by Yaacov Siman-Tov
Opposite our classroom window lived a tall man. I used to see him in the window, washing a plate in a bowl of water, brushing his teeth at length in front of a small mirror which hung on the wall near the window, combing his thick black hair, parting it neatly on the side. Then he would put on a bow tie over his white shirt, one that he always wore. He would take a violin, which looked very small between his big hand and his chin, and very gently pass the bow over the strings. He played for two hours every day, and when we came back from the long break he was still absorbed in his playing. When he finished, he would place the violin in its case, pick up a small suitcase tied with a rope and leave the room. I could not imagine where he went and what was in the suitcase. We never saw another person in his room, not even his landlady, who could be seen through another window in the same apartment. His playing, or rather, his actions before he played ¬eating from the one plate, washing it, standing in front of the small mirror, the careful tying of the bow tie - were all mysterious to me. The music he drew from his violin was unlike any I had ever heard, since in those days nobody in our neighborhood had a radio.
"Do you know what he is playing?"
Adon Artzi's direct question alarmed me, though he was the least alarming of the teachers.
"No," I said, "I was just listening."
Adon Artzi, who was childless, was unlike the other teachers. He did not wear a hat but a big brown beret which he pulled down over his right ear. He usually wore khaki wool trousers with a sharp crease and very wide belt loops which looked military, though 1 never figured out what possible military use could be made of them. He had recently been discharged from the Jewish Brigade and had been in Europe. During geography lessons he tried to discuss things which were not in the textbook. He also gave us free recorder lessons after school. It was said that he was a yekke from Germany, and that all the yekkes liked to play music. He did not scold me for being absorbed in that man in the window.
"He is playing Mozart," he said. "He was a great artist in Germany. He played in the Berlin orchestra until he fled from the evil Hitler. He has no family left."
"What's an orchestra?" asked Eliahu Mizrahi, who was not afraid of the teachers.
Artzi opened his blue eyes, which looked huge and angry through his glasses. He turned his back to the class, glanced at the man in the window, put the chalk beside the blackboard and stood still. We sensed a connection between his silence and his glance at that man, and did not utter a word.
The silence was an alliance between the pupils and Adon Artzi, and between us and the man in the window.
The teacher turned back to us, took off his spectacles and wiped them with a handkerchief.
"Next week there will be a parade of the British army to mark the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany," he said.
I heard the sounds of the parade from afar. When 1 got as far as the German Hospital at the intersection of Chancellor and Nevi'im streets, 1 broke into a run, and a moment later 1 was in Jaffa Road which was blocked with people crowding the pavement. The sounds came closer. Trumpets, drums, a yearning wail of bagpipes, like those of the Scottish soldiers 1 used to see in the Schneller wood near our neighborhood. The wailing of the bagpipes swirled in the heavy heat which hung over the crowd, and continued when the other instruments broke off now and then. It sounded as though there was a cheerful competition going on somewhere far off between unseen groups of musicians. 1 tried to push through the massed crowd or to find a spot where they would not block my view, but did not succeed.
The parade was approaching. The band was really close, and 1 was going to miss it all.
Then I saw the concrete and iron skeleton of a columned building which was under construction. It had a flat roof. Could I climb up and reach it? Between its raw columns I saw a passage to the plot at the back of the building. Near a heap of rubbish beside the back door of the Tarablous restaurant I saw a tall mound of gravel. I climbed to its top, stretched out a hand and a moment later I was the solitary monarch of the broad tarred roof. My throat was thick with the solemnity of the throng, the flags and the sounds. Down below in the street the British army band came to a halt. The musicians wore safari jackets with high stiff collars to which were attached metal numbers, each player his own serial number. The band-leader faced them, holding a long baton with a gleaming metal tip. I did not understand how they both could carry their heavy instruments and keep playing in the intense heat.
