Helen Bar-Lev was born New York 1942, B.A. Anthropology; in Israel for 40 years, 90 exhibitions of her landscapes, 32 of which were one-person shows. Poems and artwork in numerous online and print anthologies. Website at www.helenbarlev.com Publications include Cyclamens and Swords and other poems about the land of Israel, and The Muse in the Suitcase, both with Johnmichael Simon, illustrated by Helen, In Moonlight the Sky Will Slide with Katherine L. Gordon. Newest collection: Everything Today. Helen is Senior Editor of Cyclamens and Swords Publishing, former editor-in-chief of Voices Israel Annual Anthology. Global correspondent and contributing editor for SKETCHBOOK, A Journal for Eastern and Western Short Forms http://poetrywriting.org/
It is October, 1964 and Naomi is walking from her apartment building on East Seventh Street in Manhattan to her art class at Cooper Union, a short ten-minute walk. She has just begun her studies at that old and respected school, where, a placard informs, Abraham Lincoln once gave a speech. The schedule is four evenings a week, from six to ten p.m. and there are no tuition fees for the lucky one hundred students selected from a group of nine hundred hopeful applicants. She works all week at Pier 32 for an Israeli shipping company, the Zim Lines. Having lived in Israel for a few years right after high school, she is a bilingual secretary for the purchasing department, which supplies all the passenger ships, the S.S. Zion, the S.S. Israel and now the brand new ship, the S.S. Shalom, with food and provisions. The head of the department is an older man who tells bad jokes, speaks atrocious English, and whose hands shake. She works from nine in the morning until five p.m. as do most New Yorkers. As the East Village is not that far from Canal Street by subway, she has time to go home, eat, and change into clothes that can be dirtied in an art class without regret. Every night after class Naomi falls asleep to soothing baroque tones from the classical music station, commercial-free at night.
It is almost six p.m. Naomi is rushing to the nude drawing class. It is raining a fine autumn drizzle, lending a further drabness to the dark-brick buildings. For a second her mind superimposes the whitewashed low buildings and blue skies of Israel on the scene she now views and then she meets Gretchen, a German woman, the oldest in the class at thirty-two. “I’ve repented for my German origins by marrying a Jew” she declares to Naomi and Mike the first time the class meets. Mike, eyes light brown, hair mousy, is the worst student in the class, and, until the end of the semester, will never be able to draw the human figure in its correct proportions.
Naomi is never without a book. Now she is in her Dostoyevsky period, just a few weeks ago finished reading The Idiot, a shorter story she likes better than his long long novels.
On Saturday afternoons she goes to the Bleeker Street Cinema in the West Village. This is a repertory cinema, probably the only movie theatre in New York that shows foreign movies in 1964. She loves this cinema and does not miss a single showing. It makes her feel more international in a city which is trying so hard to be a melting pot, speak with a New York accent, hide its origins. Here she sees Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Camus’ Orfeu Negro (which she saw twice in Jerusalem), and Hiroshima Mon Amour (which she saw seven times in Jerusalem) by Duras. Let’s face it, only a woman could make such a sensitive movie. Naomi is overjoyed one week to see a French movie based on The Idiot. She didn’t know such a movie had ever been made, and it is absolutely faithful to the book.
Sometimes she goes to the Cinema with Peter, a fellow student in the three-dimensional art class at Cooper Union. They discuss the European cinema, which, she declares, depicts reality, mundane humanity, their beauty of spirit, their dignity of suffering. The American film industry, even after Kennedy’s assassination, still believes in beautiful people and happy endings; the acting unconvincing. No one, they agree, is real in American movies, not the gangsters nor the goody-goodies.
She loves her job. Loves the office on the Pier which is spacious and looks out at the ships coming and going, the Rotterdam, the Queen Elizabeth, the Ile de France, majestic. She loves going up on the ships, meeting the officers, chatting with the sailors; she is, though, a bit apprehensive about gangplanks. Four people work in the office, her direct boss, Fabian, born in Hungary, who’s married but has eyes for her, Mr. Simon, a short, round man who stutters and purchases provisions for the freighters, his secretary, Rebecca, a beautiful Mexican widow of thirty with long luxurious black hair who has an eight year old daughter. Naomi and Rebecca look in wonder at the ships as tugboats dock them, love to hear the bellowing of the smokestacks. When Rebecca is busy with the freighters, Naomi is not so busy and is able to help her; when the passenger ships are in the pier, Naomi has much work and Rebecca gives her a hand.
