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SIMON THE ZEALOT

by Alfred Brenner

BOOK ONE

I

When Simon’s mother, Deborah, was thirteen she was

told she was going to give birth to the Messiah of Israel. Until

then no one knew she was pregnant. She wasn’t even sure

herself. She was having nightmares and more than once was

seen walking restlessly in the moonlight past the pen where

the goats were kept, and back and forth through the corn and

wheat, her eyes fixed as if hypnotized, searching for someone.

In the daylight hours she was often melancholy and distracted,

and her long shiny black hair hung uncombed down almost

to her waist and sometimes even covered her face like a veil.

When a group of peasants who had been forced off their small

strips of land because they were unable to meet the new tax

levies came through the village along with their wives and

children and aged parents, she who once would have been the

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first to offer them bread and wine and milk for the little ones

and a warm place to sleep, even giving up her own straw pallet,

now seemed scarcely aware of their presence.

No one could understand what had happened to her.

Tamar, a lemon-faced widow with grey hairs sprouting out of

her chin who always wore black as a sign of mourning for her

husband (he having died more than twenty years before when

the tyrant Herod was young and still in his glory and a Roman

centurion was almost never seen in the vicinity) was sure it had

something to do with Deborah’s forthcoming marriage to Jason,

the rich merchant’s son. Young women often became nervous

and acted strangely as the supposedly happy day approached.

Yona, the stonecutter’s wife, insisted that Deborah had simply

acquired too much learning and would never be happy with

any man. Others claimed she was under the spell of the Evil

Eye. Demons and malignant spirits abounded everywhere in

Galilaea and only the holiest of the holy were immune from

their influence. Her distraught father and mother, Shemei and

Sarah, didn’t know what to think. Shemei had consulted with

the local rabbi of the village and with the rabbi of the great

synagogue in Kafar-Nahum. He had met with a priest who

happened to be visiting from the Temple in Jerusalem, and even

with a wandering penitent from an ancient sect in the Judaean

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desert near the Sea of Salt. But no one had been able to explain

the source of his daughter’s mysterious malady.

Finally, at Sarah’s urging, he decided to take Deborah half-

way around the Sea of Gennesareth to the town of Magdala.

There, an ancient woman who had been baking unleavened

bread on her open-air oven in preparation for the feast of

Passover was said to have seen the face of Moses suddenly

appear in the risen dough. Many folk, hearing of this strange

phenomenon, flocked to the woman’s mud hut believing a

miracle had taken place. The blind, the deaf, the dumb, lepers

and hunchbacks, mothers with paralytic children, barren wives,

diseased prostitutes, men bent double from arthritis brought

on by years in Herod’s dungeons, and women dying of the

unknown disease crowded into her courtyard.

Among the throng were wise men and rabbis who sat for

days discussing the old woman’s vision. One white-bearded

scholar, after pouring over the Scroll of Daniel, announced that

the appearance of Moses was a Sign. The End of the Days, he

declared, was close at hand, seventy weeks, the prophet had

predicted, from the night when Daniel stepped into the Den

of Lions. Afterwards, after a time of testing and tribulation for

Israel, the Messiah would surely appear.

But how long the time of testing might be elicited hot debate.

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In the first place, argued a young black-bearded priest with

red eyes from long hours of study, the prophecy in the Book of

Daniel of seventy weeks meant seventy weeks of years which

was, according to his calculations, four hundred and ninety

years. Only then, he concluded, would the Last Days begin, to

be followed by the coming of the Messiah and the dawn of the

long-promised Era of Righteousness for all mankind.

It was in the midst of one of these long and learned debates

which everyone listened to and many feared (for talk of the

Messiah was considered a subversive superstition by the

authorities, and Herod’s spies and informers were everywhere)

that Deborah was seen to rise to her feet. She had been seated

on the ground beside her parents since early morning, not

speaking, not listening, totally uninvolved, it seemed, in what

was taking place all around her.

Now she stood there silently, stiffly, still apart, facing the

old woman who sat across the way in the shadow of her open

door. Deborah’s eyes were fixed on the woman, held by the

woman’s gaze, as if under a spell. But she was not actually

looking at the woman. She was looking through her, or beyond

her, at someone or something inside the dark doorway, or on

the roof of the mud hut: a grotesque figure with wings like a bat

and teeth like a rattlesnake formed out of a cloud of sulfurous

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hellfire. Was it Belial perhaps? A form Yahweh himself had

taken to test and trap His mortal subjects?

It was a hot day. The sun was straight overhead and there

was no breeze. Yet everyone present felt a chill. People began

to shiver without cause. Even the discussion, which had been

droning on interminably, punctuated intermittently by hoarse

emotional arguments, gradually dwindled. One by one the

scholars and the wise men turned their heads and now there

was not a single person in that courtyard who wasn’t staring at

the slender young woman in their midst. She was only a year

or two out of childhood with dark heavy-lidded eyes shaped

like the leaves of an avocado tree, but she seemed to contain

knowledge far beyond her age. A white shawl framed her soft

face and her white cotton gown was transparent, revealing

beneath its folds her small firm still-developing breasts and her

long legs and her rounded hips that, when she moved, swayed

as gently as the reeds that grew along the banks of the Jordan.

There was a peculiar radiance that seemed to issue from her

flesh, giving her a beauty that women found to be pure and

virginal and in no way threatening, but which men associated

with high fever and illness, and which aroused in their minds

evil thoughts.

The silence deepened. The sun blazed down. Everyone

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had stopped moaning or crying out or complaining or even

praying, even the arthritics, their figures distorted in pain,

and those dying of the unknown disease eating away at their

insides, and the lepers, and the men and women suffering

the terrors of Abadon, and the others who were possessed by

malignant spirits. They all sat or lay in different postures, rigid

as ice. Later people who were there that day would swear that

they had felt the weight of an unnatural presence, that the old

woman’s courtyard was bewitched.

The owner herself remained motionless for a long time in

her dark doorway like an oracle in a heathen temple. Suddenly

her whole body shuddered and her eyeballs turned inward

so that only the whites showed. She seemed to have gone

into a trance. Then her dry cracked lips parted and she began

addressing Deborah in a hoarse whisper:

-You have inside your womb a son...

As the sound of her voice reverberated, increasing in volume

like a wind rising or an echo in a mountain pass, Deborah

trembled.

-Long before nine months have gone by he will be born.

To many in the audience it was as if someone else was

speaking through the old woman, as if she was merely the

instrument of a higher power.

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-And he will be the powerful right hand of...the...

Her voice trailed off. She inhaled. There was a scarlet glow

on her face. She seemed to be struggling to speak again, to

complete her statement.

-I see... The old woman’s eyelids closed. The muscles in

her neck tightened. The sweat poured in streams down her

wrinkled cheeks. -I see... The words choked in her throat.

Everyone watched her, waiting expectantly. Then once more

her mouth opened and her lips moved. -I see, she cried at last,

-the Messiah of Israel!

As she spoke these words the crowd began to surge toward

her, some hobbling on crutches, others crawling on their knees,

all shouting and screaming Messiah! Messiah!, trying to kiss her

hands or feet or touch a lock of her hair.

Shemei meanwhile stared at his daughter in disbelief and

wonder and awe, and then in panic.

Simon’s grandfather, Shemei ben Hanan, was a small

landowner in Tabgha, one of the hamlets located between the

fishing village of Bethsaida and the commercial center of Kafar-

Nahum on the northern shore of the Sea of Gennesareth. His

ancestors had worked the same earth, growing wheat, corn and

barley, cultivating fig and olive trees, and herding goats, sheep,

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and a few cattle for almost two hundred years, since the time

when the priest, Mattathias Maccabeus and his five sons led the

great revolt that freed the country and cleansed the holy temple

of the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus Epiphanes, and his pagan

followers.

The house had originally been nothing more than a one-

room structure of white limestone built into the side of a cave,

half of which was used for animals. But when he married

Sarah (she was twelve years old at the time and he fifteen)

in a mutually beneficial union that had been arranged much

earlier by the heads of their families, he was able to expand the

building to include a central court with several rooms opening

on to it. And there was a separate shed now for the cows and

goats.

Shemei worked hard in the fields and managed his affairs

prudently. He observed the Law of his ancestors as set down

in the Torah, prayed daily at the local synagogue which was

also the rabbi’s home, attended the larger one at Kafar-Nahum

for the important holy days and made several pilgrimages to

Jerusalem during the Passover season. Each spring promptly

on the fifteenth day of Adar he paid the didrachma required

of all Jews for the maintenance of the Temple, as well as a tithe

(consisting of one tenth of his total yearly crops) to envoys of

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the priestly aristocracy. But although he was able to hold on to

his land and survive economically during a period when other

peasants were losing theirs to the powerful money lenders and

the great absentee landholders, or succumbing to the rapacious

taxes imposed by the tyrant, Herod, Shemei felt that Yahweh

did not smile on him; indeed, that he was cursed.

He had no heirs.

During the first fifteen years of his marriage Sarah had borne

him seven sons, all of whom died either in childbirth or during

the early months of infancy. After each death Shemei placed the

infant in a small wooden coffin he made with his own hands

and buried it in the family graveyard behind the house while

the rabbi said the kaddish and the entire village mourned.

Afterwards he and Sarah covered themselves with sackcloth

and ashes and sat in their empty house alone, refusing to see

anyone. By the time he was thirty-five and Sarah thirty-two, life

had taken its toll. Shemei’s black beard had become streaked

with gray, his squat body was bent as if beneath a heavy weight,

and Sarah seemed to have dried up and become barren. For

five years now she hadn’t conceived. Noah, the potter, thought

that the couple must have committed some grave sin which

angered Yahweh and was being punished for it, but couldn’t

imagine what such hard-working and pious people could

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possibly have done. Perhaps Sarah had been seduced by evil

spirits, Akbor, a young unmarried woman, suggested, her face

flushed and her dark eyes wide with iniquitous fantasies as she

gathered water at the well. Many in the village wondered what

the two did at night in the intimacy of their own bed. Once the

rabbi tried to discuss it with Shemei, even suggesting a moist

young handmaiden or bondwoman to bear him a child in

Sarah’s place, giving many ancient and worthy examples from

the scriptures; but he got no response.

Thus Shemei, without sons to help him, toiled alone in his

fields day after day, month after month. Sometimes neighbors

who worked land owned by absentee landlords, or dispossessed

peasants of whom the country was full, would join with him

when he needed to terrace his fields against erosion, or would

assist him with the plowing, breaking the earth with spade,

mattock and hoe after the first rains had fallen and, often

during the month of Tisti, would work alongside him with

the harrowing and the sowing, bending down carefully and

placing the seeds in each furrow exactly the way he did. Toward

the feast of Passover the fields would become white with the

promise of the harvest, and months later when the crops had

been gathered, Shemei’s hired helpers and their families would

sit down with him and Sarah at the immense table outside in the

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courtyard to celebrate the end of the solemn ten days of fasting

and repentance that ushered in the New Year. Shemei would

pour the wine pressed from grapes grown in his own vineyard

and, always when he chanted the benediction thanking Yahweh

for this bounty, he would murmur a silent prayer pleading for

another son. But by now the prayer was merely a habit, empty

phrases said by rote. He had given up hope. Even during the

most joyful moments of the feast, even during the height of the

celebration, while he was singing and dancing, those who were

present were always aware of the sadness burdening his soul.

At the end of one such festival, but a much larger one than

usual in which the entire village had been invited to celebrate

the feast of Succoth with citrons and myrtles and willow leaves

attached to overhanging palm branches and the playing of

flutes, something happened that changed Shemei’s life. Reeling

into semi-oblivion from too much wine, he suddenly embraced

Sarah in a way that he had never done before, even when they

were first married. He tore off all her clothes and, with no one

to observe but the animals and the stars, he feverishly kissed

every bit of her naked flesh, even the most intimate parts and,

as he murmured words of burning passion (words that to her

ears were filled with music and close to poetry, the kind that

she remembered from a certain long-ago night when she was a

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young doe-eyed bride and a sweet-voiced rabbi had sung the

Song of Solomon), she became soft and moist and receptive and

she held her husband in her arms and returned his wet kisses

and pressed her entire body close, wrapping her legs around

his hips, digging her nails into his flesh, and the two were as

one somewhere lost in a rhythm of their own making. And the

last thing Shemei remembered was the moonbeams like spilt

milk on her nipples and the wild animal-like cry of joy and

release issuing from her parted lips.

Three months later Sarah quietly announced that she felt life

inside her womb. It was after sunset. They were about to retire.

Shemei, reeking of manure, had just brought the sheep and

goats from pasture and Sarah had put aside her weaving and

made sure there was enough oil in the lamp to last the night.

Shemei stared at her stunned. At first he couldn’t believe it. He

could scarcely remember how it had happened. The moment

hadn’t seemed real, merely a dream or some mad intoxicated

fantasy. Yahweh, he decided, must have been present. The Lord

must have had a hand in the conception. Shemei fell on his

knees and thanked Him with prayers. This time, he felt sure,

his child would live.

He was so excited and nervous he hardly slept that night.

He kept seeing his son already as a young man, tall, handsome,

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a strong and wise leader of his people.

The next day during the early morning services at the

rabbi’s house, he told all the men present the good news and

immediately made arrangements with the mohel for his son’s

circumcision and began to think about a name. A smile had lit

up his face. He seemed a changed man.

But six months later when the midwife brought the howling

red wrinkled newborn infant out to him, and he placed it on

his knees in the traditional gesture recognizing its legitimacy,

he noticed, instead of a little penis between its legs, nothing but

a slit; and his heart clenched like a fist inside his chest and his

eyes went dead.

Simon’s mother often thanked Yahweh for being Jewish; for

she knew that if she had been born into any of the other so-

called civilizations contemporary with her own - Roman, Greek,

Egyptian, Phoenician - where the pagan custom of destroying

unwanted babies, especially females, was commonly practiced,

she would probably have been killed in infancy.

To the Jews infanticide was strictly forbidden. It was a sin,

a crime against God and man. Her father, therefore, though

crushed with disappointment when he discovered she was

not male, which in his eyes made her something less than a

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complete human being, had no choice but to allow her to live.

He named her Deborah, the bee, because of the sting in his

heart, not the honey he had hoped to enjoy.

Ironically she turned out to be a strong healthy baby, much

more active and alert than any of her brothers had been. She

would suck vigorously at Sarah’s breast while following

Shemei’s every movement with her big black eyes, grip his

stubby work-lined forefinger tightly in her tiny fist each time

he extended it, smile brightly when he came into her vision,

and would often laugh aloud in her high tinkling voice at the

faces he made when he frowned. After being bathed she’d kick

her fat little legs, roll over, and gurgle happily. She rarely cried,

seemed aware of everything around her, was insatiably curious

and proved to be extremely precocious.

She was able to walk and talk long before her first birthday.

By then Deborah had not only charmed everyone in the village

(including such hard-nosed suspicious visitors and intruders as

Ezra, the hated tax collector, and Joel, the rich grain trader from

Kafar-Nahum, who would arrive in his velvet robe with his

gold chain around his neck and haggle and scream and bargain

to the last denarii over the price of the future wheat or corn

crop, as well as Herod’s mercenaries always snooping around

the area, searching from house to house for rebels and brigands)

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but she completely captivated Shemei himself. She had, in fact,

become the joy of his life. And so, despite his deeply ingrained

peasant conservatism and traditional attitudes regarding her

sex, he grew to love and adore her almost as if she had been his

first-born son.

When his daughter was only four Shemei took her by the

hand and led her through the village to the synagogue in order

to enroll her in the beth-ha-safer. At the sight of the little girl

standing near the altar where the Torah was kept, the hazzan

was alarmed and the group of men chanting the Shema Israel

was shocked.

-A girl? What is a girl doing here? they whispered to each

other. -A girl should be behind the curtain in the women’s

section. Besides, hasn’t the great sage in Jerusalem, Ishmael ben

Levi, warned that educating a female is the same as starting her

on the road to moral depravity?

Their heads wagged up and down in assent. They unwound

the black phylacteries from around their muscular arms and

kissed the talliths as they removed them from their heads and

shoulders. They all worked with their hands, mostly on the

land, and had an unquestioning belief in what they conceived

to be the unchanging order of things as created by Yahweh.

-Why is Shemei doing this? Malachi, the blacksmith

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muttered through his beard. -Why should anyone try to teach

a girl the Law? When will she ever be called upon to read the

Torah?

