By Emanuela Barasch Rubinstein
Jerusalem is most beautiful in the autumn. In the evening a grey purple light envelops the city, the air is so lucid you can almost see it, heavy clouds move across the sky and light winds rattles branches scorched from summer heat. Grass that has turned yellow, flowers withering in the dry heat, thorns covering the hillsides all bow their heads and surrender to the pure air and soft light. The stone buildings look lighter; dark alleys appear slightly festive; the hills around the city are kindled with a dim glow.
I ran into Luisa this morning. She smiled at me bashfully, and I said hello. We live on opposites sides of Emek Refaim Street, in the German Colony in Jerusalem. I am sixty-three years old, she is sixty. I am short and round, she is a tall, erect woman. I walk slowly, stop once in a while, and then I continue walking. She takes long steps, wondering if there is a shortcut. I am suspicious, one can’t be too careful, especially with older women. She is smiling and inviting, fearlessly talking to strangers.
Actually, that’s how we met, Luisa and I, in early autumn. I was carrying heavy baskets with fruits and vegetables—I buy so much food when my son comes for a visit on the weekend. Though the grocery store is close to my house, I could barely carry the bags all the way. As I walked slowly, I suddenly felt there was a huge shadow behind me; for a moment I thought clouds were obscuring the sun. I was alarmed, I thought maybe someone was going to attack me, but immediately I scolded myself: no one assaults people like that on Emek Refaim Street. I put the heavy bags down on the pavement and turned to see who was standing behind me. Brown brogues under a long gray dress made of thick fabric, a tall wide feminine body and a face surrounded by a Christian headdress. Ah, I got it, she was a nun from the Borromean Sisters’ convent, in nearby Lloyd George Street. She smiled at me, her eyes bright, and suggested, in English with a heavy foreign accent, that she help me carry the bags.
I found her suggestion strange. For a moment I thought I may have been wrong about her age. Her skin was so pale, as if it had never been touched by the sun, which burns here mercilessly in the summer. Small dark eyes, full brows curving above the eyes and dropping almost to the cheekbones, a cheeks too smooth, almost lifeless, and a slightly fleshy mouth – all encircled by a nun’s wimple, white and grey. Since not even a single hair could be seen and the nun’s body, even her neck, were completely covered, the features seemed somewhat bizarre, somewhat mysterious.
“No, thanks, I’ll manage,” I heard myself saying, though I did wonder how I would pick up the bags; the apples almost falling on the sidewalk. She smiled, revealing slightly crooked teeth, offered again to help, and as I refused said, “Well, see you, we are neighbors, aren’t we?” and disappeared.
This encounter with the nun kept bothering me. A sort of annoying mosquito, which keeps buzzing in spite of the rapid hand gestures pushing it away. Maybe she wanted to know where I live? And why “see you”? Why would we meet again? More questions kept coming up, each one generating others, which seemed even more complicated. That Saturday I told my son and daughter-in-law about the nun. My son dismissed my agitation, saying, “it’s nothing really, somebody offered help, that’s all.” But my daughter-in-law, a secular woman from a religious family, inquired about the details. “You need to be very careful,” she kept saying, though she didn’t explain how exactly an encounter with the nun might be dangerous.
Two weeks later, as I was walking with my grandson on Emek Refaim Street, the nun suddenly appeared. “Hello,” she said very pleasantly, as though we had known each other for a long time, smiling at my grandson and asking sweetly how old he was. Sagi scrutinized her, holding my hand tightly, and after she left he whispered in my ear: “Grandma, why is that woman wearing such a long dress? And why is a handkerchief on her head?” I suggested we have ice cream in the next coffee shop, ignoring his questions. I found her display of joy in meeting me disturbing, but said nothing. Sagi and I had our ice cream and watched the passers-by. He was staring at them with a dreamy look, while I focused on every one, examining their faces, hair, dress. At this afternoon hour the street was crowded. A pleasant autumn wind shook the branches of a pine tree casting its shadow on the coffee shop, birds huddled on the iron fence around it, and people with thin sweaters were walking by in the street. When we left the coffee shop Sagi took my hand, and so we strolled home, very slowly.
