by Miriam Stark Zakon
The place: Old Jerusalem.
The date: 1910.
The rulers: the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
The day of the accident dawned, as do all summer days in the holy city, hot and dry and cloudless. In the Rosen homeblessed as it was with nine healthy, active childrenthe frantic morning activities were going on, all under the watchful gaze of Chaya, mother of the Rosen brood. Chaya was dressing the baby, cutting the eight pieces of bread that would serve as breakfast, cooking up a pot of hot water to be mixed with a drop of milk, and choosing clothes for the three little onesall at the same time. As she worked, she kept up a string of admonitions, suggestions, and commands: "Frieda, your braids are messy, comb them out and begin again"; "Elisheva and Yankel, stop that bickering"; "Yisroel Moshe, go back and wash your hands"; and on and on and on.
On the morning of the accident, the Rosen children, as always, managed to be out of the house on time, neatly dressed in clean, if ragged, clothing; fed, scrubbed, with hair carefully brushed. The older children escorted each of the younger ones to cheder or gan, and then went quickly towards their own classrooms.
Ismail Akhbar, a young Turkish foot soldier, was tired on this morning of the accident, tired and hungry and cross. The young man, who was destined to die five years hence in a nameless town in the Balkans in a now-forgotten battle of the Great War, had no idea why he had been billeted here in Palestine. He knew only that he was far from home and very, very bored.
He had been walking through old Jerusalem's narrow streets since dawn, a heavy pack on his back, as part of a time-consuming and, to his mind, unnecessary drill.
Wait! He suddenly remembered that, some time ago, he had secreted a nice piece of salted meat into the bottom of his pack, just in case of emergency. The rumbling of his stomach, which had missed breakfast and would probably encounter the same fate for lunch, made the announcement: The emergency has arrived.
He looked around, saw no other soldiers or officers nearby. Carefully he placed the pack on the cobbled road and began rummaging through it. On the floor next to him he placed his rifle, fifteen cartridges, four hand grenades, a canteen, two flares, and a small, all-purpose knife. There! He found the meat, and greedily stuck it into his mouth.
When he was repacking the knapsack, one of the grenades that had rolled a few feet away from him remained on the floor, obscured by a small pile of garbage left over from a cat's feast enjoyed the previous evening.
Ismail Akhbar, munching happily on the meat, did not notice anything amiss. He happily picked up his pack and went on his way.
Outside, the sun shone mercilessly, but inside the small building standing just to the right of the Churvah shul, the cold stone floors and perpetually damp roof kept the atmosphere comfortably cool for the several dozen energetic young Yerushalmi children studying in the cheder. The windows letting in the sun's bright rays were few and tiny, and several candles flickered from sconces built into the wall, casting strange shadows on the thin faces of the students, illuminating the old sefarim that lay open on the long tables.
It had been a good morning in cheder for both the Rosen boys, seven-year-old Yitzchak and his ten-year-old brother, Shulem. Yitzchak, whose quick wit and excellent memory had already gained him notice in a city where such things were of paramount importance, had received his rebbe's approbation several times during the day. The rebbe had been particularly impressed with the way Yitzchak had recited ten mishnayos by heart, and had promised to buy the boy his very own sefer if he should continue his voluntary project.
Shulem, a good if ordinary student, was excited not by the classroom, but by activities of a more extracurricular nature. His best friend, Muttel Glick, had an uncle visiting from Holland, a prosperous merchant who had brought a cornucopia of unheard-of treats and goodies for the thirteen Glick children: luscious, sweet pulling taffy and pungent cheeses.
When the rebbe had dismissed them for the afternoon break, Muttel turned to his friend and said, "Come with me now, and I'll introduce you to my uncle. You can try the taffy."
Shulem sighed. "I'd love to, but I've got to bring Yitzchak home first. I'll come by afterwards."
Muttel smiled mischievously. "All right, if there's anything left for you, after my brothers get through with it!"
Knowing as he did the voracious appetites of the eight Glick boys, Shulem sighed again. "I wish I could come right now," he said, looking angrily at his brother.
