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Within My Walls: Chapter 18

It wasn’t long before, instead of just asking her about their dead ones, they began asking her about the final Redemption


The mattress, stuffed with straw and covered with sheep’s wool, should be the most comfortable thing in the world, but throughout the night, Eliyahu keeps jerking awake. Each time, he slaps his palms on the mattress, reminding himself of where he is, but it does not settle him. He closes his eyes, and imagines a carpet of mossy earth, but instead feels like he’s sinking into a patch of mud.

At dawn, he wakes and knows that this is the end of his night, he will not attempt sleep but see the day through. There is noise, but it is not the thrush or the woodpigeon, it is not the bleat of his small flock, nor the splash of water on rocks as the stream travels down the mountain.

No. These are the sounds of people. He lies there, trying to identify what he hears. Heavy things, being dragged over cobblestones. A voice. A yell: “Watch out, be more careful next time, you oaf.”

He pulls the blanket taut around his shoulders. Something in him feels jangled, shaken, unsettled. His home in the mountains: he must return there. He must leave here now, today, and return to the peace of his cave.

The sound of the door, opening and closing. What was it that the woman said last night? That this was a soup kitchen. And he had not been able to place her yesterday, but now he can — this is the woman on the horse. The woman who summoned help. Whose servants had returned them to Tzfat.



He sits up. Another voice, but this one familiar.

His door opens. Yannai’s face is there, his arm gesturing that he arise.

“What is this, Eliyahu? What are you doing in bed? Do not tell me that you are old and weary and weak, like the poor man you helped?”

Eliyahu hides his face in his hands, groans and smiles at once. “How did you even get here?”

“I asked the water carrier to give me a little help on his barrow. He was so surprised that I had not moved on to the next world that he agreed.”

Eliyahu smiles. He sits up in bed, leans over to wash his hands with the earthenware jug that he found last night in the place that used to be his kitchen. “And how do you fare, my friend?” He could embrace the man, so glad he is to see him.

“That is the question that I need ask you.” Yannai sits down on a stool beside the bed. “Do you worry about your sheep?”

Eliyahu shakes his head. “There is plenty of grain in the feeding troughs, and the sweet summer grass.”

“You do not fear predators?”

“It is months since I saw a mountain lion. They seem to have moved on north.”

“Toward Damascus. Good. Very well.” He claps his hands. “If you are not fretting over your little woolly friends, then you will dress and allow me to repay my debt.”

“No debt. I want no money.”

Twice now, in one day, people have thrown money at him. The idea is repugnant. For two years he has not touched a coin, and he will resist as long as he can, not wanting to ignite the appetite that comes with fingering gold and silver.

“That is a good thing, for I have none to give you.” Yannai laughs, turns, and limps out of the room, steadying himself by leaning on the wall. A minute later, Eliyahu hears him beat out a tune on the wooden tabletop.

He dresses quickly, finding clothing in his wardrobe, but looking down, he sees that it hangs off him as if it were made for a man double his size. He was thinking of bringing clothing back with him, to his cave, but perhaps there is no point. He goes out to pray, then returns. Yannai is still there, awaiting him. He sits beside him.

The old man reaches into his bag and brings out an old, beautiful book. Eliyahu reaches out and strokes the supple leather cover. How could he afford such a thing?

Yannai lifts it, smells it, kisses it. “This was printed in Salonika,” he says. “A man who fled Spain brought the knowledge with him, and he is spreading Hashem’s word. After all the books we lost, this man is restoring them to us.

“I have come to repay you. Let us learn.”

He opens the book and Eliyahu sees that it is a Gemara. He turns a few folios.

Chagigah,” Yannai announces.

Eliyahu stares. Is Yannai, then, a man of means? Or is he a man of such scholarship that admirers send him great, expensive tomes?

He only ever learned by chanting after the melamed, who stood at the front of the beit medrash. Amar Abaye, he would say, and they would repeat after him: Amar Abaye.

The words combined with the tune so that they were not learning a text, but a song, and it followed you even as you drew water from the well; the rhythm playing through your mind as you walked home: A-mar A-ba-ye. Wooden soles on cobblestone. Tap, tap, tap, ta-tap.

It was good this way, better than the words being trapped between the covers of a book, for the Torah became a living thing, the melody of your day, as you poured grain into a trough and collected eggs and ran to the last minyan for Minchah. The only time it was drowned out was at the marketplace; it was so full of people arguing and talking and asking she’eilot and debating resolutions, that the tune couldn’t be heard.

But in the cave, this song had gone quiet. He had prayed, of course, and said Tehillim and mumbled Mishnayot, but there was no song, only a lament or perhaps a great covering over, a blanket of fleece that muffled all sound.

Yannai begins. “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, has a place where He cries, it is called Mistarim.”

Eliyahu nods.

Yannai raises his voice in a question. “But is there crying before the Holy One?… It says, ‘Joy and delight are in His place.’ ”

He looks up at Eliyahu. “Does the Almighty weep or does He rejoice?”

Eliyahu stares. The man is trying to tell him something, but he does not know what.

