Mountain of Roses

Written with utmost gratitude to my family in Israel: You have such strong hearts. 

“Each life converges to some centre,

Expressed or still.”

–Emily Dickinson, LXI

expressed in stillness

Real Life Stranger than Figs

My rat-a-tat-tatty purple yoga mat, shredding its rubbery dandruff under my hands, stays behind in Israel, land of figs and honey, when I leave.  The mat is in every way unspecial but, like other ritual objects, it seems to have taken on a character and vivacity.  By proximity, it knows something about me that I don’t.

Coming and Going, coming and going, it clucks at me, while I squish my clothes into my travel backpack, forgetting which pocket holds my clean underwear and which my dirty.    The mat has more of my skin cells than I do.

All good yoga mats should be in Israel when they meet their end, I console it, in the distracted condition to which packing reduces me. You’re totally used up! 

 Lame, my mat says, in the tone your mother uses to get your attention. But like the trusty mat it has been, it leans against the wall with utter patience.  It doesn’t mind being clung to.  It doesn’t mind being let go.  That’s why it’s rubber.

 Israel has just rolled into its succulent time.  Benai Berak, the neighborhood where my Aunt and Uncle live with their ever-burgeoning family, is a tiny holy enclave outside Tel Aviv.  It is impoverished and disheveled; yet roses and citrus trees bloom recklessly on the perimeter of the limestone apartment buildings.   Certain kinds of beauty are unstoppable.

"Flowers in the Desert"

Dont try to stop this

I had only one fig while I was there—it was not quite their season.  The fig was a disappointment; it was dehydrated (like me), sulphured (not like me), sugary and squished in a plastic container with its figgy brethren.  It looked shellacked.  The fig tasted like righteous, processed seed.  The grocery store proprietor, a Sephardic with a potbelly like a classroom globe, grinned a proprietary grin:  foreigners had a knack for wanting the expensive shit, didn’t they.

I grinned back, being just that kind of Figgy foreigner.

Figs on the outskirts

In the figinning...

Israeli honey I glimpsed once: at the Duty Free shop by the Delta departure gate.  It promised to be pure.  But purity by the spoonful paled beside the prospect of not being able to fit my carry-on luggage into the overhead bin.  So I skipped the sweetness and joined the line of passengers impatiently waiting to board.  But I had honey on the mind, a long, gooey strand of thought that stretched thousands of miles.

Delta Dogs

Know Where You Are

Orientation


 International travel is hopelessly funny.  It dredges up and makes defunct your best concept of normalcy.

 God, so busy abiding in His infinite and unfathomable perfection, has no time to fuss about airline safety.  He needs his minions to be thorough and vigilant.  As we prepare for take-off, a Chassid, his peyos flapping, flips open his cell phone, fires off text messages—regulations be damned.  When the attendant, a bleach-blond in a tart, fire-truck red Delta dress passes by, he covers his operation sloppily with a pillow.  My sister eyes him down the aisle, as if his intentions are truly seditious.  He’s gonna bring down this plane, her stare saysHer J had told her that to interfere with the traffic signals, everyone on the entire flight would have to receive a call at the same time.  But nonetheless.  The Chassid blows his nose on the red Delta blanket and then tucks it back into its original plastic packaging.  His phone is still blinking as we gain on the moon.  He pulls out a garbage bag full of sandwiches from beneath his seat, sniffs at each of them, and then chooses one over which to pray.  And the lord separated the wheat from the chaff and the Muenster from the Cheddar. 

Another religious Jew in his idiosyncratic garb piles his prayer books on his tray table until they are high enough that he can rest his head on them and sleep.  He asks my parents to switch seats so that he will not be sitting next to a woman—especially a number like my beautiful Mom. Heaven forbid their elbows touch and electrify the easily-tripped circuits of desire.  Elbow to elbow, the great chain of being goes on.  “Lest the pack should get lost in the dark.”

Many of the passengers throw their trash directly into the aisles.  When I go to the toilet in the back of the plane—the cleanest of the six—I see water suddenly begin to spurt, then rush, out of an upper cabinet in the rear deck.  A flight attendant, hands set brusquely on her hips, watches it with me, as if she were observing an orangutan alphabetize spices.  “No one is responsible except Murphy” her grimace seems to say as she picks up the intra-flight phone, and nonchalantly reports, “Yeah, the ice is going.  I’m just going to wait ‘til it’s done.”  “Do you want me to get my blankets for you?” I ask.  Or the booger blankets, I want to add. “No,” she says, entirely unconcerned.  The water spills out into the aisle and runs backward, with gravity, towards the bathrooms and the tail of the plane.  I step out of its way and watch an elderly man toss an empty plastic cup carelessly to the floor.  He doesn’t even look to see if anyone is looking—ignorance ignorant of itself.   I wonder how many things can go amiss in flight before it is unsustainable, and the plane plummets back where it came from like a kite in car wash.

