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Miryam part 1

by Luise Rinser

Translated from the German by Frank Thomas Smith

He did not speak to them except in parables,
but when they were alone,
he explained everything to his disciples”.

Mark, 4:34

You call me Mary Magdalene. You should call me by my real name: Miryam. In Aramaic, my mother tongue, Miryam means: the beautiful and also the bitter one. Both apply to me: I was beautiful, and much bitterness was in me from youth on, until I met Yeshua, and new bitterness was allotted me when he was killed. Magdala is the name of my home city. A town in Galilee, a mass of chalk-white stone blocks, so white that they dazzle in the sun and sparkle in the moonlight. A commercial town, a town of strong smells, stench and fragrance combined: the smell of fish from the Sea of Kineret and salt, the fragrance of goods which my father bought and sold: sandalwood, myrrh, balsam, perfumed olive oil, accompanied by the stench of camel dung and donkey urine and the sweat smell of men, the merchants and caravan drivers who came out of the desert. When the north wind blew, it wafted the air in, then for a while the town smelled of desert, and after the snow of the distant Hernon. My hometown. It’s old name came from the fish: Migdal Nunaya, fishburg. The Greeks who lived in the eastern neighboring province, in Decapolis, called it Tarischaia, and this name also has a connection to the fish.

Long after Jesus’ death, when I lived in my cave in that region called Provincia, far away from my home, far away from the scene of the great sorrow, the west wind brought me the smell of the sea, of salt, of fish, familiar smells, mixed though with the strange one from dead waters and swamp; just the weak hint of salt and fish smell reminded me and hurt. Nothing was overcome. On such days I crawled into the deepest corner of the deep cave, beat the damp raw rock with my fists and cried out for Yeshua. I screamed so that the sheep that grazed before my cave ran away together with the sheepdogs that guarded them and the shepherd who brought me bread and milk every day. It was he who had showed me the cave when I wandered around, homeless and helpless. He was a child then. I watched him grow up. He stayed near me and was gentle like his lambs. But when I screamed he rushed off, also screaming. He knew why I screamed, however, and he understood, because I told him much about Yeshua, whose widow he thought I was, and I let him believe it.

He was the first to see our landing, he stood there on the seashore where the storm ran our ship aground, that rotting, long unseaworthy sailboat in which we escaped from Saul’s persecution, a decade after Yeshua’s death: Miryam Schuleamit, Miryam Ja’abovi and I, also Shoshana, Yohana and Sara, our loyal servant, together with the two sisters from Bethany and their brother Lazarus, whom they called Lazaire, and who soon began to bravely preach. We had also hired two Phoenician sailors, who brought us here for a lot of money. After the landing they were baptized and became Lazarus’s companions.

There was no one on the beach when we were thrown ashore, only the child, the shepherd boy, and he did the sensible thing: without a word he brought us water from a spring. Then he led us, still without words, to the village Aqua Mortua. We were received graciously there, but: the area was occupied by the Romans. They were also here. Everywhere Rome. And the hated language: Aqua Mortua. Latin.

The Romans were lazy, however, and they knew nothing of what happened in Erez Yisrael. That was far away. Eight weeks by sea, or more. A hundred years. There were no Jews here in Provincia, except us. But we were no rebels. We were shipwrecked, quiet strangers. But we preferred not to be taken for a group. We went further inland in twos, into the unknown. We still had money, Roman coins with Caesar’s head, which were also accepted here, and we worked where we found work: in the fields, in the vineyards, and we tried to learn the foreign tongue better, which wasn’t difficult, for the Romans’ Latin rang in our ears and we began to proclaim Yeshua’s teaching, but we didn’t know if we would be arrested and killed even here. I said: we. It wasn’t so. Not we. I still couldn’t bear to speak of Yeshua. I separated from the rest, at the division into twos I was superfluous anyway. The little shepherd led me to the cave. After all the wild tumult of the last years all I needed to do was sleep, infinitely long, infinitely deep.

The cave was the right place for me. It reached far into the mountain and in the rear formed a kind of low chamber in which I could lie but not stand. The shepherd patiently gathered the bits of sheep-wool that hung on the thorn-hedges and brought them to me, and soft hay that smelled of meadow flowers. Every morning a small jug of milk stood at the cave’s entrance, and alongside it a piece of goat cheese and some bread; the little shepherd shared his breakfast with me. What did I do in the cave? Who invented the story that I lived like a holy penitent with a polished skull in my hands, weeping for my sins? Foolish prattle. What should I be penitent about, if HE absolved me? To repent still would mean I didn’t really believe that I was born anew in his eyes. No: whoever steps over that threshold through which HE leads, does not look back. What do you know about me? You know what a few men have reported, men who wrote much later of what they heard said about the woman who I was. I was supposed to have been a sinner. That’s their slander. What did they mean? What they meant is clear. When they talk about a sinner they mean an adulteress or a whore. I was neither. How, then, did this idea come into the story?