Yannai pounds his fist on the wooden table. “Lo kashya. It is not a question. This — the crying — applies to the outer chamber. In the inner chamber, Hashem weeps and grieves for the suffering of Israel. In the outer chamber is the joy and delight.”

He leans forward. “I know that you want to go back to your hillside. You will go out to the marketplace or the beit medrash and you will see people laughing and joking and talking foolishly. You will feel a stranger to them. But know that they, too, have an inner chamber, just as you do.”

What? For how long will this man intrude into his secret places?

“And not only that. This is what is required of all of us. In the inner chamber of your heart, you will continue to weep, for as long as you need to. But now you need to find the outer chamber that sings to welcome the Shabbat Queen and helps the elderly and is kind to the children.”

Yannai reaches over and grips his arm. “And do not forget, if you run, I will know where to come looking for you.”




Bilhah reads through the missive once more before setting it aside and reaching for the next. Others leave work unfinished until the next day. They say that no matter how they much work, the tasks will never be finished. Each day brings more. Why push themselves to finish work that spools on endlessly, like a roll of magical silken thread?

But this is not Bilhah’s way. She works until her eyes glaze over and she must keep blinking in order to see clearly again. She looks at a phrase and thinks, dredging up words from her memory, reaching for them even as they dance out of reach. She will translate a phrase — the most glorious and praiseworthy leader — into Italian and Spanish and Hebrew, feeling the atmosphere of each one, its shape and color, and only then does she try to find the right word in Turkish.

Yasemin approaches her before the day is over. “Have you thought about the declaration of faith that you will be required to make?” Yasemin looks more tired than usual, although maybe it is just that Bilhah herself feels weighed down, though she cannot put her finger on why.

Bilhah looks up and gestures that Yasemin sit down. It surprises her that Yasemin waits for her to ask, but knowing Yasemin, she has some reason for it. “It is just words. It means nothing to me at all.”

“It should.”

Bilhah raises an eyebrow. She is proud of her eyebrows. They are thin and arched, such that she could only have dreamed of when she was a girl in Salonika.

Yasemin continues. “You of all people know the meaning of a word. A word can mean death or a life of wealth and power. A word can change everything.”

Bilhah cocks her head to one side as she thinks. “From the Sultan’s mouth, yes. But who am I? What do my words mean?”

“You are the ruler of the little kingdom that is your life. Do you want to create in yourself a duplicity?”

A duplicity. She blinks. As if she were one unified thing, instead of a thousand little parts, each useful for a different situation.

She blinks again. “But what is the difference? Half of us Jews say we are Christians, or now Muslims. We talk our way out of trouble and lie our way out of difficulties. What do our words mean, anyway?”

Yasemin does not respond, only walks away, and Bilhah, feeling suddenly choked, pushes the missives to the side, stands up and leaves the room. She crosses the sunken garden, pauses to drink from the cool stone fountain, and finds herself in the prayer hall. The pile of prayer mats is in the corner, the ceiling is high, the room is cool and peaceful. She puts her head in her hands.

Words. She had saved herself by fabricating words.

After that first prophecy, of Old Maria’s mother in heaven, others in the town came to her to hear the holy child’s prophecies. There was a lie, right there. She was not holy and they were not prophecies, and she was barely a child, just an old woman in a child’s body.

Mostly, they wanted to hear about dead relatives. She had to close her eyes, rock from side to side (back and forth would have brought her within reach of the flickering candles), change her voice from its sharp weekday tones to something soft and dreamy, and then say something about some dear beloved who watched over them still.

Usually, they would start crying, and sometimes she would cry too, for she was scared and confused, and then they would clutch at their hearts or, worse, embrace her in their arms. She would submit to this as well, for Papa was there, with his box of coins, waiting for the payment.

Words, words, so many false words. But everyone wanted them, and she handed them out, and took the coins and gave most of it to Papa, keeping two or three for herself each time.

One day, Papa found her stash in the corner of her wardrobe. His face grew taut with anger and so she turned her blessed tongue onto him.

“Do you know what I see in you?”

A wild feeling rose in her then, anger and power all together.

“A man who will die.”

But Papa had just opened up his foul mouth and laughed. “Everyone will die one day, and it will not be the worst thing that happens to us.”

She had opened her mouth to answer, but had no words, her sudden helplessness binding her tongue and arms.

But later that night, when she lay in bed, the response had finally come and she spoke it out into the night. The worst has already happened to you, Papa, in who you are.

But it wasn’t long before, instead of just asking her about their dead ones, they began asking her about the final Redemption.

For a long time, she just shook her head sweetly and resisted. Nurse, afraid for her safety, had said, “Tell them something. Anything. Use that great storytelling head of yours.  Talk about meals of plenty and great harvests and boys who shine like the stars waiting in the Holy Land, waiting to marry our maidens.”

But something had stopped her. Until the day, the hottest day of the year, when the sun beat even through the thick walls and made the air thick and hazy, when she dropped her head low and whispered. He is coming.

The very next day, Shlomo Molcho — that strange, holy man who would be hailed as the Mashiach — cantered into Salonika on a white stallion. As he rode, the wind lifted his yellow silk tzitzit, and their green strings flew behind him as if blowing away everything they had ever known, everything that was familiar, everything that was safe.

to be continued…


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 806)

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