The Stone

Translation: Jessica Cohen 

 

1

 

Elisha Hassan held it in his pocket as he made his way to the ocean. Some people commit suicide by putting stones in their pockets to ensure they will drown in the depths of the water, but Elishadid not want to drown. In fact he hoped to be floating by the end of the day – getting his head above water, as they say. Even if he had been considering the option of weighing himself down and ingesting the salty water, he would not have chosen this particular stone, which was pint-sized and weighed no more than a large diamond ring.

​The bus ride from Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv took a long time. A hum of conversations seemed to reach his ears through a seashell, and the continues rattling turned his stomach. A sun-burned soldier with glasses dozed on the seat next to him. Elisha closed his own eyes in imitation, but there, in the white darkness behind his eyelashes, he encountered the succession of demure gentlewomen who had refused to marry him. The most recent one, Rebecca, stopped to have a conversation that was identical to the one they had in fact conducted that day in the stifling pale-yellow room: What do you have there? A ring? Why don’t  you take your hand out of your pocket—do you have six fingers or something? With childlike earnestness, he had replied that he did not have six fingers and that there was no such thing as a six-fingered person. She persisted: Then what is it? It is a ring, isn’t it? Is it a ring? And then he said yes. Why did he say that? Why jump up and say ‘yes’? What was wrong with just saying ‘no’? But he said yes. Rebecca rushed out of the room and came back with her father, who congratulated the young couple. I heard something about an engagement ring, he exclaimed. May I have a look? There was no choice but to introduce the father to the stone. Are you playing a joke on my daughter?! Then came a commotion, a door-slam, humiliation, rumors, and a quarrel between his father and mother that veered from theological debate to family gossip, with an emphasis on Aunt Rochelle.

​When the bus pulled into the central bus station, the soldier woke up and blinked like a captive. Elisha nodded goodbye, because he knew that as soon as they stepped outside to do battle with the violent heat, it would be every man to himself. And indeed, upon being vomited out of the bus, his body was bathed in a flood of sweat. He wiped the steamy lenses of his glasses and put them back on his small nose, which resembled an owl’s beak. His mouth was always slightly open, as if mouthing the eh that our people customarily use to connect their words. His entire appearance shouted out: “I do not belong.” He wore a light-brown vest on a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The hem on one leg of his tailored trousers was stuck in his sockand his brown shoes were worn but polished. He had not inherited the blue pigment that sometimes colors the eyes of Sephardim. Nor had the rolling r or the guttural kh been passed down, and he spoke in a mumble paved with throat-clearings that irritated even his well-wishers, since, on top of all this, his voice was high-pitched and his speech was barely intelligible. He had a cuprous skin tone and his posture was too sagging for a thirty-five-year-old, giving his body an arthritic appearance.

​He had managed with great difficulty to push back into his subconscious a confession he had recently overheard as he slept, in which his uncle Nissim recounted losing a gold-leafed glasses case in one of the massage parlors just near the station. To avoid contemplating this simple yet repulsive possibility, now so readily accessible, he quickly got into the first taxi he saw. His hand was thrust deep in his pocket, closely guarding the stone he secretly hoped to lose. He sat down in the back seat with a humph, as if to say, Finally; it’s hell out there. The driver waited patiently, allowing his passenger to savor the cold, dry air coming from the vents. To the sea, Elisha said simply. The religious beach? the driver asked. To the sea, Elisha replied after a pause, and his voice sounded gloomy.

​What does a thirty-five-year-old man have to be gloomy about? a person who is not gloomy might wonder. He might also add that gloominess befits an adolescent, or someone near the end of his life, or, for example, a recently widowed individual, heaven forbid. To which I would replythat gloom is always an option, particularly if you are Elisha Hassan, a rejected bachelor who was chosen, of all people, as the recipient of Aunt Rochelle’s stone.

