Read an extract from the opening chapter here …
Book I: Tummel in the Temple
Iudaea, 33 CE
If we hadn’t been following Hadassah’s pomegranate all over the known world, we’d never have wound up in Bethany. Lazzie would still be alive. And I’d be mortal. But that’s not how the hamantaschen crumbled. A painted lady flaps her wings and all that jazz. The disciples remember it differently, but they were always going to write their own version anyway. I was there. I saw it all. Not in my present incarnation, but who am I to split sheitel hairs?
The beitzim started to roll when Rov Yossi and his chevras were invited over for that last supper. It was a double whammy, actually – Pesach and Shabbos rolled into one. Martha and I were helping Hadassah boil ’n bake an exodus of matzoh balls. I was never much one for domestic activity and did all I could to wheedle out of the chores in the wide, clay-baked kitchen. Normally, the servants would clean up after us. But on Pesach, Hadassah was having no shirking. Scour the scullery. Polish the porcelain. On your hands and knees, girlchicks! Seek and destroy any vestige of chametz – no wheat, no rice, no leftover shewbread, it all had to go. On Pesach, we’re forbidden to put anything in our mouths that rises. Then there’s the matter of changing the dishes – one set milchedik, another fleishedik. Hadassah was very proud of her Pesach crockery, handed down through the maternal line since the great trek back from Babylonia, each item adorned with a symbol of the festival: a dandelion, a sprig of parsley, chopped up charoset representing bricks and mortar of the slaves, salt water for tears. All in all, a huge schlep.
Twelve extra mouths to feed was no mean feast. Our second stepdaddy, Qumran Qumran, had done well in the buildup to the festival. He knew how to supply the needs of the flocking pilgrims and set up fruit stands all along the road to Damascus. Palm dates did very well that season. Figs were at a premium. He tripled the cost of olives. But he liked a flutter on the camels, did Qumran Qumran, and often returned home in his flagons with no more than a handful of copper leptons and a mild dose of the clap. Still, Hadassah was a social climber and having the chevras over would up her Quarter cred by quite a few notches. Nu, we improvised ways to stretch her stingy allowance to feed the holy horde. Rolled the matzoh beitzim smaller. Watered down the wine. She tried to pass it off as a miracle. From her lips to Yahweh’s ears.
Lazzie didn’t have to do kitchen duties. He was practising his shofar in the courtyard with the chickens while Martha and I had our hands full. I could see him from the window, pursing his clefted lips to the blowhole and wheezing a few breathy parps into the chaffed afternoon air. He hadn’t quite got the first long tekiyah note right.
‘Will you stop that racket?’ Hadassah moaned from beneath her migraine.
‘Lazzie, let me show you how it works!’ I shouted from the scullery.
‘You’re a girlchick, you’re not allowed to touch it.’
‘Says who?’ I dropped my chametz basket and ambled into the courtyard.
‘It is written,’ he wheezed. ‘The holy ram’s horn is forbidden for meideles.’
‘For fig’s sake, Lazzie, give me a chance.’
‘I’ll tell Zaida. It’s going to be treif if you touch it.’
‘Zaida doesn’t have to know,’ I said. ‘He’s at the Temple all week for Pesach. Now hand it over!’
I grabbed the horn from his protesting grasp and puckered up to the pointy end.
‘Give it back!’ wheezed Laz. ‘Or I’m reporting you to the Sandybedmen.’
‘Sandyheadmen,’ I corrected him. ‘You’re the one with the cheder chops, schmekelface.’
Lazzie snatched the shofar back and drew breath again. It sounded like the bubbles we sibs blew when we were trying to turn farty blame on each other at the Shabbos table. Then Lazzie’s rasping became more laboured and suddenly he fell to the ground, teeth clenched, eyes rolled back to the whites. His body arched as if a great cord was pulling him up to heaven by his wishbone and then dashing him mercilessly to the ground.
‘Martha! Bring a spoon!’ I screamed at my sister.
‘Milk or meat?’ Martha yelled back.
‘This is no time to quibble. It doesn’t matter, he’s swallowing his tongue!’
Martha flung a kneidlach ladle through the open door. I wrestled it between my brother’s gritted teeth.
‘Ma! Help!’ I yelled. Hadassah stood behind the kitchen curtain, immobile.
‘Martha, bring the ’nard!’ I bellowed. I always had some muskroot handy for Lazzie’s fits. Its roots, crushed to powder and dissolved in boiled water, calmed his convulsions and my own nerves. Too much was fatal. Too little was ineffective. You had to get the dose just right.
‘You gave it to the Rov, remember?’ Martha chided. ‘You got the resin all over your hair?’
‘All right already, bring me the ash gourd juice!’
‘It’s in the chametz basket. It’s not Kosher l’Pesach.’
‘For fig’s sake, Martha, get your tuchus over here!’
