Yosepha and Bas Mitzvah
Parental favoritism, sibling rivalry and revenge—-the stuff of Biblical legends—-in a farm family in modern Israel. And a poem by Suzanne Bernhardt.
by Nora Gold
Around her mother’s swollen belly swarmed her many brothers and sisters: all sizes and shapes, they laid their hands fearfully upon her belly, or pressed their ears to it to try and hear the life within. Rachel, an intense and private woman, was so transformed at the thought of a child—her own—after many years of waiting, that she only laughed with loose and fearless joy at the wonder and worry of the swarming brood. She let them lay their hands upon her.
His first wife’s children, twelve of them, to whom she had been fair and attentive since her death, were clean and cared-for but never made her smile. Rachel was dark and intense, a woman of many fears, and at night, curled closely beside her husband, she confided her dreams to him in a whisper. She told him that his first wife’s children had organized against her: the boys and girls all hated her baby, that they wanted it to die. In many small incidents (they had brought her dirty water, they had pinched her stomach instead of stroking, they murmured among themselves and fell silent when she approached) she found a threat, and at night she wept—What if she died in childbirth? What if they hated her baby? Her husband threw back his head and laughed: a virile, hearty laugh, and although it made her smile, a little darkness remained in the corners of her eyes. Do you doubt me, Rachel? he asked her. With all my love for you, and you doubt me? Then the darkness vanished from the corners of her eyes, seeping somewhere inside where he couldn’t see it anymore, and he—helpless against these fears of hers, these fears and superstitions in which her family believed —did the only thing he knew: He threw his love around her in an embrace—his warm and fabulous love—like a cloak.
For many years they had waited. They had tended sheep on their moshav in Palestine, tended them with the Zionist zeal of the young, read and reread the works of Herzl, Gordon, Bialik, and rejoiced in the honour of fulfilling the dream. But they were no longer young, this was the thing for which they had always waited, and they were burning and eager like two young people in their prime. It was with hope that with each son born, Yacov had looked eagerly into his eyes, and asked himself: Is this the one? For God had made promises to Yacov; the God in whom he stoutly disbelieved had promised him great and wonderful things: a future as wide as the sea, descendants as many as the fish that fill it—and yet, son after son, he could see this was not the one. Rachel stood by and rejoiced in secret to see the disappointment in his eyes: She knew him well, and thought cunningly: MY son, my son… all of his first wife’s children, like so many fish had been spawned, but hers, hers would bear the star on his forehead.
And in the months before the birth, with the slow and wondrous swelling of her belly, they returned to the playfulness and passion of their first young love. They were astonished and grateful, and both of them bursting with promise.
And the child-to-be, the prince, the comfort of their old age and the leader of his people, reached the time of his birth.
At the time of the birth, the baby lay dying. When they smashed open the womb, it lay dying—all around it scattered its life, its hope, the remnants of its belief. It watched the broken pieces of womb and liquid, the warm globulating stuff that had held it so secure—watched it go cold, dry up, in this new air. In an eternity of waiting, it had prepared itself for this instant. Months of rocking wombness, it had planned, prepared and craved this moment when it would open, show itself to its creator. The midwife’s hands were skillful and soft, but it knew that she wasn’t its mother: It would not open its eyes to her! Not to that warm and blooming woman, whose breasts were huge and seemed the embodiment of flushing motherhood. It held itself back, fists clenched tight and breathing deeply against the world, until it smelled that smell. Slowly, slowly, the being in it, the being of its being, unfolded. Woke slowly, luxuriously and totally opened, its eyes opened, it presented itself naked, unfinished, alive.
“A girl,” urged the round and wholesome midwife. “A daughter…”
Only one moment, a fraction of an instant, while Rachel did her summing-up, appraised this unshaped, naked body. Summed-up, appraised, and her lids snapped shut against her like two steel doors.
“A girl!” she cried in disappointment. “No, not a girl!“
The midwife swept her away, tried rocking against her breast the screaming, terrified infant. “Now now, now now” she clucked and rocked her. “Now now. Now now.” In the midwife’s tent, from where they could hear the baby screaming hours into the night—nothing could comfort her—the red-cheeked midwife expressed her disapproval: “Such a pretty baby, too.”
But they didn’t say anything, and they never spread it into gossip.
For Rachel, that very night, from some unnamed inner bleeding, died.
