- Written by Alexandra D Smith
- Category: Yerushalayim
We emerged in the Mishneh neighborhood. Tradespeople, merchants, prosperous crafters all lived in this part of the city according to Mariamne. Shining above all, off to our left, I saw Beit haMiqdas rising up on the broad top of Har Moriah beyond the four square towers of the Antonia Fortress which glowered over its reluctant provincials.
The wide road led us down toward the base of the Temple mount and along the long western side of it. Broad steps which led up to arched walkways allowed people to pass over the valley through which we walked to reach the Temple level. The city rose steeply on our right in serried ranks of tumble down hovels, shanties and crumbling insulae.
Beyond the southern end of Har Moriah, we started zig zagging up the steep, narrow streets of the Lower City. Though Yerushalayim was tiny compared to Eskanderejai, the road seemed long. Half way up, Mariamne turned and gazed over the city.
“Look, you can see the Pool of Siloam from here. There, off to the right, with the stand of date palms around it, and that gold roofed building there. Do you see it?”
We turned and walked some more, always up the hill. Then we came to the escarpment. It was a long line of boulders and dirt, jagged and rough.
The escarpment defined the edges of Har Zion: the upper city where the wealthy, the Osey haTorah and the functionaries of Roma Imperia made their homes. The market and theater were there. The old palace where the Herods had always made their official residence, and the new Herodian Palace were there as well. Those bridging walkways casting deep shadows over the declivity of the Tyropoeon Valley, which I had first seen from beneath, all lead from Har Zion to the Temple. Only the poor people from the Lower City and visitors not from the city herself would use the Huldah Gates at the southern end of the Har Moriah to ascend to Beit haMiqdas.
Mariamne turned off the road leading us out of the Lower City almost at the city’s walls. Our way twisted and turned several times. At last, we stood before a wooden door bound in leather set in a honey-colored stucco wall. She knocked, and the door opened immediately.
“How may we serve you today, madam?” The person at the door asked with quiet courtesy.
“Susa expects us, though perhaps not so soon as today. We had good winds from Eskanderejai to Ashdod, and easy travel through the night from Ashdod all the way to the Fish Gate. Is she within?” Mariamne shared succinctly.
“I will bring her to you. Please follow me.” The girl took us to a large room, cool and shaded. We heard a garden fountain splashing further along into the reaches of the building. After the noise and smells of the city, the quiet receiving room suited us all perfectly.
The furniture was simple and undecorated, though well polished. We occupied a long bench. A single chair, with no arms or back, and a large chest were the only other pieces of furniture in the room. The walls were whitewashed without any decorative stenciling or frescos.
“Mariamne, how can you possibly have gotten here so quickly? Did you bribe the very winds? And who are your charming companions?
“Was Eskanderejai as you had left it? Did the rose petals travel well enough? Have you decided how you will market the attar if you and Sekmer succeed?
“Will you stay through Yom Kippur, or do you have to leave right after Yom Teruah? We would love to host you for as long as you can stay. It’s never long enough to suit me. There is such a nice feast planned for Yom Teruah.
“Now introduce me, please. What will they think of me? Running on like this when we haven’t met properly?” The speaker was a tall woman wearing white from the wrap covering her head to the hem of her robes. Her nose was finely molded and her eyes were a rich brown set deep in their sockets. Her mouth was broad and tended to smiling, as the little lines clustered around the corners of her eyes could attest.
“Children, this is Susa. We are in one of the homes of the Osey haTorah. We will stay here for the next few days. Susa, this one is Maryam Hanna bat Shelomit. She is here to go to the Temple for her service with the corps of weavers. This little one is my very own Iakobos. After we see Hanna off to Beit haMiqdas, he is going for a lovely holiday in the country to visit with my sister’s family at Yam-haKinneret,” Mariamne performed the introductions with perfect gravity. As though ‘Kobos and I were the sort of people who needed to be introduced.
“Thank you for inviting us to stay with you,” I offered. Bet Maryam was strong on the forms of courtesy. I could feel the spirits of my foremothers around me, with raised eyebrows, waiting on my manners.