Turn the Rosy Cheek

When I ask my Uncle if he ever has doubts about the choice to live this ultra-orthodox existence with its particular constraints, he refers me to a meaningful quotation from Torah.  A fence of roses, the Torah calls the many rules and laws by which the faithful abide.  Yes, we live inside a fence, but it’s not a bad fence!  I imagine how many roses it would take to weave an enclosure for even a single being’s life; thousands, millions, maybe even billions.  That fence would smell like the First Garden in June and require intensive treatments with manure.

Roses in the gardens

Hedging your bets

No Dead Time, my uncle says, twinkles in his eyes and exaltation in his voice, of how they pass their days in this community.  As far as I can tell, he’s had on the same blue-black cardigan for the last three decades.  The same slightly scuffed black sneakers, which lack the kind of support that would make them actually useful for exercise.  In this kind of religious life, you always know what to do—what to do with yourself– when you wake up in the morning.  If you want, every moment of your day is prescribed for you.  There is a prayer that frames even the tiniest gesture.  Think fast before you bite that pear.

At moments when I feel at a total loss for guidance, direction, this kind of structure seems almost sensible, at least consoling.  It is the fence, here, that enables and yields a beautiful life—that is, if one decides that what is within the fence is, in fact, beautiful.  Commentary on this Torah passage reads, “Ideals can prove more effective barriers than metal walls.” So if I see the Roses, conjoined into a boundary, and call them perfect, all the barbed wiring in the world couldn’t do a better job of keeping me exactly where I am.

Shadow on Roses

My fence has a lot of gaps

Exactly Where I Am

My cousin, B, fourteen years old, his yarmulke tilted from Purim pleasures, brings my dad the salt-shaker as soon as we arrive from the airport.  Melach! He says, handing it to my dad as we are shuttled to the table, where we will spend most of the ten days that follow.  They remember everything about us from last time, four years ago: our strange tastes and predilections, our excess use of salt, my twisted relationship to tea, my mother’s jogging routines.  There is a rumor that I only eat vegetables.  B hovers over my dad, watching him salt everything on his plate, amused.  When my dad puts down the shaker, he hands it right back to him, gestures at the food, as if one should be able to see the salt like a film of snow.  Then B beckons for his drunken brother-in-law to pass the wine, turns the bottle of Ultra-Kosher Cabernet upside-down, draining it into a plastic cup so flimsy it is almost saran wrap.  Two drops fall out: “L’Chaim” he says,  “You must drink it all at once, and get drunk.”  He looks in his dictionary, whose pages have been well-thumbed.  The word he is looking for is “necessary.”

Where the action happens

Clean Pate and Clean Plate

In the mornings, my cousins, fairly self-sufficient from a young age, crack eggs into a plastic cup and fry them in the black, worn skillet.  Eggs and sesame challah and the immediacy of God: a breakfast for Moses’ champions.  Everyone in that house functions on a different time zone.  My Aunt, who bore ten babies and miscarried one, has been an insomniac for over twenty-five years—first because I was always nursing someone, and then because I’m just crazy, she explains with a smile. And then I had to learn how to walk again after each baby. She loves the house and being at home.  Moreso, she loves the concept and practice of a simple home that is as infinitely elastic as the human gene pool.  Each baby was a new rose. Everything she describes she transforms into a miracle.

Generating the generations

Baby and baby of baby

We all have to pick, build and tear down our own fences.  The absence of fence is not necessarily freedom.  Some fences are invisible, agreed to by the subtle mind and therefore unchallenged.  Some fences are half-falling down and poorly maintained—staked sloppily enough that one trips over them from time to time, and so knows they are there.  How powerless any one being truly is, my Uncle says, with a hand-gesture that indicates in this predicament only the creator has our water-wings.  But this is where we differ; I think a person—any person– is the most powerful thing there is.