There was a great deal of talk and discussion in the village

as a result of Shemei’s action. Some of the people were in favor,

but the vast majority were opposed to it. The arguments became

heated. Feelings ran high. Friendships ceased. Fights broke out

between neighbors.

Shemei realized he was at the center of a potential storm.

Still he refused for a long time to be dissuaded from his course.

Finally, however, after long consultation with trusted friends

and to avoid further violence, he brought his case to the rabbi.

The rabbi considered the problem long and hard. He

discussed it in detail and from every possible angle with the

village elders and the hazzan. They studied the commandments

of Moses, the sayings of the wise Solomon, and the words of the

prophets Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah and Jonah. They read again the

scroll of Leviticus and all five books of the Torah. They even

spoke to several learned scholars who advised the provincial

Sanhedrin in Kafar-Nahum. But nowhere could they find

anything expressly forbidding the education of a Jewish girl.

Thus Deborah became the first of her sex in Tabgha to

be enrolled at the beth-ha-safer. She was the only girl to sit

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among the group of boys on the ground around the hazzan,

repeating by rote and in unison the sentences he spoke aloud.

In this manner she learned to read and write Hebrew as well

as Aramaic (which very few other females in the village could

do at that time) and became fascinated with the rituals, the

commandments and the beautiful and strange legends of her

people. She was the brightest and most imaginative pupil in

the school and soon began to form her own opinions about

everything, many contrary to those of the hazzan or even her

parents; and she was not afraid to express them.

By the time she was twelve she had begun to develop into

a warm and lovely young woman always concerned with the

welfare of others, but was also known to be headstrong, self-

willed and even immodest. She was often seen on the streets

(brazenly, many thought) conversing with other students (all

male), had several times made curt and disparaging remarks

to Syrian mercenaries quartered in the vicinity who had quite

understandably taken her for a harlot (consequently causing an

uproar in the village and embarrassment to Shemei and Sarah),

and once at a public meeting had even dared question a visiting

high priest from the Temple in Jerusalem over his interpretation

of an obscure but significant passage in the Torah.

The priest was outraged by the insolence of the young

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woman. Even the villagers were taken aback.

-How does a female come to be present at this meeting in the

first place? the priest thundered.

-Since when does anyone who is not actually a member of

this community, much less a woman, a child, have the right to

participate in our affairs? Do you not know that this is a grave

breach of conduct? Where is her father?

All heads turned toward Shemei. He felt everyone’s eyes on

him. He rose slowly to his feet (the meeting took place outside

near the two giant fig trees in the place where markets were

sometimes held) and, facing the priest, bowed his head and

took full responsibility for his daughter’s behavior. A number of

women heard him from their doorways as he wrung his hands

and wailed, -Woe is me, berating himself over and over. He

admitted that he had not disciplined Deborah enough or taught

her proper respect for authority, that he had spoiled her with

too much praise and too much love. But worst of all he had sent

her to school to be educated. In the process somehow he had

failed to make her aware of her proper role as a woman, a role

subservient to that of man (which had been set out clearly and

at length in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and all the other sacred

writings sent from Above on which the stability of family life

and society itself was based), and had arrogantly brought up

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his daughter as a son.

-What can I do? he cried out. -How can I cleanse myself and

make amends to the Almighty?

The priest considered the matter for several moments,

pulling at his black artificially curled beard and staring intently

at Shemei. -To appease the Lord several things are necessary,

he declared finally in his deep solemn voice. -You must first

offer an unblemished lamb for sacrifice; then for three days you

must fast, remaining in the synagogue and praying constantly

for forgiveness; and finally you must remove your daughter

from the beth-ha-safer and cease her education at once.

Shemei drew in his breath quickly and glanced at Deborah.

She was staring at him from beneath lowered eyes, pleading

silently for him to do something.

-You heard? the priest barked sternly.

Shemei looked at the tall man in the luxurious camel’s hair

robe for a long moment, then he dropped his gaze and slowly

nodded. As he did he noticed Deborah out of the corner of his

eye biting her lip so hard it began to bleed and rubbing her

knuckles against her teeth to keep from crying. A moment later

she was gone.

When he arrived back on his property, Shemei saw that the

door of the shed was partially open. He looked inside and saw

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his daughter in the shadows milking a goat. Her hands were

racing up and down the teats and the white milk was streaming

into an earthen pitcher. Her eyes were wet. He felt his heart

being squeezed in claws of iron. He stood there in the doorway

watching her frantic movements for a long time. -Deborah,

he whispered at last, -forgive me for what I did. But it was

necessary. Even to his own ears the words sounded hollow. Nor

did she look up at him or acknowledge his presence in any way.

After a while he left. He tramped across the field and entered

the house and told Sarah what had happened at the meeting.

-You think I want to take Deborah out of the beth-ha-safer? he

wailed. -But how could I let her go on like she was? What the

priest says must be respected. I must obey the Torah. Why can’t

Deborah understand this?

-What she needs, Sarah said quietly, -is the firm hand of a

good husband.

Shemei lifted his eyes.

-Her monthly flow has started. She is ready to bear children.

Shemei washed his hands, muttering the prayer. -But no

one has approached me.

-No one you approve of.

-No one worthy, he insisted. -But...he shrugged, -I can

understand. What man in Tabgha would want his son to marry

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someone like our daughter, a woman who is more intelligent

and has more learning than most men? How can I blame

anybody? Who would have the authority in such a house? Who

would carry out the discipline? Who would teach the children

and set an example?

-What about Eli, or Zebulon, or Jared? Zebulon worships

the ground she walks on.

-Zebulon has the brains of an ass.

-He is an honorable young man, always in the synagogue.

-He has the morality of a jackal.

-He works hard.

-So does my ass when I beat him. Besides, his family is

unworthy. What kind of mohar would they provide?

Sarah began to churn the butter. -Shemei, she said evenly,

-you must find Deborah a husband.

-But I told you, he screamed, -no one in Tabgha...

-If not in Tabgha, she interjected, -some other place.

-Some other place? Shemei paced back and forth shaking

his head. -Where? Gamala? Cana? Nazareth? Hippos? Antioch?

Among the pagans? You want me to send my beloved child off

with some foreigner I don’t even know, to some distant place

where I’ll never see her? Or her children, my grandchildren?

-Our grandchildren! Sarah was churning the butter so hard

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tiny pearls of sweat stood out on her red face and neck. -But it

does not matter. The fact is, our daughter must be married. As

soon as possible. Not to be married would be a terrible shame

for her and for us. I could not bear it. Besides, she is our only

child. It would be the end of our family. Who would inherit

your land? In addition... she lowered her voice, -I don’t have to

tell you the way the young men look at her...and how hungrily

she looks back. You know what is happening.

Shemei’s eyes met Sarah’s. Her open frank stare

embarrassed him. His mouth felt dry. It was painful to think

of his own daughter in the throes of passion, her legs spread

wide, her eyeballs turned inward, Belial whirling her in his mad

uncontrolled dance. -I know, he finally mumbled. His voice

was strained. -You are right. I will do something. His gnarled

hands were clenched at his sides. -I will find someone worthy.

He almost seemed to be talking to himself.

Shemei immediately withdrew Deborah from the beth-

ha-safer as the high priest had demanded. And so for the first

time in more than eight years she was no longer seen walking

through the village with her wooden wax-covered tablet under

her arm laughing and shouting with all the other students. And

once again the place of learning became a male preserve.

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The following day, which happened to be the first of Tisti

(Rosh Hashanah), Shemei stayed from sunup until sunset at the

synagogue praying. Everyone in Tabgha was there, including

Deborah and Sarah who sat behind the curtain with the other

women. As he stood rocking backward and forward reciting

the holy verses aloud or muttering them to himself, his tallith

covering his head and shoulders, the thongs of the tephillim

wrapped tightly around his arms and across his forehead, he

felt isolated and beset by guilt. Nor was he relieved when the

blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn, ended the solemn service

and ushered in the New Year.

He continued his prayers at the synagogue for the next

ten days, fasting and dedicating himself to silence and self-

examination. In the past this difficult period was one from

which he had always emerged cleansed and renewed. But

this year Yahweh closed His ears to his pleas and entreaties,

shutting him out as if he were a pagan, or didn’t even exist.

True, Shemei had disobeyed the Torah by educating his

daughter and treating her as a son. But had he not atoned

publicly and privately? However, by cutting off Deborah’s

education and relegating her to her traditional role, he seemed

to have made matters even worse. She did not talk about it.

She never complained. On the surface she acted the same as

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always. But as he often secretly watched her going about doing

her daily chores, he was painfully aware of her unhappiness, of

the unspoken rift that had developed between them.

Most disturbing though, at least in the immediate sense,

was the fact that Deborah was not married, or betrothed, or

even promised; that he was the cause. For there were eligible

young men. But he had stubbornly refused them all. He had

to admit it. Why? He tried to justify himself by one argument

after another.

Not one of her suitors was up to his standards. Deborah was

too pure, too intelligent, too beautiful. None of the young men

had enough education; none was devout enough; none could

offer her enough property or wealth.

Yet none of these arguments held up. He sensed that, even if

one or two did contain a grain of truth, they were all lacking in

some fundamental way. They were mere excuses, justifications.

Thus there remained somewhere within him this continuing

guilt, deeper than any other, whose source he could not fathom,

a heaviness in his heart that would not go away, a burden on his

soul related to Deborah’s unmarried state, from which, despite

all his prayers, Yahweh refused to free him.

Still Shemei could not give up. The guilt was too painful.

He had to find relief. He had to do something, make some

25
greater effort to reach and appease the Almighty. He debated

with himself for a long time about what course he should take,

and at last came to a decision.

On the tenth day of Tisti (Yom Kippur) he would go on

a pilgrimage, along with his family, to the main synagogue in

Kafar-Nahum, the holiest place he knew outside of the great

Temple in Jerusalem itself; and there, on the Day of Atonement,

the most solemn day of the year, surrounded by the precious

scroll of the Torah, the ark in which it was kept, the horns and

trumpets, the lamp that never ceased burning, close to the

Source of All Things, he would mortify his soul, sacrifice, and

pray.

Thus he arose long before dawn on that chilly morning and

awakened Sarah and Deborah. Then all three performed their

ritual ablutions, dressed themselves in their best white cotton

garments and, taking along an unblemished lamb as an offering

to Yahweh (in accordance with the priest’s instructions) and,

with only the light of the new moon to guide them and the

silent stars staring down, set out on their journey.

They were not alone.

The narrow dirt road, scarcely wide enough for a two-

wheeled cart, was filled with people from all the surrounding

villages.

26
It wound through ravines and along the slopes of hills toward

the busy market city and customs center on the northeastern

shore of the Sea of Gennesareth.

As the long-gowned penitents (many of the men wearing

talliths and tephillim and the women carrying jars and baskets

of foodstuffs on their heads, and most everyone beating his

breast and chanting prayers, even the children) shuffled along

on their worn sandals and bare feet down toward the fertile

plain and threaded their way slowly through orange orchards

and groves of fig and palm trees with lambs and goats bleating

alongside them, they could glimpse, through the screen of

foliage, patches of the clear inland sea hundreds of feet below.

In the first rays of the rising sun, with the mists forming just

above the surface of the blue water, it looked unreal, a vision of

the heavenly paradise Yahweh had promised the Righteous in

the glorious New Age to come.

By the time they reached Kafar-Nahum the red glaring ball

of sun had fully appeared on the eastern horizon, and day had

dawned.

There were none of the usual lines pressing about the gate, so

the guard waved them in.

The city itself, normally swarming with noise and activity,

was strangely silent and empty. The narrow streets were half-

27
deserted and many of the shops and bazaars were shuttered. At

the wharves the fishermen’s boats were tied up and empty, and

on the beach their nets were hanging out to dry.

Most work had ceased on this most holy of days and every

Jew was in the synagogue praying. However, there were soldiers

about, more than Shemei had ever remembered seeing. They

moved ominously from building to building examining every

doorway and alley, gripping their spears and swords firmly in

their hands.

The new arrivals continued walking in a group toward the

synagogue. It was located on high ground close to the water,

its white marble facade visible from a long way off. As they

approached, they became aware of additional soldiers, well-

armed Syrian mercenaries, standing at strategic points on

the high stone staircase and near each of the three entrances,

carefully scrutinizing everyone who entered.

-What is happening? Deborah whispered nervously.

Shemei shook his head. -Take no notice. It does not concern

us.

But his words belied his feelings. He wasn’t sure what the

mercenaries were here for. Foreign soldiers always made him

uncomfortable. Still, he thought, something must have caused

this show of force, some kind of incident. Lately more and more

28
disturbances were breaking out all the time. Bandits, terrorists,

rebellious sects of all kinds were proliferating rapidly throughout

Galilaea. Many were former peasants who had been forced

off their land. Shemei knew some of them. Some had been his

neighbors. Entire families, men, women and children were even

now wandering about the country begging for bread, sleeping

on the ground, trying to find work on the farms and orchards

in the highlands or in the great hereditary estates in the rich

and fertile Gennesareth Valley. Many, as a last resort, had fled

to the mountains or deserts. Some hid in caves and, to escape

the biting hunger, joined with bands of outlaws in daring raids

on merchant caravans, wealthy aristocrats, foreign bureaucrats,

and even high priests travelling through the province on Temple

business. Already a number of these disaffected people were

organizing themselves into small fighting units. The authorities

called them brigands and terrorists.

Some in truth were troublemakers. But others demanded

bread, justice and freedom, and dreamed of a mighty leader

like King David of old or Judah Maccabeus, a Messiah who

would come and lead all of Israel in a great struggle against

the arrogant evil empire in Rome and its client king, the

tyrant Herod, in Jerusalem, and establish a reign of peace and

brotherhood on earth.

29
It must have been bands of these rebels or bandits, Shemei

concluded, who had been responsible for whatever disturbances

had taken place. Were not they the ones whom Herod’s

mercenaries were always looking for? But actually everyone

was under suspicion, every Jewish peasant and artisan, every

village rabbi and hazzan, even pious and conservative small

landowners like himself.

The pilgrims had reached the steps now and had started

climbing toward the stately granite columns along the front of

the synagogue. Several officers appeared on the porch outside

the main entrance looking down, studying their faces intently.

Suddenly the one in charge barked a command and the

column slowed almost to a standstill. Ahead, Deborah could

see a number of centurions, halting the group with the flats of

their swords, separating the men and women into two lines,

then searching the men and allowing the women to continue

onward unhindered. Simultaneously she felt someone brushing

up against her pressing something hard and gleaming into

her hand. It looked like a small curved knife. She glanced up

quickly into a pair of blazing brown eyes.

-Hide this, I beg you. The young man facing her was thin

with a heavy black beard, about middle height with skin

darkened from the sun and long tangled black hair. A tallith

30
was draped over his head and shoulders and he wore an old

goatskin jacket. He could not have been much older than

herself.

She shifted her gaze abruptly. Her father and mother were

a few paces ahead. Why was her heart pounding so rapidly?

Why were her hands trembling? Why all at once was it so

difficult to breathe? She tried to speak but it was impossible.

All she could do was shake her head.

-Please, in the name of Yahweh. His eyes were pleading,

desperate. -Hide it, quickly. His voice was urgent.

As if hypnotized, her clammy hands slipped the knife into

her bodice. It felt cold and alien between her breasts. Just then

the line surged ahead and the young man was out of sight.

Glancing neither to the right nor left Deborah quickly caught

up with her mother and continued stiffly the rest of the way

up the steps. Five thick-chested unsmiling soldiers wearing

helmets and breastplates were standing on either side of the

main entrance observing everyone in the line closely. She felt

their eyes on her searching through her garments. Was there

something about her expression, her walk that might give her

away? Could anyone see the subversive object outlined within

the bodice of her gown? Small drops of perspiration trickled

down her spine. At any moment she expected to be halted.

31
People were donating gifts to the synagogue. The porch was

littered with fruits, vegetables, flowers, handwoven garments,

sandals, pottery, blankets, oil lamps, everything imaginable.

Goats, sheep and oxen were tied up near the immense open

doors.

Deborah kept moving with the other women. She turned her

face down and carefully avoided stepping on any of the gifts;

then almost without being aware, found herself crossing the

threshold into subdued light and suddenly found herself safe

inside.

The lobby of the synagogue was crowded with men and

women.

