Kaila (Katherine) Shabat, nee Rubin, born in London in 1947, arrived in Israel as a volunteer after the Six-Day War. She and her husband live in a suburb of Tel Aviv, and have two grown children. Her first book of poetry, ‘Back from Beyond,’ was published in 2008. Many of her poems have been printed in anthologies in Israel and abroad. Her articles and stories have appeared in The Jerusalem Post, ESRA Magazine, The Awakenings Review (Chicago) and in two Israeli anthologies published by Ang-Lit. Press. She is currently bringing out a second collection of poetry, recording favourite songs with a view to a disc, and continues to work on a novel.
“Since our last meeting, Dr. Rosen, my world has changed utterly and can never be the same again. Wonders are being demonstrated to me from moment to moment and like my dreams, I try to record them but they come so fast and furious that I manage to jot down only the essence.”
My mouth is dry and I pour myself a cup of water, which the doctor kindly provides on a small table by my armchair. Behind her desk, at a distance from me, she is making notes. She doesn’t comment and is waiting for me to continue. Her expression is preoccupied under the plain turban, which completely covers her head. Dr. Laurie Rosen is orthodox. Winter and summer she wears an unremarkable long-sleeved blouse and ankle-length skirt. I find it reassuring that her garb never changes like the fact she never cancels an appointment and doesn’t yawn during my long monologues.
She always looks so pleased to see me. For the first moments it seems we both can’t stop smiling. Despite the fact that her body is all bony angles and she has a horsy face with a prominent nose, she is a warm, motherly woman. Indeed, I believe she has six children of her own but she never mentions them.
Clearing my throat, I continue: “I know millions of people are aware of the miracles in their lives and hundreds of thousands of them write books, poems and music in praise of them. I am not remarkable in that respect but I believe that I have been assigned the task of recording and interpreting the wonders in my domestic life. Although I fight flashes of grandeur, the pervading feeling is one of humility: ‘why me?' It is not an arrogant or superior feeling but gentle and accepting. I see myself, as if from outside, as I comply with the exigencies of fate.
“Yet I am fearful of erring, not sure from minute to minute what is expected of me. Unable to trust, I cannot accept that I am ‘in favour.’ I expect, at every moment to discover that a cruel joke is being played on me. There is surely not a more distrustful person than I, trying to be one step ahead and to second-guess Divine intention.”
I stand up, abruptly, and pace around the room. We are in the basement of Dr. Rosen’s modest one-storied house, which I must have practically paid for, with my fees, over the years. It is a cosy room with a number of small, Persian carpets covering the parquet floor and a couch along one wall heaped high with embroidered cushions, like those I stitched in occupational therapy, and with dolls and teddy bears. Dr. Rosen also treats children, but I never think of her as having other patients. I like to imagine that I’m the only one, that her mind is fully occupied with my concerns and my inner world.
“Dr. Rosen, do you believe that, even before we were born, it was inscribed in the Holy Book that you would be my psychiatrist?” say I, testing the waters.
At this, the doctor looks up from her pages.
“I believe you are meant to instruct me in the ways of our faith,” I rush on. “The Sabbath has always eluded me. I cannot find my way through its portals, unable even to light the candles. It seems a travesty to follow that meaningful ritual with my everyday routine. It’s an all or nothing kind of thing."
"You needn’t think in terms of all or nothing,” says Dr. Rosen gently. “Lighting the candles is a lovely tradition. It ushers in a special day, a day that is different from all the other days of the week. Everyone decides how he wants to make it special. As orthodox people we have rules to guide us. I am not the person to give you religious guidance, Mali, but you should light the candles with joy and celebrate the Sabbath in your own unique way.”
“I wish we had talked about this before. I’ve never thought of a compromise. I must tell you that at the moment I’m very concerned with the dietary laws.”
