Read an Excerpt
Copyright 2001 by Nomi Eve
My father writes:
Rabbi Yochanan Schine, a student of the famous Chatam Sofer, was engaged to Esther Sophie Goldner Herschell, the granddaughter of the chief rabbi of the British Empire. Esther and Yochanan were my great-great-grandparents. They immigrated to Palestine and married in 1837 in Jerusalem.
Esther was pious but in a peripheral way. She knew the mitzvot, she knew to make the Sabbath holy, but she felt that there was no real harm in putting her own creative interpretation on the old rules because certainly creativity was an essential and blessed quality of Man and it would be a sin not to use it.
At first she did not like Jerusalem; she was from a long line of people who lacked sense of direction. The stony city, with all of its obscurant walls, twists and turns seemed to her a nasty place without any recognizable plan.
Three months and two days after the young couple arrived, she ventured out alone for the first time. Quickly lost, but not frightened, Esther decided she would just wander. She knew that if she wanted to she could ask someone to show her the way back to their house, which was a half-grand, half-decrepit habitation on Rav Pinchas Street. It was located across from the Peace of Israel Synagogue in the center of town.
And then Esther smelled the bread. She turned a corner, walked a few more steps. Soon she was standing outside an arched open door watching a bare-armed baker slide a tray of dough into a furnace. Esther stood and stared. The steam and sweat and dough and bare baker skin created in the room an atmosphere magnetic, carnally alluring. The baker was a youngman, no more than twenty. Esther, married less than four months, was nineteen.
Although she was not ordinarily a believer in astrology, and had absolutely no idea how sailors used the night sky to tell them where to go, she felt certain that crucial stars had descended into that tiny bakery room to make for her a perfect navigational tool. In short, she was inspired, and knew for once in her life exactly in which direction she was supposed to go.
The baker stood before hera destination slim and brown. He was lithe and beautiful in a coltish, boyish way. Small. Only a bit taller than she. Esther immediately took in his huge almondy eyes, and his hairthick dark brown hairgathered in a low braid at the back. He seemed to her like something carved out of precious wood; miniature, masculine, and muscular all at once.
The bakery was only two rooms. One with a low, wooden baking table rutted and eternally floury from years of use, and the other with a brick furnace that had been hewn, by the baker's grandfather, out of the limestone wall. It was behind what would later be the public pavilion but was then a rubbly clump of lower-class homes bordering the more prosperous center of town. When the baker saw the young woman with the full skirt, cinched at the waist, when he saw the big brown eyes of the woman, when he saw her white skin, full lips, and attractive face, he invited her in. He gave her a fresh roll and asked her, in nervous, clumsy Yiddish (which, like a mule, kicked and brayed itself off of his tongue; he was embarrassed at his language's lack of manners) if she would like some sweet mint tea. This was the start of her nine-year love affair with the baker and her lifelong passionate entanglement with Jerusalem, the city whose twists, turns, bakers, and twin arcane whispers of piety and perversity ultimately spoke straight to her heart.
Esther would make love with her husband at night "through her front door" and then, in the daytime, she carried out an affair with the baker, a third-generation Palestinian Jew. Their sexual game was ruled by the fact that the baker would only enter into her "rear door." Both euphemism (which in the entire nine years they never breached) and position (which in the entire nine years they never varied except slightly in angle) suited them. Titillating not only the tenderest parts of their anatomies, but also the deeply humorous sense of sex that they found they shared.
She came once a week, on Tuesdays, in the late afternoon when her husband would be busy participating in his civic meetings and the rest of the town, in classic Mediterranean style, would be indoors either scheming, studying, or sleeping. The baker, whose hands Esther always thought were strangely thin-fingered and uncallused for a baker, would lock the door to the back of the shop. And as he walked over to her, she would be laying a clean cloth down on the baking table. She loved lifting a finger to his lips, putting her fingers in his mouth and then tracing the graceful outline of his face, from mouth to nose, eyes and into ears.
Always, when they were both ready, she would turn away from him and lean her body over the table. He pulled up her skirts, pulled down her undergarments and his own pants. Then he licked the fingers on his right hand and slowly, passionately, opened her up. Soon he slid right into her. She loved the feel of his body angling its way upward. She loved the feel of her heavy breasts hard pressing into the wooden table. He gripped her hips and thrust himself deep.
They kissed and panted and hungered at and for each other's skinmore, not less, fervently as the years went by. Theirs, they agreed, was an ancient elemental passion that must have existed, like sand, earth, and sky, long before either of them had been born. And despite the intense physicality of their togethering, both Esther and the baker always felt insubstantial, flimsy, oh so light in the presence of this passion. But this was not a bad feeling. When they made love, it was as if they were wrapping their bodies not only around each other but also, and more essentially, around something else that had before been naked. It was, they agreed, as if the passion were the real creature, and they, though temporarily deprived of the normal trappings of personhood, were lucky to have been chosen as its favorite clothes. They dressed the passion in carnal finery, and the passion wore them with secret frequency.