“You are more than welcome, Hanna, as I suppose we must call you. But don’t thank me too hard, you haven’t seen where you will sleep tonight. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but we are Osey haTorah here. In order to keep the law, we hold our possessions in common and spend our time bringing what relief we can to the poor and the sick. It is rarely exciting, but always fulfilling. The work is difficult enough that we find it easy to sleep-- even on rough pallets such as we have here. Let me show you where you can put your things. Would you like to go to the baths, Mariamne? The morning rush is over, and the water will be as clear as it gets.” Susa led us to a set of steep stairs. At the top of the stairway was a large open space.
On the far side of the large room were windows with a clear view across the city to the Ophel and south face of the Temple Mount. I could make out the Huldah Gates themselves. There were the two doors together, and there further down the wall were the three doors together. I leaned out the window and when I looked to the left, I saw the top tier of the theater. It couldn’t be anything else with that distinctive half-moon shape.
“Do we get to sleep here? I can see the whole city from these windows,” I exclaimed.
“I want to see. Lift me up. I want to see, too,” ‘Kobos demanded.
“Look there’s a bench here. If you take your sandals off, you can stand on the bench and then no one has to lift you up. You’re a big enough boy you can do it for yourself.” But I helped him with his sandal ties all the same.
“Let me take you to the baths. You’ll be more comfortable after you’ve had a chance to rinse away the dust of the road and get cleaned up. You may leave your packs here, clean clothes will be provided when you have finished bathing,” Susa interjected into the midst of my pointing out those places of interest I recognized to ‘Kobos.
“Let’s go, children. Our hostess is taking time from her day to make sure we know the way and have what we need when we get there. We don’t want to keep her from her appointed rounds, do we?” Mariamne reinforced Susa’s suggestion.
Having just arrived, we set out once more, sandals reattached to our feet. Susa gave me a large pile of toweling to take with us. Mariamne got a wicker box to carry.
The bath was unlike others I had seen. The water ran from a short duct into one side of the pool. There was a lip cut into the rim of the vast basin on the other side which allowed the water to spill out and flow on its way down a channel and into a drain. We all used the women’s side of the baths. ‘Kobos was still small enough no one minded if he frolicked while they washed. We scrubbed well down, and rinsed ourselves thoroughly before climbing into the bath.
The water was only cool, neither hot nor cold. But it felt good to float in fresh water. Maybe the Osey haTorah had the right of it, and running water made the best, freshest baths. When we were on the verge of wrinkling, we climbed out.
Fresh clothes after a toweling off that left us glowing suited me perfectly. I could see the attraction in a commitment to a life so pure and clean that one only wore white, and one bathed every day at least once. I wondered who took on the chore of laundry in their community in common. In the usual run of my days, I could not imagine anything so white remaining in that condition for long.
White clothes wouldn’t last with the regular visits to the poor and sick made by the Osey haTorah in a city silted in honey-colored dust. And then there were the pous upon pous of toweling all those tidy Osey haTorah fouled every morning in the process of becoming spotlessly pure all over again. Keeping up with the washing might require most of the shared labor to which they had all committed. Yet there were still meals to be made, rooms to be swept, dishes to be washed and myriad duties in the larger community. On consideration, the Osey haTorah did not meet my standards for an ideal community.
The ceremony for the welcoming of the Shabbat as dusk fell surprised me. I had not heard those prayers, seen those candles lit, those gestures of welcome and sanctity since I had left the home of my childhood on the Yam-haKinneret. For all I cherished my service to the Lady in Her Cart, I had given more than half my life to the worship of haShem living under Zebadyah’s roof at Migdala.
I let the familiar welcome prayer flow around me and through me. The devotion of the Osey haTorah felt like a draft of cool air and warm light all at once. It filled the room and the congregation gathered there to witness it.
We welcomed the Shabbat with the lighting of the candle and the song of praise. ‘Kobos and I received the blessing for children. Then we sang in the angels. There were more verses to this prayer than we had used at home, but I knew the refrain and most of the connecting words.
After this, a man stepped forward and blessed the wine. People picked up the shining, sweating jugs of wine and began pouring a little into each simple cup at every place around the tables. Others came with bread, and the meal itself.
