Saturday, December 5, 2009
On Shabbat, I walk a long way to shul – couple miles, maybe, although I don’t have any good way of knowing exactly how far it is. Through trial and error I’ve found a route that’s the shortest and has the fewest hills – not that there are very many real ‘hills’ in Beersheba, but on excruciatingly hot summer days, every little up-and- down mound I can avoid makes it easier.
Going – as compared to coming back – is usually a nice morning walk. It’s not terribly hot, there are no cars at all so I can walk in the street, and there’s rarely anyone else around at all, at least until I pass through another neighborhood where there are several Hassidic shuls. Then there are lots of people on the street -- mostly men with their little kids tagging along -- all heading in the opposite direction.
One of the things I pass is what must be a group home for mentally disabled adults. Hard to tell exactly who lives there, or why, but usually on Shabbat morning I’ll see one or two of the residents, sometimes walking very very slowly on the sidewalk. More commonly, they’ll just be standing in their yard, looking out into the street. The whole place is absolutely silent. I’ve never heard anyone, inside or out, say anything or indeed make any kind of a sound at all.
There’s one man there that I’ve been seeing every week for virtually the entire time I’ve lived in the Old City, going on five years. It’s impossible to tell how old he is – anywhere from 40 to 70, I’d say, although if I had to guess, probably closer to the younger range. He’s looks seriously unwell and is excruciatingly thin. He seems hardly able to take a single shambling step, although he does leave the yard and make it to the street where he walks a few yards.
Week after week, as he sees or hears me coming, he turns his head and stares at me, and watches every step of my progress walking past him. From the first time I saw him, and saw how intently he was looking at me, I couldn’t simply ignore him – I’d be passing him within just a few feet. Normally a woman wouldn’t speak first to an unfamiliar man, but there was no way I was going to ignore him, walking so close. So every morning I’d say, “Shabbat shalom!” and walk on.
There was never any acknowledgement. Never any sign he’d even heard me. His vacant expression never changed.
Everything was as usual. He stood in the street, just off the sidewalk outside the home. I passed by, said ‘Shabbat shalom!’ and walked on. His expression didn’t change, he didn’t make a sound.
Not until I was maybe 20 feet farther along. Then I heard him say, “Geveret!” – something comparable to “Hey, lady”, but that’s the standard Israeli phrase, not an insult.
At first, I couldn’t believe it was him, talking -- but there wasn’t anyone else around at all. I turned around, and there he stood, with one hand raised in a sort of wave. “Shabbat shalom!” he said, and there was something like a smile on his face.
I said, “Shabbat shalom!” again, then had to turn and walk on quickly. I didn’t want him to see my tears.