Mr. Harlamov was a big man. He was a fearless man too and when he sat himself down at the harmonium (which was a kind of piano played with a foot bellows, or a kind of accordion with legs like a piano’s, an exotic instrument that served as the standard medium of instruction in Music Pedagogy and Appreciation at the Bet Hakerem Hebrew Teachers College of Jerusalem)— when he sat himself down, as big and fearless as a bear tickling a kitten, and picked out the keys with his big, fearless fingers whose palms covered the keyboard while pumping the bellows with his feet, the whole harmonium shook with its wheezing, creaking pedals as if about to give out in one last excruciating and unmusical gasp. Above the crash of its chords, Mr. Harlamov sang in his big, fearless voice. If he hadn’t had to work the pedals he could have easily strode around the room with it instead of intermittently rearing in his seat to scan the class for anyone slacking or off-key, calling out parenthetically to the culprit without breaking the tempo of the song, You there, or That young lady in the back. Which was enough to make whoever it was cringe and join the mighty chorus.
If truth be told, the monumental sight of Mr. Harlamov thumping away at the wheezing harmonium while the class accompanied him at full volume was impressive. It was also comical, mixing giggles into the harmonies whose frequent parentheses were filled with a Hebrew that was far from untainted by Mr. Harlarnov’s big, fearless Russian errors. You please to sing, he would scold. You no laugh, you. And with a scowl he went on adjusting our mighty chorus to his big, fearless notes, hunching over his harmonium and fiercely rearing up to review his troops.
There was really nothing very fierce about him. There was even an inherent good nature that might have prevailed were it not that nothing was as it should have been – neither the poor substitute for a piano, nor our voices that kept going flat, nor our young, grinning faces that showed scant respect for The Heavens Tell The Glory Of The Lord. He was constantly correcting us. C! he would shout. C Major! The more roughshod we ran over the music, the more desperately he increased the volume of the harmonium to salvage what he could of its beauty, doing his best to drown us out while bent over his instrument, a very lonely, uncompromising man.
I never had much luck with Mr. Harmalov. I didn’t even notice it when, while we were singing a choral number one day, he reared up and signalled for silence so that he might spot the villain who was making a mockery of the music. For a moment nothing was heard but my unsuspecting voice, booming out the words of the Internationale. You, Mr. Harlamov whispered in a voice that made the ceiling recoil. You. Mr. Dinburg. Scram you from here! I tell dean he give you boot. I tell you without with no, murder music. I tell, for what I work? And maybe I tell too: if you know what is Russia and what is do to me there, you not sing that song. It wouldn’t have helped if I had sworn on a stack of Bibles that it was only a harmless joke. It wouldn’t even have cleared my own conscience. Why did I do it? Sometimes the only answer is because, and this because was a feeble one. Unless (but this wasn’t something I could have said out loud, not even to myself) it was to make an impression on the flushed wearer of a brown sweater who was singing her heart out next to me.
Little wonder that I received a “D” in music at the end of the term and even that was an act of mercy to the young buffoon on the great man’s part. Next to my “A”s in Bible, Literature, and History, it stood out like a sore thumb. (Not that my Arabic was any better; I flunked with an “F” courtesy of the esteemed and resplendent Jerusalem orientalist, Yosef Yoel Rivlin. And my English too, in the words of Mr. Morris, a short but stern pedagogue whose heels clicked when he walked, left “a great deal to be desired.” To say nothing of math, all my efforts at which satisfied neither the sphinx-like Mr. Hevroni nor the laws of algebra. I didn’t do very well either when I tried pacifying Mr. Harlamov by remarking as I walked beside him, half-running to keep up with his big, fearless steps in the portico flanking the rocky lot that was slated to become an athletics field for our fabled gym teacher Mr. Yekutieli, that I, simple farm boy though I was, was so musically sophisticated that I had actually listened at my friend Habkin’s house to records of Beethoven (mainly the Fifth), Mozart (the E-Minor), and Bach (the Third Brandenburg). At which point I committed the grievous faux pas of adding enthusiastically that I also liked the symphonies of Chopin. Breaking off his fearless stride, Mr. Harlamov threw me a downward, withering glance. Chopin write no symphonies! he said with disgusted finality, walking on to leave me more foolish than ever and unable to explain that I had meant Schumann, and especially the Spring Symphony, which had left me damp- eyed with weltschmerz, most of all for the wearer of a brown sweater whose shy beholder found her more adorable than approachable.
The fact was that all those European names, like Schumann and Chopin, could have confused anybody, especially if he was bad at languages, and most especially if he had an idealistic father who had insisted on speaking only Hebrew at home because that was what a proud Jew should speak. But go explain all that to Mr. Harlamov. The man was as big as the steppes of Russia, where he would have had a great future had not a cruel fate reduced him to a Palestinian music teacher who did not even have a proper piano.
Who could count the times I had been corrected with a tolerant smile by Habkin, who, with his gramophone, his record collection, and his violin, had so much knowledge that, when he wasn’t eking out a living as Professor Gruenfeld’s secretary, he was copying scores in a calligraphic hand I never tired of watching, scrolling clefs and staffs and bars and notes, multi-angled and magical with the secret glyphs of music-making: It’s not Ber Ahms. It’s not Yiddish. It’s Brahms, in a single syllable: Johannes Brahms.