My great-great-great-grandmother, Esther Sophie Goldner Schine, granddaughter of the chief rabbi of the British Empire, thought her husband's coming in through her front door and her lover's coming in through her back door was the perfect arrangement for a Jewish woman. The notion of separate facilities fit nicely into the ready framework of kashrut. Milk here, meat there, and as long as there was proper distance between things, everything stayed quietly kosher.
My father writes:
Yochanan came from a part of East Prussia called Sheinlanka, which means "pretty terraces." Today it is part of Poland, not far from the town of Posnan. He came to Palestine under the following circumstances:
In 1836, the chief rabbi of the British Empire, Rabbi Shlomo Berliner Herschell, sent out a messenger to search for a shidach for his granddaughter, Esther. A shidach is the Yiddish word for a marriage match. The marriage was to be bound by the condition that the young couple marry and reside in Jerusalem. This was before the existence of Zionism. Most Jews still believed that Israel should not and could not be established until the Messiah came to Zion. Rabbi Herschell disagreed with prevailing thought. He was among a group of radical European Orthodox Jews who believed that moving to Palestine was not in opposition to the messianic ideal.
The messenger traveled for almost an entire year. Finally, he arrived at the city of Pressburg, at the house of study of the famous Prussian rabbi, the Chatam Sofer. Yochanan had long been a student there. Like the chief rabbi, the Chatam Sofer also disagreed with prevailing thoughtthat is, he believed in Israel as a realistic homeland, not just a spiritual one. In response to the rabbi's messenger, the Chatam Sofer promptly sent his prized student, Yochanan. Yochanan and Esther met in London and became engaged almost immediately.
On the third Tuesday of Chesh-van, four months after they arrived in Jeru-salem, Yochanan finished early with his civic meeting and decided to make for home. He was just about to walk past the Glory of Israel Synagogue when he saw Esther step out of the front door of their house and turn to walk the other way. It was late fall, and chilly. She was wearing her long maroon coat and the wide-brimmed black hat that tipped down over her right eye and made her vision, she always explained, "a bit drunk feeling, you know, only half there and wobbly, but not too bad, I find my way after all." Yochanan loved his wife's way of speaking. Her sentences were curvy and full of original character.
Yochanan called out to Esther but he was too far for her to hear and so he walked on and meant to call again, but then he found himself walking quietly, stealthily after his wife around a corner, and again, another corner, and then down the street and into an alley. He stopped at the mouth of the alley and watched his wife walk through the bakery's back door. Her maroon coat wafted behind her for several seconds and then too, disappeared into the warm realm of dough and yeast.
Pulling back and into a doorway on which was graffitied the word sky in sloppy Aramaic, he looked up at the real sky, which was darkening with the foredream of a storm. He watched as the baker poked his head out and then shut the front door of his shop. Hidden, but only ten feet away, Yochanan didn't say a word. Then he walked to the closed bakery door and put his ear to the old wood of it. Soon he could hear his wife groaning. He stepped away from the door and looked up and down the street. No one was in the alley, nor walking toward it. He walked back and listened some more.
He became aroused almost immediately, and soon was picturing the baker holding Esther's naked breasts, petting them gently and then lifting up the nipples to his mouth. First one and then the other. And the baker's hand, Yochanan imagined the baker's left hand reaching in between Esther's legs, which she pressed together tightly. Soon, in his mind, they were pressing their naked bodies together and moving, back and forth, toward and away, with the tempestuous ease of a storm just brewing. The storm outside began to blow. Yochanan huddled into his coat, raised his collar, and ducked deeper into the doorway. Shutting his eyes, he leaned into the images as if they were the real door, open and welcoming, while the wooden one, closed and cold against his body, kept him out of all this. Now he heard the baker groaning. Esther let out a small passionate yelp. And as the two lovers inside reached satiety, the one outside reached down and touched himself, pressed there, pressed and pulled himself to solitary, intense pleasure. Only then did he leave.
Yochanan put his hands over his hat and ran through the rain. His feet swish-swished into puddles already forming in the narrow, stony streets. As he ran, he heard himself reciting an angry litany like an opposite prayer.
The baker has a face of moldy clay.
The baker has hands of heavy stinking wood.
The baker is a deformed gentile in disguise.
The baker is an eater of clams.
A descendant of Amalek.
The devil of devils.
The baker is . . . the baker is . . . the baker is shtupping my wife!
