Waiting by Steven Koppman
Volume 2 , Issue 5
(June, 1989 | Sivan, 5749)
Robert Goldman came to Jerusalem to learn from the messengers of his
ancestors and whoever else would teach him. He was a whirlwind of anxious
energy when he arrived. His wife had left him two months before; he had no
place, no job, no loyalties left behind. Goldman went straight from Lod
Airport to the Wailing
Wall, wearing the same grey shirt, blue jeans and sneakers he'd traveled in,
carrying only his torn brown traveling bag. It was only a short time since Israel had captured the Old City.
Nothing prepared him for his first sight of the Wall, the vines creeping
erratically between the holy yellow stones; the motley collection of passers-by
meandering randomly about. The sun was high in the cloudless sky, the air
painfully hot. The sounds of Moslems chanting nearby blended with the rushed davening of an old Jew and the roar of an airplane.
As he approached the Wall, bag in hand, sweating from heat and excitement,
shaking slightly, he noticed the bulging whiteness between the stones. At first,it looked like some kind of deterioration, or perhaps
a type of insect infestation. Drawing closer, he saw the scraps of paper,
hundreds, thousands, uncountable notes, business cards, tissues, stuffed incongruously
into the Wall like putty. He put down his bag, reached out and touched the
stones, then fell deliberately to his knees and kissed The Wall lightly.
Standing again, he ran his fingers gingerly over the papers. He looked around
and, when he thought no one would notice, fumbled out a little rectangular
card. ?Dear God,? it read, in English, in a child's penciled black scrawl, ?please
make me smart.?
Goldman's first dreamlike weeks in Jerusalem passed quickly,
breathlessly. He was enchanted at once with the city's extremes of sanctity and
wretchedness, the worlds of the rabbis, the Arabs, the modern Israelis. In his
fevered state of mind he imagined that by embracing all these worlds with a
whole heart, he would somehow encompass the human universe, by the way.
remaking his own life. He fell in love with the Arabs of the Old City, the old old men who sat silently smoking giant water-pipes, filling
the hot afternoon air with the smell of hashish; the women. covering their
faces with black veils and their bodies with enormous black robes; most of all,
the young Arab boys, proving the coldness of their soda bottles by desperately
pressing them against the forearms of an indifferent Goldman, always wanting to
sell what no one wanted to buy, boys with thin limbs and sallow faces,
insistent baby vultures, asking him. then demanding. his money, his clothes.
Would he donate blood? Would he help pull their donkey up the steps? Before, in
teams, dragging Goldman bodily into their kinsmen's innumerable shops.
At the same time, Goldman needed to know
every rabbi in Jerusalem,
and threw himself into the study of Talmud. Each morning he put on tefillin. prayed Shaehrit in his room, then studied through the early
afternoon with a group of pale, thin black-coated men in a small stone
synagogue where the stiff yellowed pages of Gemara,
almost falling from large rotting volumes, could be handled by only one old
man, a designated expert, so they would not break under an untutored touch.
After studying, he wandered the Old City's narrow cavernous streets, falafel
sandwich dripping from his hand, trying to find a shop he'd never seen, a new
corner, maybe one more person, he imagined, to teach him something; later,
scouring other quarters of the city, Arab East Jerusalem, the Orthodox
sections; by night, playing the libertine, smoking harsh home-rolled cigarettes
in coffeehouses, chasing Western girls, lying in wait for Arab university
students he could talk to. seeing every movie, every performance, then later,
unwilling to sleep, wandering more, though the city was black. Rifle-carrying
young soldiers in simple brown uniforms stopped him as he wandered, as if
drunken, through the city's streets till early morning, until they came to know
him as a regular and he realized the imprudence of his habits.
The acquaintance Goldman would best remember
from his days in Jerusalem
was Reb Chaim, who ran a
tiny basement shop in Mea Shearim that sold holy
articles and curiosia. Goldman ransacked the shop
repeatedly as part of his never ending search for ever-stranger and more
genuine gifts to send friends in the States. On one such visit, he told Reb Chaim about himself and his
studies. Reb Chaim
eventually invited Goldman to join him in study at his Ger Synagogue.
Reb Chaim was widely known for his encyclopedic Talmudic
knowledge, his small stature and his will to silence. He was barely four feet
tall and accustomed to going days and sometimes weeks without a word to another
human being. It became a thrill for Goldman to see Reb
Chaim's lips quiver. To customers he responded with a
pointing finger, a weary nod, a sad shrug that lifted the black coat he always
wore in the shop almost over his oddly large ears. Reb
Chaim blessed Goldman with sometimes a smile,
sometimes even a word or two or three, until Goldman felt like an adopted son.
Whenever the old man spoke, of course, Goldman listened; Reb
Chaim burned with a wisdom that must be passed on and
Goldman had a painful anxiety to receive it.
One afternoon. Goldman stepped into the shop and saw Reb
Chaim wearing a great smile. A few tourists and small
old men wandered in and out of the narrow doorway. Reb
Chaim paced vigorously about the shop; he seemed, to
Goldman, infused with an almost supernatural energy. He looked up eagerly at
Goldman and the younger man couldn't help smiling. Reb
Chaim nodded energetically and his face glowed.
?Shalom, what is it?? said Goldman. shaking Reb Chaim's bony little hand. ?You
look so happy.? Reb Chaim
grasped Goldman by the elbow and shoved him into an unoccupied corner of the
shop. He looked up at Goldman with watering grey eyes and nodded repeatedly.
Like reunited lovers, the two stared into each other's eyes for several seconds
more. Reb Chaim started
forming words with his lips but so overcome was he, he could not speak.
