, strident, serve a social goal. In your case, the elevation of a language and with it a people.
Kleinberger then nodded to his daughter, who left the room briefly only to return with Yasha’s collection of published poems, Two Sisters.
“My father would like you to inscribe something,” Yael told Yasha, handing him a pen.
“Oh,” Yasha scratched his head. The pen felt heavy in his hand. “What should I write? How should I start?” Kleinberger frowned. His chin sagged. He had reached the limit of his endurance, but his pen still danced on the page.
--- YOU are the Hebrew writer! Your job is to write! I am the Zionist. My job is to create a state for our downtrodden people. I must form a new state from an old land, and you must form a new identity from an old language. If we both fail, it means our certain doom.
* * *
Yasha sat in a lodge adjacent to Kleinberger’s. Yael stood and watched Yasha unpack. She told Yasha that these lodges were reserved for the hopeless cases. The main hospital was up the road overlooking the valley. The knowledge that Yasha was in a room reserved for those on the steep slope to death did nothing to settle Yasha’s nerves. He sat heavily in a chair and invited Yael to sit. But either she did not wish to sit or did not hear him. She stood a few feet in front of Yasha, in front of an open window. Her small head was framed by the distant mountains, capped with snow even in summer.
“I’m terribly sorry about your father,” Yasha told her softly.
“Thank you,” she said in German, but then continued in Hebrew. “I will miss him dearly. But he has been sick so long that I have accustomed myself to his passing. He passes a little bit each day. He is no longer the man he was. But everything that can be done has been done. I take comfort in that. We will make him comfortable until he departs from us. Then I will make aliyah and pick up his banner and work to redeem the land.”
To Yasha, she spoke like a Zionist Socialist broadsheet. She was so young, he found it hard to believe that she understood the sentiments she expressed. But this was yet another hallmark of the age: the political ardency of the young. Yasha knew he was the anomaly: young and resigned and weary in a time of unhinged optimism. Yasha felt his throat constrict. He panicked for a moment, thinking it would close, but then it subsided. All this talk of death and politics had agitated him. He wished to change the subject.
“I remember you when you were a little girl. How long ago was that?”
“About ten years,” she answered.
“So, you were seven?” Yasha asked, and she nodded. “Do you remember me at all?”
“Of course,” she said, smiling sweetly with white, straight teeth. “You were always father’s favorite pupil. He always lamented that you lacked the correct political component, that you made poor human material for aliyah…”
Yasha sighed, again the political life.
“Your father is not the first person I have disappointed,” Yasha told her lightly, waving his cigarette for emphasis. “And he certainly will not be the last.”
“No,” Yael shook her head vigorously. “He loved you like a son. Even during the years when you ignored him or worse, derided him in the Yiddish press, he always spoke out in your favor. He said no one uses Hebrew as deftly as you.”
“He is the kindest man I know,” Yasha said firmly. “He is a better man than I.”
“He always said that the Hebrew Nation will need Hebrew poets. We don’t have a tradition of creating images or grand buildings like the Christians. We are a people of language; Hebrew is our Sistine Chapel and Chartres. And great poets, regardless of their personal shortcomings, are a precious political commodity.”
Yasha had left his unfinished manuscript of poems on the bed. The front leaves were torn and yellow. Yael picked it up and examined the front page. For a moment, Yasha felt like a mother whose baby had been picked up by inexperienced hands. But he let her hold the papers. She began to read the first lines of the first poem out loud: “The 9th of Av/ We feast / While others fast / Our temple is rebuilt / Sacrifices are hauled / In by their horns, the / Blood splattered on the altar’s bare stone / There is no sorrow here/ The past is dead / An unburied corpse on the road from / Jerusalem to Jaffa.” She paused for a moment. Her expression was dreamily serene. Then she composed her features into a habitual look of fervent concentration.
“May I read these?” she asked. Yasha meant to say no, but instead yes came out of his mouth. He savored the rich intonation of her voice as she read those few lines. He imagined her reading all the poems, both finished and unfinished, and caressing and uplifting each word with her measured velvety tone.
“I’ll take care of them as if they were my child,” she continued, moving toward the door. “I need to go with father for his evening treatment, but I’ll come back and we can have supper together.”