Yitzchak, still basking in the rebbe's praise, breezily announced, "Don't put yourself out for me, Shulem. I can walk home by myself."
Shulem hesitated, his fear of his mother warring with the temptation of taffy and cheese. Temptation won an easy victory.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"Don't worry, I'm a big boy now," his brother assured him.
And so it was that Yitzchak was all alone when he happened to notice an odd, pear-shaped item lying on the floor, near a heap of garbage left over by a cat. There was no one there to warn him not to kick it high, in the manner of young boys. There was no one there to hear the terrible explosion that ripped the quiet stillness of the Jerusalem afternoon....
The good doctors and nurses at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, that remarkable institution founded in 1902 for Jerusalem's Jews as an alternative to the hospitals run by missionary societies, could do much for the wounded boy. The dedicated doctors could pull the bits of metal and glass out of his flesh, and carefully sew the wound, leaving the merest trace of a scar. The overworked, compassionate nurses could bathe him in warm water until his body had recovered from the shock of the grenade's explosion, and place cool compresses on his brow when the fever of infection overcame him. They could place his arm in a sling, his leg in a cast.
At the end of three months, when the youngster was tearfully bidden farewell by the staff in the hospital and sent home to convalesce, they had done much for him. But not even the most caring and skilled of doctors could do one thing: they could not restore his sight.
When he went home on that clear autumn day, little Yitzchak could not see the sunshine glancing off Jerusalem's domes. Yitzchak was blind.
The nights were the hardest, during those weeks when Yitzchak lay inert and unconscious in the hospital bed. Chaya would bathe, feed, and kiss the little ones goodnight, and hurry to keep a night-long vigil at her son's side. Reb Aharon Rosen, stern-faced father and dedicated gabbai of one of Jerusalem's small shuls, would spend the night in the beis midrash. The flickering illumination of the sole oil lamp would reveal his careworn face seeking solace in the Gemara. Sometimes he would fall asleep standing up, his face even in repose pinched with anxiety or misery. If he was not in the beis midrash he would be running from rav to rav, begging for blessings, hoping for a miracle. Shulem, whose eyes were so forlorn that not even Reb Aharon, stern disciplinarian that he was, reproached him for having left his brother, would say tehillim and cry himself to sleep, with his brothers kind enough to pretend that they could not hear him.
And then he came back, their sightless little boy, and a kind of normalcy returned. Again, the children rushed frantically to get to school on time. This time, though, Yitzchak stayed home.
He had hoped, once strength had returned, to go to cheder once again, but his father put him off again and again.
"Father," he would say, "may I return to yeshivah yet?"
"No, my child," the answer would come slowly. "You are not well. And how would you go?"
"With one of the boys. They could lead me."
"To what end? Could you learn without vision?"
At this Chaya would wave her husband into silence, and stroke her child, offering him some long-sought-after treat, a sugar cube or honey-sweet orange purchased from an Arab vendor at vast expense.
And the weeks went by, and Yitzchak stayed home.
His days passed slowly. He would do what he could to help his mother, hold the baby and sing to her, amuse his younger brothers and sisters with stories. He walked slowly around the house, hands held out before him, often bumping himself on the sparse furniture until he grew accustomed to the layout. Evenings, one of his brothers would take him for a walk: his special treat.
And often he would be awoken in the early hours of dawn by his father, who would carry him to this rebbe, that chacham, another kabbalist. They would bless the child, wish him a refuah sheleimah, sometimes offer an amuletbut none could give that which the father sought: the miracle that would restore his child's sight.
One day his rebbe, Reb Chaim Levi, came to visit. He spoke to Yitzchak for some time, told him amusing stories of the cheder, and asked him if he had memorized any more mishnayos. In a gesture that pricked at the young teacher's heart, the boy just shrugged and pointed up to the dark glasses that covered his infirmity.
That evening Reb Chaim Levi was back, to speak to the boy's father.
"Let him back to cheder," he urged. "I can teach him. His mind is untouched."
