Quick Mitzvah with a Seaside View

By Dmitrij Kapitelman

Translation Jeff Clingenpeel

 

The next morning I’m completely exhausted (acquitted!), plus I have a cold. Another rainy day, and I’d prefer to ignore this one from my bed. You could become a citizen of this country right now. But Dad insists we go to the market to get what we need for the Sabbath. The trees on Rothschild Street are standing at somewhat more of an angle today. The gray clouds are denser. We’re being followed by a cat with a white backside and a black and red spotted head.

Meow.

Dad, of course, feels he’s been addressed and digs for more information.

“Whatsa matter, huh?”

Meow.

“It said meow,” he repeats sweetly.

“I’m sure the cat is just saying in its own way that the weather is shitty. Ask it if it has any aspirin.”

An old man dumps the coffee out of his paper cup onto the street. He doesn’t need it anymore; in his other hand he already has two packs of Pall Malls. The Sabbath discount war at the Arab fruit stand is underway. This time the vendor even arranged for a microphone to heat things up. After briefly announcing his prices, he cranks up the techno. A kilo of potatoes is two shekels. The crowd descends on them. A well-fed people is a happy people, especially when it’s a well-fed people bound by ties of blood and living on the land where its faith was born.

Shabbat Shalom.

Singing on the square between the entrance to the market and the Yemeni Quarter is an African-Israeli, which is just my current term for Jews who might be Ethiopian Jews, but I can’t say for sure. He’s singing so that people can record him on their smartphones. In a NY baseball cap and with the extravagance of African-American soul. The Rick James of Tel Aviv. I’m happy to see a dark-skinned man being given some social recognition here—no one claps all that much at any rate for the Tel Aviv and Netanya garbage men, who, almost without exception, are all dark-skinned. I wonder if someone once told them that they belonged here too and could become citizens of the country right now. Maybe they absorbed that with glowing hearts. Now they’re scraping dog shit off the side of the road.

Then again, maybe I don’t approve of the applause for the singing African-Israeli after all, strictly speaking. The man is spewing some pretty cheesy stuff.

You love all of me and I love all of yoooooooouuu

Crossing the square where this guy is crooning, moving right past the microphone, is a heavyset, grim-faced man on his moped. Strapped onto the moped are four earring display trays, all stacked one on top of the other.

You love all of me and I love all of yoooooooouuu

Right before the Sabbath, and the square is overrun with people. People shoving from behind. And the average volume of the salesmen’s voices makes it clear that this is a country where military service is mandatory.

Shoving from the left.

Dad maneuvers his way through the heaving masses undaunted. He’s become a real market shark. As he’s rooting around at a baker’s stand, someone bumps into him, and Dad spills a few drops of his confidently procured pomegranate juice. He looks up, briefly annoyed, and then buys four olive rolls anyway. Dad in Israel: suddenly unflappable. I, on the other hand, am an aspirin disposal unit wandering along on wobbly legs with the phrase “you could become a citizen of this country right now” running through my head in an endless loop. Before Mr. Goldstein, I never had the slightest inkling how much I craved unconditional, blood-based citizenship. Kind of scary.

In the alley where the butchers’ stalls are, a woman positions her face up close to one of the meat display cases, right in front of a huge leg of lamb. Her head is sort of shaped like a leg of lamb too. Crazy really: one hunk of meat standing here ordering another. I think I’m hallucinating. People shoving from behind and the right.

On the spot where the wannabe Usher was causing a sensation with his kitsch an hour ago, there is now a pair of Orthodox Jews at a little table. Their stand has all the stagecraft of a German election campaign booth—one that The Left party would set up in front of city hall in a small Baden-Württemberg town. Insane: one hunk of meat wanting another hunk of meat to pray. What kind of a way is that to think? You could become a citizen of this country right now.

The Orthodox Jews are stopping pretty much random passersby and trying to tie a little black box on their heads. They wrap some kind of leather strap around their arms in an intricate process. While I consider whether I want to know what it is they’re putting on people’s heads, one of the men from the group approaches me. Late twenties, roughly my age. Flawless American English. Even less well-shaved than me, except that his beard is that way on purpose.

“Interested in a quick mitzvah?”

“What’s a quick mitzvah?”

“A Jewish prayer. Are you religious?”

“No. I don’t think so.”

“Are you Jewish?”

