After Thirty Days Mourning (A Father Seeks His Soldier-Son’s Spirit)

“Yosef, come walk the City with me. Come. Walk.

It will be like when you arrived to Israel, we will walk the stones which have stones of history beneath them, and more stones of history beneath those. And I will try to find myself alive.”

Such a request from newly-bereaved Yehuda, Yosef honored. Bereaved by Yehuda son’s death in the last of too many wars; sniper-shot so that his head exploded in a vaper of red spray. Yehuda had completed his thirty days of religious mourning, only to remain haunted.

“I will show you Ori’s favorite Moroccan felafel joint with such spicy harisa, it will make you a real Sephardi Jew, like Ori, will make your tears flow. I will show you the rebuilding of the Hurba, the Synagogue of Ruins that Ori charted like a student of architecture that he was. Ori would have told you that it was built by followers of Yehuda Ha-Hasid in the eighteenth century, destroyed by the Muslims in 1721 and left in ruins for 140 years. Ori showed us how the followers of the Vilna Ha-Gaoen from Lithuania rebuilt it until it was destroyed by the Arab Legion in 1948. And how we are rebuilding it now in the neo-Byzantine style and Ori would explain what that meant, Yosef.

Then, I will show you how Ori taught us about the Roman lay-out of the Cardo, the main street from north to south, from the Damascus Gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Hadrian built this with colonnades after crushing the Bar Kochba revolt.”

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“Yes, Yehuda, the Romans were good at building on the bones of others. Like with Hillel: his flesh, they flayed, then his fat, they rendered in a bonfire. His bones they buried to make a foundation for their City on a Hill. The Christians learned well from the Romans.”

But, now, Yosef could not speak all that was in his heart’s mind: Yehuda, when we turn many of the winding snake paths of the Old City, the blind corners, I see you lurch ahead, seek with your eyes, as if you will find Ori alive in a shadow, in a niche, with his toothy smile illuminating space. Yehuda, you still hope that your professed enemies, your Palestinian neighbors, like the Romans, will build something constructive on the bones of your son-in-law.

Yosef, come. Come with me to seek the memories of Ori. I don’t want those memories to erode. Don’t want to lose more of him.”

“Yehuda, I walk with you.”
“Yosef, I know where we will find him. Come!”

Yehuda double-timed us through the Zion Gate then crossing Hativa Etsioni — that road to commemorate the brigade that liberated the Old City in ’67 — and leaped ahead downwards, Yehuda all knobbly knees and flying elbows through dried brush and nettles.

“Down here, come down, follow! To GeHinnom!”

“Yehuda, GeHinnom where the ancient goyim boiled kids in their mothers’ milk? The Christians called this Gehenna, their Hell. Yehuda, wait, wait!”

To little avail. Yosef tripped after his old friend down shaley rubble dodging desiccated bushes and trees that grabbed at their clothing, like Potiphar’s wife tearing at Joseph’s garb to seduce him. The barely alive plants seemed to want to halt them, hold them back. But, Yosef felt as if he were being frog-marched downwards by some grave gravity against his will, slipping and sliding after the scrambling Yehuda. Something stronger than gravity pulled them into GeHinnom, for it is a grave place. Yet, the nettles and thorns held them back, flayed their skin, said wordlessly, “Abandon all hope…” Yosef noticed — almost against his will, this noticer — that there were gangly, arthritic-stemmed roses struggling in this soil. Someone must have planted them here. Occasionally at the ends of these distorted stems and thorns, a flower bloomed. No, bloom too strong a word; more a dessicated bud struggled to open. They could have been painted by Schiele, one of Yosef’s favorites. This must be a holy matter — some life endures here on Jerusalem’s descent to Hell.

“Yosef, I know I will find him, Ori, in GeHinnom, this valley where children were sacrificed by their parents.”

They arrived breathless, thorn-ripped, bleeding at the nadir, in GeHinnom. Yehuda in tears. Tears beading down his beard, like precious gems, like Swarovski crystals, Yehuda cried, “Somewhere, he’s here somewhere, his spirit. Ori. His soul. He adored Jerusalem. He wouldn’t leave it completely. Look, Yosef, Look! Help me find him!” Yehuda’s hands flailed at the brambles, the dried-up stems, thorny branches, overturned rocks.