Yacov never quite recovered. He retired, under some pretense or another, from public affairs. He spent more and more time alone in his tent, thinking he said, emerging only from time to time with his famous clipboard with the pencil attached by a string, to look over his sheep. Whatever he was told, whatever figures, reports or explanations, he nodded his head vaguely like one who’s lost his sight, saying “I see, I see” or “Yes, of course” as if he were stupid to not already have known. The eyes of his chief workmen grew shrewder and shrewder and time went on, his profits began dwindling, sheep began to get lost, and there were always excuses….
The man was suddenly old.
His children grew up around him, barefoot with their lower legs suntanned and dusty from playing jumping games, or in the case of the older ones, from herding sheep in the dust. The boys were back-slapping and hearty farmer’s boys, which surprised him; for despite all his decrying the pasty-faced scholars of the shietl, and his dream of being a “new Jew,” a Whole Man, worshipping with soul and hands; yet something he saw in his sons (perhaps that they were what he always said he dreamed them to be) struck a horror into his heart. His girls, too, were strangers to him: They cackled in front of mirrors, grabbing ribbons from each other, playing women games that he didn’t understand, and all he could do was take himself away from them with a philosophical gaze, having patted one or another of them on the head, half-blindly, truly like an old man. The boys, like animals, were always engrouped, and so were the girls—so he began confusing their names. They all looked alike to him, the girls with their clothes like flags that flapped at him, and the boys with their demands and wants and affections that came and went with the wind.
Yet he had a place for Yosepha, his skinny-legged daughter who was pale-faced and solitary as Rachel had been, and whose black eyes had answered his silent question, with all their intensity, “Yes” before he’d asked. In the fading clarity of his mind, he sometimes forgot she wasn’t a son; for he and Rachel had decided, before the birth, to call her Yoseph—so at times he forgot to add the “a” which had been his silent tribute to Rachel, the only part of his grief which even grazed the face of the world; he was not an ostentatious man. Yosepha answered to both Yoseph and Yosepha, as if in her silent listening, in those two eyes like deep wells, she knew without being told, the expectation and disappointment behind her name. At other times, Yacov confused, too, the birth and the death, they became inutterably fused in his mind, so that Rachel and Yosepha, his own mother and himself, seemed like none of them separate entities, but just bodies of different shapes, containing the same deep and passionate nature which only flickered now and then, to one who knew, in the eyes.
If Yacov thought about it, which he rarely did, he would have realized that what made Yosepha his chosen one, his destined, were not separate qualities as we usually label them: not beauty, nor brilliance, nor trembling sensitivity, although she did have all these qualities in and of themselves— but the whole of her, something of the whole of her which bespoke her essence, and this quality gave her her charisma and her nearly frightening intensity. She seemed to have an eerie impulse toward the truth: intuitively knew what was wheat and what was chaff, and sliced through it, not cruelly, not even consciously, much as a rat without making a show of it, impatiently avoids the false leads of a man-built labyrinth and goes straight for the cheese. Yosepha’s mind was like that, but it was not her “mind,” or not in the usual sense that it is spoken of: it was an impulse of her whole soul, a straining forward to get to the meat of things, as if she had no time, as if her very life depended on it; and she was bewildered, genuinely wondering, at the shock she inspired, and being called “very smart.”
Dresses and chatter filled her with horror.
Her brothers, early on, stuck out their lower lips and frowned when Yosepha spoke, as she seemed to hit with effortless grace, over and over, the awaited answer. Yacov’s face lit up and he leaned forward eagerly, unable to disguise his delight at her quickness, the depth, the knife-like precision of her thoughts. There was a glint to her mind, an original, piercing warmth to it that sprang, could only spring, from the wellsprings of her soul; and yet her brothers could not see this, blinded only by the sharpness of it and by Yacov’s keen and open joy. Yacov and Yosepha engaged in wild, heady dialogues while the boys sulked and picked at the wood of their desks, and while the girls wrote each other notes, looked over at the boys, and waited for the end of class.
In the late afternoons, after class was out, when the hot winds blew and the sand and dust flew up around the legs and mouth, the brothers huddled together on one side of Yacov’s tent, and the sisters on the other, planning and giggling and talking in low voices. Sometimes the eyes of the brothers darted furtively, with longing, toward the door of Yacov’s tent; they planned great gifts for him, surprises, which he received as his blind father might have, and—as his blind father might have done—confused his sons one for the other. He ran his hands over their gifts absent-mindedly, he said “thank-you,” and his old, absent “thank-you”s enraged, enraged, his sons.
