My father-in-law, Feibush, arrived unannounced at my doorstep in the middle of the week. I was writing out a mezuzah and so, fortunately, my cabinet of secular books was closed. Feibush’s eyes brightened when he saw the parchment, the quill in my hand, and the large yarmulke upon my head. Only when his gaze rested upon the closed book cabinet did a kind of cloud descend over his face. I suspected that he knew full well what trials and tribulations hid upon those shelves. And though Feibush accepts His judgment, his pure heart still beats with hope that sooner or later I’ll return to the fold, and be as kosher and God-fearing a Jew as he.
His visit surprised me; Feibush doesn’t indulge in idle chatter. The sin of wasting time away from the study of Torah nags at him. Any deed not done for the sake of the commandments dishonors the Torah. And so, why had he come? I could not imagine his intention. He continued to look around, his eyes full of understanding, and he thought his thoughts. Reizl was as surprised as I was by his sudden visit, and even more flustered by his manner. She offered him a cup of coffee, but he rejected it with a sigh and a dismissive wave. Then she left us so as not to bother men and intrude upon their matters—a true modest daughter of Jerusalem. Though curiosity surely filled her with a desire to know what her father had come to discuss with her husband, still she went to the kitchen, so as not to eavesdrop against her better nature.
Feibush smiled broadly and his eyes wandered the room before he got to the point. It seemed that Hana, my brother-in-law, who had just turned fifteen and had always been a good and diligent student of Torah, was now caught in the grip of some demon’s power—a dybbuk forced Hana to scribble letters and faces, a dybbuk distracted him from his Torah study with scratchings. He understood, Feibush did, that there was no exorcising such a dybbuk with admonitions and morality tales. And so, the idea came to him that perhaps he could turn the boy’s desires toward something holy, that is, that I might teach him the craft of the scribe.
That was on the one hand. But the other hand held greater complications: Of course, if the boy were to learn to inscribe the biblical verses for mezuzahs and for tefillin, and if he were to study the craft for three hours a day, that would not be a waste of time away from Torah study, and even the money that he might earn from such labor would be a mitzvah, because then he could contribute to the family coffers. But he worried that if he were he to pull Hana out of his yeshiva for even an hour or two a day, then the loss of those few hours might decrease his attachment to Torah. And so the question he posed was whether or not I might consent to teach him at night after the evening prayers, in those hours when the yeshiva students return to their homes. But here, too, another most delicate matter arose, and one that was entirely in my hands.
And what was this matter?
It was difficult for him to bring such words to his lips, because he did not want to raise empty suspicions about a God-fearing Jew such as myself. But he wanted to know if I would be willing to promise him, on a handshake, not to speak even one word to Hana—not even by-the-by—about anything written in my “little books.” (Here his anxious, pained gaze fell upon my book cabinet.) Also, I mustn’t teach him to play chess; though there is no injunction against the game itself, playing it yet remains a waste of time. And, he continued, I must in general take it upon myself not to damage, in any sense of the word, Hana’s complete faith and his God-fearing nature. What, then, was my opinion?
From the moment I understood that Feibush wanted to send Hana to me to learn the work of the scribe, my heart beat in anticipation of a strange kind of happiness. Since his bar mitzvah, I felt as if Hana were my soul mate. I did not understand the nature of this feeling, but a strange joy washed over me when I was in the youth’s presence. Just a glance in his direction filled me with unutterable elation. I loved to hear his voice. I loved to watch the expressions cross his soft, delicate face. I loved to sense his presence in a room with me. And when the opportunity arose to pinch Hana’s cheeks, the sensation sent a shock of delight from my fingertips to my spine. I found myself drawn to my father-in-law’s home because of Hana. Each time, I invented a new pretext for coming, and when I saw him there and heard a sentence, or even a few words from his mouth, or if I could just feast my eyes upon him, then I would feel as if I had come into my full reward. Yet all this remained a frightening riddle to me. I did not understand what was happening in those moments, or why I was so drawn to him. Because of my fear, I tried not to let anyone in Feibush’s home notice what was going on inside me. I would turn away from Hana on purpose. I would avoid speaking with him. I would make it appear as if I did not see him and did not feel his presence in the slightest. But these efforts to hide my strange desires aroused feelings of pleasure from each syllable he spoke and with every glance I stole.
