Saturday, January 10, 2009

Short Story: Tisha B' Av - The Ninth of Av


He turned away, his eyes watering, and banged into a shtender. The mesechta on top of it fell off, and Gavriel bent over to pick it up. He kissed the heavy volume, then put it down on some other books, making sure that a chumash was not one of them. Nothing should be placed on top of the chumash - it would be disrespectful.
It was past one, and he had seen nothing in the lighted windows opposite. His hungry gaze had to make do with distant furniture, which sometimes turned into slow strip-teases when he stared long enough, but then dissolved back into chairs and lampshades. His long vigil had only been ended when the unknown inhabitants of the flat in the building opposite the yeshiva had turned off the lights.
Now what should he do ? Study was an option, but his eyes were burning. And he might end up turning to the bad bits, which just made it worse. Like where the daughters of Lot eased themselves moistly down on their father, or to the laws of modesty in the kitzur shulchan aruch:
"Even when a woman is giving birth one may not look there...the woman on top is a chutzpah before may not look in that place, and all the more so one may not kiss it."
‘Oh, how sweet’, Gavriel had thought after reading that, ‘how sweet to look there, to smother it with kisses !’
He decided not to leave the beis hamidrash . Not to brush his teeth, not even to go to the toilet. In the toilet he might end up touching himself, and he knew what Rashi said, had read it countless times: one who wastes seed is like one who has murdered a million souls. No he would stay here all night. That way he would be safe. If he showed HaShem he was sincere, that he was prepared to go to any lengths so as to remain clean, the problem would resolve itself. He sat down at a desk at the back, adjusted the jacket that hung loosely on his shoulders, put his head down on his arm, and closed his weary eyes.
He was woken by the shuffling of chairs and the singsong chant of someone reciting psukei dezimrah . The sun poured weakly through the half lowered blinds. He davened shacharis, went down to the yeshiva dining hall and had breakfast - porridge and a boiled egg - and then went back to his room. He was lying on his bed, still dressed with his shoes on, when his room mate -formerly a Geoffrey, but now calling himself Tuvia - burst in.
"You’d better get some of your shmutters washed. The queue’s already a block long."
Tuvia, all fussiness, haste and disaproval, moved things around on his already neat side of the room, his exact movements hidden by the big bookshelf which acted as a divider. Then, with a click of the doorhandle and a "shoin" thrown out behind him, he was gone.
Gavriel sluggishly bundled his dirty shirts, socks and underpants together and went and stood with the others who were waiting to use the laundromat next to the yeshiva's canteen. It was forbidden to do laundry during the nine days, so the yeshiva students were making sure they would have enough clean washing to last them through the mourning period. All these special preparations for the anti-holiday generated a kind of gloomy pall, instead of the excited busy-ness that preceded Pesach or Sukkos.
"I’m doin washeeng for Seemcha" said the bocher in front of him, who hailed from Mexico City and who had, in his pre-chozeyr betshuva days, been an up and coming tennis champion, "I have to fight him to geeve me, I pull them from heem. Is mamish a meetzvah."
Simcha was the Yeshiva’s masmid, always in the beis hamidrash pacing up and down, murmuring to himself while his lightly clenched fist made little rhetorical motions in the air to aid the flow of the shakla ve tarya, the talmudic give and take his mind was constantly pulling at. The others fought to do favours for Simcha, so that he could learn undisturbed. They would discuss him with awe:
"He’s already got the whole of Seder Nezikin."
"He has a chevrusa with the maschiach at Mir, and you know what I don’t know who knows more than who"
"When he argues with Rav Kornblum I get lost"
Gavriel wanted to be like that, revered for his talmudic wisdom and possessed by learning. He wanted to have others whisper admiringly of his prowess in Torah. He saw himself astonishing his peers with the complexity of his thought, or counselling young truth-seekers. They would come to him for help with a difficult passage, and he, speaking softly and modestly, would hold forth with all the authority of the Law. He worked hard to insinuate his entire being into the dalet amos of halacha , to reach the point where the doings in the exterior world would be as nothing compared to the endless inner joy of dwelling in HaShem’s house. For weeks he would learn and pray and sleep, undisturbed by troublesome thoughts.