A Weepy Wall

The buckets in the holy square

Washing is no secret


At the Kotel ha-Ma-aravi, the Wailing Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, prayers are scrawled on pieces of scrap paper and stuffed into the cracks in the stone.  Passing notes to God: Pssssssst!  It was a wet and cold day when we visited, which made crying superfluous.  I had to wrap my scarf around my head and wear two jackets, but still the damp weather got into my bones like a ghost new at haunting and overexcited to do so.

Prayers at the frontline

Read my mind

Jews from all over the world converge upon this remnant, where Shekinah has lodged itself, like a piece of popcorn in a molar, since the destruction of the 2nd temple.  The wall is unremarkable—actually an outer wall of the temple proper.  Poor King Solomon, who tried to build G-d a suitable house, not realizing that G-d is more of a couch-surfer, later got distracted by his squadron of foreign wives.  Desire concretized into its own inner idol, which no Nebuchadnezzar could conflagrate.   (It may be the good luck endemic in this architecture that made me spell “Nebuchadnezzar” correctly on the first try. O.K.—the second try).

How many times a day or week did the groundskeepers clear out those crumpled requests?  Some of the papers were wedged deeply into the gaps in the masonry; something thin and sharp, like a dentist’s tool, would be needed to retrieve them.  Perhaps whoever maintained the wall also read the prayers personally, purveyors of secrets—that or threw them in the trash. It was a job I wanted, unionized or not.   Somewhere, there must be a garbage bin allocated specifically for expired pleas.  Or, worse: a recycling truck. This purse is made entirely from re-used scraps of prayer; proceeds from this purse go to help those whose prayers were not answered because they were never read. 

Prayers answered

My tribe sees the sun

You cannot turn your back on the wall as you depart the square—or you can, but that’s like letting your toddler oversee the stir-frying.  You keep the wall in your line of sight as you slowly back up.  Something like this is also the protocol for departing a temple in Asia without breaking gaze with the Buddha, and for encountering a wild animal.  Of all the ways to die, being eaten alive might be the most primordial.  The wall, however, does not harm you, should you turn away; but it notes your half-heartedness and, as is done for a student caught cheating on an exam, lops off some points on your celestial report card.  Best to keep your intent fixed—to maintain your prayer in your line of sight until it blends with the bricks and mortar and is indistinguishable from the structure itself.  Nothing special.

One does not need to visit such a real wall with great frequency; the wall(s) of the mind, of things longed for but not obtained, usually suffices.   I have wedged so many notes in the cracks of this mental edifice—notes from me to myself.  Some of them sit there still.  Some of them fall out when I breathe deeply.  Some of them have gone through (!) to the little Guru, a diminished God with a stenographer’s pad sitting inside my pituitary gland beneath a parasol, to protect her from the occasional monsoon of hormones.

Once or twice in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, God decides to check betweens two rocks and, good-humored, perhaps because the Magnolias are in bloom, and the wild spray of pink abounds, answers exactly.

Candles in the Holy Sepulchre

But do you speak the language of fire?

Masada

We watch an extraordinary moon rise over the Dead Sea, from the Balcony of a hostel, where a fellow traveler tells me about excursions on his family bicycle as a teen.  He would take his bike and go as far as he could go in any direction, wait, and then, long after school hours, return home.  He drinks an Israeli beer and looks at the commanding Moon as it crosses and then takes over the horizon.   In his mind, I think, he’s riding his bicycle towards outer space, and there is no reason to ever turn around.  Behind us, Mt. Masada—a hiccup of a mountain— looms, topped off with the remains of a BC-style Jewish fortress community. Everyone at the hostel is staying there with the intention of summiting it, either on foot or by tram.

Morning unbroken over dead sea

Taster

My mother, father, sister and I hike the mountain in at the edge of morning, after all four of us lie in our narrow, mildewed bunk beds in the hostel dormitory, sleeplessly blinking into the night air, the mosquitoes playing eenie-meenie-miney-moe.  You know something is going to dawn.  There is a certain ambition involved in hiking a holy site—the expectation that it will be hard, that you will work to summit, that you will understand that the reward, for the faithful, was to be that much closer to the hemline of God’s fancy-shmancy white shmata.  As we hike, to our left, the moon creeps down behind the plateau while the Sun comes out over Jordan and the Dead Sea begins to blue.  The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world.  God’s hole-in-one: where concentration of salt in the water separating Israel and Jordan keeps the great ball of fire from sinking.