The rain hit him harder now, pelting from every angle and also straight up from the ground. He felt slowed by it, slowed and assaulted, as if each raindrop were a separate obstacle. Reaching home, he went inside, took off his great coat and hat, and set them upon the fine wooden rack that they had brought with them from London. Shaking out his beard and hair, he ran his fingers through them. Then he held his hands up to his mouth and breathed into his open palms. The warm air hovered there, but only for a second, and soon his skin was cold again. He breathed again, felt warm for several seconds and then cold again, warm and then cold. Cold. He dropped his hands down to his sides, thrust them into his pockets, and sighed deeply. But then everything changed. His mood rocked and swayed, and Yochanan felt a smile flutter to his lips.
Laughing out loud, he turned and looked at his image in the gilt hall mirror. My, how shaggy! Wet! How disheveled! But happy! Happy! He found himself possessed of an excited and yet cautious confusion.
He had taken great pleasure outside the baker's door and yet there were so many sins and so much shame growing on the fields where this kind of pleasure bloomed. Where was his anger? He could not feel it now. Where was his litany, his sour prayer? Yochanan loved his wife and trusted her too. Strangely, he still trusted her. The image of Esther in the baker's arms was an excruciatingly beautiful flower. Vicarious, criminal, devastating, and yet thrillful. He ached with every petal, leaf, and fresh-cut stem of it.
Once again, he imagined the baker's dark hands thrusting upward into Esther's body, her mouth half open, lips wet. Yochanan imagined and imagined, and grew once again aroused while standing alone in the antechamber still dripping from the rain. But he didn't touch himself this time. He was in his own house and the walls were lined with holy books. Yochanan could not bring such odd illicit flowers home with him. Rubbing his hands together, he put them once more through his beard. As if he could comb out the confusion. A servant walked into the antechamber.
"Oh, sir, I didn't hear you . . . come in, sit by the fire, take off your wet clothes and eat some fresh rolls just come from the baker. Esther, the lady, your wife, she has just brought them in through the kitchen courtyard door."
My father writes:
In 1837 there was a horrible earthquake in the northern city of Sefat, home to devotees of the mystical branch of Judaism called Kabbalah. More than five thousand people were killed and those that escaped left the city and wandered throughout Palestine. Many half-mad old kabbalists made their way to Jerusalem. The streets were full of their ragged and deranged numbers. Yochanan and Esther, working with the British Consul, set up a charitable foundation to aid their cause. Amongst other projects, they raised money for an orphanage. Once the money was raised, Esther became its de facto director.
While her husband had come in wet, Esther had arrived home soaking. She had gotten caught in the brunt of the squall. And although both her color and her spirits were still lifted from her doughy tryst, everything else about her dragged. Her hair had come loose under her hat and lay in sopping tendrils all about her face. And her long maroon cloak, drenched at the bottom, hung heavily around her feet.
In the kitchen she threw off her floppy hat and stepped out of the cloak, gratefully peeling its wetness off of her body. The only dry thing about her were the rolls, which were curled into a cloth that she had stuffed under her cloak and which she had held tight into her chest as she made her way home. Suddenly laughing, she thrust the rolls away from her body and into the hands of the servant who laughed along with her for no reason at all. They continued laughing, Esther and the servant girl, as Esther unconsciously ran her hands up and down her bodice. Her nipples were cold and hard. And they stung a bit too. Esther dropped her hands and walked upstairs to change into dry clothes for dinner.
When she saw Yochanan standing in the front vestibule she stopped, gave him a smile. His look was neither vacant of affection nor full of any familiar warmth. She didn't know how to respond. Again, she tried to smile. And this time was successful. But the smile brought another shiver. As if there were a bit of cold contained in the subtle upturn of her own lips, which, with her smile, spilled out of her whole body. She hugged her arms about her. And she needed to speak. It was odd to stand there not speaking.
"One of the Sefat men begged to belet into our house, out of . . . ," she began.
". . . And so you let him, it's raining, of course you let him."
"I led him to our door but at the last second he . . ."
"Ran away. Yes, they always run away."
"My husband. You look tired."
"My wife. You are very wet. Go dry yourself. And then we will eat. I smell the bread. It smells good."
Esther walked toward her husband and continued to speak. "But just as I opened the door, the man ran from me." She stopped in front of her husband and held out her hand to touch his. Yochanan felt how cold she was. Esther spoke again.
"The baker put in an extra roll. He is a good baker."
"My wife. Esther. You are very wet. Go upstairs, dry your"
"My husband, I am going."
Yochanan watched after her as she climbed the stairs and rounded the landing. And as Esther disappeared from his view he felt that he could hear his own heart and smell his own blood and even feel his skin encasing his face and fingers, his legs and feet, his toes too. He felt taut and uncomfortable inside of himself. As if he were more a creaky machine than man, more a sum of mismatched parts than any sort of ethereal spirit. Whereas usually he felt the opposite. So comfortable with the feel of his own soul. And so familiar with it.
