Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The circle

In memory of my friend Menachem, Who did not live to see Israel's sixtieth anniversary.

In the summer of 1948, Jerusalem was under siege. The streets were fairly empty as every venture out of the house was risky because of the constant shelling. People had to queue for rationed water from cisterns. The Arabs had sabotaged all the water pumping stations along the road to Jerusalem. Also there was also no fresh food supply. No convoys could break through the ambushes and the blockades.
Each person was allowed two slices of bread per day. The only source of protein was the dried beans most people kept at home along with rice and pasta. As there was almost no cooking oil and no kerosene for the stoves; we learned to cook on wood fires outdoors.

When the shelling became very heavy, we would take cover in the closest bomb shelter. My father was busy with the defense forces, while my mother took care of the food supply, mainly queuing for rationed food. She made a shelter kit for me, containing some food, a canteen of water and a book. My job was to cook and to take care of my younger brother.

“I’ll be away for two minutes,” said my Mom and added humorously: “Don’t forget to stir the soup every fifteen minutes.”

One morning, while I was at the outdoor stove, I heard the familiar sound of a shell being shot. As usual, I removed the pot from the fire, took my brother’s hand, lifted my backpack and crossed the street to our bomb shelter.

The bombs fell closer. More and more panic-stricken people rushed in. A Hassidic lad about three years older than I, came and sat next to me. There were many seats around but he chose to sit by my side. I did not pay much attention to him and had no particular desire to talk.

I sat quietly and about to get my book out of my backpack, when suddenly, the Hassid turned to me and said: “My name is Menachem. I noticed you and your brother were the first in the shelter. How did you know it was coming?”

“It’s very simple,” I said. “The cannon is located at Nabi Samuel and always shoots in the same pattern. They start to shoot east of us, then turn the gun westward and shoot in sequence. Ours is the sixth shell, the seventh is aimed farther west of us, and the eighth one is ours again, as they backtrack. After they shoot thirty shells, they let the gun cool for exactly half an hour and then re-start.

“Are you telling me you know when to hide and how much time you have to spend in the shelter?” asked Menachem.
“Yes, but I am referring only to this gun. There are others as well.”
“You have to teach me,” said Menachem.

I was very pleased he wanted to know as most of the adults to whom I tried to explain the sequence, regarded me as a highly confused ten years old child. They were shocked someone so small and so stupid (in their opinion) should be left in charge of an even smaller sibling. “What kind of parents will leave two children unattended at time like this” they whispered to one another.

I had some precocious knowledge of the subject as my father drew the civil defense maps and charts on which the types of guns and their locations were clearly marked. My mother was the only adult who trusted my observations and her food-gathering schedule was planned according to my intelligence reports.

“Ok,” I said to Menachem, “I’ll teach you. My name is Yakov.”
“There are two kinds of shells,” I said, the canon shells, If you know the direction it is coming from, a tall building can give you very good protection. You can identify the shell by the sound:. The shot, the whistle and the explosion. If the whistle and the explosion come together and very loud, check if you’re dead. The mortar shells are more dangerous as they are come down in straight lines. They fall inside courtyards, narrow alleys and so on. The only warning you get is the sound when the shell is fired. A continuous dull rumbling follows this sound. If you hear it, run immediately for shelter as you have a very short time.”

I could tell Menachem was impressed. We practiced the various sounds and made a chart to predict the next bomb with great accuracy. It was very pleasant to have someone with whom to speak. Most of the children in the shelter were huddled around their parents and were always scared.

Menachem and I both looked forward to getting together. Unfortunately, we could meet in no other place but the shelter. I would become the laughing stock of my friends in the neighborhood if I were seen with him. If he were seen with me, he would be grounded forever! We had to rely on the goodwill of the Arabs to spend time together.

As days passed, I discovered Menachem was interested in subjects like geography and science. I did my best to share some of my knowledge. I showed him my schoolbooks and he started even to read a Jules Verne book but only in the shelter, of course.

Once, after spending a whole night in the shelter, Menachem decided not to go home. He told me nobody at home would queue for food and there was not enough for his younger brothers and sister. “They’ll have more to eat if I do not go home” he said.

