By Samuel Isban
Translated from Yiddish by Daniel Kennedy
Old Zadok the tallis-dealer awoke around three in the morning when in Tiberias the rains were still pouring down. He opened the narrow window of his cabin, just as Noah on the Ark had done, in order to see if the flooding had subsided.
Zadok did not recognize his surroundings: Tiberias was drowning—streams of water poured down from the hills. The streets, the houses were sluiced in surging currents, as though they were being washed away. Here a torn off shutter, here a dismantled roof, was battered by torrents of water. Even the wooden synagogue across the way floated like an untethered boat. For fear that God was punishing the Earth with a second Great Flood, the old man hastily shut the window.
In the dark he stepped into his slippers, tied his caftan, and lit the kerosene lamp.
His first act was to open up his two large trunks of merchandise. He removed the folded tallisim, stood up on the twisted bench and placed them, one by one, on the uppermost shelf—the further from the ground his merchandise was, the safer it would be. On top of the tallisim he placed mezuzahs in wooden frames, brass frames, along with bundles of tsitsis. When his work was done he strode into the other room to where his son Zorekh was sleeping.
Perhaps out of fear for his old age, or perhaps fear of the dangers of the flood, Zadok did not wish to be alone. He roused his son who’d been snoring like a boiling kettle.
“Zorekh, Zorekh! Are you asleep?”
Zorekh opened his eyes wide for a moment only to turn over—his posterior tilted upwards—and resumed snoring.
Zadok poked him in the shoulders. “There’s a flood, Zorekh! I don’t know if our house is going to make it through the night. And you’re lying there like a corpse. The synagogue is also flooded, did you know that, Zorekh? Zorekh!”
The old man’s protestations fell on deaf ears. Irritated, he begged God to let him live to see the morning, and then tottered back to his corner.
Zadok had been a widower for three years now. When his wife was alive he’d had someone to exchange a few words with, even on those nights when he fell ill, or suffered one of his dizzy spells. Back then his business had also gone better. Zadok had supplied tallisim to Safed, to Meron, where Jewish tourists, pilgrims, came to pay homage at the tomb of Shimon Bar Yochai. And in Tiberias itself, whenever a new hotel was built, or a new guest house, Zadok would be there to hammer a brand new kosher mezuzah in every doorway. Since his wife’s death, things had started to go downhill. His adult sons had married and moved away, leaving him only with Zorekh. To Zorekh, his youngest, he had wanted to entrust his sideline in amulets, thereby expanding his trade. He had even planned to send Zorekh to America to peddle sacks of earth from the Land of Israel. But Zorekh had turned it all down. He began to consort with halutzim and had been taken on as a teacher in the secular school. Zorekh now dressed in the modern, Western fashion, and had lately even begun to mow down his sparse beard like it was so much wild grass. Old Zadok did not stand in his way. He consoled himself with the hope that his older sons, at least, would not stray from the righteous path.
The kerosene lamp began to smoke, to flicker. Rain and wind pounded the roof, while the doors and windows screamed with the howling of wolves. Frightened, Zadok sat down, surrounded by pillows, on a soft chair. He sank into his thoughts, fighting against sleep as long as he could before surrendering and dozing off.
It was already day by the time he woke. He rubbed his eyes. Splinters of light flashed like smiles through the gaps in the blinds. The rains had stopped. The houses, half-submerged, rose out of the river like aquatic plants. Here and there, ragged clouds slipped away over the horizon.
Darker rainclouds lurked beyond the hills, driven by the sun which had begun to bathe the Tiberias valley in its warmth.
Zadok washed his hands joyfully. He put on tallis and tefillin, and set about praying with enthusiasm. With the tefillin still on his forehead, he woke his son.
“Come on then, Zorekh, get up. We can praise God that we have been spared, Zorekh!”
Zorekh awoke, shifting in his bed. He cracked his knuckles before hastily throwing his quilt aside and getting to his feet. “Spared from what, father?”
“You ask like a fool, Zorekh. Take a look outside. We’ve been cut off from the world.”
“What are you talking about?” The son went over to the window.
“As you can see,” Zadok said from just behind his shoulder, “I didn’t get a wink of sleep all night. I thought the world was coming to an end. If I didn’t have my faith, the fear alone would have killed me.”
“Father, you’re talking like someone who’s come in on the last boat,” his son smiled disdainfully. “But you’re a local now, a child of Tiberias, and you know full well that every year we have to endure the downpours. Tiberias is in a valley. And the rainwater flowing down from the hills always brings flooding.”
“You’re talking ‘science’ to me again, boy, is that it?” the old man grumbled. “And the Creator has no say in any of this, is that what you’re telling me? Oh Zorekh, what nonsense. Ever since you started dressing like that, you’re unrecognizable!”
Zadok crawled into his cotton caftan, pulled on a pair of steel-capped boots, tied a kerchief around his neck and said to his son: “Put on the tea, Zorekh, I’m going to have a look outside.”
Zadok closed the wooden door behind him and chained it. No sooner had he crossed the threshold than he was up to his thighs in water. In panicked desperation, he clambered up onto a stone embankment that led toward the town baths. On the other side, children were throwing planks of wood into the water, watching with joy as their ships traversed the seas.
