Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved. Some of the buildings still bore the marks of the war that had divided the city a decade earlier. In the background you could hear the distant strains of an accordion, or the plaintive sound of a harmonica from behind closed shutters.
In many flats in Jerusalem you might find van Gogh’s starry whirlpool skies or his shimmering cypresses on the living room wall, rush mats on the floors of the small rooms, and Doctor Zhivago or Yizhar’s Days of Ziklag lying open, face-down, on a foam sofa bed that was covered with a length of Middle Eastern cloth and piled with embroidered cushions. A paraffin heater burned all evening long with a blue flame. In a corner of the room a tasteful bunch of thorn twigs sprouted from a mortar shell casing.
At the beginning of December, Shmuel Ash abandoned his studies at the university and decided to leave Jerusalem, because his relationship had broken down, because his research had stalled, and especially because his father’s finances had collapsed and Shmuel had to look for work.
Shmuel was a stocky, bearded young man of around twenty-five, shy, emotional, socialist, asthmatic, liable to veer from wild enthusiasm to disappointment and back again. His shoulders were broad, his neck was short and thick, and his fingers, too, were thick and short, as if they each lacked a knuckle. From every pore of Shmuel Ash’s face and neck curled wiry hairs like steel wool: this beard continued upward till it merged with the tousled hair of his head and downward to the curling thicket of his chest. From a distance he always seemed, summer and winter alike, to be agitated and pouring with sweat. But close up, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that instead of a sour smell of sweat, his skin somehow exuded a delicate odor of talcum powder. He would be instantly intoxicated by new ideas, provided they were wittily dressed up and involved some paradox. But he also tended to tire quickly, possibly on account of an enlarged heart and his asthma.
His eyes filled easily with tears, which caused him embarrassment and even shame. A kitten mewling by a wall on a winter’s night, having lost its mother perhaps, and darting heartrending glances at Shmuel while rubbing itself against his leg, would make his eyes well up. Or if, at the end of some mediocre film about loneliness and despair at the Edison Theater, it turned out that the bad guy had a heart of gold, he could be choked with tears. And if he spotted a thin woman with a child, total strangers, coming out of Shaare Zedek Hospital, hugging each other and sobbing, he would start weeping too.
In those days, it was usual to see crying as something that women did. A weeping male aroused revulsion, and even faint disgust, rather like a woman with a beard. Shmuel was ashamed of this weakness of his and made an effort to control it, but in vain. Deep down he shared the ridicule that his sensitivity aroused, and was reconciled to the thought that there was some flaw in his virility, and that therefore it was likely that his life would be sterile and that he would achieve nothing much.
But what do you do, he sometimes asked himself with disgust, beyond feeling pity? For instance, you could have picked that kitten up, sheltered it inside your coat, and brought it back to your room. Who would have stopped you? And as for the sobbing woman with the child, you could simply have gone up to them and asked if there was anything you could do to help. You could have sat the child down on the balcony with a book and some biscuits while you and the woman sat side by side on your bed discussing what had happened to her and what you might try to do for her.
A few days before she left him, Yardena said: “Either you’re like an excited puppy, rushing around noisily ?— ?even when you’re sitting on a chair you’re somehow chasing your own tail ?— ?or else you’re the opposite, lying on your bed for days on end like an unaired quilt.”
She was alluding, on the one hand, to his perpetual tiredness and, on the other, to a certain choppy quality in his gait, as if he were always about to break into a run. He would leap up steps two at a time. He rushed across busy roads at an angle, risking his life, not looking right or left, hurling himself into the heart of a skirmish, his bushy, bearded head thrust forward, his body leaning with it, as if eager for the fray. His legs always seemed to be chasing after his body, which in turn was pursuing his head, as if they were afraid of being left behind when he disappeared around the next corner. He ran all day long, frantically, out of breath, not because he was afraid of being late for a class or a political meeting but because at every moment, morning or evening, he was struggling to do everything he had to do, to cross off all the items on his daily list, and to return at last to the peace and quiet of his room. Each day of his life seemed to him like a laborious circular obstacle course, from the time he was wrenched from sleep in the morning until he was back under his quilt again.
He loved to lecture anyone who would listen, particularly his comrades from the Socialist Renewal Group: he loved to clarify, to state the facts, to contradict, to refute, and to reinvent. He spoke at length, with enjoyment, wit, and brio. But when the reply came, when it was his turn to listen to others’ ideas, Shmuel was suddenly impatient, distracted, tired, until his eyes closed and his tousled head sank down onto his shaggy chest.
He enjoyed haranguing Yardena too, sweeping away received ideas, drawing conclusions from assumptions and vice versa. But when she spoke to him, his eyelids drooped after a minute or two. She accused him of not listening to a word she was saying, he denied it, she asked him to repeat what she had just said, and he changed the subject and told her about some blunder committed by Ben-Gurion. He was kindhearted, generous, brimming with goodwill, and as soft as a woolen glove, going out of his way to make himself useful, but at the same time he was muddled and impatient. He never knew where he had put his other sock, what exactly his landlord wanted from him, or whom he had lent his lectures notes to. On the other hand, he was never muddled when he stood up to quote with devastating accuracy what Kropotkin had said about Nechayev after their first meeting, and what he had said two years later. Or which of Jesus’ apostles was less talkative than the rest.
Though Yardena liked his bouncy spirit, his helplessness, and the exuberance that made her think of a friendly, high-spirited dog, always nuzzling you, demanding to be petted, and drooling in your lap, she had decided to leave him and accept a proposal of marriage from her previous boyfriend, a hard-working, taciturn hydrologist by the name of Nesher Sharshevsky, a specialist in rainwater collection, who nearly always managed to anticipate whatever she might want next. He had bought her a pretty scarf for her secular birthday, and two days later, on her religious birthday, he had given her a small green oriental rug. He even remembered her parents’ birthdays.