In this scene, a wedding party and a honeymoon.
The Eternal Jew’s Tale
Eighth Era, Part 3, ~1032 C.E., Kairouan
Imagine me, like a grain of sand fallen into the core of a coil-snail* shell. Now I spin my way out, dazzle and dizzy, to the whirlpoolin’ colors of the beit mikdash. But now the room is rumblin’ full of people in their wheely dealy chats.
Whisper and hush! The groom appears (that’s me!). The noise: like a taper snuffed out. At each of my elbows a guardian spirit. And there from the opposite direction, she, my promised lamb, my betrothed, Bat-Kol, father and uncle like rooks at her side. Up on the bimah* we stand with the rav, us and our four escorting men, them that will hold the tallit as a tent**.
* raised center platform; ** khuppah, marriage canopy
But no, again it’s different here from Cairo or Sura or Jerusalem. Here a group of women march to the bimah and present a folded cloth. This the khuppah, all appliqued with a piney forest on a mountainside, where a doe and buck leap in play. And down in a valley a shepherd leads a flock of cute and curly lambs. And stitched in the corners, all the names of the family and friends and community. Along with the khuppah the women bring four poles to hold the khuppah high.
I never seen such a thing as this. A simple tallit will serve as well; and men holdin’ the corners don’t need no poles.
Prayers and blessings and promises exchanged, then we hold hands and spin around while the congregation claps and sings, “shiviti Adonai l’negdee tamid;* shiviti atah l’negdee tamid.”**
* I will set God before me always; Psalms 16:8
** I will set you before me always
Now comes the wedding jester* and music men, and again I’m spiralin’ out of a shell, faces circlin’ into my mind and down a whirlpool into my Soul.
* aka badkhen, but that’s a Yiddish word and Yiddish hadn’t yet emerged in 1000 CE, nor was Yiddish ever common in Kairouan
There’s the jester draped in a suit of rags, patches and knots and hangin’ strips like the ruffly feathers of a tropical bird. Him pose, him strut, then pose again as he mixes Torah and bawdy verses, shockin’, and sure to make us howl.
Then there’s the rabbi lookin’ askance, his face is twisted as the Torah he hears. With his ikat turban in a brickwork of shades of scarlet and gold, a kingly crown.
Around the tables all the plates piled with food, the impoverished ones with crusty nails, their calloused hands all creased and cracked, happily slurpin’ tajine and wines. And amongst them, the young boys grabbin’ sweets, their cheeks a-bulge and crumbs on their chins.
And there, dancin’, like birds aflock, divin’ and arcin’ like a single mind, or like schools of fish that dart and curve, the dancy damsels with billowing scarves.
And off to the side the croonin’ crones with their golden bangles and hennaed hands, the kohl dark eyes and silky shawls a-weave in artful geometries, like the tangly branches of barren trees or the wind- blown spray in crashin’ waves.
And now the rav with crumbs on his chin, the young boys all knotty their beards and grins. The crones dancin’ in their raggy gowns, the maidens a-tellin’ their bawdy jokes. The jester, he sidles up to my bride and kisses her cheek and they go outside.
Oh, how the memories a-swim in my head, with all their anxieties washed away. A patina of pleasure is overlaid on faces and places, all re-arranged.
For seven days we celebrate with feasts and blessings in many a house, and over the following month or so we slowly return to community ways. That’s when Rav Khushiel come to me and says,
“I hopes your days are full, and many the pleasures are brighten the glow of you. When do you think your work will call you back to the world? Of course, don’t rush, but I have written a query on laws and customs for the gaon* in Sura, east, and also west to send to Andalus, and north to the Frankish academies. Our varying customs are branchin’ us Jews and morphin’ us apart. Walls are a-pilin’ around each community as you so clearly have shown to us all. We must restore our unity if we would serve our God as one. Not far, in Tangier a ship is moored. It will take you first to Andalus.”
* academy head
Stunned I am, and quick arise anxieties like twisted ropes all knotted in my gut and frayin’ every thought. A tremblin’ shivers over me.
“Once before I stood on the deck of a ship; like a crust of bread it were. And the sea, voracious and toothy, it leapt to swallow it up. Is that the sea you expects me to serve myself up to again? You expects me to stand on waters again temptin’ our Lor and merciless men? You would cast me to that, so you might cast your net around the people of God, so our Godful ways might not diverge? How do we know what God is want? The earth is fecund; our soul is rich. Perhaps our diverse and plentiful ways are the harvest our God desires of us. No. I won’t cast that net for you.”
My eyes to the ground. I couldn’t look up.
Rav Khushiel’s fury I ignite. What? I, but a lowly man of the earth; a seed on the wind; a weed of the field; while the Tree of Torah eternal grows at the center of the world, like a Tree of Life, the Axis revolving heaven itself…
“And Torah says – and dare you defy? – ‘It is not with your fathers alone that Adonai is make this brit*, but also with us, all who are here and alive today.**’”
Like that he says, and closes with this:
“The Lor is call. He expects you to hear.”
* Hebrew: covenant; ** Devarim/Deut. 5:3
Ninth Era, Part 1, ~1032 C.E., north to Andalus
I don’t see Rav Khushiel for many days, and many a day Bat-Kol and me discuss the choices that wait on me. Surely I must leave this place: to serve the rav or to flee his grip.
But our troubles spread like a fire unattended, a spark on a leaf and a gust of wind. Tinders in a corner awaitin’ to ignite, like ashy coals kicked up by chance. And soon our town is up a flames. Words leap and a spray of sparks. Charred timbers where a house once stood.
All from angers and bitter snipes. Who am I to point a finger or try to trace the many sources of coal and spark and windy word. All because my Bat-Kol and me decided we ain’t sailin’ west to bear a message to the nagid* there.
* Shmuel haNagid, Samuel the Prince, vizier of taifa of Garnotta (Granada)
Or otherways said, we won’t believe or be leaves or be leaving when the rav says ‘lekh lekha*’ to us. He talks like God to Aberham**. Or yet again, we strong reject that there’s only one way to serve the Lor, and that every Jew must pray the same, use the same language in the same tropes. But maybe at the bottom of it all is this: I don’t like no man shovin’ me around, even if he’s smarter or more powerful. Of course, either way our path is the same: We’re packin’ bags and we’re tastin’ tears.
* Hebrew: go forth; ** Berraysheet/Genesis 12:1
In the next episode, can you believe it? Exiled again.