“Yes,” I respond. That fact has been scientifically validated as of yesterday after all and is now denied only by my Jewish father.

“Have you even had your bar mitzvah?”

“No, but my father comes from a long line of rabbis.”

At first the group seems a bit overwhelmed by my disclosure, but they quickly resume their busy activity. “Then we should get you caught up and do your bar mitzvah right away.”

I’m having my bar mitzvah Dad! And it’s about time too. At least I think it is.

Right, Dad? Dad? Where in the world is he?

Quick-Mitzvah Rabbi puts a yarmulke on my head. Makes sense. I understand the first step in the process.

“Are you right- or left-handed?”

“Right.”

“Then the first tefillin goes on your right arm. Across from your heart. We have to put it in that exact spot so that it can mediate between your heart and your intellect. That’s because our feelings and our thoughts are the two things that make us human.”

That really does resonate with my heart/mind. My intellect, after all, sees the many flaws of this unfamiliar country and points out in no uncertain terms that Israel and I are completely foreign to each other. Which it couches in phrases like “artificial identity construct” and “emotional overcompensation.” So maybe the Inner Court is back in session after all? You could become a citizen of this country right now. Maybe I could in North Korea too. But what for?

My heart, on the other hand, is pleading for joyous celebrations and writing pamphlets overflowing with redemption, security and the warmth of home. I’ll finally arrive, it says, I’ll belong. No more parenthetical immigrant background, no more skepticism, no more Inner Court. A Jew in Israel. Period.

Terrifying how much I’ve been craving a clear religious creed, says the mind. Don’t listen to the bellyaching intellectual, chirps the heart. He won’t make you happy. You weren’t happy before, were you? There you go!

I repeat Hebrew blessings while they wrap more leather straps around my arms and hands. When did they strap the prayer cube to my forehead? It’s all going so fast. My bar mitzvah is racing past in the time it takes to order a kebab. I do manage to learn that the box contains a snippet of the Torah, however. And I even pull off the necessary sleight of hand to put myself into a spiritual frame of mind without entirely renouncing my critical inner observer. Is this an important moment in my life? The guys here would definitely say it is. Were I to ask Dad, I’m sure he’d say no, not really. Where is Dad anyway?

Again I sputter out some incorrect scraps of Hebrew blessings. As a reward I’m given an English brochure and am allowed to repeat the prayer for the third time, except that now I understand what it is I’m actually vowing.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart.” Says who?

“You shall teach them thoroughly to your children and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up.”

I try to read in an especially meaningful tone of voice, but my partner in this spiritual quickie isn’t listening anymore at all. My eyes search for Dad. And I finally find him. Just a few meters away. He’s turned away from my bar mitzvah and would rather study some sausage in a butcher shop window. “You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates. HEAR, O ISRAEL, THE LORD IS OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE.”

So. Mitzvahed like a proper Jew. Now what? The Inner Court has released the accused, who now has a piece of the Torah on his head.

“You can say a personal silent prayer now if you’d like.”

At that moment my will is so strangely absent that I would have agreed to sponsor a rhinoceros family if he’d asked (provided it was an Israeli rhinoceros family). But it’s kind of nice to yield to it all.

“Yes, I’d like that. Should I do anything with my hands?”

“If you want to.”

“Close my eyes?”

“Up to you.”

I turn my palms toward my head, which I lower a bit. I think that’s what Muslims always do with their hands too. Makes a good impression. I close my eyes. Hmmm. Whatever.

I sort of pray for everything, but not for too much either. It’s my first audience after all. Ten seconds in that physical/spiritual posture. During those seconds I am the most believing unbeliever I can possibly be.

“Let me give you our contact information right quick before your bar mitzvah dance. Do you have a smartphone?”

“Wow, there’s a dance? For me?”

“Yes, but let me see your smartphone a second. I’ll show you an app you can use to find the nearest house of prayer in Israel.”

So the future has begun for the Orthodox too. Fortunately, my cell phone’s internet connection is on strike again. Or maybe that’s actually a shame.

My App Rabbi whistles to a second member of the Orthodox market team. This one looks kind of like a Jewish Milhouse van Houten. We take each other’s hands and dance in a circle. Mazel tov … Israel … Mazel tov—that much I can make out. I try to decide whether I should go with enthusiasm and volume, or whether the guys would think I was mocking them if I were to butcher Hebrew prayer songs at the top of my lungs. But before I’ve danced my way to a clear position on that, the ceremony is already over.