We had enough food at home. My father with an experience of two big wars, had bought spaghetti, rice, dried beans and canned food in commercial quantities. I suggested to Menachem he eat with us. Menachem refused at first, as our food was not kosher enough for him. After some debate, we found a solution: Menachem would get his own pot and I would cook his food separately.

With the new cooking arrangement, Menachem spent more time with me and felt more and more comfortable. One day, he even dared to enter my home and was fascinated with the objects he saw. For him, it was like a visit to another planet. He saw my father’s paints and paintings, the drafting table, the survey equipment, the blueprint frame and more. He was very interested and wanted to learn everything at once. He stopped suddenly by the piano and said, “What’s this?”

“A piano,” I said. “Let me show you.” I was not surprised he didn’t know what a piano was, he didn’t know anything. I sat down and played the opening bars from “To Alice” by Beethoven. I played for a minute, stopped and looked up at Menachem. He was mesmerized. Without a word, he took my place on the bench and tried out the notes with his ears cocked as though listening carefully. Slowly he advanced and played two more notes. His discordant chords transformed slowly into music. Not so clear at first, but soon, with hesitation, the opening bars of “to Alice” emerged from one hand, later joined with chords from the other hand. He made very few mistakes.

As I heard Menachem play, I got goose bumps. It was eerie. What was going on? How could a person, who never saw a piano in his life did not know even what a piano was, start playing like this? He had watched me for just one minute and then played as well as I did after two years of learning.

From that day on, Menachem’s first love was the piano; we spent most of our time together sitting at the instrument. I was sure Menachem would make little progress without a real teacher. I tried very hard to convince him to join me at one of my piano lessons, but he refused. Despite his limited knowledge Menachem started composing. He did not want to spoil his ecstasy with theory or learning to read notes.

Menachem’s honeymoon with the piano lasted only two months. One afternoon after a heavy shelling, we returned to the house to find the piano had been blown away. Menachem was sad and depressed. He was convinced it was an act of God to stop him from playing music. When I reminded him King David played the harp and it was definitely not against God’s wish to play musical instruments, his answer was: “You don't understand. David’s harp was sacred”.

I could not and would not debate this stand.

A few weeks later, when the bombing stopped and the road to Jerusalem was opened, Menachem stopped coming. I only saw Menachem one more time, when he told me he wanted to become a rabbi.

Five years went by before I saw him again.
One afternoon, as I left school at the end of the classes and walked home with my friends, I saw Menachem walking towards me. He did not stop. We made eye contact and he gave a tiny head gesture, indicating his desire to talk. I excused myself from my friends and followed him. We spoke as though we had seen each other only yesterday.

He told me he had done very well in his studies and he was almost a qualified rabbi.
We filled the five years gap with information about ourselves. Menachem, after some hesitation, asked me: “Did you buy a new piano?”

“No,” I answered, “but if you want to play, I have some friends who will definitely let you play.”

“No,” he said, “I want a package deal: you and the piano. I miss music very much - not just playing - I miss listening. I wish I could learn some theory, some musical terms, things I feel about music but don’t know.”

“How can I help?”

He ignored my interruption.

“Every Saturday, after the Morning Prayer, I take a walk in a secular neighborhood. I sit on a bench, listening to the Saturday morning chamber music program from someone’s radio. I feel the music all around me, penetrating my skin and getting into my bones.”

I really felt sorry for him.

“Do you want to get together some time, maybe we’ll listen to music?” I said.
“Yes, I’ll write to you. Goodbye now.” He said and walked away quickly.

“Why did Menachem go through all the trouble to find me?” I thought. My school was quite far from his home. I could not believe he did it just to find out if I had a piano? Why didn’t he just stop and talk? Why the hiding, the mystery? Perhaps he needed some other kind of help? Perhaps the piano was an excuse? I did not have the answers.

I waited for him to show up again. But Menachem did not contact me.

Four years after that meeting, I returned to the old neighborhood to take out a girl I was dating. Down the street, Menachem spotted me. This time he approached me with a big smile, “Hello!”

While I was pleased to see him, I was a little angry too. “Look Menachem,” I said, “I’m in a hurry. I have a date with a girl who lives around here and I’m late.”

