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elen rochlin

New Nonfiction



by Elen Rochlin

      Must there be a tension between blood and music? One provokes, the other exonerates? In our Land of the greatest of the smallest—we hit both extremes in terms of space (think of OUR Grand Canyon in our Negev), in terms of time (think of the ruins of our makams and our modest modern churches filling the interstices between Jerusalem’s Old City—and the JNF memorial slabs in the groves planted for Eli Hakohen and the 1951 Cairo Martyrs), in terms of luxury living and myopically microscopic pay … in our Land, both the alternatives are incredible. Tension asks for a way in at all junctures, but at this time of year, with the promise of cool intermittently in the air after the torrid torment of summer, with the sense of plenty that harvesting brings, the festive mood invites an antithesis to the table. We wear a white kittel and we head for the Kotel, we intone the liturgical formulas familiar to the forefathers. Or else we cannot help tuning in—a funny, captive kind of eavesdropping—when the neighboring shul, spilling out onto the sidewalk, does the intoning of the liturgy, garnishing the forefathers’ inheritance with variations either jazzy or lamenting. Living out the promise of the Land, we need not make the effort or the sacrifice in order to hear the Shofar blown. The blasts sweep in with the desert wind and the particles of solar sand through the shutters. The deaf and the dead will both rise to heed the message. The Fast of Yom Kippur walks in upon us, shod demonstratively leatherless, not trying to be stealthy, along streets turned pedestrian throng with bicycles. The Day of Atonement’s waving woolly Tallis enfolds us warmly against uncertain futures, against the seasonal desert storm, against the threat of limp security. We can never break free of the embrace if we try. And we take it in stride when the stride of the times takes some of our own away from us. It’s as if the toll of terrorism were a part of the Land, a terror of the Terra. Part of the promise of its being ours and of our belonging to it.
      It happens often, and unpredictably, statistics proving too holed of a mesh to capture the real regularity. How does bloodshed get implied by there being live blood-and-flesh? Music seems the wordless witness. Aharon Gurov (1956-2002), Soviet émigré, Israeli oleh, composer, visionary, is a case in point. A victim of terror in the Land, he was silenced by a violent death—and translated into a clamorous memorial din by the silence. His fate after death was, to me, eye-opening, ear-rending. A signal about the unfolding of all the rest of ours.
      I spoke to Aharon’s widow, a real estate agent. (This was work she had initially turned to upon the composer’s death, giving up her original, Soviet-trained profession in theater, in order to feed her four children; she remained that ever since, a woman disposing of lots and living quarters in the Promised Land, at once both her own and not). The phone buzz came on Tabernacles eve, kind of presaging unexpected festive twists. A round of promotional phoning among friends and acquaintances. She was selling tickets. To a commemorative, slash—or plus—or joint with—holiday concert. Her husband’s music: Desert Sarabande, Landed Redemption Concerto, Prelude and Fugue in Exile, TeresienstadtRegrasped…
      The event was scheduled to take place during the Intermediate Days of Sukkot, at the MATNAS or Cultural Events Center in the settlement of Noqdim, the same settlement he had failed to reach on his homebound journey ten years earlier. Ten-and-a-half years earlier, to be precise, when he was ambushed and shot to death. That was on the eve of Purim, a merry traditional dressup affair at the turn of winter and spring in the Jewish calendar, when ultimate truths are supposed to manifest themselves, being glimpsed through the loopholes of costumed fiction. The 45-year-old composer had been hitching a ride home to his caravan in the Territories from work-and-study-a-day Jerusalem. The ride that never drew to a conclusion. After the encounter, only the ambushers continued on their way: albeit identified, they were never apprehended. They went fast to Spain, an English speaker’s never-never land of ideal long vowel pronunciation where the guttural radicals of the Palestinian names would not come across.
      If there is, in fact, an observable link between Territories and terror, between music (read, idealism? lyricism? read, mesmerizing?) and bloodshed, then what we are proffering to the desert here is a simple logical expression. A primitive disjunction: it’s us and/or them. Depending on whom, first, will beat the swords of words and rhetoric into ploughshares, or who will take up the implements of tilling the soil as arms to brandish in the modern process of verbal warfare. It’s a rushed contest daily. In the face of state policies of demonstrating peace, settlers and soldiers are both by turns forced to give up self-defense in favor of a show of patience or martyrdom.
