Monday, September 1, 2014

On the Day of Atonement

Yehuda Amichai

  On the Day of Atonement in 1967, I put on my dark suit and went to the Old City of Jerusalem. I stood, for some time, before the alcove of an Arab’s shop, not far from the Damascus Gate, a shop of buttons and zippers and spools of thread in all colours, and snaps and buckles. A glorious light and a great many colours, like a Holy Ark with its doors ajar.
   I told him in my heart[1] that my father, too, had such a shop of threads and buttons. I explained to him in my heart all about the tens of years and the reasons and the circumstances because of which I am now here and my father’s shop is in ashes there, and he is buried there.
   By the time I had finished, it was the hour of “the locking of the gates”. He too pulled down the shutter and locked the gate, and I went home with the worshippers.

   Neither prose nor poetry, but somewhere aesthetically rather interesting between the two, this piece works for me on several different planes. In memory, I too am transported to the Old City of Jerusalem, not in 1967, but in 1973, when I went there for the first time, in the company of my first serious girlfriend, and likewise entered the shop of an Arab, bright with “home-made” clothing that in truth was probably imported from Bombay or Morocco; after drinking muddy coffee and talking Arab-Israeli politics for an hour, he insisted on dressing us, like Abraham and Sarah for their wedding, in the finest garments from his shop. I still have the photos somewhere; me looking pale as T.E. Lawrence, my girlfriend passable as a Yemenite.

   Unlike Amichai’s visit, ours was an act of tourism, not penitence, though I can relate easily enough to the guilt that he is describing: the notion, dreadful to any Jew with even the slightest sense of History, that it is we who have become today, once more, a nation of conquerors, displacers of other people from their homes, guards of the refugee and prison camps, legislators of oppressive laws, banning and censorious authority of other people’s ruined lives: exactly as God told Moses that it would be, when they came to settle in the Land of Canaan. We have, as D.H. Lawrence put it, “something to expiate”; and precisely that is the purpose of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

    In 1975 I had a differently happy experience in Jerusalem. At the Jaffa Gate a young Hasid was touting for business, and I accepted his invitation to a wedding in the Me’ah She’arim, the “hundred gates” just outside the Old City where the most orthodox Jews reside. My sister had lived there for six weeks just three years earlier, had been repeatedly spat at, insulted, even stoned, for wearing shorts or sleeveless T-shirts, for being seen with boys. Conscious that I was prejudiced against these “bigots”, I wanted to find something positive. The wedding was alcohol-free and segregated, men and women on either side of a wall of open trellising through which they could look, but not cross. Only the bride and groom, and only once, could join the party on the other side, to be lifted in the air in their chairs, and cheered, and danced around like Torah scrolls on Simchat Torah. So much joy, so much ardent, fervent intensity of celebration. My hatred of them dissipated, almost, if not quite, to nothing.

    Like Amichai, I am ambivalent about my religion. I reject its rules and its demand for absolute conformity, yet I follow most of its principles – which are really issues of ethics and morality – I share its ideals, and find myself comfortable in its spiritual outlets, in a way I do not do in any other creed that Ihave sampled. On the Day of Atonement in 1983, a day of fasting and solemn prayer for most Jews, some thirty of us from my ultra left wing kibbutz on the Lebanese border travelled in a convoy to the Sea of Galilee, our trucks pulling motor boats, carrying surf boards, disco equipment, crates of “white meat”. We set up our party on the shores of Ein Gev, and ate and swam and sailed and snogged the day away. There must have been moments when all of us felt a pang of guilt, that we were betraying or insulting an ancient tradition, and ironically so, on the festival of guilt. But it is primarily a festival of Atonement, which is to say At-One-Ment, and we were indeed at one, at every level of our beings, and in the evening there were cows to milk and chicken eggs to gather in and guard duty to perform along the border of our conquered Canaan.

My thanks to Ze’ev for the cartoon.

[1] The Hebrew is “be-libi” which could be translated “in my heart” or “with my heart”. The difference is enormous, and if I have accepted the version in Barbara Harshav’s officially approved translation, it is only with reluctance. To tell the Arab “in” his heart implies that he never even entered the shop, never physically spoke, but simply thought these guilty thoughts inside himself. I cannot believe this. I am sure Amichai did go in, did speak, did tell; and that in using the phrase here, he was aware that it echoed a commandment in the Shema, to love the Lord “be-chol levavecha – with all your heart”.

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