Finally, he spoke, in Hebrew. very softly, as if the message were for Goldman
alone. ?Hayom hamoshiach hoo b'Yerushalayim (Today the
Messiah is in Jerusalem)?
he said, nodding for emphasis, holding Goldman's gaze.
Reb Chaim nodded confidently and stretched a bony forefinger
into Goldman's face, repeating himself, emphasizing each word carefully.?Hayom hamoshiach hoo b' Yerushalayim.? Goldman
smiled dumbly, not knowing what to say. After a moment, Reb
Chaim stepped back to his customers.
Now Reb Chaim was hardly a man given to bold or abstract
pronouncements. Everything he had ever said to Goldman, on those occasions when
he had deigned to speak, had been almost depressing in itsconcreteness,
it's seeming ordinariness, from which Goldman struggled to glean morsels of
meaning. Reb Chaim, he
knew, who spoke only for compelling reasons, would hardly have said what he had
unless there was something to it. Goldman thought to question the older man
further, but already a line of customers waited impatiently. He decided more
questions now would be unwelcome and even unbecoming, and he left the shop.
Goldman lived the rest of that day as if he
were hovering above Jerusalem
on a cloud. He walked softly and, like his master, did not speak. He saw all
things in what he took to be a new light. He felt
profoundly distanced from the hurly-burly of the streets. He fought to keep his
thoughts on a lofty plane. But he could not drive the nagging questions from his mind. What did Reb
Chaim mean? Was the Messiah really here? Now, after
millennia, during Goldman's stay in Jerusalem?
Would things be different? Would peace and wisdom be here for the taking?
Without losing all his Twentieth Century skepticism, Goldman trusted Reb Chaim's insight and knew
something important must be occurring. He went home, said Maariv alone, studied, and listened to the radio news. There were ketyusha bombs falling in Galil Elyon, strikes in Tel Aviv, prices rising faster and hot
weather. Nothing extraordinary had yet taken place. Later he went out again, as
was his habit, into the cool dark streets. A strange quiet, Goldman was
convinced, hung over the City of Gold.
Even the cars seemed to drive with unnatural stillness. He returned home in
time for the late night news, but still nothing had happened.
Goldman was very agitated. He lay awake for hours. Even after three
glasses of apricot brandy, he couldn't sleep until morning. After waking, he
quickly recalled Reb Chaim's
words and felt a flash of disappointment. He thought of heading straight for Reb Chaim's shop. Maybe, he mused
with sudden puckishness, the Messiah was coming
directly there and had called ahead. Otherwise he could demand an explanation
of Reb Chaim. But then,
remembering his longstanding resolution to learn patience during his stay in Jerusalem, Goldman stopped
himself, preparing instead to devote his day to prayer, repentance and
reflection. He listened to the radio news again and heard nothing new. He
prayed in his room and went to his old synagogue to study, not conveying Reb Chaim's message to anyone.
Later he prayed at the Wailing Wall. Half an hour before Reb
Chaim's usual six o'clock closing time, Goldman set
aside his over-strained patience, deciding there would be no harm stopping by
the shop as he might any other day.
Reb Chaim had some of the past day's energy, but
appeared more subdued. He did not look, Goldman observed, as if he planned to
soon close down the shop or otherwise adjust to a new order of earthly reality.
Yet Goldman worked to keep his thoughts in check; the older mail, he knew,
lived at a spiritual level quite above his own and he could never know by mere
outward observation what Reb Chaim
was thinking. At first, Reb Chaim
seemed not to notice Goldman, who considered momentarily, then vehemently
rejected, the thought the sage might be avoiding him to evade responsibility
for a questionable bit of prophecy. Soon Reb Chaim saw Goldman, walked over and shook his hand warmly.
Then he stepped back toward his customers but, sensing Goldman's
disappointment, he stopped, his expression questioning.
?You said ...? Goldman blurted, ?Moshiach was
Reb Chaim nodded agreement, looking quizzically
at Goldman. ?Well,? said Goldman, adding a touch of jocularity to his voice to
mute his anxiety, ?I was up all night waiting for him.?
Reb Chaim smiled slightly, but then his
expression grew perplexed and he shook his head. ?Waiting for him?? he said uncomprehendingly under his breath, repeating
Goldman's words, as if his own modest knowledge of English were failing him, ?waiting for him?? He looked completely taken aback, unable to fathom the younger
man's meaning. He rubbed his lips and looked about the shop questioningly. Then
Reb Chaim turned back to
Goldman with a look of distaste, muttering ?ach, no,? pushing him back with a
clenched fist into the same corner as the day before, looking deeply into
Goldman's eyes and unleashing more words, in broken English at that, than
Goldman had ever heard him speak before or since. ?No, no, you don't
understand. No, Reuven,? he said, shaking his head in
disgust and tapping Goldman hard on the chest. ?We don't wait for Moshiach. No, no, not at all, Reuven. We don't wait here for Moshiach.
No. No. He waits for us. Don't you see? He is all the time ready. He waits for us. He waits for
Reb Chaim held Goldman's gaze without blinking.
Goldman nodded and Reb Chaim
stepped slowly away, smiling now. Goldman tried to smile to let Reb Chaim return to his
customers. He felt a momentary sense of betrayal, but then, despite himself,
smiled broadly, uncontrollably, and Reb Chaim looked satisfied. Blushing and light-headed, Goldman
rushed back out onto the streets of Mea Shearim,
telling himself yet one more time that his education in Jerusalem had this day only begun.
Steve Koppman lives in Oakland, California.
He has had fiction published in regional, Jewish and literary magazines. He
thanks Rabbi Joseph Schonwald of Oakland's
Temple Beth Abraham who inspired this tale.