"You cannot teach he who cannot see," Reb Aharon answered gravely. "My child will not be an object of pity."
"Not pity," the rebbe retorted, his anger rising. "I want that boy in my school!"
"I am sorry. You cannot have him. Not until he can see once again."
One day, Yitzchak had an adventure.
His father had traveled to Chevron, to spend a few weeks with an ailing uncle there, and to consult with the wise men of that city and beg them for help with his son. His mother, nursing the baby, had fallen asleep together with her infant. The house was still.
He called to his mother softly once, twice. No answer.
The adventure began. Yitzchak left his house. Alone.
It wasn't easy, walking in darkness, but the feel of the wind, the feel of freedom, more than made up for bumps and scratches that the stumbling boy collected on his hands, knees, head. He walked with hands outstretched in front of him, trying, by touch, to guess at where he was. It was exciting, frightening.
After half an hour, fearing that his mother would waken and grow frantic, he returned. He had walked two blocks by himself. His adventure was over.
After two more expeditions, the inevitable happened: His mother found him out. Mrs. Stern, their genial and voluble neighbor, met Mrs. Rosen as they stood haggling with an itinerant peddler. She congratulated her friend on her child's progress, and warmly assured her that she was doing the right thing in letting him have his freedom.
Mrs. Rosen said nothing, but her lips tightened and her face took on a grim cast.
When she arrived home she treated her son to a tongue-lashing such as he had not experienced since that day, a year ago, when he had given his younger brother Hersh a premature upsheren with her chicken scissors.
"Who knows what might have happened to you out there, alone?" she cried, her anxiety, fear and (could it be?) a touch of guilt spurring her tongue. "Can't you understand that you are blindblind?"
"G-d took my eyes from me," the boy retorted, with a bitterness that she had never seen before in him, "and now you would take my legs, and Totte my mind!"
She saw tears running down his cheeks; he could not see the tears on hers.
After a long pause she turned away and held her peace. The next day she handed him a long, smooth stick that a local carpenter had sanded down to shiny smoothness.
"It will help you as you walk," she said quietly.
"Thank you. It surely will," he replied.
In Chevron, the aged scholar looked up from his book at the careworn force of the man standing before him. The scholar's pale blue eyes, beneath bushy white brows, were kindly and patient, and sad with the sadness that fourscore years of hearing the troubles of his people can bring.
His voice was mild. "How can I help you, Reb Aharon?"
The father's voice broke. "My boy. It is my boy."
Through patient questioning, the aged scholar heard the complete story of young Yitzchak and his ill luck. Reb Aharon spoke of the metal shards that had cut something in the boy's eyes; he gravely recited the doctor's declaration that any improvement was impossible.
"And what would you have me do?" the scholar asked.
Reb Aharon's voice took on an eager note. "A blessing, Rabbi. For a miracle."
The scholar's voice hardened somewhat. "A Jew relies on G-d, not on miracle workers."
The scholar was not to be interrupted. "Let the youngster grow. Miracles are wonderful things. So are human beings. Accept that which must be, Reb Aharon; if a miracle is destined to take place, it will."
"But my boywill he ever see again?"
"The Lord knows the future; we on this earth are blind to it. And yet we live, we accomplish, we grow. Let the boy grow."
"But an amulet, a blessingcan you give me nothing at all?"
The sage slowly nodded his head back and forth. "Give the boy a chance to grow," he repeated. "And see what miracles can be wrought."
He would say no more.
The tortuous, winding, steep alleyways and paths of old Jerusalem are not easy to navigate, even for the most sure-footed and careful. For a blind seven-year-old boy, every step could mean a fall into the sewage and camel dung that filled the dirty streets; every inch was a battle against slippery stones, unexpected bumps and holes, small steps and steep declivities.
Yitzchak pushed on.
Within days he had grown adept at the use of his stick, and he felt ready for further adventure: a walk to the Kosel, the wall where Jews had prayed and cried for two thousand years. Before his accident, Yitzchak had often been to the small alleyway that stood before the ancient stones, and had been drawn to its power; today, more than anything, he wished to get there by himself.
