Arts & Culture

The Dancer

The linked stories in Yehudit Hendel’s recent collection, The Empty Place (HaMakom HaReik (2007)], are set in Tel Aviv’s Dubnov Garden. There, on park benches and along pathways, her characters struggle to connect with one another and understand themselves. Though … Read More

By / May 20, 2009

The linked stories in Yehudit Hendel’s recent collection, The Empty Place (HaMakom HaReik (2007)], are set in Tel Aviv’s Dubnov Garden. There, on park benches and along pathways, her characters struggle to connect with one another and understand themselves. Though tinged with foreboding, “The Dancer” evinces a sly humor in its meditations on aging, death, and the place of God amidst the emptiness of modern life. One of Israel’s most significant authors, Hendel here reflects as well on the lonely task of the writer who struggles to keep mortality at bay with the power of words. This translation appears thanks to the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.–Adam Rovner, Hebrew translations editor

 

 

I would meet him sometimes in the street or in the park opposite my house. Over the years it was as though we had become friends. He would nod his head to me, like an old friend, and maybe we were old friends, because it seemed he’d lived here for many years, like me. In the course of the years he revealed his name was Chaim-Shmuel. Really his name was Shmuel, but because he was ill a lot he added the name Chaim for life–so that he would recover and live a long time.

Recently I met him in the park. I sat on the bench in the shade of the tall trees and he asked me if he could sit next to me.

Of course, gladly, I said.

I’m also pleased to meet you here, he said, for we have known each other for many years.

My pleasure, I replied.

Suddenly he rose and started to dance.

He dances like a monkey, the children in the park laughed.

He stood under a tree as though he were facing a storm, and it seemed to me that the tree’s crown bent forward like someone bowing to him and offering protection. He jumped and hid behind the tree, standing there for a long moment–and then he embraced the tree’s trunk in his two hands and pressed himself against it hard. It seemed to me as if it were the only tree in the park. He squeezed it tightly, waiting.

Lara O-ReillyAbsence Presence, Kronstadt Military Chapel. Kotlin Island, St Petersburg, Russia. By Lara O-ReillyThe children suddenly stopped laughing and didn’t make a peep.

He’s not a monkey, he’s a human being, I said.

Everything is God’s will, he said, Life, fate, and it is all a mystery. Me, you, the dance, life.

But he dances like a monkey, the children’s laughter rang out again.

I said again, He isn’t a monkey, he’s a man.

He’s a man who dances like a monkey, laughed the children.

Then he appeared from behind the tree and started dancing in the park.

Is this what you do at home? I asked.

Yes, I dance, he replied by way of the dance, I dance all the time, the whole time I dance, I’m alive, because life is just one big dance–turning around and around and getting dizzy. You don’t dance?

No.

So what do you do all day?

I try to write, and that’s like hard-labor.

I understand, he said, But try to dance. Free your arms and legs, it’ll be easier for you, believe me.

I’ll try.

Excellent, he replied and a huge smile spread across his face. He continued to dance.

You’ll feel better, believe me.

I believe you, I said

And in God as well? he asked

I don’t know, I don’t have an answer for that.

I believe in God because life is hard.

Very hard.

That’s it, he said, and only God knows why, because that’s what He wants, He who sits on high and rules the whole world, and determines our lives and fate, and it’s all one big mystery. My dance, me, you, life, everything, all of it.

A wind started blowing in the park making the branches dance.

Yes, God even created the wind, believe me, and even that’s a great mystery.

He continued to dance in silence.

What can we do? He started speaking again, This is how God created the world, and it’s all one long shadow.

Maybe, I said

He laughed.

But the Lord has forsaken me, he said helplessly and stopped. Lara O-ReillyAbsence Presence, by Lara O-Reilly

After a moment he started dancing again.

Sometimes I think about the force the ties man to life, but with an old man this force disappears.

He stood now, as though a giant abyss had opened beneath him.

I ask too many questions, he said, but people think that there is order in the world, and it appears to me that it is all chaos.

No, God forbid.

He looked afraid.

The worst part is the lack of certainty, he said, and looked around him as though a fire had broken out in the park.

Do you eat at home? I asked.

He laughed.

I like olives, and fruit, and a plate of soup.

You’re a lion.

He looked at me with irritation.

And maybe despite everything, I’ll still receive God’s grace, he said.

Amen, I responded, and I envy you, I’d also like to dance.

That’s good, it does a person good, he said, and started dancing again.

Yes, yes, I said and looked at the man dancing opposite me in the park, bending his body and waving his arms.

His face glowed.

So that’s what you do all day at home?

Of course, its power keeps me alive, and I am an old man.

But you dance like a young man.

Because that’s what God wants.

An odd duck, this man, I thought, an old man dances in the park and he has God.

This dance is my life, he continued, if I stop dancing, I’ll die, and I want to keep living. As long as I dance, I’m alive.

I see

That’s it, he said, I still want to live, so I still dance.

I’m happy, I said, and I see that you’re happy when you dance.

Of course, when I dance I know I’m alive.

Please go on, I said, the whole park is yours, the whole street, the whole world.

I hope so, he said.

The lively children started to jump around him and mimic his movements.

It’s not funny, I told them, That’s his life, you see.

But they continued to play around him, and he continued to dance, and continued even after they got tired and went back to their games.

And you really dance the whole day without a break?

