Rena Lee, penname of Rena Kofman, is poet and writer, a retired Professor of Hebrew from the City University of New York, and the author of twelve books in Hebrew. Her work appeared (in both Hebrew and English) in many magazines, anthologies, scholarly journals, etc. Her chapbook “Captive of Jerusalem: Song of Shulamite” is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.
For more information please visit her internet site www.renalee.net
The following work is copyright © 2013. All rights reserved. No distribution or reprinting in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
The Snowman of Jerusalem
snow in Jerusalem!" Ricki was all excitement. So was I, so were all others, students of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem seeing snow for the first time. It was for us the stuff dreams are made of. Had God sent us Manna from heaven, the sense of miracle couldn’t have been any stronger.
We stood in the yard of the Ratisbonnne - a monastery used by The Hebrew University as a school of law - staring at the soft flakes that covered the city with a bridal veil. We began to form snowballs and throw them at each other laughing, kidding around like small children. “Let’s make a snowman,” shouted the tall handsome fellow I had noticed before. "Who is this guy?" I asked Ricki, "All I know, his name is Eli." "Eli, Eli," I savored the sound silently. In truth, on the several occasions I saw him, he captivated my attention. “Yes, let’s make a snowman,” chimed the crowd, amassing piles of snow to the center of the yard. Eli was in charge, and I was one of his helpers. With frozen palms, I raised my offering to the body – which proceeded growing and swelling, and getting heavier by the minute – of our snowman. At first, he resembled David Ben-Gurion, then, transformed in degrees, he began to look like Winston Churchill. Of course, there is no similarity between these two prominent men, but this is the power of snow and chance to mix and mix up. In the end, we let go of our snowman when he mostly resembled a clown. After all, is it not most appropriate that a time of jesting would give birth to a clown? In addition, because a clown is an actor, he may, when called for, change identities easily. This way we gave our snowman some choice to be whoever he’d like to be. On his face, one placed a nose, as mighty as a blowing shofar, another endowed him with an extremely long neck. Later we shut his mouth with a big red apple to prevent him from complaining. For extra beauty, someone donated a black tie, and a number of colorful buttons to stick in his cone shaped hat. Ultimately we formed a circle around him and loosened up in an excited dance of Hora.
On the morrow, with the early rays of sun, our snowman contracted a serious cold. It started, as most colds do, with a running nose and developed, as some colds do, into severe flu with high fever, which caused his whole glorious body to melt. To his credit, one must mention his brave spirit, for he went on laughing until the last minute. In his place we found only a puddle and in it a tie, an apple and few buttons. Had I not happened to pass by there, I would’ve never learned of his courage and gallantry, or the laughter with which he had faced death. However, the clown’s death had not occurred until the next day, and after some other deaths had taken place.
Let us return to the white soft snow, which you can knead and mold as you wish, like clay in the potter’s hands. A different Jerusalem became revealed to me: white and cold, and a bit reserved; dignified in its fluffy fur; distant in its high clear sky nailed with countless stars.
I WAS WALKING
carefully so as not to skid for the sidewalks became paved with thin slippery frost. My steps were painstakingly slow. All day long I was “snow struck” and the approaching evening added a sense of confusion originated by Eli's invitation to go out with him. Now, he was walking by my side, calm and at ease. His smile seemed self assured and appeared to possess a marked snow-coldness. His paces preceded mine and my heartbeats kept trying hard to catch up with him, hopping on my legs as on crutches. At a street lamp, he stopped to wait for me. Coming closer, I realized his eyes were dark-gray and not light blue as they had appeared in daylight. “Come. Let's have some coffee at 'Nitzan' and meet some members of the ‘gang’,” said he. It’s our first date, I thought, and already he craves the company of the ‘gang’ -
We walked on in silence. Eli striding widely in his knee-high leather boots, and I treading precariously, steps by small step, in my narrow pumps. He, well protected in his parka with sheep-fur lining showing at the collar, and I, in my light spring suit. How badly I wished he found me attractive! Silence was all around us. His mouth was fuming, emitting vapor. All his heat he keeps for himself, I was thinking angrily as I stood freezing. For a minute, the vapor coming out of his mouth seemed like bubbles produced by a fish, and Eli himself appeared transferred into a fish, wet and cold. “Here we have to cross the main road,” he told me, pointing towards “Nitzan”. Next to the curb, the snow had melted into a puddle, virtually a miniature lake. I stood at the curb feeling very edgy: how will I manage to walk over? Will my tight skirt be able to adapt to the necessary wide stride? What is to become of my narrow pumps? Filled with anxiety I heard my companion’s voice “can I help you?” I saw him already standing across the road, on the other “bank”, his arms stretched toward me, a starched smile on his lips. I tried to get hold of one of his hands and succeeded to reach the tip of his glove, but my feet, in line with their usual bad habit, lingered behind my good intentions… Alas, what disgrace! I found myself spread-eagled in the puddle clenching his glove. The road glittered. Only a few sour looking snowflakes were scattered here and there. High hung the sky above and the stars appeared to stand still in their orbits. The entire world froze. Then, like the sound of smashed crystal, I heard his exploding laugh. Everything occurred in a flash, maybe minutes, maybe just seconds. My clumsy fall, his convulsive laughter. How much time do you need to turn from lucky to unlucky?
