Hebrew for the Sabbath Day

Hebrew for the Sabbath Day

Malawach, the bubbly Yemenite pancake bread oozing with meat and vegetables, bloated the teachers’ American bellies, as the tour bus spirited them away from the trendy restaurant to the terraced sidewalks of Jerusalem’s Tayelet. Ronny Ron, the bus driver, deposited them in front of chilly stone homes and alley-sized streets bearing names of old rabbis and older kings. Strolling through the curling roads toward the very edge of the city, the group of fifteen tourists reached the shimmering stones of the Haas Promenade. The tourists wore jackets to warm themselves, although the days were lengthening in the season of late rain.

That’s when she felt it. Standing next to all of those high school teachers from New York State on this spring break exchange with Israeli educators, she sensed something sour and wrong. Her heart started to beat rapidly, and contracting pulses thrashed in the side of her neck. The electrical control system monitoring potassium, calcium, and muscles regulating heart function snagged. A beat skipped. Her syncopated heart stalled for just a moment, then rebooted and resumed its normal pace, trotting steadily along like a penitent horse after leaping out of control. Noelle scanned the small gardens lining the cascading layers of the walkway, emanating the fragrance of rosemary and mint. Turning to a biology teacher from the trip, one of the only participants who did not loop back incessantly to the topic of state-mandated testing or diets that banned vegetables from the dreaded nightshade family, she asked her new friend if she noticed anything out of the ordinary.

“It’s stunning here, Noelle. Just so peaceful,” the teacher cooed and snapped pictures with her phone, as twinkling lights from the Arab village below seemed to converse with low hanging stars.

“Something’s very wrong. I feel it.” Noelle pressed her palm against a perspiring forehead, as she sensed a corroding prescience of dread.

Only once before had she experienced this peculiar sensation—at an ice cream parlor named Carnival Cones. As a teenager, she had walked into the overly air-conditioned dairy heaven, only to turn around immediately and flee. To act impulsively was completely out of character for such a rational young lady, especially anywhere near the vicinity of hot fudge. One day later, the entire store had burned to the ground. Television reporters stood in front of the pile of blackened embers and melted metal barstools to announce that faulty wiring or a poorly behaving waffle cone machine might have been to blame. On this clear night, a similar instinct to bolt pushed at her.

Noelle Rebecca Levine squinted contact lens hugging eyes and scanned the tourists until she spotted some shred of evidence that could justify her panic—a lone backpack leaning against a short wall. The bag could have been filled with sunglasses, a giant bottled water, sesame flavored Israeli pretzels, or a bomb. Instinct took over the forty-five-year-old, and she started acting like a teacher in lock-down or fire drill mode.

“There, do you see that backpack? I don’t think it’s attached to a person,” she announced to Verdella Jackson, the educator with the tinkling laugh and elegant hands that could have modeled dishwashing detergent or a Swiss watch that cost as much as a car. Noelle’s voice rose in volume, pitch, and dread.

Chefetz Chashood! Suspicious Object!” she called out, remembering the Hebrew from her college Near Eastern Studies minor and a year of volunteering and teaching in Israel back when she was young and the skin on her knees was smooth and even her earlobes seemed perky and cute. When the group of Danish tourists standing by the bag ignored her, she called out in English: “I think we should all get away from this area just in case something is in there that shouldn’t be.” She warned the other teachers and the tall blond crew in her best approximation of a calm voice, the spurious one she had perfected during the two traumatic years spanning her late husband’s leukemia.

Darting around a corner, she spotted a guard, and she barely could stammer out the words “suspicious object.” In Israel one could not be too careful. Back in the States, she worried about boulders falling onto passing cars on the highways, being sucked into the earth by a sinkhole when visiting her in-laws in Florida, twisting the skin off of her hand with an immersion blender while preparing a butternut squash soup, or falling on icy porch steps and her brain drowning in its own blood. In Israel, an unclaimed tan backpack could contain an unforeseen ticket to eternity.