“I wonder why you would worry about that at this stage of your life, when you never have before. If I remember rightly, Mali, your mother didn’t keep a kosher home or even light candles. I wonder if Shimon would welcome such a transformation or if it would harmonise with your lifestyle and your friends.”
“Of course, I don’t want to cause a rift between Shimon and me or separate myself from my friends. After all, many fine people lead good lives but do not observe the dietary laws. I want to find a middle way that is right for me. On the one hand I know it is supreme arrogance to question the Jewish heritage from the beginning of time but on the other hand, I understand that the laws are based on the premise: one should not cook a kid in its mother's milk. In biblical times, that was a distinct possibility but today, with mass production, there is no way that could happen.
“I can’t decide what form my observance should take. I learnt some blessings as a child when my brother was Bar mitzvah, but I feel self-conscious saying them. I wonder, perhaps I should just give praise in my heart. Then a poet friend, also groping for understanding, tells me how meaningful she finds saying the blessing upon washing hands.”
“Tell me, why you are suddenly concerned with these matters?”
“Because I believe, Dr. Rosen, that I am to represent the Jewish people on the stage of world peace.”
“Yes, I see now. Your unexpected e-mail a few weeks ago was beautiful and dramatic but it disturbed me. I thought Mali is a bit high. Tell me about your role."
“I know this sounds crazy but I am being made to understand that I am a prophet, maybe even The Prophet.”
There is a long pause while Dr. Rosen attempts to field that pronouncement.
“Do you know it is written that the age of prophets ended at the beginning of the construction of the Second Temple, with the prophet, Malachi?” she offers.
“But this is the new era, the era of miracles. You just have to blink your eyes once and look around at the beauty, the bounty, the technology and the endless possibilities for pleasure and fun.”
“That is a positive view of the world, Mali, but the mission you describe is unrealistic. Let me adjust your medication slightly and help you return to us on planet earth.”
That causes me extreme anxiety and I can hear my voice becoming strident:
“No, I won’t agree to that. The present cocktail is adequate, tailor-made for me by a specialist. Why do you always change my medication when I’m feeling at my best? This time, I’m not going to let you dispel my dream. I can refuse to take additional medication, can’t I?”
"I strongly recommend that you accept my advice. When did I ever put you wrong, Mali? You should be able to trust me after all these years. I’ll write you a prescription and we’ll make an appointment for next week.”
I accept the prescription meekly, loathe to increase the dose yet fearful not to follow her instructions. Distracted, I forget to write Dr. Rosen a cheque when I leave her office.
After my meeting I spend most of the day trying to write. Exhaustive renovation work is taking place on the houses on either side of mine and the noise is unbearable. I behave like a crazy woman, rushing round the house swearing, slamming all the windows shut and playing the Max Bruch violin concerto at full volume on the CD player in my studio.
In the late afternoon, after sending off Dr. Rosen’s fee, I walk up to the supermarket for my weekly purchases. As I walk into the store, the shouts and cries of a gang of toddlers assail me, obviously on a group shopping expedition with their mothers. The children are demanding chocolate milk with raucous repetition and flinging bananas and bamba from their carts. One vomits in front of me, barely missing my shoe. At that moment a crowd of teenagers runs through the aisles and jostles me. My nerves are frazzled to breaking point. I feel I am going to scream.
I desperately need a fix and reckon chocolate might do the trick. Abandoning my cart, I almost run to the sweets section, knowing exactly what I crave. I have a penchant for those little white and milk chocolate balls with a crispy filling. I pick up a packet, then indecisive, replace it, deeming it inappropriate to go to the cashier with an open or empty wrapping.
Heart pounding, I pick up the weekly pack of hard candies, which are ruining my teeth. Below the candies, on a shelf, alone, sits a packet of my favourite chocolates, slit down the side, with the small white and milk chocolate balls streaming out. I grab a handful of the little sweets and greedily crunch them while looking for my cart. Making repeated forays to the shelf, I snatch refills, my nerves quieting.