Golden cymbals clashed together, beating the air and spreading waves of heat. The band moved on. Red-faced English soldiers swung their arms and the pounding of their hobnailed boots could be heard through the band music. I saw that one of them had a razor cut on his pimply cheek. Did these soldiers defeat the Germans? I recalled the picture of Churchill and his thick cigar which I had seen in a newspaper in Baruch, the barber's shop, when he was explaining to the neighborhood mukhtar what Churchill meant by the V sign he made with his fingers. From a distance the cymbals still flashed like a pair of huge mirrors in which the surrounding faces were reflected and distorted.
I sat down and raised my knees to my face.
The skirts worn by the Scottish musicians seemed to me perfectly commonplace. Did the Scots also fight? With those musical instruments?
Suddenly a roar shook the air. An enormous elephant approached, ridden by an Indian soldier wearing a khaki turban, and then another elephant. They were followed by brown-faced Indian soldiers marching in threes, all turbaned and bearing rifles with bayonets. When the elephants' vast backsides had passed by like a dream, a silence fell, disturbed only by the pounding of hobnailed boots, insistent and rhythmical. The red keffiyehs of the soldiers of the Arab Legion spread like a blush in the military carpet as it moved down the road. Then came the sound of large paws, like a wet cloth slapping against a wall, and a camel's hump passed by like a wave surmounted by a Legionnaire, reminding me of the Yemenite lifeguard perched on his surfboard at the seaside in Tel Aviv. Wrapped in his red keffiyeh, the Legionnaire sat atop the hump, his left leg folded and his right hanging down, clinging to the camel's belly. He wore a bandolier of bullets diagonally on his chest, and held his rifle loosely across his knees. He moved forward with the wavelike rhythm of the camel's motion. For a moment his head was at the level of mine across the width of the pavement. As if sensing my eyes on him, he turned and flashed a pair of green lightning bolts at me. His eyes were very bright in his dark face. His mouth was hidden by the keffiyeh, but on his cheek was an olive-sized mole, a paler brown than his face.
When our glances met, his face livened and he winked at me and showed his white teeth. "Mine heart shall sound like pipes," I quoted to myself, while he already passed on. The Legionnaires frightened me with the intense power they radiated. The Indian elephants, which reminded me of pictures from the film about the elephant boy, confused me, and I failed to understand what part they had played in the victory over the Germans.
I searched for a glimpse of the Legionnaire on the camel, but he had vanished down King George Street. Suddenly I spotted the head of the violin-playing man from the window. He was on the pavement below. He walked along the human wall with its back to him. His suitcase hung from the rope around his neck, opened like a tray in front, filled with toothbrushes, razor blades, soaps. He held its lid open with one hand. "Soaps, razor blades, brushes, extra, please!" he pleaded in a fragile voice. No one paid him any attention. His suitcase bumped accidentally against a man who turned around and shouted something. His pathetic appearance drained away my excitement over the parade, and I climbed down from the roof.
"No," I said to myself. "It isn't possible that he was a great artist in the Berlin orchestra."
I don't remember how long it was after that day that my relatives from Tel Aviv came to celebrate the bar mitzvah of their son Shimeon in the Holy City. They felt strongly about holding it at the synagogue of the forced converts of Mashhad, which stood in our courtyard. The synagogue stood on the highest of three linked courtyards - the poorest was the lowermost courtyard, where we lived, the better off lived on the middle level, and on the uppermost level rose the synagogue with its many windows which gazed down on the rest of us. I never understood what had happened to those quiet people, and what made them different from the rest of the Persian Jews. I was always vaguely pleased by the slight, secretive, affectionate nod of the Bokharan men when I answered their question to which synagogue I belonged.
Shimeon had his Torah ceremony on Saturday, and a day or two later the Jewish underground blew up the King David Hotel. I spent the days of the curfew quite happily in the company of this older Tel Avivian companion whom circumstances had provided for me. I fed him stories about underground heroes who hid nearby, and about the pistol which a fleeing Etzel man had dropped, which I found and secreted in a cave, and later gave to Sasson, the widow's son who worked in a forge, and whom I believed to belong to the Etzel, on account of the blue overalls he wore.