Martha dashed into the courtyard, matzoh meal and egg yolk coagulating between her fingers. She gingerly rolled up her simlah and straddled Lazzie’s puny chest. I cradled his head, attempted to prise open his jaw and received a couple of savage bites to the thumb. It took both of us to hold him to the ground, or he surely would have snapped himself in two. Matzoh meal and blood began to bubble into a foamy paste at the corners of his mouth as he arched and arched again. Suddenly, he froze in mid-climax and slumped to the courtyard cobbles, lifeless, the wooden spoon slack between his foamy jaws.
Martha wept. Hadassah stood like a statue at the window.
I pulled myself together and addressed Philemon, our camel driver, who stood near the kitchen door timidly twiddling his bridle. Actually, I smelled him before I saw him. The reek of dromedary is very hard to eradicate.
‘Phil, you’ve got to take me and Lazzie to Jerusalem!’
‘I can’t put Master Lazzie in the cart, Miss Miriam. The dead are unclean.’
‘He’s not dead, he’s just very ill, Phil. And don’t call me Miriam. I’m Wanda now.’
I ripped off Lazzie’s tiny tallis and put my lips to his cleft. He threw up the contents of his kishkes, a sticky teiglach and chicken feed mix.
‘If he passes to Yahweh on the way,’ said Phil, ‘I will be the one to take the blame.’
‘He’s got to get that ’nard, Phil, or he won’t live to see the Seder.’
‘We’ve still got some grains of paradise and a titch of skullcap?’ offered Martha.
‘We’ve tried that combo before,’ I said. ‘We have to have consecrated ’nard.’
‘You can’t take Lazzie anywhere in this condition,’ Martha fretted. ‘The ride will kill him.’
‘Then I’ll go and fetch it myself. Philemon, give me that bridle.’
‘Sister, no!’ Martha cried. ‘You don’t even have a dromedary licence.’
‘I’m going to find Rov Yossi and I’m going to get that ’nard for Lazzie. Now get out of my way.’ And before anyone could say Halva Megilla, I scraped the step ladder from the side of the house, propped it against Sal, our family camel, mounted her hump and kicked her into gear.
‘You can’t take the camel without the carriage!’ Martha shouted. ‘You’ll rupture yourself!’
‘Wrap Lazzie in those linen strips like we did last time!’ I yelled back. ‘Powder some horseradish seeds and sprinkle one pinch in each nostril. Put him in a cool place. And keep his lips moist with melon.’
‘Come back here this minute,’ Hadassah moaned from the kitchen door. ‘You’re not going out dressed like that.’
‘It’s a matter of life and death, Ma,’ I squawked from my perch. ‘I’ll be back by sunset.’
‘Cover your keppie!’ she shouted after me.
My fingers fluttered to my neck where I always kept my loosened headscarf. It was wet with Lazzie’s blood and gore. I twirled it above my head like a standard bearer at a gladiator match. Lazzie’s precious bodily fluids dried instantly in the hot hamsin and flaked to the ground like dandruff manna. At least I’d be able to find my way home.
Hadassah said I had perfect pitch from the moment I slithered from her womb that frosty Jerusalem morn. Where some bright infants mimic the modulations of their mother’s tongue before they cut their first tooth – Mama, Mama – my first spoken word was a mimesis of my mother’s woe. Oy. It was Hadassah’s go-to word for tsorris. By the age of eight months, I’d absorbed it from the milk of her honey’d bosom, and Oy it was and Oy it would forever be.
‘We’ve run out of matzoh meal for the kneidlach . . .’
‘Qumran Qumran is putting up the price of peaches.’
‘Zarah Bat Bathea is pregnant with her fourteenth.’
The polysyllabic ‘oy-va-voy’ was uttered only in situations of va-va-voom, like during plagues and burnings or when the Temple was overrun by out of town tourists and we couldn’t get our regular seats in the mixed front pews.
Any inappropriate oys and we had our mouths washed out with soapweed but there was always a stash of oys for every occasion, and more va-voys were to come. The word defined our family. In cacophonic cadences.
Hadassah had a spontaneous song for every action. This elicited a kind of musical Tourette’s which has followed me all my lives. She had hairbrushing songs and puttingonoursandals songs, tzimmesgobbling songs and kneidlachmunching songs, ditties to suckle by, tunes to teethe by, lullabies to lull us by and all manner of nursery rhymes, from Shalom Chaverim to Intsy Wintsy Schneider. Up to the age of three I believed that Hadassah could conjure the spirit of experiences great and small with a song in her heart and the mantra of oy. I was five when my mother appointed herself voice coach and stage mother to her trio of kids, and she never missed an opportunity to show off my pipes. We got used to being schlepped from dreamland in the middle of the night to be exhibited to inebriated visitors. By ten I’d disentangled myself from my mother’s musical meddling by singing off key and standing on Martha’s toes in the choruses. I’d have rather died than admit that I missed the music but I did. I tuned into my own inner medley, but even then it was difficult to shut my mother out.
It was worse in the Temple. The raised tones of Hadassah’s voice, psalming out her obligatory god-raves, people craning to see who this strident coloratura could be, made me cringe in shemzach. Sometimes she even drowned out the shofar. My father, Theo, would stride out blaspheming and Hadassah would be abandoned, spotlit by the Ner Tamid, oblivious to the rancid looks of the mixed congregation.