​Everything is stone. That was Elisha’s conclusion as he looked out the window on the way to the sea. The buildings, the pavement, the space of my life—all is stone, from the Western Wall to the breakwater rocks. Outside my life, too, stones are everywhere: the basalt of cold lava and the white limestone, the precious stones, the cornerstones, the stonings. And the past is stone: flint stone, the priestly breastplate gems, Moses striking the rock and water coming out. And the future is a marble tombstone engraved with the years of our lives, where our loved ones place stones in our memory. Who really has the upper hand here: stone or humanity?

​Why did they keep rejecting him? After all, as the saying goes, there were greater hump-backs than he, and what’s more, he offered pedigree and money. Money! Nine women had turned him down, under different circumstances, in different eras, as though they had agreed among themselves. It was the stone. It had to be the stone, despite the myth. Perhaps there was something in its touch, maybe even its smell, which provoked the opposite of the expected response in women.

​The taxi arrived at the beach, Elisha paid the exorbitant fee without thinking, and walkeddown to the sand that soon began to burn his soles. He headed to the breakwater, where he intended to conduct an intimate confrontation between geology and genealogy.

 

 

2

 

Where was the stone born? Its origin, of course, was shrouded in fog. Like all stones, it must have been a fragment of igneous rock, created when the earth cooled. But it was acquired by the family, accidentally, in 1128.

​In the town of Saragossa there was a window, behind which lived Flora, a young bride, and her husband, Dunash ben Eliezer, who sold wood. Unlike King Alfonso I of Spain and his wife Urruca, Queen of Castile, whose vehement quarrels escalated into a military battle thatultimately led to civil war, Flora and Dunash rarely raised their voices. They ate, slept and bathed—quietly. When they lay together—also silence. Dunash touched his logs of wood more tenderly than he did his wife. And she loathed the sour smell of his body.

​One hushed evening, as they sat munching on slightly stale homemade massafan cookies, the stone was hurled through their window. In those days, it was as long and wide as the palm of a hand, and when it landed with a thud on their table, their world was rocked. In Saragossa of those days, stones were thrown out of love. Knowing this, Dunash leapt to the window just in time to spot the backside of a young man disappearing around the corner. In a whisper, Dunash commanded Flora to swallow the stone just as he must swallow his pride. When she refused, he gripped her throat and forced the stone into her mouth until her thick red lips tore and her incisor cracked.

​Flora fled to her parents’ home that night. When he heard her slamming the door behind her, Dunash turned over on his side and, though awake, did not open his eyes. Everyone condemnedher and predicted she would die alone—a sinful bride, rejected forever, an old maid. But they did not foresee the pharmacist from Cordoba, Amatzia Hassan, who is said to have been a descendent of Yekutiel, patron of the poet Ibn Gabirol.

​On his first day in Saragossa, Hassan was called to treat a young Jewish man who had consumed rye bread tainted with ergot fungus. In his feverish delirium, the young man confessed his sins and recounted how he had meant to throw a stone at the window of his lover, Rosa Benveniste, but instead had struck the window of her neighbor, Flora ben Eliezer. His consciencewas tormented by Flora’s sullied reputation, but his fear of Mr. Benveniste’s fury was greater. When his patient recovered, the chemist paid a visit to the home of the wrongly maligned bride.

​Was it her broken tooth or her pride, glimmering like a sword, that won over Amatzia Hassan’s heart? Whatever the cause, the amorous chemist abandoned his attempt to mediate between Flora and her husband and took her with him to Cordoba. In her old age, wrinkled and kind-eyed, Flora picked up the stone that had engendered her meeting with her benefactor, her beloved, her savior, Amatzia Hassan, and with a trembling hand she gave it to her son. He swore he would guard it closely and ensure it was passed down from generation to generation.

​The stone was thereby destined for trials and tribulations, as its fate was now aligned with a Jew. In 1492 it was expelled from its homeland and migrated to the Land of Israel.