(It later transpired that I had guessed right. One night when the alarm sounded, Sasson crept home to the courtyard, wounded. A few moments later the British arrived and dragged him out by force, ignoring his mother who wept and clutched the officer's leg and fainted. They took him to the Russian Compound and later deported him to Eritrea. His mother gave me the stamps from his letters, which I read to her because she could not.)
"Come on," said Shimeon, "let's go to the King David. Do you know where it is?"
Having won the respect of the neighborhood children by my friendship with a bar mitzvah-age boy, moreover a Tel Avivian, I could not admit that I did not know where the King David Hotel was. I nodded and asked him not to tell the grownups where we were going.
"We want to buy Volga ice-cream," I said to my mother. "Or maybe Allenby ice-cream. So don't worry if we're late."
My mother and Shimeon's mother were sitting in the courtyard. They were content to be rid of us, and only said we were not to wander too far.
When my sister heard this, she jumped up and wanted to join us. It rather spoiled the adventure of visiting the ruins of the King David, but we agreed to take her along so as not to arouse suspicion. I was secretly proud to be seen with a bare-headed Tel Aviv boy, and I deliberately went in a roundabout way. I knew that the British government buildings were clustered not far from Yemin Moshe, and I had an idea where that was. I used to see the sails of the Yemin Moshe windmill from the bus on which I traveled with my grandmother who always took her grandchildren with her on her fast days to visit Rachel's Tomb. The windmill was her sign to start weeping. She was sure that Yemin Moshe was named after the Biblical Moses, and she would mumble and sob, naming the four Matriarchs, until the bus stopped at Rachel's Tomb.
I was afraid to proceed to Princess Mary Street, which swarmed with Arab bully-boys, especially near the Rex Cinema, so I led the way to King George Street. An Arab policeman directed the traffic at the intersection of King George and Jaffa Road. He stood under his little canopy in the crossroad and waited for approaching vehicles. As soon as he spotted a car or a motorcycle heading his way, he straightened up and waited tensely until he could signal with his white gloves to stop or to drive on. In the window of the Yampolsky Pharmacy hung a sign, "Jew, speak Hebrew and you will be healed!" Underneath were lines in other languages. Perhaps if each nation spoke in its own language everyone would be well and need no medications.
Some days later I put this advice to good use. My friend Shmuel Levy, who lived in the low courtyard near me, fell ill and nothing seemed to help. "Stop speaking Persian with your parents," I whispered to him, and told him about the medical advice of Dr. Yampolsky the chemist.
I pretended to know the way perfectly and led the way towards the buildings of the Jewish Agency. From here on we found ourselves in a strange area in which few people walked, either Arabs or Jews. On the left stood an unfinished building under which gaped a large water cistern with limed walls. I was tempted to pronounce it the ruins of the King David Hotel, but pulled myself together at the sight of the YMCA tower which rose before us. Further down, near the turning of Mamillah Street, there was a cactus hedge, and beyond it stood a knot of British soldiers. They were a sign that we were nearing the area of the British government and the King David itself.
A group of schoolgirls in gray uniforms emerged walking in pairs from a convent gate led by two old women. In the middle of a great white courtyard stood a round building which had over its entrance a stone relief of a woman holding a baby. She wore a crown shaped like a garland of stars and a large string of beads hung from her fingers. High above her rose an enormous cross.
The girls were singing in low voices, and Shimeon declared that they were French. I thought that they were Arab. There was something sad about their singing. Just so did the children of the Blumenthal Orphanage sing, when I saw them marching in line behind their supervisor up Yehezkel Street, to recite the Psalms to bereaved families. From the Moslem cemetery on our left came the chirring of a cricket. We continued to walk down the hill. I remembered seeing in Seri's grocery a picture in a magazine from which he tore pages to wrap the pickled fish from the barrel, a picture of a beautiful flower which lured flies and insects into its open maw and then closed it upon them.