But then sometimes, alone, at odd moments, perhaps sparked by a visit to the yeshiva’s admin office where two young women worked, the sweetness and allure of this future as a talmid chocham faded into a dull and grey boredom, and was replaced by a longing for a present of tittilation and intensity. When he felt the energy shift inside him, both panic and excitement rose, as he tried impossibly to distance and yet have what he wanted and yet did not want to want.
At these first warning signs he prayed for the desires to leave, and when they did not (perhaps because his prayer was not sincere and a deeper unheard prayer asked for them to continue), he prayed for sexual dreams to visit him, dreams that would provide release without making him truly culpable, all the while berating himself for perverting the concept of prayer.
But the dreams rarely came, and the desire for some kind of crisis and resolution gathered in him like storm clouds. Try as he might to keep his thoughts away from the pink fleshy images, they came to him unbidden yet welcomed, to fill some emptiness which the black Hebrew letters he stared at all day could not. And when they came he could not leave them, his mind returning obsessively to soft naked encounters until he grew excited and the inevitable happened.
What made it worse was that the fantasies, once they had led him over the precipice, lost their allure and became as thin and insubstantial as chazal had warned:Yetzer hara kechut hasaar: the evil inclination was just a hair’s breadth, nothing, a mirages which could not slake the source of your thirst, a siren which seduced you and then left you feeling bereft and mourning what you had lost. Yet again and again he allowed himself to be sucked down. And after each episode Gabriel judged himself an imposter and failure, trapped and betrayed by something in him that he was powerless to set right. And after each episode, as he lay amidst the rubble of the pure life he had worked so hard to build, he was filled with rage and heaviness and despair.
He had been given all kinds of eitzes when he occasionally summoned up the courage to speak to a Rabbi about his problem. There were, for example, certain verses from Tehilim to be said, over and over, every day:
"Create in me a pure heart Elohim, God of justice, and renew a correct spirit inside of me."
The words were sweet and true and purified automatically. The power was in them from zechus avos, so that even in these latter days they could help the spiritually blind and poor.
Rabbi Kornblum had merely smiled.
"I thought I was going to hear something new" he said, "not something that nearly every second bocher has to deal with. You mustn’t get depressed about it, because that is exactly what the yetzer hora wants, to make you feel it is hopeless and that there is no point in trying."
Gavriel respected Rabbi Kornblum, who seemed very wise and gentle. But he could not help noticing, whenever they spoke, that the rabbi’s breath was terrible. It bothered him that the scholar was unaware of this, and he agonised over whether it was his place to try and hint that it was not to the honour of the Torah's spokesman to have such an unpleasant odour coming from his mouth. In the end he said nothing. Perhaps it was an unworthy thing to notice.
And about his problem - he decided not to give in to despair, and to pray to HaShem to keep his feet from wondering towards the admin office, or his mind towards the women who occupied it.
The shabbos before Tisha B' Av Gavriel put on clean underwear, and over his lighter, cooler tzitzit he placed a clean shirt. In Jerusalem Tisha b’Av fell in the middle of the hot summer, and since it was forbidden to wash your body during the final week, most of the young men at the yeshiva, by the time the fast day arrived, smelt strongly.
He descended to the beis hamidrash. The heat had gathered there, fueled by the assembled bodies, and there were no fans or airconditioning to disperse the clingy air. He had to keep on freeing his shirt at the armpits, and he longed to scratch amongst his pubic hair. But he eased his thoughts away from bodily sensations, eyeing the Borsalino hat of the bocher in front of him while his lips moved by themselves around the familiar prayers. Then mincha was over, and kabbalos shabos began.
They sang lecha dodi with great fervour, shifting and swaying to receive the shabas queen. Gavriel's heart lifted with the tune, and closing his eyes, he sang as loudly as he could, tried to be taken up by a holy wave, to be filled with misty kedusha. Then it ended, and chairs scraped as they sat down to hear the sermon. He was pleasantly exhausted, having studied late the previous night, and he only caught snatches of the stately rosh yeshiva’s talk.