There were two sources; one was myself, for I was an outsider, not fitting the picture of a Jewish woman. When my father died I was sixteen and not engaged to be married. A young woman in Yisrael, rich, beautiful and of marriageable age, who sits home and studies the Torah like a boy and doesn’t want a husband, that is already a scandal. Doesn’t she place herself wantonly and sinfully outside the holy law if she refuses to bear children? Doesn’t she jeopardize Yisrael’s salvation when she closes her womb to the Messiah, whom every female Yisrealite of royal descent could give birth to? Such a one was a sinner. In any case she was weird. Why wasn’t she married? Did she have a secret blemish?

It was something quite different. I swore never to marry at twelve years of age, when my mother died. Why?

I loved my mother very much, for I saw that she suffered. She was beautiful and when guests came my father showed her off full of pride, as he showed off his best horse and the new alabaster cup. But she wasn’t allowed to participate in the conversation. She had to stand behind the guests and serve them. That was the custom. Who thought anything about it? Surely her husband loved her, in his way, as he loved his house and his balsam forest and all his property. Sometimes he patted his wife, as he patted his horse. In mother’s eyes I read nothing, neither love nor contempt nor rebellion. She died young, she died of melancholy, she suffocated from lack of spirit. When she died I vowed never to live a life like hers. And I kept that oath.

I became beautiful like my mother. The men twisted their necks and heads after me. Once I noticed how a guest made a sign to my father about me and how both nodded and smiled. After supper the man inspected me from top to bottom. Bad manners. I realized what it meant: I was to marry him. When he looked at my face I showed him my teeth. What’s that mean? He asked. I said: Doesn’t one look at the horse’s teeth that he’s going to buy? He laughed loudly. Afterwards I saw him and my father bargaining for a long time. They were bargaining over me. My aunt said: You’re lucky, the man is filthy rich and very respected.

I cried: He? He will not be my husband, not him. I will not be sold, not even to the highest bidder. I cried it in Aramaic and Greek and Hebrew, so he would really understand; in the borderland we were all trilingual. The man heard and laughed, and my father laughed. The stranger said loudly and also in three languages: I like her. I will break in this wild foal; she’ll be a splendid stock-mare.

At dinner I stumbled on purpose so that the hot soup fell on his bare feet. He screamed, he cursed, I ran off, my aunt bandaged the burns, my father gave him scented oil. The stranger never returned. He lost the courage to tame me. Others came, but my scowling face frightened them. I also smeared ashes on my cheeks. They thought I was sick and left me alone. I began to study the Torah and my brother helped me, although he didn’t see why I, a girl, should study like a boy.

Why do you want to study the Torah, Miryam?

Why not?

You’re a girl.

And?

Girls don’t need to do that. They learn other things, things that are useful.

Useful for whom? Men, children.

Isn’t that enough?

Not for me.

What are you aiming at?

What are you aiming at?

I am a man and can become a teacher. But you, a girl!

Do you despise me?

Not you. You’re an exception.

I’m no exception. I’m a Jew and want to learn. But you, you are one of those who thank God every day that you’re not poor, not sick and not a woman, aren’t you?

Well, yes, that’s the way it is.

That’s the way it is. It doesn’t have to be that way. And I don’t want to stay ignorant. I study!

He shook his head. My father too. He didn’t know that I hated him ever since that story with the Persian, his business partner, that insolent storyteller. There were also other guests at table and they had drunk a lot and had become talkative. The Persian told one story after another. I remember one. Oh, how I remember it! Do you know what he said about how Eve was created? Adam was bored in paradise. God wanted to create a diversion for him, and he decided to give him a woman, for that’s what women are good for: diversion. And he thought: from which part of the man should I make the woman? From the back? No, then she would stand up tall and no longer bow down before the man. From the head? No no, then she will think and butt into all the man’s affairs. From the ear? No, then she would hear too much. From the arm? Then she would be strong and beat the man whenever possible. I know: I’ll take something from the darkest, most hidden part of the man, so that she will remain humble.

Loud laughter. I understood. My father guffawed. I hated him for that. That’s what he thought of his wife, and also of his daughter.