And then Feibush came to me of his own accord and presented me with the chance to spend an hour or two at a time, day after day, with Hana alone in my home. I still could not grasp the full meaning of his surprising offer. My heart beat an odd rhythm. Yet I was careful not to reveal even the smallest hint of what was going on inside me, or about the strange moments that passed between me and Hana. All the while I listened to Feibush’s words with a kind of stunned silence to indicate that I was paying attention. I did not stop the flow of his words to ask for even the smallest clarification. I feigned careful attention to demonstrate that I was a partner to his concerns and that I fully understood the spirit of his thoughts. Feibush closed the matter with a kind of apology:
“Look, Asher’ke, if I ask a handshake of you that doesn’t mean that I distrust you, God forbid, or think that you would bring Hana to lightheadedness, but only because Hana is the son of my old age, the most beloved of all my sons, as it says, ‘Ephraim, a darling son to me,’ and so I want my mind to be at peace.”
I shook his hand and his thin, wrinkled face beamed.
When I told Reizl afterward what her father had wanted from me and what we had agreed upon, her features darkened. She trusted me less than her father did. She recognized better than he how far I had slipped down the forty-nine levels of impurity. I promised her too that I would not speak with Hana on matters of faith or opinion, and that I would not allow him to peek at any of the secular books locked in my cabinet. Reizl was not soothed by my promises, yet she remained stonily silent.
Hana’s face flushed with expectation when he arrived to learn the secrets of the scribe’s work, and I was awash in his particular beauty. His face, so alive, glowed, just as a well-stoked oven radiates its warmth. I don’t know if Hana’s anticipation of his first lesson caused him to appear even more handsome than normal, or whether my excitement at being alone with him made him appear especially attractive that evening. In either case, from the moment he entered my home, I felt an elation that cannot be described. Every attempt to coax words from my throat required effort. Before that first lesson, I had prepared several feather quills and a sharp blade, and I intended to teach him how to prepare the scribal quill according to tradition and law. But I was powerless to control the sudden shaking that had gripped my hands.
I passed a sidelong glance over his youthful, slender body. He wore long clothes which obscured his form, as was the habit of devout yeshiva students. Yet I imagined the naked body hidden beneath his garb. I marveled at the movements of his limbs, tried to imagine his rounded curves, but was shocked by my attempt and sobered quickly. I felt that I had never looked in such a fashion upon any girl or woman, not as a young man, not after I had married, not in all the days of my life. My outward sobriety did not prevent me from feeling an inner ecstasy—it only strengthened the feeling, as horseradish spices up a plate of chopped fish. Just the knowledge that I was able to sit together with Hana, to dwell-with-two, as it says, this thought alone intoxicated me.
At first, I left the door between my studio and our living quarters ajar. When Reizl turned to leave us, her worried face prevented me from closing the door after her. I didn’t dare. But later, I was compelled to shut the door. I wanted to feel completely secluded: to simply be alone with Hana, without there being any other intention in my mind. Behind closed doors, the air that enveloped us would draw us nearer to one another. I didn’t dare think about any other kind of intimacy. My right hand rose unconsciously more than once to stroke Hana’s back, but I lowered it before he noticed my intentions. In those few joyous moments, the pleasure of following his every move was more than enough for me. His alert face wore first one expression, then another, and everything seemed as if it were happening inside my own being. But Reizl returned before long and opened the door, and took a chair and sat by the threshold. She was gray with anger. She distrusted me, thinking I meant to steer the youth from his faith. She sat like a devoted watchdog by the open door so that she could hear each word that passed from my lips, and I knew that if I should speak, God forbid, a single word that contained any trace of apostasy, she would run and tell her father.
Despite Reizl’s furious presence, I felt an elation in body and soul. When Hana left for home, I patted him on his shoulder and told him to come tomorrow at the same time. Reizl could not understand my sudden lightheartedness. The pain of her incomprehension was writ on her face. Inside, I secretly rejoiced. When I lay down on my bed, I began to imagine with inexplicable joy what my eyes had already seen of Hana. Every one of his movements arose again to mind. I fell asleep intoxicated with pleasure, and slumbered soundly.
Hana was a gifted student. In six weeks he had learned the work of the scribe. He quickly grasped how to form each and every letter, and how to hold the quill and stroke it along the parchment in the right direction. Still, he was very slow in his work and lacked the confidence that comes with experience. But when Feibush fixed his eyes on a mezuzah that the son of his old age had written, I saw my father-in-law beam more brightly than he ever had before. He simply could not contain the happiness and pride he felt when he saw the praiseworthy handiwork of his most beloved son. He chuckled, not in his typical fashion, and blushed and went pale. He stuttered when he voiced his hope and desire that Hana would write a Torah scroll in his honor. Feibush’s fondest wish had been that he might write a Torah scroll himself one day, and immerse himself in the mikvah’s purifying waters before every inscription of His holy name. Now Feibush hoped his dearest son would fulfill his dream.