After prayer there was the shabas meal which they all ate together in the dining hall. When that finished, too tired to learn, Gavriel went up to his room and ate a few of the biscuits he had brought for shabos. He stopped reading when the automatic clock turned the lights off, and lay in the flickering glow cast by the candles Tuvia - away this shabos - had lit. Their dim red light reminded him of Jerusalem torched by the Romans on that Tisha B'Av two thousand years ago.
At high school, in his native country, before he had come to yeshiva, he had learnt of the Holocaust - read books and seen films about it, even heard a survivor who came to lecture. But only at yeshiva had he discovered how the Jewish tragedy stretched back to the destruction of the temple - indeed had its roots there. It spead outwards in time from there to the breaching of the walls of the second temple, to the fall of Betar, to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and into the long golus - exile - which, said his rabbis, not even the modern State of Israel had ended.
Gavriel had seen a model of the temple only three days before, but it was the architectural drawings on display there that had really bought home to him the scale of the whole Temple Mount Area. 'Were they Jews just like us', he wondered, 'the ones who looked up every day and saw the Beis Hamikdash towering above them.'
As he listened to the dogs barking from the Arab houses down the road, he tried to derive a feeling of significance from the fact that he lay so close the temple mount. Perhaps where his bed was now had stood the home of a Jew who walked every day to the Temple compound, to the market below its walls, or perhaps - at the end of the day - to use the mikvot near the steps leading up to the temple. After all, it was only ten minutes walk away from here. And what would that distant ancestor of his have felt had he been standing on the massive walls when - in the distance - the tiny figures of the advancing Roman army appeared ?
Gavriel knew what he himself, had he been there, would have felt. He knew with certainty he was a coward, he would not have been one of the biryonim who resisted, he would have hid trembling under the bed, leaving his family to fend for themselves as the Romans, burly, big, rough voiced and menacing burst in to drag them out …
He began to think about the cruelty of the ancient world, of pillage and rapine. He remembered a painting in a National Geographic which had fascinated him. It was of the sack of Rome. On one side it showed long haired barbarians fingering bolts of fabric and looted ornaments while bloodied Roman centurions stood passively by. On the other were Roman women, dressed in white and hugging each other. What had really drawn Gavriel’s eye was the naked girl in the foreground, her back to the viewer, her face hidden amidst the folds of a stout matrons toga. By her height she was a child, but the artist had given her the curved hips and buttocks of a woman. And in the recesses of the painting were tiny figures of other naked women - one being hoisted in the air, her breasts prominently out thrust, another kneeling, and a third lying with her arm raised protectively above her face as if to ward of a blow, while an equally tiny Vandal, his face a demonic smudge, knelt over her.
Even with only a thin sheet upon him it was very hot. He threw the sheet off and lay there in his pyjamas. What would it have been like to be alive then? Better not to have been a Jew, better to have been amongst the conquerors, the barbarians, a dirty sweaty soldier, unaccountable, anonymous, given sanction by the general collapse and chaos to grab whatever he wanted, do whatever he wanted …
Whatever he wanted.
His thoughts began to excite him.
He got up, red eyed and exhausted, determined not to be defeated again, determined not to believe he had no free choice because he had used it to choose wrongly. He must go to where others were. That alone could save him. As Hillel said: ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’.
One cannot, Gavriel told himself, sin in public.
Down he went, to the beis hamidrash, almost empty now except for a few dedicated scholars swaying to the rhythm of the words of the Talmud. He tried to learn as well, but his mind refused to take hold of the ideas offered it. He put his head down on the desk and closed his eyes, listening to the voices reasoning and arguing, the sweet chant of the boatmen of the Talmud.
After a while he moved a shtender over to a recess, away from prying eyes, and read tehilim, drinking in the words, hanging on to them, ad-libbing from them, inserting his personal plea to be made whole and content with his lot. Then his mind came back to the verse at hand:
"Create in me a pure heart Elohim, God of justice, and renew a correct spirit inside of me."