In the following weeks I met the nun almost every day, probably because I broke my years-old routine and went shopping in the morning. For years I had gone to the small grocery store down the road, to the greengrocery shop and sometimes to the bookstore on Emek Refaim Street. A routine born out of distress — my late husband had been ill for years, and I left him alone at home only in the evening when he was napping — became instinct, even after his death. But lately, I have woken up early in the morning with a strange desire to do something new, to break a habit, to find a corner of a street I have never seen before.
I leave early in the morning and buy freshly made bread. The scent of loaves just out of the oven inspires giddy happiness. I add fresh cheese, sometimes even a cup of coffee from the coffee shop near the corner. I have a sort of desire to explore pleasure. And, as I was walking down the street, excited by this unfamiliar indulgence, I would encounter the nun.
She now addressed me directly, introduced herself — Luisa — shook my hand, lingering to talk, as though it was clear we would make conversation.
“Hello, neighbor, how are you?”
I heard the heavily accented English and saw a smile spreading over her very fair face, untouched by the sun’s rays. I replied politely. I disregarded my natural distrust, my fear of strangers, and made conversation. Almost every morning we discussed the weather, products in the grocery store, the road works that make it practically impossible to cross the street. Luisa inquired about Sagi, how old he was, how often does he come for a visit, where does my son live. Loneliness is more compelling than natural vigilance. Then, one day, as we were deep in conversation, standing on the street, Luisa suddenly said, “Why don’t you visit me, at the convent?”
The Borromean Sisters never walk around Emek Refaim Street. Secluded in the convent surrounded by a high stone wall, they are never seen. Luisa’s invitation took me by surprise. For a moment a thought appeared that maybe she was not really a nun, but it was immediately ruled out.
“I don’t know, I am not sure where it is.” Hollow, meaningless words came out of my mouth, my gaze traveling to a bus parked in the stop, the nearby bakery, and then to a group of girls chattering loudly. When I turned and looked at Luisa, I saw a touch of laughter in her dark eyes, maybe even mischief; for a moment she seemed like a little girl resisting an urge to break into laughter.
“Well, then, tomorrow at four o’clock in the afternoon? Come to the brown door in Lloyd George Street, I’ll be waiting for you,” she said smiling and left.
In the evening I cooked as I haven’t done for years. I always prepare food when my son and his family come for the weekend, but this time I made eight different dishes, running around, pulling baked dishes out of the over, stirring the stew, kneading the dough, calculating quantities — moving frantically around the kitchen. When I was done cooking I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in the living room, without drawing the blinds or turning off the lights.
When I woke up the next morning I felt something was wrong but couldn’t remember what it was. I tried to recall what had happened yesterday, but in vain. Something took place, but I wasn’t sure what. Only as I saw the many dishes I had prepared did Luisa’s invitation surface. In an instant the convent materialized in my mind: high stone wall around it, no one seen entering or leaving, dark prayer rooms, solemn-looking nuns, long narrow corridors leading to obscure places, a dining room smelling of simple food, and cold air filling the entire space. I considered avoiding the visit altogether. Well, I couldn’t telephone the convent. Maybe I simply wouldn’t go, and when I meet Luisa I will say I wasn’t feeling well. Or perhaps I will say my son suddenly came for a visit, and there was no way to let her know. Various excuses came up and were then ruled out, and each pretext seemed utterly ridiculous.
I was standing by the window, looking outside and thinking about the upcoming visit. A hoopoe bird hopped on branches of a high pine tree, soft grey clouds covered the sky and a pleasant light-filled the street. Fear, that’s all, fear is stopping you, a thought surfaced and disappeared. In the house across the street, a gardener was working in the yard, pulling weeds and planting flowers. A bus moved along the street. An old women walked slowly on the pavement; she stopped every now and then, looked at the street, and then went on. I will meet Luisa at the convent, fearlessly pay her a visit and then forget about it. I will dare to look at all those dark rooms, thank her, and be on my way. And when I meet her on Emek Refaim Street we will chat amiably, and I won’t lower my eyes with embarrassment.