​In the early 16th century, the stone, which by now was regarded as a talisman, was in the possession of Amatzia Hassan’s hedonistic great-grandson, whose life in the ancient village of Tzippori heeded the Ladino saying, Muera pato, muera arto! – Die fat, but die full! He almost sold the stone for a handful of coins, but he soon realized he could offer his neighbors single uses in return for a chicken or some nice fabric, and so it remained in the family.

​In the next generation the stone made its way to Safed with a pious eccentric named Yaakov Hassan. The reason for his travels was to make a pilgrimage to see Yosef Karo, author of the most esteemed collection of Jewish laws, Shulchan Aruch. Hassan became a disciple of Isaac Luria, the famed mystic. However, his customs were so peculiar and his passion for visions so garrulous that he was declared a false messiah and denunciated, along with his “amulet.” Some say that on the day of Luria’s funeral, the twenty-fifth of July, 1572, Yaakov Hassan met a Safed woman who kissed his feet and took him for a husband, sufficing with the blessing of the stonein lieu of a rabbi, because she believed he was the redeemer. He died as the true messiah of one woman.

​The stone passed from town to town, from hand to hand, like a coin, sometimes proudly displayed and other times hidden out of sight. It shed layers and grew smaller and smaller. There were times when its owners were branded as idol-worshippers, but even the skeptics wanted to touch it, just for a moment: if it did not help, it could surely do no harm, they said. Women heldthe stone to their lips, husbands who had lost their virility rubbed their right pinkie fingers on it. It was placed on expectant mothers’ bellies, in babies’ cradles, and at the heads of invalids. It was inlaid in a locket on a gold chain, and seventy years later it was removed and the chain was melted down.

​Ah, yes… And there was that one other case.

​Bekhor Hassan, the son of a well-known nineteenth-century judge from Tiberias, was busy collecting stones and stone fragments for a model tower. It was the first and last tower he would build, a small tower, no more than one cubit high, which was to stand in the center of the miniature world he was slowly constructing in his room. The world was populated by tiny houses carved of wood, grazing pastures made of dry leaves, and an olive-branch bridge high enough for a paper boat to float underneath it, propelled by Bekhor’s large, hairy hands. Why large and hairy? Because Bekhor was far from being a child. Be that as it may, he sought to add stability tohis tower, and that is how the amulet stone entered the game. When his mother, the judge’s wife, found out, she shouted and hit his face with both hands. She dismantled the little world in his room and searched for the stone in a panic, before the head of the household could come home. Finally, she found two very similar stones, and after a brief deliberation she chose one and placed it in its permanent place of honor, in the fine red fabric lining of a clay bowl. The judge, who had spent years uncovering scoundrels, imprisoning criminals and foiling deceit, never exposed the case. The son, incidentally, abandoned his follies and went off to help drain the swamps, where he met his future wife.

​The amulet spent the twentieth century surrounded by Jerusalem stone in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. During that era, the Old City and the nearby neighborhoods were awash with amulets: khamsas, bracelets, and cards which supposedly had the power to ward off the evil eye, bring about livelihood, fertility, grace and benevolence, and even protect and save Jewish warriors. Regarding the increasingly high status of the amulets, I refer the bored reader to Article 122 of the Knesset Elections Law, which prohibits candidates from giving amulets to potential voters in order to gain their vote. That was how thirsty the citizens were for good luck.

​The arrival of the twenty-first century saw the modern, technological and virtual amulets triumph over those made in the ancient mold, including the Hassans’. There came a generation that did not know the stone. Nor did it make time to know, because like any holy thing in the twenty-first century that does not bear a brand-name, the stone was worthless.

​But not to Aunt Rochelle.

​Aunt Rochelle was a woman of the old world, with gold chains and large hoop earrings. Aunt Rochelle claimed that the name Hassan came from hazzan, the Hebrew word for ‘cantor,’ and liked to illustrate her assertion by singing the Sephardic-Jerusalemite variant of the Kol Nidrei prayer in her deep bass voice. She believed the Hassans were descendants of Yekutiel Hassan, Ibn Gabirol’s patron. She had been married twice but had no children.