Yasha watched her alluring stride as she walked down the path and over the small ridge to the hospital. Just below the line of pines, he could see the smokestack of the infirmary incinerator. A thin stream of smoke ascended into the blue Alpine sky.
* * *
In this haste to leave Warsaw, Yasha hadn’t packed a thing to read. He found a Hebrew Bible in the lodge, no doubt put there by Kleinberger’s instruction. Yasha was well versed in Kleinberger’s method of reading scripture. For Kleinberger, it was first and foremost a book to be ransacked for the creation of neologisms for the modern, vernacular version of Hebrew, which needed new words to expand like a small child requires nourishing food to grow. A word uttered by Samson could be turned, by the creative addition of suffixes or prefixes or both, into a term for shampoo. Kleinberger was a well known master of this verbal slight of hand. His mind was a mill which took in old words from the Bible, Talmud, Medieval Hebrew poets, and the liturgy and tore them apart, only to reassemble them into resplendent creations, ready for use on the sidewalk, the barracks, the bedroom. Second, the Bible was for Kleinberger the national epic of the Hebrew people. He ignored, downplayed, or dismissed as later additions most elements of overt theological content. For him, it was a book about a people in their ancestral land. So Yasha opened to Ecclesiastes, a book that Kleinberger had little respect for, and he began to read. As the sun set, a great drowsiness settled on Yasha. Somewhere in between the sun as “the place of judgment” and men “seeing themselves as beasts,” Yasha fell into deep slumber.
* * *
Yasha felt warm sunshine on his face, and heard a gentle rap on wood. He opened his eyes. He was still seated in the chair but the Bible had fallen to the floor, turned to its final page. He glanced at the first verse of the last chapter of Malachi: For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven. Yasha closed the book and out of habit kissed it before placing it on the table.
Yasha opened the door and Yael was standing in the threshold. Her hair was freshly washed and brushed back tightly against her scalp. She wore another jersey, but this one with blue and white stripes, and tighter. Yasha could not help but gaze at her lovely breasts.
“Can I come in?” she asked. “I came by last night, but I noticed that you were asleep in the chair and didn’t want to disturb you. I know you have been ill lately.”
“I sleep like a golem who’s had the Holy Name erased from its clay,” Yasha said, smiling. “How is your father?”
“Far worse,” Yael answered. “Herr Doctor von Gesundheit said it could be any time now.”
“Dear God,” Yasha gasped. Yael sat on the chair and Yasha sat across from her on the end of the bed. Their knees gently touched. Yael’s face flushed. He noticed that she held his manuscript.
“I read them all last night,” she said, and smiled slightly. Yasha waited for more, and when it did not come, he asked her opinion of them.
“I loved The 9th of Av. The images of trampling on the dead past… of the New Jew feasting on a fast day; I did not like Summer Has Returned… oh, its language is gorgeous, but ‘Time to speak Yiddish in the forests/ The tongue of our mothers…’ how can that help our people toward self-determination? It glorifies the Exile and its stunted Jargon. And Memorial Year is beautiful: ‘The light is meager / To remember your loss/ The light, a slim taper/ In a cup of soot…’ the Hebrew is sublime, but how can it uplift a fallen people? It is far too cynical. Land is not evil. It is something to be redeemed through labor. I can barely say a word about My Heart is in the West: ‘Among the cafes and spent cigarettes/ the braziers and lacy frills of your long stockings…’ It is bourgeois and nearly pornographic. And those terrible lines: ‘No stones of Palestine/ Can I liken to this Glittering City…’”
“It seems you disliked more than you liked,” Yasha said, lighting a cigarette and taking a casual puff. “You should write for the Yiddish press.”
“No,” she shook her head, pulling the manuscript to her body, pressing it to her breasts. “All the unfinished poems about the land of Israel could be masterpieces, if you don’t redact them with your cynicism. Snowfall in Safed: ‘The Ash of burnt sacrifice/ sweeps across the hills…’ and Dry Hebron: ‘The mezzuzin has lost his voice/ A catch of dirt has stifled his call…’ and The Waters of Ein Gedi: ‘Still flow / A fertile gash… her belly is full of ripe eggs…’ I have never read Hebrew poems of their like.” Yael looked at Yasha intently, and he thought she wished to kiss him. She still held the manuscript against her chest, and leaned forward. They were silent, and the strange moment passed without comment or action.