Fabian is thirty-eight years old, skinny, wiry in a definite East European way, takes Naomi for lunch almost every day at a nearby diner, underneath the railroad tracks, just across from the pier. Cockroaches frequent the diner too, but the food is good. When he’s not talking about his love life he tells her war stories. How he escaped from Dachau, joined the partisans. Once, he tells her, right after the war when he was seventeen, he and about six friends went after a German woman; his friends all raped her in turn. He was the last, and couldn’t. Maybe, he asks Naomi, he’s not normal. She replies that he was the only decent one of the lot.
Fabian has two sons by a wife whom he met in a displaced persons camp, a woman with the capacity to climax six times in a row, but Fabian is experimenting, and once a week visits a high-class call girl, to enhance his sexual repertoire and enjoyment. This woman, he tells Naomi, is very particular about her clients and so he feels quite proud in her acceptance of him. He searched her out after Naomi refused to sleep with him. It happened one day when he took her home, miraculously found a parking place, and so she invited him up to see her apartment. He grabbed her, kissed her, the bulge in his pants nearly reaching to his knees. Visions of evisceration in her mind she pushed him away, pushed him out the door mumbling, “No married men”. Afterwards she rushed off to her three-dimensional art class at Cooper Union, grabbed Gretchen in the corridor and told her about what had just happened. Gretchen laughed – this is not a news item worthy of the front page of the New York Times – and the incident was forgotten as Naomi’s soapstone shaped itself into Chocolate-Cat, her feline roommate.
After she began working at the Zim Lines Naomi moved to the apartment in which she now lives on East Seventh Street between First and Second Avenues. A six storey walk-up, it was built about seventy or so years ago during the great influx of immigrants from East Europe. It had been renovated to permit each apartment the luxury of a bathroom whereas originally there had been only one bathroom to the four apartments on each floor. Hers has one bedroom, a kitchen/living room and a bathroom with a checkerboard tiled floor and dilapidated bathtub, sink and toilet. Chocolate-Cat keeps the apartment cockroach- and mouse-free. On Sundays Naomi does a wash at the Laundromat on Second Avenue, where she struggles with the New York Times crossword puzzle while waiting for the washing and drying cycles to complete themselves.
One unusually relaxed noon, Rebecca and Naomi have lunch together at the diner. Naomi asks about Rebecca’s husband and in response Rebecca pulls out a photo from her purse. He is so young here, so Mexican, thick black hair, round black eyes, just slightly crossed, like a baby’s eyes trying to focus. He was so kind, so soft and quiet, had a habit of holding two fingers to his mouth, palm outward, when he read – often poetry. Their daughter was a year old when he died. He had been a longshoreman on one of the piers, fatally injured when a crane struck him. Rebecca didn’t have any clue how to contact his family in Mexico. So she went to church and prayed. And the answer came to her: phone the Mexican embassy, and she was given the information. Naomi says it was a logical step, one she would have taken without the intervention of God. Rebecca nods. She had, in fact, lost faith then, in a just god. That she, twenty-three years old, a widow, began to see God – if he still existed - as a vengeful spy with a celestial telescope, searching out happiness and summarily destroying it. Naomi tells Rebecca that she felt exactly that last year, after Kennedy’s assassination. At the moment she heard of his death, some fragment of youth collapsed inside her and she knew what it was like to be 40, 75, 90 years old, and that sensation froze inside her, so that whereas her chronological age was twenty-two, inside she was every age, and would always be so, and everything fate had planned for her she already knew and would not be surprised.
