Tell us a story, we asked, and you did. Lots and lots and lots of stories.
The response to the inaugural Brandeis Magazine short-story contest surpassed our greatest expectations, both in the number of the submissions we received — a grand total of 80 — and in the stories’ astonishing variety, verve and assurance.
To help us find the best story amid the stacks of very good ones, we enlisted a trio of judges: literary agent Felicia Eth ’74, the founder of Felicia Eth Literary Representation, located in Palo Alto, Calif.; Stephen McCauley, the associate director of creative writing and associate professor of the practice of English fiction at Brandeis, who has written six acclaimed novels; and Adam Mitzner ’86, MA’86, head of the litigation department at Pavia & Harcourt, a Manhattan law firm, and the author of two legal thrillers.
We read, weighed, reread, argued and, finally, chose our first-place story: “Ears,” by Atar Hadari, MFA’94, which we are pleased to share with you here.
Set in a less-than-harmonious kibbutz in the Beit She’an valley in 1938, “Ears” has “a strong, compelling voice, a vividly evoked setting, and is rich in irony and moral complexity,” noted McCauley in his judge’s comments. Eth applauded Hadari’s skillful handling of big themes, including the way “the story addresses ‘responsibility’ on both the personal and the political level in a unique and subtle fashion.” And Mitzner delivered his praise in terms every reader understands: “It’s the story I’ve thought about the most, which, in many ways, is all you can ask of writing of any kind.”
The story’s author, born in Israel, is a published poet and translator who lives in Hebden Bridge, England. Hadari studied writing with Derek Walcott at Boston University before earning his master’s in playwriting at Brandeis. He is currently at work on the novel from which “Ears” is an excerpt.
You can read even more alumni-penned fiction. Three additional stories — “The Man Who Came Back As a Herring,” by Rachel Igel ’70; “How It Will Happen,” by Judith Shapiro ’63; and “Little Feet,” by Marshall Jon Fisher ’85 — rounding out the top four selected by our judges’ panel, are available here. We hope you enjoy them all.
— Laura Gardner, P’12, and Susan Piland
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By Atar Hadari, MFA’94
There was no train then — from Beit She’an to Tel Aviv, or anywhere else in this long and narrow country. There was barely a road — and what there was was bad. Arabs. Could be Arabs out there. Or Jews, run off from different kibbutzim and trying to scrape by. You didn’t know who your friend was. It wasn’t easy, on or off kibbutz, staying alive and believing in God. Not that it’s easy now, but there was no train then. No track for a train, either. And no engines. We had horses — one horse, usually. And we had wagons, when we came, in our tents, in ’37, and the Beit She’an valley was a paradise when it rained then — literally, you could see all the pools, hundreds of little pools, all flowing together, till the whole valley was a great walking water beast, hauling its white skin toward the river. But since then, it stopped raining, for our sins. That and the industry down south, Tel Aviv, I don’t have to tell you. They cough so much smoke, here in Afula we have backache from coughing. So we pray more. But the rain does not come. And the walking water is a memory I tell my children and maybe they tell theirs, but it’s a memory and that’s as far as it will ever go, two mouths, maybe three and then just dust.
Anschel — he was a one could make the rain flow with his prayers. But he left the kibbutz in ’37? ’38? I don’t remember. The rain stopped altogether for a few weeks after that.