​This country has lost its mind! she liked to yell. We’ve been here for seven-hundred years and we always lived together with Arabs, Christians, Turks, Brits… And we got along just fine, didn’t we? We got along like a house on fire. My grandfather’s father was a famous judge who spoke nine languages and never fought with anyone. All the wars are because of foreign words. We have a glorious tradition but the grandchildren aren’t interested in it. If anyone has roots here in this land, it’s our family. When they kick out everyone who doesn’t belong here, there’ll be no one left but us.

​She remembered the names of all the parents and all the grandchildren, she had one eye larger than the other, and her smile was slightly daunting. She frequently scratched an itch in her armpit, and made her own ear-drops from olive oil. When she sneezed she would bless herself loudly, “La’Briut!” and answer herself: “Thank you.”

​For some time she watched the avowed bachelor, her wallflower nephew Elisha, from the sidelines. She could tell that he was plagued by a stubborn erection even at the sight of a mustached aunt visiting from Safed. He clearly needed the stone more than anyone else did. And so she burdened his feeble shoulders with the tale of the stone and its dynasty, and made him swear to take it with him whenever he met a potential fiancée. He was to rub his right pinkie finger with the stone, and kiss it, and believe in it. She promised the stone would tell him when the right woman came along—it would actually talk!

​And now the stone had come with him to the beach in Tel-Aviv for the first time.

 

 

3

 

Perhaps none of what Aunt Rochelle told him was true, Elisha thought. Because he had not met the right woman, and even the wrong ones had refused to marry him. Could it be an allegory with a moral he did not understand? On the surface it was just an ordinary stone, but he did not have the courage to dig into it or crumble it to make sure. Moreover, he never dared meet a potential wife without the stone in his pocket. Amulets are a losing game: if you fail, it’s your fault; if you succeed, it’s the amulet.

​Older women and young girls strolled along the warm sand as if it were the main street of Sodom, with their hair stuck to the backs of their necks, their eyes aglimmer, their skin white, brown, golden, red. From a distance Elisha noticed a completely naked woman, but when he got closer he found a female figure sculpted out of sand by an anonymous artist. The waves lapped at her feet.

​Elisha had never bathed in the Mediterranean. This was odd because he loved water, even though he could only do the doggy paddle. He enjoyed diving in and losing his balance, and had frequently been in natural pools, springs and lakes. He liked to splash around in streams or rainwater crevices when he went hiking with his brother, Moshe, known as Moishele. But when the brother got married, the hikes stopped. Elisha liked being near water, but the Mediterraneanlooked too salty and endless to wade into. The breakwater looked like the land sticking out its tongue at the sea.

​Elisha thought it would be nice if Rebecca, or any other woman, would agree to marry him, because then they could go out with their future children, God willing, to swim in that spring—what was it called? The one inside the cool, dark cave, where the water’s reflection and the light danced on the ceiling. The stone would become a sort of anecdote in their lives. Not an amulet, not a supernatural power, but a romantic relic connected with the story of how they met. He would cook for her, having spent a lot of time by his mother’s side in the kitchen: suffrito, prassameatballs, buikus, massafan and apple-nut jam.

​But they didn’t want that. They didn’t want him. And the stone was no help. He could not ignore the way they turned him down, the horrible excuses that stuck in his head for days: Leah needed to think about it, Sarika was looking for a scholar, Mary wanted an Ashkenazi, this one changed her mind, the other one was sick, she was dying, she was afraid, she was going overseas, she was too young, she was too old… And the advice: Stand up when she comes in;tell her about the family pedigree; don’t be embarrassed to let her know we have money; touch her as if by accident; wink at her with your left eye; don’t perspire; recite a few biblical verses for her; don’t expect a response; a woman should be modest…

​He walked up to the breakwater, took a few steps, then looked back at the hotels and houses springing up along the shoreline. All cities look more beautiful and alluring when viewed from the sea, he thought. The rocks at the edge were wet, some covered with algae. Anyone wishing to walk along the breakwater had to tread very carefully and calculate each step to avoid slipping or getting his foot stuck between the rocks and being pinched by the creature known as a warty crab.

