| Calligraphy |

Hearts in Translation

Talk. That’s all his father ever does, and he never remembers to leave some silent space to listen to anyone else’s words.

The first day on the job, Dudi’s shoulder aches.

The second day is agony. Lifting the pail is okay, he uses his left hand. But then he has to dip the broom into the paste, lift, twist, and holding the pashkevil with his right hand, brush it over with the thick liquid glue. Enough glue for the poster to stick, not so much that it tears the paper or makes the black ink run.

Lift pail, position poster, up and down with the glue. And again. And again. At the end of Dudi’s day, he examines his shoulder in the small square of cracked mirror in the bathroom. He sees nothing but whitish skin. He thinks he hears the guys laughing at him in the other room.

The third day, he rolls out of bed late, then hangs around Abramovitz’s printing gesheft, watching the pashkevilim spew from the printer. Click. Whirr. Black on white. He watches, unblinking, until black and white blur into gray.



Click. Whirr. Black and white.

But then Mr. Abramovitz gives him a shove, there, on his right shoulder where it aches. Dudi flinches, gasps, almost yells. Then he swallows. He piles an old shopping cart full of the posters, grabs a jerrican of paste and a broom, heads out onto the rounds.

He starts at Kikar Shabbos, all four corners. Gadi, one of the guys in his apartment, told him to start in the Bukharan quarter and finish in Meah Shearim, but he prefers to get Meah Shearim out the way. It takes the most time, eckles him the most, and this way, he’s safe in the Bukharan quarter when his brothers came back from cheder. And when Tatte returns home from the silver store.

Gadi and Nimrod laugh at him. “Bizbuz,” they tell him. This job is a waste of time and energy. And what does he get for it, 32 shekels an hour? The Osher Ad superstore pays 38. You’re inside, out of the cold or the sun, no aching shoulders. They’re even going to give a Purim bonus — two bottles of vodka. But only for over-eighteens.

Only Nimrod — Nechemiah in past life — is over eighteen, but what does that matter?

Osher Ad is an idea, but Dudi can’t bear the thought of spending hours stuck inside, not after years spent staring at the gray-tinged plaster of his cheder.


Day thirteen of his new job. Dudi wakes up late, stomach still bloated from his makeshift Purim seudah. It had felt good to sink his teeth into something that wasn’t a potato boreka — meat, a real meat burger, all 400 grams of it. He felt it slide down him and kick out the lethargy.

In the end, Osher Ad had given the guys arak, not vodka, but they’d had a good time all the same. When Dudi saw the bottle, he’d almost told them, don’t you know that the mitzvah to drink is punkt wine, not spirits? Then he’d laughed at himself and matched them, cup to cup. By the end of the night, his stomach was a small, round mound and his head felt like the whirring printer. Now, the thought of food makes him feel sick, but as he leaves for work, he picks up the arak bottle — it’s still half-full — and slings it into his bag.

He runs off to Abramovitz’s, dodging the little boys that clog the streets on their way to cheder. After last night, he looks worse for wear, and he runs his hand through his hair. Maybe he needs a haircut. But then, how long is too long? He’d thought he was patur from the questions when he took off his yarmulke. But it turns out the questions don’t disappear, just change. It’s not, is this enough for a k’zayis? Or, if Tatte says pas nisht and Rav Veiner says nisht geferlech, who to listen to? Instead it’s, where do you eat? Do you check for a hechsher or does none of it matter anymore? What stops you from doing anything, anything at all?

He thinks of his Yiddish-Hebrew dictionary, the one thing he took along when he moved out of his parents’ home. It’s not just about figuring that ess means le’echol or the oilem means the chevreh. It’s that it’s easy to translate his name from Duvidel to Dudi, but not so easy to figure out what Dudi really means.

When he ducks into the printers to pick up the day’s warnings and laments, Abramovitz makes him wait. A mistake in the copy. Endorsky — what’s printed — should really be Endovsky. And just who is going to pay for the mistake? Abramovitz mutters. Just who?

A shlechter tog before it begins. His headache has spread, now it feels as though the back of his skull was hit by a succah board. He looks around the streets; the Purim things have been whipped out of sight and all is Pesach. A sign: Celebrate Yom Tov Like a King, Buy Stein’s Dining Set. Sink inserts are stacked up on the sidewalks. Foil glints in the sunlight, hurting his eyes.

