The Truth Hurts
The Holy Truth
The holy citizens of Tzfat – Israel’s highest city - were once very poor. They were also starving. While the adults lived on soul food, mothers made their children soup from herbs and grass they gathered in the hills. Sometimes they even added some spittle to bind everything – just for luck. ‘Toi, toi, toi.’
One day Yosef, the eldest of Adina Sofer’s brood of ten, said “Eema, the Almighty has spoken to me in a dream. He wants us to go to Manchester in England where many pious Jews like us live very well and have plenty to eat. Please take us, Eema,” he begged. So his mother, fearing worse at home, spat three times and muttered ‘toi, toi, toi’ to ward off The Evil Eye.
Nothing But The Truth
“Yossi Della Reina,” recounted Shimon Alweisz of Holy Land Magic-Mystic Tours, “was a 16th century rabbi in Tzfat who tried to defeat Satan by using Kabbalah. But after his attempt failed, he turned to a life of sin. Worse was to come. When he died, he was buried outside the communal cemetery by his fellow citizens.
“Now,” explained Shimon, leading a group of enthralled American Christians through Tzfat’s best mystic bits, “Della Reina’s burial spot may be seen next to the central square of the Old Jewish Quarter. What’s more, local people still spit at the grave as they walk past.”
“Don’t be silly!” interrupted Ellen, a Tzfat resident who happened to be passing by and who believed that blunt interference was her religious duty.
“We don’t do things like that in the Holy City of Tzfat. But carry on – please do,” she added, wiping delicately around her mouth. “Tell the story as you must. If you think it’s good for your business, then it’s good for ours too. After all, a girl’s got to eat. ‘Toi, toi, toi.’”
So Help Them God
The generations following Yosef Sofer grew fond of life in England, forgetting their forefathers had migrated from Poland to the Holy Land to restore the ancient places. They became lax in their observance of Jewish ritual, neither eating kosher nor kindling the Sabbath lights.
But one day Yosef’s great-great-grandson, Danny realised that his mother’s family name ‘Sofer’ meant he was destined to be a writer. First, he took creative writing and extra English Literature classes at school where his studies included the works of the metaphysical poets.
“Awesome,” he said of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X1 ‘Spit in my face ye Jews’. I know it’s not what Donne was writing about. But it sort of explains why Jerusalem Talmudic students have been spitting at Armenian Christian seminarians. I want to learn a little about Christianity.”
But Anna, his mother, more superstitious than pious, shivered when Danny announced he intended to visit Manchester Cathedral.
“I think you’ll be the first person in our family ever to enter any sort of church. Go if you must. But be warned – you won’t like it.”
Then she spat three times and whispered "’toi, toi, toi.’”
Danny just wanted to hear a sermon by the novelist, Jeanette Winterson which was part of the annual Manchester Literature Festival. But later he decided his mother had been right.
First, Winterson’s speech seemed oddly like an article she had written for The Times newspaper two years before when she somehow equated the State of Israel with terrorist organisations which aimed to destroy it.
Then Danny felt personally hurt that a writer whose work he had previously much admired should use a phrase like ‘But Jesus is no Jewish princess.’
“If I didn’t know better,” he told his friend, Cliff as they left the building, “that woman was being antisemitic.”
“Be careful what you say, mate. But, yeah … my family have been strong Methodists like, er, forever. Even so, some of Winterson’s remarks made me feel really bad. My parents are always moaning about how spoilt my sister and I are – and they never mention Jews.
“Also,” added Cliff, “this makes me sound a right geek. But I didn’t like hearing her say ‘effing’ during her talk. It’s O.K. when it’s us, just messin’ about. But in there …", he said, swinging round to point at the cathedral, “it’s supposed to be holy. It didn’t seem right for her to use bad language. It stuck out; sort of jarred – didn’t work.”
“Y’mean when she mentioned ‘… every bit of effing advertising …’? It also gave me the creeps. O.K., I’m not religious and hardly ever go to synagogue. But still I feel upset by that. Bloody hell, we’d have soon been down the cop shop if someone had heard us go on about ‘lessie bitches’.
“Ha! Y’reckon? We wouldn’t say that about anyone - ever. Would we?”
“But it’s made me decide something,” said Danny, now serious.
“I’ll tell my mum she was right about the cathedral – even if it wasn’t for her reason. Then,” he added with a sly grin, “I’ll ask her if she’ n’ Dad will loan me the dosh to get to Israel. To go to Tzfat”
“I love your nerve, going into that war zone. But isn’t Tzfat where Madonna’s been ?”
“Yeah. But it gets better. I’ve never told you before but it seems my great-great-grandparents came to live in Manchester from there. They also say,” he giggled, “that I’m the spitting image of my great-great-granddad. ’Toi, toi, toi.’”
(Copyright, Natalie Irene Wood – 05 November 2012)