My aunt had listened: They are pigs, she said.

My father died suddenly, before he could decide on a fiancé for me. My brother didn’t either: he took his inheritance and joined the Essenes in the desert. He became a monk and I never saw him again.

So I was alone in the big house that now belonged to me, young and beautiful and rich and without a husband. Something isn’t right with someone like that. She is a demon, someone said who cornered me in a blind alley, until I made him flee with nothing more than my glare. She has snakes instead of hair and glowing coals instead of eyes. He didn’t mean it quite so seriously, but it went around and, once said, was unstoppable. The demon.

Why a sinner though? Why a whore? In the stories those men wrote about Yeshua and me there’s no mention of a whore. How did the whore come into the picture then?

An old story, much older than I. The Greeks called such stories myths. Stories that once happened and were repeated from time to time, as a weaving pattern is repeated, always a little different and nevertheless the same. There was a man in our times called Shimon, he was a magician, a real sorcerer, and he claimed that God ordered him to find his wife in a whorehouse. He did it and went around the land with her afterwards. The original pattern was, however, this: the bride, Sophia, wisdom, had been stolen from one of the high Gods, and he had to find her. She was in the underworld, in the shadows. The underworld became the whorehouse. The God sought his Sophia amongst the whores. She had become a whore herself.

The God and the Whore. The purest and the impurest together: the exalted pair. I heard the story from a Greek. I never imagined that it would one day be applied to me. I had to be a whore to fit into the mythical picture.

In truth I was often found in the small, notorious taverns in which publicans, drovers and loose women hung out. I was there with Yeshua. He liked to associate with such people. He learned from them how the people lived and thought. He heard the complaints and curses against the Romans, the priests, the rich, and from the curses he heard the cry for the savior, the liberator, the promised one, the messiah.

Thus I became a whore. Why though the possessed one from whom Yeshua exorcised seven demons? Is there something to this story?

Yes, there is.

I was sixteen and was bored in my big house, or, rather, uneasiness gripped me. A roving spirit, irresistible. I had relatives in Bethany near Yerushalayim. Why not go there.

But I didn’t go there. What drew me then to Nazareth? Why Nazareth, that hole?

The fish on a hook: it hung there four years, and I didn’t know it, but felt it. It was four years ago that I first met him, he who would be my teacher, destined to me.

A stranger encounter. I stood on the doorstep of our house. A boy walked on the other side of the street. He held his head very high and his bare feet touched the ground so lightly that the dust barely rose. Who was this boy? A stranger. I stared at him. He felt my looking and glanced around him, as though someone had called him. Then he saw me. We looked at each other, curious, child-like. But we were no longer children. He smiled and did something unheard of: he bent his index finger. Come! that means. What a demand! Much later I understood: the bent finger was the fishhook which he threw out to me. The fish took the bate: it never escaped from the hook. Not even until today. And also the fisherman: He never let go of the hook; the fish belonged to him.

Someone pulled me back from the doorway. My aunt.

Is that starting already?

What?

That you gape at young men. It’s about time that your father found a fiancé for you.

Aunt, who is that boy?

How do I know? He’s not from here.

From where then?

Where? From Nazareth, from where nothing good comes. What is it to you?

What is he doing here, aunt?

Oh, You bothersome, naughty questioner!

Tell me.

His father is a carpenter. He’s working over there on the construction. And now enough questions. Not another word or I’ll tell your father.

Not another word, but many thoughts. They couldn’t be forbidden. The memory of that boy embedded itself in me. He wasn’t like others. What was special about him, that I never forget him?

The big question, asked a hundred times, later, still today. Who was he that no one who met him ever forgot him? You could love him, you could hate him, but never overlook him. He was simply THERE, and he was HE. And he was the one I loved. What a fountain was this love, born for an instant, then streaming on underground, deciding my path. Unbreakable bond.

My aunt soon forgot about it and she suspected nothing when, a year later, I begged her to go with me to the sea feast at Kefarnachum. Many went there. My aunt lost sight of me. I mixed with the young people. I had only one idea: to see that boy again. He wasn’t there. But I found out something new. In Nazareth there was a carpenter named Joseph who had a son, twelve or thirteen years old, who was much talked about. He had agitated a whole family, a group of pilgrims and half a town when he got lost. He went with his parents to the Passover feast in Yerushalahim and he separated from them. They only noticed on the return, almost back in Nazareth, and no one knew where he was. They turned back, went all the way again, and in Yerushalahim they found him in the synagogue, amongst the rabbis, and he was talking with them like a real learned scribe and knew so much that they were astounded. He was lavish with quotations from the Torah and gave them new meanings. He was extremely clever and sagacious as an old rabbi. The old ones liked him, but they also found him uncanny, especially when they found out that he belonged to the birth year that King Herod the Great had exterminated, that superstitious madman, to whom it was prophesied that a new king would be born who would overthrow his throne.