​Who had brought those stones there? Who had decided to combat the sea, to divert the waves, to interfere with the flow of sand? When had this invasion occurred? Under whose authority? He walked slowly, on the side of the breakwater, like a boy treading on the edge of the sidewalk. He came across the occasional faded Coke can, beer bottle shards, cigarette butt, fish remains, charred spots, and broken fishing rod.

​At the end of the breakwater he would have to take out the stone and perform the deed for which he had travelled all the way from Jerusalem. But there was an obstacle in his way: a bride and groom and their photographer. Elisha eyed them from afar with his mouth rounded into an eh. The groom was instructed to kneel, and so he did, as his fiancée’s gown flapped in the wind and slapped his face. They grinned vigorously while the pictures were snapped, but their expressions were weary the rest of the time. When they passed him on their way back to shore, Elisha did not wish them “Mazel Tov,” though they seemed to expect it.

​He reached the end of the breakwater. A fine spray dampened his trousers, his brown vest, and even his glasses, which kept sliding down his sweaty little nose. He took the stone out of his pocket. The whole world lay behind hm.

​He had no idea which country was beyond the horizon. And it didn’t matter. Maybe there was nothing. An empty horizon. The end of the sea and the end of the world. A wet abyss where God turned off the sun every night.

​The stone felt light in his hand. Hello, gray, rough stone. No, we’re not in Jerusalem. Yes, we’re at the beach.

​He looked back again, as if to make sure the mound of stones called Tel-Aviv had not vanished and left him alone with the stone. As if to make sure the breakwater was still connected to the shore and had not drifted off into sea, toward the empty horizon. The city was still standing, though it was hazy when seen through the vapors of heat. But what was that over there? A mischievous boy, his figure also blurry, was skipping stones over the water. They bounced five or six times on the waves before the sea swallowed them. The world was full of signs so clear that there seemed to be no freedom of choice.

​When Elisha looked back at his hand, the stone was gone. But when had he dropped it? How long had he looked at the boy? He glanced back – the boy was gone. The devil!

​Quick, Elisha, on your knees, get down on all four and find the stone. Search for it with your little eyes, dig through the giant rock and save your fortune. So you haven’t got married yet—so what? Are you going to cry? Pull out your hair? You’ll only end up in the hospital de locos. Bepatient. The night is young, as they say. Just find the stone quickly.

​But there it was, right in his pocket. Elisha laughed out loud, a nervous laughter that would have seemed affected and frightening were there anyone to hear it. He scanned his dusty trousers, the sweat stains on his shirt, his scratched elbow. Now he would have to make up a lie to explain his appearance to his parents. The sun was beating down. Lie down for a while, he thought. He had to lie down and close his eyes and then contend with the stone again.

​Did it really matter to anyone in the world whether or not he got married? When his sister, who was fifteen years younger than him, got married, everyone had told him: You will be next, God willing. He knew they all saw him as diseased, defective. His brother had explained: Elisha is a bachelor by choice. Father bought him an apartment in Talbieh, near the President’s house. Father can buy anything. And indeed, Elisha’s three-room apartment was in a wonderful Jerusalem stone building, with high ceilings and narrow windows, wood parquet floors and green trees outside the windows that always looked cleansed. Uncle Menitze told his wife in French: The one thing they haven’t been able to buy him yet is a bride…

​They all said no. That’s what people thought, but they were wrong. There were three that he himself had refused. A humiliating story best not repeated. Three young girls brought to him in one car, under cover of darkness. It was a great mitzvah, they’d told him. A good deed. After they went back to the orphanage, his father had slapped him so hard his ear rang. But it was his mother who burst into tears.

​“Dameh mazal i atchame a-la-mar.”

​There was not a single cloud or bird in the sky.

​“Dameh mazal i atchame a-la-mar.”