Most were pagans, proselytes of Judaism, known as Godfearers:

Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, part of the myriad mix of

peoples who lived under the heel of a powerful and arrogant

but sterile empire. In a world whose old certainties and beliefs

were rapidly crumbling, they had a desperate need for a more

vital and meaningful faith, the kind that Judaism with its one

invisible deity and its strictly proscribed morality, seemed to

embody. They stood at the rear of the congregation trying to

follow and participate in the prayers and rituals inside, hoping

to one day be accepted as full members of this emotionally

moving and secure religious community.

32
Deborah, pressing past them, kept looking back toward the

entrance, searching the faces of the men who were beginning to

come in now one by one. She felt tense and anxious. The knife

was a burden. A danger. It frightened her. It could involve her

in serious trouble, unless she rid herself of it. But how? Drop

it somewhere? Hide it? Toss it away? She was unable to do

any of these things. She felt responsible for it. It seemed as if

some strange bond had formed between herself and the knife’s

owner. She felt an obligation to return it. If she did not, she was

convinced some awful consequence would result. But who was

its owner? The youth with the wild brown eyes and the thick

black beard? What was he doing with such a knife (actually

more of a weapon than a knife) in the first place? And why had

she accepted it?

More men from the group she had come with were

shouldering into the synagogue. But he was nowhere in sight.

Had the soldiers found him out? Were they questioning him?

(She had visions of torture.) What had he done? Was he a

criminal? A terrorist? Why was she so concerned? She could

not understand her own actions, unless it was simply her fear

of the knife. She needed to return it to him. Every moment she

held it the danger increased.

Shemei was one of the last men to enter. He looked around,

33
blinking in the dim light, spied Deborah and Sarah, and pushed

his way toward them.

-What is happening? Sarah inquired anxiously.

He shrugged. -Nothing.

-Did they search you?

-They searched everyone.

-Did they...detain anyone? Deborah broke in.

-I don’t know. I didn’t see anything. He seemed impatient,

annoyed with the questions. -Come.

He took his wife and daughter by the arms and led them

across the beautiful mosaic tile floor to the stairway leading up

to the Women’s balcony. -Remember, he warned, -what is going

on out there has nothing to do with us. We have come here to

praise the Almighty, to offer our thanks for His many blessings

and to beg His forgiveness for our sins. Nothing more. You

understand?

Deborah dropped her eyes. Sarah nodded. Then as the

two climbed up to the women’s section, Shemei turned back,

squeezing through the mass of Godfearers into the central

nave, found a seat on the lower of the two benches, and began

to pray.

All his prayers, which he had learned since childhood and

had memorized without conscious effort through thousands

34
of daily repetitions and which he uttered now sometimes by

himself, sometimes in unison with the others, prayers which

had become an integral part of his life, were directed toward

one single object: Deborah’s welfare and happiness; in a word,

her marriage.

-Hear me, O Lord, Blessed be Thy name forever and ever. His

voice rose and fell and his body jerked rhythmically backward

and forward, expressing all the passion of his being. -Do not

force my child into the Den of Lions, I beg Thee. Do not force

her to live a life without a husband to care for her and a family

to love her, an outcast among her own people, doomed to

virginity and barrenness. Do not punish her because of my sins.

Punish me instead. Here I am prostrate before Thee, wretched

and unworthy. I place myself in Thy hands. My fate is subject

to Thy will. I implore Thee, O Lord God, King of the Universe,

Creator of All things, Fountain of Wisdom, give Deborah

children, sons who will carry on our tradition and values, the

heritage of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As I stand

here in Thy sacred house close to Thee, I beseech...

During his supplications a number of men had been called

up to the ark to read portions of the Torah. He scarcely noticed

them. Nor was he aware of the young man who had just joined

the hazzan, the rabbi and the seven others around the richly

35
sculptured bimah on which the sacred scroll lay open. But

Deborah, seated up in the balcony with the women recognized

him immediately. She leaned forward, her fingers gripping the

railing in front of her so tightly her knuckles showed white.

She heard the hazzan pronounce the young man’s name,

Aaron ben David, then saw the newcomer step toward the

Torah, kiss his tallith, touch the sacred scroll with it, and

begin to half-read half-chant the Hebrew words. As he did

the hazzan stood beside him underlining each phrase with

an intricately designed golden pointer and translated aloud

every verse into Aramaic so all could understand. At brief

intervals individuals or the entire congregation responded, the

uneven chorus of singing, chanting, mumbling voices echoing

strangely throughout the large room. When he finished the

passage Aaron did not step down as was the custom. Instead he

remained on the bimah and glanced around at the faces before

him (Deborah felt he was staring directly at her, his intense eyes

penetrating deep into her innermost soul), and it was clear to

everyone he was going to make a midrash, an explanation or

commentary on the portion of the Torah he had just read. Many

thought he looked young to do such a thing. Nevertheless they

waited. When he finally spoke his voice sounded unsteady and

somewhat nervous.

36
-You know the place in Enoch where the prophet describes

his vision: ...And I saw that a white bull was born, with large

horns, and all the beasts of the fields and the birds of the air

feared him and made petition to him all the time. And I saw

till all their generations were transformed, and they all became

white bulls. The first among them became a lamb, and that lamb

became a great animal and had black horns on its head. And the

Lord of the sheep rejoiced over it and over all the oxen..?

Everyone was silent now, giving Aaron full attention.

Deborah wondered how this unusual young man could

know so much. Clearly he had studied a great deal, for the lines

from Enoch had a hidden meaning. The lamb represented the

coming Messiah, a dangerous subject to the authorities and

some of the people in the synagogue, but welcome to others.

Gazing at him, he seemed wild, almost emaciated, and she was

afraid to imagine how he lived and what he had done (the knife

between her breasts scorched like fire), but she felt drawn to

him in some strange and mysterious manner.

He was speaking again. This time his voice was stronger,

almost harsh. -He who sits in haughty isolation in his palace

of marble; he who has reigned over this land these many years

in the name of the Great Beast, this appointed underling of

Belial, this monster with iron claws whose mouth spits fire, this

37
accursed creature, will one day, soon, find himself face to face

with the Anointed One and an endless army of the pious dead

risen from their graves. Be ready! he shouted, his clenched fist

raised above his head. -The Day of Judgement draws closer! He

turned and, as cries of consternation broke out in the synagogue,

dashed down the aisle, his worn sandals scuffling loudly across

the inlaid tile, and disappeared out of a side entrance.

Thus did the conflicts and troubles of the outside world

invade the sanctity of the great synagogue in Kafar-Nahum. Such

a thing had happened in other synagogues, but never before in

this one. Among the worshippers there was confusion and fear,

as well as shock and outrage directed at the young firebrand

who had disturbed the peace and tranquility of this holy place.

Nevertheless there were many who felt he had expressed their

thoughts exactly, who defended him and were quite pleased

to hear that the tyrant Herod, ruler of Judaea, Samaria, and

Galilaea, and client of Tiberius, the emperor of Rome, who had

rebuilt the Great Temple and paid for his armies and his spies,

his mistresses and his slaves with the taxes he squeezed from the

labor of the Jewish people, would be destroyed by the Messiah.

If it was really true, if it was not just another dream. Men sprang

up and argued with each other, screaming and shouting, their

38
faces red, their eyes bulging, momentarily forgetting that the

King’s spies and informers were everywhere, even here in the

House of God, listening, observing. From the balcony women

watched in consternation. Nor could the hazzan and the rabbi,

standing side by side on the bimah, pleading for quiet and

order, regain control.

Shemei rose from his hard bench and looked about horrified

at the sacrilege that was taking place. This high holy day and

all that he held sacred was being befouled and besmirched. His

prayers for Deborah would go unheard and unanswered. His

personal need for redemption and relief would be unfulfilled.

The entire purpose of his pilgrimage had come to naught.

Everywhere people were on their feet, some crowding into

the aisles, continuing to debate and discuss the new situation.

Others remained in their seats, shaking their heads and

muttering their apprehension or disgust at this almost unheard

of eruption. Yahweh would surely punish the hotheads, Shemei

thought. And well He might. Especially the young stranger

who started it all.

In the confusion and uproar he noticed a group of well-

dressed obviously wealthy men coming down the aisle, headed

toward the lobby. Among them, speaking loudly and gesturing

excitedly, was a big beefy individual with florid cheeks wearing

39
an expensive silver-threaded robe over which hung a linen

tallith whose fringes came down well below his knees and

several diamond rings on his thick well-manicured fingers.

Shemei recognized him immediately.

Simultaneously the big man caught sight of him. He halted,

stretched out his arms and smiled broadly. -Shemei...

Shemei quickly squeezed out into the aisle, and the two

men embraced.

-A good year to you, Shemei.

-And to you, Joel ben Levias.

Joel was a merchant. He had grown up in Tabgha but had

left early and become very successful as a speculator, buying

crops from the peasants and selling them at good profits to

large national and international traders. He had, years before,

married a rich social-climbing woman from Kafar-Nahum;

consequently, he and Shemei led different lives and no longer

got together for a walk or a social drink as they had in the

past. Now their relationship was mainly on a business basis.

Joel would visit Shemei’s land during the harvest, survey his

crops, and then make a bid, which Shemei would immediately

refuse. Afterward they would bargain furiously for days at a

time. Sometimes their conflict was so emotional they would

almost come to blows and Joel, in anger, would start to leave.

40
But eventually one of them would give in and they’d embrace

and, over many cups of Shemei’s good wine, would toast

each other, their families, their children and still unconceived

grandchildren, and vow eternal friendship.

-I am pleased you have come to worship with us, Shemei,

Joel was saying, -but it is not a good time.

Shemei shrugged. -What Yahweh wills... Despite their long

relationship he always felt socially awkward and diminished

somehow in the merchant’s presence. But he did not blame this

on Joel. It was his own failing. He had remained a peasant with

lines of dirt in his gnarled fingers and rough manners even if

he did own his own land. Joel, on the other hand, had not only

wealth, but social graces. He had risen to become a respected

man of the world.

Joel continued to glance around, frowning. -It is sinful what

has just happened. And to think, in my own synagogue. And

on the highest holy day of the year. Come, he suddenly gripped

Shemei’s elbow, -let us get some air. I feel stifled in here. He

turned and started walking rapidly toward the lobby. Shemei

almost had to run to keep up with him.

The lobby was filled with men talking excitedly. Outside the

mercenaries were still patrolling the area. Joel, halting at the

open doors of the main entrance, stared out at them. Shemei

41
came alongside him. -How long must we put up with

those troops? he asked idly.

-We will put up with them, Joel snapped grimly, -as long as

necessary. As long as this country is overrun with incendiaries

like the young madman who interrupted our service just now. I

tell you, they are worth every drachmae they are paid. Without

them our lives, our property would not be safe.

Shemei nodded in agreement. -Yes, of course, you are right...

he paused. -Of course, that young man is not the only one who

believes that the End of the Days are close.

-That is nonsense, Joel almost shouted. -It arouses among

our people nothing but false hopes and will lead to suffering

for everyone and destruction of our nation. His jowls trembled

and his hands clenched and unclenched. -But I don’t want to

talk of these things. He looked directly into Shemei’s eyes. He

was still clearly overwrought. -I have known you for a long

time. His voice was suddenly quieter.

-Yes...a long time, Shemei agreed.

-I have sat with you in your house and you have sat with

me in my warehouse...and we drank wine from the same bottle

and broke bread together and fought over the prices of corn

and wheat. From the days when I used to walk from village

to village with a sack of supplies on my shoulder behind my

42
father, how many times have I looked at your land with envy.

And later, when I could afford to buy it, how many times

have you refused, even after I promised to keep you on as my

overseer. But nothing would move you. You know, you are a

stupid stubborn peasant...or have I told you this? He smiled

faintly.

Shemei dropped his eyes.

-But I can talk to you, Shemei, and you can talk to me. About

personal things. The family. My wife. Taxes. The credit I can

offer you on future crops. His voice lowered. -I can talk to you

about intimate things. My servant girls, the pagan women I

have consorted with, the demons who inhabit my body. And

you understand and tell me Yahweh will forgive me because

of my struggles against them. You know something, I should

never have married a wealthy woman. He glanced at Shemei

slyly. -I always wondered, though. You must have your women

too.

Shemei met his eyes, then quickly looked away. -Yahweh

forbids it. Besides, who has time?

The merchant sighed. -Yes, I know. Then he shook his head.

-I tell you, Shemei, I no longer understand anything. It is not

like it was when we were young. I am convinced Yahweh is

angry with me.

43
-Why should Yahweh be angry with you?

-He punishes me for my sins.

-He does? How?

Joel hesitated for a long moment, licked his thick lips,

rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. -My eldest son,

Jason...You have met him?

-Once, I think. Two years ago. During the feast of Purim. In

your warehouse. A handsome youth...

Joel shrugged. -They say. I was praying for him. I was asking

Yahweh’s forgiveness, when this interruption... His hands

clenched and his mouth tightened.

-We all have sinned.

Joel moved his face closer to Shemei’s, glancing around

nervously. -My son is no Jew. His voice was hoarse. -Do you

hear me?

-No Jew? How is that possible? The palms of Shemei’s

hands were moist and his breathing was coming in gasps as if

he had been running.

-Do you see him here at the synagogue making peace with

Yahweh on this holy day?

Shemei slowly shook his head. -He did not come?

-Yes, he came - only after I threatened to disown him. But

then he left. My wife went with him. Everything he does she

44
approves. Even if he does not fast she will find excuses.

Shemei did not know what to say. At this moment all he

could feel was pity for this man whom he usually envied and

sometimes even hated for his ruthless business practices and

his immoral behavior.

-My son associates with pagans, Joel continued. -He goes

with Egyptians and Syrian friends to their temples where they

worship idols and engage in the most abominable practices,

where all kinds of magicians and charlatans congregate and

the priestesses prostitute themselves with strangers. The priests

drink human blood, and everyone present partakes in their

weird rituals. When I think of what my son does, I become ill,

tear my garments as if he were dead. I know he attends the

Roman games at Herod’s Colosseum and, Yahweh protect me,

he wrestles without clothes with the Greek and Roman boys

and is often seen in those dens of corruption that our rulers

call baths.

Shemei wanted to close his eyes to these sinful goings-on.

He couldn’t look at the pain in Joel’s eyes.

-He is my eldest son. He will someday inherit my fortune.

What can I do? Disown him? He is my son, my flesh, my blood.

Shemei, you are a man who abides by the Torah, an old friend

who I respect. Tell me. Give me advice.

45
Shemei could do nothing but shake his head helplessly and

shrug. -Perhaps you should speak to the rabbi.

-The rabbi advises me to get him married while I am still in

control...

People were swirling around them, talking in groups,

coming and going, waiting for the service to resume. A few

men had begun to venture back to their seats and a number of

women were still coming down from the balcony. Among them

were Deborah and Sarah.

-More than anything, Joel was saying wistfully, -I would like

to follow the rabbi’s advice. I would like to see my son married

to a nice, clear-headed, pious Jewish girl from a good family. A

girl who is strong in her beliefs, who has high moral standards.

A girl who is not afraid of work. I would like before I die to see

Jason with his own family and children. I think maybe such a

thing could bring him back like a stray sheep into the fold. It

could make him a new man...

-Yes, Shemei agreed, -it could.

-But it is not likely.

-Why not? There must be many young women...

-I have yet to meet one, Joel burst out. -In the circles where

I now move, among the merchants and money lenders and big

landowners, including even daughters of important priests,

46
members of the Sanhedrin even, they are all the same, like

Jason. The young people today think only of adornment and

pleasure, and nothing of traditional values... Listen, he bent

forward suddenly, lowering his voice, -I like to have a good

time. I like wine. I like female flesh. And if Jason should want

such things now and then, who am I to blame him? But I am

worried. I have a wife, children... I go to the synagogue and

pray... I...

-Shemei, a shrill female voice broke in.

Both men turned to see Sarah and Deborah approaching.

As Joel quickly exchanged holiday greetings with them, Shemei

noticed that he kept staring at Deborah in a strange manner.

-Your daughter has grown, he said, not removing his gaze

from her. -She has become a young woman, a very lovely young

woman.

Deborah reddened and lowered her large liquid eyes.

-I remember her when she was still a child, so happy and

playful... But I have been to your house many times in recent

years and I did not see her anymore. Where have you been

hiding her, Shemei?

