Keeping it simple

Keeping it simple

December 31, 2009 14:22



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Bialik is almost synonymous with Israel's national culture, his popular acclaim earning him household name status. Rehov Bialik in Tel Aviv is almost as renowned as the literary works of Haim Nahman Bialik himself. In fact, there are numerous reminders of Bialik around the country, some more evidently linked than others. There's Kiryat Bialik in Haifa's bayside suburbs and Moshav Givat Chen near Ra'anana - Chen (het, nun) being Bialik's initials. But very few know about the obscure Aluf Batzlut alleyway, tucked away in the bustling marketplace of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Amid the abundant surrounding merchants, this short alleyway connects Rehov Shouk with Rehov Herzl, and is just as unassuming as the connotation of its namesake "Aluf Batzlut Ve'aluf Shum" (Knight of Onion and Knight of Garlic) - a short story written by Bialik in the 1920s. While on the surface the story is an amusing fictional children's tale, the beauty of the piece is that it caters to adults as well, since it is narrated in characteristic poetic language and contains a variety of overtones. In an attempt not to detract from Bialik's masterpiece, the story goes something like this: A prince had been traveling for seven weeks, seeking to explore the world. Upon his homecoming, the prince received an offer to visit a magical island, which was previously uncharted territory, and where no prince had ever been before. Keen for an adventure, the prince accepted the offer, and proceeded with his entourage to unearth this mysterious island. But all he encountered was disappointment. Nothing about the island was particularly different or new to what he had experienced before. The only unique feature he observed was that everything was opposite to what he was accustomed to - day was night, right was left, etc. The prince then got transported to the castle of the king of the island, who entertained him with a feast of grand proportion. After wining and dining, the king then questioned the prince as to whether or not he felt the meal was up to the standards of his homeland. The prince's answer began with words of praise - living up to his honorable and polite nature. But he could not hide the truth, and felt obligated to reveal what was in his heart. The prince explained that he felt the food was missing onions. The king was surprised as he had never heard of onions before. In fact, no one on the entire island knew what onions were. So the prince decided to make a grand gesture to the king and his advisers, and offered for his accompanying cooks to make them a meal with the onions they had brought with them on the journey. The king accepted the gesture, and later sat down to another feast of grand proportion, this time with food that was seasoned with onions. The king and his team of advisers examined the onions and deliberated over their accompanying flavor. The chief adviser deemed the onions to be "splendid" - like nothing he had ever tasted before. The prince subsequently gave the king all the onions he and his entourage had brought with them as a gift. Delighted, the king wanted to somehow compensate the prince for his kind gift, and after consulting his crew, decided to give the prince a sack of gold - equivalent to the weight of the onions he had given him. Along with the gold, the king presented the prince with a letter, deeming him the "Knight of Onion" - as a testimony for his deed. When the prince returned to his homeland, he decided to make a celebratory feast with a number of local friends and acquaintances. During the festivity, the prince relayed what had happened to him on the mysterious island, including the unexpected gift he received. Amid the crowd was another local prince (let's call him Prince 2), who, after hearing the story, was determined to acquire some wealth and glory of his own. Prince 2 sent a couple of his envoys to scout the mysterious island to seek out what other commodities were missing. They discovered the island was also lacking garlic, and returned to their master with this wonderful news. Consequently, off went Prince 2 on his mission, sacks of garlic intact. As Bialik tells it, Prince 2 went through the exact same motions as Prince 1, and was also invited to the king's palace for a feast. When asked what he thought of the food, Prince 2 revealed his suggestion about garlic, and gave the supply he had brought to the king, as a gift, just like prince 1 had done. The garlic was examined by the king and his advisers, who concluded that while garlic was rather similar to onion, it was also unique, and rather tasty in and of itself. And so, the king wanted to repay Prince 2 for his gesture, and after consulting with his advisers, decided to give the prince something else very valuable from what they now possessed - onions. Head down in sorrow, with the sack of onions in his possession, Prince 2 returned to his homeland, keeping a low profile, and not revealing any details of his journey. And this is how the "Knight of Onion and Knight of Garlic" evolved. Aside from conveying a story with multiple implications, Bialik also delights the reader with his rich language, which includes numerous twists that often allude to the Bible and aggadic sources. The story's popularity warranted its translation into English in 1939, when it was published in New York. In Israel, it also made headway and was made into a play in 1945. Then, in the late 1970s, it expanded into a musical and was broadcast on television. One could say that Simtat Aluf Batzlut embodies one of Bialik's central themes, as it contains many plain warehouses, parking spaces and a rather demure metalworking facility. With its low profile and mediocre exterior, there is nothing particularly distinguishable about the alleyway. So much so, even the local merchants aren't aware of its existence. What's also fitting is that Aluf Batzlut is a small and quiet alley amid the busy marketplace, and is situated just meters away from merchants of onions and garlic.

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