The year had been predicted. The astrologers knew that it was an extraordinary constellation: Jupiter and Saturn in conjunction. If all the Jewish boys born that year were killed, the danger would be eliminated. And now it became apparent that one had survived. How was that? Was it a good or a bad sign for Yisrael?

The parents finally found this boy and took him home from the synagogue and scolded him. Understandable. But he looked at them both as though they were strangers and didn’t say a word during the whole trip back. From then on he was no longer a child and more like a guest in the family, a stranger, and one day he left and no one knew to where.

This, and that his name was Yeshua, I found out that time at the sea. On the way back I went to Nazareth and asked around until I found the house of the boy’s parents. I found only the mother there. As I stood before her, my question seemed improper and I spoke of something else.

But she said: Why have you come, girl?

I took heart: You have a son named Yeshua. I met him once when his father was working in my hometown, Magdala.

He has gone.

Gone? Where to?

She pointed to the east, then to the south and repeated: Gone.

From the way she said it, I knew: he was gone forever.

Later, much later, she told me she assumed he had gone to one of those places in the desert which attracted the young men. Why did they do that? What good was it? What did they do in the desert?

My brother also: he was always talking about the end of times, about the great catastrophe, long ago prophesied by our old prophets, and that one could be saved through a strict, pure life. What was that: a strict, pure life?

Little by little I found out some things about it. The men who lived in those desert places belonged to an order. Whoever wanted to enter had to withstand hard trials before he could swear the permanently binding oath: renunciation of property, freedom, marriage, love, in short of everything that binds one to the earth. A hard life otherwise also: by day working in the oasis-gardens in burning heat and frost; nights study and prayer; confessing one’s offences publicly and accusing others who have gone against the order. (What a terrible demand. It made me shudder.) And, above all, blind obedience to the Superior, whose Supreme Superior they called “Teacher of Righteousness”. And why all that? To save themselves, for the end of the world was at hand. Silly belief. No end of time, only a new time was to be expected. There had always been new times, always upheavals. How many beginnings and how many endings had we Jews already experienced since the creation of the world!

How much parting, exodus, exile, persecution, annihilation since our exile in Egypt and in Babylon, how many fatal casualties in the battles against the Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians, Persians and Seleukidians. And it was never the definitive end. A new beginning was always within the end. Yisrael is like an old olive tree: you see a dried up trunk. You think it’s dead, for a hundred years, four hundred years, and suddenly a fresh green branch sprouts, you don’t know how, and from the ancient root the new tree grows. Why, then, this catastrophe-fear? And, my question: if it were so, could some save themselves when all the others die? The story of Noah always infuriated me: he and his family survived in a wooden ship and watched as the others drowned. What kind of man was that Noah? And what kind of God, who wanted it thus and not otherwise?

And my dear little brother: could he want salvation for himself and not for me and others? That was incomprehensible to me, and also incomprehensible was Adonai, the Eternal, who saves a few and destroys the others, even though they are all his children, mostly unhappy and burdened beyond their strength. What can the beast of burden do if it breaks down under the weight? This question caused me great anguish later during my conversations with Yeshua and Yochanan. I never found the true explanation.

One thing I understood, though, when my brother joined the desert monks: in a time like ours one dreamed dark dreams about a great catastrophe that would put an end to our suffering, because we couldn’t save ourselves. We, such a small people, a grain of wheat between the millstones. Job, struck by the Eternal. What a history lay behind us: since Alexander the Macedonian defeated Erez Yisreal our freedom has been lost. We lived not much better than slaves under foreign masters, and never under good ones. The Syrians were the worst: they destroyed the temple, stole the holy devices, ripped apart the Torah rolls, burned them and put to death those Jews who were found with one of the holy books; the observance of the Shabbat was forbidden as was circumcision, and when they found a woman who had circumcised her child, they killed her and hung the child from her neck.  

Many fled to the desert, leaving their possessions behind in the city. The desert as a place of refuge: it was also that during my time, but the persecutors were no longer the Syrians, but their own fear of the eternal rejection by the Highest. At least that’s how I understood it. I despised all who fled and admired those who defied the enemy in open opposition. My mother had taught me this admiration for the fighters: when she spoke of the Maccabee uprising under Mattathias and his son Yehuda her eyes shone. You, she said, are also a Maccabee daughter.

