Someone Knocks at the Door
by Gabriel Levin
for Zali Gurevitch
And my mother looks through the peephole and announces, Brenner is here. אין לי כוח בשבילו [I don’t have the strength to deal with him] I call back from my armchair. This is not Z’s dream but his mother’s, which she recounted to her son on the phone the other day and which Z now relates to me over coffee at the Smadar where we’ve come to mark the occasion of his early retirement from the university. Today he’d taught his last class and partied with his students who had passed around ice-cream cones.
We’re pushing sixty and inevitably the conversation revolves around age. A friend tells Z that old age is the square root of your present age multiplied by ten. When you’re nine, thirty seems old; when twenty-five, fifty. But I’m struck by Z’s mother’s dream. She’s eighty-five, which is old for us. When not fretting over our own ailments, we attend to the decline of our parents. And yet the dream speaks otherwise. This morning, upon waking, Z’s mother’s dream returned to occupy my thoughts. I myself had dreamt plentifully, but as soon as I’d kicked off the sheets whatever dreams I’d had receded from memory, as though making room for Z’s mother’s dream.
My first thought had been that Z’s mother had dreamt her son’s dream. Perhaps in old age we become the transmitter of other people’s dreams. For I cannot help seeing her in the role of the intermediary, the go-between between her son Z and the great Hebrew writer Haim Yosef Brenner who comes knocking at their door. Why Brenner? Ashkenazi Hebrew for ‘burner’, the name apparently stuck to the descendants of a distiller of spirits. Brenner’s own father, however, eked out a living in the small Ukranian town of Novymlini as a melamed or traditional Hebrew schoolteacher. Unvocalized we get four hard consonants — b-r-n-r — in which one of the letters is duplicated. Bet resh nun resh. A sort of Ur-sound, like in H.N. Bialik’s essay ‘Revealment and Concealment in Language:’ ‘Then a kind of savage sound burst spontaneously from his lips — let us assume, in imitation of nature — resembling a beast’s roar, a sound close to the r … r to be found in words for thunder in many languages.’
In a sense Brenner was a distiller of spirits: of Hebrew, and of his own anguished soul. He arrived in Palestine and stuck it out — unlike his compatriot U.N. Gnessin, who wrote the first Hebrew roman fleuve and after touring the fledgling colony in 1908, beat a hasty retreat back to Russia; Brenner held his ground in what was at the time an impoverished outpost of the Ottoman Empire. In spite of it all. He bore the troubles of the land on his back with the same stubborn persistence that he’d lugged copies of his short-lived literary journal HaMe’orer (The Awakener) in a sack slung over his shoulders in London’s East End where he’d sought refuge after deserting the ranks of the Czar’s army during the Russo-Japanese war. That would have been in 1905, the year of the October Revolution in Russia. In 1907, in one of HaMe’orer’s last issues, appeared a translation of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. Two years later he landed penniless in Palestine. Breakdown and Bereavement. The title speaks for itself. The first modern Hebrew novel written in Palestine was unsparing in its portrayal of life in the Yishuv, the colony. And yet for Z’s mother’s generation, Brenner loomed larger than life. She was born, after all, only two years after Brenner was killed defending a homestead outside Jaffa from Arab rioters during the May Day disturbances of 1921.
Brenner was ‘the new Hebrew narrator of our age,’ as Bialik would say, he was the Originator, the conscience of the Second Wave of Immigration, who’d shed all the accouterments of the Diaspora in coming to Palestine ‘as a man longing for the sun,’ and who increasingly took on the role of ascetic and vagabond, tramping the length and breadth of the land, teaching Hebrew ro Russian immigrants in the small Jewish farming settlements. Squinting through the peephole of Z’s apartment door his mother might have been impressed by ‘A short man with a full blond beard and beautiful blue eyes,’ which is how S.Y. Agnon describes Brenner in Only Yesterday, his own novel of the Jewish colony in Ottoman Palestine, dropping in on friends in the then new neighborhood of Neve Tzedek — today a fifteen minute walk from Z’s home: ‘His movements are informal and his clothes are threadbare, and he is bashful among people. Such reticence isn’t because people are held in such high esteem in his eyes, but because he thinks little of himself. But his wisdom shined forth from within his bashfulness without ever exceeding his innocence.’
‘A mother cannot but help thinking of her child as remaining forever in his prime,’ Z shrugs his shoulders, running his fingers through his gray-peppered beard. ‘For her Brenner and I were — are — of the same age,’ Z’s mother has summoned up a meeting between kindred souls. With a touch of hyperbole one might say that for a short while all that separates the brooding, saintly figure of Brenner and the author of the hyper-contemporary, bluesy collection Double Click is a door in a Tel Aviv apartment and a mother’s solicitousness. The question remains: why does Z wave Brenner away. Ain lee koach beshvilo. In the course of our conversation Z speaks of his father’s mental deterioration. They may have to hire a Philippine carer as his mother has no strength left for him. The same words again. Z’s father, whom I remember as a robust water engineer, was orphaned of his father — struck dead by Cossacks — as an infant in Russia and grew up in Mandate Palestine, imbibing the pioneer ethos, singing Russian melodies and declaiming Bialik’s poems around the campfire.