“Do I know her?” asked Menachem,

“Since when are you interested in secular women?”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I owe you an explanation.”

After a pause he added: “Listen carefully to what I have to say. I’ll say it only once. Nobody has heard it before and I’ll never repeat it.

Four years ago, I loved a girl who was not a Hassid. I did not know how to approach her or how to talk to her. I was afraid she would make fun of me. My thoughts drove me crazy.”

“Was that the reason you wanted to talk to me back then?” I interrupted.

“Yes. I had the fantasy I would come to play your piano and you would invite the girl. I wanted her to see me in a different light.”

“Menachem, let me tell you, rabbi or not, you are the biggest shmock ever born! If you had only spoken to me at the time, I would have arranged it without a piano,” I said. “Who is the lady?”

“You know her very well, but I am married now. I have a son two years old and my wife is pregnant again. I married through a matchmaker and have learned to love my wife.”

“Good for you!” I said.

“I want you to come tomorrow to my nephew’s Brith. Please, come as my guest.”

I was intrigued. It was the first time he was ready to admit friendship with someone outside his community. “I’ll be delighted to come,” I said. “Will you introduce me to Mrs. Rabbi?”

“I’ll show you where to look,” promised Menachem, “but you’ll do it discreetly,” he added with a warning look.

“OK,” I said. “Settled!”

I was excited as it was my first and only participation in a Hassidic ‘Simcha.’
I arrived early and watched the Hassidic orchestra getting ready. Menachem was the producer and the organizer.

The orchestra set their amplifiers and speakers and tried their instruments. The saxophone player, tried the instrument. To my surprise, he played the opening bars of Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria. “He could not be a Hassid.” I was thinking.

The Brith was a happy affair; the orchestra played well and the music was appropriate. Menachem sang the Hassidic songs with the orchestra. He improvised beautifully. I realized I had been invited to hear Menachem sing. With him on the mike, the audience became ecstatic. They jumped and danced as if they were on drugs.
At the intermission, when Menachem went for quick Vodka, he stopped by me and whispered: “The fourth on the second row.” It was of course Mrs. Rabbi in the women’s section. I glanced over at her but she looked exactly like the other women.

At the end of the evening, I asked Menachem: “Do you always hire the same orchestra?”
“Yes. I like them, the audience likes them, and, most important, they let me sing with them,” said Menachem.

“I like the way you sing, Menachem. As I said to you many years ago, you need a professional teacher. You are a real musician.” Without waiting for his answer, I continued: “Do you really believe Hassidic outfits make the orchestra kosher?”

“How did you know they are not Hassidic?” asked Menachem. “Nobody knows it, and you did not even get close to them.”

I told Menachem about the Ave Maria and was very surprised to hear Menachem say: “music is just music and they’ll never find it in a million years.” It was the first time I heard Menachem refer to his community as ‘they’. It left me somewhat concerned.

During the following years, we met often. I was surprised to find he was not happy and drank a lot.
At one time Menachem told me as follows: “the Hassidic community is very supportive if you follow the herd. Me, I feel imprisoned sometimes; I wish I had been more courageous a few years ago followed my heart and my music.”

In his community, Menachem established his position as a teacher and a scholar. He founded a small school and became famous and wealthy before he was forty.

Menachem confessed one day “it was only because of our relationship that I was able to get into a rich Hassidic community abroad.

“How come?” I asked.

The parents of my students want them to cope with the real world. I could offer them the service because of you. I learned from you to have no fear of the outside world and I pass it on to them.”

We met once or twice a month but I never met anyone of his family. We always met on a Thursday and always at his initiative. I had his phone number but never used it. He would call me and we met always at Omry’s pub where Rabbi Menachem felt comfortable.

It was so odd to see a Hassid in a pub, people asked me if Menachem is a real Hassid or an under-cover something. Most of his students had cars, he picked different one each time to be his driver. (Real world experience). Sometimes he brought Shuki, another Hassidic friend. Shuki was a mortician who never learned to cope with death. He came to the pub to drown his agony.

About six weeks before the gulf war Menachem called me. “I do not have transportation; I need to talk to you.”

I felt the urgency in his voice. “After Omry’s, I need a lift to Jerusalem.”