That day, at four o’clock in the afternoon, I walked slowly towards the brown door in the stone wall. Trees shaded the houses the Templars had built more than a century ago in the German Colony, rustling in the wind, yet an eerie silence filled the street. When I reached the brown door I wasn’t sure what to do. There wasn’t a doorbell and I didn’t know if I should knock, but to my surprise Luisa opened it, smiling and inviting me in.
I stepped on a stone path after her, passing lush greenery, and went into a narrow hall that led to a very small room, a sort of entrance hall with nothing but an old wooden bench. An old nun sat there, as though she was expecting me. Short and chubby, her round face wrinkled, the corners of her mouth pulled down, wearing glasses with a heavy old black frame.
“This is Mother Superior,” Luisa introduced her, and turned to her and said, “this is my friend.” The loose handshake and the suspicious gaze were unpleasant, so different from Luisa’s welcoming nature. The Mother Superior inquired whether I live in the neighborhood, if I have family, how old are my son and grandson, when did my husband pass away, do I manage by myself, and more and more questions. Finally, she asked if I go to the synagogue.
I couldn’t catch my breath. The room suddenly seemed obscure, the bench casting a shadow on the floor, and now I observed a spider web in the corner. Even Luisa’s face became grave. “No, I am not religious, I am a secular Jew,” I said, making an effort to look straight into the Mother Superior’s eyes. But she was indifferent to my response. Immersed in thought she added, “But you do pray sometime?”
“Pray? I don’t know. When my husband was dying I prayed.”
“And you asked God to help you?”
“I asked that if he must die he be spared terrible suffering.”
She said nothing more. We were silent, the Mother Superior sitting and Luisa and I standing. In a moment I would have apologized, said I must return home, but before I managed a word she said, “Luisa will show you the convent. We have a school for sick, invalid children. We try to help them as much as we can.” She shook my hand and disappeared into one of the corridors.
Luisa turned to a dark narrow passageway, and I followed her. Again I was about to apologize and leave, but I thought it would be very rude to go now. The ceiling was low, chilly air filled the passage as we walked step after step, my heart pounding, and then we reached a heavy wooden door. Luisa pulled it and we went outside.
Bright light hit me as we entered the inner courtyard. I was overwhelmed by the abundance of trees, tall bushes, flowers everywhere, all turning their heads to the sun. Radiance filled the garden surrounded by a stone wall. Little round pebbles covered the ground, climbing plants clung to the walls, reaching for the sky, green branches shaded the open space, instilling a peaceful and pleasant atmosphere.
As I was standing there, astonished, attempting to see every detail and every corner, Luisa kept explaining: we run an elementary school, most of the children are handicapped, they come from Arab villages around Jerusalem. And here, in the building facing us, there is a very modest guesthouse, with a handful of visitors. And some people simply live here. Here, can you see the old man watching us from the porch? He is a Holocaust survivor, very ill, we take care of him.
A sound of creaking wheels came from behind us, disturbing the peaceful silence. From a hidden corner came a boy of about six or seven years old, limping heavily but pushing a wheelbarrow full of plants. As he saw Luisa, a broad smile spread on his face and he said hello. She introduced him, “this is Said, our most gifted gardener,” fondling his hair and sending him on his way. Following him came a group of children, almost all of them handicapped: a limping girl, a boy with a paralyzed hand, two boys who were partially blind. They all smiled at us, their faces full of light and happiness, devoid of darkness and bitterness. A nun walked behind them, and she also greeted me with a pleasant smile.
As I walked home I felt as if my feet weren’t touching the ground. The bright faces of the handicapped children were imprinted in my memory, and now I thought of each one of them, walking and singing, the nuns looking after them. I retained the light of the convent within me: its grace touched me, expanding an inner space, cheering unknown corners. I strolled home in the twilight, walking slowly, thinking about my visit. I have never noticed that the street lights in Emek Refaim Street cast such a warm pleasant glow, I thought, and that the houses made of Jerusalem stone look so cool and inviting in the evening.
When I told my son – I called him immediately after I got home – he seemed a bit worried.
