Until You Don’t Know — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Jerusalem is a cipher; Jerusalem under snow is a cipher erased.

The high priestess of a god whose name I didn’t quite catch offers me a cardboard cup of spiced wine. Her bare arms are goosebumped from the cold and her cheeks flushed from the wine. I think I am in love with her but, given my luck, her cult no doubt requires her to be virginal. The pope breezes by and his vestments unfurl against my hand, spilling the wine over the high priestess’s crescent scepter, or perhaps it is a scythe. She smiles, but fire flashes from her eyes, and she turns away.

 illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
To get to the Purim party, I first navigated the decline of Givat Shaul Street, sliding once, twice, and three times on accumulating snow. I passed children in masks shouting in Yiddish, following men in black coats and women under white turbans. Just three weeks before I had moved into a shared room in a walkup in the dingy public housing project that presides over the top of the street. I found the ad seeking a fourth for a flat on the bulletin board of the Givat Ram campus. Sixty-seven dollars a month seemed like a rent I could afford on an income I hadn’t even begun to make yet as a freelance writer. In the meantime I was earning some shekels, the old kind, which replaced the lira just three weeks before, by working afternoon shifts in a Super Clean laundromat on Palmach Street on the other side of town. The number 15 bus, its route designed by a smashed navigator with a bad sense of direction, took me each day from Givat Shaul to Palmach. But to get to the party I needed the number 8, which left from the Central Bus Station on the plateau below.

“Rabbanit Kappah,” says a woman, one of a group of three, in Golda shoes and with a kerchief tied tightly over her head. She is the one who took my coat at the door, so I presume she is a hostess. She reaches out and touches my elbow lightly, as if she wants to touch more.

After the priestess, she does not interest me. The Rabbanit’s female consort smiles at me and waits for me to guess her. She offers a hint: “Rabbi Meir’s wife.” But, having not yet met Rabbi Meir, I haven’t a clue. She is wearing what looks like a flour sack, but she’s put an ultramarine sweater over it against the chill. “Beruriah,” she finally says, but I don’t know yet who that is and turned for help to the apex of their trinity, a melancholy guy with kinky hair, a clerical collar made of Bristol board, and shoe polish smeared all over his face. Being up more on current events than on rabbi’s wives, I hazard a guess: “Bishop Muzorewa?” “Yes indeed,” he says sadly, in what passes, for me, as a perfect Zimbabwean accent. Out of the corner of my eye I catch the flash of the high priestess’s scythe against the window. I turn to discover what man she may be offering spiced wine to now, but she is gone and all I can see, through the sliding door to the balcony, are snowflakes falling through the ray of a sputtering street light. When I turn back to my troika they are gone.

I know not a soul in Jerusalem. Well, there are my apartment-mates—an American studying at a yeshiva, another American who used to study at a yeshiva, and a Persian-Israeli university student who thinks he ought to be studying at a yeshiva. But I barely know them. And there’s Ira, the friend of a friend from Hatzor HaGlilit, the development town up north where I’d spent my first year in Israel. It was Ira who had invited me to the Purim party, which was being thrown by three girls who shared a freezing apartment at the top of Talpiot. Ira gave me instructions: “Number 8 bus. Get off at the second stop after the bus turns. Take a right and walk up the street to number 13. You’re supposed to dress as something religious.”

About half the passengers on the number 8 get off on Hebron Road. The other half get off on the first stop after the bus turns east into Talpiot. I remain alone, huddled against a freezing window in the third row on the right hand side behind the driver. The snow is starting to stick on the street. The driver revs the motor and moves slowly uphill, taking a right turn most carefully. “Don’t count on a bus back,” he calls out to me after I rise and pull the cord above me. “It’s just snow,” I say. He looks back at me as if I am from an alien world. “Just snow,” he mutters to himself.

I espy my love imbibing from a steaming chalice in the company of Mithras. I presume he is Mithras because he bears a long plastic dagger in his right hand and has his left arm around the neck of a large inflatable pink bull. He wears nothing but a loincloth and his muscular chest glows as if he has just run a mile. The high priestess catches my gaze, laughs, and turns back to her god. A bearded demon with a black kipah and vampire’s fangs who identifies himself as Meir Kahane asks who I am. “I don’t know,” I say. “I’m new in town and don’t have an identity yet.” He follows my eyes and leers. “What’s her name?” I ask. “Good luck,” he smirks. “Half of Olympus is after her.”

I descend from the bus and get my bearings. I am at a cross street and look at the sign. It says what I want it to say, Beit Ha’aravah, the House on the Prairie. A thick poplar branch, weighted down by snow, blocks my way and creaks in the north wind. I step out into the street to circumvent it and a car swerves around me, its klaxon blaring. A head emerges from the passenger window and curses me. Other figures trudge through the snow, heading for the house of the gods.

I feel a cold gust of air. Someone has opened the sliding door. Alone again, I go out to the balcony. A skinny chap with a moustache, round eyeglasses, and a homburg nods at me and pulls on a cigarette. He observes me watch sleepily as flakes, silver and dark, fall obliquely against the lamplight, and then look beyond. “What do I see?” I ask him. “I don’t know this city.” “Snow is falling all over Jerusalem,” he replies with an Irish inflection, “over the crown of Holyland Hill and over the Katamonim basin below, over crooked crosses and headstones, upon all the living and the dead.” I shiver. “I thought we were supposed to be something religious,” I say. My companion shrugs, looks me over critically and says: “It is time to begin the journey westward.” I consider his prophecy and think it right.

I head back into the living room and, unable to locate Rabbanit Kapah, peer into a bedroom, where I find my high priestess making out with Mithras on a pile of coats. She sees me and pushes the god off her violently. As unobtrusively as I can under the circumstances I extract my blue down jacket from the pile and excuse myself. As I head for the door, I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to find Rabbanit Kappah asking me to stay a little bit longer. “Ira tells me you live in Givat Shaul. Maybe you should sleep over here tonight,” she suggests. But I fear that her offer of a bed for the night is the offer of her bed for the night and I mumble something about how great a party it was and an invitation I have to a Megillah reading the next morning.

When I get down to the street I do not know where I am. The wind-driven snow has erased all landmarks. The skid marks of the car that almost hit me can no longer be seen, and many branches hang low over the street, both to my right and to my left. Some have snapped off their trees and lie on the ground, the snow making them look like the bleached fossils of extinct beasts. I hesitate a long moment, flakes collecting on my hood, and then glance up to the balcony. The Irishman points my way. Leaning into the wind, I begin my expedition to the bus stop when I hear the muffled thud of running feet. I turn to see a figure in a fur coat and leggings approaching. Three steps away she stops, then takes one more hesitant step toward me. I recognize the high priestess.

“It’s not what you think!” she weeps, holding out her hands as if the only man she has ever wanted is me. Suddenly I am warm and the snow is but glitter. I step forward to take her in my arms and kiss her, but at that moment she bends over, puts her hands on her knees, and retches into a drift.

It’s the same bus driver. “You’re in luck,” he says morosely. “This is my last run.” Boys with swinging sidelocks sled down Givat Shaul hill in cardboard boxes. Jerusalem is a cipher, erased.




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