He walked down his own street quickly, with confidence; by now, he knew this area well. Further on he grew more cautious, picking his way with the help of his rod and his outstretched hand. He paused to ask directions, but refused the help so graciously offered him. He would do this by himself.
Stumble into a hole made by an overburdened donkey cart; clean off the mud with a handkerchief that experience had taught him to carry, still his beating heart, and walk on. Scrape a shoulder against a wall of a house standing where no house should have been; ignore the stinging pain and walk on. Turn a corner gingerly, walk through an alley, and...before him, though he cannot see it, he knows stands the Wall, welcoming and warm and unassuming in its holiness.
He raced towards it, dragging his stick behind him, and then placed his hands and head against the warm stones. A cry welled up inside of him, so strong and harsh that he could not contain it within himself: "I want to see! I want to see!"
The voice next to him was mild, yet it stilled his rising frenzy. "My son, if you will it, you can see."
There was an authority in this voice, a confidence that quieted all doubt and wonder.
"Place your hands gently against the stones," the voice continued. "Stroke them softly. Feel each crevice, every indentation. See how the sun's shadow makes one part cooler than the next. Seesee with your fingers. It can be done!"
This was not a voice to ignore. Yitzchak did as he was told, running his fingers up and down, and then using a circular motion to feel the Wall before him.
"Softer, softer. Let the stones tell you their stories, their shapes. It can be done."
He tried again. As if in a dream, he traced the outline of each stone with his fingertips. Whisper-soft, he stroked the wall, feeling the smoothness that centuries of gentle touch had wrought; the roughness that millennia of sparse rain had created. He concentrated on envisioning each stone, its contours, its shape and size.
"I see it," he murmured. "I see it."
"Come, let us talk."
The voice led Yitzchak off to one side, and sat him down on a low wall abutting the house of a Moslem.
"There are many ways of seeing," the voice said. "Tell me, what can you tell me from the sound of my voice?"
Yitzchak hesitated. "You are a man," he said. "A Jew."
Again the hesitation. "I think...I think that you are kind."
The voice laughed. "I can be kind. I can also be stern. Would you like me to teach you?"
No hesitation this time. "More than anything."
That was the strange beginning of the strangest lessons the boy had ever known. Strange, because the man would meet with him at different places during the day, in quiet spots where few people passed; strange, because he would give no name, but asked only to be called Rebbe; strangest, still, in that Yitzchak never doubted, never wondered at the odd circumstances, but knew by some instinct that this man could be trusted.
One day, the rebbe brought him several different pieces of fruit (from where he had he obtained such delicacies, Yitzchak had no idea), and asked him to identify each by its smell. He began with the easy ones, the sweet and the pungent, and continued, making Yitzchak practice until he could recognize almost any food put before him. With his heightened sense of smell, Yitzchak learned to feel the presence of a dog, a child, a carpenter, a blacksmith. He learned, even, the smell of his own rebbe: a distinctive odor of sefarim, intermingled with the sweet fragrance of apple blossoms and the cool, crisp wind.
His rebbe taught him to sit in a quiet room listening for any sound, no matter how small, and identify it; he taught him to feel the differences between old stones and new, rough hands and smooth.
And when he had broken through the cage of darkness that had imprisoned the youngster, he began to teach him the words of Torah. He recited the words of Tanach and Mishnah with a curious intonation, one unfamiliar to Yitzchak, and Yitzchak would repeat them and commit the words to memory.
No one noticed the changes in the boy's bearing, in the manner in which he walked, ate, sat. All were too busy with preparations for Pesach, the long-awaited Yom Tov that somehow always creeps up on the Jews with breathtaking suddenness. Every corner had to be scrubbed, every crevice in the stone floor scoured. No door, closet, or chair escaped attention. In homes such as the Rosens, there were other preparations to be made as well: letting out the chicken fat that would be served with almost everything, fattening a fowl, peeling beets until arms were exhausted and fingers scarlet.