-Well...Shemei hesitated. -I have not been hiding her. She is

in the house...she has many chores...

-I have been attending the beth-ha-safer, Deborah blurted

47
out. As she did, Sarah pinched her arm surreptitiously and

Shemei glared at her.

-Oh? The merchant’s eyebrows went up. -A girl like you...?

For how long?

-Since I was five years old.

-It was a mistake, Shemei muttered. -I removed her...

-And what did you learn? Joel persisted, ignoring him.

-Many wonderful things...

-You can read?

-Yes. And write too. In Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek.

And do sums...

-Truly? Joel seemed impressed.

-I also studied the Scriptures, the prophets of our people,

Enoch, and...

-Enoch?

-Yes, she said, refusing to acknowledge the furious glances

of her parents. -The prophet’s words were spoken by one of

those men. That man who read the Torah before, the young one

who caused all this commotion in here...

-I see. The merchant frowned. -Do you remember some of

the other things the prophet Enoch said?

-Well...Deborah hesitated. -He had a vision. A great but

terrible vision...

48
-Yes?

-In his vision he heard the judgement of Yahweh...Heaven...

-Concerning what?

-Evil...

Even Shemei and Sarah were looking at Deborah with a

new interest now.

-Concerning the nephilim, she went on, -who brought evil

into the world. Enoch heard Yahweh declare that the nephilim

would die, but their souls would become evil spirits intent on

the destruction of mankind, and they would continue to plague

mankind until the Day of Judgment.

Suddenly it was if Joel and Shemei and Sarah and their

daughter, Deborah, were enclosed in a cone of silence. None

of them could hear the voices or the movements of the people

coming and going all about them. Joel, Shemei and Sarah were

gazing intently at the young girl standing before them. What

she had said touched them in some strange way more directly

and more profoundly than anything they had heard so far that

day in the synagogue, even the passages read from the Torah.

-So what must we do, Joel now asked, -to protect ourselves

from these evil spirits?

-We must be vigilant, Deborah said. -We must never let

down our guard, for they are everywhere...

49
But Joel’s interrogation was not over. He continued to ask

her more questions, not only about Enoch and other prophets

and the scriptures but more personal ones, about her duties

at home and her friends and her attitudes toward elders and

children; and as she answered each one openly and innocently

and with utter honesty, he studied her, her still-developing

adolescent body with remnants of baby fat still visible, her

luxuriant black hair, the simple white bodice that clung to the

indentations of her small breasts, the lack of adornment on

her wrists and around her throat and on her long, beautifully

shaped fingers, and his left eye began to close as it always did

when he was thinking hard about something. Shemei had often

seen that intense expression on his face, especially when the

bidding for a grain or fruit harvest became critical, but he could

not imagine what was going on in the merchant’s mind now.

Afterward everyone but Shemei returned to the central

hall of the synagogue. He remained seated on the hard bench

praying and fasting for the rest of the day.

The service ended at sundown. When the last song was

chanted and the last passage of the scriptures recited and the

final blessing pronounced, the worshippers rose. Each person

turned to his neighbor, expressed good wishes for the coming

year and moved slowly into the aisle talking and laughing. The

50
tension of the last ten days was over and there was a look of

relaxation and release on every face.

All except Shemei’s.

He could not realize that his mission to the synagogue at

Kafar-Nahum had already begun to achieve its purpose nor

that Yahweh was about to answer his most fervent prayers.

Two weeks after Yom Kippur Joel ben Levias arrived

unexpectedly at Shemei’s home. He came with such an amazing

offer that at first Shemei believed him to be a messenger from

on High. Only then did he recognize the miracle Yahweh had

performed.

It was late afternoon. Shemei returned from the fields bent

over and sweating from a day of hard labor to find the merchant

waiting for him in his courtyard. Sarah had provided the guest

with a cup of the best wine, had made him comfortable at the

wooden table under the shade of the ancient oak, and was

now seated cross-legged in the cool of the doorway weaving a

basket.

Shemei was surprised to see Joel. What business has he

come here for? he wondered. It is too early to discuss the future

crop which will not be planted until next spring; in fact, the last

harvest has just been delivered. It must be trouble, he thought

51
fearfully. Joel will find an excuse to refuse further credit or will

insist on payment of previous loans. Then what will happen?

We will be forced off our land like so many others, and where

will we live and how will Sarah and Deborah survive? The

merciless Yahweh, he felt, was still punishing him for his sins.

Worried, he welcomed the merchant with as much grace

as he could muster, sat down on the unstable wooden bench

across from him and poured himself a cup from the wineskin.

The sun’s rays filtered through the branches of the great oak

and the checkered shadows moved back and forth across the

two men’s faces and backs as the breezes became stronger.

Joel shaded his eyes from the momentary glare. -You are

wondering what brings me here?

-Yes. This is not your usual time.

Shemei lifted up his cup, automatically recited the prayer

thanking Yahweh for the fruit of the vine, and Joel joined him;

then both slowly sipped the rich red liquid.

-It’s very nice. Joel smacked his lips.

Shemei nodded. -The earth has been fruitful, thanks be to

Yahweh.

Joel glanced around. -Your daughter, Deborah...I don’t see

her.

52
Shemei avoided his eyes. -Sarah, where is Deborah?

Sarah barely lifted her eyes from the basket. -I believe she’s

at ben Ezra’s helping them press the olives.

-She seems to be a fine young girl, Joel said, -well-versed in

the scriptures...beautiful... Soon she’ll make a fine mother for

your grandchildren.

Shemei smiled proudly. -She was first in her class...

-Truly? Among all the boys? You are fortunate to have such

a daughter...

-Thanks be to Yahweh. Shemei could not quite suppress the

note of cynicism in his voice.

-I understand she’s still not betrothed?

Shemei shook his head. -Not yet.

-Then she must be promised?

Shemei, frowning, shook his head again sadly. He was

embarrassed by these questions. He didn’t want to talk about

Deborah. Discussing her, especially with this inquisitive and

sharp-eyed merchant, made him uncomfortable. Why didn’t

the man get to the point of his visit.

-Good, Joel said.

Shemei stared at him. Good? His visitor was actually

beaming. He can afford to laugh at me, he thought to himself

bitterly. He doesn’t have an unmarried, an unmarriageable,

53
daughter. His daughters all have husbands. -But surely Deborah

is not the reason for your coming to see me, he said aloud. -You

must have more important things on your mind.

-No, not at all. Joel was smiling broadly. -I have come to

make an offer for her hand.

-Her hand? Shemei swallowed nervously. -But you already

have a wife.

Joel laughed. -Not for me, for my son. I have come to

arrange a marriage between your daughter, Deborah, and my

son, Jason.

Shemei suddenly felt dizzy, as if something had hit him hard

between the eyes. He gripped the table to keep from falling off

his seat. -But your son, you said, is not...

-I have decided it would be beneficial for both of us, both

our families, Joel broke in. -I have considered it every day

and every night since our meeting in the synagogue on Yom

Kippur. I have now examined all sides of the issue. There are

problems, of course. I recognize that my son and your daughter

come from different worlds. I also know that Yahweh, in his

wisdom, divided mankind into classes. He made some men rich

and some poor; some debtors, some creditors; some aristocrats

and nobles, and some slaves; some wise and some foolish. My

son Jason would be marrying out of his class. He would be

54
reaching down. This is a difficult thing for me, especially for my

wife’s family, to accept. My wife and her family are said to be

descendants of certain priests. Nevertheless, on balance, in this

union I am convinced the good outweighs the bad. Besides, did

not the rabbi say, go down one step in taking a wife? A woman of

higher rank might despise her husband. I hope you will forgive

me but I have inquired extensively into her character. I am told

that she is an honest girl with an education. A little headstrong,

perhaps, but I believe Jason needs a wife like Deborah. Not only

would she bear him healthy and intelligent sons, she would

keep his household under control. Her learning, her piety, her

moral character must, in time, bring him back to his people and

his Creator. I have seen it happen. Also, I am told that Deborah

is clear-headed and wise and would not squander his fortune.

Jason will have a fortune, Shemei. Your daughter will be the

wife of a rich man. With your land in addition... He drew in his

breath. -Furthermore I am ready to offer you a most generous

mohar, one hundred shekels of silver.

To Shemei, Joel sounded as if he were bidding for a future

crop, or a piece of land, or discussing an investment. He could

not understand the merchant’s urgency. Many would be

honored to receive such a proposal. Yet his first instinct was

to refuse, as he had refused so many times before. No one

55
was good enough for his Deborah, problem though she was.

Yet this offer was different. The more he thought about it the

more exciting it became. Indeed, it was fantastic. It exceeded his

wildest expectations. He saw in his mind the shocked glances

of his friends and neighbors when the announcement became

public. Even as they congratulated him, he could already hear

the anxious whispers in the village. But no matter. Deborah’s

life would be secure, more than secure...and so would his and

Sarah’s. They would not have to work so hard in their old age.

Every dream he had for his daughter would be fulfilled. In

her would the meaning of his own life be realized. Through

her the fortune of his family would take a new dramatic turn

for the better. His chest overflowed with pride. He wanted to

shout aloud with joy. Yahweh, the all-wise and all-powerful,

the great Yahweh, King of Kings, Master of the Universe, had

heard his prayers and smiled upon him. No greater miracle

could he imagine. And forever after, as long as there was breath

in his body, he would praise the Lord and thank Him and keep

His commandments. Like Abraham of old who had placed his

beloved son, Isaac, on the sacrificial altar, he too was ready to

obey without question Yahweh’s most extreme demands.

And so Deborah’s marriage was arranged, and the date

set. The negotiations were difficult, complicated and drawn-

56
out. The contract took months to finalize. There were many

meetings between the heads of the families, sometimes with

several rabbis, priests from as far away as Jerusalem and

scribes in attendance, busily giving advice and making notes.

There were social gatherings where all the members of both

families were introduced, and then the betrothal in which the

prospective bride and groom saw each other for the first time

and exchanged rings as the guests drank Shemei’s wine and

feasted on roast lamb. These were mainly stiff and formal affairs,

even though they usually ended up with music, dancing, and

feverish intoxication.

During the betrothal ceremony Deborah suddenly became

uncharacteristically shy and very nervous. As the tall and

handsome Jason with his puffy beardless cheeks and golden

hair studied her from behind his weary mask of boredom

and indifference, she felt like a new calf being examined

before purchase, and on the day of her important prenuptial

interrogation by Jason’s mother, his sisters, aunts and other

female relatives, she was seized by an almost uncontrollable

panic that left her trembling for hours afterward.

The interrogation resembled a judicial inquisition, the kind

that the Sanhedrin conducted periodically against suspected

Messianists and other nonconformists and malcontents in

57
the Temple. Jason’s mother, Tabita, a portly and bejeweled

matron, sat on a beautiful chair with golden arms carved in

the shape of lions’ heads imported from Rome. On either side

of her were her well-fed and perfumed daughters, Diana and

Drusilla, with their heavily rouged cheeks, painted eyes and

elaborate hairdos. Reclining on lounges around the rest of the

spacious room in the Roman-style villa, and waited on by half-

naked male servants, were the remaining female members of

the family. All were exquisitely attired in the kind of expensive

gowns usually seen on the wives and daughters of successful

traders from Athens or Alexandria.

Deborah faced this formidable group alone. She had walked

all the way with her father from Tabgha and stood there now,

barefoot in her simple white cotton dress with the pleats and

the woolen shawl around her shoulders that she had knitted

with her own hands, feeling inadequate and very vulnerable,

while Shemei waited outside.

The women scrutinized her weaving and embroidery, lifting

their noses distastefully and shaking their heads. They probed

her knowledge of delicate perfumes, of diamonds and other

precious stones, of hair, eyes and make-up. They barraged her

with questions about etiquette, about how to handle servants,

how to supervise a large household in order that her husband

58
might be free to engage in his own important pursuits; and

then, almost in passing, tried to find out what she knew about

the rituals, the festivals, the preparation of food and the dietary

laws of her people.

She departed white-lipped, choking back tears, for it was

obvious that she had no experience and little knowledge of the

subjects that had been asked her, and that, with few exceptions,

her answers to these questions had utterly failed to satisfy her

interrogators.

Marrying into a higher social class, she discovered, could

be agonizing, frustrating and painful. The pressures were

enormous. Several times she wanted to scream or shed hot tears,

run out on the whole affair. Often when she was alone, she’d

scream in frustration to the empty heavens or shed bitter tears.

But only the oxen heard. She said nothing. Thus preparations for

her wedding went on apace and no one knew her real feelings

or could understand the wild emotions pulsating through her

heart. Soon the entire village became involved.

The women, always busy, worked harder than ever.

Although the date was months away, they already began to

discuss the kind of food to be served, and which housewife

would be responsible for what dish. There were difficulties

and conflicts. For example, who would prepare the lamb,

59
the vegetables, and the fish? Since not even the entire group

combined had enough money for the amount necessary for all

the guests, it was decided to invite all the fishermen from the

Sea of Gennesareth and their wives. Meanwhile, the women of

Tabgha washed, mended, sewed and spun, preparing for the

big occasion.

The men also were involved. They discussed the ceremony

daily and at length during their morning and evening prayer

sessions in the synagogue. They debated the exact procedure

to be followed and, as might be expected, there was much

disagreement and many heated disputes over the details. Many

times did the rabbi or the hazzan have to be called in to make a

decision based upon the most traditional practice and the most

authoritative interpretation of the scriptures. So, as the weeks

passed, Tabgha became gripped by a kind of frantic excitement

like that which takes place during the outbreak of a war. Indeed,

in the village, involvement in the wedding helped to divert

people’s minds from their more pressing, real problems: the

worsening harvests, the latest increases in taxes, the mounting

debts everyone owed to the money lenders and the merchants,

and the sudden proliferation of illness, of deformed infants

being born, of stillbirths, and the overwhelming nameless fear

that followed the villagers about day and night. Every day one

60
heard stories about the Messiah (every week a new one was said

to appear) and the presence of mercenaries and slinking spies.

In addition, there were persistent rumors brought in by traders

and members of caravans from Jerusalem that King Herod was

ill, perhaps seriously, and that riots and uprisings had begun to

break out in many parts of the country. These tended to make

everyone even more anxious; for, hated tyrant though he was,

Herod represented for many a longed-for stability. So it was that

the villagers plunged into the coming affair with that mindless

energy common to religious fanatics or drunkards intent upon

blotting out all consciousness through wine or god.

At times Deborah tried to imagine what life would be like

as Jason’s wife. It was difficult, even for one with her vivid

imagination. Her mind often was beset with anxieties and

doubts.

Moving away from her family and her village to a new home in

a foreign city, among new people whom she did not understand

and who did not understand her, whose interests and way of

life were foreign to her own (even if they were rich) was not

something she could look forward to eagerly. Inside she would

often feel a sadness, a deep emptiness.

She accepted the marriage only with difficulty, as a

burden she had to go through, an important religious and social

61
obligation, a vital step toward her destiny as a woman, like

painful menstruation. Moreover, it made her father and mother,

indeed, the entire village, very happy. And, among her friends

and acquaintances, she was the center of attention. Any one of

them would have been overjoyed to have been in her place. So

she continued to keep her true feelings secret, smiled often, and

buried herself in the traditional bridal activities of preparing a

trousseau, getting her finger- and toe-nails cut, while listening

to the advice and lewd remarks of the older women on how

she should conduct herself in the marriage bed, (she kept

delaying the necessary shaving of her head), immersing herself

for the first time in what would become the monthly ritual of

the mikvah, plus all the ordinary everyday chores that were

expected of her.

Yet, occupied as she was, she would, at odd moments when

no one was watching, steal away alone into her tiny room,

(which was not actually a room, merely the space where she

slept) partially partitioned off from the rest of the house by

several goatskins sewed together. There, she would secretly

and very carefully lift a corner of her pallet and gaze at the

knife that was hidden beneath it, which she was keeping for

the unknown young man who had thrust it into her hands

many months before. Sometimes in the sunshine, or moonlight,

62
the blade seemed to come alive, like a bright mirror reflecting

her searching furtive eyes. Sometimes she’d run the tips of

her fingers gently along the razor-sharp edge, and always she

would feel an intense excitement pulsating through her body.