But the Maccabees were defeated!

A defeat can be shameful, but also an honor, remember that.

But why did Adonai permit the courageous among his people to be defeated?

It is not Adonai, Miryam, who defeats his people; the people defeats itself through its sins. At the time the Greeks were in the country. Now we have the pagan Romans. Why? Our fault, our own fault. We ourselves called the Romans into our country.

How? How could we be so stupid?

We weren’t stupid, just weak, because we were divided.

Pay attention to two names: the high priest Hyrkanos and King Aristobulos. Although both sons of our people and brothers, they fought among themselves and tore the people apart in their fight that was carried out with bloodshed. The battle was so great and vile that both parties, on their own, send messengers to Rome: Come and help us! The Romans came, and they stayed, and the Roman eagle screams our shame into our faces until today.

How long will that last, mother?

Until the Messiah comes and frees us.

When will he come, when finally, tell me!

No one knows that, Miryam, and no one may predict his coming, or, if someone knows, he may not say.

Does someone know?

Perhaps one of those in the desert.

Who are they?

They are those who didn’t want to fight and fled to the desert. Today we call them Essenes.

But that was a long time ago, mother, they are all dead, or aren’t they?

New ones always go there.

What do they do?

They wait for the Messiah. They call themselves Chassidim, the pious ones. The most pious of all the pious.

And they won’t fight against the Romans?

Who fights against the Romans?

So we will be forever under their domination?

Until the Messiah comes. Cry out to Adonai to send him soon, cry out, Miryam.

Since then I despised the Essenes and all the Jews who waited there without fighting, until something happened. I didn’t believe in victory without a fight. Not I.

I was furious when my brother joined these desert monks. My little gentle brother. Into whose course hands had he fallen? Who talked him into it?

And Yeshua? Hadn’t his mother pointed in the direction of the desert when I asked her where he was? Was he also with those idle waiters, whom I despised?

Days, nights, weeks, months: I thought about the same thing: I would go to the desert monks and demand my brother back, who betrayed his duty to manage father’s house, business and inheritance. That’s what I’d say. Duty is duty. And I would also say: you have also stolen Yeshua of Nazareth from his family. His mother lives without his help. Is that right? Does the Law allow that?

One day I was ready: I had coins sewn into my clothing, took the strongest of my servants with me, chose the strongest two donkeys, and was on my way.

An adventure. A crazy plan. Sure. But that’s how I was: once decided and begun, I carried it through.

We rode for many days along the Jordan. Where to now, my servant asked, and she didn’t want to continue.

To Bethany, I said. It’s not much farther. When I said that we were near Jericho.

Yerushalayim is there, the servant said, in the west, Bethany is over there, why are we riding farther south?

Why? I didn’t know.

You go to Bethany, I said, go to my relatives, to Martha, Miryam and Lazarus, I’ll come afterwards.

Where are you going?

I didn’t answer. I didn’t know. I rode on. Sand and thorns, snake tracks, fox dung: the desert. Then the dull smell of dead water: the salt-sea. And then I saw the desert lodgings in the hills: lions’ caves rather than human dwellings. Fortresses, unconquerable, unapproachable. Like a city of the dead. And my little brother was there. I was sure of it. And Yeshua too? I wasn’t sure of that.

What to do? I stood there, close to the goal and far from the goal. A useless trip?

Then I saw, yellow in the desert sand, between the salt-sea and the hills, some nomad tents. I would get information here. I got none.

As soon as I got close, two figures with their faces hidden came out of a mountain gap. With outstretched arms they motioned me away. But I went closer until they could hear me, and I cried: you up there, you stole my brother. Give him back to me! Give him back his life!

No answer. Only the echo. The men stood like stone figures, they were terrible, custodians of death, guardians of the black threshold. I cried: robbers of men, you living dead! You hold my brother and my lover prisoners!

From where did the word lover come to me? The echo brought it back to me.

As though it were a password, the men went back into the rock cave. I tried to follow them over stone and rubble, tripped and cut my hands and knees. Punishment.

Obviously.

Anger seized me and anger grew and overwhelmed me and became madness, but this was my madness, which I could not control. From which dark depths did the knowledge emerge in me about how to conjure up an evil spell? Dry camel dung, dead grass, hard roots, in six-pointed star piles, wood and stone rubbed together until the spark springs, the pile is lit, pleasant smelling wild herbs into the fire, who taught me that? And where did the curses come from?