Dr. Rosen would surely have a rational explanation. She would say it was hindsight. When I saw the open packet I decided that was what I wanted. Or that I myself opened the packet because I was in such a state. But I know that I have been shown yet another wonder. The angels are watching over me and offer me manna from heaven when I am in need.
I am tempted to tell this inspiring tale to Shimon when he arrives home, but I know I must restrain myself. He knows nothing of what is going on or about my special role. He would have been horrified to hear my conversation with Dr. Rosen this morning. In a way I am being deceitful but I am protecting both him and myself. If he knew, he would be scathing and try to bring me down but he would also be terribly worried, as I have had such experiences in the past that ended badly. However, this time it’s different, I know it is. This time it’s real.
After supper, Shimon settles down to a basketball match on the television and I go up to my studio to write my journal. What began as a means to teach myself to write now hampers me in my efforts at creativity. I am obsessed with recording the every day. Life streams onwards faster than I can capture it on my pen. I would like to tell it all, but I can’t. I feel like an artist with a huge canvas and I have to fill every millimetre.
Sublime music accompanies me as I write. For years I had no music in my head or in my heart, although my childhood and youth were steeped in music. My father was a professional violinist and my mother loved opera – her mother was an opera singer. I also studied piano for many years. For decades I rarely even heard music; it was an irritating background noise for my deafening thoughts. I read somewhere that writers should work to the accompaniment of Mozart and, for a while, I tried to create to the melodic sounds on the radio. However, the din of words in my head still overrode my enjoyment of music.
Then, a friend, a concert pianist, sent me her rendering of the Scarlatti Sonatas. I played it over and over quietly, while I was writing, mainly because it was her work and her gift. It succeeded in reawakening my love of classical music, which had been dormant for so many years. Shimon bought me a selection of discs and my life was never the same again.
The contribution of classical music to my elevated mood is significant. Throughout the day, the house resounds with Bach Cantatas, the Beethoven Violin Concerto and works of Vivaldi. I listen to discs in my workroom and, as I toil in the kitchen, the Voice of Music blares out from the radio. The sounds reverberate in a place deep down inside me and now I know what people feel when they hear music.
Yet a disturbing phenomenon threatens to spoil my pleasure. Every so often one of my discs emits a jarring cacophony instead of sublime tones. It appears to me that, in this way, ‘the one who guides me’ is showing his disapproval or giving me his instructions. On Friday night, for example, as I prepare for bed, I play my ‘Beatles’ disc as a joyful accompaniment for the Sabbath. However, it begins to screech terribly and I don’t know what I have done to displease. At a loss, I replace it with a Bach Cantata I find waiting on top of the pile, which, in fact, finds favour.
One after another, my discs are affected. Almost tearing my hair, I bewail the loss of my lovely music. I can no longer interpret the meaning behind the discord in the individual discs. What a harsh punishment is being inflicted on me in an effort to break my spirit!
Shimon says he’ll buy me a new CD player. Does he really believe that is the solution?
Sitting at my desk, after breakfast I work on a story about a shopping spree, which I want to submit to a literary journal in England.
By my pen, I notice a single, oblong, pink pill, my nightly anti-psychotic. It surprises me because, although I consider my medication an integral part of my creativity and prepare my organiser at my desk, it was over a week ago. I look at the little pill, puzzled. Then, amazed, it occurs to me. It is there to remind me, of what I had completely forgotten: to fill Dr. Rosen’s prescription for additional medication. I am filled with excitement. The wonders continue to manifest themselves.
I suppose Dr. Rosen would say that this was a matter of my associations, nothing mystic at all, but as a religious person, how can she not believe that we are guided? Without knowledge of ritual, Torah or Kabala, I have been granted that insight, yet she treats it as psychosis.
I decide to phone her to make sure she received my cheque. She sounds harried and says, only, that she saw a letter from me a couple of days ago but hasn’t opened it yet. She curtails the conversation with her customary: “Be well.”