They tried giving him presents alone. Sneakily, some of the older sons plotted alone, and each snuck into his tent when no one else was looking. They stood one after the other opposite their father in uncomplicated worship, longing only to serve, and stretched out their hands, laying their gifts, gifts of wood or cloth or stone, laboured over with love, near their father. Yacov, a kind man, never pushed them away; but nor did he draw them nearer. The son’s mystification, once outside the tent, turned to fury, but it was quickly swallowed and kept from the others. For though the brothers were close, as close as brothers can be, for this they sparred separately, each willingly betraying the other. And this is the way it has to be, and this is the nature of things: that each one stealthily, with shame, rejoined the group, and each one smouldered within his heart a hate and a longing for revenge. Each one remembered, like a myth repolished, the position of his gift on Yacov’s table, and knew that there it would sit, un-stroked and unthought-of, in days to come.
The brothers were united by their unshared shame, as brothers often are more united by the unshared than the shared. Each was blood of Yacov’s blood, and flesh of Yacov’s flesh.
The brothers had been one dusty group until recently, when like two repellent magnets, they suddenly split into two separate groups. They stood one group half-facing the other, equidistant from Yacov’s door, but also turned inward and whispering among themselves. The sisters began preening themselves and when Yacov came to visit them, a little embarrassed by their sudden womanhood, they vied for his affection, making circles with their shoulders, posing this way or that, and flashing at him their various-coloured eyes. Some of them secretly hoped that he would rest his eyes on her, stroke her cheek, and say how pretty she’d become; but he never did. He confused their names, in fact, half-blindly stroking some of their heads, and bumbled his way back to his tent, leaving behind him a burning, ominous humming not unlike a swarm of bees, each one longing to be queen.
The brothers and sisters in the late afternoon, busy with their separate occupations: the brothers playing knives, becoming men; and the sisters playing priss and preen, becoming women. And around them all, like some tired hint from Heaven: whirls of dust. The dust surrounded them almost up to their necks so nothing could be seen. It was as if their busyness churned the dust around them and the unrefreshing blasts of afternoon autumn air.
Yosepha stood somewhere between the two groups, alone, closer to her sisters, but a safe distance from there, too. She stood further from her father’s tent than the others, and yet from any distance, she stood out: Her face and figure, her eyes and hair and lips had a vividness, a reality, as if she’d been drawn in dark strong charcoal and the others only in chalk. There was a fine trembling in her, an uncertainty, as she occupied herself alone. She half kneeled on a flat rock, reading a book or trying to look as if she were reading. With each wave of laughter from the girls, she squinted her eyes all the more intensely, as if fighting off her loneliness: I don’t need you. The redness of her lips grew redder as she read.
The flap to Yacov’s tent flew open. It was late afternoon and a wind was blowing and some birds were squawking in the late autumn Palestine sky. The dust was blowing strong, and his sons and daughters in their groups grew silent, as he stood squarely, framed by the open arch of his tent.
He stood a few moments, just listening to the air and breathing it in. His eyes had grown pale and he squinted.
“Yosepha,” said Yacov. “Where is Yosepha?”
She leapt to her feet, like an awkward young colt, and again: that fineness in her, the vividness of her features and the trembling behind her white, sensitive skin.
“Here, father!” she cried tremulously.
“Well,” Yacov said impatiently, “come to me.”
She walked, then, eagerly to her father, aware of being watched, aware of the gloomy and ominous packs to her left and right: one heavy and male, the other shrill and shrieking like birds. She felt the hatred like a force, and her knees trembled as she walked between them.
When she reached Yacov she stood before him and he put his hand gently on her head. He squinted again, without smiling, first at the brothers, then at the sisters, with that intense searching stare of the blind. They watched him, too, their furry-haired old father with his hand on Yosepha’s head—Yosepha, who looked, with her back to them, like a slender young boy, sensitive and untouched by the sun which had burnt them all brown. Yacov had one hand on her head, and with the other he reached inside his coat, and drew from it a small beautifully-bound book and placed it in her hands. Yosepha looked up at him with wonder; breathlessly, she stared.