Three guards sporting identical black jackets materialized and surrounded the suspicious bag. A bomb squad pulled up with two dogs and a robotic device, as they escorted the tourists away from the promenade. Noelle and the other teachers stared as an expert pushed the pack into a container resembling a very thick metal trash bin. The next minute, a loud bang clattered and echoed, as the concealed weapon of terror exploded. Noelle sat on a bench, holding onto Mrs. Jackson’s platonically ideal hands, whose fingers and knuckles might have exploded into small porcelain-like segments into the careless stars. Noelle did not stop shaking for two hours.

Later, when her children asked about what had happened that night, she would not remember how she was transported from the site of the bomb to an office somewhere in Israel’s ancient and holy city. Did she walk or ride in the back seat of some unmarked car? For all she knew, she could have traveled by albino camel to the nondescript police building.

The first thing Noelle could recall post-bombing was sitting in front of a desk, alternating crossing one leg and then another, trying to decipher the vowel-free Hebrew headlines on a newspaper. She waited for fifteen minutes, then half an hour. No one else from her group was taken to this particular room, and she was relieved when an officer entered, sat down across from her and began speaking to her in English, so heavily accented, though, it resembled an entirely different language.

“We have questions for you, Ms. Levine, about what you saw and how you knew about the backpack. You do speak Hebrew? From your days as a student at Hebrew University’s summer language Ulpan and your year of volunteering after college?” The woman with dark hair gathered in a tight ponytail smiled at Noelle, teasing her with knowledge of academic credentials and her work with Ethiopian immigrants at the end of the 1980s in the year before the Gulf War had started. During her carefree year abroad, the intifadah had yet to resurface. She could still board the bumpy city buses from a back door and convey her pass up to the front, as the passengers, all strangers, would automatically hand over a technologically primitive punch card to the driver and then send it all the way back, as though she were a sister or cousin.

Instead of the fear that Iraqi lobbed missiles would elicit just a year later, purple, red, and white anemones exploded from the soil in the middle of winter. The Sabbath siren would release on Friday afternoon, and her fellow volunteers gathered at each other’s apartments or guest quarters for the sharing of prayers, sweet challah bread, eggplant, and chicken. A palpable quiet descended, as the heavenly Israel and her earthly reflection kissed.

Noelle started to speak very quickly. “I’m very shy about speaking in Hebrew, but I do understand much more than I can speak.” Noelle was self-conscious and had discovered that when speaking in Hebrew, her brain had no time to insert a filtration system, one that possessed extraordinarily tiny holes in English. Hebrew’s sticky sounds clutched onto her deepest thoughts and dragged them out of her tightly controlled mouth. Some people felt like actors when speaking in a foreign language. For Noelle, speaking Hebrew was a truth serum.

“May I ask you a question in English? Do you know what the time was? What time was it when that bomb was supposed to detonate?” she interrogated the officer.

“Excuse me, Madame, but it’s my job to ask the questions and find answers, if you don’t mind,” the woman across from her chided, as one of her eyes twitched slightly from the exhaustion of the day.

This police officer, detective, homeland security expert, or whatever she was could not possibly have known how important it was for Noelle to understand what time she might have died. Maybe it would have been the same moment as her husband’s last breath, or an hour coinciding with one of her children’s being born? Desperate to make poetry out of a horrible situation, she was the type of person who thrived on this type of information.

“Let’s focus on what you do know, Ms. Levine,” the investigator restarted.

“I know that I’d like to go back to the hotel, if possible, thanks. I’d love to take a hot shower with overpriced muddy soap from the Dead Sea and forget that all of this just happened.” The tourist looked at the officer and sighed audibly.

“Again, Ms. Levine … just answer for me, please, how did you know that the backpack contained a bomb?” The woman pronounced the final “b” in the word, bomb, and Noelle thought that her son, Caleb, would have found this encounter morbidly amusing. He would have made up a song about bombs within two minutes.

