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April 2019 Issue [Story]

Setting the World to Rights

All his life he lived on hatred.

He was a solitary man who hoarded gloom. At night a thick smell filled his bachelor’s room on the edge of the kibbutz. His sunken, severe eyes saw shapes in the dark. The hater and his hatred fed on each other. So it has ever been. A solitary, huddled man, if he does not shed tears or play the violin, if he does not fasten his claws in other people, experiences over the years a constantly mounting pressure, until he faces a choice between lunacy and suicide. And those who live around him breathe a sigh of relief.

Good people are afraid of hatred, and even tend not to believe in it. If it appears before their eyes, they generally call it dedication or some such name.

And so we of the kibbutz thought of him as a man who lived by his faith, and who because of his faith dealt severely with the world and with all of us. He was not considered one of the leaders of the kibbutz. His dedication never earned him a position of authority or respect, in a committee or a council, for example. And so it came about that in the course of time we invested him with a halo of self-sufficient reticence.

This halo preserved him from gossip. What can one say, he is not like everyone else, he says little and does much. Admittedly, a solitary man. It can’t be helped. But the kibbutz depends for its existence on men like him. And if he sometimes says harsh things about us, we are forced to admit to ourselves that our everyday lives do not always conform to the ideals that we profess, and consequently we deserve his rebukes.

He works with machines.

Photograph by Gerald Slota

Photograph by Gerald Slota

At six o’clock every morning he is awakened by his alarm clock. He struggles into his greasy overalls and goes down to the dining hall. Here he munches a thick slice of brown bread smothered in jam and washes it down with coffee. Then, from quarter past six to nine o’clock, he dirties himself with grease in a tin shed, which roasts like an oven in the summer heat, while in winter the rain beats upon it a dull, monotonous tattoo. At nine he returns to the hall and washes his rough hands with paraffin, with coarse soap and with ordinary soap, to get rid of the black grease. But the black never goes away, it merely turns gray.

Over breakfast he casts his eye over the outer edges of the morning paper, looking for news on which hatred can flourish: crime, corruption, degeneracy, betrayal of the ideals for which the State was founded.

After breakfast he returns to his shed. This is his battlefield against cogwheels, fan belts, carburetors and radiators, spark plugs, and batteries. We see in him a skilled craftsman and, in our usual undemonstrative way, we admire his workmanship. He wrestles with implements and components as if they had a will of their own—a treacherous, rebellious will that it is his task to subjugate and set on the right path. Only on rare occasions does he hurl some part away and hiss: “It’s no good. Dead. We’ll have to get a new one.” On such rare occasions he resembles a military commander who has suffered a setback that he resolves to bear with dignity but with clenched teeth.

In most cases, however, he manages to mend, to repair, to set to rights. His sunken eyes fasten on a rebellious oil pump, and there is suppressed rage coupled with infinite patience in his look. A schoolmasterly patience, we once remarked to ourselves.

The two phrases most commonly heard on his lips are “we’ll see” and “so that’s it.” At times he grinds between his teeth the word “really.”

He is a heavily built man. So heavily that it sometimes seems as if the lines of his face and body are sagging gradually downward, as though he suffers more than most men from the law of gravity. The furrows in his face are vertical, so are the hopeless wrinkles round his mouth, his broad shoulders are hunched, his hands dangle when he walks, even his gray hair always falls down over his forehead.

At half past twelve he leaves the shed and walks up to the dining hall. He always piles his plate high with meat, potatoes, and an indiscriminate assortment of vegetables. While he vigorously masticates this meal his eyes once more run over the newspaper, finding change and decay in all around.

At quarter past one he returns to the shed and works until close on four o’clock. These are the hardest hours. In summer the shed roasts, and in winter the wind’s icy claws penetrate through the broken windows. He sighs deeply, almost aloud, but staunchly carries on with his work. He spreads a black piece of sacking on the concrete floor under the machine and prostrates himself on it so to peer into the motor from beneath. In twenty-seven years he has never entered a single day’s illness in the kibbutz work register.

When his working day is over, he returns once more to the hall. He gorges himself again, as he did first thing in the morning, on brown bread and jam. He washes it down with warm milk. Then he goes to his room. Here he showers, shaves, lies down on his bachelor’s bed, and leafs through the newspaper until he dozes off. He has still not reached the middle pages.