Anschel was a leaver, one of the first. Thirty-eight, I think. Before they even started killing Jews, he was on his way back, in case he missed the party. He didn’t miss it. He arrived just in time to have his passport withdrawn and his family assets confiscated after he met his mother at the train in Warsaw. (His mother was in the furrier business after his father died and Anschel ran off to Israel.) His father was a great furrier. Silver rabbit was his specialty. The finest silver hats in all Berlin, if you believed Anschel, and we didn’t know any different. Certainly in Emek Beit She’an we were not comparing fur bonnets. If he said his father made a rabbit’s foot into the Russian tsarina’s favorite outdoor cap, I wasn’t old enough when I got out here to the desert to disbelieve it. Only, he did like to talk about the hats, while lying there in the tent, sweating. This was ’38; to get to sleep, you poured a bucket of water over yourself inside your few feet of canvas sheet at night and lay down wet, hoping to be away before the heat dried you off and you itched from the flies again. But Anschel loved fur hats, loved to talk about them, loved to list all the colors of the silver rabbits, the grading of the fur from sterling silver to scrap. He would describe the stitching in a rabbit’s ear to turn it from an ear into an ear muff. If you would listen. Even lying there at night, shivering with malaria or shaking off the last bucket I poured on him, he wouldn’t stop. “The ears on a great white,” he’d say, “the ears on a rabbit would make the flaps so soft, you’d feel the rabbit was nibbling your cheeks with its soft snout when you pulled down the muffs and didn’t hear the world, all that snow crunching.”
I would have given my tent for a handful of snow — and here he was talking winter wear. I ask you, is that a cooperative attitude? Or even an attitude to have in a cooperative? Eventually, he had to leave. I mean, we didn’t force him. We said, “Anschel — didn’t he have summer wear? Or an autumn selection, maybe? You know, sandals?”
No. “Hats. Fur hats. That’s what my Appa was. A man in rabbit ears. More rabbit ears he had than a whole warren. And he knew how to send a ferret down to get them out. Though, of course, he used a goy for that.”
One day, somebody said that maybe Anschel should think about the cities. And guess who it was they asked to bring it up with him? Me. Just because I shared a tent with him, and he talked on and on to me about the ears more than anybody. It’s not like we were close; it’s not like they were doing him a favor. It’s just — you know how it is — everybody wants the sick cow dead, but nobody wants to pull the trigger. At the end of the day, after a lot of talking, all of a sudden everybody wants to be part of a firing squad, not a lone assassin, or, actually, they’d rather hire a lone assassin, but they’d prefer not to use the money, so why not just ask somebody else — somebody you can say must mind more than all the rest of us put together — Natan — he shares that idiot’s tent, doesn’t he? He must hate him more than anybody.
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Well, actually, I didn’t. I even got to be a little bit interested in the whole range of colors — you know, back in Berlin I was actually thinking of being a tailor before they shipped me on the boats, so all this talk of stitching was kind of like ice cream in the hot night; you couldn’t taste it, but you could almost see it melt, running down the glass. You know? I didn’t mind so much, after I got over the fact that fur and deserts do not go together, but then again do Jews and deserts go together really, even now, forget what they tell you in the Bible?
So when they asked me, first time, in this very dining room, over the meatless stew, as you know they do, I played dumb, didn’t understand, and when they sent someone a second time I also found some reason not to know what they were talking about, but finally it came to a meeting, the one Anschel was not invited to, and then it was more difficult. I don’t know where he went. Perhaps he was down by the spring, swatting away the rats, because it was infested then and not much cop for romance, but maybe he was there. I thought he might be there when I got back to the tent anyway, because there was no light on. Usually we had a light on, to read by, to talk about the fur. I pulled the tent flap open, and then I heard him, breathing.
“How was the meeting?” he said, scraping his hand across his stubble. He had this way of running his hand over his face before he talked to you, as if he was still preparing to address the staff at his father’s factory.
“It wasn’t really what you’d call a meeting. More an ad hoc gathering. No minutes were kept.”
“Oh, absolutely. If no minutes were kept in Germany, we called that a chat. Did you all have a chat?”
What could I say to that? I sat down on my canvas bed. It creaked. I could still hear him breathing, in the dark.
“You know, a few of the members were talking. A few others were listening. Nobody did too much listening, but some did a lot of talking. In that sense, I suppose we all did meet. You know what it’s like, Anschel, don’t you?”
“I said, ‘Absolutely not. Absolutely. No. Not at all. I will not be part of it.’”
“So why were you not here? In the tent? Why were you at the meeting where they didn’t take minutes?”
What could I tell him?
“Anschel, I live here.”
