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The Shawl - A Fateful Moment

Illustration by Danielle Meler
ESRAmagazine Short Story Competition. THIRD PLACE


I drove into a sleepy village in the hills of Galilee just before the Sabbath. The bed and breakfast owner gave me directions to the synagogue and left. I hadn't prayed in years and wasn't thinking of it. I pre-paid for dinner but that wouldn't be served for a while. I stepped outside. The air was clear and the setting sun painted the distant Mediterranean Sea gold. I wandered off and found myself drawn to an ancient, domed building. The sun sprayed its last golden light on the synagogue of the ARI. I peeked in, saw no one and decided to enter. I took a skullcap at the door. Then I saw him. An old man seated in front of the Holy Ark with its eternal light flickering above.

"Come in," he said. "Others will be along shortly. Are you visiting?"

"Passing through."

"We don't see many outsiders."

He opened a faded felt bag and gently removed a time worn prayer shawl. He pulled it over his head as my father used to do, mumbled a prayer, then draped the shawl over his thin shoulders.

I smiled and said. "That shawl has seen better days."

"True." The old man nodded.

"Have you considered replacing it?"

"Many times," he said. "I even thought to throw it away. But, this prayer shawl is twenty-four generations in our family." He pointed. "See this patch? It was torn during the Inquisition when the family was driven from Spain. This is a gunpowder mark when one of my forefathers was forced to fight in the Turkish army. He fled with the family across the Caspian Sea to Russia." The old man pointed again. Cossacks caused this bloodstain. Pogroms in Poland, these." He shifted in his seat and pulled the shawl closer about him.

"Are you cold?" I asked.

"It's the memories that chill me. My grandfather gave this shawl to my father when the Germans took him to Bergen-Belsen. My father passed it to my mother. She died in Dachau. She gave it to my brother, sister and then me before we were sent to the ovens in Auschwitz."

The old man used the shawl to dry his tears. The wool was stained and worn through, where he touched it to his cheek. He stared up into the glow of the eternal light suspended over the Holy Ark.

"In 1945 they freed us from the camps. I ran trusting no one, nothing but this shawl and what it stands for." He stroked the faded wool with bony hands. "This never failed me. From Germany I started on foot to Israel, a penniless scarecrow. It took me two years to walk across Europe, over the mountains of Turkey, down into the Syrian plains. I hid amidst the cedars of Lebanon. Under cover of night we slipped past British border guards into the Holy Land. This shawl kept me warm in winter. It shaded me from the summer sun. I squeezed rainwater from it to satisfy my thirst.

"In 1948 when we declared Israel a nation, I wore this shawl while defending against seven invading Arab armies. In 1967 I prayed with it at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. I stood with it at the graves of our athletes murdered at the Munich Olympics in 1972. In '73, on Yom Kippur I was praying here, when the Syrians, Egyptians and Iraqis attacked us on the holiest day of the year. In '75 I used it to cover the bodies of twenty-one children slaughtered by terrorists in the school house not far from here."

The old man's voice rang with pride. "I wore this shawl in '76 when blowing the ram's horn to celebrate our soldiers' freeing of Israeli hostages at Entebbe. In '82 I stood on the hills of Galilee watching the army of Israel drive the terrorists back to Beirut in Lebanon."

The old man turned from the eternal light and gazed at me. The flame of that light burned in his eyes. He stroked the worn wool. "This shawl has witnessed the prophecy of Ezekiel. Do you remember the Biblical portion about the Valley of the Bones?"

It was difficult for me to recall childhood lessons learned for my barmitzvah. Now I turned to the eternal flame to focus my thoughts on the memories. Ezekiel's words came to my lips:

"The House of Israel shall be decimated by its enemies. The bodies of the men, women and children of Israel shall be thrown into the Valley of Death where maggots shall eat their carcasses; the flesh peel from their bones and the enemies of Israel shall dance upon the bones. But it shall come to pass when the Lord thy God calls upon Israel again to lead the nations in righteousness. He shall connect the foot bone to the leg bone and the leg bone to the thighbone. Bone on bone shall He cause to be connected and the bones shall rise up from the Valley of Death. The Lord shall cause flesh to grow on these bones, and eyes shall return to their sockets to see the evil that has come into the world. And tongues shall grow in the mouths to speak the word of God unto man so that he shall know what is right in the eyes of the Lord.…"

"Good Sabbath to you sir."

I turned from the glare of the eternal light and blinked at the young man standing near me.

"Good Sabbath," he said again. "Will you lead us in the evening prayers?"

Others were in the synagogue waiting for me to lead them.

"Sabbath services are about to begin," the young man said.

I turned to look for the old man. He was gone. In his place, was the shawl. I reached down and touched the faded wool. It was damp where he had dried his tears. I took it up and draped it around my shoulders.

"That shawl has seen better days," the young man said.

"True," I answered.

"Here's a newer one you can use."

"But, you see, I am the twenty-fifth generation in our family to wear this shawl. It wouldn't be right to give it up now." I stepped before the Holy Ark in the glow of the eternal light, covered my head with the shawl and sang.

"Ashrei Yoshvei Vaeitekor Ode Yhallehucha Sela! Happy Are They Who Dwell In Thy House!" 

 

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Monday, 18 October 2021

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