Early summer, in June: it’s the time of the counting of Omer, and those Jews who continue zealously to observe the ancient traditions don’t shave; that’s how it should be, they say.
Baruch scratches at his beard as he thoughtfully studies the map of Amsterdam: to get from the central train station to the old synagogue, he needs to walk along the side of the canal for a while. He sets off with a series of landmarks in mind by which to make his way, cutting up the city’s throng with his black boots. He needs to leave behind the post office, the Christian Orthodox Church and the flea market – which seems out of place and disarrayed situated across the street from the church – offering to the passerby its charms and abundance of cheap kitsch. He then needed to cross a busy roundabout and, after passing the Jewish museum to the right and the tram stop to the left – he would show up exactly where he was impatiently expected.
They were supposed to wait for him at the airport, but something has happened. Dressed like a 19th century Polish landowner in a long black overcoat he has had to take the underground, to the surprise of his sojourners, a couple of local junkies and an illegal immigrant. Baruch avoided raising his head, he didn’t want his eyes to accidentally meet with the eyes of the people he travelled with, thus making an opening for their destinies to intertwine; he, the chosen one, didn’t have anything in common with them.
Baruch, chosen once upon a time to be “Or la goyim”, light unto the nations, and his sojourners from the underground – were different in their diet, in the way they established friendships and ran business – it could be said they were as different as the earth from the sky.
Truth is, Baruch didn’t exactly engage in business, aside from the utterly demanding deal his ancestors made with the Almighty, the other side in this oldest of the joint ventures. Since then to nowadays, very little has changed for Baruch and his people – he lived in Jerusalem, near the Kothel, got up at dawn to join the minyan and spent hours per day in prayer – his schedule was agreed upon long time ago and Baruch stuck to it firmly.
The need for our man in Amsterdam occurred quite unexpectedly and Baruch was told to embark on the journey – why it was he who was selected he didn’t know – but he was supposed to represent the community over there in the foreign land. The Light works in mysterious ways and Baruch didn’t question the choice made by the rav – he started packing; the preparations included saying the additional blessings that he knew would ensure him safe travel, a meaningful stay and prompt return back home.
Olyechka stands semi-naked in the glass window facing the canal; her long eight-hour shift has just started. Some would maybe dispute the legitimacy of prostitution as a profession, but Olyechka has been keeping the books accurately – keeping the track of the rent, the payments and similar, she was paying her taxes and from the point of view of the city administration she was a regular taxpayer; personally, she didn’t care about anything else.
Yesterday, she was lucky; some English tourist paid her hundred and fifty Euros to tape her while she was kneeling in front of his unzipped pants. Olyecka presumed he would upload this video of ephemeral vice online, but she didn’t care – her native village was in the isolated depths of the Russian countryside.
Baruch never thought there was such a quarter where everything, even love, is on sale – and that inexpensively. What he felt when his eyes met with Olyechka’s, when he sank in the depth of her blue eyes, was like a strong dizziness. He felt the long established centre of his equilibrium shatter, shaken by some dark force and pushed down the abyss of an overpowering excitement of a kind he had never tasted before.
Olyechka gazed at the cumbersome man in the black kaftan – the clothes he wore reminded her of the family pictures long hidden from the world, for fear of being expelled to Siberia, even further into the depths from where the family already lived. She felt something like shame and covered her bare breast.
That night, in her rented room, Olyechka will cry, weeping into the plumage of her feather pillow.
I don’t know why I happened to be there, in Amsterdam, where someone else’s dreams interlaced with the dreams from which I hadn’t yet awoken. Walking by the canals, I accidentally stepped on a shadow of an untold story: having pierced it with my heel, I became an unwilling witness of an unlived love. Lop-sided facades of nearby houses wrinkled in the murky mirror of the canal; a sensual semi-naked woman, standing in the window of a public house, shifted her weight from one leg to another. A hunched man, dressed as a Polish landowner from the end of nineteen century, hurried her way and the clutter of his steps broke the calm of dust.
Having arrived at the ephemeral roundabout in between dreams and reality, from the very intersection of this and some other actuality, the gothic facades began energetically dancing as I watched them: a Montenegrin national dance, prancing themselves and climbing each other’s shoulders yelling “Oyah!”
There, where there never were bridges, ad hoc an old bridge grew between two worlds and it pranced like a playful, purebred Vranac. Baruch, with a freshly shaved beard and Olyechka, her head covered with a black scarf, ran to the right and hid in Rembrandt’s house, beside the diamond factory…
Skilfully handling the rudder, the demonic ram’s headed boatman, who transports unbelievers to their eternal house, turned left; and some former me, from some former dimension in between dreams and reality, waved to the renegade lovers while holding tightly in my hand a white tissue soaked in blood.
from my third book “Devil, an unauthorized biography”, published by OKF, Cetinje ©2011 All Rights Reserved
translated to English by Steve Mangan
note: the photograph is of the Sephardic Synagogue – one of the many i took while in Amsterdam