They sip their tea very slowly; neither wants this intimacy to end. Their bosses are waiting for them to return, but there is more to be said. Once I was religious too, Naomi says in a hush, as though afraid God is listening. My family wasn’t but I was; I liked the warm, holy feeling in the synagogue every Sabbath – I’ve thought that maybe it was a way to legitimately escape my parents’ overbearing authority – one thing I had that they could not invade - I’m still not certain. But then I went to Israel when I was seventeen, on a scholarship, to Jerusalem where the clouds turn red at sunset and the moon is twice as big as it is here – and saw the tens of different sects, each one believing they were following the word of God while all the others were blasphemers. Since all these sects couldn’t all be right, they must all be wrong. And, as you say, if there is indeed a God, would He care about all this nonsense? Does He have nothing better to do than to decide if the most righteous person is the one who waits three hours after eating meat before he eats milk, or the one who waits six? So I decided that I’d continue to be the good me but no longer go to synagogue or do anything to identify myself with religion. The hardest thing was to begin writing and traveling on the Sabbath. Then it was easier.
Rebecca doesn’t date. Naomi does occasionally have a fling. Affairs with sailors are precarious at best, because they love you, leave you for a month or two, and other things and men inevitably intervene, but when they do return they expect time to have stood still. Better to go to the Repertory Cinema with Peter, who has revealed to Naomi that he is infatuated with her well-muscled third floor neighbor named John, and this is the reason he visits so often. For Naomi, any romantic interest would, of course, have to be Israeli. Since it is her destiny to ultimately live in that country, these are the men to whom she must be attracted.
There will never be another ship Naomi will love as much as the S.S. Shalom. Especially the room with cacti and ochre-colored leather chairs. If she could live in that room on dry land she would. There is a Ya’akov Agam painting on the second level; she had never heard of Agam before. It is enormous, placed so that as you ascend the steps you feel you are walking into it. Viewed from three angles, each angle shows a different pattern. Even though Agam’s paintings are more craft than art, she is stunned by this work’s originality and presence. At Cooper Union she will learn to do such work, but will never take it further.
One afternoon with the sun beaming golden ripples onto the East River, Mr. Simon, hearing from Rebecca that Naomi does not own a television set, snickers, you intellectuals are all the same! Naomi hears in his tone: you bugs are all the same, or, you Jews are all the same. But it is a most marvelous revelation. She is not the only one in the world who does not watch television, who is artistic, loves classical music, Dostoyevsky and Thomas Hardy! It is a term that from now on gives her identity, comfort.
The day before the Shalom is scheduled to sail on her first Caribbean cruise there is so much work Fabian asks Naomi to stay late and sleep on board the ship. It is cold in the cabin and she can’t figure out how to raise the thermostat; the sheets are a crispy clean elegant white. Everything about this cabin is elegant. The next morning one of the sailors, Moshe, comes to her outraged: “Why didn’t you tell me you were sleeping on the ship?” She is slim and energetic and independent and replies with a poker face.
This is almost a perfect life, Naomi muses one Sunday, carrying her dry laundry in a pillow case, walking home. Job, school, good people around her. But inside is a sigh, a whisper, relentless, of an ancient city where the stones turn golden at sunset. A niche in which her soul fits perfectly. An indelible speck on the map, a magnet, tugging at her memory. Her destiny.
Two a.m. Thanksgiving Day, 26 November. Naomi awakens after a dream of drowning. Occasionally she has these dreams, which she once read that allergic people have when they can’t breathe in their sleep, but it is past allergy season, she is breathing well. The dream was so frightening and her heart is pounding so loudly, it takes an hour to calm herself until she is able to sleep again. At eight o’clock that morning she is enmeshed in another dream where she is ringing the small bell that hangs on the ship’s upper deck. Someone once took a photograph of her, fingers around the cord, pretending to ring it. In the dream Naomi is ringing it frantically, wanting to stop but cannot because it is her phone that is ringing. It is Mike from her nude-drawing class. There has been an accident, the S.S. Shalom, just yesterday out of New York on its maiden Caribbean cruise, sliced a ship in half at 2 a.m., and she remembers her dreams.