I take a deep breath, open a new document on the computer and let my fingers fly.
“Dear Dr. Rosen,
I have never been angrier or more disappointed in you.I know you are a busy doctor and I’m not your only patient, but I thought you respected me. Yet, you don’t bother to open my letter, allow a day or two to pass. I know you used to do that but I thought I had your attention by now. The reason I phoned you was to make sure you had received my cheque, not to find out whether you had read one of my journal pages. You must know by now that I don’t hassle you, I never have. I am really upset. I am aware I shouldn’t send this letter in the white heat of the moment but I’m going to do it anyway.”
Without a second glance, I seal the page in an envelope and affix a stamp. Printing out a copy on a used sheet for my box file of letters to Dr. Rosen, I am stunned to notice on the back a poem entitled ‘The Peacefully.’ It was written by a young Israeli poet in my poetry group.
Let’s make a refrain from
speaking to silence
the high voices of war.
Maybe the quiet will win and we
can listen to the newly
hawk-moth flutter peaceful.
The meaning is clear. Don’t send out words of war. Keep silent and work in peace. In my heart, I thank my friend for his words and am full of wonder at the opportune moment at which they came to my attention. I tear up the letter to Dr. Rosen, which would have destroyed my peace of mind as it made its way to her and then after.
There are still two months before Passover but recently, I have been waking at 2 am, after about three hours sleep, full of energy with an urge to put my house in order. I’m usually a slovenly housewife, preferring to spend time at the computer.
As streaks of rose tint the sky, I sort some washing and experiment with how to return Shimon’s underwear to its original white, having dyed it pink. While I’m about it I wash some of my new underwear by hand, admiring the sexy lacy items, unlike anything I’ve ever owned. Then, I decide to go back to bed for an hour so that Shimon can wake with me by his side.
This morning, after my swim, I join my first Yoga class. I usually find any sort of exercise class boring, but these days I am feeling so athletic and full of energy that I enrol also in a Pilates group and begin to work out, daily, on the equipment in the gym. If I am honest, much of my motivation springs from my flattering new training outfits.
Today I have arranged to meet Isabel from my writing group, in a Tel Aviv cafe for lunch and critique on my shopping story.
Because I do not run my own car, I allow myself to take the occasional taxi. When I was twenty, before my problems started, I drove a second-hand Morris Minor. Behind the wheel I was, all at once, a grown-up. Nothing else gave me that feeling of having joined the adult world, not even sex. Despite that, I have never regretted giving up driving. Continued medication and sudden bursts of high mood would, I feel, have put me and my family at risk.
I become a completely different person as I strap myself in beside the taxi driver. I can be whomever I want – usually I’m a famous novelist, back from a book signing in New York. The taxi is my stage and also my laboratory for there is the added excitement of getting to know a new character.
Today's driver is obese. His seat is pushed back to its limit to accommodate his bulging belly. He looks uncomfortable and I pity him having to spend his days squeezed in that small space. As I smooth a hand over my flat midriff in smug satisfaction, a whiff of stale cigarette smoke assails my nostrils, indicating that my driver is addicted not only to food.
After I have told him my destination, a cafe on Sheinkin Street, we sit without speaking for a while. I am thinking how I can start a conversation about my favourite topic - me. I always carry a poem or two in my bag in the hope of an opportunity to recite one to my driver, which gives me an energy boost.
It doesn't look as if I will have much luck with this driver. His supervisor is blasting instructions over the intercom and the radio is broadcasting a boring political debate. This is my worst possible scenario: a mindless din. I ask the driver to please turn down the volume. I’m a writer, I tell him. Noise disturbs me.
At this moment his cell-phone rings. For twenty minutes, in a booming voice, repeating his directions over and over, he conducts his sister, obviously a moron, to the train station from her home. I cringe, grinding my teeth, almost tearing my hair. I sense my brain cells are being invaded.
