Stephen Berer
the Eternal Jew's biographer

The Eternal Jew’s Tale, #22, Put a ring on it

Batkol; video, showing the colorizing and modifying of a black and white image; taken from the public domain book Picturesque Egypt, published 1878, owned by the author.

In this scene, Batkol challenges our hero with some questions.

The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Eighth Era, Part 2. ~1030 C.E., Kairouan

And so I re-arrange my seat and scoop another slurp of stew, and then a breath and then a look across the rivers I’ve crossed.
“Where we sit and what we eat and when we pray and how we pray, they way its ordered, that and more is different here.

“Supper is startin’ later there, to let the scorchin’ houses cool down. Around a table, on seats or benches, not cross-leg sittin’ on the floor. A meal begins with tasty bits, sesame and chickpea paste with crispy breads all spicy fried, and pickled vegetables to scoop. And lots of bite-size savories. Flaky dough wrappin’ meats, or maybe dates and pistachios, or mushrooms grilled, and murri* sauce. And then the stew we call sikbaj made with lamb or sometimes fowl. Sharp its taste from vinegar and ginger, cumin, sugar too. And every one is served a bowl with thin and folded sheets of bread to pluck out hunks; but also spoons to sip the broth and scoop the dregs.”
* from fermented barley; something like tamari

“Interesting,” Batkol injects, “But I wonder more about your prayers. The order and the verses of them, and how the leader knows them all.”

“Rav Khushiel asked me the same!” says I. “And now as I think back, every place that I’ve prayed does it in a different way. The greatest teachers in the world gathered in Sura in my day, full of Talmud law and lore, and Torah, prophecy, and psalms. And each of them would lead the prayers and choose the verses they liked best, and students in the academy composed the melodies for each.

“So every day brought something new to learn in law and verse and song. But during kallah* with unlearned crowds they made do with a simpler, fixed siddur.”
* twice yearly, month-long study sessions, officially established as a time when most work ceased, and study was open to everyone in the region.

And so we speak of customs and tastes, oh, not so long, til a knock at the door. Startled and fearful, our host leaps up and calls through the heavy timber door, “Who’s there?”

“It’s us, oh teachers; the day breaks, and the time for reading the morning Sh’ma.*”
Though a cloak of darkness hung outside our door, that night an angel of Light entered in.
* The Sh’ma is a core prayer in Jewish liturgy, but here it means ‘morning prayers’ in general.

Eighth Era, Part 3.

Not long until we announce our engagement: Batshevah Koltov, daughter of Sha-ol and Miriam, of the house of Khushiel, to Saadia Mishan Tzeddoek from Jerusalem.

You might be a-thinkin’ that the days of betrothal were the same as the week before we met, all full of excitement and elongated moments, like old Zeno, whose field infinitely stretches.

But instead, every detail has a sorrowful tone. In the voices I hear; in scents I inhale; in the shades of a scarf or a blushy cheek, I feel Naomi walkin’ here. How many lifetimes between us now, but our souls still embrace, our joys still laugh, the pleasures of bed and the calm of Shabbat when our daughters blessed the house and our sons chanted the Torah verses…

All those knots on the corners of thought, in soiled and murky and wavery shapes behind a curtain made of traum, that dusky hour, still untold, when Naomi and our children were torn away, wail and moan, acrid with smoke, and I, scattered on a leafy wind.

So long ago, so present still. Those colors bleed through the surface of me. Course and dense as I might appear, but really translucent, the body of me in many layers of memory and thought.

As I approach our wedding day, Naomi’s voice is behind my Bat-Kol. And as the day approaches, and its canopy, I am like Jacob in Haran, anxious to marry the girl I love, but will I find another a-bed*?
* Berraysheet/Genesis 29:20-25

At last. Our beit midrash* hid in a mazy casbah, quiet and cool, with a mudbrick facade and an iron studded door, and a heavy iron bolt, like a warehouse or stall. Down, as if to gehennah’s** door, but behold how the charge of the world can reverse. Heavens we come to, azure and gold, a cascade of colors, brilliant and bold. And greetin’ us there in the heavenly court, Aberham, Isaac, and Jacob too, alive as the word of the Lor. Behold: the mosaic art of our sanctuary. To my right I see the ark for the scrolls, built into the eastern wall. And in the center the stand for the Baal Koreh*** elevated like the heights of Sinai.
* house of God, house of searching; ** purgatory-like place where the dead are purified;
*** prayer leader

There, like princes, the rav and a scribe await my guardian angels and me to compose and witness and affirm the writing of the contract I make with my Bat-Kol. Led aside to a tiny office where the scribe will scritch-scratch name and day, Torah portion, month and year, in this, the fifth millennium of the world. And of course, bride-price and dowry sum. Then me and the witnesses will sign, and done!

But not so quick in Kairouan! The scribe has a whole jarful of pens and many a bottle of ink, as well. And not a sheet of starched linen, but written on the parchment skin of a goat.

He pulls out a goose quill and carefully inspects. Sharps it a bit, then dips it in ink, shakes it, and takes a long deep breath. Like a dove at her nest that slow touches down. Dip and scritch, dip and scratch, with the care of a surgeon, and there on the parchment — winged cherubs and crimson flames! Then another pen in another jar and another shake, and his hand descends to illuminate the cherub wings in gold. And with a flick he spatters stars on a sky. Then with precise and measured strokes, large letters in lapis blue, Yud Hay Vuv Hay, the holiest Name between the outstretched cherub wings. Then in a lighter shade of blue, El Shaddai, the nurturing* Name in smaller letters inside the first. Now comes the marriage contract’s text, all busy and legal and full of pomp. ‘Wherefore this’ and ‘whereas that.’ Then zigzags and swirls to border the sides. Then he’s done, we sign, and I’m a married man.
* others say: inspiring


In the next episode: how they party in Kairouan.

About the Author
I am a writer, educator, artist, and artisan. My poetry is devoted to composing long narrative poems that explore the clash between the real and the ideal, in the lives of historical figures and people I have known. Some of the titles of my books are: The Song uv Elmallahz Kumming A Pilgimmage tu Jerusalem The Pardaes Dokkumen The Atternen Juez Talen You can listen to podcasts of my Eternal Jew posts on my personal blog, Textures and Shadows, which can be found on my website, or directly, at: I live just outside Washington, DC with my bashert, and we have two remarkable sons. Those three light my life.
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