Of course, I did not question his need to talk, and drove to Bney Brak to pick him up. We drove to Omry’s and sat at our regular table.

“I want you to do me two favors,” he said after we got our beers.” I need you to find a certain young woman for me.” He talked very fast and I did not like the way he said it.

“And what will happen to this young woman after I find her?” I asked.

“No, you don’t understand. You don’t have to tell anybody where she is, not even me.”

“Okay, Menachem,” I said, “Start from the beginning.”

“This girl is my niece,” said Menachem. “She ran away from home and is in hiding. The community, including my brother, her father, is anxious to find her. Some want to punish her and some just want to bring her back. She is determined to be a musician, and my brother won’t let her. It would disgrace our family, so my brother believes.”

Menachem took a long drink of his beer.

“She is very talented. With the help of my fake Hassidic orchestra, I managed to get her a guitar. The problem was that she had no a place to keep the guitar or to practice.

She was terrified her father would find the instrument and break it. So, she took it and disappeared. She changed her name. I know she takes guitar lessons and she has no money. I want you to find her and discover a way to give her money on monthly basis, without leaving a trail to me. You have to help me Yakov; she’ll never make it without my help.”

“This is heavy stuff,” I said to Menachem, “and what might your second request be?”

“I want you to buy me a CD with vocal jazz music and I want you to arrange for me to sing with a real jazz band, just once.”

The second request came to me as a big surprise; it did not fit into the place or the time, but it was easy for me to do. Two years earlier I founded a chamber music orchestra and had all the necessary contacts.

I drove Menachem to his home in Jerusalem; we did not talk during the trip. As Menachem got out of the car, I said to him: “Okay, Menachem, I’ll do it for you.”

There are not too many classic guitar teachers it was easy to find Menachem’s niece. I asked her to meet me and my musical director and we gave her an audition. Menachem was right.She was good.

I took her aside and told her about my relationship with her uncle, about the piano, his fake Hassidic orchestra, his love of music and his desire to sing with a jazz band, and about the allowance he planned to give her. “He does not want another frustrated musician in the family,” I explained. “He feels you did what he would like to have done but never had the courage,” she had tears in her eyes.

A jazz bandleader whom I knew personally, promised to let Rabbi Menachem sing with them. “The only problem is, we usually play in a church,” he said.

I told Menachem about the church and, to my surprise, he said: “A church is only a building. I am not planning to attend services. I simply have to do it.”

I gave Menachem a CD of the music they played and a date was set. Menachem’s singing was immature but he improvised like a professional, it was thrilling and very exiting. At the end of the session, the bandleader took me aside and said: “Your man is a musical genius but I cannot use him. He hasn’t any basic musical education and I cannot explain to him what I would require of him.”

“That’s all right,” I said. “He wanted no more than this opportunity.”

I took Menachem to Omry’s pub for a beer. We were about to sit down with the beers when the sirens went off. It was on the first night of the Scuds We put on our gas masks, took our drinks and went down to the ‘sealed room.’ We had four and a half minutes before a Scud Missile fell somewhere in Israel.

We consumed our beers slowly and quietly. I could not stop thinking about the other shelter forty-four years earlier. I had no idea it was to be our last beer together.

Two months later, Shuki called me and said: “I need a drink, and I need to see you. I am alone. Will you join me at Omry’s?”

It was not unusual for Shuki to want to have a drink it was peculiar he came alone. Of course I agreed.

We sat silently drinking and I waited for Shuki to speak. He did not say much but drank a lot. After his fourth Scotch, he excused himself, went out to his car and brought in a black plastic garbage bag. He handed it to me and said:

“Menachem had a stroke a month ago. It was his second. The first was very mild, about two months ago. He is now partially paralyzed and in a bad shape. He does not want to see you, or anyone else. He asks you to do him one last favor. He said you would know what to do with this bag.”

The bag had a knot on top and was heavy.

“Did he say anything else? Can I call him?”

“No.” said Shuki.

I decided to keep the bag closed until I got home.

In my garage, I untied the knot and discovered within a shoebox, full of small packages of ten thousand of dollars all in large bills.

I gave the shoebox to Menachem’s niece.

Shortly after, she left for Spain to continue her musical education.

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