“Don’t either of you mistake that there’s more than what you find in your bowl tonight. Our hosts are vegetarians, they neither sacrifice nor consume animal flesh for all they are so devout. Eat what you get and be glad of the goodness,” Mariamne hissed to ‘Kobos and me as we moved to the tables. “And by Her Cart, don’t crowd in and brush up against anyone. If you do, they’ll have to go to the baths straight away and become repurified. We sit over there, at the visitors’ table. Don’t make any sudden moves if one of them is serving or clearing. They know how not to accidentally bump into you. But neither of you has much of the skill that I have observed.”
Quietly, we sat. We were the last served, but the laying out of the food went swiftly, and as with everything they did which wasn’t praying, silently. We had our bowls and olivewood spoons before many moments had passed.
I was ready to dig into my savory bowl of lentils and greens when Mariamne dug her elbow sharply into my side. She shook her head minutely when I turned to look at her. One of the older men at the head table began to pray in sing-song Ivrit, rocking slightly with his palms facing up and his eyes tightly shut.
The Osey haTorah had all shut their eyes. Some rocked with the hazzan. Many lips moved silently. I couldn’t tell if they prayed his prayer or theirs, but the wizened man alone made any noise at it. He prayed for some time. Ivrit sounded enough like my own milk tongue that I followed a little.
He prayed for peace in the city, and peace in Ysrael. He prayed for peaceful relations with the Roma Imperia and the Pharisees. He prayed for the harvest, and the health of the people of all the Tribes. He prayed for individuals.
After a time, he stopped. I looked to Mariamne to see if it were time to pick up our spoons. Again she shook her head very slightly, though she seemed to have shut her eyes just as tightly as the Osey haTorah around us. She gripped ‘Kobos’ wrist, sitting on the other side of her, so that he too would leave his spoon be, until our hosts were ready to eat.
Another senior member of the community lifted the flat loaf of barley bread in front of him and blessed it in a shorter prayer. He set the bread down and picked up his spoon. At last.
Our food wasn’t very hot, but it was still delicious. Given how the warmth of the day still lingered, even in the thick-walled, deep-shaded commune of the Osey haTorah, maybe they held the extra long prayers on purpose, so that the food wouldn’t overheat anyone further. Or maybe they were devout enough that it mattered less to them that the food was hot than that they had satisfied their urge to glorify haShem, and all his ministering angels, to the top of their bent.
We ate in silence. We helped to clear our plates in silence. Then we gathered in the freshly emptied space. The tables had been disassembled: they were planks across saw-horses under the linen tablecloths. The benches were swung around so that they made spacious rows. We sat in the back on the women’s side of the room.
‘Kobos was small enough that he was allowed to stay with us. Though one tall man came and asked if ‘Kobos would like to sit with him on the men’s side. ‘Kobos held out a hand to the man, but he only smiled softly and nodded to the bench across the aisle. ‘Kobos dropped his hand to his side, shook his head shyly at the question and burrowed closer to his mother. The man moved off to his seat without any attempt at cajolery.
The service seemed long to me, although parts of it were familiar. I sang what I knew or could parse. I prayed the words and gave the responses when I knew them. I listened hard to the Yvrit, the holy language of my father’s people, but a language I knew less well than ‘Elines, or even the priestly tongue of Misr.
Finally, the Shabbat service concluded. The Aron Kodesh for their Torah was shut, and the candles extinguished with one final prayer. We nodded good evening to Susa, and took ourselves to the upper room.
For a while, Mariamne engaged us with a teaching song about the generations from Adam to David. Since this wasn’t playing, or creative entertainment, or formal teaching, it was not a forbidden activity. The day stretched long and longer behind us. Really, it had begun the day before on the Queen of Waves. I hadn’t slept in the cart, though I tried.
‘Kobos went first. He slumped against me as he listened and tried to sing along to all the strange names. His singing became a murmur, then the regular breathing common to sleepers. I touched Mariamne’s sleeve to draw her attention.
She smiled at me. Without words, we undressed ‘Kobos and laid him on his strawed pallet under the open arched windows. I gave Mariamne a hug, then laid myself down on another pallet. Mariamne spent a little time sorting her pack with our only lamp flickering beside her. I fell asleep before she had finished finding what she looked for.