All at once, without saying a word, the three of us had become partners in a grave matter which might end badly.
My sister took hold of my hand and I made no objection.
Beyond the tall trees which cast shadows on the tombstones, a building suddenly appeared out of the parched air, looking like the palace of Haroun al-Rashid in the tales of A Thousand and One Nights. Four stories of rosy stone, all arches and windows which started big and became smaller on the upper floors, six-pointed stars, tassels and flowers carved in stone, horseshoe arches, stained glass in the vast windows of the ground floor ... Over the entrance archway the sign was carved in large English letters, each letter on a separate stone - Palace Hotel. High above it an Arabic inscription was engraved in elaborate curlicues.
While we three stood goggling at the sight, suddenly there were sharp whistle blasts, then much shouting, and a stream of important-looking men and women rushed out of the building, as if fleeing from a fire inside. A military lorry stopped beside us and out of it jumped soldiers who quickly surrounded the building while facing the street.
"These are Legionnaires," said Shimeon. "I recognize them from the Album of the Armies of the World."
They did indeed look like the Legionnaires 1 had seen in the victory parade, only this time they were not wearing Keffiyehs. They wore stiff, peaked caps with a little metal tip on top, which looked like tiny bayonets. They were as nimble as cats and quickly carried out their commander's orders. He stood with his back to us and gave orders in Arabic. At the same time he stepped backwards, step after step, until he bumped into me.
He turned his head and fired two green arrows from his dark face, which had an olive-sized mole on its cheek. Our eyes met for a moment.
"Yallah, itla', itla'!" he shouted at us. For a moment we stood stock still.
Behind us was the cemetery and in front were the Legionnaires, all in readiness for whatever threatened the beautiful building. We forgot the bombed King David Hotel, and 1 thanked heaven for saving me from that awkwardness. We turned around and went home quickly.
After that summer 1 went up to the sixth grade. We moved to a different classroom and 1 never saw the violin-player in the window again.
1 often stared at his window during the breaks, but he was not there. One of the boys said he had been seen selling condoms to British soldiers in the Europa Cafe. Then 1 discovered that Cohen's restaurant opposite the school had a radio, and 1 made a habit of stopping outside after school to listen to the Voice of Jerusalem. Now and then 1 heard music which reminded me of the playing of the man in the window, but he had disappeared.
Sometimes in the long afternoons we went into the wheatfields of the Arabs behind Shmuel Hanavi Street, between the police academy, which we called "the white house," and the first houses of Sheikh Jarah, near the Hapoel playing field and the local zoo. But before we could pluck a handful of ripe ears, an unseen fellah would yell at us, "Yallah, ya walad, itla' min zara'ah!" 1 always ran away. Who was the man who shouted, and what did it/a' mean?
Came days when no one went into the fields beyond Shmuel Hanavi Street.
The Arab shepherds stopped coming with their flocks to sell milk. The noisy groups of fellahin who used to herald the dawn when they emerged from the night on the path from the hills of Shuafat, also disappeared.
One day 1 saw Yoske's mother wearing a black dress and a black kerchief on her head. She was walking to the market, talking to herself, and her eyes were red and puffy. A small pathetic figure. I had seen Yoske a few days earlier, dressed in military uniform, riding an armor vehicle of the Guard Corps, holding a submachine gun with a dangling belt of cartridges. Someone said they were on their way to Gush Etzion. One day very early in the morning, before the shamash of the synagogue called the men to dawn prayer, a mighty explosion rattled the windows. A bunch of us walked to school together and we saw other groups walking ahead of us. Above our heads flew flocks of birds. It looked as if they had banded together for the same reason whose odor hung in the air. In the school-yard people talked about Ben- Yehudah Street. I left my satchel in the classroom and ran there together with Eliyahu Mizrahi who feared nobody. I did not recognize the place. The shape of the street had changed, and reminded me of the mouth of Shmuel Levi's father which collapsed every evening when he took out his false teeth and put them in a glass. When we arrived, there were already hundreds of people there busy removing the dead and the wounded from the rubble. They worked quietly as if they had been at this task for a long time.