Laying down the law

Even though we begin before five a.m., there are two busloads of Teenagers ahead of us on the trail: Birthright Israel trips in which a participant not only must ride a chartered vehicle all over the nation, but undergo physical challenges with The Tribe.  One asthmatic teenager, checking to see if her iPhone gets reception on the ascent, sits down on one of the steps cut into the mountain.  Je-sus!  She says dramatically to her friend.  I’m not going to make it, this is sooooooooo hard.  Her friend is chewing gum vigorously.  She sits down too, chews even harder, like she’s storing mastication power for some later use.  They smooth their hair, then one another’s, religiously.  A bus ride is rough on the coif.

At the top of Masada, where a well-preserved fort community still has enough of its foundation in tact that the imagination can play architect with the raw matter, the Sun blasts over the buttes and cliffs and the breeze picks up.  One can imagine the Jews hording water and wheat and whatever else was needed for survival.  The tour guides begin to orient their students to the facts; one guide, who tells his bunch from the outset they are going to do and learn everything faster than all the other groups declares as a lone black bird cuts through the open air; “the Romans are just like F-in McDonalds…they do the same thing everywhere.”

Everywhere.  The trails marking the Roman siege efforts are still imprinted in the rolling desert.  You can practically feel the Latin profanity, uttered by soldiers decades ago, wafting up from the rubble, where they waited under the swash-buckling Orion for enough morning light to see the way to empire.

Buttes off Masada

Eyecandy for the Romans

Bending

It’s still the quiet part of the morning; only my Uncle is up, studying.  I slide the glass door to the front room closed, unroll my mat, and practice.  The floor is linoleum and often scattered with crumbs.  I’m doing idol-worship for sure as I bow down to the enigmatic shapes of the breath, but my Uncle, asking with a vocal wink if I’ve learned to levitate yet, lets me go for it, even in his house where sacrilege is no small potato.  The clock on the wall is a half-unrolled, gilded Torah Scroll and ticks as if trying to prove a point: time, time, time.  Long breath holds, in which I can feel my heartbeat making a racket against my ribs.   My cousin, M, sticks her head in the door when she returns from her night job in the girls’ dormitory—Yoga, or exercise?  She asks.  I shake my head.  Something. Nothing. 

Coming and Going, coming and going, my mat whispers.

She ducks out again, slides the door shut.  Conversation and prayer begin audibly in the kitchen.

I love you, I say.  I don’t know who I am talking to; my mat, is doing the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” thing, familiar from the elementary school yard.

I love you, I say again.  I’m talking to the room.  I’m talking to my family.  I’m talking to all the people that cannot hear me, to the wall, to the presence behind the Wall, to the eggshells, to the waning moon, to the air, to what’s here and what’s hereafter.

Sand, Salt, Sea, Sky

But can you find the line?

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12 Responses to “Mountain of Roses”

  1. Ben Says:

    Dude best post yet. The trip sounds amazing. I really enjoyed the whole damned thing. Thanks for sharing all this. You are great. Do you like how all my sentences are completely unrelated? Zebras have stripes.

  2. irene horowitz-nolan Says:

    You captured it perfecly. It is beautifully written, thoughtful, homorous, religious, sacreligious but, most of all, respectful of your family.
    xo
    mom

  3. Jamie Says:

    Often I have an impulse to make some insightful comment or witticism in response, but my first available reaction is to say this is a fine piece of writing and I appreciate the elegant crafting of it very much. It was a real pleasure to read. Nice pictures too!
    J

  4. Johanna Says:

    Yes, the man did blow his nose in a blanket and put it back. This is fabulous. It made me laugh out loud, but also perfectly described the experience of being there that I want everyone who asks me what the trip was like to read it.

    You are wonderful!

  5. Rebecca Reich Says:

    Sarah: this was wonderful. When we finally get to go on our trip to Israel, I think that I definitely won’t fly Delta!

    Rebecca

  6. Megan Fincher Says:

    Hi lovely Sara! I really really think you should somehow compile all these beautiful blog posts into a memoir…thanks for sharing ^^

    • saraknowsyou Says:

      Taking suggestions as to how. I am grateful for your endorsement. For some reason every time I look at the Frank Gehry building in NYC– the one by the Brooklyn Bridge that looks like a twisty-tie– I think of you.

  7. Ben Says:

    Dude I miss your blog posts. Please Sarah !

  8. Sara Says:

    Getting back on it today! Thanks for the virtual and pleading kick in the a——-!

    I miss you, BEN! Don’t forget about the East Coast even though I know mountains are so convincing.

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