In this scene, is this the beginning of a romance or the end of a fantasy?
The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Eighth Era, Part 2. ~1000 C.E., Kairouan
Time! The days and moments turn in different scales and melodies, mingle, jangle, kink, untangle in slow motion as I await that dinner date. And then I watch the sun, its chariot rollin’ in mud. Its chargers slip, they flail and fall, the sun stuck in the ruts of the sky; or maybe like it were for Joshua when God waged His wars for him; the same for me, my war of love. My wages were to sit and wait.
And this last day, the sun unmoving along its ark, still it passes. Shutters bolted, gates locked, as one by one business stops. The Sabbath spreads its sheltering wings. Hands and faces splashed and dried. Mouths rinsed, and pleasant holy robes replace sweaty work clothes.
In Sura and Jerusalem afternoon and evening prayers are both said at the end of the day, to enact our marriage to Shabbat. But here in Kairouan they chant Minkha* in the middle of Friday, just like every day, and Maariv** when a star appears. And here, like Cairo, Maariv prayers vary daily. In Sura, no. And the order in Jerusalem is different in each beit midrash.***
* afternoon prayers; ** evening prayers; *** Hebrew for synagogue
This is our topic after synagogue as we walk to supper, the rav and me, along with Sha-ol, our host tonight, whose daughter I want to meet.
In the narrow streets the shades descend spreading deep grays over the private spaces. A door thrown open, light pours out, two women’s faces, mother, child.
Anxieties rush to my throat, roilin’ in waves. All unsettled and disarranged the orders of my daily ways. As if the High Priest before the Ark* tremblin’ before Shekhina, who dwells but a step away, across a threshold, just gauzy veils between the two.
* on Yom Kippur before the Holy of Holies
Next thing I know – as if the time and breath of things only move in increments, each indivisible – there I sit at a set table. Getting there I don’t recall.
How strange the workings of our senses. And oh, how strange, how disarranged this table from the ones I have known. Rav Khushiel, he seen my thoughts. Mayhaps my face is shoutin’ them, and he says,
“This house in Kairouan is old, and this the custom here. My people came here in recent years from Esau’s* land across the Sea, where for ages we dwelt, and then brought those ways with us here. Thus we live like strangers in this land.”
* as Rome was often referred to by Jews
We bless wine. We bless children. We bless wives. We bless work. We thank God to be Jews and then in feasting we are blessed.
Squinched on pillows on the floor, knee high the table, there we sit. Me, I fuss and scrunch and squirm, wishing I had a stool to sit on. In center steams a fish tajine, thick with greens and fava beans, peppered in a thousand spices. Aromas, a pleasin’ savor to Adonai. And as we sit the women break a dozen eggs into the stew, which spreads over hunks of fish like burnished amber cabochons.
I never seen a bowl so wide, an arm or more in width, I’d guess; glazed in green and edged in beads in the many shades of tourmaline. And all around it, puffy breads but not a single fork or spoon. Tear the bread and dip it in and grab a saucy chunk of fish. I tries it, juices sloppin’ up my hand, and drippin’ sauces everywhere. The taste so rich, and then the spice. My breath chokes, my face all red. Oh, how they all laugh at me, And me, I have to laugh as well. I never ate a meal like that. (But soon it will become my custom.)
With that and with the many urns – the wine of dates, the wine of palm – our tensions bubble off like steam and we begins a lively chat. I says,
“I never ate a meal like this in Sura or Zion. The way the table is set and the food cooked, everything is different here.”
“In Esau’s land every person gets a plate, one for soup and one for meat, one for salad, one for sweets. And fingers never touch the food. That’s a disgrace! With fork or spoon a child must struggle many years to neatly get his food to his mouth .”
And then up pipes our host, Sha-ol, who trades in spices, rugs, and cloth,
“The Berber eats his meat like wolves with chomp and gurgle, smack and slurp! And in the wilds of Andalus they eat snails and slimy things dredged up from the mucky sands, and boil them in smoky wine.”
And then as if an angel flew into the room to sing a psalm, the daughter of Sha-ol, Batkol, inquires in sing-song tones, she whose voice I never heard, it floats above the chitter chat, the crow and sparrow table talk, and like an oud,* softly strummed, her lyric voice strums my soul:
“Tell me what your Sura’s like.”
* Middle Eastern musical instrument
So she says, and yet I hears, ‘tell me what your Naomi was like.’ My tongue, my mind, the heart of me all tangles up. What can I say? And once again my face turns red as I simmer in the spice of her.
Again she laughs in my unease but not a sharp or pointed laugh, but like she takes my hand and says, ‘I even like that part of you.’ Then she says, and now I hear a-right,
“Is Sura such a special place?”
In the next episode, Butkol starts asking interesting questions.