All that stopped when we moved to Bethany. After Theo bolted and our first stepdaddy Aziz figged out, it was Qumran Qumran who started running the shewbread. That’s when the marks around Hadassah’s throat turned redpurplegreenyellow and oy vey came out in a sodden and strangled key. He didn’t like it when Hadassah sang.
I’d met him before, Rov Yossi. He’d visited Bethany a few times to see to the lepers and attend to Lazzie’s fits. He and his chevras had a fair walk across the city, past the Temple and over the Mount of Olives, but the view was breathtaking and the company worth the climb. We Pharisees had a particularly sweet tooth; we mixed honey in our yams and halva in our jams. The Galileans salivated to a more Mediterranean fare – hummus, falafel, chatzilim. The combination was heady when the chevras came over.
On their most recent visit, after Martha had served them a trolley of tea and teiglach, I sat at Yossi’s feet, marvelling at their contrasts, blue-veined alabaster on top, blistered calluses on the soles. I noticed that he winced as he stood up to refill his flagon. Martha retired meekly to do the dishes, motioning me in a series of head jerks to do the same. I flipped her the ibis. Martha never permitted herself to have any fun; a rigid, iffy tattle-tale. I stayed where I was, munching away on a teigel with a bunch of Yossi’s chevras, eavesdropping on their Talmudic to and frum.
‘Did you lay your tefillin at dawn, Jimmy?’ Yossi asked a ginger fisherman.
‘Yeah, Rov,’ said the redhead. ‘I rose at the first crow of the cock. I got the straps a bit twisted, but I davened until after sunrise.’
‘Did you thank Yahweh who has not made you a woman?’
‘Yeah, Rov. Or a gentile. Or a pig.’
‘Do you consider it a fair prayer?’
‘I’ve never really given it much thought.’
‘How do you think the females feel about it?’
‘Ours is not to question why,’ said the disciple with a mouth full of teigel.
‘My father makes some strange decisions,’ Yossi said.
I’d never actually met Yossi’s dad, but he spoke about him a lot.
‘I have actually wondered, though, Rov,’ said a sandy-haired shepherd. ‘It does seem a bit harsh on the second sex.’
‘That’s true, Pete,’ Yossi said. ‘The energy of the world is masculine while the female aspect of Yahweh, the Shekinah, is in exile. The voice of the bride is subdued. But there will come a time when not only will her voice be heard and understood, but her gentler perspective will be appreciated and hallowed.’
My attention was distracted for a moment by Martha’s insistent hand gesturing from the kitchen doorway, just when the discussion was getting interesting. Nothing gentle about my sister’s perspective. I stared a No at her but by the time I got my concentration back the conversation had moved on.
‘But, Rov, it is said that you are the Messiah,’ said the shepherd.
‘I’ve never claimed that,’ Yossi said.
‘You’ve ridden a donkey. You were born in Bethlehem.’
‘That’s all pretty circumstantial.’
‘But in Isaiah XXX, verse xxvi, it’s all there. ‘“The light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun.” It really was a bright gibbous last night.’
‘It’s because of the hamsin,’ said the Rov. ‘This hot, dry wind causes all sorts of optical illusions.’
‘What about Joel II, verse xxxi?’
‘I’d keep that rumour under your keffiyeh, if I were you,’ said the Rov. ‘And prophecy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.’
While they were debating, I crawled across to the tea trolley for a refill and knocked over an amphora of spikenard that was perched on the floor. It’s not my fault that it was in such a flimsy jar. As the lip dripped its pungent resin onto the Abyssinian carpet, I scooped it up between my palms and, not wanting to waste a single drop, smeared it upon Yossi’s feet. The ’nard just kept on coming, so I whipped off my tichel, shook out my frizzy locks and blotted up the drippings, smearing and soaking, soaking and smearing. It nearly caused a riot. But who puts an amphora in the path of a tea trolley in the middle of a Talmudic debate?
‘What a bloody waste,’ cried a pale-faced chevra. ‘We could all have done with a hit of that.’
‘Don’t be so shortsighted, Luke,’ Yossi said. ‘Forsooth, this is a story you can dine out on for decades.’
‘What’s she doing here anyway?’ asked a swarthy Sadducee, scowling at me.
‘The meidele meant no harm,’ said Yossi, but the Sadducee was on a path.
‘I’m thinking about the poor,’ he said. ‘That ’nard could have gotten half of Bethany high for a month. It’s more expensive than gold.’
‘Hey, Jude,’ Yossi said. ‘Do your trigonometry. Bethany is a town that was founded on mitzvot. The poor flock here. There would never be enough ’nard to go around.’
It was a convincing argument. But I knew Rov Yossi was really protecting me against their wrath.
That was when Hadassah trotted in with fresh bagels and lox to invite them for third night. The chevras had to tighten their girdles. The business with the hair had soaked up all their prophets.