      As if marking, making up for his trajectory left uncompleted, the stage was going to be set up out of doors in Noqdim, just about where Gurov would have disembarked to wave his thanks-‘n’-see-ya to the hospitable scientist neighbor who had offered him the ride home. (The scientist who never received this gesture of gratitude, another Soviet oleh, died in the same incident, there having been a barrage of lead in the air thick with a rainy fog that wintry afternoon. The scientist’s daughter, sitting in the back seat with her five-year-old child, was saved from death by her advanced pregnancy: the bullet stopped stuck in her belly. Rushed back unconscious to Jerusalem and the hospital after it was all over, she was Caesarean-delivered of a baby, who was later given the name of AVIYAH: a Hebrew sound sequence holding the notions of both God and Father in one. Another commemoration. Another narrative. Another time.)
      The concert was going to raise the sound of Aharon Gurov’s music, now unquestionably, unspeakably immortal, to the open autumnal heavens. A kind of reminder, somewhat like prayer: behold, oh Lord, our being stirred by how we re-experience our sufferings, making them our own all over again. Bestir Thyself along with us, oh Lord. How else to understand the principle of reminding the Omniscient of the merits of our ancestors, of the self-sacrifice of our forefathers, of the Binding of Isaac forever shedding favor on ourselves—of convincing Him of our own genuine deserts – if not as an imperative to provide the skies with an example. See, Lord, we are altering ourselves by dwelling upon the past, remolding it into an everpresent. Alter Thou, too, the evil decree against us, which the dark unknown holds hidden in its folds, alter it in accord with our alteration of ourselves. Alter Thy will to dictate the future in our favor. Alter Thy...
      To avoid treading upon the tender threshold separating prayer from blasphemy, the supplication dissolves in unworded ram’s horn blasts. Yet another memorial of the Binding of Isaac.
      Listen Thou, too, to the sounds of the music now perpetually saturated with the sense of the blood seeped along into the metal and the rubber of the automobile before it seeped into the earth. The fulfillment of Biblical promises.
      How many tickets to the event should she reserve for me and my family and guests, Mrs. Aharon Gurov wanted to know? The tickets are disappearing like hot cakes, did I realize? Going really fast. This is no time to dawdle.
      The memory of the blood of a martyred settler is sacred. Pluralized, it cries out for hermeneutics; for resolution. It’s been crying out for that since time immemorial, since the beginning of reading and canonized narrative in human history: The voice of thy brother’s bloods, Cain was prodded in Genesis. “The voice of thy brother’s bloods,” the plural form irreducible to a peculiarity of Biblical grammar which treats both countenances and waters as unchangeably many. Blood is a different fluid, a different matter. Besides, the verse in Genesis treats not of matter, but a question of the future. A question of brotherhood gone to war against future fulfillment. Traditional Midrash, and commentaries ever since, read the verse as a gesture toward the unborn: Cain’s murdered brother will henceforth have no descendants. Current events, by contrast, refocus attention on siblinghood and competition along an axis of synchronicity. Brothers in the Biblical narrative seem born to vie with each other, down to the competition between Joseph and his brothers for their father’s love; this ultimately finds its collectivized incarnation in the historical split of the Ten Tribes’ Kingdom of Ephraim away from the hegemony of royal Judah. But the same goes for Biblical brothers beginning with the first instance of brotherhood. Isaac and Ishmael are part of the flow of the general paradigm, underscored by the similarity stressfully echoing in their dissonance: while the youth of the younger is punctuated with episodes of laughter and sporting (Isaac’s very name, when translated from the Hebrew, sounds out the promise: “he laughs—will laugh,” the present future tense; transliterated, the name of “Yitzhak” is an onomatopoeic giggle), the mirth of the elder mocks. Ishmael makes fun in too intense of a way. The morphology of the verb form gives it away: the elder brother is seen “making fun”; now, without delay, without waiting for the future. The two versions of laughter, parsed parallel to each other as part of the Text forever dictating to the reading of history, bind the brothers to an unending pastime. The forebears of the peoples of Israel and the Arabs, as per the Midrashic reduction of the two brothers’ fates, must each keep on playing the other’s counterweight. A curse upon both our houses, that of the sporting of Isaac and of the horseplay of Ishmael: both be damned. Damned to ongoing mutual imitation, to irresolvable mutual contradiction and entanglement. Vying with each other for the love of the same one eternally promised Land.
      The Soviet-born composer visionary imagined that his music was only to be written upon these desert sands. Abandoning the snows and the hoary memories of his childhood Yiddish in post-War Soviet Minsk, he brought his family to the annexed Territories, there to gaze out of his caravan window in search of inspiration. He would sit poised, timeless, anticipating the sounds from the sands. They would come. They would whisper with the wind and tinkle with the mountain goat bells, they would voice his unthought thoughts, fleshing out his understanding of what it means to be a Jew (is it or is it not the same as being Israeli? The same as hailing from Eastern Europe, as bearing a genetic familiarity with Czarist persecution, or the Holocaust, through one’s whole life?). Of what it meant to be music, of what it meant to be.