The beis hamidrash was full. Most of the light bulbs had been removed, so that even though the dusk was gathering, it was still dimmer inside than outside. The chairs and tables had all been put aside, and people sat on the floor. It was forbidden to wear leather, so all wore plastic shoes, or socks without shoes. The book of Lamentations was read in a subdued minor manner,and when the reading was done a visiting rabbi stood up to deliver a talk. This rov was an important rosh yeshiva, and it was considered an honour that he had consented to leave his own yeshiva and constituents to deliver a talk in their beis hamidrash.
The guest speaker - "the ilustrious, brilliant Rav Mordechai Himmelshtein, may he live a good long life" as their rosh yeshiva introduced him - was a small man, but he appeared very broad because he wore a great many pairs of tzitzit. It was rumoured that he had vowed always to wear them, for some mysterious reason known only to himself. The bocherim whispered amongst themselves, trying to guess how many pairs the rov was wearing. The estimates ranged from seventy to one hundred. It must be very hot under all those layers. Obviously the rov existed on a different plane, else he would not be able to bear it.
"Modern man", began the rabbi, speaking in a tiny voice which his audience strained to hear, "surrounds himself with theories and trinkets. He reads ‘good' novels - bobbemeises, he goes to concerts and plays and films in which he sees adultery and violence glorified, he makes sure he will not have a spare moment to reflect what he is living for. At expensive restaurants he wastes money on food he does not need, and goes home to the spiritually numbing blare of the TV, the radio, the record-player. This so called entertainment is all about distraction, diversion, diffusion of the light, to help him forget that one day he will die, and that we come to this world not for pleasure, not to take and to grab and to stuff ourselves, but to give and to serve and to grow. He is afraid to remember this, so he keeps the babble very loud to drown out the thin clear voice he is afraid to hear.
"And then there are his ‘theories' - that is, his clever excuses not to heed the creator, to indulge all of his selfish passions and lusts. Yes bnei Torah, we have had many neviay hasheker in the last one hundred and fifty years. There was Darwin. He put forward the proposition that we are descended from monkeys, and was acclaimed by the entire goyishe world. Then along came a Jew. He agreed with Darwin that man is an animal. Make sure that every man has a full belly and a roof over his head and mankind will be saved ! That is what this man Marx said, and we only have to look at the millions slaughtered by Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot to see how happy and free this theory has made people. But then along came another Yid - only a Jew could go so far in the wrong direction - and said: you're quite right, Darwin and Marx, man IS an animal, but it's not his stomach that motivates him, no my learned colleagues, you must look a little lower down. This was Freud, and his ‘contribution' to mankind was to ‘prove’ that man is only motivated by low, base, animal drives - by taives. These ‘great' thinkers, HaShem Yerachem, were all trying to prove only one thing: that man does have a soul. But you and I, dear benei Torah, know something that they were trying so hard to forget. Yes, we know
the rabbi banged the rostrum so hard that Gavriel, and several other bocherim, started nervously
that man DOES have a soul, and it screams out through all the chains these charlatans place upon it, screams to be reunited with its eternal source. Man is not a stomach, dear benei Torah, no he is not a stomach or a set of detached sexual organs. He is a soul which seeks, via the body, expression in the world.
"Yet do not think that the rot is only out there, that here in the tents of the Torah we are safe from being corrupted. No, even here we are assailed by the slimy lies and distortions of neviay hasheker. They enter into our lives, become one with our thoughts, until we cannot distinguish between what is ours and what is not.
"That is what this exile is, a night where we cannot tell friend from foe, purity from impurity. That is what the destruction of our temple, of our glorious Beis Hamikdash is all about. Do you know that the other day I received a phone call ? It was from a young woman, a very young woman, whose husband learns in a kollel in Mattersdorf. She had a sheila. What was her sheila ? A tear in a lung ? Blood spots ? Something that the wife of a kollelman should be checking up ? No, benei Torah, her sheilah was different. Her husband had been putting pressure on her to shower with him, and to perform oral sex.