​Elisha weakly craned his neck to see where the voice was coming from.

​“Komo-te-yamas?”

​Who is that? He couldn’t see anyone.

​“Hey, Bovo!”

​Elisha held the stone up to his face.

​“A bravo!”

​Startled, he dropped the stone and jumped to his feet.

​Although no mouth had opened up in it and there was no change in its shape, the voice was clearly coming from the stone. It talked and talked, just as Aunt Rochelle had prophesied, except that she had forgotten to mention that the stone would deliver its oracles in Ladino.

​Elisha, filled with awe, mumbled the Shema Yisrael prayer. The only Ladino words he knew were mundane: suffrito, buenos noche, heide demicolo… They could not be relevant at such a revelatory moment. The stone seemed to be ablaze in the blinding light. Its voice terrified Elishaand brought him to his knees, his whole body trembling.

​Aunt Rochelle had said the stone would speak only when the right woman came along, but perhaps it had grown suspicious of Elisha’s intents and decided to reveal itself prematurely. How rash he had been in presuming he could contend with powers greater than himself, with an age-old tradition.

​The stone kept on talking furiously. Invoking a saying he had heard at home, it asked Elisha to give it a stroke of luck and toss it into the sea. It spoke of the declining generation, of the world getting warmer, of the Hebrew it had never learned properly, because every generation invented a completely different Hebrew and yet none of them came close to the richness and musicality of Judeo-Spanish. The stone lamented its lost strata and complained about the Hassans, although it conceded that they had been as loyal as they could have been and as devoted as they knew how to be, and had countenanced it as much as their capricious minds allowed. But they had never understood it, never truly comprehended its intentions nor fathomed its purpose. The stone did not help anyone marry—on the contrary. Throughout history the stone had successfully kept people apart. It had saved Flora by separating her from Dunash, but the encounter with the pharmacist had occurred without its interference. It had removed Yaakov Hassan from the disciples who wanted to harm him (punishment for a false messiah is death) without predicting the arrival of the Safed woman. It had brought destruction to the miniature world of Bekhor Hassan without knowing that it had thereby paved its way into the wide world. Fateful separations, disunions that led to strengthenings, deaths that gave life. All the other magical powers attributed to it were nonsense. But people will believe what they believe. They like to empower another entity in anticipation that it will in turn empower them, and it angers them when this entity grows powerful while they remain unchanged.

​“Please try to understand me, too…” Elisha begged.

​“Dameh mazal i achameh a-la-mar, demicolo!”

​Demicolo? The stone curses like Father, Elisha realized. But even if this was just a product of sunstroke, he had to know: Why did he not have a bride? The stone had married off all the preceding generations, but not him. Why? Had there never been a man as ugly as he was? Was it because he had a high-pitched voice like a girl’s? What was it? What did he lack that others possessed?

​“Haide, a-la-mar!”

​Haide meant go on. That, he knew. Go on where? What was he supposed to do? He asked it in Hebrew, then stuttered something in broken Ladino and waited in vain for an answer. The stone was silent.

​Elisha thought about God, who never answered even though he talked and asked questions and sought advice. And He never gave signs or signals. The stone, just like Him, had simply turned up, uttered a few unintelligible words, and disappeared. Now it said nothing. Just like his father and mother when he went to their house for Sabbath dinners, and all the brothers and their brides would sit around chatting, and their sons and daughters would play on the rug and help set the table.

​Elisha brimmed with a courage of the sort that can only fill the soul of a true coward.

​He shook the stone, rattled it, beat it with his fist. It kept quiet, as had all the stones in his life. He wanted to look at it closely, with no optical aids. A stone. No cause for excitement. He should have thrown it into the water, as planned, without fearing the humiliation of past generations or the revocation of future generations’ successes. It should have been thrown into the water so it could be swallowed up and this whole affair would be over. And it would lie there forever, or be swept away, and some other Elisha in some other land would find it, if there was another land beyond that empty horizon. Yes, that was it.