Two drenched Arabs, wearing only loose trousers, their hairy torsos uncovered, stood almost up to their waists in the water, loudly offering—for a paltry fee—to carry passersby on their shoulders from one side to the other.
Zadok did not allow himself to be carried. He took the long way around, carefully, climbing over flooded clay pits, around puddles, making his way with difficulty up onto the main street where one could see rows of ruined stores.
The sun, having torn up the rain clouds and swept the sky clean, was now reflected on the surface of the flooded street.
In front of the market stood a coatless Jew—all beard and locks—a Tiberian shopkeeper, arguing with two tall Arabs, pointing towards the wreckage of his flooded grocery store. The Arabs shook their heads, their dark djellabas flapping as they expressed consolation through the movement of their shoulders, through the shaking of their beards.
Neighbors had set up barrels and buckets under the roofs of the wooden houses to catch the runoff.
Floating on the water, an old man in a fur coat, like the kabbalist Shlomo Alkabetz of yore, sat on a plank, with sweat over his wrinkled cheeks, in the braids of his beard. He looked not the least concerned by the whole affair.
One by one, shoe-shiners emerged from side alleys with wicker chairs on their shoulders, in their hands an array of polishes, pomades and brushes.
Arab women in tattered garments, like bats’ wings, swooped into the center of the market square and, with buckets and tin cans, began to bail out the overflowing pits.
None of this concerned Zadok; some damage here, more damage there—the government would pay for it all. The only thing that worried him was whether the yeshiva or the synagogue had suffered. Apprehensively he approached an alley near the shore of Lake Kinneret, searching the passersby for a familiar face.
Lake Kinneret, green and gray like a raincloud, was beginning to subside. Over the heavy waves, a stillness. No barge, no sailboat. Bathing in the thermal springs, where the water was frothy and as warm as a Tammuz heatwave, were three small Arabs, swarthy and tanned.
Zadok was not surprised to find those jokers bathing in the lake, even in such cold weather. He shook his head, knowing that the Devil would spare those sons of Ishmael, just as no harm had come to their forebear Ishmael in the desert.
Zadok was about to turn around to go home. But just then a Jew with a forked beard, both halves as rigid as sails, stopped him in his tracks.
“Good morning, Reb Zadok. Hope you’ve had breakfast already.”
“What do you mean, Yekhiel?”
“It’s bad, Zadok, the flood has ruined everything. The Tiferet Bakhurim yeshiva is entirely inundated. We must gather the young men and start bailing the water out. . .”
“You mean . . . ” Zadok began, unsure if Yekhiel intended to include him in the category of young men.
“I mean your son, Zorekh. Go and get him. My two boys have been working since daybreak.”
“Believe me, Yekhiel, I have as much power over him as over the Turkish sultan.”
“Nevertheless, I can’t imagine he’ll refuse,” Yekhiel smiled. “It’s a mitzvah, after all! Call him, Zadok.”
Had he been in possession of wheels instead of legs, Zadok would not have been able to set off any faster than he did. Trudging back over clay pits, around puddles, he was soon standing in front of his house.
He tried to open the wooden door. It was locked. There was a padlock over the chain. Why Zorekh would have needed to leave in such a hurry the old man did not know. He could have waited, he should be preparing breakfast. Had something happened?
He cast a glance at the flooded houses, at the street across the way which led down to the synagogue. His gaze fell on two rows of canvas tents, and barracks, around which the streets swarmed like an anthill.
This was the new Tiberias “kibbutz.” Young men and women in short trousers like underpants were fixing the damaged barrack walls, and were re-erecting the fallen tents. Using large brooms they made their way toward trenches they’d dug, sweeping the water inside like a cascade. At the head of the kibbutzniks stood Zorekh, soaked, shouting out orders like a general.
For Zadok there were no more waters to cross, no more pits to jump over. More by swimming than by walking, Zadok made his way over to the kibbutz.
Zorekh, guiltily, came to meet his father halfway.
“Do you need the key, father?”
“Come with me this minute!” the old man said in anger. “If you’re going to be a water carrier, better you should do it for the scholars in the yeshiva.”
“In your mind, father, the yeshiva is better.”
“And not in yours?” The old man’s stiff brows rose like horns. “Zorekh, you were born in Tiberias, you were raised in the synagogue, you studied in that very yeshiva, and in their hour of need you help these halutzim blow-ins instead? These good-for-nothings?”
“If it’s a case of my halutzim, versus your scholars, I think we know who the real good-for-nothings are.”
“We know, do we?” Zadok cried out. “And tell me then, when did Israel know the like of this ‘kibbutz’ where men and women live together under one roof, committing inhuman acts?”
“You can’t talk like that, Father!” Zorekh took a stand.
Zadok, who had a mind to give his son a good slap, backed away. He knew that he had already lost. What use were his reproofs? Why jump out of his own skin? His son, and other people’s sons—they were all joining the new generation. They were breaking with Judaism, which was sinking just like the houses, like the streets, like all of Tiberias.
Hurt and offended, Zadok made his way back to the flooded yeshiva.