Rebecca is on the ship as a passenger, yesterday so excited about the cruise, dressed in a vibrant pink dress with Mexican embroidery. The cruise is a gift from her parents who are taking care of her daughter. Naomi goes to the Pier by luxury of a taxi. Fabian is surprised; he didn’t phone her so as not to spoil her holiday, he explains. The office is crowded with reporters. The collision was with a Norwegian tanker, the Stolt Dagali. It was foggy, dark, stormy, though when the S.S. Shalom left Pier 32 yesterday the weather was clear, perfect. The sailors lost on that tanker will total nineteen. The religious Jews will say it is divine punishment because the Shalom changed its kitchen over to a non-kosher one for the cruise season.
At three in the afternoon the S.S. Shalom is towed in, a 40 foot gash in her hull. It seems that a thousand people are waiting on the dock. Moshe, the sailor, tells Naomi he was sleeping, heard a loud grating sound, was thrown out of his berth, water began gushing into the cabin. He rushed out and helped pull five of the Stolt Dagali’s crewmen out of the cold waters. He told her that the search beacons could not penetrate the fog, how the ships were tossed up and down in the roiling waters. How dangerous the rescue mission was. He shows Naomi the contusions to his shins, his head.
On the Shalom, it turns out, Rebecca was the only one injured when emergency doors closed on her vise-like. Moshe saw the helicopter evacuate her, unconscious.
Everyone is in shock. It is incomprehensible to Naomi that this perfect ship has become a vessel of death. As though a dybbuk entered it and exited after the accident; the Shalom looks so innocent now, deflated. How could this have happened? The freighters, okay, even the other passenger ships, the Zion, the Israel, okay. But the Shalom, the S.S. Peace? This is wrong.
Normally commanding in appearance, gallant and witty, the Captain and Chief Radio Officer come into the office in a more humble version of their usual swaggering selves. For a split surrealistic instant Naomi asks herself who these people are. The reporters have been drinking coffee, waiting to ask them the expected questions. The phones ring all day, until, after nine p.m., they leave the pier to its rest in the quiet of the river and the night.
When Naomi and Fabian visit Rebecca the next day they do not recognize her. Tubes meander in and out of her body. When she recovers she will return to work, no longer beautiful. She will later tell Naomi that when she felt the doors pressing on her and the pain was unbearable, she felt herself being swept into a long tunnel, an ethereal light at the end. An angel approached, told Rebecca she had died. Rebecca’s soul pleaded with the angel, for the sake of her child, to return her to life. Then she awoke in hospital with a renewed and deeper belief in the God who had saved her.
Naomi is now beginning to grasp the implications of this business called life. All the optimism in the world, the romantic jobs, the excitement of putting brush to canvas and creating a painting, all these things do not prevent catastrophes nor render them easier to accept. That evening after class she speaks with Gretchen, the woman who went through World War II in Germany, who has seen more death and disasters than the loss of a husband, the assassination of a president, the collision of two ships in a fog.
The assassination of perfection, Gretchen says in her soft German accent. Have you seen the pop art, the op art that we’re learning to do in the drawing class? The abstract art hanging in museums? Have you heard the modern music that even classical music stations are playing? This is the reaction of artists to the atom bomb, the holocaust, the incomprehensible. Artists take life to heart more than others, because the sensitivity that enables them to create is the same sensitivity that picks up on the pains and injustices of the world. Creativity mutes this somewhat, because it channels the sensitivity to its rightful place – a work of art… What you are experiencing is the loss of innocence that Hollywood would have us believe exists forever.
Naomi kisses Gretchen in thanks and walks home. It has stopped raining and, nearly midnight now, the streets are deserted and silent. A new moon is straining to make itself noticed. Naomi notices, thinks of Jerusalem’s moon, tugging at her like the tide. Cycles of endings and beginnings.
The S.S. Shalom will be repaired, the cactus room will disappear and become a game room. In three years the ship will be sold to a foreign company. When she reads of this she will cry.
Forty years later in Jerusalem, Naomi, the artist, mother, grandmother, will read a newspaper article about the art treasures of the S.S. Shalom, questioning what happened to them when the ship was sold, especially, what became of the huge Agam…