But now was not a time for soul. Actually, he couldn't feel his soul at all. Only his bones, and his body and all the blood running through it. Looking up the stairs again, he saw only emptiness. Then the green spot at the top of the hall snared his eyes; it was the picture, a landscape that his father had sent them, a present from Sheinlanka. Sent with the messenger whose eyes rolled this way and that, and in whom Esther had recognized a distant cousin's husband's younger brother or at least the form of someone remote and inconsequential whom she had once known.
"Well, maybe not you," she had said when the messenger protested, "but definitely someone like you or, at least, like your face." Then all three, Yochanan, Esther, and the messenger had laughed at her rather silly if not poetic persistence.
"At least, like your face." Now Yochanan mouthed his wife's words to himself, "At least, like your face." The words didn't mean anything, but he felt an odd and pressing need to repeat them. As if this one fragment of nonsense could save him. Yochanan knew that he would not mention what he had seen to his wife but that she knew that he knew and that this was to be their secret. And he also knew that the secret would become over time a mistress to both of them, a silence that they would share and take into their bed and ultimately believe in. For what is a secret, he mused painfully, but a kind of religion that leads the silent to constantly pray.
My father writes:
Yochanan's father, the chief assistant of the Chatam Sofer, was the blind rabbi Mordechai Schine. A legend has been passed down that his students never knew he was blind. According to the legend, Rabbi Mordechai Schine tricked his students into thinking that he could see by listening for the turning of pages as they studied the Talmud and following the text in his head. He must have known the entire Talmud by heart.
Esther changed quickly out of her wet clothes and came down for dinner. They ate in relative silence, whereas usually both chatted comfortably about their days. Then right after they had finished eating, the couple went up to their room and got into bed. It was much earlier than usual, but neither knew what else to do.
Esther was pious in her own way. She knew how to keep the Sabbath holy but in private she often broke the rules. Yochanan was pious but in a serious way. He knew the mitzvot and he always kept the Sabbath holy. To him, creativity could come only as a consequence of prayer and piety, not as a shaper of it. Esther and Yochanan lay in their beds, side by side, barely any space between them. As it was not her time of the month, the beds were pushed together. On the days when she was bleeding they would be pulled far apart. Esther fidgeted and couldn't lie still. She sat halfway up and flipped her pillow over, fluffed it up and then lay down again, resting her face in the cool linen. She watched Yochanan's back. He was turned away from her, facing the window that looked out over the Mary Church. As he gazed at the church, his thoughts traveled in the opposite direction to the garden the Christians call Gethsemane after the olive trees that grow there crooked and squat.
Esther sat up again and turned the pillow another time. But the linen on the underside wasn't cool yet and this made her fidget some more. She did not know what or how or how much he knew, but she knew that Yochanan knew something. And Esther wondered how this something fit into his prayers. He was a most prayerful man, her husband, from a long line of rabbis reaching all the way back to Rashi, the great eleventh-century commentator.
Shutting her eyes, Esther tried to sleep but she could not. She kept seeing images and having odd thoughts and memories. She felt filled with them. Her whole body dreaming, remembering, thinking. One image would not leave her alone. It was of Yochanan's father. She could not stop visualizing and thinking of Yochanan's father, a man whom she had never met but whose story fascinated her. Esther had a picture in her head of an old man sitting at a table in the House of Study. He was surrounded by many students and many books.
The image dissipated, leaving her alone with Yochanan in the almost-dark. Esther closed her eyes and listened to her husband breathing. Heavy and deep were his inhalations, and every couple of breaths a restless comma of a cough inserted itself into his repose. Sighing, Esther feared that he had caught cold in the rain. She rubbed her eyes and took a finger up to her right nipple, which was still tender. The baker had taken her nipples into his mouth and sucked them until she felt like screaming in pleasure but she hadn't screamed; instead she turned the yell inward as she had taught herself to do, inviting it into an inner cavern where voices were always echoing and the trick was never to try to contain them but just to let them joyously be. She moved her hand away from her breast and traveled it down in between her legs, but only for a second. Not for pleasure, but for the feeling of comfort and warmth. And then she curled over on her side and shut her eyes.
She pretended that every time Yochanan inhaled was the turning of a page and every time he exhaled was the ending of a chapter. In this way, she read the Talmud of their togetherness. It was a big book. A book that contained all that had already passed between them as well as all that would ever pass between them. Past and present and future all were written there. She read for a long time, so many shared stories, some intimate, some silly, others dark and uncomfortable, some so beloved that she almost cried from them.
The night passed heavily. No, thought Esther, Jerusalem is not a place for regular sleep. Only for a kind of restless burrowing inward that leaves a soul dreamily awake all day long. Yochanan slept deeply; his breath was a parchment of air that she read from for a long time. And then, as the sky lightened, Esther moved toward her husband and roused him gently. Yochanan wrapped his arms around her and nuzzled his lips into her forehead. She pressed her body into his, and together they slept, adding another page there.