      An independent performance of his work was first made possible only posthumously, financed by the generous support … no, wrong. It took place in Moscow, in the atmosphere of cosmopolitan openness left behind by the annulment of Soviet sluices. There is no testimony of how well the event was attended. There are only audio recordings privately produced and distributed by his widow (helped out by her new significant Other) back among admirers and recruits in the Promised Land of Aharon Gurov’s end.
      How many tickets to reserve? ... This sounded reminiscent of a theological parable about the Sabbath, or about the afterlife, as contrasted with the habitual daily round. Prepare in advance so that you may be counted in when the moment comes, when it is too late for making preparatory arrangements.
      I became obstinate. I wanted my truth to have its chance in the sun, too. The Hebrew text, I said. Of the announcement.
      What announcement, Mrs. Aharon Gurov was audibly thumbing through lists over the rush of the static?
      There is a series of errors in the concert flyer, I pointed out. Rather jarring ones. This is important. There are some typos, but also some plain violations of Hebrew grammar, and a Biblical quote flagrantly mangled. It all sticks out, to tell you the truth, especially in a flyer. In a flyer there is so little text to begin with, not like if there had been a backdrop of any thick texture … The scarcity of the wording—in flyers this naturally makes for poignancy—and it works, definitely—but here it makes the booboos much too prominent. Would you like me to correct the mistakes? Leaving them can work against you, that’s obvious, isn’t it? When the idea is to introduce the event as the sound and the fury of genuine realization, as the embodiment of Tanach-like action which neither time nor terror can smother if it tries...
      She was uncomprehending. We had an Israeli look it over, the capable sweet gal in charge of the MATNAS newsletter. She is an Ulpenah graduate, a Rav Tzvi Yehudah type, one of ours. A settler. I think she even pulled out the Biblical passage to begin with. I wouldn’t have had the wherewithal myself, not here where the school kids—even the Talmud-quoting boys, not only the girls—are walking Biblical concordances…
      It grates, I clarified. The faulty Hebrew idiom, and the wronged quote, border on the offensive. I was being gentle. It invites ridicule. Don’t you want the flyer to get into the hands of educated sympathizers who know what’s what in the Bible? It infringes upon the whole of the Jewish canon. It impinges upon the vision of Jews in the Jewish Land as put forth by the Jewish Bible, the very vision that your husband…
      Leave my husband alone! She was frenetic, then she was whimpering. Don’t you say anything about my husband!
      But don’t you want to promote, aren’t you the one he left behind, ipso facto, to stand guard over his legacy left incomplete! Aren’t you in charge of seeing to it that his vision—the music that he wrote, and the vision of him that people retain in their minds—don’t get twisted, or misrepresented, or translated into the wrong kind of language … into wrong Hebrew, for instance. It takes patience, it takes hard work. It takes a lot to do the hard work. I know you are trying…
      The phone piece in my hand shuddered with the violence she thrust hers into red END with. I and my guests to be were consigned to no tickets, left without access to the collective eulogy and celebration during the Feast of Tabernacles which marks God’s having shielded the Children of Israel in the Desert from foes and fiends both animal and human, both natural and devised. He held them Biblically cupped in the palm of His Hand, He built them booths. While I had spoken critically of the formal verbal trimmings of the commemoration.
      The concert a few days later was reportedly mobbed. The flyers had run out, including the internet scanned version, leaving no trace. The acoustics and the crowding and the wind prevented the emergence of any kind of audible recording. Even the names of the performers have not been preserved. Production by workshop of Gurov and his entourage, medieval-style. What remained instead was the thousand-guttered chant of Forever!, and Jerusalem!, and He Is One of Ours.
      Mine was a lone voice calling out in a desert of my own making, preaching the pedantry of correctness, of faithfulness to the canons as voted in by centuries of reliability: the text of God’s promises, the oral law of reading and meaningful punctuation, the rules of Hebrew grammar modeled upon the Arabic back in the Spanish Middle Ages. Walking my guests along the windswept sun and silence of the Judean Desert during Sukkot, I remonstrated with myself about merit and purity in art. I thought Aharon Gurov’s music, whatever its sound or texture or future, had been compromised. I had never heard any of it. It had been publicized in the wrong medium, which I had not been given a chance to right.

World wanderer, word lover, Elen Rochlin is a student of philosophy and text. Educated in the U.S. (Harvard, Yale), Europe (Sorbonne), and the Near East (Hebrew U. of Jerusalem), at present she is teaching in St. Petersburg, Russia, and rushing back every few breaths to Israel, where she feels she must be near while hands unnamed clutch feverishly, fervently at dispersed notions of what it takes to secure sacredness. She has published poetry and prose in different languages.

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