The morning dawned cool and grey. ‘Kobos and I were awake before Mariamne. We climbed onto the bench beneath the window and watched the city’s pigeons soar and flutter, peck and perch. When the sun broke through the pearly sheen of grey, the light shining from the golden finials of the roof of the Temple dazzled us.
Looking to the left out the open arches, we leaned out only just a very little. I kept one arm wrapped strongly around ‘Kobos. We ogled the magnificent half circle of concrete tiers rising high above the houses and market which was the new theatron of Yerushalayim. It had been built while Augustus ruled from Roma, and finished only the year mother bore me. The market place around the theatron already bustled with traders setting up their stalls and opening their carts to display their wares.
“Ahem. If my youngest should fall from the windows here, I will call you a murderer before the Sanhedrin, and then you won’t have to enroll in Beit ha Miqdas corps of weavers,” Mariamne warned dryly from her pallet.
“I have my arm around him. He won’t fall, will you ‘Kobos?” I demurred. The object of our concern giggled and pointed at a string of camels entering the market from the far side.
They wore draped blankets, loaded down with all manner of bundles, boxes, and baskets. It was an exotic sight to both of us. Though camel trains might enter and leave Eskanderejai every day of the year, ‘Kobos was too young to join the street urchins of the Nome Judaica who watched as they came and went in solemn splendor from the Canopic Gate.
“Come down from that window before our hosts decide we’re breaking Shabbat with climbing and sight-seeing. Today is a day of many services, but no cold baths, in any case. And look, they have left us a chamber pot. We will not have do without elimination, as the Osey haTorah do on this sacred day. Though they ought not account it work, as they eat so many vegetables I can’t imagine they find themselves costive,” my aunt mused.
“Really?” I couldn’t help asking.
“Really. They take Shabbat very, very seriously. And they are a very serious people to begin with,” Mariamne explained.
“Will we upset them if we don’t follow their custom?” This was one of the most important points my protocol Matroi stressed at Tzor.
“Not at all. They know it takes years for those who wish to join the community of Osey haTorah to learn and follow all their rules and behaviors. They do not expect temporary guests to be able to do as they do.”
“Then why do they have guests at all?”
“They believe acts of mercy and charity best express their devotion to the principles of haShem,” she replied.
We went downstairs after tidying the room and making our beds ‘to keep the home pleasant for Shabbat.’ These few chores were not forbidden. Nor was laying the table for each meal, or clearing the dishes away. Washing them, however, was out of the question, of course, until after havdalah at sunset.
Downstairs, we sat at our table apart and ate the barley porridge sprinkled with date pieces. When the meal had finished, we helped to move the tables and benches around for the morning service. After that came instruction, derived from the parts of the Torah with which the Osey haTorah did not disagree. So nothing about sacrificing animals, then. Or an-eye-for-an-eye, since they followed the way of Peace.
‘Kobos and I were taken apart from the rest of the community. We heard the children’s version of the teachings and instruction the Osey haTorah valued so highly by Susa herself. She focused on the treatment of strangers, starting with Abram’s reception of the Angels.
Ah, so this is why they were so kind to strangers. We might be angels! What a different way to look at strangers. At Migdala, the village practiced suspicion and reserve regarding strangers. After all, what could there be to draw someone to Migdala otherwise? At Tzor, strangers were trading partners, spa guests, hospice seekers, visiting priestesses. I had never heard that anyone thought they might be angels.
The midday meal followed instruction. Then more instruction followed the midday meal. After that came a space for resting quietly. I hadn’t napped in the midafternoon since I had left Migdala, but I didn’t complain. I found it easy enough to lie quietly on my pallet, and this honored our hosts. ‘Kobos felt differently. So Mariamne didn’t lie quietly on her pallet. Instead, she and ‘Kobos worked on the generations from Adam to David song.
Then came the evening service, followed by the last meal of Shabbat, and the rituals bidding it farewell. When we had finished, I offered to help wash the dishes that had been piling up all day. Susa said it would be easier for the members of the commune to wash up without worrying about bumping into me. I was relieved. I knew it couldn’t be easy, however large the kitchen, to work around so many people without ever touching one of them.