So whose dream are we talking of? Or perhaps we should ask for whom was the dream intended? If solely for Z’s mother’s, one might say that her son voices her own exasperation, her helplessness as she peers through the peephole at the spent glory of her past. Should she let in the image of youthful virility, whether spouse, lover, or poet of the State-in-the-making (and I now recall Z boasting on more than one occasion how the poet Haim — Haim — Gouri had tugged at his mother’s braids in kindergarten) or not? Dreams complete themselves in the telling. Z’s mother rises from bed and calls her son. Hello? Z: Yes? I’ve had the strangest dream. Nu? Guess who appeared in my dream. Nu? Someone knocks at the door and I look through the peephole and lo and behold Brenner is standing there on the other side. You’re kidding. Honestly. Haim Yosef Brenner? That’s right. So then what happens? I call out to you, Z, Brenner is here to see you, and you call back from the armchair at the far end of the room, ain lee koah beshvilo. There is a long pause. I snubbed Brenner? Yes, dear, he stood there on the other side of the peephole for a while with those soulful eyes of his and then he left.
We share a world when we are awake; each sleeper is in a world of his own (Heraclitus). We can never know for sure what Z’s mother dreamt. In each telling and retelling the dream undergoes its own transformations in the teller’s and the listener’s mind. Yet I would like to believe that Z’s mother was not so much telling her dream as handing it back — redirecting it — to her son, like a letter slipped into the wrong mailbox. In another dream of Z’s mother that Z recounts to me that same afternoon, of which I remember only a fragment, someone exchanges shoes with Z. So perhaps this is what is going on, Z’s mother gets to walk in her son’s dream, where the latter has no time for Brenner. Idiomatically speaking ain lee koah beshvilo would be more like, I just don’t have the patience for the man anymore. And all of this is conveyed, or rather boomed from the son’s armchair across the living room to his mother.
To interpret the dream as a family romance in its senescence, mother and son shutting off doddering father from their cozy habitat, seems pat, even though I’ve hinted as much earlier on. No, I’d rather like to suggest that Z is turning away from Brenner himself, the man and his shadow: the mood swings, the soul-searching and self-torment, the yetosh (bug), as Beilin writes in his memoir Brenner in London, that ate at Brenner’s heart, and of course life’s high drama lived out in the throes of a catastrophic era: the pogroms, the October Revolution, the Yiddish-Hebrew war of languages, World War I, the jostling for power within the Zionist movement, an oppressive, poorhouose Palestine. Is it not possible that Z is asking (in the name of Hebrew literature?) for a reprieve? Leave me alone Brenner, leave us alone: we’ve had enough of the Fate of the Jewish People. Let me be. Let me shuffle to my study in my advanced years (as old as the state, Brenner) from where I can look out at the rooftops of Tel Aviv to write my ‘Blues for Lunch’:
Solfigetto for whiskers Prelude for pestering Ragtime for palpitations Symphony for mounting anxiety Suite for a complicated grief Impromptu for a birthday Sonata for clarity Rock for strong things Bebop for a shower Con brio for a cup of tea Pianissimo for a door Blues for lunch
by Zali Gurevitch (translated by Gabriel Levin)
A girl’s dance in blue the rhythm of vines’ ballet a field of rustling sunflowers my mother’s face smiling and sad imprinted on countless stamps like the queen of England with a crown of braids on her head
I WENT OUT
I went out to buy a pack of cigarettes to smoke I headed in the opposite direction down neighboring streets I don’t usually take Rabbi Meir, Abba Helkiah, Bruria, people are sitting on a new balcony all fixed-up painted white with lamps fit for a palace and laughing at the street’s end one can see the new traffic circle blooming with gorgeous violet and yellow blossom but the street doesn’t know how to be beautiful it’s hard to fall for it not even time’s beauty, I was beside myself at night I dreamt I had to get off and switch trains on the way to Paris Y is already there I found myself in a coach of mindless people sitting there but no one to ask and my French isn’t anything to brag about it becomes clearer and clearer that we’re heading in the opposite direction I’ve got to get to Gare Austerlitz why Austerlitz god only knows I approach the driver now the train’s a bus and he is wearing a skullcap and maybe does speak English or Hebrew but I address him in French and actually think in the dream how to construct a sentence maybe even try to switch into Hebrew but no he understands me and points when we arrive that I must get off and catch a train back to Paris from the metropolis whose faint outline I see in the distance can’t you take me there? no, and he didn’t explain, I got off, it’s a forsaken town there are patches of snow on the ground across the street a huge, unfamiliar beast hanging on a hook is being quartered I am looking for a place to ask and I wake up the city is far if I don’t get to the city I won’t get to Paris. # I’m full of dreams I can’t remember the storyteller is full of tales that slipped away the composer lost the edge of the music but plays mercilessly on inside him
IN A DREAM SOME TIME AGO I WAS A WOMAN
In a dream some time ago I was a woman to the left of the road exiting from Jerusalem at the end of a miraculous bypath between cornfields behind a barbed-wire fence I climbed onto a stage in a square near a church whose entire facade was crammed with statues I undressed I stood with wonderful tits in front of me was a microphone but I didn’t have to say anything I leaped with joy and the world leaped with joy the world undressed and danced it had already danced earlier when we arrived men and women dancing each dance different some exposed the statues came to life the square filled with people (one can holler with pleasure)