“Really, Natan?” He rolled over on the camp bed and turned away. “Where do I live?” he said over his shoulder. When I offered to pour a bucket of water over him, he didn’t stir.
It wasn’t ideological, exactly, though many things were, of course. Usually when I was not involved. Members would spend hours discussing if it was bourgeois to salt an egg. Let alone how many hours before Sabbath you had to cook it to eat it on the day. Did it have time to cool before Sabbath came? Nobody knew, and we didn’t have a rabbi. We were just us. And we weren’t relaxed, you understand, having escaped, even without knowing what it was behind us that we had escaped. That’s how you found yourself, sometimes, in a meeting, even one where no minutes were kept, and someone else was waiting in the tent, or by the spring, swatting off rats, you didn’t know, you only knew that you were in there, in the dining hall, and outside, who knew what could go on? Who knew where you would wind up if you didn’t stay inside the meeting?
So we said he should go to Tel Aviv and sell his rabbit ears there. So what? Is that so wrong? We weren’t, God forbid, saying he had no future in Israel or, perish the thought, that he should go back there. To the Nazis. What did we know about the Nazis in ’38? Those of us who had escaped personally might have seen a rabbi or two down on their knees scrubbing the pavement for the amusement of a gauleiter, or heard our windows smashed, downstairs, while we cowered over the shop, but this was simple stuff. Down there in Hebron, they’d seen worse in ’29. More than just a shop window was smashed. A skull, maybe. A few children murdered. How were we to know that, sitting in that dining hall with bullets whizzing through every once in a while from an irate Arab, we were the lucky ones? We were not telling Anschel he was not lucky. We didn’t know at all that we were lucky. We felt like this was hell, but we were saved. We just didn’t know yet saved from what.
But that was how Anschel said he felt. When he got on the cart to go to Tel Aviv. There was no train. He said he heard his mother’s voice at night, between the wet tents flapping, or worse, in the silence, saying things. And then he would hear us, too far away to make out, in the meeting, but talking, always talking. And he felt he couldn’t stay.
I stood there, holding his bag as he loaded his tent onto the Arab’s cart. He looked at me as he took the bag, and I thought I saw something in his eye. One night in the tent, he told me he thought he heard his mother ask how his father’s grave was being kept up. (She was sound as a horse and strong as a steam engine, what I heard about his mother, and could have cleaned a graveyard and the street with the fur of her dresses, but Anschel was prone to care too much, which has never been a quality likely to keep you in this country.) The rabbits weren’t the only things with long ears. That’s how he heard what they said in the first place and knew there was a meeting. That’s how he knew to lie there, in the dark, in the tent, on his own, and not come down to the dining hall. That’s how he knew what I was going to say before I said it. They didn’t — God forbid — say a word about Tel Aviv to his face. Who knew he was so sensitive? Who knew he listened to what was said after he moved from the long table to clear his plate?
He said if I were ever in Berlin I should call on him and on his mother. That was the first inkling I ever had that he was not going to set up on Dizzengoff with his father’s money and sell goyishe furs to Jews in the Holy Land. Who knows, maybe Jews in the city would have thought it was de rigueur to dress up for the opera. They did have opera eventually, you do know that, don’t you? We didn’t have it out here, but people like you, civilized, did come eventually. I’m sure you know what’s out there, in Tel Aviv.
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To this day, I don’t know what I saw in his eye, if it was just a tear, or a fly from the Arab driver’s donkey. He brushed it away anyhow, and waved at the flies over the donkey’s back, as if they had someplace else to be. And he took the bag, and he got onto the Arab driver’s wagon, and he didn’t wave. There was nobody else there to wave to. I was the only one.
He was the first person I’d ever met personally who I knew was going to leave Israel. I didn’t know it was possible. I knew there was something out there, but I didn’t know exactly what. I knew I was afraid. I knew I had escaped it, and I didn’t think there was whipped cream on it now, if you understand my meaning, though I didn’t know exactly what the whipped cream would have covered if there were anybody out there, in the sky or under it, to put whipped cream over. Anschel found out. I was too scared to leave. That’s why I stayed and I’m here now.
