During Holy Week, I'll be posting some portion (and perhaps the entirety) of a short novel. There is some precedent for posting fiction on the Post -- Deepak Chopra, for one, has done it -- and the present work is one that bears on many issues now hotly debated in these pages. It is, in essence, a thought experiment: Consider the Holy Family as a Jewish family of a particular but, in some ways, rather typical sort, and see what happens -- even if the resulting story turns out to have a radically different ending from the one related in the Gospels.
To post this installment, I'm taking a break from cleaning the apartment for Passover. I'm not a Jew for Jesus, just a Jew. But I believe that after two millennia of antipathy -- amply justified by the suffering inflicted upon us in his name -- Jews are finally ready to confront Jesus. Not as God, not as King, not as Messiah, but as a great rabbi, master of words, visionary, and troublemaker. In short, as one of our own.
To evoke his time and place, I've used the original Hebrew and Aramaic forms of names and certain other words, in preference to the forms used in the King James Bible. At the end of this first post is a glossary to which interested readers can refer as they read this and later installments.
Ima, tell me about the stable.
Her hands, which have been flying over the loom, freeze in midair like honeybees. She smiles -- a smile like sunlight -- and they dart forward.
I was great with child. Great with you, my great child. My hour was coming. You squeezed me like a citron, from inside.
That doesn't make sense.
Nothing in this story makes sense. But it happened.
He looks down. He lays another flat stone, another storey on the tower he's building.
We were traveling -- she resumes -- to Beit Lehem. We came to a tavern. They had a room for hire, but they wouldn't let us stay.
Her eyes are on the weaving.
Yosef -- Yosef was excited. He was very excited that day. The hosteler -- he didn't like that. A foolish man. Anyway, we came to a farm and Yosef talked with the farmer and was charming, the way he is. And the farmer let us stay in his stable, with his ass and his ox.
Did it smell like poopoo?
No -- yes, of course, a little.
And the rabbbis didn't care?
They weren't rabbis. They were like rabbis -- like magical rabbis, hasidim -- but they were of the goyim. But even so they had great wisdom, great power.
Like Bilaam, the boy says.
Like Bilaam. And they didn't care.
And I held your finger.
You held my finger. In your tiny hand, the size of an olive. And when I said ox, you pulled my finger so it pointed to the ox. When I said ass, you made me point to the ass. And when I said Ima, you twisted my hand around so I pointed at me.
And when you said Abba?
He is squatting, now. The top of the tower is even with his eyes.
When I said Abba, you pulled my finger so it pointed up.
She smiles again. Her smile like the sun, radiant, shining for him alone.
But, he thinks: the sun shines for the whole world.
Up, she says, pointing at the ceiling of serried branches sealed with mud.
With a sweep of his hand he knocks down the tower he has built of flat stones, then begins building it again.
Yosef touches her like a baby. He sucks her great nipples, dusky pink: the most beautiful color in the world, he says. Like morning light on the stones of the Temple.
He sucks, nibbles, licks as if to say: from fucking will come suckling. I, too, am godly. I, too, can make a man.
As if to say: I, too, am a baby. Love me.
When he enters her, she remembers that other time.
She was not entered, nor did she enter. She was inviolate. She -- she was turned inside out, unfolding like a rose.
A hand held her. A wind lifted her up. Her petals trembled, severed, flew to the ends of the earth.
Yet she felt whole.
Mamzer! Nobody's boy!
Your Ima ate too much at the wedding feast, her belly was so big!
Laughter, the hoots of crows.
The biggest boy, the stupidest, the one the Rabbi hits most often, looms over him:
My Ima says you know the whole Scripture by heart. So, you know the Holy Word to get you out of this?
One boy holds his left arm, one his right, one his legs. Stinking of sheep dung, they spit shards of pistachio shells in his face as they bear him, wriggling like a fish, up the hill.
They set him down a handsbreadth from the cliff. Behind him, form a phalanx.
Go! Jump! The Holy Word will save you!
He looks down. His stomach rears into his mouth, but at his command returns to its place, leaving behind a taste of bile.
Angels (he murmurs) He will command to guard you. On all your paths. On their palms they'll lift you, lest you stub your foot on a rock.