And Yosef was dead silent.

Later, alone, alone, Yosef and Yehuda trudged back to the parking lot, Yehuda collecting his ancient diesel-powered chariot, a kibbutz-owned Peugot.

Afterwards, after watching Yehuda putter off in the kibbutz’s diesel van, leaving a coughing smoke cloud in its wake, Yosef felt more than alone with his thoughts and the Judean Hills at sunset.

He thought:

For Jerusalemites, the living ones, it is not enough to walk upon the stones that en- case, cover, try to hide the dead. Instead the dead are brought alive by shucklers and pray-ers, who won’t let the dead rest, who recruit their armies of dead to haunt the living with hatred. Sometime during the British occupation, a decision was made that all new Jerusalem buildings must be stone-clad with Jerusalem stone. The tomb-stones that armor the dead would be quarried to entomb the living. The living are surrounded — below, around and above — — by the stone that should be left to rest beneath their feet. This also helps raise more stone- and bone-dust and this fine ash converts the living into the walking dead. Ash-covered Golems, as if made by Anselm Kiefer, lumbering through Jerusalem’s alleys. In fact one of the main drags, the strip for Americans and tourists and now encroached by kippa-clad youngsters and gals with ankle-length skirts, is named Emek Refaim, Valley of the Giant Ghosts. This town is not only haunted, but also the living try to raise the dead, or perhaps are intoxicated by this dust that converts the living into half-dead, beings like those Hasidim (such as the Lubavitchers and the Bratislavers), who dress in the garb of seventeenth century German burghers, or Medieval (more Mid-Evil) ancient Arabs who wear tents rather than pants and black-checkered head rags with braided black bands, as if they still shepherd goats in the desert; they wait for Mohammed to return on Al-Baraq (“return” to a town where he never had been). Yosef preferred to think of these characters as Disney extras, prefer to have them paid pretenders, rather than their illusioning this as real.

Now, packing his own papers, correspondence, preparing to leave this City on a Hill, Yosef recalls reading Freud’s letter to Stefan Zweig in the early 1930’s after Freud received a copy of Zweig’s raving book about his Palestine venture. Zweig did a tour of the barren turf; just about the right time to be here without being affected by the intoxicant, aridity. Freud responded, perhaps out of respect for Zweig, with something like, “A fascinating land, which produced no science, no art, but gave rise to three delu- sions. It deserves further study.” Yosef likely edited the phrase in his memory. Perhaps Freud said three illusions, but Yosef liked to think that Freud would not object to delusions. In any case, having read this on his arrival, Yosef took the master’s challenge to heart and began his study of delusionary Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is a city whose history won’t stay in the past, won’t stay buried. She had been a match for Yosef, who was borne ceaselessly into the past — Renaissance northern Italy or Biblical meanderings. Yes, Yosef took this as his challenge for the Sabbatical year. Could he press himself to be more in the present, even as he chuckled at those Jerusalemites who dress as if, live as if, dream as if they inhabit some previous archeological level of the city? For, Jerusalem is a layer cake of history, a kind of tel, plateau, built of past layers. Archeologists make a living off unburying the dead, at least the dead stones, discovering new layers. But, many Jerusalemites do these academic stone-diggers, one better. Jerusalemites act as if they were excavated souls from some chosen era: medieval for the Moslems; Christ-eval for Christians, Jude-eval for Hebrews.

But Yehuda, Yehuda just wanted to excavate his Ori, find him beneath the rubble of these stone memories.

Yes, thought Yosef when he had arrived for his Sabbatical, he had planned to live more in the present. But, present’s heart beat, as if nestled in a bed of nettles, is stabbed by deaths.

At home, on his terrace gazing towards the haze over the Dead Sea, Yosef wrote to Yehuda:

‘My Dear old friend,

Paul Celan, the survivor of his parents’ deaths in Auschwitz, who finally sought his own death in the Seine’s depth, wrote about how the living dig with their fingers to reach the dead’s fingers; a Ring unites them. Yehuda, you want to touch Ori, but I feared for how you would be touched.’

Wars awaken a sense of presence; deaths punctuate the present and begin the history of the past and a future of growing shadows, inky table cloths, stained by death.

Written by

Born in a German Displaced Persons' Camp, I grew up in Rochester and attended the University of Chicago College and Med School.

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