The evening twilight wakes him from his nap as if it had bitten him. At this time he is always seized by a great dread, despair, a premonition. As if this twilight were final. Once and for all. He hurriedly puts on his trousers, makes himself a cup of coffee, and settles himself in the armchair to tackle the middle pages of the paper. As he reads the leading article, the commentary and analysis columns, the personal opinions, summaries of the speeches by the leaders of the Movement and the Party, he experiences a pain that is almost physical. His face wears an expression of ascetic, mortified severity, far from all charity or compassion. Damn them. What are they doing to us. Why do they ruin everything worthwhile. There is a grim judicial look in his eye. His lips tremble. Occasionally there flashes in his eyes a momentary sparkle of hatred, the hatred that others interpret as dedication. He follows the articles with his pencil. Makes notes. Not in words but with signs alone. Question mark. Question mark, exclamation mark. Vertical stroke. Double exclamation marks. And sometimes even a furious crossing out in the body of the article.

The twilight fades and darkness comes on. He must turn on the light. The electric light tires his eyes and dulls his alertness without which lucid thought is impossible. He is terrified of this yellow light, as if it were trying to bribe him, to subvert his judgment. Clear reasoning becomes cloudy, and after half an hour or an hour apparitions begin to arrive. He can no longer pursue the claim of sharp, analytical argument. He no longer has the power to bring the current events of which the paper speaks before the high tribunal of the teaching of the great visionaries, the fathers of the Movement. And he is tired of judging. The electric light hurts his eyes. He stares vacantly. Apparitions come to him. And with them comes pain. His face loses its grim, judicial expression, which can, albeit with great difficulty, be described as attractive or even spiritual, and without it he is suddenly an ugly, an almost unbearably ugly man. The kibbutz children call him “wicked Haman” behind his back, and point their fingers at him.

But the time between the onset of twilight and the arrival of the darkness is the best time of all. He has this time, before he must turn the electric light on and submit to tiredness and haziness, to put things in their proper order. He studies the newspaper with pure, ice-cold hatred. He drafts the charge sheet with penetrating acuteness, section after section. How the State has betrayed her visionaries’ vision, how she played the whore and defiled herself. A whole nation is giving itself up to debauchery and abandoning every vision. The Jewish State was meant to begin a new chapter in the history of the Jews, and instead it is coming to look like a kind of farewell party, an orgy to celebrate the happy ending of the terrible history of the Jews. But the terrible history is still at its height. The knives are even now being sharpened.

For generations upon generations the Jews were a deep and serious people. Now they have become a degenerate Levantine rabble, rushing to gratify themselves and satisfy their lusts with every kind of novel excitement. Until one day the enemy will come and gather in his spoil like driftwood, and we shall wake up to find that all our hopes have turned to dust. People do not perish through military defeat or economic collapse. They do not understand this. Even those who call themselves the leaders, the heirs of the fathers of the Movement, do not understand it. No, peoples fall into decay, and only then does the enemy come and enter the gate; he conquers everything at the height of the feast, when the defenders are besotted and enfeebled. Disaster will strike like lightning out of a clear sky. At the height of the great banquet. It is not war that will destroy the land, but corruption. Already the stench lies heavy on the air, night is falling, everything is becoming hazy in this yellow electric light. Perhaps I ought to write a letter to the editor. But who am I.

A good pair of spectacles might perhaps have relieved this suffering. But this simple solution does not occur to him. Wearily and painfully he squints at the yellow light bulb and sees apparitions. He sees the crowds of voluptuous painted women thronging the city streets as though they were born only to give and receive pleasure. He sees the young men, dressed like Americans in the pictures, wearing elegant ties fastened with silver clips. They wear dark glasses and a purposeful air. He sees the boys and girls, grandchildren of the Maccabees, heirs of the guardians and defenders and dreamers, and here they are wrecking the public telephones or singing dirty songs in the streets at night. He sees the outrageously low-cut dress of his younger sister, Esther. He sees her shapely form boarding the Italian airplane: parting at the airport. They are only going away for a few years, she and her husband, Gideon, until he is promoted to a respectable office job that will allow him to live permanently in his own town instead of roaming around foreign capitals like an errand boy. Then the feel of his sister’s body in their parting embrace. He sees the plane: the hubbub of people arriving, leaving, seeing off, meeting, the stewards loving everyone indiscriminately, and me in the middle of this airport carnival like an evil spirit: why are they all leaving, why all this commotion, what’s the matter, surely at times like this we should all be overcome with wonderment. Then the sound of the tires on the gray asphalt, like lecherous whispers in the middle of the night: two o’clock in the morning, in a stream of quiet, powerful, brightly colored cars in which new, free Jews sit two by two, male and female. Where are they going, all these crowds of people, at two o’clock in the morning. Who will get up for work tomorrow. And who needs these new buildings, concrete and glass, curved shapes like a woman’s hips. All the contagious effluvia of America in this land of dreams. Even the Hebrew policeman in the night smiles a kind of stylized, courteous smile at me as if he too shares in the universal friendliness. And the universal sobriety. The whispering seduction. The cold humor, which is lechery, which is seething debauchery, which is abomination itself. We tried to realize a dream, and it has all turned into Hollywood. The Land of Israel is a whore. The man who hates his country is called a traitor, but the man who hates the treacherous whore is truly loyal to the dream that has been betrayed. If the pain in your eyes is driving you to distraction, you can always go out into the darkness and take a little walk outside the kibbutz, then make a good supper of a huge salad with cream and salt fish, three slices of bread and cream cheese, and two glasses of tea. Should you find yourself next to someone suitable, you can sit and chat. Not about party strategy, calculations of political profit and loss, but about setting the world to rights.