Steals a glance behind him. They are standing there, arms at their sides, like legionnaires.
AND A WIND --
-- he shouts into the valley -- in Aramaic, so the valley will understand --
-- A WIND LIFTED ME UP! AND I HEARD BEHIND ME THE SOUND OF A GREAT RUSHING GIVING PRAISE, SAYING -- BLESSED IS THE GLORY OF ADONAI FROM HIS PLACE!
Ears catch the echo as heels catch the pebbly slope, he slides giddily, is tipped back: rock claws his buttocks, his shoulders. At the bottom picks himself up, brushes himself off, and walks on, wondering if they can see the wobbling of his left ankle or the spreading wet he feels on the back of his tunic.
After a hundred paces, not pausing, looks over his shoulder.
The three figures stand where they stood, black against bright sky, watching.
Drifts toward sleep on an ocean of words.
Lifted, pitched, tumbled by waves of Yishayahu, Yirmiyahu, Zekharya, Yehezkel.
His bed a scroll. A boat, bobbing beneath him.
Don't worry so much about the fit, Yosef says. We're not building for Herod, may his name be erased!
Shoulder to shoulder with Yosef -- though his shoulder reaches only to Yosef's chest -- he helps to build a wall.
Look, we're going to smear clay over the whole thing anyway, what difference does it make if a stone juts out a fingersbreadth?
I'm sorry, Adoni.
He does not call Yosef Abba or Avi -- Daddy, my father -- but from respect calls him Adoni, my Lord.
Never mind, says Yosef. You're going half my speed, but never mind. I know this work is not your work.
The boy lifts a stone, warm to the touch from the sun, and wedges it in place. It wiggles slightly on its perch, like a loose tooth: he is about to hunt for another to replace it, but catches himself.
No, Yosef is saying, you'll build with words. With the letters of the holy tongue. Palaces you'll build, temples! The Holy of Holies!
Never forget, he says, his hands moving faster, you are of the House of David. The seed of kings! David, the sweet singer of songs --
The boy's mouth is dry. It tastes of lime-dust. His ears ring with the groans of ancient stones.
Humming a tune the boy can't place, Yosef abruptly breaks off.
You know what the rabbi told me?
The boy shakes his head, though he suspects he does know.
Your son, he told me, is a cemented cistern. Your son is a cistern sealed with plaster, that looses not a drop -- not that stone!
His voice sharp, he grabs the stone from the boy's hands.
Look at it, it's a cripple, a hunchback. An egg laid by a she-goat!
He tosses the stone onto a pile of rejects, causing a small avalanche, and laughs.
A boy touched by Wisdom, he says gently, brushing his hand against the boy's cheek -- the hand rough and dry as a sloughed snake skin, but the boy does not recoil --
A boy touched by the Holy Wind, and he doesn't know what stones to reject!
The fields are not yet dark, yet the men linger after supper.
Yosef is telling stories.
Having scraped and oiled the bowls and the pot, Miryam watches from the distaff, only half listening. Her fingers ache, but they wouldn't be still even if she willed them to be.
-- I'll confide to you a secret, the mother said, but God help you if you tell a soul!
My lips are a sealed casket, the daughter replied.
And the mother lowered her voice and said: Of my ten children, only one was fathered by the man you call Father.
Only a few times in her life was she able to do nothing. In those last precious days she would be like a great oak, feeling her trunk swell, her buds dilate and become tender. Feeling the sap rise in her, light welling up from a place of unbearable darkness.
Well, Yosef continues, passing the wineskin to Yaakov, it so happens that her husband was dressing the vines on the other side of the wall, and through a chink in the wall he heard every word. But, he kept mum.
Many years later, the man lay on his deathbed. My dying wish, he says: let all my estate go to my one child.
Chaos! Confusion! Weeping and gnashing of teeth! Only the mother and that daughter know what's up, but of course they pretend to be as mystified as everyone else.
So, what do the children do?
Why, go to King Shlomo, of course.
Wisest of men, they say, when they are ushered into the throne room where Shlomo sits in judgment: you alone can help us! Our father had ten children, yet with his last breath he said: Let everything go to my one child. All-knowing King, they cry. Son of David! Tell us what to do!