Once she cut herself accidentally and noticed two tiny drops of

blood on her white bed. They frightened her, but also moved her

strangely, for they caused her to think of her coming wedding

night, the painful breaking of her hymen, and the long-awaited

loss of her virginity.

Even when she was not actually looking at the knife, she

would visualize it in her mind. Many times while performing her

usual tasks during the day it would appear like a specter before

her eyes. No matter how busy she was it would always come

unexpectedly, sometimes causing her acute embarrassment,

especially when either of her parents was present. It would

also invade her dreams at night: the perfect hue of the curved

blade, the intricately designed handle of silver on which were

printed seven ancient Hebrew letters whose meaning she could

not fathom. The knife was beautiful but dangerous, like certain

poisonous plants that bloom in the desert. There was something

mysterious about it as well, reminding her of the sacred scrolls

that only a select group of holy men were allowed to see, scrolls

that contained deep and terrible truths. Sometimes also in her

63
sleep (and even during her waking hours) she would see the

young man to whom the knife belonged and hear his voice and

feel him pressing his weapon into her hands exactly as he had

done before, his black smoldering eyes gazing into her own,

setting her entire being ablaze. Where was he? Was he alive?

Would she ever see him again and return his knife?

She no longer had any expectations. Still she held onto the

knife and continued to dream. In no time at all her dreams

began to cause her anxiety. Despite the aching pleasure they

often gave her, she was sure that they must be, in some manner,

sinful...especially now that she was already betrothed and

would soon become a married woman.

So one day during the feast of Pentecost, she took her courage

in her hands and confessed to the rabbi. Not everything. She

did not mention the real knife, or its true owner. Only the one

in her imagination.

The rabbi scratched his lined forehead, pulled his tallith

closer around his shoulders and listened patiently. He was a

thin but vigorous old man and he had heard everything. He

took Deborah’s soft warm hands between his cold wrinkled

ones, studied her lovely oval face, shook his head slowly,

perhaps regretting his own departed youth, and assured her

that her dreams were not unusual. Many young women before

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their weddings had even stranger ones.

-Do not fear, he said, -you have not sinned. Yahweh is

preparing you as he does all new brides. Soon you will be

married and give your husband children. When that takes

place, your visions will disappear, and the Almighty will bless

you with happiness beyond your imagination.

Not long after that interview (her wedding was now less

than two months away), Deborah was in the nearby village of

Bethsaida with her mother, buying some material for her bridal

veil at the small crowded market, when she saw across the tide

of faces, the thin almost furtive figure of a young man staring at

her.

She saw him for only an instant, but she knew who it was

immediately.

Her heart began to hammer against her ribs so violently

she had to lower her eyes. But when she lifted them a moment

later other heads and other faces were swirling by and he had

disappeared.

She kept looking around.

Had it actually been him? It didn’t seem possible. Yet...

Just above the cloudless eastern horizon the early morning

sun hung like a burning dish, and on the ground the night

shadows were already slipping away behind walls and

65
buildings and beneath trees and bushes. A cock was crowing

somewhere and here in the marketplace people were pressing

past each other from one peddler’s cart to another, stopping

now and then to bargain for fine linen or clay pottery or blown-

glass vases or leather sandals or necklaces or precious stones

or vials of rare scents imported by ship and caravan from far-

off places, while market inspectors with high-pointed hats and

large badges on their chests walked about observing everything

with bored officious glances.

Her mother was carefully examining a roll of silk thread,

discussing with a neighbor the possibility of knitting it into a

lace veil by the time of the wedding ceremony, when Deborah

suddenly became aware of the clatter of hoofbeats and turned

her head to see a group of Idumaean cavalrymen galloping into

the marketplace amid a cloud of dust.

They halted so abruptly their horses reared up on their hind

legs; then almost immediately, they began to fan out through the

crowd, scrutinizing every male face and questioning everyone

about a youth who they insisted must have just come through

here, and describing him in such detail that Deborah was sure he

was the one she had seen. The commanding officer threatened

the entire village, the entire province with dire punishment if

the fugitive was not apprehended. Ten young men were pulled

66
out of the crowd and told they were going to be crucified

unless someone gave information about his whereabouts. The

mercenaries built three crosses and struck their prisoners with

the flats of their swords until they lost consciousness.

Still, no one present said a single word. Neither Deborah nor

anyone else gave the mercenaries any information.

-These Jews wouldn’t give us a breath of the wind that

comes out of their arseholes, she heard one of them mutter as

his horse brushed slowly by.

-They think they fart perfume, his big burly partner growled.

There was a sharp command and the Idumaeans suddenly

swung their horses about, dug their heels into the animals’

flanks and galloped away, leaving everything unfinished.

Standing among the tense silent crowd, Deborah watched

them disappear, nervously wondering what had caused this

sudden change in plans and where the young man had gone

and what kind of crime he had committed, hoping secretly that

they would not find him.

Very soon afterward Deborah and Sarah left Bethsaida and

returned to their own village. On the way back they came upon

the dead bodies of three men placed prominently along the

route that wound through large areas of empty pasture land

interspersed here and there with clusters of bushy turpentine

67
trees. Two of the corpses lay almost directly across the rutted

path. The other hung from an improvised wooden cross. The

dead men were most likely Jewish peasants, but it was difficult

to be certain for their faces were almost unrecognizable. Their

clothes had been stripped from their bodies, their necks had

been broken, they had been castrated and their penises stuffed

into their mouths. Crows were pecking at their eyeballs. Vultures

were wheeling about overhead. Sarah and her daughter stood

for several moments among a small group of people who had

stopped to stare at the remains of the man on the cross. Deborah

remained there motionless, as if under a spell.

The sun beat down in waves. The odor of decaying flesh

was sickening. Gnats, ants, flies and other insects swarmed over

the dried blood and matted hair below the navel and crawled

into the empty gash where the genitals had been. Someone, a

travelling peddler, was muttering that the dead men were not

from around here and thus must have been suspected of having

been bandits or terrorists, perhaps of even having been active

in the riot at Beth Arath. No one present knew what he was

talking about, never having heard of any riot, even though the

existence of Beth Arath, one of the largest estates in Galilaea,

was almost as well-known in the region as Jerusalem itself. The

half-eaten eyeball of the man on the cross kept gazing down

68
at Deborah. She tried to move away, out of its line of vision;

but the lopsided skull-like face slowly turned, as if following

her, and grinned. With a start she thought she recognized it as

that of the young man whom the Idumaean mercenaries were

looking for. He was coming down from the cross, his arms

outstretched, directly toward her. Cold sweat was breaking out

along her spine and beteen her breasts. She began to tremble.

Abruptly she clutched her stomach and bent over and

vomited.

By the time they returned home, the sickly greenish cast to

Deborah’s cheeks was gone and she seemed to have recovered.

After all, this was not the first time she had undergone such

an experience. Armed men were always making these sudden

unprovoked raids on peaceful citizens, arresting friends and

neighbors, and often leaving in their wake mutilated corpses.

There would be wailing and tears and prayers from the family

at the grave and in the synagogue, Yisgidal, v’yisgidal, shema,

rabbo, and everyone would talk about it sadly (or even angrily

if they were certain no government informers were present)

for weeks and months afterward. And the villagers would seek

ways to assist the widow and her children, and soon afterwards

the matchmakers would become busy. And that would be a

69
signal that the mourning was over. In time it would become a

memory, part of the pattern of community history and legend

of the recurrent cycle of life and death. One got used to it.

Not always, however. Certainly not in Deborah’s case, at

least not yet. Despite her surface demeanor, deep inside where

no one could see, she had gone into mourning. She tried to

relieve her sorrow as one usually did, in work: spotlessly

cleaning the house and the outside areas where the animals were

kept, milking the goats, gathering the eggs, fetching the water,

and making the bread. But as she ground the barley between

the round stones of the small hand-held mill, as she kneaded it

until her fingers were red, inserted the fresh yeast, and carried

the risen dough in the sloping wooden trough on her head to the

outdoor oven, she kept seeing again and again that anonymous

skull, that half-eaten eyeball glaring rigidly at her, and then the

nightmare vision of the spectral figure climbing down off the

cross, its bony arms outstretched, coming to embrace her as a

lover might.

She was so frightened she fled to the mikvah, threw off

her clothes, and completely immersed her half-naked body

seven times in the cold water. Everyone knew that Beezelbub,

the Devil, made it a practice to torment betrothed maidens in

countless ways, possessing their souls and often forcing them to

70
commit unspeakable acts. Holding her breath under the water

until her head seemed ready to burst, she prayed to Yahweh

with the passion of one about to die.

Afterwards Sarah asked her to try on the bridal gown (the

same one she herself had been married in many years before)

in order to see how the thread for the veil matched the rest of

it, to make last-minute adjustments. Except for small changes

necessary in the length and a slight tightening in the bodice,

the gown fit perfectly and Deborah looked beautiful (like an

angel, her mother said). The bride herself felt like a maiden

being dressed for the coffin, that her marriage bed would be

her grave.

As she was being helped out of the gown Deborah asked

her mother questions: Did she know why the soldiers raided

the marketplace at Arbel that morning? Had she heard of a riot

at Beth Arath? Did she have any idea who those dead men they

saw along the road were?

Sarah shook her head. She knew nothing, she said, and

cautioned that it was better not to think about these things, to

put them out of her mind and try to make believe they had

never happened.

Deborah sat down on a bench with her hands working

between her knees and stared at the floor. The skirt of her short

71
linen undergarment was pulled up above her thighs. Sarah was

carefully folding the bridal gown but had just turned to point

out her daughter’s immodest position when Deborah, in a low

voice with her eyes never leaving the floor, blurted out for the

first time her true feelings about her forthcoming marriage. As

she went on, her back began to tremble and the words caught

in her throat; then she dissolved into a flood of tears.

Sarah took her in her arms and soothed her, stroking her

long black hair and rocking her back and forth like an infant.

-It will be all right, she murmured, -it will be all right, Deborah.

Every young girl feels the same as you as her wedding day

draws close. Before my wedding, I felt the same. I was so

frightened I couldn’t eat. But we all survive. We bear children

for our husbands and perform our duties to our families as

Yahweh has ordained.

Later that day Joel, the merchant, arrived in his chariot

along with his son, Jason, bearing gifts for the betrothed. The

women of the village watched nervously from their doorways

and the men looked up frowning from their work on the

nearby farm and pasture lands as the vehicle bounced along

the narrow rutted road, while the children, who would usually

be following screaming excitedly, were warned to stay indoors.

Chariots were rarely seen in Tabgha. Only high government

72
officials, wealthy merchants, large landowners, ruling high

priests, or military commanders rode in them. Thus it was at

first feared that this must be an official visit connected in some

way with the incident at the marketplace that morning, and

that the townspeople would be held responsible for something

they had nothing to do with nor knew nothing about.

But as the simple conveyance, which was little more than a

kind of lattice-work box mounted on two spoked wheels drawn

by a pair of asses, came close enough to be recognized, the fear

evaporated; and when villagers realized that the chariot was

heading in the direction of Shemei’s house, they were deeply

impressed.

-Soon Deborah will be the wife of a rich man, Hannah,

the old maid with the lopsided face, muttered enviously to

the young virgins at the stream as she lifted a basket of newly

washed wet clothes onto her head.

-After the wedding she will not even recognize us, Zeitan,

the shoemaker’s daughter complained.

But Hagar, whose left leg was shorter than her right and

whose dreams caused those who heard them to blush, declared

that no matter how wealthy Deborah became she would never

really change.

-The man I marry can be poor as dirt. Only that he should

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give me many male children.

-And if you are barren? the beautiful Marta asked.

-Only that my husband should try, Hagar told her.

-That he should try many times, Zeitan shrieked.

And they all laughed until the tears came.

Joel and his son were welcomed warmly into Shemei’s

small house after which the bridegroom-to-be presented his

betrothed with the mattau, consisting of a silver brooch inlaid

with diamonds, fashioned by a master craftsman in Sepphoris,

and a delicate chain spun of the finest gold.

Deborah accepted the gifts with well-chosen words of

thanks, and with all due modesty. Sarah and Shemei were of

course highly pleased, not only with the expensive jewelry

which would remain in their daughter’s possession forever

(unlike all other family property which was legally that of

her husband’s) but with Deborah’s changed attitude. She

appeared to be making a valiant effort to smile and even speak

to her perfectly groomed and handsome but rather aloof future

husband. Sarah felt the intimate moment she had just had with

Deborah must have somehow contributed to her daughter’s

changed behavior. Shemei thanked God that the effects of

Deborah’s education were at last wearing off. He was in fact

so delighted he insisted that his guests stay and dine with him.

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Unable to refuse without causing bad feelings, they reluctantly

consented.

Now the sun was dipping below the horizon and the world

darkening into a soft purple silhouette. Sarah was finishing her

preparations for the evening meal and Deborah was outside

in the courtyard lighting the oil lamp at the center of the long

wooden table. As she murmured the prayer thanking Yahweh

for the gift of light, she saw Jason talking to Joel near the

grapevines that screened off the far side of the courtyard. She

was, perhaps for the hundredth time, trying to imagine what

it would be like lying in the same bed with him and receiving

his seed and bearing his children, when she spied her father

approaching with a black-bearded rather thin, emaciated-

looking young man wearing a worn cloak of camel’s hair, a rope

belt around his waist, and a tallith draped over his shoulders. In

his right hand he carried a short thick staff and his movements

seemed furtive and tense.

For a moment she stared at him, unable to move. Then,

almost choking in disbelief, she turned in panic and fled back

into the house where Sarah was slicing the cucumbers and

placing the onions and lettuce on a large clay dish. She clung

to the back of a chair, breathing in gasps and hoping that her

mother would not hear the loud thumping of her heart against

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her ribs, and waited until her limbs finally stopped shaking

before stepping back to the partially open back door.

It was no nightmare. It was him in the flesh. Where he came

from and how he got here she could only guess, but clearly he

had met her father somehow and been invited to join the family

and the other guests at the evening meal.

These guests, the itinerant field hands Lemech, Noah, and

Betah, and the two men from the village who had recently lost

their land due to last year’s steep tax increase, Nahum and

Malchus, were lumbering into the courtyard now and taking

their places around the table beside Joel and Jason. All noticed

the young man standing beside Shemei. They looked at him

intently and inquired who he was.

-He is a smith, Shemei explained. -He came up to me in the

fields today and asked if I had something that needed repair. So

I showed him the broken olive press, and already it can be used.

-Perhaps he can fix the ploughshare as well, Betah, a big

hairy man from Decopolis, suggested.

-And the mattock too, Noah added. One of his eyes was

blind as a result of a childhood infection and he kept twisting

his head around as if trying to see better.

-Also the scythes need sharpening, Lemech, who had only

two fingers and a thumb on his left hand, chimed in.

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-Yes, there is much work for him, Shemei said.

-So what do you call yourself, stranger? Nahum, the dwarf

with the enormous head asked in his high screeching cackle.

The young man eyed the questioner and looked away. He

seemed very reluctant to answer.

-He is called Aaron...ben David, Shemei interjected after an

awkward silence.

-So, Aaron ben David, Noah inquired, -do you live in this

district? Why have we never seen you?

-I have not been here before.

-Where are you from then?

Aaron looked away. -I travel, he said.

-Where? Kafar-Nahum? Magdala?

-Further.

-Galilaea?

-Beyond.

-You have seen the wide world then.

Aaron shrugged.

-And so young.

-Praised be to Yahweh.

During this discussion with the stranger, Deborah ventured

silently out of the house carrying a tray of flat cakes. She was

setting them on the table, trying to remain unnoticed, when

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Shemei called out: -Deborah, make another place. Then he

turned to Aaron and said, -That is my only daughter...my only

child.

Deborah had halted and Aaron was looking her full in the

face. -Shalom, he said.

-Shalom, she breathed. She felt her cheeks burning beneath

his intense gaze and quickly lowered her eyes.

-She is betrothed, Shemei went on, -to Jason ben Joel who

sits there beside his father, the merchant. He pointed proudly.

-We will celebrate the wedding before the feast of Nicanor,

Yahweh willing, -and if you are here, we would like you to join

us.

Deborah scrutinized Shemei’s face as he spoke, and also that

of her future father-in-law. With relief she saw no sign in either

man’s expression that he recognized Aaron. True, a year had

passed since that Yom Kippur day when he had caused such

consternation in the synagogue at Kafar-Nahum, and both men

had seen him only briefly. But so had she. Then why did she,

and not they, remember him? Perhaps it was the circumstances

of their meeting. Perhaps it was because something of his,

something dangerous and somehow very important that she

still kept, that had lain between her naked breasts, establishing

a secret connection between them.