“Are you with me?” The officer with the questions was becoming impatient.

“I am with you. I am with this group of American educators. I am without a clue about how I came to feel so unsettled to notice that deadly bag. I guess I just had a bad feeling or something, a hunch, you know, some sort of premonition.” Noelle looked off to the side. Maybe she could hurry up this excruciating process.

“Where is your husband, Ms. Levine?” the woman asked.

“New Jersey.” Noelle had enough of being polite. “He’s in a cemetery in New Jersey. He died two years ago. My children are on a cruise for their spring break with their grandparents, no doubt coming down with wretched cases of the Norovirus and possibly throwing up in that glamorous floating petri dish my in-laws wanted to take them on. Anything else you’d like to know about me? Weight? Height? I have an unusual eye condition in which the pigment is gradually flaking off the back of my iris.” Sarcasm seemed to work well in Israel where charisma fell short. Noelle had briefly tried to smile and tilt her head just a bit to the side—her adorable, rosy-cheeked, little girl expression having no perceptible impact. Then she remembered how it was with Israelis. While velvety charm was still valued currency in the American South where she had been raised, where it might extract you from a traffic violation or help get the lenses of your glasses popped back into the frame at a more conveniently located eyeglass store where you hadn’t even purchased the spectacles, she found Israelis utterly immune to the power of her smile and twinkling eyes, waning pigment notwithstanding.

“I will be blunt, doogri, as we say here.” The detective looked at her, as if she could see her thoughts. Noelle stared back at the detective wondering if she had ever introduced herself. Not one of the employees in that office wore a nametag or lanyard with a tag dangling around the collar of a short-sleeved button-down shirt. She recalled that many of the officers she had met that night had those ubiquitous Israeli one-syllable monikers: Nir, Shai, Ziv, Gil, Or, Ram, Dor, Ron, or Dov. The country percolated with impatience. Two syllables were an indulgence.

“We’re just trying to clear up how you came to alert the guards about the bag, Ms. Levine. Did someone tell you about the bomb?” Tal or Gal released a strained coughing sound. Could she be suggesting that Noelle was a terrorist?

“I told you and at least four other officers that I’m a soccer mom from the States. I’m an English teacher. I love Israel and my Israeli cousins in Tel Aviv. I lived her for a year for goodness sake. We belong to a synagogue, and I force my kids to go to Hebrew school. I just had a bad feeling, you know, like some sort of intuition. May I please go now, please?” She looked at her well-meaning jailer and tried to discern her ethnicity. Maybe Tunisian, Yemenite, or Moroccan? Her hair was raven black and thick. She missed Michael’s hair, its smell and texture, and she started to tear up wishing he were here with his ability to laugh off the unpredictable and ridiculous.

Ms. Unisyllable touched her thumb to three of her other fingers creating the Israeli hand motion for “just a minute” and left the room. In the hallway, she greeted another intelligence officer who was about to interview Noelle. “Miskeinah.” She shook her head. “Pathetic lady. Let the nice teacher go. Enough already. She’s an anxious widow with a good imagination. Thank God for catastrophic thinking. She saved some lives tonight. Don’t be so grumpy with her, the way you’ve been lately. Let her go back to her hotel to sleep. I’m going home.” She nodded, as the muscle near her eye started to spasm once again.

Raz Ben Shoshan nodded. “The boss wants us to get a better sense of how she knew what she knew prior to the fact. That’s all. Did she see the bag and then get worried about what could be in it, or was it some other phenomenon? Because she made some prediction before that bomb went off. I have to get to the bottom of that.”

“Don’t be so cynical, Ben Shoshan. Some people see colors and hear sounds others cannot imagine. Let our American friend go to bed—alone.” Mor was not exactly sure why she added that caveat. In seven years of knowing her colleague, he had never once made a single inappropriate or lewd suggestion. Coworkers had referred to him as “the yeshiva boy,” for his squeaky-clean approach to interviewing suspects and his meticulous paper work.