I consider noise a violent act, a violation of my space. Maybe other people don't notice it or are not affected by it, but modern life consists of constant clamour. Even in our placid district, lawn mowers, hedge cutters, false alarms, the garbage truck on its rounds and dogs’ constant barking make my life a misery. Worst of all is my neighbour's mid-life crisis, which he revs up in front of my gate morning and evening.
The driver finishes his conversation with his sister just as we arrive at the cafe.
"This is the worst taxi ride I've ever had," I hiss, fuming. "I suffered all the way. My nerves are shattered. You have such a terribly loud voice.”
"What could I do?” he says, looking surprised. “I had to help my sister.” “How much do I owe you?" I ask in an icy tone.
I imagine he will waive the fare or at least charge me less, but no, he takes the full price. Slamming the taxi door, I mentally turn the page to my rendezvous with Isabel.
I’m habitually early for meetings and Isabel is always late, so I settle down in one of the comfortable armchairs in 'The Writer’s Cafe’ and unwind. The walls are lined with books and, at several tables, people are writing on laptops. It was here that I met Isabel for the first time. I had just finished my first short story. Nursing a cappuccino, I was going over my manuscript and feeling like a real writer when she asked me to lend her a pencil. That meeting was definitely ‘meant to be.’ Isabel read my story, edited it and, soon after, introduced me to her writing group.
Isabel breezes into the cafe. “Sorry I’m late, as usual,” she says breathlessly, tossing her streaked pageboy to reveal enormous earrings. Recently, she celebrated her fiftieth birthday but she looks ten years younger in her jeans. I struggle out of my armchair to give her a hug.
“You’ve lost a lot of weight, Mali, it suits you.”
“And you look stunning as usual. I love the chunky gold jewellery. Did you buy it on one of your trips?
“You know I like to treat myself well. I’m dependent on no one. ”
“You are, indeed, a free spirit, Isabel.”
“Let’s order, then we can talk,” she says signalling the waitress. More than her beauty and her vivaciousness, I envy Isabel her self-confidence. She is always in control. People pay attention to her.
“I’ve had a hectic, but most successful, year” she enthuses. ”The antique business is booming. After the Maastricht Fair in March, I exhibited in London in June, in Paris in September and New York in October. It’s a shame dear Paul didn’t live to see it.”
“When do you find time to write?”
“Actually, I had writer’s block for months. After a long dry spell, I’ve written a new story. I’d like you to read it, if you don’t mind, while I read yours.”
We finish our lunch and settle down to each other’s stories. Isabel’s tale is amusing, ironic, satiric and beautifully written, as always, and I tell her so.
“I’ve submitted it to the Avon Literary Review in Chicago” she says. “With my strings and a dash of sex appeal, I am sure I can get it published.”
I don’t know why that disturbs me, but I half-hope she won't succeed. Why am I so mean-spirited? Instead of giving her the support she gives me, I begrudge her success with her story. We are in different spheres and there’s plenty to go around. I have ambivalent feelings like that with all my writing friends. I’m like a fat little boy with his hands on both sides of a huge bowl of ice cream guarding it so his siblings can’t get a taste.
“I love your story, Mali,” she says, making me feel worse. “You are making great headway. I’m so proud of you. It’s a wonderful example of theme being expressed through character. I realise that you are talking of yourself in this shopping spree fantasy. How is your mood problem these days?"
I must have been keeping myself on a tight rein during our literary lunch because all at once I let go and begin to spout about the miracles, about my role as the prophet and my bid for world peace. I am at my most convincing, energised by my friend’s good opinion of my work. Isabel’s eyes glisten with unshed tears. I imagine that she is overcome by the wonders of the new era, then I realise it is pity that I see. She thinks I’m crazy. It is like a cold shower. With difficulty, I pull myself together and tell her it’s time I set off home.
I feel disorientated when I leave Isabel outside the cafe, unable to remember what, exactly, I told her. I sense disapproving vibes from the one who guides me for divulging secrets of the upper realm.