Laughing sounds descended on me like cascading stones from a hilltop. Slowly my mind cleared and I came to myself. Regaining control over my hands and legs, I ventured to stand and straighten myself. My knee was severely bruised. Dirt and mud were all over my beautiful spring suit. My elegant pumps filled with water. All the while I was facing him, I attempted with my cold fingers, to placate the knee that refused to unbend, and to arrest the suffocating tears. Choked up with insult and hurt, I stared at the laughing man opposite me. He seemed lost in his laughter. A few times, he struggled to speak, making motions with his hands and moving slightly his lips, but he could not utter a single word, overcome by yet another spasm of laughter. Nailed to my place, rubbing my left knee, I was watching how his face dissolved. The narrow crack between his lips, designed for a smile, broke into a vast sea. His cheeks wrinkled into myriad folds and little fissures were flowing from his mouth’s ends upward. Most amazing was what happened to his eyes. These contracted like two runners getting ready for competition. Their color turned pitch black, and they shed sheer round tears. With his naked hand, whose glove I held, he produced out of his pocket a large white handkerchief and with forceful determination blew his nose noisily.
By and by, as he calmed a little, he was finally ready to grace me with a glance. My sight chased away the last shreds of laughter. He looked me over from head to toe and reverted to my left knee. “Come to my room and I’ll take care of your knee,” Eli said, and without waiting for a reply put his arm around my waist dragging me after him. Now, he could not stop apologizing “…really, I’m so sorry…Forgive me! What can I do? It’s a kind of involuntary reaction when I see someone fall…I’m so sorry…” I knew I would have been more forgiving if the issue were somebody else’s fall. The insult burnt and the knee ached. Like through a fog I listened to the subtle voice of his embracing arm which was more soothing than the flood of his words. His room was not far but it was high up. Luckily the elevator was working, for frequently, as I understood, it had been out of order. On our way, a black cat passed by, his shiny eyes blinking. Bad omen? I asked myself. Through a long narrow corridor, he escorted me to his room, and after asking me to sit down, went out leaving me there all alone.
Sitting on the sofa’s edge my eyes were skirting the room, photographing the various objects: an open book on the desk, a thick notebook with a pinned sheet, all covered with numbers and formulas, which to me looked like hieroglyphs. On the bookshelf stood in rows, various medical textbooks. While still studying his room, he returned with a bottle in one hand, and a bandage and tube in the other. “You'll have to remove the stocking,” he said. Easier said than done, it was torn in the place of the wound and rivulets of blood trickled in every direction. I released the garter and started rolling it down. My leg, at that moment, seemed like a snake shedding its skin. At the knee, I had to stop. A dried drop of blood glued the stocking to the flesh. Biting my lips I pulled hard, and a dark red gush followed my action. Eli was standing with his back to me. His small, seashell ears, were as if listening to sounds from within. He was still dressed in his parka with the sheep fur protruding from its collar. On his shoulder lingered an orphan snowflake, lonely and hesitant. As he attended to my injury, I tried to make conversation. “At what year of medical school are you?” I asked. In answer, he formed a V with his two fingers, imitating the sign of victory so favored by Churchill. I understood he had conquered two years.
On my leg, whose color changed because of the cold into red-blue, the white bandage unfurled like a flag, a reminder of the white and pure snow. Eli hid his hands in gloves announcing, “Let’s go now to 'Nitzan' for a hot cup of coffee, we both need it.” In the hallway, it became clear that the elevator was not working. “You see? Again not in service,” his voice was bitter. I limped leaning on the rail on one side and on his arm on the other. The rail was cold and slippery like an eel. His arm in the sheep fur welcomed me with warmth. Cold and hot currents were flowing through me, crossing each other. I was ablaze with excitement. “You are shivering,” he commented, instantly anxious and tender in the darkness of the hallway. “I’m co…co…cold…” I muttered, singing in my mind an old children stanza: “Not here, there on the sea-shore teach me how to swim…” “Wait a minute,” he cried. Before having a chance to protest, he disappeared running up, leaving me in the dark, clinging to the cold banister. Shortly after, he returned carrying a warm sweater for me. He threw it on my shoulders scolding, “you’re dressed much too lightly for this kind of weather.” The sweater’s sleeves were too wide and too long, dwindling on my sides as useless limps.