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-Will he stay with us long? she asked her father as casually

as she could.

-As long as he is needed, Shemei said.

Before anyone touched his food there was the ritual of the

washing of the hands, first the left, then the right, according to

the law, accompanied by the usual prayer. After this, Shemei

rose and, draping his long tasseled tallith about his head and

shoulders, pronounced the blessing for the barley bread that

Sarah had baked that afternoon, and then the benediction for

the wine pressed from grapes grown in his own vineyard.

When he finished everyone lifted his cup and carefully sipped

the heavy blood-red belly-warming liquid.

The repast, which consisted of fish that Sarah had bought

at the market (caught before dawn by fishermen on the Sea

of Gennesareth), vegetables, fruit, olives and locusts, was like

most Judaean meals, a religious rite. But it was also a festive

occasion (of which there were many these days) celebrating

Deborah’s forthcoming marriage. There were toasts to the

future bride (who sat there, face flushed, sensing Aaron’s eyes

upon her, wondering what he was thinking) to the groom (who

seemed distant and out of place with his carefully curled hair

and fine garments), to the children that would come (Yahweh

grant her many sons) and, not least of all, to her proud parents,

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Shemei and Sarah. There was also the playing of the flute by the

one-eyed Noah, the singing of hymns, and discussions of the

teachings of the ancient prophets.

Throughout, Deborah was unusually quiet. In the nearby

pasture she heard the cows lowing and somewhere in the distant

hills a lone wolf howled. Above the crooked roof of her father’s

house she spotted three bright yellow stars forming a strange

configuration in the sky and felt a chill as if she was being

warned about a coming disaster. Meanwhile from beneath her

long lashes she continued to watch Aaron’s every movement.

Who was he? What was he up to? Why had he come? How

had he found her? Surely his arrival was no accident. Was it his

knife he was so desperately seeking? Or something else? Had

Yahweh made the young man aware, even over all this time

and distance, of her lonely passion, and guided his footsteps

here?

The conversation at the table filtered intermittently into her

ears. The men, hungry for news of the great world, had begun

to ask Aaron questions. When had he been in Jerusalem? Were

they still rebuilding the Temple? When would it be finished?

Had the famine last year in Judaea taken many lives? And the

destruction caused by the earthquake near the Sea of Salt, how

bad was it? Were the rumors about Herod’s poor health true?

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Was the king planning to inflict any new taxes on them? Would

he unleash more raids by mercenaries like the one this morning

in Arbel? As they spoke of these terrible events, the voices

of the men who worked on Shemei’s land tightened and one

could see the desperation and frustration on faces due to their

own bleak circumstances.

Strange illnesses were passing through the villages like

epidemics. The Evil One was everywhere. His demons

possessed their wives and daughters and forced them into

obscene practices. Their children were always crying and

hungry. They sought help from wizards and magicians and

resorted to agonized prayer and severe fasting. But each day

conditions only became worse. Why, Nahum wanted to know,

was Yahweh so angry with His people? What sins had they

committed that He should inflict such punishment upon them?

Then someone asked in a low voice, -What about the

Messiah? -Yes, the Messiah, the others whispered eagerly.

-What about the Messiah?

Aaron looked at them sharply. -The Messiah?

-Have you heard any news? Noah asked.

Aaron dipped a crust of bread in his wine. -What news?

-Have there been signs? Lemech broke in impatiently, -signs

from Above?

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The newcomer shrugged. -Signs? Yahweh has indeed sent

us an earthquake. And yes He has inflicted upon us a famine

that has caused much hardship and suffering among our

people.

-Because we have not followed His commandments, Shemei

interjected hoarsely. -We are not vigilant enough in the struggle

against Belial.

-Perhaps. Nevertheless, on the other side of the Jordan

many of the Elect are waiting. In the desert caves to the south

the communities are preparing, cleansing themselves...

-Has He been observed?

Aaron rubbed his beard thoughtfully. -I cannot say. I myself

have observed nothing. Still...

His listeners leaned closer expectantly.

-There have been reports.

-Yes? Tell us.

Aaron sat hunched up and studied the circle of faces in

the flickering light of the oil lamps. -In the center of Meggido

where the final battle of Armageddon will rage, he was

speaking almost in a whisper, -a male child, blind since birth,

has seen the lion that dwells in the heavens descending like a

falling star, his mouth breathing fire and his roar like thunder. A

young virgin, who was ravished by the seven-headed scorpion,

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awoke from her terror to find a rabbi whom she had never seen

before standing at the foot of her bed. He wore purple robes

and was exceedingly tall and very beautiful and he had four

arms and in each of his four hands he wielded a burning sword

and on the mighty shield he carried was reflected an image of

the New Age to come and it was wondrous to behold. He wet

his lips. -In a small synagogue in the town of Nazareth, which

had been defiled and polluted with the most obscene practices

by pagan priests and priestesses, the crown of King David was

discovered. It is of fine-hammered gold laced with rubies and

pearls and is said to shine with a light so pure everything it

touches is transformed...

Everyone at the table listened and trembled. It was so quiet

the caterpillars could be heard nibbling on the tender leaves

of the fig tree. The very movement of the air seemed to have

stopped; for it was clear that these reports had to do with the

onset of profound events.

But suddenly the merchant Joel, father of Deborah’s future

husband, broke the spell. -Young man, he cried out, -the signs

and portents that you relate have all been heard before. Wizards

and prophets appear every month announcing the coming of

the Deliverer. Great crowds follow them wailing, fasting and

praying, but never has He appeared. Never. But perhaps, he

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smiled skeptically, thrusting his large heavily jowled face

toward Aaron’s, -you can tell us when that great day will be...?

Aaron shook his head. -I know nothing, merely repeat what

I have heard.

-Perhaps it is all rumor then and there is no Messiah...

-Perhaps... Yet, Aaron went on quickly, -the prophet Daniel

has declared that He whom we await so eagerly will make

Himself known.

-When?

Aaron contemplated his questioner in silence for a long

moment, his eyes alert, his hands nervously moving, and the

others leaned forward straining to hear what he would say.

-Daniel has written that after the return from captivity

Jerusalem shall stand for seventy weeks of years, four hundred

and ninety years, which means there are four and thirty years

remaining, which means... his voice rose, reverberating like an

echo -... in that day the assaults of evil will have reached their

most malevolent intensity, and humanity will have sunk to its

deepest misery and our peoples’ suffering will have become

unbearable...But then, according to the words of the prophet

Enoch, the moon and the stars will change their courses, and

will confuse the false priests and astrologers who study them

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in order to make gods of them. Then will all those insolent

rulers who build up their fortunes by oppressing the poor

and persecuting the weak be driven from power... and all the

wicked and the sinners of the earth will be destroyed...

Thirteen years later, shortly after she had been brutally

assaulted and mutilated by a cohort of Roman Legionnaires,

Deborah would recall Aaron’s words of that night and the quiet

intensity with which he spoke them. She would picture in detail

the furtive way in which he tasted his food and how carefully

he sipped his wine, barely touching his lips to the earthen cup,

as if he feared even the slightest intoxication and needed to be

alert and under control constantly like a soldier patrolling an

occupied country. Nor would she forget the rapid movement of

his eyes, even while he was quietly conversing, the thick blue

vein throbbing along the side of his forehead, nor his white

teeth flashing whenever he smiled. And once or twice she

would remember when he thought he was not being observed,

she had noticed him glancing surreptitiously out toward the

fields like a fugitive on the run...which, she had suspected, he

was.

Nevertheless the sound of his deep husky voice and the

passionate, almost visionary expression on his dark black-

bearded face had moved her deeply. She could not understand

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then, nor could she explain later, the strange and powerful

attraction she felt for this young wanderer whom she barely

knew. Perhaps it was Yahweh’s doing (as all things are) but

it was already clear that ever since she had first seen him, it

was Aaron, not Jason, the man to whom she was betrothed,

who haunted her fantasies...who came again and again in her

dreams to fetch her from her father’s house on the eve of her

wedding wearing splendid garments and a crown on his head,

and she borne through the village in a litter with her hair falling

to her shoulders and a veil covering her face and golden rounds

on her forehead, and everyone, the entire populace, singing in

the procession...

By the time the meal ended the empty moon had disappeared,

only to reappear a moment later, like an astral presence from

behind the dark devil clouds rising across the night sky. Aaron

and the men who labored on the land rose, muttered goodnight

to the others and lumbered away to their sleeping quarters on

the floor of the barn.

Joel continued to watch them narrowly until they had

disappeared into the thick black shadows beyond the row of

turpentine trees, then he turned to Shemei. -I would keep my

eyes on that man, he warned.

-You mean the one called Aaron?

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The merchant nodded. -The one you hired today.

-Why? Shemei looked at him quizzically. -What is wrong?

Has he done something?

-I am not certain. But there is something about him. He

rubbed his nose thoughtfully. -I believe I have seen him before.

Deborah caught her breath. -Where?

Her future father-in-law gazed at her thoughtfully, then

he shook his head. -I do not recall exactly, but I know I have

seen him, heard his voice. He drew his intricately woven tallith

closer around his shoulders. -Sooner or later it will come back

to me.

-But I don’t understand, Shemei muttered, -why are you so

worried about him?

-Did you hear what he said...? Jason broke in impatiently.

Deborah glanced at him sharply, as did her father and

mother. Until now, he had not seemed to be listening to their

conversation.

-It is true, Joel said. -What that young man said gives us

concern. True, conditions are not good right now. Everyone

knows that. There is famine, earthquake, one disaster after

another. People lose their land. Many are hungry. Disturbances

break out all over. He inhaled deeply. -But Aaron’s words cast

blame, point a finger, not at Belial, or at our own sins, but at the

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wealthy and the powerful, at our rulers...

-They are the words of the prophets Enoch and Daniel,

Deborah cried out.

-Even so, the merchant replied, -they question, they incite...

they create false hopes...they lead to violence, to rebellion...

Listen, he went on, his expression darkening, -these outbreaks

and disturbances are not something we can ignore. They are

not something taking place far away in Jerusalem or in the

wilderness near the Sea of Salt... This violence, he shouted,

emphasizing each word with a blow of his fist on the table, -has

reached our own doorstep!

-Yahweh protect us, Sarah murmured.

Shemei swallowed nervously. -Our own doorstep?

Something has happened. Tell us, Joel ben Levias.

The merchant Joel looked about, then leaned forward, his

arms on the table. -You know Beth Arath?

Shemei nodded. –Surely, I know Beth Arath. Everyone knew

the great hereditary estate. It was less than a half day’s journey

away, adjacent to the village of Bethsaida, and was as large

as some countries. Vast numbers of peasants, tenant farmers,

skilled artisans and slaves labored there. The crops it produced

were plentiful and in great variety, the best in Galilaea. They

were shipped all over the country and abroad, as far away

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as Rome. The great aristocratic family that owned it, several

of whom were high priests with homes in Jerusalem, ruling

members of the Sanhedrin, employing a well-trained private

army to keep order and a steward and assistants to manage its

affairs.

-I was there only last month trying to buy seed for next

year’s wheat crop, Shemei remembered. -In exchange I offered

my best wine, the best wine in our whole district, everyone

says. But Melas, the steward, cursed be his name, refused.

-Melas is dead, Joel said solemnly.

-Dead? Shemei stared at him. -But how is it possible?

-He was killed...murdered.

Shemei felt his mouth go dry. He was unable to speak for a

moment. Had his curse caused this to happen? Claws of guilt

tore at his insides.

-Do they know...who did it?

The merchant’s big head moved up and down slowly.

-People on the estate.

-People?

-People who worked there...peasants, slaves. As I understand

it, a group of them fell upon the steward with ploughshares,

spades, mattocks, hoes, with sickles and goads, with everything

they could find, as he came out to survey the cornfield early one

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morning before Sabbath. After they killed him they cut off his

penis and testicles.

-O, Heaven have mercy.

-He used to take their wives and daughters to his chambers...

But what steward does not...?

-Melas’ bodyguards were not with him?

-They were, but there were many peasants, also slaves and

artisans...In their fury they overcame the guards. Then they

went on a rampage. Most of the other laborers on the estate

joined in, for to a man they hated Melas and all his works...The

crazed mob burned buildings, sacked warehouses, destroyed

everything in sight.

-Awful. Awful. Yahweh preserve us.

-But some who were there claim this never would have

happened if...the merchant lowered his voice almost to a

whisper, -if the laborers were not incited and led by agitators

from the outside...

-Agitators?

-They called them Zealots for Israel...

-Zealots?

-Among them was a rabbi...

-A rabbi did such a thing? Shemei could not believe it.

-He was young, headstrong. He worked as an artisan.

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Deborah, cleaning the table, glanced up at him, and listened

intently.

-The mob stuck Melas’ bloody privates on a pole, her future

father-in-law continued, -and marched in an obscene parade

mocking the owners of Beth Arath and our sacred high priests

and even King Herod himself whom they reviled as a Godless

pagan, servant of Belial...Meanwhile they prayed and chanted

hymns to Yahweh...

-Yahweh will punish them, Shemei said.

-A rabbi? Deborah interjected. -They were led by a rabbi?

The merchant nodded. -It was claimed that he had studied

in Jerusalem, at the school of Hillel...but had been forced to

flee... He had come to work at Beth-Arath only a short time

ago...

Deborah swallowed hard. Her throat was dry. -What

happened to him?

-He disappeared.

She felt a knot forming in the pit of her stomach.

-By the time the troops arrived, Joel explained, -most of the

terrorists had fled. But mercenaries continue to search for them.

The provincial Sanhedrin is still sending cohorts out into every

town and village, every farm and dwelling in this vicinity,

arresting all itinerants and beggars, every homeless person

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whose name is not on the tax rolls. Every day they conduct

raids, take in suspects for questioning...

So that is what happened this morning at the market, Sarah

murmured to herself.

-Those criminals must be found, the merchant thundered.

-They must. Abruptly, he reached out, gripped Shemei’s wrist,

and glared into his eyes. -Tell me, what more do you know

about that man you hired today?

Shemei lifted his shoulders, wagged his head slowly back

and forth. -Nothing. Only that he is an artisan...that he travels...

At that moment Deborah heard a voice. It was screaming

shrilly and it seemed to be coming from deep inside her. Then

she became aware of words issuing from her own lips and they

were saying, -Stop it! These are lies, rumors planted by the Evil

One.

Aaron was not at Beth-Arath. I cannot believe it. He had nothing

to do with it. He is not to be blamed. He is not...

And then there was silence and everyone was staring at her.

And her face was burning and her mouth was sand.

That night Deborah could not sleep. She was confused,

anxious, and tormented by guilt. Not because of anything she

had done, but because of what she longed for, of what she might

do.

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Her unprovoked and apparently unmotivated outburst in

defense of Aaron, she feared, must have revealed her secret.

Still no one had said anything afterward, neither her parents

nor the silent young man to whom she was betrothed, nor his

father, except to ask what was wrong, was she unwell?

Sarah had passed it off as quite normal, murmuring

something about the tensions young girls often go through as

the day of their wedding approaches, and the others seemed to

accept this explanation. Yet Deborah could not be sure and was

still anxious and not at ease.

The room was dark and still. Her eyes remained wide open.

Through a crack in the ceiling she saw what appeared to be a

red gash spreading across the curved sky and streams of blood

gushing out as from the slashed throat of a young lamb. The

darkness stirred. She heard the whisper of crawling things.

Imps with black wings and long cruel tails were flying above her

head. They swarmed down, their thin black tongues flicking out

between rows of sharp white fangs. They crawled into her bed,

beneath the blankets and slid obscenely under her nightdress.

They touched her flesh in many places and wherever she felt

them she was left with aching insatiable desires. All at once she

was aware of soft eerie laughter and felt someone watching her.

Belial had entered the room and now she knew that this would

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be only the beginning of her punishment.

She awoke with the first crowing of the cock, dressed, and

prayed to the Almighty with all her strength, pleading for

His help and His mercy. Then she kneeled beside her pallet,

carefully reached beneath it and, glancing around rapidly to

make sure no one was watching, felt for Aaron’s knife. It was

there in the exact place she had hidden it. Slowly, carefully she

withdrew it. The sharp blade glittered in the dawning light. She

quickly slipped it inside her bodice and hurried to the door.