After my bad experience with the taxi, I decide to take the bus home. I walk past the extensive mall on the way to my stop and, on an impulse, go inside. I’m not in the mood to buy anything, but I walk through the store as if I have a goal and find myself at the cinema. Although, I’ve hardly ever been to the cinema alone, I decide, spontaneously, to see a film. I ask the cashier what is playing and she indicates three films. As I rarely read a newspaper or take any interest in current cultural events, I am not familiar with any of them, but the title ‘Copying Beethoven,’ appeals to me. At two minutes to four I buy a ticket. The film is due to start at 4 p.m.
The cinema is completely empty. I sit down with the sensation that this is a performance for me alone and I have been brought here specially. Before the film starts, I phone Shimon to let him know that I’ll be home late and to apprise him of my amazing situation. He says simply: ‘Enjoy.’
“The music was, of course, magnificent.” I tell him over supper. “When Ed Harris’ (Beethoven) played familiar piano concertos, I could feel my fingers pounding the computer keyboard to the same strains. For me, the climax of the film came when ‘Beethoven,’ half-crazy, rails at God for infesting his mind with music and allowing him no peace. I have to say that I identified with him. Indeed, I can often imagine going insane from the cacophony of words that overwhelms me.”
“How you exaggerate your own importance, Mali. That’s what Dr. Rosen would call delusions of grandeur, comparing yourself to Beethoven, no less. You also mention your journal in the same breath as that of Leo Tolstoy and let’s not forget, last summer, in France when you adopted Leonardo da Vinci’s musings as your own.”
Indeed I found our visit to Clos Luce, where Leonard da Vinci spent his last years, especially inspiring. I knew him as an illustrious painter and inventor but was unaware that he was also a poet and philosopher until I came across his framed thoughts on the walls of his last home. Fascinated, I delayed Shimon’s progress through the museum, while I copied them in my notebook and took them to my heart.
“How unkind you are, to quote Dr. Rosen at me! I am aware of my limitations: that I’m an ordinary housewife driven to document a life, which is probably of no interest to anyone. I don’t visualise fame and fortune. Mainly I just aspire: aspire to produce something beautiful, to do the best work I can do, to leave something behind to show for my life.
“I don’t want to be driven by ambition or to be boastful, as I often am, almost against my will. I don’t want to have to question whether it is pointless or even pathological to write my journal. I feel it is what I should be doing, just as it feels right when I am writing a poem or developing my book. I love to write. It can’t be wrong.”
“That’s what you should be doing, Mali, writing. Instead you’ve become a compulsive housewife. You’re cleaning all day and half the night, straightening my cupboard every time I leave it, folding my socks and pants into regimented piles. I hate it. You’ve never done that before. And I can’t find anything in the kitchen. What are you playing at exactly?”
“Why do you criticise me all the time? I’m intent on organising my home so I can settle down to write with an uncluttered mind. I expected you’d be pleased, not attack me. Anyway, the house is my domain.”
“I don’t know much about psychology, Mali, except what I have learned from living with you all these years, but something is going on. You’ve become someone else. I don’t know you.”
“You are so hurtful. You’ve never been like this before. Just when I need your love and support, you turn against me.”
“Actually, I’ve been very tolerant. You’re spending a lot of money, which we can’t afford. I must admit that I considered withdrawing your credit card to save us from catastrophe but I decided not to play the heavy husband.”
“You know I hate to talk about money.”
“I know you have no idea how overdrawn your account is.”
“I can’t deal with this Shimon, I’m going to bed.”
Shimon slips into bed, after midnight, having been mesmerised by hours of TV and falls asleep immediately. I feel free to start my day, without chastisement, with a cup of caramel and vanilla tea (an acquired taste) and the usual small bowl of dried fruits.
I sit in front of the computer and prepare for a lengthy e-mail session with Dr. Rosen. I have always dreamed of having access to her e-mail.