At last, I found myself on the pavement next to “Nitzan”. Inside, a different world was uncovered. The strong illumination of the neon did not leave room for illusions. This was the stark reality of noise, heat, and smells of both coffee and sweaty bodies. Steam mixed with cigarettes’ smoke. Behind us, the door closed on the freezing night, and the clarity of the sky. All the stars too remained outside. It was quite a problem to find an empty seat. All the land, from Galilee to Negev as the Hebrew saying goes, seemed occupied. Suddenly, Eli recognized a familiar face at the corner. “Hey, Dorith,” he called out starting to move in the direction of her table. Sitting with friends, she invited us to join. We ordered espresso. I tasted the black liquid, which was as bitter as my mood. My existence seemed by now entirely forgotten. Attention focused on the good-looking Dorith who appeared very pleased with my companion’s efforts to impress her. A long time they talked about their studies – she too was a medical student – exchanging opinions about different professors and lectures. After a while they seemed to tire of these subjects for Eli began recounting my fall. Again, he was laughing as he was describing, in words and mimics, the ridicule of the situation. Listening to him, I failed to identify myself in his story. In any event, there was no doubt I served him well as excellent raw material in his flirtation with the other girl.
“Were she not that heavy, I could’ve carried her across on my arms,” he concluded, pointing to me with his elbow, his eyes glued to Dorith's face. I too looked at her, admiring how she sat there slender and graceful, figure perfect in the tight outfit. Pictures from the evening kept coming to my mind. How he stood from afar stretching hands toward me. How he laughed when I fell. How I played the role of guinea pig letting him treat my wound. I felt beaten. “My knee hurts, I want home…“ I mumbled hoarsely, not cognizant of my own voice. Without delay, Dorith opened her rosy mouth speaking sweetly, “you have to order a taxicab for her she can’t possibly walk home.” “Certainly,” Eli replied and then turned to me, “so say good night to everybody like a good little girl.” Again, the door opened to the cold darkness. The sky became overcast, and the stars were nowhere to be seen. A taxicab stopped at Eli's raised hand. Clumsily I entered dragging my painful leg after me. I sat waiting for him to follow, but he only leaned in the window from outside, mumbling, “Do you mind if I don’t come with you? I’ve still to study for a test.” “Don’t mind,” I answered in my new strange voice. To the driver he remarked aloud, “Please bring my friend safely home.” For a minute, I had a glimpse of his white starchy smile. I was in such a haze I barely heard his good night wish and his instructions how to take care of my injury. As the taxi took off, I could see him disappearing at the entrance to “Nitzan”.
The taxi was zooming in the empty streets, driving by apartment buildings, the city park, then traveling leisurely through “Rehavia” in the direction of my home. I lived at the time in a tiny room in a development called “Meonot Ovdim”. When I was inside the room, I filled it from end to end. There was not even enough space to spread out my arms. However, its size was of no importance when compared to its other attributes. For the room faced the “Valley of The Cross”, it had pine trees in the window, and you could smell the resin and sing along with the wind. I did not turn on the light. I sat with palms covering my face, hot with shame.
Of course, that night in Jerusalem I had no way of knowing what was about to happen later, in the then "tomorrow" - which is today's "yesterday". How could I have predicted, even in the wildest speculation that Eli would become quite interested in me, and never stop phoning, asking for dates. How could I have predicted that he would lose favor in my eyes, at the same pace and in direct proportion to my finding favor in his? Perhaps, from the start the charm had not so much to do with the man as with the snow. Those beautiful white flakes confused me, affected my sight. Yet, whatever tipped the scales occurred on the night of my fall, for I was unable to forget Eli’s laughter. Even the slightest smile was enough to distress me. Therefore, even if he were prince charming incarnated it would have been of no help. How can you say to a man,
“You are my ideal mate and I will be your perfect wife,
Only promise not to laugh again ever in your life?”
In years, I came to regard this story of my snowman as an initiation to romantic disillusionment, a preparatory lesson for much more serious cases. The snowman was short lived, so was my crush. The white purity of the snow could not last. It descended pure from heaven, only to become soiled upon touching ground, thus turning from sheer joy to dirty nuisance. The joy was brief, but the dirty piles lasted for quite a while -