Even before she opened it she heard Aaron’s voice.

` A moment later she saw him in the courtyard along with

her father and the other field workers, intoning the morning

prayer. They stood and sat around the table very much as

they had last night, except now they were all wearing black

phylacteries wound around their arms and on their foreheads,

and at intervals they would all stand and sway back and forth,

their voices rising and falling in a weird half-singing half-

chanting cacophony. Indeed, it almost seemed they had never

gone to bed.

She remained there half hidden in the early morning

shadows watching and listening, following the words in her

mind and singing along under her breath until the men had

finished. She noticed that, during the entire prayer, her father

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kept glancing suspiciously at Aaron.

Afterward she watched them depart, trudging slowly out

toward the fields to begin their long day’s labor. On the way she

saw her father standing there hesitating and looking around

once more at the young artisan who was still unwinding his

phylacteries. At length he turned and began to walk toward the

small shed where the broken farm implements were kept.

No one else was in sight.

Seizing the moment, Deborah stepped through the doorway,

hurried along the path and caught up with him, touched his

shoulder. He swung about, tensing; but as he did, she quickly

handed him the knife and turned to flee.

-Wait! he whispered.

She hesitated.

He approached her slowly. -Shalom. The knife lay in his

outstretched hands. -This is mine?

She nodded.

He turned it over several times between his fingers. A shy

smile was on his face. -You kept it safe for me all this time?

Her eyes lowered in assent.

-I thank you. He seemed not quite at ease. -It means a great

deal to me.

-I know. She dared not lift her face, afraid what he would

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see there.

Neither of them was able to speak for a moment. The silence

expanded, became awkward.

-But why...?

He looked at her questioningly.

-Why? Why is the knife so important? What is it used for?

He ran his fingernails thoughtfully along the sharp blade.

-It has many uses.

-What uses? she persisted.

-For cutting wood and meat and fish... as a weapon... He

had a way of speaking which concealed rather than revealed

what he meant.

-A weapon?

-For protection, against savage beasts... It was given to me

by my father.

-Ah...

-He was killed.

-I am sorry.

He continued to study her in silence, as if not sure whether

he could trust her, but finally, in a voice just above a whisper, he

said, -It is a weapon...in our struggle.

-Are you...a rabbi? she blurted out.

His eyes did not leave her’s. -A rabbi? I? Why do you

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ask? -Are you? I have heard rumors.

He hesitated for a long moment. -I teach sometimes in the

synagogue.

A strange excitement suddenly began to pound through her

organs, the excitement of danger. But also of something else,

something larger than herself, some meaning, some connection

with something she did not fully understand and was afraid of,

but wanted to give herself to totally, body and mind, heart and

soul. -How did you find me? she asked. -You did not know my

name or anything about me...

The shy smile returned to his lips. -It took a long time. It has

been almost a year. He cleared his throat. -I...I did not dare to

hope you would actually keep this for me...

-But still you came?

-I prayed...

Again their eyes met.

-Yahweh heard me.

She was having difficulty breathing. -I am pleased you have

your knife, she said.

-He directed me...to you...from the beginning, even when we

first met. You saved my life. There was an intensity, something

about him that communicated itself to her so powerfully she

felt herself beginning to tremble.

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-Please, she whispered wildly. -I should not be speaking to

you like this. I am betrothed. Very soon I will be...married. I

have many preparations to make, I must go. Impulsively, she

whirled about, her skirts swinging around her ankles, and fled.

She was vaguely aware of footsteps following her and, later

at the well, standing among the other gossiping women of the

village awaiting her turn to draw water, thought she spied him

out of the corner of her eye. Even if it was him, she was sure

he wouldn’t approach her here (then the women would really

have something to set their tongues wagging about), so she

dawdled, lingering longer than necessary.

On the way back she glanced around, hoping to see him,

but he was gone and she was strangely disappointed.

During the remainder of that day and the ones following,

Deborah kept herself even busier than usual. She spun and

wove, washed clothes in one of the nearby springs, lit the

Sabbath lamp and kept watch over it to make sure the flame

did not die, added to her wedding trousseau and assisted her

mother in the preparation of the meals. Yet always Aaron was

in the forefront of her mind. Despite her firmest resolve, she

found herself straying across his path, often deliberately going

out of her way to see him (or be seen) while walking to the

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mikvah or returning from the synagogue with her friends or

leading the goats to pasture; and at high noon she managed to

spend time in his presence as part of her chores.

During the hour when the sun was directly overhead and

burned with its most withering power Shemei and his hired

laborers would rest from their toil in the shade of a nearby

oak or fig tree or beneath the shelter of a makeshift sheepskin

covering, strung out on four poles. As they lay or sat on the

ground Deborah would approach from across the fields and

serve them wine and cheese, or bread and honey and grapes,

figs, and oranges, and sometimes goat’s milk.

On her way back to the house she would seek Aaron out

and stop wherever he was working to make sure he received

his share. She would find him kneeling beside the olive press

or hammering a broken plow or sharpening a scythe, or notice

him sweating on the side of the roof repairing a gutter, often

wearing nothing but a loincloth. She would stand waiting at a

respectable distance from him keeping her eyes averted. Nor

would he look directly at her, merely murmur a circumspect

and barely audible Shalom and try to concentrate on his

work or the food instead. But though not a word was spoken

between them, they were intensely aware of each other’s every

movement and most minute expression.

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He remained in Shemei’s employ until a day before the

following Sabbath. Shemei was so impressed with his quiet

efficiency he dismissed Joel’s warning, cast his suspicions

aside and gave him more and more jobs to do. In the village

meanwhile he became the subject of talk from morning until

night. The men at the synagogue realized that he was extremely

knowledgeable in the Torah and the scriptures, and several

times at the services asked him to make a midrash. Old Laish

asked him to prepare his son for his bar mitzvah and the young

girls flocked around his classes, making all kinds of excuses.

Dina, sixteen years of age and an old maid because a husband

had not yet been found for her, was shameless in her advances

and it must be said that the usually well-behaved Kara and

even the shy Berenice admitted in secret that they had dreams

since his arrival that caused certain disturbances in their organs.

Deborah would become silently furious when she heard or saw

her friends’ behavior and acted out her frustrations by finding

fault with everyone and even defying her elders. No one could

understand what was troubling her. How could they? Wasn’t

she the most envied maiden in Tabgha? Wasn’t she betrothed

to the son of the wealthiest merchant in the area? She did not

understand it herself. At night she often cried bitter tears and

found it difficult to sleep.

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As for Aaron he smiled at the girls but spoke little and was

extremely circumspect in his demeanor. In the synagogue for

example no one ever heard him mention the Messiah, yet such

talk arose more often and more heatedly since his arrival than

ever before.

Shortly past noon at the end of the first week after Aaron’s

arrival, Deborah discovered him squatting beside the shed

reinforcing the supports of Sarah’s straw pallet. She offered him

bread and red wine along with some fruit, and was standing

before him, trying uneasily and with difficulty not to steal a

glance at him as he began to peel an orange, when Chayym,

the village scribe, brother of Zebulon, one of Deborah’s former

and most persistent suitors, appeared from the direction of the

road. Chayym, dark as an Arab, was cursed with a deformed

body and a strange-looking head because years ago his mother,

having conceived him out of wedlock and seeking to eradicate

the consequences of her sinful act, had tried to destroy him

before birth. He was exceedingly intelligent, had studied all the

sacred writings; moreover he loved people, especially his half-

brother, who despised him.

When the little man, almost a dwarf, with a tallith down to

his ankles and large delicate hands that hung below his knees,

saw Deborah, he hurried toward her waving his arms excitedly.

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-Where is your father? he screamed in his high cracked

voice.

-In the fields. What is wrong? Did something happen? she

asked politely.

-Soldiers are in the village. He scarcely paused to catch his

breath. -They are on their way here. They will be here very soon.

She noticed that Aaron had abruptly ceased peeling his

orange.

-I must go and warn him, Chayym said, turning to leave.

But Deborah quickly caught hold of his wrist.

-Tell me. Why are the soldiers coming here? Her lips felt

stiff.

-They say that some of the men who were in the uprising at

Beth Arath are hiding in this vicinity. They suspect everyone.

They take in for questioning all who help or shelter the terrorists,

even those who employ them. He glanced sharply at Aaron.

-Who is this?

-He...he’s a...a relative, Deborah stammered.

Chayym’s face relaxed into a quick toothy grin. -I have not

met you before, he said to Aaron, -nor have I seen you in the

village... So it must be that you are one of the family of her

betrothed. Welcome to Tabgha. It is not a good time with all

this... with the soldiers, but...he shrugged, -it will pass, with the

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help of Yahweh. I must go. Shalom. He swung around abruptly

and shuffled away toward the fields as fast as his short legs

would take him.

Even before his lopsided figure disappeared like a wounded

animal behind the enclosure where the goats were kept, Aaron

immediately lifted the pallet onto his shoulders. -I can no

longer remain here, he said, and started to carry it into the barn.

Deborah followed. -Tell your father I have finished repairing

this. She could feel the tension in his voice. -Ask him please to

forgive me. But I must leave. I was happy to work for him. He

is a good man.

In the gloom she watched him as he picked up his few

belongings (some tools, a skin of wine that he had evidently

prepared for such an emergency, an extra pair of sandals, and a

parchment for writing, a sacred scroll) and stuffed them inside

his bag. His movements were strained and hurried.

-Where will you go?

He shrugged. -Where they are not looking.

-It is not safe anywhere.

His eyes narrowed. Then he smiled fleetingly. -You know I

will return... He wrapped his cloak around his shoulders and

reached for his staff.

She shook her head. -You will be captured.

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The smile tightened on his lips. -Have no fear.

-There will be many soldiers. They will surround this area

like a noose. Every road, every path will be blocked. She was

moving closer to him, speaking urgently.

-What makes you so certain?

-It has happened before. They come often searching for

fugitives... They could be in the area already, moving in to cut

off all escape... Listen.

The thudding of horses hooves and men’s voices could be

heard in the distance.

He stiffened. -I will manage. He tried to move past her.

-No! Aaron, do not go. She clutched his arm and held on

frantically.

-Deborah, I have no time. He wrenched away, then suddenly

reached for her shoulders, pulled her back close. -I will see

you again. He kept gazing into her moist eyes, gripping her so

tightly she had to press her lips together against the pain. -Have

faith.

Yahweh is with me. He smiled again, released her, turned.

-But it is not necessary to leave, she cried out as he started

to hurry away. She ran after him. -I know a place to hide close

by...here on my father’s land. A place where they will never

find you. She gasped for breath, -Aaron! Her voice caught. She

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stumbled over a rock.

Instantly he halted, looked around at her. -Are you hurt?

-She shook her head. She lay on the ground, still breathing

hard.

-Are you all right?

She lifted her skirt up to her knee, rubbed her bruised flesh.

-I am all right.

He took a hesitant step toward her. -Can you show me that

place to hide?

-Yes. She quickly scrambled to her feet.

-It is safe?

-Much safer, I think, than if you try to flee.

-Where is it?

-Not too far. Come...

Just beyond the northern border of Shemei’s property,

along the foothills of the mountains which surrounded the

Gennesareth Valley, was a desolate area consisting of large

broken rocks, gullies worn out by rapidly running streams,

gorges, sudden sharp and jagged peaks, and dark hidden

caves. A pagan legend told how in ancient times when giants

and dragons roamed the universe, mighty battles were waged

there. It was said that black-winged creatures with immense

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dagger-like claws came out of the clouds, and demonic beasts

with long scaly tails coughing fire rose from deep within the

belly of the earth and that, during their terrible and bloody

conflicts, they tore the land apart, uprooting mountains and

causing gigantic slides and quakes. All that remained was this

wasteland, a forbidding graveyard of the fallen whose spirits

still haunted the sunless ravines and caverns, and whose souls

wandered night after night searching for living bodies in which

to take refuge.

Most of the inhabitants of Tabgha and the nearby villages

knew of this isolated and haunted place, and tried to avoid it.

But now and then a desperate peasant would bravely attempt

to cultivate the hard barren soil. Inevitably however he, like

others who had come before him, was forced to abandon it to

the birds and the winds.

Deborah had stumbled on it one day while wandering

alone during the troubled period after Shemei had withdrawn

her from the beth-ha-safer. Her mind had been so distracted

she had lost track of time and space and hadn’t at first realized

where she was. But nothing untoward had happened. No

malignant spirit had attacked her. She had come to no harm.

On the contrary, for the first time in weeks she had felt at peace.

Standing on the high ground looking up at the white cotton

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clouds floating slowly across what looked like a great blue

sea, she had felt closer to Yahweh than she ever had before.

When the winds whispered through the crevices of the rocks it

sounded as if He had been speaking directly into her ears.

After that she often visited the desolated area alone. It became

her secret haven. There, she felt transported, transformed,

protected from the injustices and cruelties of the world. There,

in her isolation, she could study again the words of the ancient

prophets and imagine herself as one of the legendary heroines

of her people. There she could pray on a natural altar of stone

and contemplate the beauty and magnificence of what the

Creator had wrought and feel His presence always beside her.

There, too, more than once, she came upon, hiding in a gully

or cave, an escaped prisoner or a family of homeless wanderers,

or a runaway slave, or lepers, outcasts from society, with black

fingerless hands and stumps for arms, or a holy penitent

fasting until death for the sins of mankind, or condemned men

who had been driven mad from torture in Herod’s dungeons,

or sometimes armed brigands and rebels hiding from the

authorities. Usually they were hungry, sometimes actually

starving, often in rags. After her first fears and attempts to flee,

she came to know some of them. She brought them food and

clothing pilfered from her father’s house and listened with

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fascination to the stories of their lives and experiences. And

each time one departed she shed tears as if losing a member of

her own family or a close friend.

It was to this spirit-haunted isolated and hidden refuge that

Deborah now conducted Aaron. Although, as she had said, it

was not far, it seemed to take a long time to get there.

Avoiding the main route, she led him through a low marshy

area. They then climbed in single-file through narrow obscure

paths so overgrown with brush and foliage as to be practically

invisible. Several times he was forced to go ahead and use

his knife to cut through the thick vines and once, despite all

her precautions, they almost ran headlong into some Syrian

mercenaries.

The sun was gone from the sky but it was not yet night.

A thick layer of heavy clouds had suddenly appeared and hot

winds had begun to sweep in from the desert far to the south.

The sky had darkened suddenly accompanied by distant

thunder and there was a sense of foreboding in the air as if the

Great Beast himself had emerged from the lower regions and

was about to go on a rampage. Aaron had just finished hacking

through some tall weeds and both he and Deborah were

perspiring from the exertion of the climb when she heard a

low voice barking a command. It sounded close by. She swung

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her head around quickly and glimpsed, through the screen

of underbrush and branches, the figures of uniformed men

coming in their direction. She could make out two mounted on

grey horses and perhaps eight or nine following directly behind

on foot. At first they seemed like spectral beings half hidden in

the pale mists that were rising up through the trees and bushes

from the nearby springs. But as they came closer she could see

that several had their hands on their swords. Although not in

battle formation, all were moving at a steady pace, their eyes

and muscles alert like hunters about to flush out a cornered

prey.

At that moment she felt the touch of a hand on her shoulder.

She glanced around and saw Aaron gesturing frantically,

pointing at the ground, silently mouthing words.

-Down! Lie down!

She immediately dropped to her knees and, following his

example, flattened herself face down beneath some nearby

bushes. Aaron was beside her, wriggling so close they were

almost touching and pulling some loose branches and leaves

over both their heads and bodies.

They lay very still, silent, scarcely breathing, listening.

She could hear his body pounding in rhythm with her own, a

bird screeching, and then, approaching slowly, directly toward

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them, the crunch of footsteps.

Suddenly the mercenaries were all round them, pushing

noisily through the underbrush. She squeezed her eyelids shut,

expecting at any moment to be stepped on, to be apprehended.

Several horses and men passed by. She could feel the movement

of air against her cheek. She blinked and her eyelids parted.

She glimpsed a pair of naked hairy legs planted less than an

arm’s length from her head. Her throat tightened. Her heart

clenched. Two soldiers had halted there. They were fumbling

with their uniforms. She could see their sandals secured by

strips of leather wound around their calves, the bottom edge

of their skirts, their swords hanging at their sides, and then

suddenly became aware of two thin yellow streams splashing

against a tree trunk directly in front of her eyes. She heard the

men mutter something and laugh softly as they fumbled again

with their uniforms and then she heard them crunch away to

join the others up ahead.