The flax she spins will make a new tunic for Yehoshua. Yosef's sons from his first marriage, Yaakov and Little Yosef, need new tunics, too: she will get to them.
-- King Shlomo pondered for a moment. Then he said: Go to your father's tomb, knock, and ask him to rise up and explain the meaning of his dying words.
As the flax moves from distaff to spindle, tasks move in her mind from the stack that needs doing to the stack that is done.
Rising with the morning star, she has milked the ewes and she-goats, sheared four sheep, prepared breakfast for the household. She has gathered hyssop, sage, and other herbs for healing from the brow of Mount Tabor, pistachios from the lower slopes. She has cleared brush from the vineyard (man's work, but the men have been busy, and if it's put off any longer foxes will den there). She was called to Kana to deliver a girl-child, a hard and painful birth, feet first. Dvora the daughter of Elishevet came to her with a sore that would not heal; she coated it with a salve of olive oil, wine, and aloe and sent her home.
Before she sleeps she must mend Yakov's woolen poncho, soak the lentils for pottage, mill the flour and knead the dough for the Shabbat loaves she will bake tomorrow. And yes: give the breast to the little girl now tugging at her skirts.
-- When Shlomo heard this, he said: The one who stayed home, who honored his father and refused to trouble his spirit -- he is the true heir!
Yosef takes another swig from the wineskin.
My dove, he calls to his wife, will you never rest?
When my work is done, Adoni.
My dove, look at those poppies in the field. Do they spin thread? Do they weave? Yet they're dressed better than any of us!
Miryam shakes her head, but she can't help laughing.
Adoni, the boy says, work is an offering to the Holy One, bless him. Avodah -- it is the same word for both.
Good, good, Yosef says, passing him the wineskin. But what did Father Avraham say? The Lord will provide himself a goat for the offering, my son!
A lamb, Adoni.
Alright then, Mister Rabbi, a lamb!
Miryam has lit the oil lamps, Yosef is blessing the children: the sons first, from eldest to youngest. He places his hands on their heads and pronounces -- God should make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.
Next the daughters -- God should make you as Sarah, Rivka, Rahel, and Leah.
As always, Yosef mangles the Hebrew verb which, for years, the boy was too respectful to correct; then, ventured to correct, and did so each week; and now he has given up.
Hands outstretched above all the household, Yosef utters the words of the High Priest in the Temple:
God should bless you and keep you.
God should make His face shine on you and be gracious to you -- all right, and you, too, he says to the piebald, gimpy-legged dog that has wandered in from the courtyard, and everyone laughs --
God should turn his face to you and give you peace.
May that be His desire, says Miryam.
The beauty of the table, though the meal is meager. The fullness of Yosef's heart, thrumming almost painfully in the sound of his chant (the melody never quite right). His Ima's piety, a flame brighter and steadier than the flame of purest oil. The way she looks at him.
The Shabbat meal is the most joyful hour of the week and the most uneasy.
The boy remembers the time he found a stray cat lolling in warmth on the stone of the olive press. To his surprise, she allowed herself to be stroked; and for a long time he stroked along the grain of her black fur, ploughed against the grain, scratched behind the ears, until -- without so much as a warning twitch of her tail -- she wheels and bites his wrist, breaking the skin in three places.
The boy is startled to find the wine cup, the cup for Kiddush, in his own hand rather than Yosef's.
Go, go, you know it better than I do.
To bless the wine is the prerogative of the master of the house. To pass the honor to his eldest son would be an abdication; to this stripling, unheard of.
The boy glances at his mother.
She beams at him: two wicks joined, a leaping flame.
When he tastes the wine it's sweet as blood.
Yerushalayim: a clash of cymbals.
Three days they traveled by foot through Valley of the Yarden, for the Foot-Festival of Sukkot.
An ass carried wine and barley for the Temple offering. Along the way they gathered branches of willow, mirtle, and palm to shake and wave in the great parade.
They traveled with six other families from Beit Lehem in the Galil, for safety against bandits. Even so they slept without campfires, huddled in the willows on the riverbank.