This year, Mrs. Rosen's burden was even greater than usual, for Reb Rosen was still in Chevron. His uncle had finally succumbed to his illness, and the gabbai had stayed in the city for the shivah. There was some business to clear up afterwards that would keep him away until the holiday was almost upon them.
Everyone was pressed into service: girls to mend and patch frocks being handed down to the next child; boys to go to market and wait endless hours for potatoes or onions. Some scrubbed, some dusted, some swept.
Yitzchak's job was keeping the baby happy and content and quiet. One day, not long before the holiday, he sat with the baby in his lap, in his parents' small, closet-like room, listening to his mother hum to herself as she scrubbed the whitewashed walls.
"There," his mother presently declared in satisfaction, "one more job done."
Yitzchak sniffed. "Momma," he said with mischief in his voice, "you'd better check again, behind the bed. I think there's something rotting there."
"Silly boy," she said affectionately. "I just swept it out."
"Please, Momma," his tone was more serious now, but the hint of a smile lingered. "For me."
With a sigh, she pushed away the bed, gave a cursory glance, and gasped. In the corner, she saw a tiny piece of potato, green with sprouts and mold.
"How did you know that was there?" she cried.
"Just a guess," Yitzchak laughed.
Mrs. Rosen looked searchingly at him and wondered. But there was really no time for questionstoo much to be done.
Reb Aharon arrived just four days before the holiday: hardly enough time for him to bake his matzos; grind his horseradish, sharp and pungent; and burn his chametz. In the press of Pesach preparations he spared his children hardly a glance; when he noticed Yitzchak's stick and realized that the boy was going out on his own, he had no time to protest. He furrowed his brow, but remained silent.
It was two days before Pesach, when preparations were reaching their height. Yitzchak waited until his baby sister was fast asleep, and then picked his way through the bustling, crowded streets. His nose detected the smell of fermenting grapes: turn right, for here was Reb Yiddel's winery. Walk straight, past the fishmongers (no mistaking that smell!), the saddlers, and the fresh scent of Reba Baila's tiny flower box. Left turn at the sharp metal gate, down four small steps, into the coolness of his cheder, deserted today, as children stayed home to help with Pesach preparations. His rebbe, as always, had picked a quiet, empty place to meet.
He sat on a low bench, heard a light footfall, sniffed. "Rebbe?" he called out.
"I am here, my son," the voice answered.
They spent a pleasant hour or two reviewing mishnayos, learning new words and concepts and passages.
Then the rebbe's voice grew sober.
"My son," he said, "I will not be able to see you any longer."
"What?" Astonished, fear tinged Yitzchak's voice.
"The holiday comes upon us." The somber voice took on a slightly merry lilt. "I have much to do on this holiday."
"Oh, Pesach." Relief flooded the youngster. "But once Pesach is over, then..."
"Then I will be here no longer."
"But, Rebbe." His voice was broken. "Who will teach me? What will I do?"
"You will find teachers, for you wish, truly, to learn. Have no fear. And a happy and kosher holiday to you, my son. I will not forget you."
With that, he was gone.
Yitzchak sat dejectedly, in the solitude of the deserted room, for some time. A footfall sounding on the stairs roused him from his grim reverie.
"Rebbe?" he asked hopefully.
"Yes. Who is there?" The words were spoken, Yitzchak soon realized, by another rebbeReb Chaim Levi.
The teacher, who had come to his cheder to ensure that all was in readiness for bedikas chametz, was astonished to find his former pupil sitting in the room, but he masked his emotion and simply asked how Yitzchak was feeling.
"Baruch Hashem," he answered mechanically, not feeling much to bless his Creator for at that particular moment.
The young rebbe looked at his injured student, thought for a moment, and then spoke. "Yitzchak," he said, "I spoke once to your father. About your coming back. He was," a pause, "not enthusiastic."
He put his arm around the boy's shoulder. "I want you to know that if he can be persuadedyou have a place here. I want to teach you."
You will find teachers, his rebbe had said. Perhaps...
"I'll be back," Yitzchak said, determination in his voice. "I'll find a way."