“Sweet dreams,” she tossed back to him and walked down the hallway with her practical shoes.

Raz, with his impeccable English and advanced engineering degree from an American university, knocked on the door, entered without waiting for a response, and smiled at the woman whose alleged psychic ability had raised some high-level curiosity. She had the look of many American middle-aged Jewish women with dark hair, fair skin, and an anxious demeanor. When he approached her, he realized that she resembled his ex-wife, Efrat. Nodding, he sat down at a desk and started to move paperclips around in piles. Perhaps he was the nervous one, as for once he couldn’t solve this situation with any logical formula.

“Hi. Look, I don’t know what you want from me. There’s really no more information left to share. Just contact me if you think of some other questions, you know, like the year I had my last tetanus shot or something. You have my cell number and the itinerary of my program, right?” Noelle tried humor with this newest bureaucrat.

“For God’s sake, I’m not some sort of shoe bomber.” She was getting frustrated, and her blood sugar was starting to plummet. “Can you even tell me your name? It’s really insulting to be treated like some sort of criminal. If this continues, I’d like to get a lawyer already.”

The man, with greenish-gray eyes who looked more like a fit professor than any sort of law enforcement agent, identified himself as Raz Ben Shoshan. He spoke so quickly that she mistook his last name as Shushan, the fabled Persian province of the Purim story. “I want to understand a few things, and then we’re done, okay. You can leave in a few minutes. We’re just tying up the flying ends. I am wondering why your name is Noelle if you’re a Jew? Doesn’t that mean Christmas?” He looked at her face the way a dog looks sideways when trying to process information.

“You need something to eat, I think. What can I get you? An Arctic, a popsicle? We have those you know. Helps with dehydration. A little sugar, a little fluid helps everyone even before summer arrives.”

She smiled in spite of her anger. Ever the English teacher, she corrected, “Loose ends. Tying up the loose ends. But your English, really, it’s excellent. I wish my Hebrew were so fluent. And thanks for the hospitality. I’m surprised you don’t already know my favorite flavor given your omniscient line of work. I’ll be very disappointed in Israeli Intelligence if I am brought anything resembling lime.” She understood that his gentleness could be just another subtle tactic for intelligence gathering, but this small act of kindness overwhelmed her, and her contact lenses shimmied around tear-filled eyes.

He returned to her before the door even clicked shut all the way and even offered her a normal sized napkin and not the ubiquitous miniature ones that felt like shrunken squares of sandpaper.

“Can you speak to me in Hebrew, please? Just for a few minutes?” he asked in an encouraging voice.

“This is insane. You think that if I can speak Hebrew I’m all good? There are no bad guys who can speak Ivrit? You want me to take a Hebrew loyalty test?” She shook her head.

Noelle breathed deeply and then exhaled loudly, a tactic learned from a yoga class years before. “Let’s see, a test is a bechina. Or is that more like a school exam? How about mivchan for test? How about etgar for challenge? And how about omanut for faith? Oh, wait,” she paused trying to retrieve a lost piece of information from a tucked away filing cabinet in her brain.

Raz chuckled.

“That means art, right?” She stared right at him and noticed lines crossing his forehead like a staff of music. His hair was the color of honey, like Juliette’s. She wondered if he had children.

Emunah? That’s faith, right?”

“Close enough, Ms. Levine. But why Noelle?

“Oh, yes. Why, Noelle? I’m named for my saba Noah and my great-savta Elsa. Get it? My parents fused the first syllables of their names to come up with Noelle. I think they wanted to save me from accusations of Christ killing. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s not New York. Not everyone down there thought Jews were true Americans. My mom claimed Noelle was the prettiest name she ever heard, and if it happened to mean Christmas, so what? There was nothing wrong with fir trees and cookies covered in powdered sugar and beautiful carols. I suppose it was a ridiculous attempt at passing for something we weren’t anyway, as my last name didn’t do much to hide Semitic roots. So, now that you’ve cleared up that big mystery, if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to go now.” She started to pick up her purse and tried to clean up the sticky puddle on the desk from the popsicle.