His senses are still ringing. Each new sight, new sound, new smell is a mallet-blow that sets him quivering again before the last vibration has died --
Deafening stampede of men and animals, thousands of them, from the market on the Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount:
Temple Mount like a torch above the city, smoke of its altars bellying in the tile-blue sky:
Makeshift booths on a thousand rooftops, decked for the festival in boughs of cedar and pine -- the city green and fragrant as Eden:
Stalls on the Cardo crammed with myrrh and ivory, Cretan vases, blue-loined monkeys from Cush, ankle-rings of Lydian gold:
Roman soldiers marching, drilling: sun glinting on bronze helmets and well-oiled, clean-shaven cheeks:
Beggars unarmed, unlegged, stinking and disfigured in ways unseen among the peasants of Galil:
Sudden storm of a rich man's chariot, scattering pilgrims like leaves:
Women of the goyim, Roman and Greek and Syrian, eyes of their torsos peering through silken veils:
I know her father, Yaakov says.
Yehoshua's half-brothers are watching a slender girl, no older than himself, with long black hair in ringlets and eyes that glitter green like the stones of Eilat.
The stout, bald one, there, Yaakov says. A big merchant in Migdal Nunaya. I've gone with Mother to barter linen for his salt fish.
Her neck, says Little Yosef, is like the Tower of David.
When the east wind blows the whole city reeks of roasting meat, an odor the boy has known only a handful of times in each of his thirteen years. Street vendors, pleased to have their barking done for them, wheel out their carts full of spitted mutton or, for the common people, spheres of ground chickpea spiced with cardamom.
The boy spreads his hand to catch the holy smoke. Furtively, he licks his fingers, but tastes only the olive oil with which Miryam cleaned him after the journey.
Can you see what we saw in the cave of our hearts?
Silent, the boy looks down at the smooth stones of the Great Court.
You, throat slit in an alley. You, fallen from the parapet, broken like a clay pot. You, seized by the Romans to serve in their legions --
Yaakov, who stands a foot taller than Yehoshua, is smirking. Miryam looks at him severely.
You, Yosef goes on, snatched by Ishmaelite slave traders --
Yes, with his coat of many colors, says Little Yosef to Yaakov in a stage whisper.
Better they should have taken him, Yaakov says aloud, at least he wouldn't have shamed us by showing disrespect for the scholars.
The scholars, scores of them -- Prushim, Zadokim, Essenes, even some free-thinkers poisoned by Greek wine -- are still disputing, their din ringing against the stones of Herod's colonnade.
I showed no disrespect, Yehoshua says.
When you contradict rabbis with beards longer than your leg, that's not disrespect? What do you know about the laws of purity?
I know the Torah.
You know the words, says Yaakov, not the meaning. Every house on the street you know, but do you know what's inside? The Torah of the Mouth, transmitted from Moshe to Yehoshua -- the real Yehoshua, not you -- from him to the Elders, from them to the Prophets, from them to the rabbis -- what do you know of that? Did you learn it all in the last three days, while we were all going crazy hunting for you?
Miryam watches the quarrel -- Yaakov's mockery, Yehoshua's defiance, her husband's half-hearted interjections -- as if from a height. She seems to be floating, as if a bucket of water she'd been carrying for ten thousand paces had just been lifted off her head.
Yet even while the weight was there she felt secure, as if the hand pressing down on her were sheltering her, too.
Secure: in the knowledge that Adonai would not take away the son he had given. Or if He took him, it would be that he might stand in His Temple and learn His ways. That he might prepare for the work before him.
Do you know who you were arguing with, just now?
No, and if it was Shlomo the King he would still be wrong.
Well, Yaakov says, I asked someone. It was Rabbi Yosef of Ramataim. A member of the Sanhedrin! One of the seventy greatest scholars in the country, and you think you know better!
When her son vanished, she was not really surprised; he'd been treated as an adult for years before this, his legal majority. As she herself was treated -- but even earlier, almost from her first steps. Entrusted with household chores, to which were added, in time, the care and feeding of her five surviving siblings, all younger.
For this -- for her industry, her obedience, her beauty -- her mother shouted her praises in the gates.
But only in the gates.
At home, she was scolded every time she fell a hairsbreadth short of perfection. Whenever the child peaked out of the carapace in which it lived, it was berated, or beaten, until it ducked back in.