He starts, as usual, at Kikar Shabbos. Lift pail. Position poster. Dunk broom into pail and swish, up and down the paper.

Where will he spend Pesach? The other guys mentioned that they’re going back to their families. “Once a year,” they had said, slapping him on the back. “Be a man.”

But if he spends Pesach with his family, he’ll have to face his mother. She’s a good woman, but she’ll follow him with his eyes. He’ll feel her stare across the table, until enough! Genug!

He’ll turn to her and say, why are you looking at me? And she’ll play with her napkin and say, me? I’m not looking at you. But the staring will continue.

And then, Tatte. Tatte will just do what he always does: talk. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Like his tongue is one of those conveyer belts in Osher Ad, move jerk, move, jerk, never stopping. Most time it’s the same thing over and over and over again, just in different words. Talk. That’s all his father ever does, and he never remembers to leave some silent space to listen to anyone else’s words.

As the cold evening breeze runs through the streets, he is still informing the Bukharan quarter that Yosef ben Eliyahu has gone to his World and woe to those who remain, woe to the mourners of our nation. He puts down the brush and leans against the wall, both palms flat against the old stone. He pushes, sometimes that helps ease the muscle strain.

And he hears the familiar voice. “Duvidel.”


He drops his hands. His right shoulder bumps against the stone wall, and pain runs through him, but bad.

He looks down to his sneakers. “Tatte.” For a second his heart leaps. I’ll ask. I’ll ask to come for Seder.

But then his father opens his mouth and there it is again, the endless rise and fall of his voice.

There are rules with Tatte. You don’t look him in the eye. You just let his words flow over you, around you, through you until there is something about yourself that you hate — never him, you never dare to hate him, and it’s all your fault, your fault, even as he talks talks talks

“Duvidel, Duvidel, don’t you know how we worry about you, Mamma and I, haven’t you thought for a second about your family, we, who brought you up, don’t you think your Mamma is frantic thinking about you and what might have become of you

with never a moment of silence

“And I see that there’s not even a kippah on your head, Hashem yerachem, a sheigetz you’ve become, one of those shkutzim on the streets and maybe are you taking ich veis those types of cigarettes that have chemicals, those drugs

never a pause for breath, never a chance to let anyone else open their mouth, never does he stop for long enough to let you in

“And here I always thought that something would become of you, the way you always listened so well, had so much respect, and then all of a sudden you throw it all away and if you think you’re coming home for Pesach like this, if you think we’ll let you in the house, then you’re living chalomos, dreams.

and not just your words, but your world

“All those years that your mother and I davened for you, all the tears by hadlukus neirus, it’s like you never even cared, never care, never even think about your parents and their—

and not just your world but your—

broken hearts.

He is angry. He is angry at his father and he is angry at all the words, those words.

He looks at the roll of posters in his arms. He looks up at the white pashkevilim he hung yesterday and the day before and the day before that too. It seems like the gantze shtot, the whole town is shouting at him, their words leaping off the paper. The people who are dying and mourning, those who tell himself to sacrifice for his people and not join the army, those who tell him to buy Komemiyus matzah and not to attend a concert on Chol Hamoed, not to allow radio in his home and remember, always remember that the Day of Judgment is soon upon us and there will be no escape.

All these words. They scream at him and suddenly, they’re all in his father’s voice.

He leans against the awning, places his head in his hands. Is the pain coming from his head or somewhere else? Two ginger cats jump from a green dumpster, they streak past him, tails in the air. Dudi recoils.

He must have been seven when he was scratched down the arm by one of those… those creatures — he’d been chasing it outside the shtiebel, it had only three legs so he thought he’d catch it. He sobbed as he made his way back inside to find the Tatte. But Tatte was baal korei, he just kept on and on and on at the words even as Dudi pulled on his tallis, never even looking down to see what was wrong.

At night, too, there was always that sound. Mamma loved Tatte’s voice, and it was beautiful in a way — tuneful and mellow and sweet. He’d pause from his learning as Dudi came in from cheder, How was your day, yingele? he’d ask. But as Dudi opened his mouth to reply, the chant would start again. Every night, as Dudi lay in bed, he’d clap his hands over his ears to block out the sound.