Bent over the fire, I spoke:

Curse you, desert monks! Curse those who sacrifice their manliness in order to convince the Eternal One to send the Messiah. May the cold of your hearts consume your limbs as rust eats iron. May the blood in your veins freeze to ice. May the paralysis of death come over you in life.

The fire went out, the smoke made me drunk. I felt that something foreign had taken possession of me and supported and strengthened me. When I came to my senses it was morning and very cold, but I was hot with evil joy. Now war was declared between me and everything masculine, between me and all the pious, between me and Yeshua. I felt strong and free.

When I returned to my donkey, which I had tied on the bank of the salt-sea, he sprang back and refused to let me mount. I had to lead him on a rope. Otherwise such a docile animal, what was wrong with him?

My maid also rejected me. She hadn’t gone to Bethany, she waited for me the whole night. When she saw me her hair seemed to stand on end.

What’s the matter? Does the smoke smell bother you?

She was silent - stiff and frightened.

And now, I said, we ride back to Magdala.

Not to Bethany?

No.

A long way. Several days of travel. I had to sell my donkey for a new one. The maid did not say a word to me. Obviously therefore something had happened to me. Good. The demon whom I had called was keeping to our agreement.

Finally I arrived home.

At home in Magdala I bathed and anointed myself with precious oil and put gold hoops and rings on my arms, hands and feet and walked through the town. My jewelry clinked and rang. A test. People looked at me as I passed. The men were drawn to me, but none dared to approach. In the evening the first one came, a respectable businessman, no longer young. He knocked and knocked. The door stayed closed. Through a crack I watched him stand there and finally leave, then I heard other steps. The second one brought gifts and laid them in front of the door when no one opened it to him. I threw them at him through the window. He snatched them up and fled. Another came and another, two of them beat each other out of jealousy. I laughed. It’s what I liked. The women didn’t know what to make of this game. At first they accused me of sorcery, but when they saw that I didn’t let any of them into the house, their anger was re-directed onto the men. These fools, these goats, these idiots, who run after a girl who despises them and throws their gifts back at them! There was already conflict in the place. The women got together and denied the men food and bed. A real war broke out. I had what I wanted: I felt my power. But soon the game bored me. How did it help the women? How did it help me? Did it bring Yeshua back to me? I lived darkly in my house as in a prison tower, apathetic and alone with my beauty.

It was a welcome change when one evening an old friend of my father’s came by, one of his business colleagues, a Greek from Athens. He’d known me since I was a child.

When he heard that I had given up my father’s business, he came in order to convince me to open it again. He made interesting offers. But I had no taste for it.

What then? The Greek was clever and friendly and knew my situation. Travel, Miryam, he said, come to Athens, that’s the right place for a woman like you!

What am I like? I’m a Jew, not a Greek.

What do you know of Greek women?

What do you know of Jewish women?

Miryam, your house is too limited, your town is too limited for you, Galilee is too limited for you, Jewish life is too limited for you. I knew your mother. She died of the smallness, and you will also perish by it. Look around you! Come, look for a Greek as friend!

As husband, you mean.

I say: as friend. There are handsome men among us.

Also here.

Why have you no husband, Miryam?

I didn’t answer and he realized that he had asked the wrong question. He said: In Athens you could find a friend.

Yes, yes, if I wanted to play your game.

What are you talking about?

I know about it from Decapolis over there: you don’t take marriage seriously. You are married but have another on the side.

That is very crudely said.

Then say it finely.

Well: there are two kinds of women. One adapts herself to marriage and being a housewife, one has children with her, discusses money, the home, meals with her. She knows no more than that and doesn’t want to know more. But an educated Greek needs conversation with an educated woman, the hetaera. Thus the domains are kept nicely apart.

That’s what you say. What do the women say? Don’t they both feel dishonored?

They both agree, and more than that. It is good for them. One wants marriage and has it. The other wants freedom and has it.

And which of the two does the man love?

Both. Each in a special way.

You lie! The man loves the hetaera. He uses the wife.

Nastily said, very nastily. And how is it with you Jews?

We have strict laws.

Are they observed?

How do I know.

Miryam, you would be a wonderful hetaera. May I ask you something, daughter of my friend, now fatherless?

I know what you’re going to ask. But the question and the answer are superfluous.

Are you not free?

I laughed. Which was an answer and wasn’t one. The Greek gave up the game, or rather he began from a different angle. He told about Diotima, a hetaera who won a prize at a feast over a dispute about the subject of love. Famous men were present, politicians, poets, philosophers, she was the only woman, and she got the prize.