“You went to the convent? Why? I don’t understand.” He was surprised that the nuns had invited me. On the weekend, when he came with his family he inquired again about the visit. I told him about the happy handicapped children and the beautiful garden. His wife kept warning me, saying, “you better watch out, you never know what they are really up to,” but I calmed them, promising to be very careful. I placed the many dishes I had prepared on the table, and they ate them heartily.
I went to the convent for four weeks, once a week, every Thursday afternoon. At four o’clock Luisa was expecting me behind the brown door, inviting me in, and I followed her gladly, eager to play with the children and enjoy the peaceful garden. The children greeted me with cries of joy, sitting next to me, leaning against me, touching my clothes, asking my name, where do I live, what’s my grandson’s name. The smiling faces around me, the tranquility of the garden, the plants with such a pleasant scent – being at the convent was so delightful. Luisa sat next to me, and sometimes the teacher would join us. After about two hours I said farewell and the children left for their homes. If I could I would have stayed there longer. I always left in high spirits. A new happiness, an almost childish joy, filled me. On the way home I stopped at the deli and bought some delicacies.
By the fifth week in which I went to the convent it was late autumn, or rather early winter. Luisa asked that I come on Friday since she was busy on Thursday. The children came to the garden wearing jackets, laughing and playing as usual, happy to see me. Heavy clouds covered the sky and a cool wind rattled the high bushes. Some flowers had withered, and the children picked them and placed them in the wheelbarrow.
As Luisa and I were sitting on the bench, the Mother Superior appeared. Luisa stood up as she saw her approaching. She announced that now it was prayer time. The children immediately stood in line. I was about to apologize, I didn’t know, I was just leaving – and Luisa, seeing how embarrassed I was, was about to say something too. But the Mother Superior turned to me and said, “Maybe you want to pray with us?”
“Why don’t you come and pray with us?”
Behind the heavy glasses I saw small penetrating eyes, observing me intensely, waiting impatiently for my response. It seemed she felt my presence there was inappropriate if I wasn’t going to join in the prayer.
“I’m Jewish. I told you this when I first came here.”
“What difference does that make?”
“I don’t pray in a church.”
“God is the same god.”
I stood up, my body tense and stiff, and the Mother Superior stood facing me. The children surrounded us, watching worriedly. Again Luisa almost said something, but the Mother Superior gestured with her hand that she should not interrupt and so she was silent, lowering her gaze to the ground. A strong gust of wind swung the wooden door leading to the garden, and it slammed hard. Dry leaves fell off the trees, spreading in the garden. The stone wall surrounding the convent seem dark and alarming. Behind the heavy glasses I saw eyes looking at me, apprehensive and unsparing.
“I am sorry. I am leaving.”
“Why are you here?”
“I came for a visit.”
“Then join our prayer.”
When the brown door closed behind me my heart was pounding and I could hardly stand. I began to walk without knowing where I was heading. Step after step, I saw almost nothing except for the pavement. The wind was blowing my hair, my jacket wasn’t keeping me warm, but I kept walking, trying to erase the humiliation. The condemning gaze of the Mother Superior, cold and condescending, the children who immediately took a step back, Luisa lowering her gaze and blushing. My friendship with her, the enchanted garden, the children with glowing faces – they all turned into an obviously grave mistake, which everyone besides me had seen.
I started northward on Emek Refaim Street, trying to contain my rage. I could see the Old City in the distance. Friday prayer hustle echoed from the mosque afar, the remote voice of a muezzin came from the other side of Gehenna Valley. The thick wall surrounding the Old City curved up the hill between olive trees, the brush on the hillside withered to brown, and on the road a group of Orthodox Jews were walking.
The clouds turned bleak and threatening. Huge drops of water falling from the sky left round spots on the ground; they multiplied rapidly and turned into heavy rain. Dark light enveloped the city, the water flowed from the mountains and rushed down the hillsides. The scent of summer dust washing away filled the air, and the Jerusalem stone houses seemed oppressive, shedding their autumn cloak and adopting the austere uncompromising appearance of winter.
Cover photo: Jérusalem. Une rue de Jérusalem et entrée du Grand Couvent, Louis de Clercq, 1860 or later. Courtesy of the MET.