Books of all sizes, illustrated, illuminated, dull, decaying, vibrant, beige, black, gray, thick and painfully thin books stared at us as though they had been starved for our visit for hundreds of years. It was a book lover's paradise: overgrown, untrimmed, wild and alluring
On a crisp summer night in July, during my most recent visit, my wife and I were sitting on the veranda of the King David Hotel looking out on the walls of the Old City, sipping tea infused with freshly cut mint. The genteel air of the veranda belied the violent past of the stately hotel, still resonant with the ghosts of another era, a time when British officials mixed with Jewish aspirants and Arab dignitaries, poets, diplomats, merchants, soldiers and dreamers.
We spoke of my grandmother, the theater critic for The Palestine Post, and the British officers' club she ran as a cover for her spying activities on behalf of the nascent Jewish state; we spoke of my sweet grandfather, the Lithuanian born rabbi-turned-translator and his love for Shakespeare and Chaucer and all things English.
As a child, I never much liked Jerusalem. I was a Tel Aviv boy, a creature of the sand dunes, the Bauhaus architecture, the sycamore trees and the promise of the open sea. I would travel to Jerusalem with my family very rarely.
Once in Jerusalem, we'd climb up to the roof of a certain house and my father would hand me a pair of binoculars. "Look there," My grandfather would point to the south, "near Rachel's Tomb. "That's the land great-grandfather Bloom bought for us," my grandmother said. "That's Bethlehem. That's our home."
A rolling wave of stones, olive trees and sheep, under a sea of merciless blue, was my unknowable home. "I'll sing you about it when you go to bed," my mother would say softly, from somewhere far away. My father, who understood loss better than any of us, would just pat me on the head and turn to descend the stairway back to the alley, his binoculars dangling from his neck like shackles.
And here I was, 50 years later, looking south toward Bethlehem, out of reach once again. Somehow, I had come to love Jerusalem after all these years, with all its loss and broken promises and the unforgiving passion of its stones.
The next morning my wife and I set out for a walk though the city. It was a mercilessly hot day, and walking uphill on asphalt, stone and gravel had seared that fact into our marrow.
Arriving at a small alley I said: "Let's turn here; we were here once before; we were looking for something."
"We were never here before," my wife replied, "and we certainly weren't looking for anything, but if you'd like to turn here, that's fine by me."
As the street curved to the right and sloped downward, almost apologetically, we saw a book store ahead of us on the left hand side of the street.
The store was a chaotic mess of books strewn everywhere, perched like driftwood upon the dusty shores of ugly tables, book stands, chairs and cardboard boxes. Books of all sizes, illustrated, illuminated, dull, decaying, vibrant, beige, black, gray, thick and painfully thin books stared at us as though they had been starved for our visit for hundreds of years. It was a book lover's paradise: overgrown, untrimmed, wild and alluring.
One quick glance revealed some quality publications of early Israeli literature from the 1920s and '30s, the very stuff I was fed as a child by my grandfather the rabbi, the scholar, the absentminded angel.
"Might you have any Shakespeare translated into the Hebrew by Shalom Tzvi Davidowitz?" I asked the owner, who sat perched over a volume of sacred Jewish text like a distracted entomologist, examining inferior larvae of a common house ant.
"No," he said, barely moving his lips, yet, somehow, producing a dismissive smile from the locked garden of his indifference.
"He was the first to translate all of Shakespeare's works into Hebrew," I said. The pious scientist gave no sign of having heard me. "Rabbi Harry Davidowitz, he won the Tchernichovsky Prize, he helped write the first draft of Israel's Declaration of Independence."
"Is that so?" muttered the owner, raising his eyelids wearily, as though having just been informed by his podiatrist that a particularly nasty fungus had been discovered beneath his large toe. He mumbled something under his graying mustache, stroked his beard, as though comforting a stray dog, and sank back into his book.
I looked around the store. In the back room, up two stairs, old posters of Hollywood movies filmed in Israel were on display, leaning against the peeling walls, like family photos left over by previous owners. "Any posters of Cast a Giant Shadow?"
The owner shook his head from side to side, not even bothering to speak. "My father was the stunt pilot for the film," I said.
"Hmm," replied the owner, having just found a particularly troublesome Aramaic word.
I ruffled through poetry books and novels by some of my favorite Hebrew writers, delighted by a few obscure volumes I had not seen since sleeping over at my grandparents' home, back when Tel Aviv was still a city in Vienna and the Mediterranean was a painting hung behind each westward facing window. "Have you read Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness?" I asked.
He lifted his aching soul from his heavy book.
"I don't read frivolous literature," he sneered. "I prefer the depth and beauty of our sacred heritage."
It was clearly time to leave. As I moved toward the doorway, the sun almost reaching out to me from the blazing sidewalk outside the store, a large gilded cross on the broad spine of a tall, Prussian-blue book caught my attention. The shelf on which it lived was filled with books about the Crusades, a subject dear to my heart for many reasons, not the least of them being that I come from a family of crusaders, on my father's side. Nostalgia, perhaps, or guilt. I am connected to this land in many strange and mysterious ways. I followed the fortresses and battlefields until the corner bent my eyes to a new wall, free of knights and castles.
Somewhere between two fat books jockeying for better position on the tilting wooden shelf, a small, yellowing book, its wordless spine barely visible between the neighboring volumes, drew me to it for no apparent reason. I reached between the hefty books and pulled it out.
I glanced down at the book and noticed my hands were trembling. I opened the book and my eyes went very blurry and wet. Every hair on my body was standing on end. I stared at it again, not comprehending, and handed it to my wife. Mumbling: "Oh, God, Oh God," like a rain-soaked mantra, I ran out into the street and whirled around weeping: "Oh, God, Oh God!"
Standing in the bookstore where I had left her, my wife looked at the Hebrew script, written in fading ink, on the inside cover of the thin book of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale I had just deposited in her hands, and read: "To my sweet grandson, Danny, from grandpa, the translator, with much love. Harry S. Davidowitz."