After supper he does not leave the hall, but takes a seat at the table where the evening newspaper is being read. This is the copy that the treasurer has brought back with him from town. It is surrounded by a ring of veteran comrades. Those who are standing read standing, over the heads of those who are seated. And some of those who are seated read upside down. Gradually a discussion begins, an argument develops.

It begins with explanations, interpretations, comparisons between what is happening now and what happened in the old days. Then the heat rises, because the discussion turns to what ought to happen, and what we should be doing. There are moderates and there are extremists, and there are those who always seek the golden mean between the two.

Most of them are unable to see where things are leading. Or perhaps they consciously deceive themselves. He is obliged to open their eyes, because these are the last of the faithful. He sets to work explaining to them how the rot has attacked the roots. How this crazy country is gorging itself on its own flesh unawares. Admittedly, the structure is still growing and spreading. Apparently, settlements are being added, new roads are being built. But any biologist will testify that even a corpse will go on growing hair and nails until it is decomposed. The whole structure is already doomed to destruction, from corruption and into corruption. The cancer will feed on the whore until she dies. Drunken shouts, parochial boasts, empty words cannot conceal the treachery. The people have betrayed their leaders, the leaders have betrayed the people, and both alike have betrayed the vision. The kibbutz might have been the last bastion of the Third Commonwealth, but even it has been betrayed, its leaders and people have gone together to the whore.

All his listeners discern a great deal of exaggeration in this, but the older veterans know that it contains an element of holy anger, and perhaps even truth, and it is as well for some of the younger men to take these words at their face value and perhaps receive a jolt.

But the younger men, three or four in number, merely grin. They find it strange that a man can be a brilliant mechanic and at the same time such an utter fool.

Since the disputants are workingmen, not layabouts, they generally stop toward ten o’clock and say: “We’ll talk about this some other time. We’ll argue it all out then.”

Then they all go to their rooms, and only the night watchmen are left awake, and even they do not go out and lurk in the dark along the perimeter fence but linger in the dining hall, taking tiny sips of their tea to kill time and flirting with the night nurses, who ought to be at the nursery, not here. Nothing is as it should be.

He goes back to his room. He crosses the lawn and finds a sprinkler left on and a leaking hose. He must conquer his hatred. Reaching his room, he turns on the light. Again it hurts his eyes. Despite the tiredness he takes an old tome down from the rough wooden bookcase and settles himself to read the words of the founders. Others still sustain themselves on what they have read in their youth and do not realize that forgetfulness is gradually eating away at their faith.

Whereas he persistently returns every evening to what he was taught many years ago in the Zionist Youth Movement in Lithuania. He devotes himself, heart and soul, to the cruel beauty of the words of the vision. True, most of the fathers of the Movement did not write in polished Hebrew, but their thinking was polished, and nothing of their analytical vigor has been lost. And there are some pages that only now, in these unsavory times, suddenly take on the full depth of their meaning.

After a few pages, tiredness gets the better of him: he is no longer young, he spends long hours each day in arduous physical work, and every evening he wrestles with all his might with theories and ideas. Obviously he would have liked to go on reading with all his might and main, only his body is tired.

During the night the thick smell always begins to fill the room. Even in summer, when all the windows are wide open, there is no refuge from it. The sounds of the night come in and swoop at him as soon as he turns out the light and tries to go to sleep. Even a man with a clear view of the word is helpless in the face of these wild sounds.

He tries to hear in the sounds an echo of his thoughts, either by a play on the words “wind” and “spirit” or by translating the howling of the jackals into the wailing of foxes, which is a common image for national calamity, and also for lunacy and death. But the night sounds here in our kibbutz between the mountains and the winding valleys are stronger than any image; they sweep everything away, they swoop down on you in the night, and words are lost.