Of course, because I don’t want to die, in fact death is man’s true enemy.

God will protect us, and you won’t die because you dance.

I hope, I hope, he repeated, and looked right and then looked left, as though a bell was ringing inside his head.

I understand that you are afraid, I said.

Every human is afraid, everyone wants to live and is afraid of dying, and death is standing in the doorway, the great black angel.

Everyone has his own black angel, I said, and for each person he stands in the doorway.

Yes, it’s terrible, but this is how God created the world, he didn’t want us to live forever, he wanted everyone to die, everyone, and no one gets a holiday from death.

Even when his smile was easy his face was melancholy, and with a somber look he sat down beside me on the bench.

Maybe it’s good in the earth, or at least warm there, he said. Don’t think there’s no life underground! The earth is full of life. And here in the park there are a lot of crows and bats, and bats can see at night. And what does a man see? He can’t even see himself, he doesn’t even know himself, as though he were a stranger.

Everyone’s a stranger.

A stranger even to themselves, he said.

There was a long silence.

For years I’ve been walking with my face to the ground, he said.

Yes, yes, strangers to themselves, I responded, that’s how it is in this world, and it’s cold in this world.

Even in the summer it’s cold inside, he said, but where will salvation come from?

He turned to me, waiting for an answer.

When he saw I was silent, he continued: What can you do, this is how God wants it, he created the earth and the water and the seas, and the plants and the animals, and mankind he made into strange creations.

Maybe.

He wants to charm me, I thought. He wants us to be friends, but we are basically strangers.Absence Presence, by Lara O-ReillyAbsence Presence, by Lara O-Reilly

Each to his own, I said aloud.

Each to his own body, he said. You don’t know what it is when your body betrays you– old people like me know what it’s like. The body’s betrayal. A terrible thing. Every night, every night, I carry my grave in my head so that I can’t sleep at night. I lie awake and think and think, and the night is long, so long, and there is no end to my thoughts, and thoughts are cruel things, they don’t give me a moment’s rest, or a moment’s peace. The whole night I am pierced through by my thoughts. And in the end, every man has a plot the size of a grave. Think about that.

And I thought, who knows about him? Who even knows about his existence? About the energy he expends dancing in order to live. Maybe there is even some kind of heroism in it. But what kind of heroism? And anyway, it’s all nonsense, I said to myself. It is as though by dancing he takes revenge on life, on fate. But maybe it only seems to me that’s what I thought. After all, thoughts are one great mystery, always, and a great burden that’s written on our flesh.

He continued: Sometimes I say to myself that maybe I was born to dance, as though there is some peace in that thought, but that is nonsense too, believe me, and an old man lives both in the darkness and in the light of day.

He arose and went back to dancing like a lunatic, trying to dance erect, as tall,as can be

I looked at him.

Only now did I see that he was dancing with his large feet bare. He looked pale, and in the sunlight his glasses looked golden and it seemed to me that he danced in the sun as someone dancing in shadow, at odds with himself, as though the curtains had already closed on him.

I continued to watch him.

You know, he said and stood across from me, once I got involved in diamonds and thought that diamonds were the stars in heaven, but I learned they only bring curses, so I left the diamonds and started to dance. Would you believe it?

You’re lucky, I said, it’s clear that dancing makes you happy.

Man is never happy, he said, he is always caught on the rack of life, and at my age he already knows that everyone has a plot the size of a grave, and there is no way to escape from it, and every night, every night, I say to myself that there is a border to death and a border to life. And somehow I can still be found on the side of life, but every night I’m at death’s frontier. Death is a black plague. They say there is a white cat and a black cat, but at night there is only a black cat at my side, and each day I get up in the morning and think. Am I still alive? Am I still here? The body is tired at night, but the mind works, and doesn’t let an old man sleep.

He spoke about the power of death, but I looked at him and thought about the power of life.

You’ll live many more years, I said, and you are a strong man because you dance.

Because it gives me strength, and with this strength I live. At my age, people are already dying. All my friends are dead. All of them. Sometimes I think, Where are my dearest friends? But only empty houses are left, and I remain alone in the world.

We always remain alone, and we live alone, even young people.

Do you think so? Do you really think so? he asked.

Of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have had the nerve to let those words pass my lips.

He gave me a strange look and was silent.

And do you believe in a world to come? I asked.

Of course, he said, otherwise how could I dance? I believe that I’ll dance in the afterlife too, if God will help me a little. And do you watch television? he asked suddenly.

I told him I’m addicted to it.

He laughed. And when he saw that I was getting up to go home, he said: I hope that we’ll continue to meet in the park, but an old man is forbidden to say goodbye, and he went back to dancing, dancing a few centimeters above the earth.

***

Yehudit Hendel was born in Warsaw in 1926 and made aliyah in 1930. She was one of the first women writers to achieve success following Israel’s independence. Her best- known novel, The Street of the Steps [Rehov HaMadregot (1955)], was revolutionary for its depiction of marginalized Sephardic Jews. She received the Bialik Prize in 1997 and the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement in 2003. Hendel lives and writes in Tel Aviv.

 

Rachel S. Harris is assistant professor of Hebrew Literature and Language at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY). Her latest research examines trends in contemporary literary journals in Tel Aviv.

Zeek’s Hebrew translations are made possible by a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York Sate Council on the Arts, a state agency.