Now, Dudi jerks up his head. He piles up the remaining posters and douses them with the half-bottle of arak. Just the smell makes him feel drunk. With shaking fingers, he lights a cigarette. Tosses it onto the pile. Dudi watches the papers curl and start to turn into ash. It takes just a minute for the whole pile to burst into flame.


Later, he is told how the flames spread. How an old succah board a couple of feet away had caught alight, then the fire had spread into a yard.

L’maiseh, there hadn’t been much damage.

But there could have been.

Dudi is summoned to appear in a magistrate court a week later. As he is under the age of eighteen, a social worker will be present. His family has been informed.


The judge keeps running his large, puffy palm over his bald head.

It reminds Dudi of his rebbi, telling him that with a kappel that small his yiras Shamayim would fly away. The judge doesn’t have any kappel at all. Each word the judge says is translated into Yiddish, so Dudi has to endure it twice. When the judge says, “Titbayesh — for shame!” the translator launches into a tirade — Shonda! And bizyonos for his family besides, what was he, a vilde chaya?

He looks around: his father is on the bench, he must have closed the shop. His uncle is there, too. And Mamma and her sister. And Avreimel! Avreimel his older brother is there, though he is a new father, his wife still in the hospital with the newborn — he had called him in the middle of the night. “Mazel tov, Fetter Dudi,” Avreimel had sung, and told Dudi he was the first call after telling the parents. Dudi’s eyes had welled with unexpected tears.

He catches his father’s eye, gives him a tiny nod, waits for him to speak, to say something, anything, in his defense.

But his father doesn’t utter a single word.


Fifty hours of community service. There’s a long, painful conversation with Noa the social worker, in which she keeps asking how he feels toward his family, and he shrugs his aching shoulder and spreads out his hands in answer. She flicks her hair in exasperation, it is strange — corkscrew curls that begin black and end blonde — and tells Dudi he’ll be visiting elderly people in the area. She gives him an address in the Bukharan quarter; she’ll meet him there tomorrow afternoon.

“What do you think I’ll be doing there?” he asks Gadi that evening.

Gadi shrugs. “Cleaning, maybe.”

Dudi looks around their tiny apartment. A trail of ants marks the place he spilled his coke earlier. In the kitchenette, no one emptied the garbage can and paper plates spill out onto the greasy floor.

Cleaning. There might be something in that. Especially if he’ll be here for Pesach.

He lies down on his bed, runs his fingers along the wooden bed frame. Stained. Chipped.

It reminds him of the stilts his father made, his only toy, created by sawing down two old succah boards. One reddish-brown, the other almost yellow.

A few years back, his mother, worried about the boys he was befriending, had gone crying to the rebbetzin. She had turned to the rav. The rav had called in Tatte and told him to spend time with his son. To talk to him.


Tatte must have thought about that, because he summoned Dudi one evening and said, when I was a child I didn’t have much to play with, but I did make myself a pair of stilts. I could help you make a pair, if you’d like. It might be fun, you could use them on Purim, for chasunahs. We could do it at the back of the shop, so it would be just the two of us, without Yankel or the little ones around. Just the two of us, we could talk. We wouldn’t have to tell anyone, and when they’re made you could surprise the cousins at the next chasunah. Maybe we’ll wrap them in black fabric, so it will look like you have two long, long legs. Yes, that’s the way…

Tatte hadn’t once met Dudi’s eyes as he spoke, just looked over his head, maybe he was addressing the needlepoint Mamma had done of Kever Rochel.

Lying in bed now, Dudi thinks of how Tatte is still standing on those stilts he’d made as a boy. Too afraid or angry or whatever to meet the world in the eye.

It is hot. Too hot for a blanket. He throws it off, but each time the fan swivels his way, he shivers. Should he get up and turn it off? He closes his eyes. The fan comes around again. Instead of turning it off, he reaches for his blanket and pulls it back over him.


Rahamim Hassidian wears a pair of ancient velvet slippers covered in faded gold embroidery. He has a straggly white beard that looks strange against his nut-brown skin.

“I’m here to help you,” Dudi says.

The man looks up. He has dark eyes, almost black. He says nothing.

Dudi looks around the place. “What can I do?”


Dudi sighs. The wall is covered in a tapestry: gold and scarlet and ochre. Beside it hangs a brass clock, overlaid with sculpted birds and roses, with just a single hand crawling around the face. He has a whole hour to kill.