“Talk to me in Hebrew,” he coaxed. It was strange the way his request made her feel vulnerable, like he could see the constellation of freckles underneath her light pink sweater. His voice was soft. She sat back in her seat and gave him a long look. He was handsome, objectively so, with a strong jaw, straight nose, and broad shoulders like a swimmer. She missed the safety of Michael’s embrace at this moment, and for a microsecond speculated what it would feel like to have this man nuzzle his five o’clock shadow on the sensitive skin of her cheeks.

This was getting ridiculous. She was not fresh out of college, naïve, weakened by the sight of thick eyelashes on dark soldiers defending the Jewish homeland after thousands of years of exile in their olive-green uniforms. More than two decades ago, she had spent time with a beautiful soldier from an elite brigade. He had stashed a handgun under her narrow bed, hiked with her on cloudless days on the dry hills of Jerusalem, written out song titles with a blue ballpoint pen on mixed tapes of popular Israeli music he curated for her.

Like many young tourists, she had visited Israel and treated it as a Jewish Disneyland. The journey near the Lebanese and Syrian border was a bumper car ride by jeep. Covering herself in mud at the Dead Sea fulfilled a spa requirement. Kayaking down the Jordan River fulfilled the mandatory waterpark excursion. Picking a grapefruit’s giant cousin, known as a pomelo, on kibbutz, forced her to touch the soil filled with disintegrated blood cells of ancient pilgrims and tribes. More than a year after she returned to the States, she felt embarrassed for consuming the country like an Israeli breakfast buffet.

Now having nothing to gaze at other than Raz’s shoulders, she almost regretted rejecting Alan’s advances a few weeks before. No, he wasn’t going to be a soul mate or a new husband. But Caleb had beamed when playing basketball with him and his friends. Alan had bolstered the precipitously tilting mailbox by filling in the ground with dirt and large rocks. Of course, he had other attributes in addition to mailbox repair and dribbling. Alan was smart, successful at his chosen field, a good dad to his children, even a cooperative ex-husband to his demanding ex-wife. She just couldn’t muster enthusiasm for touching or being touched by him. Uncooperative pheromones and awkward chemistry were her first suspects. If she had been honest with herself, she would have understood that Alan was bound for rejection when he laughed at the additional expense she doled out to purchase dog poop bags in bright, joyful colors and designs. “Why do you pay to have moons and hearts on bags better suited for an Easter egg hunt?” He shook his head when they took their first walk together with Scout. “It’s all going in the garbage. You get a thrill for what, four minutes tops when you’re walking around with this fake bag of candy?”

He chuckled, but she tasted acid in her gut. Alan could be engaging in flirtatious teasing, but the possibility existed that he was also a controlling partner who begrudged her the almost negligible expense increase of infusing a bit of color into an unpleasant and necessary task. She braced herself against the assault of cold weather and the awkward experience of scavenging amid leaves and twigs for her dog’s waste. She did not need anyone legislating the kind of bags she used to collect her pet’s business. Poor Alan. This pleasant, divorced dad she had met while waiting for the girls to gather from Juliette’s swim carpool would never be her boyfriend. He had made a fatal romantic mistake in begrudging her cheerful polka dotted doggie bags.

Noelle, like many of the members of her grief support group, was not prepared to make any sort of long-term romantic commitment. Some heartsick mourners slept with a different person whenever possible to soften the ache of loss. Noelle was feeling unmoored, as well, but her promiscuity was limited to perfume. Every time she managed to make it through another week of teaching, carpooling, and meal planning, she rewarded herself with the purchase of a new fragrance. There was no overarching pattern to her growing assortment of scents: florals, spicy orientals, fruit flavored potions, aromas that reminded her of furniture polish and smoky camp fires, even tobacco and vanilla. Every day she sprayed herself with a different perfume. Nothing felt like her, and nothing reminded her of beach vacations or Michael’s shaving cream. No scent summoned joy.