What did she say?

Love, she said, is a daimon, or rather Eros, as she said, is a daimon, and the messenger between men and gods. The connecter. The mediator. The bridge. In reality there were two of these: one is the motherless son of Uranos, the other that son of Zeus and Diana. The motherless one is the heavenly Eros, the other the earthly one. That’s why a heavenly and an earthly love exist.

And what’s the difference. Love is love. Or isn’t it?

No, it isn’t.

Does the Greek love the hetaera with a heavenly love?

The Greek laughed. They would all love you in both ways.

Oh be quiet. That’s silly talk.

Pardon me. I just thought it a pity that you didn’t live as a Greek during the time of Plato or, even better, Pythagoras.

Why?

Pythagoras founded an academy in Crotona on the Italian peninsula in which girls also studied. See, that interests you! I knew it would.

That really existed? Then it could exist again. Then women aren’t unfit for philosophy and politics?

Certainly not. But you Jews are a paternalistic people and that makes it hard on women. You even have a man-god. We have women in Olympia, in the heaven of the gods. Many women: the highest god, Zeus, has a wife, Hera, but he betrays her in the way of men and the gods roar with laughter. We have Demeter, the earth-mother, and Artemis, the huntress, and Aphrodite, the insatiable lover, and Athens, the motherless, neither conceived nor born, but sprung from the father god’s forehead.

Interesting, I said. But you don’t really believe all that, the story of Athens.

It’s a myth. An image.

What kind of image is that, to say of a child that it wasn’t lovingly conceived and born?

An image that there are people who are beyond ordinary destiny and are therefore something greater: gods, or like gods.

So it’s not really possible that a woman can have a child without a man?

Is that what you’d like? That could only occur to someone like you.

It was late and the Greek had to leave, but he wanted to return the next day. I didn’t say yes or no.

He shouldn’t imagine that I liked him. But I waited impatiently for him, for the conversation with him was new for me.

In the evening we continued. I wanted to know more about that Plato, who had such clever talks with the hetaera Diotima, or that she at least so nicely invented.

The loveliest seemed to me to be the parable of the cave in which we humans live, looking at the back wall of the cave. Shadows from the entrance fall on this wall. Shadows of things which are outside the cave in the light. The people in the cave don’t see the light and the real figures, they see only the shadows and take them for reality.

Why don’t they turn around. Is it forbidden?

Oh no. It simply doesn’t occur to them that they are only seeing shadows.

And no one turns around?

Yes. Plato turned around and others also. The are called wise. In Greek: philosophers.

I don’t want to only see shadows, I don’t want to only see objects that throw shadows: I want to see the light!

I had to wait long years before someone said to me: I am the light. I am the reality and the truth.

On the third evening the Greek and I talked about the gods. I asked him why they have or need more than one god.

You’re right when you separate have and need. We need gods.

Don’t you have any?

We have them because we invent them. They don’t exist. They are imagined by men.

Also your highest god?

Him also.

But our God IS. He always existed, before man was and before he thought. He doesn’t need our thinking. He is reality. He was a flaming pillar who went ahead of our forefathers out of Egypt, and until now. He was a fire in the burning bush of Moses, and he was a voice from above that forbade Abraham to sacrifice his son, and he was something that came invisibly, but appeared to Ja’akob as something with whom Ja'akob fought breast to breast, and who displaced his hip.

Stories, said the Greek, images, beautiful pictures.

Reality! I shouted.

Very well: a reality. Jewish reality. Jewish truth. Every people sees what is appropriate to it. Each gets the ring that fits his finger.

There is only one truth and only one god.

The god of the Jews, you mean.

He is the god of all, for he is the God of Abraham.

He’s not our god. We have nothing to do with Abraham. You know only the history of your people and take it for world history. But every people has its own history.

Only ours goes back to the Primeval, and before that there was nothing, and one day everyone will again recognize the Primeval and go back to it and will be received by the Eternal One.

The Greek smiled. So you also give me, the gentile, hope.

All of us have nothing but our hope.

What do you hope for, Miryam?

The deliverance of Israel,

Who will deliver Israel?

The Messiah, who else?

When will he come?

Forbidden question.

Why forbidden? It is natural and burns your tongues, and when you don’t express it, it springs from your eyes.

May it spring and burn. It is nevertheless forbidden. Only one knows: Adonai. He knows his people’s suffering. Once he made a testament with us. We have often broken it, he never. He always forgave us, and delivered us. He promised the Messiah to us, he will send him when the time is right.