He pokes around the place, finds a sponja stick on the porch. He goes into the kitchen, a strange smell hits him. A copper pot is on the stove. Dudi lifts the lid, it’s hot. He drops it onto the range with a clatter. A yellowish mixture bubbles inside, it smells faintly of lemons, and the bubbles throw tiny grains of wheat up to the surface of the soup. It smells strange, foreign, but it is real food and Dudi feels saliva gather in his mouth.

He turns, throws a cupful of water over the kitchen floor, then, as he pulls a wet line across the tiles, realizes that the place is already spotless. He lets the stick fall to the floor and looks around the kitchen.

Lined on the counter are glass jars filled with spices: yellows and oranges and greens. What are they? His mother uses only paprika. A ceramic bowl is full of fresh lemons. He runs his thumb across the counter. Not a speck of dust.

He wanders back into the living room. “What do you need, Mr. Hassidian?”

A knock at the door.

Dudi turns to the old man. “I’ll answer, b’seder? Don’t trouble yourself to get up.”

He goes to answer it. Noa. The social worker. He’s not sure whether to be relieved or annoyed. She tried to finagle his job back with Abramovitz, but the man wouldn’t hear of it until Tatte paid him a visit, used his magic words to talk Abramovitz into giving Dudi his job back. That’s the version Noa tells him, anyway. But she is on his side, she’s surprisingly good at listening, though once she tried to persuade him to do a preparatory course for the Israeli Air Force. Cheil ha’avir, she called them, Valor of the air.

She pushes back her hair and nods hello. “My favorite juvenile delinquent,” she says, stepping into the living room and waving at Mr. Hassidian. She takes a tablet from her tote bag, taps, and then hands it to him. “Here. Sign.”

Dudi looks at the screen. Another language he can’t speak. Anger and humiliation bubble inside, yellow and thick like the soup bubbling on the stove. He thinks, suddenly, of the time his cousin told him about flying on a plane. He had told Dudi that at the entrance is a stack of plastic chairs, you grab one, find a place. Then, when everyone’s in, you put a little coin in the box at the side of the chair, keep feeding it those shekels all the way to New York, if you don’t want to come down someplace in the ocean.

And what did he know of flying, had he ever been on a plane? So he’d swallowed it, the chair bit at least, and then felt so dumb, so humiliated when they started laughing at him.

Noa hands him a small metal stick, points to a line on the page. He makes a scrawl.

“You’re not here to do his sponja.” She looks around. “He’d probably do a better job than you, anyway.”

She waves a hand around the room, long fingers tipped in purple. “You’re here to make him talk.”

Far vuss… Dudi translates quickly in his mind: “Any… any idea why he won’t speak?”

Noa shrugs. “Nothing specific. The three-ply cord I call it. It plagues most elderly citizens.”

Hachut hameshulash.

“Cold. Afraid. And lonely. Mostly lonely.”

She looks at him. “Unravel that cord and he’ll probably talk. No promises though.” And she’s gone, the front door clicking closed behind her.

Dudi looks at Mr. Hassidian. “Shalom,” he says again. The man doesn’t answer. Dudi tiptoes forward, stands over the old man, checks behind his ears for hearing aids. There aren’t any.

“You hear me just fine, don’t you?” he says.

Mr. Hassidian just looks at him.

Dudi sighs. He sits for a minute and a half, fingers tapping his jean-clad knees. The hand on the brass clock is still. Then he stands up, walks around, lifts the net curtains and looks down to the street. He shakes his head. Something tells him that he won’t find the answer to Hassidian’s silence out on the street.

Maybe someone in the building.

He speaks to Mrs. Vilkovitch from the opposite apartment in Yiddish, revels in the fluency of his words, though she blinks at his appearance.

“You know why Mr. Hassidian doesn’t talk?”

“For three months he doesn’t say a word. And I don’t know why. So I take him to the ENT, I think ich veis, maybe nodules in his throat, something stops his words. The doctor puts a torch on her head, tells him say ah, he not say anything. The doctor looks down the throat, tells me, he’s fine.

“So I take him to a woman, she heats lead, pours it into boiling water, looks for bubbles, shapes, ich veis. Gornisht she sees there, gornisht.”