"She was distraught, and wanted to know if it was permissible, because her husband will not lay off. Disgusting abomination ! Here, in Mattersdorf, in eer hakoydesh, Yerushalayim. Here, in the supposed fortress of a world conquered by tumah, here amongst ourselves - we too have forgotten that man has a soul. Let me remind you why the desire for woman was planted in man. It is to bring to the holy act of creation, where HaShem, husband and wife come together to bring more souls down to this world, so that they too may find their tikun.
"This is such an awesome task, it is so elevated, we cannot begin to comprehend its significance. No less than the Rambam points out that after ejaculation has occurred, the man looses all interest in the woman's body, a sure proof that the purpose of desire has been achieved. You would not use a spade made of priceless gold and silver and precious stones to shovel manure, would you ? So why do we allow ourselves to pervert great gifts for ignoble ends ? Ribono shel Olam, we have been given so much, and we are asked for so little in return. Yet we refuse to give it ! Why ? Why ? Are we crazed ? Are we fools ? Are we, rachmana litzlan reshaim ?
"No. It is because we too, benei torah, we, who should know better than anyone else, we too - great is our shame - have forgotten that man has a soul. That is why the Beis Hamikdash has not yet been rebuilt, because we have forgotten. But remembering will bring the redemption, G-d willing, soon in our days, Amen."
"Amen" answered the packed beis hamidrash.
"Amen" mumbled Gavriel.
The drasha ended suddenly, and it left Gavriel perturbed and unsettled. It was supposed to inspire, fill you with thoughts of tshuva, but it had just excited him. How could the Rov throw something like that out before a crowd of bocherim ? Were they married and elderly, judges, prophets, people who could see the lie of the physical from without a thick cloud of sensual vapours ? Maybe the others had been horrified by the story of kollelman, but he had been fascinated. To be married, to have someone kneeling before him in the shower, her large breasts ballooned against his thighs... Oh there could be no words for that.
He fled from his thoughts to the upstairs study hall, but his thoughts fled with him. Taking down a heavy leather bound volume of the Talmud - Gitin - he held it in his hand, felt its cracked cool leather against his sweaty palm. He hugged the volume to his chest, moved slowly towards a shtender, but found himself outside on the balcony, his eyes brushing the lit windows opposite him. Was that a woman there, bending over something ? Maybe she was about to get
undressed ...
Another bocher, an Israeli, came onto the balcony. Gavriel started nervously. Had he been seen gazing across? The Israeli engaged him in conversation, and Gavriel gradually relaxed as the other gave no indication of suspecting anything. He rejected the offer of studying together, explained politely that he was exhausted, that he wanted to be fresh for prayer the following day. Then he hastened the conversation to its end, watching uncaringly as he rejected the chance being held out to him, watching as if in a dream how salvation had lost all taste in the face of the need for some kind of consummation now.
Gavriel left the beis hamidrash, went to his room, turned the key in the lock. He knew he was being tricked, that even before the burning had been spat out he would be beyond it, sober and regretting. But the vision of the woman in the shower thrust forward, and his being rushed to embrace it. Drops of water trickled from her turgid nipples. His hands squeezed her soft heavy udders. Squeezed.
‘Stop it !’ he commanded himself hollowly, ‘not on Tisha B' Av.’
‘Just a bit' the other voice said, 'just a bit' it coaxed, 'just a bit, like Avishag and David.'
His hand remained where it was, doing what it was. Gavriel's whole being began to vibrate to its creeping rhythm. It was too late, he wanted it, there was nothing else anyway. The burning stole up and up, was all of him for a fleeting moment, and then was gone.
‘You made me do it’ Gavriel raged against the emptiness, even before the white drops had wetted his stomach and leg.
He cradled his forlorn penis - it made no difference now if he touched it or not - while his breathing settled, then began rolling his head from side to side, wishing in some way to hurt himself, to punish himself for having become part of the great universal defeat which he had almost avoided.
‘Nero', he thought bitterly, ‘fiddling while Jerusalem burns.'
A teardrop of semen rolled down his leg.
(I wrote this short story in the late nineteen eighties, probably while I was at University)



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