When is the time right?

When the suffering is greatest.

Isn’t it great enough? Isn’t the presence of the Roman heathens disgrace enough? Isn’t the oppression by your masters hard enough? Must it get worse? When I came here I saw the misery of those who were driven from their homes, and I saw the hill with the hanged rebels. And you accept that?

You say yourself that you saw the hanged rebels. Whoever dares to rebel is executed.

Aren’t rebellion and death more honorable than waiting for a savior?

I don’t decide that.

Who does then?

Adonai, the Eternal One, who keeps his promises. We are his people. The only people who knows his true name and does not speak it. The only people on the earth who can look on the Eternal One’s sightless face with closed eyes. How could he allow his people to be destroyed? That will never, never happen.

How will you recognize the Messiah if he comes?

From the signs, the foreseen: he will make the blind see, the lame walk, the sick healed…

You will recognize him by the miracles, nothing else?

He will go to Yerushalayim and sit on David’s throne and rule as a father and prince of peace. There will be no more hate and no envy, and no more poverty and hunger. The swords will be re-forged into plowshares, the daggers into vineyard knives. There will be no more war, never again. The eternal realm of peace will emerge, and all tears will be dried.

I had jumped up and so loudly did I speak that my maid ran in to listen.

Strange girl, said the Greek, do you believe what you say?

Why not? This belief is Yisrael’s belief, its hope, its life.

Yes, but you, what do you think? Let’s say that someone goes up to you and says: I am the Messiah.

Whoever says he is the Messiah, is not. Many are running around nowadays who believe and want others to believe that they are the Messiah, and each finds his clutch of fools.

How does one recognize the true Messiah then? Will Yisrael recognize him when he comes?

I already told you: he will enter Yerushalayim and sit on the throne of David and bring about the realm of peace.

Yes, sure. But how does he obtain the throne? How does he bring about peace? What happens before? Are you forgetting that you are a defeated and occupied people, a very small people, a weak people? Will the Romans allow a Jew to claim to be the Jewish king? Do you think they would be impressed when someone says: I am the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed one? They will laugh. They will say: Be the king of the Jews, reign, but home in your village; the country belongs to us and you have no king but the emperor in Rome.

If Adonai is with us, we will conquer.

Conquer? You admit then, that before the victory there must be a fight. Where are the fighters? The Zealots, the rapacious rebels? That is no military power. That is nothing. What you need is a leader, someone who can unite all these groups, do you understand?

I heard myself obstinately say: Who knows, maybe he is already here.

Yes, who knows. Perhaps you have already met him and not recognized him, like out hero Odysseus didn’t recognize the Goddess Athena when she jumped to his side when he was in danger, but in a different form: as a boy, as a shepherd, as a beautiful girl. She also appeared to Odysseus’s son, but Telemachos saw and didn’t see a goddess, for the blessed gods aren’t visible to everyone.

You say that nicely, are you a poet?

Those aren’t my words, they are the words of our great poet, Homer. You could also meet the Messiah in that way.

It could be. But he won’t show himself to me, he will go to the rabbis in the Temple.

Who knows, Miryam. You have eyes that can attract a divine glance.

What are you talking about?

I don’t know myself. It occurred to me that you will have a great destiny.

That was our last talk. I thought about it for a while afterwards, then shook it from my mind. What moved me more was the thought of an uprising. If I were a man I would go to the rebels. But how could I find them, who would I join? They will not admit a woman. Or perhaps yes: those crucified women who I once saw, they had been punished because of their participation in some kind of uprising. But I sat at home, rich, doing nothing. A great destiny? Nothing of the sort. Useless, reprehensible, destiny-less, that’s what I was.

Again I closed my house and prepared for wandering, money sewn in my clothes and some baggage on my donkey. Did I have a destination? I had none. My path was my destination. Restlessness drove me from place to place. I was looking for my destiny.

Once a leper approached me. I heard his wooden clapper from afar. He called out to me: How far is it to Nazareth?

Far for one who can’t walk well. What do you want there?

I’m looking for the rabbi who heals the sick in a miraculous way. His name is Yeshua.

You should rather go to Kefarnachum where there’s a good doctor. You don’t need a miracle-rabbi, but healing ointments. Miracles don’t exist.

The clapper went away. Yeshua, the miracle-rabbi from Nazareth. Well. That also exists: believers in miracles and healers. Why shouldn’t I also go to Nazareth and look for this rabbi? From curiosity. From boredom.


Continued in the next issue of SCR.


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