It was cold and smoke hung in the air. We stopped beside a woman who was smoking nervously, holding a small boy by the hand. I wanted to ask her if she had come out of the ruins, but I did not dare.
And then I saw him. His hair was disheveled, he was barefoot, dressed in a pyjama top and long underpants. His head was tilted sideways, as it did when he played the violin. Blood flowed from his neck on the tilted side.
One night before the eve of Yom Kippur, Hakham Pinhas, the butcher, hung a hurricane lamp on a fence and proceeded to slaughter cockerels for kapparot. He would pass the knife with one smooth movement and fling the cockerel down on the ground. The birds writhed a little in the circle of light from the lamp. We clustered nearby and watched the cockerels die and tried to guess which of them would last longest. When he slaughtered my cockerel its drooping comb looked scarlet in the lamplight. The bird was flung down but fell on its feet. The blood made its slit throat stick, and it ran out of the circle of light until it fell down.
The man from the window held his violin case close to his belly, as if someone might try to take it away from him. He rose from the rubble and walked up the street towards King George Street. I could not follow him because my way was barred by a row of people with white ribbons on their sleeves. I saw him from afar sitting down in the road and then lying on his back, and then people surrounded him.
There followed days of war and siege. The fields of wheat and games beyond Shmuel Hanavi Street became minefields. At night we heard the roars of the hungry lion in the zoo, and when they stopped, we assumed that he had been transferred elsewhere. We heard that the Arab Legion had advanced and reached the Ungarn Courtyards in Meah She'arim. Zevulun Yadgar came home for a two-hour leave one day. He held a sten gun with a clip of cartridges and he showed me how it is loaded, cocked and fired. He promised his sister Miriam that the next time he would bring her a lot of shells.
"Tell me, Zevulun, the Legionnaires - do they wear red keffiyehs or hats with an iron point?"
"Steel helmets," replied Zevulun.
I visualized the quick, lithe Legionnaires whom I had seen swarming around the beautiful building with its English and Arabic signs, and the green eyes of their commander who had ridden the camel in the parade. I imagined them running along the empty Shmuel Hanavi Street.
The oppressive summer's heat drove us out into the courtyard. Two men in uniforms stopped and asked where the Yadgar family lived. They went in and a moment later a dreadful cry rose: "Zevulun!" The Saturday after the armistice I went to look at the border posts near the Mandelbaum Gate, meaning on my way to look in on the football field and the zoo. Along Shmuel Hanavi stood the big concrete cones which had stopped the Legion's tanks. Beyond the boundary stood a two-story Arab house. The second-story parapet was raised with two rows of sandbags. A Legionnaire in a red keffiyeh sat on them, his back resting against the wall, his left leg folded before him and the right hanging down, while he drank from a small glass. Someone must have called to him from inside because he turned his head and spoke. I saw that he had an olive-sized mole on his cheek. Then he noticed me too, and showed two rows of white teeth, and said something to the person inside, without taking his eyes off me. I turned back and started to walk home, convinced that he was still watching me. I marched rhythmically, as if on parade. Some Israeli soldiers were kicking around a football on the road. A concrete cone at one end and a stone at the other marked the goals. The ball flew and landed at my feet. "Hey, boy, let's see you kick!"
I was sure that the Legionnaire was still observing me from the height of the second story. I stopped the ball and with a perfect kick sent it flying past the soldier at the far end into the mine-field. Then I resumed marching as if on a victory parade.
From one of the Israeli army posts came the radio sound of violin music.
Translated from the Hebrew by Yael Lotan
The story was first published in Akhshav, a literary magazine, in 1991.