Enough, she says.
The men look at her. In the air of their sudden quiet, the scholars sound like a flock of starlings.
Yes, he was wrong to disappear like that. To come here without telling us was wrong. But to come here -- that was not wrong.
Of course not, Yaakov answers, he could even learn something if he kept his mouth shut.
Miryam feels her face warming. The force that pressed down on her is now inside her, pressing outward.
His arguments were strong, she says. As strong as that rabbi's: maybe stronger.
Let a woman judge, Yaakov mutters.
Now who's being disrespectful? Yosef puts in. Honor your father and your mother -- that much Torah I know.
You heard how they fell silent when he spoke, Miryam says. They were astonished to hear such wisdom from hairless lips.
They were astonished, whispers Little Yosef, to hear such impudence.
They recovered quickly, Yaakov says. And then they thrashed his arguments like wheat on the threshing floor.
Well, that's what this is.
They look at the young man.
This place, before David built an altar here. The threshing floor of Ornan, the Yevusi.
He stands in the uppermost chamber of a tower.
(He feels that Yosef is with him.)
Below, surrounding the tower, is a throng of children.
They call to him: We are hungry!
They call: Come down, that we may eat you!
[to be continued)
copyright 2007 by Evan Eisenberg
(mainly of Hebrew and Aramaic words, with their equivalents in English, particularly in the King James Bible)
Abba -- Father, Daddy
Adonai -- the Lord
Adoni -- My Lord, Sir
Alef, Bet -- Hebrew letters, used in traditional numbering system
Andreas -- Andrew
Avraham -- Abraham
Bar Nabba -- Barnabas
Beit Lehem -- Bethlehem
Bilaam -- Balaam
Cardo -- main street of Roman Jerusalem
Dreydel -- top used like dice in gambling
Dvora -- Deborah
Elishevet -- Elisabeth
Elohim -- God
Galil -- Galilee
Gavriel -- Gabriel
goyim -- the nations; gentiles
Harp Sea -- Sea of Galilee
Hasidim -- devout ones, people of lovingkindness: wonder-working rabbis and healers, such as Jesus's Galilean contemporary Hanina ben Dosa
Ima -- Mother, Mommy
Kana -- Cana
Kefar Nahum -- Capernaum
Koine -- simplified Greek, the lingua franca of the ancient world
Mashiah -- Messiah
Migdal Nunnaya -- Magdala
Miryam of Migdal Nunnaya -- Mary Magdalene
Miryam -- Mary
mitzvah -- commandment, good deed
Moav -- Moab
Moshe -- Moses
Nakdaimon -- Nicodemus
Natseret -- Nazareth
Negev -- the South; desert to the south of the Kingdom of Judah
Ornan the Yevusi -- Arauna the Jebusite
Place of Skulls -- Golgotha
Prushim -- Pharisees
Rahel -- Rachel
Rivka -- Rebecca
Salt Sea -- Dead Sea
Sanhedrin -- Assembly of seventy rabbis and elders; the major rabbinic court
Sea of Reeds -- Red Sea
Shabbat -- Sabbath
Shekhina -- Divine Presence; feminine aspect of God
Shelomit -- Salome
Shimon -- Simon
Shimon the Rock -- Peter
Shlomo -- Solomon
Shomron -- Samaria
Sukkot -- booths or tabernacles; Feast of Tabernacles
Terafim -- household idols
Yaakov bar Zavdai -- James, son of Zebedee
Yaakov -- Jacob, James
Yaffo -- Joppa
Yah -- God
Yarden -- Jordan
Yehezkel -- Ezekiel
Yehoshua -- Jesus, Joshua
Yehuda Ish Kariot -- Judas Iscariot
Yehuda -- Judah, Judas
Yerushalayim -- Jerusalem
Yirmiyahu -- Jeremiah
Yishayahu -- Isaiah
Yohanan -- John
Yohanan the Dunker -- John the Baptist
Yona -- Jonah
Yosef -- Joseph, Joses
Yosef of Ramataim -- Joseph of Arimathea
Yovel -- Jubilee: the fiftieth year, in which slaves are freed and land returns to its former owners
Zadokim -- Sadducees
Zekharya -- Zachariah