The woman puts both hands on the sides of her thin face. “A cloud, maybe, she saw there, but I tell her, I say, clean your glasses before you tell me what you see. She takes them off and wipes away the steam. And like I tell you, nothing she sees.” The woman’s face is full of regret.

Back in the apartment, Dudi finds a Persian dictionary on the bookshelf. Farsi to Hebrew. He fishes his own dictionary out of his bag, Yiddish-Hebrew. He looks up the word for tea. First in Hebrew. Then he opens the Farsi dictionary. The letters look Arabic. How is he meant to read that? He closes the dictionary with a bang of frustration.

Instead, he points at the glass tea cup on the man’s coffee table.

Teh,” he says.

Mr. Hassidian looks at him. He places both arms on his armrests and hoists himself up. As he walks to the kitchen, his slippers slap on the floor.

Dudi follows. Mr. Hassidian brings two spotless glass teacups from a cabinet, and a sky-blue ceramic teapot. No teabags for him, he pours in a handful of loose brown tea leaves. Then he reaches for a wooden box. Inside are dried rose petals, a crumbling pink. A spoonful of petals go into the teapot. When the kettle begins to whistle from the gas. Mr. Hassidian slips on a crocheted glove and lifts the kettle, pours it into the teapot.

He carries the teapot and the glasses through to the living room. Mr. Hassidian waits: two minutes, four, eight, until he finally pours out the tea and hand Dudi a glass.

Dudi sniffs, reluctant. But Mr. Hassidian’s eyes are on him. He sips. It is delicious; a sensation on his tongue he has never felt before — smoky and sweet and fragrant and refreshing all at once.


His mother makes tea from regular Wissotzky tea bags, with heaping spoons of sugar.

This drink is something else.

He looks down at the two dictionaries on his lap. What does he know of tea? Even if he knew how to translate the squiggles into letters, what Mr. Hassidian means when he says tea is something so different from what he knows. A strange sadness gnaws at him. Even if he can find the words, what does he know of Mr. Hassidian’s world?


A few days later, Dudi finds a secondhand bookstore on Rechov Yaffo. The door creaks as he steps inside, and an old man barks at him, close it fast, can’t you see the air-conditioning is running? He snorts. Kids nowadays, he says, different world.

Dudi stands still while the man shouts at him. He is at that stage of comprehending a new language where he must thread the individual words together in his mind, wait for meaning to appear. It is an effort for him to pry his fingers off the shop door and let it close. It bangs.

“What are you looking for?” the man asks.

Something that will make Mr. Hassidian talk.

“Just looking.”

“Ha. A browse around here will take all day.”

Dudi looks around. He is no stranger to books, of course. Seforim fill his parents’ house and the beis medrash must have thousands of sifrei kodesh, but somehow this is different. Metal shelves stretch up to the ceiling. In the corner, boxes and boxes — brown cartons promising to contain Bissli and Bamba, long emptied and filled with dusty volumes. The place is like a graveyard of lost volumes.

In the corner, Dudi spies a small ladder.

He climbs the stepladder, runs his finger over the ridged covers. He pulls volumes off the shelf, flips through a few pages, slides them back onto the shelf. He doesn’t know what he is looking for, just hopes that when he sees it, he will recognize it.

And then, on the fourth shelf up, on the left hand side, he comes across a volume. Postcards from Persia.

It’s hardback, color. A book of photographs. He flips it open. There’s a whole chapter on Shiraz. One on Tehran. Dark, narrow alleyways. Azure skies. Yellow stone. A marketplace scene, dated 1969. It could have been taken a thousand years before.

He stares at the picture. The air-conditioner blows on his face, but he can almost feel the heat of the sun on his shoulders. A camel in the distance.

He stands on the stepladder, flipping through the pages: a minaret. The Jewish ghetto. An aron kodesh, painted in sky-blue and gold.

Heat, dust, color.

Is this where Mr. Hassidian comes from? Is this what he calls home?

He thinks of his parents’ home. The smells: onions sautéing, washing powder, old leather, the faint metallic taste in the air from his Tatte’s silver soldering.

The price is penciled in the first page: 185 shekels. That’s what he earns in six hours hanging pashkevilim. It’s a lot.