In this windowless office, Noelle now regretted making this trip abroad and longed to return home. Soon, spring would burst out. The naughty dog would stalk robins in pale grass. Her children would be in school, taking their lessons, rushing to swim practice on the appointed days of the week, and her older students would be asking her for letters of recommendation for college. She would allow other less traumatized people to create a rhythm and structure for her. They would serve as gravity preventing her from floating away.

“Do you know what a raz is in Hebrew and what my name means, Madame Christmas?” The officer roused her from her reverie.

“Secret?” She was proud of herself for remembering a word from so long ago.

“Yes, of course. But a sode is secret, like where you’ve hidden your daughter’s birthday present in the house. But a raz, a raz, well, it means what it sounds like. Open your mouth vertically, and you are forced to breathe in more air when you say the word. And a raz is a spiritual secret about life like why your white azalea flowers up before the purple ones, or why a heart remembers how to beat, or why people feel love for some spirits and not for others. That’s a raz.”

He continued his explanation. “I was called because the police believe you possess some sort of raz, as well. You have some ability, some gift that we do not fully understand. My superior thinks you are like some sort of Witch of Endor, like in the Bible’s Book of Samuel. We wonder if you might help us, Noelle. We hope you will.”

She felt her heart slowing down with each word and wondered if she was experiencing Stockholm Syndrome, when a prisoner starts to feel sympathy and connection with her captor.

“Can you drive around with me a little? Can you sniff out any more backpacks, any more problems you notice with your mysterious sixth sense?” Raz was trying to charm her in this land of direct speech.

“I’m not psychic. I just have inherited a tenacious gene for worrying. Death lurks even when you can’t see it with your eyes. I’ve learned that lesson.” She looked down at her feet. “But I’ll drive around with you in case I can help.” She smiled in spite of her exhaustion. “You know I’m not a witch.” She looked at him and stood up, as Hebrew words rushed and poured through her mind, as if gushing through a pipe, right to left.

“Sometimes you can’t see goodness with your eyes either.” Raz picked up his car keys. He forgot to speak in English for a moment. “The goodness still exists.”

Long-napping Hebrew phrases stretched and yawned in her mind, eager for release. After Noelle had warmed up in his car with a cup of decent coffee or even hot chocolate, she might allow herself to permit some imperfect Hebrew sentences to escape from her mouth. Even if her Hebrew was not the rapid-fire slang that she heard all around her, the language peppered with Arabic and English, she could try to communicate. Her Hebrew was Ivrit Shel Shabbat, Hebrew for the Sabbath Day. Raz had begged her to speak to him, so too bad for him if she sounded like some old-fashioned Israeli third grade teacher who spoke in poems filled with literature and phrases from the Prophets. Her expression would be elegant, like a white tablecloth covered with challah for the Sabbath meal. It would mesh well with the way Raz smelled, all freshly cut grass, limes, with a dash of witch hazel, like wine from the Galilee.

Together they walked to his car. Then in the Hebrew uttered by old women, an innocent and younger country, and a whisper of a prayer, Noelle turned to him and spoke, “I can’t promise that I’ll feel anything at all, Raz. We’ll just have to see.”

About the Author

Sharon Forman

Raised in Norfolk, Virginia, Sharon Forman is a reform rabbi and has worked for twenty-four years in the field of Jewish education. She is the author of Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions (URJ, 2006), a chapter on the intersection between breastfeeding and Judaism in Lisa Grushcow’s The Sacred Encounter (CCAR Press, 2014), and most recently The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings (2015). She has also written for Kveller and had pieces featured in Lilith.org, Mamalode, Literary Mama, The Union For Reform Judaism, The Bitter Southerner, Parent.co, and in Mothers Always Write. For the past thirteen years, she has lived with her husband and three children in Westchester, New York, where she teaches Bar and Bat Mitzvah students. She is excited to return to her passion of fiction writing.