He was a solitary man who hoarded gloom. The hater and his hatred fed on each other. So it has ever been. Many years ago he had a wife: a refugee, odd, very thin, acid, a survivor of one of the ghetto risings. She had come here to tell him how both his brothers had died heroically, firing at the Germans until their ammunition ran out. She went on talking. When she stopped, night had fallen. So she stayed the night. And the next night. She was several years older than he.

After their marriage, she tried to make him leave the kibbutz. Her plan was to live on help from her relations, on German reparation money, to set herself up properly and live well. The kibbutz was a good enough place, but not for her. She had suffered enough for the Jewish people: let others suffer now for a change; she wanted to live a little, at long last.

She was thin and acid. Her body satisfied and yet did not satisfy his hunger. After a few months they parted. She went her way, he remained. Her relations gave her a little, the reparation money made up the rest, and she opened a fashion salon that was every bit as good as the salon she had had in Warsaw before.

Since she had not remarried, he continued to visit her on his rare trips to town. He went to beg for her body. Sometimes she granted it, with a sigh, telling him to be quick and not mess about, chiding herself for her good nature, which was always landing her in trouble. He would start arguing with her about the point of it all. He hated her, of course, with all his heart. But this was a daytime hatred, which was entirely different from the nocturnal hatred to which the night sounds outside responded.

The night is alive. His sunken, severe eyes see shapes in the dark. The room is not clean. Dust here and there. Under the bed a forgotten pair of socks. The sound of the crickets comes in waves. Distant lowing of cattle. A shriek. A tractor growling in a far-off field. Dogs barking as though demented. Laughter of couples crossing the lawn, sinking into the darkness of the wadi. Damn them. And jackals in the vineyard. A hot wind blows from the desert and ruffles the trees, warning them of the fire and the axe for which they are growing: there is nothing new in the world.

He tries turning on the radio to silence these tormenting sounds. What is there on the radio? A sensual tune, a lascivious song, a sickeningly warm, moist voice. He switches it off and curses the singer, and meanwhile all the night sounds return. Sleep hits him suddenly, like a coup de grâce.

In his sleep, voluptuous women, with hips and laughter and hair.

Then a scream may sound in the night. The watchmen say: “Poor devil. What can be done.”

A few days before New Year, he went to Tel Aviv in connection with his work, to inspect and possibly order a new kind of American piston.

As usual, he went to see his ex-wife. She made him coffee. They argued a little about the news and the point of it all. He asked for her body. She refused, and he begged a little. In vain: it transpired that she was about to remarry. No, not for love. What a crazy idea: Who would marry for love, at her age and with her experience? No. Her man was also from Warsaw, he had also lost his former family, he too had been miraculously saved, and he too dealt in ladies’ clothes. Together they could go far.

He left his ex-wife without saying goodbye.

He stepped hesitantly out into the city. Gradually his stride became more confident and even furious. He went to his sister’s flat, forgetting that she and her husband were in Europe, and would remain there for another year or two at least, until Gideon got his promotion.

The tenants received him politely. They thought he had come to check up on the state of the furniture. They promised they were taking good care of the flat. They invited him in, to have a drink and to ascertain with his own eyes that everything was in good order. But he stood in the doorway, cursed them, and left. He walked the streets of Tel Aviv until nightfall, and saw that everything was lost. At dusk the fluorescent streetlights came on and hurt his eyes. He turned onto the dark side streets. Toward midnight he came on the agricultural machinery showrooms where he had intended to inspect and possibly order the new piston he had read about in the prospectus. The street was in darkness, and the showroom was closed and deserted. A wave of hatred rose in his chest until he could hear his own breathing. The bastards had shut up shop and gone off to chase women. How wonderful were the early fathers of the Labor Movement, who foresaw it all and even warned us in advance. We made light of their writings. Even a corpse goes on growing hair and nails until it finally rots.

At the end of the same street he picked up a whore, followed her to a cheap hotel, and gave her the money he had intended to spend in the showroom. He stayed with her till morning and hated her and himself profoundly. Next day he returned to the kibbutz and worked on his machines; he read the special New Year number of the newspaper from cover to cover and waited for darkness to fall. When it was dark he went out to the orchard and hanged himself from a tree. We found him after the festival, and praised his devotion to his work, and his dedication to the ideals to which we hold fast.

The burial of a man who has devoted himself to setting the world to rights is no different from that of any other man, and we have nothing more to add. He was a solitary man. May he rest in peace.

, novelist, memoirist, and peace advocate, died in December. This story first appeared in Hebrew in 1965.


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