Ignoring his teacher's offer of assistance, Yitzchak stood up and made his way out. Reb Chaim Levi watched in wonder as the boy expertly walked through the room, deftly avoiding the benches and tables, swiftly climbing the stairs out to the street.
"Perhaps you will," he said softly, after Yitzchak was gone.
Few holidays are as steeped in tradition as Pesach, and the Rosen home is no exception to this rule. At the head of the table sits Reb Aharon, resplendent in the white kittel brought to Eretz Yisrael by his great-grandfather many years before, his normally grave demeanor glowing with the sparks of two redemptions: geulah remembered and geulah still awaited. The small house is filled with unaccustomed smells: thick chicken soup, salty potatoes, sharp horseradish, sweet and heavy wine.
The seder begins. Kadesh: The Rosen family watch, astonished, as Yitzchak, one finger held lightly on the top of his glass, carefully pours himself a cup of wine, not spilling a drop. He does the same for his younger sister sitting next to him. When the potatoes are brought in to be dipped into salt water, Yitzchak expertly picks one piece up on the end of his fork from the plate that lies in the middle of the table; his parents watch, amazed. Maggid, and the family speaks of the night's miracles. Yitzchak tells of the darkness that left the whole of Egypt imprisoned, while the Jews saw all. His father listens carefully.
Rachtzah, the washing of the hands. Time for a tradition well loved by the family. The children traipse into the small kitchen and slowly wash their hands out of the great bucket prepared for them. They hear noise in the dining room next door and they giggle: Totte is hiding the afikoman, the piece of matzo eaten in memory of the Pesach sacrifice. The one who finds the precious piece, without which no seder is complete, will be given his choice of a sefer as reward. It is one of the few times in the year that Reb Aharon allows himself the luxury of playfulness; it is a family tradition.
The time for the meal comes at last. The children dig hungrily into the Pesach fare, simple and delicious and served with a lavishness unheard of during the year. Their parents, however, eat little: their attention is riveted on their seven-year-old, who so effortlessly cuts his younger sister's chicken, pours borscht for his brother, passes the salt, smears matzo with chicken fat.
"A miracle," murmurs Mrs. Rosen to her husband. He favors her with a sharp glance and says nothing.
And then comes the moment that the younger children have stayed awake for.
"Tzafun," calls out Reb Rosen. Then, in exaggerated alarm: "But I've forgotten where I've put my afikoman. Who can find it?"
They fan out through the small house, eight laughing children (the baby sleeps on, undisturbed by the commotion). They search through closets, move the sparse furniture, peek under the tablecloth. So few hiding places in the small home and yet each year Totte manages to find a new one!
Yitzchak walks carefully through each room, his head held up thoughtfully. He passes by the bookcase loaded with sefarim and stops suddenly. That smellthe burnt smell of the Pesach matzo. He sidles closer to the books, unaware of his father's sudden movement towards him. His hand runs over the bindings, stops at a large red volume.
He pulls it out of its place and with a cry of triumph holds up a white napkin. He's found it!
The younger children jump up and down in delight, but the older Rosen youngsters, and their parents, stand still in wonder. No one speaks.
And then Yitzchak, with the words of two rebbeim ringing in his ears, turns to his father.
"A sefer will be of no use to me, Totte," he says quietly. "What I need is a rebbe. I want to go to cheder. Please."
Reb Aharon races to his son, hugs him tight, almost crushing the afikoman into matzo meal.
And if the tears course down his cheeks, can he be blamed? After all, how often does one witness a miracle?
Somewhat later in the evening, the family stood up from their chairs. As finder of the afikoman, Yitzchak was granted the honor of opening the door to let in the prophet Eliyahu for his sip of seder wine.
He stood near the door, a soft breeze stroking his face, and listened to his family recite the prayer for redemption. And then he smelled it.
It was faint; perhaps it was there, perhaps not.
The fragrance of sefarim, apple blossoms, and the cool, crisp wind.
He closed the door and walked back to the table, a smile on his face.