Then I walk up to Dad who’s rushing over to the bus.

“Dad, didn’t you see? I had my bar mitzvah!”

“Yes, I saw that,” he responded, giving no outward indication of his opinion. When Dad’s answers don’t come with any visible sign of an opinion, then his opinion is usually negative.

“So what did you think?”

“Honestly?”

“No. Lie to me. Come on, spit it out!”

“I thought: I hope he’s not becoming religious like his grandfather.”

“That’s what you thought?”

“Yes, that’s what I thought.”

The bus driver hits the gas, brakes, curses, honks, accelerates, brakes again, curses.

“What would be so bad about me becoming religious like Grandpa?”

“Religious people are dishonest.”

That actually sounds like a sentence where he’s just substituted Religious People for Arabs. But he means it exactly how he said it. I have to ask four times what he means by “dishonest” and request examples. I don’t get much. Just that his friend Pavel once wanted his sick son to have an operation in the United States. And that the Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh had assured Pavel that it would provide the money for the operation. All he had to do was come. The congregation would take care of it. And when Pavel and his sick son then arrived in Pittsburgh from Kiev, the congregation had all of three hundred dollars for an operation that cost ten thousand dollars.

“Dad, I fail to understand how that example proves the general depravity of all religious Jews.” Religious people are dishonest. Does that mean his ancestors were dishonest? Did a rabbi once steal his stamps and then claim that it was for the new synagogue tax? Why is he suddenly so hostile? Does he not like the idea of having a religious Jewish son? I just don’t understand him.

“Religious people are dishonest. But who knows, maybe I’ve only ever met the wrong ones up to now. In any case I have a profound aversion to all religion.”

The day’s first rays of sunlight grace us with their presence. I don’t want to take the bus, even though I’m dying to fall into bed. I want to listen to the sea.

“Dad, look how beautiful it is here on the beach. Let’s get out.”

“But we wanted to go to Bat Yam.”

“Yeah, but just look at the gorgeous view waiting for us here.”

“You know that the Sabbath is just about to start and we’re sitting in what could be the last bus.”

“Then we’ll just take a taxi, Dad.”

In a show of strength, I force Dad to behold the beauty of creation from a different wooden bench than the one he was picturing in Bat Yam. The sun shines on our faces and quiets them. The wind provides the conversation. Dad fusses with his fur-lined hood. Then all at once he feels compelled to clear up the following:

“Borya isn’t a particularly good Jew.”

Where did that come from?

“Well, Borya told me that he does at least observe certain rituals so he can convince himself he’s a Jew.”

“Yeah, once a year.”

“That’s once more than you, Dad.”

“Oh well, that’s just the kind of Jew I am.”

Dad’s welcome to be that if he wants. But it doesn’t mean I have to be. You could become a citizen of this country right now. I’m somewhere between detached and feverish. Apart from the rush of the waves and the thousand other little snippets of sound floating around us, the silence is total.

“Do you think your father would be proud of you, Dad?”

He thinks about it a while.

“Yeah, I think so. I think he would be proud of you too.”

Dad attempts to pull his hood up tighter and gets tangled up in the strings. So that the only thing poking out is his nose. Once he frees himself, he continues:

“David Kapitelman was a quiet, kind man. And a perfect accountant. His work was always above board and he never stole. Which really wasn’t easy in Ukraine. He worked all day.”

“And when did he find the time to pray three times a day?”

“Five o’clock in the morning, around noon and in the early evening.”

“Did he pray in his own room?”

“His own room? What room? You still remember our tiny apartment in Kiev, don’t you?”

“Were you allowed to watch?”

“Yes, of course.”

“And what did you think when you saw your father praying?”

“What rubbish.”

A kind, utterly infallible accountant with moral integrity, in other words, who believed in rubbish. I don’t really understand the sea all that well today.

Dad and I play soccer at the bus stop with a little white cardboard box. Complete with a backheel feint and a blind back-foot pass. Dad manages everything but a step over. No more buses are coming. You could become a citizen of this country right away. Shabbat Shalom.

 

Das Lächeln meines unsichtbaren Vaters.  © 2017 Hanser Berlin at Carl Hanser Verlag GmbH & Co. KG, Munich