Once, though, it was different. Once, as Mr. Harlamov was playing and singing while we sang along with him, grinning as we sometimes did, we suddenly found ourselves listening as if something were happening and we had to know what it was. All at once, without even a rear or a scowl, Mr. Harlamov was transformed at the faltering old harmonium, which gasped out great chords that seemed beyond its powers of endurance. Something was definitely happening. The chords and music were no longer the same. Although Mr. Harlaniov was still singing and playing while hunched over the keys like a giant snail, or an eagle feeding its fledglings between its talons, the whole class had fallen silent with a great, concentrated attention. He was singing differently too, as though to himself, as though he were alone and had suddenly realized something and didn’t care that no one else knew, or had discovered a new truth that was now coming into focus and of which he only knew meanwhile that it was on its way. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky, in case you’re wondering. It wasn’t Borodin, or Scriabin, or one of your Rimski—Korsakoffs. It was different and special, not yet itself as he sang hunched like a snail in his big voice, which came through slightly muffled but clean the way something sounds when it’s true and you know it’s happening and that he isn’t here and is perhaps more than you always thought, beyond all your stupid jokes when you knew nothing about it.
It was happening to us too, so that, humbled and longing for what we now knew was there and had never known before, we listened with a catch in our throats. It would be easy to spout something about the vast steppes of Russia sobbing in that harmonium, or the Cossacks, or the Tartars, or the cold winds of Siberia, or something of the sort, but it wasn’t that at all. It was only a man singing and you hearing and knowing that was it, a place beyond the class and the room and the Bet Hakerem Teachers College of Jerusalem, something coming from afar that was maybe a bit like the child Samuel when he heard the voice in the quiet of the night the voice that said Samuel Samuel and he answered here I am.
Then there was silence and it was over. Nobody knew \vhat to do next, not even Mr. Harlamov, who finally rose all at once to become as tall as the ceiling and then let his shoulders slump and grew smaller again, his big hands dangling in air. His wiped his big, bald skull with a handkerchief and grew even smaller, and then he turned and walked without a word to the door and turned again when he reached it and waved a limp hand and was gone.
And still no one spoke. A few of us began getting to our feet. One by one, we stooped forlornly out of the classroom. I started down the stairs, not knowing what to say. Which way are you going? asked the girl in the brown sweater, who did not know what to say either. It was such an unanticipated question that the young man it was asked of forgot how long he had been waiting for it, and how many wonderful stories he had told himself about it, and how now that it had happened he had never imagined that it would be like this. They descended the stairs. How about you? he asked with an awkward gesture. I’ll walk you. He couldn’t believe that it was so simple or that he had been so bold. I live quite near here, at the bottom of Hehalutz Street, she said. The Jerusalem cold brought a flush to her cheeks, and when, in her brown sweater, she noticed that he’d noticed, she blushed until she was as red as an autumn apple in a poem. She was so scandalously red that she would have liked to run away, but she raised her collar to blush level and the two of them headed for the steps of Hama’alot Street, skipping down them as if dancing not only because they were so skippety young, but because dance is a wordless art form. Of the sort we’re most in need of at this moment, she added without words, the casuarina trees dripping wet pearls on a rain-washed street that was already Hehalutz. Three or four houses further on they turned to the right and there, on the ground floor, she lived.
They stood there, the rosy girl and the young man with the wild head of hair and the too-slender back. He gives me piano lessons, she confessed. Mr. Harlamov. I didn’t ask for them, but he asked me if I’d like them, and I asked if it wouldn’t put him out, and he said no, he’d be glad to, I had a talent and he didn’t even want to be paid. Believe me, that’s the kind of man he is.
They stood there a while longer without thinking of anything to say, shifting their weight from leg to leg. Then they leaned their arms against a tree, an electric charge flowing between their fingers that were not yet ready to touch. the blush gone from her face that was now simply ruddy with cold. His heart was in his throat. He couldn’t think of a word. It was great, what he played, she said. Tremendous, he said. Utterly fantastic. Extraordinary. Unbelievable. The drops falling from the needles of the casuarina trees were clean and pure enough to drink.
If he were to shake a branch it would shower down on her and make him laugh at her sudden shriek. Well, she said.
Yes, he said. All right, then. She stood a while longer. I guess I’d better turn in. Good night. Good night. And still neither of them made a move to go. Well I’ll see you, she said. She had chestnut hair above the warm brown of her sweater. Look how pearly the raindrops are, he said. Yes, she said. And he said, Yes, well, so long, and she came running back to him and planted a kiss on his cheek and spun around and fled down the stairs.
Incredulous, he stood there, his hand on his cheek. It was too much to take in but there it was.
Like a drunk he staggered up the wet, empty street. under his breath breaking into The Heavens Tell The Glory Of The Lord and then beginning to hum and then to sing until he was roarine like an ox in the sleepy streets of Jerusalem whose good folk he was keeping awake. He wasn’t thumbing a proletarian nose at them, he was simply 1etting them know the great truth newly revealed to him on Hehalutz Street that the heavens told the glory of the Lord. He went on singing even when it began tc rain so wonderfully hard that he only wanted to let it be and to turn cold and wet inside him. He only wanted to sing with the choir— -three, four! “His handiwork is written in the sky.”
*This story is taken from: S. Yizhar, Asides, Zmora-Bitan, 1996.
*The story is published in cooperation with The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.
*Image: Yochanan Simon, “Youth in the Kibbutz”, 1950, (mural on the dinning room, Gan Shmuel)