Hana did not respond in the slightest to Feibush’s excitement. He shot his father a look that flashed astonishment and rejection at one and the same time. Hana was not ready to immerse himself in the mikvah before forming His holy name, nor was he ready to begin writing a Torah, a task an experienced scribe may take two or three years to complete. When I caught Hana’s fleeting glance at his father, I saw that the work of the scribe was nothing but a lark to him, simply a way to earn praise and find favor with others. The youth was too lazy to sit and write the verses for a mezuzah or a set of tefillin, let alone complete a Torah. He was young and handsome and spoiled. Everything came easily to him, and he was unwilling to labor for anything or anyone. During the six weeks that he had studied with me, he did not ask a single question that would have testified to intellectual curiosity, not even in terms of Torah study or ritual piety. And to the extent that I could judge, I did not regard Hana as a great scholar of our holy traditions either. He knew how to play a role—educated enough to raise a Talmudic question that would make an impression on its hearers. All he cared about was making a good impression. He was fastidious in his dress and in the curls of his sidelocks. A yeshiva dandy. Reizl feared in vain that I would bring him to apostasy. Hana could never be an apostate. He was incapable of doing anything that would lower his estimation in the eyes of others. All he wanted was to curry favor and exert as little energy as possible. Feibush had no idea. He was blinded by excessive love for the son of his old age, by the fond dreams that he had for him. Poor Feibush. Greater disappointments than not writing a Torah scroll awaited him.
I had finished my role as Hana’s teacher. Feibush purchased everything his son needed to write mezuzahs and tefillin scrolls. Now, Hana could write in his home and perform his holy work whenever he had time away from his Torah studies. From time to time, he might come and seek advice from me about his work. Thus a strange chapter in my life was to end—but it would remain indistinct, frightening and incomprehensible.
I dreamt filthy dreams, though I slept deeply. Alarmed and shamed by these dreams, I avoided contact with any part of Hana’s body. But when our hands met by chance, I would feel a shock of pleasure race down my spine. Only in my wildest dreams did things go any further. These dreams shamed me, but I was proud of my modesty in my waking life. Hana had no idea whatsoever of what lay behind my desire to teach him my craft. Nor could Reizl, or even more so, Feibush, imagine such things. I withstood a twofold test: both from within and from without. Inwardly, it became clear to me that I had been stricken with a perversion whose name I dare not speak. But outwardly, I was able to deceive those around me. This discovery shocked and disturbed me in several ways.
At first, I was very disturbed. To lie with a man is one of the severest transgressions in the Torah, and despite my heresies, I still accept in my heart and soul, if not with my reason, the severity of the transgression and the disgust that it brings forth. A man who wallows in such an offense is to me less than human, someone who shall be judged unworthy to live, someone who shall be cut off from human society. Of course, I know that a celebrated anonymous writer and another nameless artistic genius were both lost to this sin, and that they are thought of as great men, even by me, but this fact does not alter my disgust about such matters when it comes to normal people, like myself. In this regard, I am like someone stricken with a leprosy hidden from others’ eyes. The leper may keep his lesions hidden, but he must be on guard, careful of every movement lest his disease be discovered. And if it is discovered—then he will be banished. Because of my secular books, I am accustomed to the work of camouflaging my day-to-day life. Still, the revelation of a small offense is not the same as the revelation of one of this magnitude. To what shall this be compared? To one who finds himself in a nightmare, sinking ever deeper in muck and mire, and who knows not how to escape.
Yet along with my astonishment and confusion, I felt an accursed joy when I discovered this hidden wellspring of emotion. During the weeks I spent in Hana’s company, my body savored such chills of pleasure as I had never known in my life. His facial expressions, the flicker of his glance, the curl of his lip, the music of his voice—why should these small stirrings of the body of another awaken your own and cause such wild joy? A bewitching mystery. To be refreshed and restored by another’s youthful face, for the spine to tingle with warmth and pleasure…great and mighty God, what is the meaning of this madness? And what the nature of these wonders?
Copyright the estate of Yehoshua Bar-Yosef. Published by arrangement with the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. Translation copyright 2010 by Adam Rovner. All rights reserved.
Read translator Adam Rovner’s blog post on translating this excerpt over here.