Dudi spreads his fingers across the title page. He could give it a little tear, just enough to demand a discount. His fingers hover just above the paper, then he shuts the book with a bang, reaches into his wallet, and counts out 185 shekels.


The next day, Mr. Hassidian is in bed when Dudi arrives. The apartment feels icy. He hurries to the kitchen, finds the tea, the dried rose leaves. He sets the kettle on the stove. It whistles and he makes tea.

He knocks lightly on Mr. Hassidian’s door. The old man is propped up on a pillow, a package of tissues on his night table. “You not feeling good?”

No answer.

He holds out his hands and Dudi passes him the tea. Mr. Hassidian looks at the glass, then at Dudi, and his face breaks out in a smile.

“I bought you a present,” Dudi says.

He brings out the large, hardcover volume. Flips open the cover, slowly turns through the pages.

Mr. Hassidian’s eyes are brighter and darker than usual. He gazes down. His white beard quivers, the nut-brown skin crinkles. He lifts the book up to his face.

Dudi looks, too. It is just a cityscape: a thousand red-tiled roofs under a darkening sky. What does it mean to the old man? But the old man stares and stares, and once he licks his thin, cracked lips.

What does he see?

They turn another page. A cluster of black grapes hang from a vine, a veil of white dust over the dark fruit.

Another page. A man with a toothless grin sits beside sacks of spices and grains: red paprika, saffron, cumin. A sack of white rice, green mung beans, brown cinnamon sticks.

Another page. A wooden loom, a tangle of colored yarn.

Mr. Hassidian sits for a long time, the tremble in his fingers making the page quiver. What is in the man’s heart? What memories, what grief, what joy? What is lost for him, what will never be found?

“Mr. Hassidian,” he says quietly. He reaches out and places his own hand on top of the old man’s fingers. “Mr. Hassidian, why won’t you talk?”

The old man turns to him. He looks frightened, something untouchable is in his eyes. Again he licks his lips. “My… My brother passed to a better place. No one… no one was left who understood.”


That night, when Dudi gets home he calls Noa, the social worker.

“My favorite delinquent. What’s up?”

“I got him to talk. Mr. Hassidian.”

A long pause.

“I’ll hand it to you. I’m impressed.”

“You know why he stopped?”

“Tell me.”

“His brother died. All the way over in Iran. And then he told me that there was no one left who understood.” Dudi pauses. “I think I know how he feels. That’s what I feel like. With my father.”

Noa snorts. “Poor child. Like you ever took the time to understand him!”

Dudi grips the phone. “What do you mean?”

“You’re father’s a person, too. More than the sum total of your resentment against him. Learn to speak his language. Though it might seem like Farsi. And ask him to learn yours.”

Dudi stops, thinks. There’s truth in her words.

“Those posters. The ones that drive you crazy.”

“What?” There’s only so much he’ll take from her in one day. Noa’s okay, but in small doses.

“You think they’re all shouting at you, right? Just like your father did. Does. Will.”

“Maybe.” His voice is guarded.

“But that’s not what it’s about.”

“Oh no?”

“It’s just the voice of the community,” Noa says. “Quarrelling and wailing and caring. Tutting at its youngsters. Grieving. Connecting.”

His palm is slippery with sweat now, and the phone almost slides away. “You crazy?”

“No. Words aren’t hate. They’re connection. Hope. Without words, what’s left? We’re sealed off from each other. Lost. Don’t hate your father’s words, Dudi.”

“So what should I do?”

“Ask him to make space for your words, too.”


He must be crazy. Meshugeh. Tipesh.

Coming back here, on this night, the very night when his father has a mitzvah — an obligation, no less — to tell over to his children.

He got a haircut, Gadi lent him a small black yarmulke, he’s not dressed in black and white, but he looks okay. As soon as he walked in, Avreimel handed him the baby; he’s still in Dudi’s arms, a warm bundle. Does Mamma stare at the baby or at him?

Shmulik said the arba kushiyos, the Tatte is about to start talking. He watches as Tatte sips some water, licks his lips. He opens his mouth.

The candlelight glints on the ruby wine, the gold-painted glasses; ancient colors of Persia.

He swallows. Clenches his hands around the baby tight, tighter.


His father jerks up his head and looks at him.




“I… I have something to say.”

(Originally featured in Calligraphy, Pesach 5776)

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