Yacov took his hand from her head, looked blindly once again at the two clouds of dust, and then suddenly, like a monarch, turned on his heel and reentered his tent. The tent-flap dropped behind him like a slap.
Holding the book with one hand on her head, Yosepha sauntered her way back, between her brothers and sisters, to her rock.
The book looked like a crown in the sun.
Twenty-two years passed. Twenty-two years came and were gone, since the day Yacov had publicly isolated and blessed his daughter. Twenty-two years less seven days since Yosepha’s brothers and sisters had taken her on a trip to the market, and abandoned her on the way home, on a dark road at twilight. That same stretch of time since Yosepha had learned what it was to be truly alone in the world, to rely upon strangers but not to trust them, to carve for herself whatever shape of a life her destiny, her gifts, and her misfortunes permitted her. She had landed in relatively good hands-it could have been worse: A wagonload of boisterous kibbutzniks had handed her over to an orphanage, where she distinguished herself through that peculiar mixture of brilliance and feigned stupidity she had learned so cleverly to employ at the hands of her brothers and sisters. She was sent to university, where she dreamed vivid, multi-coloured, and eccentric dreams, and where she showed herself to possess the wondrous ability to grow anything, anywhere. To the Ministry of Agriculture, she was a dream come true, The Land being, as it was, rocky, stubborn, and for the most part unarable. Yosepha could grow things almost out of rock: she grew bright, burning poppies on an all but waterless diet; desert flowers in chalk, fruit trees in tired earth. There seemed to be nothing she couldn’t do, and her genius in both academic and applied agriculture was immediately seized upon. The Ministry was thirsty for solutions to Israel’s irrigation problem; and Yosepha had ideas. She applied herself to the problem of irrigation the same way she had formerly, through her father’s books, attacked the problem of evil: fiercely. By the time she had been away from home seventeen years, she had six kibbutzim in the north irrigating with her new method; five after that, she was made Assistant to the Minister of Agriculture; and several weeks after that, consistent with one of her strange, vivid, and multi-coloured dreams, drought struck the land.
The drought struck hard, and nowhere so hard as in the South, where unbeknownst to Yosepha, her father’s sheep grew thin and keeled over, one after the other. The “crisis in the South,” as it came to be called, occupied Yosepha’s thoughts night and day. She remembered very little of her home or her father, other than the warmth of his body when he stood near her or touched her on the head; and the dank, sharp odour of his sheepskin tent. She had hoped for months he would come and find her, and when he didn’t, she discovered in herself a bitterness towards him so deep that it all but eclipsed the hatred of her brothers and sisters. As time went on, she thought about them all less and less, and threw herself into her new surroundings as thoroughly as she had wiped out the old. She retained, however, a horror for dryness and dust, and a fascination with water; and these elements, though never thought about, were deep in her, and moved her through her search to irrigate with a kind of irrefutable force, and an almost flawless intuition.
She found water; and she dreamed of watering the South: bursting the desert into bloom, giving life to new and unheard of flowers, colouring the desert purple and red. She infected the Prime Minister with her dream, and funds for projects poured her way. He said to her, “I will bring you the farmers from the South, and you will teach them all to irrigate. You will fill our deserts with life.”
They flowed from the South to Yosepha’s Institute: herdsmen, farmers, millers, kibbutzniks, and shepherds, all of them with that struck, panicked look in the eye of the man who has watched his sheep, his cattle, or his fieldcrops die— and thought, as baldly as this, “I, too, can die.” Nothing less than mad desperation would have brought men, grown men, to the feet of this pale and scrawny woman—a woman, yet, who was not married, and a woman who had been to the university.
They came to Yosepha in droves, and sat at her feet.
One day in August, when Yosepha was finishing her daily inspection of the Institute, a young man approached her. To Yosepha he looked like all the others, crude and hairy, and giving off a pungent smell, although in some way handsome with his rough good looks. Like the others, he was obsequious—because of his need, Yosepha thought instantly. She could tell that in another situation, there might be dignity in this man.
“Are you the director?” he asked her.
“I beg of you to help us.”
As in countless times before, Yosepha asked the whereabouts (the South, of course), the nature of the crop, the history, the size of the moshav, and so on. Only at the end, when she had established that here was a case in which she could be of service, did she ask more personal questions. A family moshav? The age of the father? The number of sons? And then, the name.