“I’m famished,” Yasha said, although he felt a slight twinge of constriction in his throat which worried him. “Would you join me for breakfast?”
“Let me check on my father first,” she said, rising. “They have a nurse with him continually.”
Yasha waited in the living room of Kleinberger’s lodge while Yael spoke to the nurse in German. He could just see Kleinberger’s still form in bed beneath a spreading Bavarian quilt. When Yael emerged from the sick room Yasha was surprised that she took him by the hand and led him outside.
* * *
Yael looked young to Yasha in the morning Alpine light. He noticed a few freckles on her long nose which had escaped his attention before. She kept squinting at him in the bright sun until the waiter came out and set up an umbrella.
They spoke in Hebrew, she with her Sephardic accent, he with his Ashkenazi, the east and west of Jewry convening on the very roof of Europe. She teased his diphthongs and vowels. Her Hebrew tutor was born in Palestine, and used words which only Jews in the land of Israel employed, with many of which he was unfamiliar. Yasha noted that the Palestinian Jews minted new words like other people minted money. She told him about her life, her plans for aliyah, and the kibbutz where she would work. Yasha listened in silence, not only because he never had much to say to the ideological true believer, but because his throat was growing more constricted by the minute. With each passing moment, he could swallow less and less omelette, the coffee he tried to drink sluiced down an ever-narrowing channel.
What would Herr Doctor Altermann say, Yasha wondered? He would explain that Yasha was again viewing the world as a hostile arena. His paranoia was manifesting with psychosomatic consequences: the diverse voices of the world, with their strength and vigor, were drowning him, so his mind, through the agency of his body, was closing down the channels of his breath and voice. Yasha knew Altermann’s part so well he could recite it like words from the Mishnah. Eventually, Yasha noticed that he could not speak at all.
“What’s wrong, are you alright?” Yael asked in evident alarm when Yasha began to move his lips without a word coming out. He gestured for a writing implement. Yael called the waiter who brought over a pen and paper. Yasha wrote:
-- Can’t speak or swallow.
“Oh my,” Yael cried. “Is it the same problem you had in Warsaw?”
-- I think so.
“You must see Herr Doctor von Gesundheit immediately,” and Yael called the waiter over summon the clinic ambulance. Yasha wrote:
-- No… no Jew haters.
“The world hates us, Yasha,” Yael answered firmly, standing up, ready to take action, already trying on the role of the pragmatic New Jew. “That is why we need our own state. So we can be free and strong and not live in fear. Until then, we must use men like von Gesundheit as instruments to that end.”
* * *
Herr Doctor von Gesundheit was a mild mannered, completely bald, bespectacled, older man dressed in a neat pinstriped suit and long white lab coat. Yael spoke to the doctor in rapid German, and the doctor listened intently, without emotion. He asked Yasha some questions when Yael was done, and Yasha wrote his answers down in Hebrew on a pad of the doctor’s stationary, for Yael to translate to the doctor.
“Were you examined by doctors in Poland?” Yael asked for the doctor, and Yasha replied yes and wrote a few names. After Yael translated the note, the doctor said something in German and smiled. “The doctor says that Polish doctors are not fit to be veterinarians. He would like permission to examine your neck.”
--- I suppose so, Yasha wrote. Yael translated and then the doctor spoke again while getting up from his chair.
“He asks that you kindly remove your tie and unbutton the top button of your shirt,” Yael explained. Yasha complied and the doctor’s cold hands probed Yasha’s neck from beneath his jaw to the very top of his shoulders. His deft fingers came to rest on a spot adjacent to Yasha’s Adam’s apple, where he probed with unusual intensity. The doctor finished and returned to his desk. He spoke in German to Yael, and her face drained of color. Yasha wrote – What? What? Many times on the pad, but Yael was too intent on listening to the doctor. When he was done, she turned to Yasha.
“He says he feels a lump to the right of your larynx. He thinks that it is a benign cyst pressing against your vocal chords and esophagus. He said it should be surgically removed immediately. There is a danger that it could block your air passage.”