I haven’t listened to a word that wasn’t said right in my face by at least three members and preferably at least a secretary of the kibbutz himself now for over 50 years, since Anschel left. You could say that I handed him his bag and developed auditory amnesia. Except I hear the crickets singing and the wind upsetting the date palms. I don’t have a problem hearing the rain fall. It’s just that there isn’t rain. So I’m still sitting here and looking at these trees. And I still listen to them. Not anyone else. We are not licking honey here. We’re bees, and, pulling honey from the flowers, we tend to try and sting. I don’t say it isn’t natural, and I don’t say I was entirely wrong — I did my best — I just say if I listened to what everyone thinks, even myself, let alone what everybody says, I would have jumped in the spring and joined the rats before my Gadi was born. I would have jumped in the rat-infested water. I wasn’t brave enough to go after Anschel. He was the one could pray; I just say words.
I got a hat, you know, from Anschel. Over there in the closet outside the dining room, you’ll find them. We all got hats. It was his will. Left with some goy lawyer in Germany. Before he died, Anschel believed the businesses would return to Jews eventually, after the Nazis were killed, and of course they did, though the Nazis lived, forever in some cases. Even after the State was built, we couldn’t catch the Nazis, just like we couldn’t keep all the Jews from leaving. It’s a question of priorities — what do you build, what do you kill? After 100 years, minus some change, it all came back to Jews, if someone sued. So the kibbutz sued. As beneficiaries of Anschel’s will. We sued for 50 million deutsche marks. That’s what the business was valued at, in today’s money. Not much, but we didn’t pay a lawyer’s fee. The Jewish Agency did. And we got it. Not the money, of course. The German owner went bankrupt. But we got the fur hats. Silver fur, in fact. Like this one. Handsome, isn’t it? Not that you get, as I say, many opportunities in Emek Beit She’an to wear 1,500 silver rabbit-fur bonnets. But it’s a curious thing. The babies love to touch the fur. There’s nothing more accepting than a small baby. My great-grandchildren love this silver rabbit fur, even if it died in Germany and Anschel had to flake in a chimney for 50 years before the fur tickled a baby’s foot on Jewish soil.
But I’ll wear it on the train tomorrow, to Jerusalem. More than a handful of snow there. Maybe a snowball fight even, with my great-grandchildren. Anschel isn’t there to throw snowballs, but then he wouldn’t have, probably. I never saw him hurt a thing; even that fly he swatted away from the Arab driver’s donkey got off scot-free. Anschel was too slow to hurt the wind.
I couldn’t wear this hat, to tell you the truth, for thinking of him, but they all hang on it and say, “Come on, Grandpa, pull the rabbit ears! Tell us about the man who made the ears!” And what do I say? I say he loved the kibbutz and hoped that they would live here. He hoped there would be some place here to live. And then I keep silent. I keep silent the way I don’t listen. Even to my grandchildren I keep silent, because what is there to say? I tell them about the rain that used to fall, when Anschel was here, and how there was a Garden of Eden here once. A Garden of Eden.
I hope Anschel sees us going down Dizengoff, from somewhere up there. I hope he sees us and that there’s somewhere to see something other than rabbis on their knees scrubbing the pavement outside his father’s factory. I never heard stories of what happened to him, thankfully. I just have my imagination to worry about, and, unlike Anschel, I am able to stop it for hours at a time. So I just hear rain when it falls, which around here is an hour or two in the middle of the night. I listen then for Anschel’s voice and hope it’s saying “Live.” That’s what I’d tell my grandchildren, if they would listen. But they are my grandchildren, the children of the children that we had after Anschel left, so they can only hear the leaves stirring and the water dripping out of the spring that we killed all the rats in. They wear the silver fur hats, and they laugh. They laugh at the stories we tell them about before. So I just talk about the rain and hope that they remember, before we take the train down to Jerusalem, and walk down the street they built over the dirty sand.