On seeing before her her brother Reuven, Yosepha’s first reaction was an almost physical revulsion. So this was it: This hairy being in need was now bowing before her—this being, How dare he live! Rushing back at Yosepha like water came the terror on the road that night, the strangers, the coldness, that big stone building with twelve to a room. The fear, the hatred, the fear. And Yosepha excused herself from the stranger.
When she returned, she said to him, “We are very busy here, as you can see, and very short-staffed. There is no point teaching you alone; according to our policy, it is necessary for all those involved in our project to understand the underlying principle. Go home, and bring back with you every member of your family—all your brothers and sisters, and your father, as well. Then we can help.”
Reuven protested: His father was too old, there was too much work to be done at home, no way could everyone be spared at once. Yosepha shrugged. “I’m sorry, then” she said.
Not until Pesach did Reuven return. From the window of the Institute, Yosepha watched the arrival of the big, dust-covered jeep as it rattled its way up to the entrance. Out of the jeep tumbled six men and six women, one after the other, all of them dark and dusty from the journey. Yosepha knew them immediately, and had to turn away.
“Give me a few minutes,” she said to her secretary, “before bringing in this new group. And make some tea, please —mint is what they like.”
It was starting to come back to her. She sat behind the desk in her office, she sat behind it as behind a shield, and covered her eyes and bowed her head. In another time, it might have looked like praying.
—What should I do, God, what can I say to them? And then—Can I forgive?
It had cost her not to, and she knew it. It had cost her to wipe out their memories, but to nurture the hatred, to preserve and feed her seething, nameless anger. She had not hated her brothers and sisters, but herself, she had hated being small and afraid on that road. And she hated her father, too: It was his love that had spawned their hatred; their hatred was, after all, as natural as bacteria feeding on milk in the sun. No, she could not forgive him for cursing her thus: she would not release the past, she would not betray….
Her secretary knocked, motioned the visitors in ahead of her, then followed with a tray of tea which she set on Yosepha’s desk, and left. Yosepha counted the glasses of tea: fourteen. Fourteen Duralex glasses, huddled together on the tray, like a family. No one glass could be moved so it was touching no other.
Still not looking up, Yosepha said, “Help yourselves to tea,” and she herself took a glass, and began drinking, still on her feet. They came forward to take their tea, and at her invitation, sat down on the sofas in her office, sipping. They sat and she stood. The sun shone in from the window behind her, and touched the top of her head. She put down her tea and looked at them.
Their eyes were watching her, every single pair, and as Yosepha gazed into them, one after another, she felt herself weaken. For strength, she looked away from them to the far corner of the room, and there, suddenly, she saw her old father.
My God, how you’ve aged! she thought.
Yosepha could not speak, and continued to stare at them all, while tears began dripping slowly at first, then flooded in a torrent, down her face. They stared at her in astonishment, and gesturing with one hand, she said, as if in explanation,
“I am your sister Yosepha.”
Brother looked at brother, frightened; sister looked at sister. Only the old man at the back of the room rose from his chair, and spoke:
“Yosepha,” he said.
“Do not be afraid,” said Yosepha to her brothers and sisters, seated with bowed heads before her. “The past is passed. I will restore the life to your land and your sheep, you will be rich and prosper. I will take care of you, for you are my family.”
And then she turned to Yacov, the old man, staring toward her voice as though listening to a dream. She went over to him and put her hands on his cheeks. Softly, and from a place so deep in her, she herself was surprised,
“You I forgive,” she said.
Nora Gold is a writer living in Toronto, and working as a social worker. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in various publications throughout Canada well as in Israel, where she lived for six years.
by SUZANNE BERNHARDT
thirteen weeks old
the highest step
of the holy of holies
singing one note
the only one she knows
l am wearing
a wig & short dress.
The Torah is dancing around
the room, holding us up.
in the old temple
the one they tore down
one pigeon is perching in the choir loft
the ladies room smells of old ladies
the pink paint peeling
in a ray of sunlight;
there is no stained glass
or wineglass yet
to be broken;
following the parchment
with one long finger
you read between the lines.
SUZANNE BERNHARDT’s poems have been published in
Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets and various literary journals, including Shirim and Agada. She is involved in Jewish education and is currently learning sign language, which she sometimes uses at her readings.