Yasha was about to write something on the pad when there was a knock on the door. The doctor excused himself and Yasha began to write something yet again, this time for Yael exclusively. But he had no time to finish. The doctor was back in the room and faced Yael stiffly, with a measure of professional gravity. She stood up, instinctively knowing what he would say. Kleinberger was dead.
* * *
Although Kleinberger was not a practicing Jew, he was buried according to the full letter of the Law. The Zionists wished to show their enemies among the religious Jews that they did not flout sacred tradition. So Kleinberger was laid on the floor of the lodge, candles were lit around his head, and the Burial Society washed and prepared his body for the grave. A guard sat at his side reciting psalms all through the night. The burial was set for the next day. Telegrams were sent to all corners of Europe, and the leading lights of Zionism come forth to bury one of their grandest figures. By morning, over five hundred mourners followed the body to the Jewish cemetery. Not much of a fuss was made about his monument. No one doubted that when the Jewish state was founded his earthly clay would be disinterred and buried in the land of Israel.
* * *
During Yael’s period of mourning, she remained in her father’s lodge. But every day she came and visited Yasha.
“It’s too bad that you came to visit only to see my father die,” she told him. “But from every tragedy, some good can grow. You’ll finally get proper medical care here.”
Yasha shook his head and thrust a note in her hand.
Yasha shook his head and thrust a note in her hand.
-- I don’t want that Junker swine cutting me open.
“Better than some Polish quack who can’t tell a scalpel from a steak knife,” she said, placing a warm hand on Yasha’s shoulder. She was dressed in a black skirt and sweater. A Star of David dangled from a chain around her neck. “And don’t worry about the cost. We will pay for it.” Yasha shook his head again and wrote:
-- I am NOT a Zionist.
“Every Jew is a Zionist, even if he doesn’t know it yet. Every Jew will either become one or perish.” Yasha was about to write something, but she seized his hand with surprising firmness. It was a strong hand, Yasha noted -- one that may soon grasp a plow, a shovel, pruning sheers or a rifle, and drain marshes or uncoil barbed wire in a Jewish state.
Yael bent over and kissed Yasha’s hand and then his lips.
* * *
The day after the end of Yael’s mourning period was the day Yasha was scheduled for surgery. They waited in the lounge, holding hands. When the nurse came in for Yasha, Yael kissed him. Just before he left, he turned to look at her. She was already bent over her paperwork -- documents that would send her to Palestine.
Yasha was told to remove his clothes and lie on the table. To his surprise, the nurse shaved all the hair from his body and head -- even removing his moustache. A thin sheet was laid atop him, ending just at his neck. A bank of bright lights hovered over his head. The nurses moved about, engaged in their tasks. In a few minutes a man with a white mask was leaning over Yasha. From the round glasses and cool, blue Junker eyes he could see it was Herr Doctor von Gesundheit. To Yasha’s surprise, he spoke to him in simple Yiddish sentences.
“You know,” he said, arranging the scalpels on the table, “Jews and Germans have much in common. Proud people. Loyal to language and land. But you have no land. A people need land. Otherwise they like men without voices. Such men not men. To be human is to speak. Not to do so makes one not human. So the Jew not human. Not fully.” Then he began to speak in German, as if speaking Yiddish fatigued him. “I am the most zealous Zionist around, far more pro-Zionist than most Jews!” and the nurses started to giggle. “I respected Herr Doctor Kleinberger and his like because we have the same goal: to get every blessed Jew out of Germany. Out of Europe! If I had six million marks to spare I would donate them to help the Zionists fulfill their noble goal,” he said, and Yasha could tell that beneath the mask he was smiling. The nurses giggled again.There was silence for a minute and then Yasha noticed that the doctor was singing. At first he thought it was a Yiddish lullaby. The words had the flat cadence of Yiddish spoken in Galicia, but with a certain rounded tone about the vowels which Galician Yiddish failed to express. The nurses laughed at the tune, and then Yasha realized it was a lullaby in the Bavarian dialect sung by a mother duck to her sleepless chicks: Go to sleep, fuzzy ones, go to sleep. The dawn is far away, fuzzy ones, go to sleep. The world is black as pitch, fuzzy ones, go to sleep. The earth is dark as coal, fuzzy ones, go to sleep. Go to sleep… Then a nurse placed a rubber mask over Yasha’s mouth, and after two breaths, the world shrunk to a pinprick of black.