After a while she peered across at Aaron. He was watching

her in bitter amusement. -Those miserable spawn of Belial

almost peed on us, he muttered under his breath.

-I hate them, she grimaced. -Have they gone?

He rose and carefully surveyed the scene. -It seems so. He

reached for her arm and helped her to her feet. -How far must

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we still go?

She straightened her skirts. -We are almost there. The area

was swarming with gnats and flies. She slapped one off her

cheek, and pointed. -It is up ahead, just beyond those trees.

-You go first, he said. -I will be close behind. But be careful.

It was already dark. There were no stars. The moon was

blanketed behind thick storm clouds. Jagged yellow streaks

lit up the heavens followed by approaching thunder. Small

animals scooted silently into holes and under rocks and birds

raced in flocks high above. A storm would be here any moment.

Ahead, barely visible, were black irregular shapes jutting up in

silhouette against the foothills of the far-off mountains. The earth

under their feet was hard, full of stones of all sizes, difficult to

walk on. Behind her, Deborah heard Aaron stumbling. Several

times he stubbed his naked toes and once he cursed out loud

when he bruised his knee against a sharp rock. She reached

back and took his hand to guide him. It was a simple natural

gesture but the touch of his flesh on hers seared through her

like fire. She sensed a similar reaction in him. Still neither she

nor Aaron withdrew his hand.

Thus, with their fingers intertwined, their warm palms

pressed together, she conducted him slowly and cautiously,

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feeling her way (because she had never before ventured here

at night) along an invisible and dangerous path up the side of

the mountain. With each step small pebbles and stones were

loosened beneath their sandals and slid noisily downward.

Once she almost fell, clutching at him for support. He held her

tightly. For a moment close in his arms she felt like a small child

again, and was aware of his dark eyes gazing into her own as

her father’s often had long ago. But then she shyly drew back in

confusion. Now everything began to look familiar and, though

it was night, she realized that they were standing outside the

mouth of the cave.

-We are here, she breathed.

The moment they entered it began to rain. It was as if Yahweh

had held off until now only for their benefit. Then the sky burst

open, and the heavens poured down in grey sulphurous sheets,

streaked with intermittent yellow flashes, flooding the wadis

and overflowing their banks. In no time at all countless torrents

had formed and were churning and roaring down the sides of

the mountains, pulling earth and stones and small bushes and

trees along with them. Many lizards, spiders, caterpillars, and

insects sought refuge in the cave as did squirrels, mice, moles,

weasels, and other small animals. Outside on a ledge a goat

stood soaked and forlorn, and overhead three black crows

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cawed and dived.

Deborah and Aaron stepped further inside. The interior of

the cave was so dark they had difficulty seeing each other. Soon

they came upon a depression that had been dug in the ground.

At the bottom some red embers glowed among what looked

like a heap of charred logs.

-Someone was here, Aaron said. His voice sounded tense.

-Yes. They must have left quickly. They make fires in here

for warmth, and to cook... But it wasn’t soldiers, she quickly

reassured him.

-How can you be sure?

-They fear this place. Everyone fears it. Everyone who

knows of it. It is said to be cursed, a home of demons, of evil.

She could sense him staring at her in the dark.

-But you do not believe this?

She shook her head slowly. -I believe Yahweh comes here,

not Belial. I have sometimes felt his presence. He has spoken to

me.

She swallowed quickly. She had never told anyone this before.

She was embarrassed. But somehow she felt he understood.

He said nothing. It was silent in the cave. Outside, the storm

howled and raged. A bat flew by. The one yellow eye of an owl

blinked down at them.

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Suddenly she heard Aaron moving about. -I think I should

try to build up the fire, he said, -before the embers burn out.

-Yes. I will help, she said.

They found leaves, twigs and dried branches scattered on

the ground. He placed them very carefully, first one leaf, then

another, on the still-burning wood, gradually adding some bark

while she fanned rapidly with her skirts. The sparks glowed.

Finally a leaf caught and then a twig, and soon a blazing fire

leaped and danced in the fire pit, creating warmth and light

inside the cave.

Neither of them spoke much. They were both strangely shy

and awkward. She sat on a rock and stared into the fire pit.

Outside, beyond the mouth of the cave, intermittent flashes lit

up the slanting sheets of rain. A silhouetted leafless tree was bent

almost to the ground in the driving winds. Thunder crashed

with the force of a landslide racing down the mountain.

-The storm does not stop, he said.

-No. She wrapped her arms around her knees. -It grows

worse.

-The road back has become dangerous. You will be unable

to return tonight.

-I know.

-They will look for you. Your father...the entire village.

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They will worry.

She shrugged. -I will see them in the morning.

-They will notice that I am also missing.

She looked at him.

-What will they think?

-Evil thoughts.

She kept watching him openly, without guile.

-But they will have no reason, he burst out. The vein on

the side of his forehead was throbbing and his right hand was

clenched. -Still, he went on, concerned, -it will be bad for you.

She did not answer.

-Even if there had not been a storm it would have been

dangerous for you to go back tonight. Already when you led

me here the hour was late. Troops were moving all about. You

knew this when you informed me. He was staring directly at

her.

She dropped her eyes.

-Why did you run this a risk?

-You would have been captured.

-But what about you, Deborah?

-I would do it again, she said quietly.

A flash of lightning lit up the darkness in the cave and she

saw him illuminated by such an otherworldly glow that, with

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his long curly hair and narrow bearded face and the tallith

hanging loosely over his shoulders, he seemed angelic, unreal.

The young David must have looked as beautiful as he, she

thought, on the day he killed the giant, Goliath, and freed our

people from the yoke of the Philistines.

She watched him rise and open his bag and take out the

wineskin and two metal goblets. He filled them with the blood-

red liquid and he handed her one and together they chanted

the benediction and afterward, slowly sipped the wine. It felt

warm and pleasant, a gift of Yahweh, spreading through her

insides.

They sat staring into the flames, conversing quietly about

ordinary things. She spoke of the men and women in her

village and her life and education, of the beth-ha-safer where

she learned to love the great prophets and patriarchs of the past

who had brought enlightenment to the Israeli tribes, and she

detailed the events leading to her forced withdrawal. She was

very confused, for she could not understand how a revered high

priest from the Temple, a man from one of the ancient priestly

tribes, could act the way he had. He seemed no better than one

of King Herod’s officials or a Syrian officer. But of course, she

hurriedly explained, correcting herself, she did not actually

believe her own slanderous words. Still... since then she had

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heard from several of her friends how he had plied them with

wine and sweetmeats and gifts, and fondled them sinfully on

his couch. Indeed, Dina and Kara often whispered about what

had taken place in the privacy of the high priest’s chambers to

the other young girls when they were at the mikvah together or

drawing water from the well or washing clothes at the stream,

and not a few had blushed and had sinful desires and weird

frightening dreams. But none of them had ever told their elders

about it, for they knew no one would believe them. Rather, it

was they themselves who would be punished. Deborah was as

well aware of this as any of her friends, so she had remained

silent also...until now.

Aaron listened carefully and it was clear from his few

remarks that he had little love for any of the high priests. But

about himself he spoke little. Instead he told of things he had

seen during his travels. He said that he always visited the

synagogues in the towns where he stayed and sometimes

spoke during the services. She gathered that he also formed

groups to discuss the scriptures and even to take certain actions

on their own behalf. On the road he had met all sorts of people.

Old and young, rich and poor, merchants and thieves, pagans,

prostitutes, and holy men. And everywhere he had found

unrest and dissatisfaction. Since he had first left home after

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his father, who was a stonecutter, had been crucified for an act

of defiance against a Roman official and fled to Jerusalem six

years ago (he mentioned this almost in passing as one incident

among many without obvious emotion, but Deborah noticed a

tremor in his voice and a slight trembling in the eyelid of his left

eye as he spoke of it), he had never seen so many starving and

deformed beggars. So much disease. The blind, the deaf, the

lame, epileptics and paralytics were everywhere. Women were

hysterical, men ran from shadows. The land was held in the

grip of a great fear. The Evil One and his demons appeared to

control everything. Every Jew seemed to be on a pilgrimage to

a sacred shrine or a holy place. Many fled to the desert and gave

themselves up to agonized prayer and fasting. Every day a few

desperate ones tore off their garments and ran wild and naked

over nettles and rocks into the wilderness. But Aaron was sure

that the Almighty had His reasons for causing these things.

-Yahweh watches over us, he said fiercely. -Our people turn

toward Him as toward the North Star. Soon everything will

change. Each day signs and portents increase. Every pregnant

girl feels that the Messiah is in her womb. And soon, for one of

them, it will be true. He whom we all await will arrive to lead

us in the final mighty conflict against evil.

Afterward he recited the evening prayer and spread his

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heavy goatskin coat on the ground near the fire pit for her to

sleep on.

She lay down and covered herself with it to keep warm. She

slept on one side of the cave and he on the other. It was so quiet

she could hear the bats’ wings flapping and outside the rain

drops pattering on the leaves.

It took her a long time to fall asleep. Her thoughts were

mainly of Aaron. No longer could she avoid the bitter truth.

She loved this man. Her love for him was far stronger than

her feelings for the one she was about to marry. Moreover she

desired him with her body. She wanted him as a husband as

well, as the father of her children. But she also knew that such

thoughts were sinful. From them dire consequences would

ensue. Already, by coming here with Aaron, she had taken a

dangerous first step, a step on a path that could lead only to

disaster. -But I brought him here, she explained to Yahweh, -to

save his life. And I did. I did. Inside she kept screaming and

protesting. But it was as if she was under water and no one

could hear her, and soon she was exhausted.

She slept poorly and saw the figure of the high priest flying

above her. He was dressed in his Temple garb and his cloak

was flapping like a bird’s wings and his head was spinning

completely around on his neck. Circling him in a kind of dance

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pattern were a group of men in sackcloth wearing phylacteries

of iron that clanged like chains when they moved. Their eyes

were red and glazed with hate, and they were hurling stones at

her. And she began to scream and gasp wildly for breath.

When she awoke she opened her eyes and saw Aaron’s face

coming in and out of focus. He had rushed over to her and was

kneeling beside her and feeling her forehead with his hand and

gently stroking her hair. -I must be ill, she whispered hoarsely.

Her forehead, her entire body was burning, but she could not

stop shivering. He wet her dry lips with a few drops of cool

water. She tried to smile her thanks and with great effort she

asked him what happened to the flying priest and the men who

had been stoning her, but he didn’t seem to hear or understand.

He began to rub oil on her arms and shoulders and throat,

speaking soothingly, praying, and spreading his tallith above

her head to ward off the Evil One.

More and more she became convinced that he was a

messenger of Yahweh, immortal, an angel come to fetch her,

because she was going to die. She felt an urgent need to urinate

and whispered into his ear to help her (something she never

would have done normally). He half-carried her to the mouth of

the cave and turned his eyes away as she squatted shamelessly

outside in the rain.

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Beside her bare foot, as she relieved herself, a single flower

trembled. A snail had crawled half-way up a leaf. Between

some rocks a newly formed wadi, rushing downward, churned

and bubbled. She felt a need to cleanse herself and stepped into

the stream, shrieking with the shock of the cold clear swiftly

moving water. She heard Aaron’s voice calling frantically and

before she realized it, he had jumped in beside her and was

trying to pull her out. She resisted, fleeing, laughing with

abandon, splashing about and trying playfully to pull her tunic

up over her head. She felt like a child, the wild child she had

never been.

He caught her in his arms, subdued her finally, then carried

her kicking and squirming back into the cave. She was so wet

he had to help her remove her clothes and quickly wrapped her

in his coat, drying her with it and trying not to gaze upon her

nakedness. Again she tried to squirm away. The coat opened,

and her right breast slipped out and the soft girlish triangle

where her thighs met was exposed. He immediately covered

her once more. But she knew he had seen her nudity and was

pleased in some strange perverse way, actually revelling in it,

wanting to see his also.

Kneeling beside her, Aaron gripped her shoulders and

gently lowered her down onto the hard floor of the cave. He

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bent over her, adjusting his coat about her like a blanket, trying

to make sure she was as warm and comfortable as possible. His

face was so close to hers she could feel his breath on her cheek.

She gazed up at him, but he seemed too intent on what he was

doing to notice. His hair hung in wet curls over his ears and his

eyelashes still glistened with drops of rain. A line from a part

of the Holy Scriptures which had never been mentioned in the

beth-ha-safer, but which she often read secretly, came back to

her: Behold, thou art fair, my love...Thou hast doves eyes within thy

locks...Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet... In her mind she heard

the languorous notes of a lovely lyre and saw just above her the

face of the beautiful young King Solomon. She lay there on her

back, his child bride, bedecked in silks and jewels, intoxicated

with the music and the wine and the strong perfume, waiting.

Except he seemed to be slowly rising...withdrawing...

In panic she reached out and caught hold of him, pulling

herself up and pressing herself against his body. He sought

to break away, but she held on and clung to him with an

unexpected strength. He attempted to speak but she quickly

pulled his head down and stopped his lips with her mouth.

Together they slipped to the ground rolling around and panting

like two animals in a death struggle. She bit him fiercely and

dug her nails into his back amazed at her own boldness and

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passion. I am giving up Heaven, she thought, life after death.

But she couldn’t stop. The coat had opened again and slipped

off her shoulders. She was naked, but still she shamelessly

embraced him, kissing his mouth and his beard and his eyes.

There was a madness inside her, as she hoarsely implored

him, a violence pounding through her body. She wanted

whatever was going to happen with an urgency she had never

even imagined before. Moreover in some deep dim part of her

mind she realized she had to make it happen. Because even

though she was in fear and trembling, even though she knew

it was a sin, a terrible unforgivable sin which, when it became

known would horrify her whole village and perhaps destroy

her mother and father, it would free her. There was no other

way.

Now she felt his resistance gradually weaken and her kisses

being answered. And his arms tightened about her and his

breathing quickened with even more passion. And her own

desire mounted in response to his and she felt herself rising like

a wave reaching a peak. Then in the dark on the floor of the cave

their shadowy perspiring bodies throbbing in frenzy, she felt

her whole being stretching, every nerve and muscle reaching;

and then a scream suddenly deep down inside her which came

rising up slowly, becoming louder and louder, and she began to

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shake and tremble. And she began to scream aloud with all her

strength. And the wave broke and crashed.

And then it was over and she was sobbing and clinging to

him, in fear and trembling, hiding her face in his chest. And he

was holding her, stroking her shoulders and hair and back.

The sun’s rays slanting in through the mouth of the cave

discovered Deborah lying in Aaron’s arms. He was still asleep

when she gradually opened her eyes. The first thing she was

aware of was the sound of birds. Every winged creature in the

universe seemed to be singing and chattering in unison. Then

she felt his warm body curled against her back. His left arm

was flung over her shoulder. His hand hung loosely half-open

just above her left nipple. Gently she took it and slowly kissed

each of his fingers, then pressed it against her breast. As she did,

he came awake. She turned to face him and the next moment

their lips and tongues and hands and bodies were seeking each

other’s. Never had Deborah, even in her wildest fantasies,

imagined such passion. They possessed each other again and

again, but still it did not quench their desire. Each was a burning

chard continually setting the other on fire. He was a young rabbi

and she was a very young peasant girl already betrothed to

marry. Both knew full well the sinful nature of what they were

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doing. Later Deborah would admit that she sensed the noise of

dark spirits muttering in the cave and saw the yellow eyes of

demons and heard a howl that sounded like laughter. It was the

Evil Serpent who had first tempted Eve in the Garden, Belial,

the Devil, and now he was back mocking her with obscene

gestures and lewd promises. But still her passion persisted. As

the sun rose higher Aaron sought to tear himself away, but she

clung to him kissing him desperately. -My husband, she said, -I

wish to be with you forever.

-And I wish to be with you. But you are betrothed to

another. There was a tormented expression on his face. –May

the Almighty forgive me, I have violated your innocence. I have

committed blasphemy.

-No. It is I who am to blame, she cried. -But we will marry

and the Almighty will bless us.

-Deborah, hear me. It was I who came here seeking you. Since

that day at the synagogue when I first saw you and gave you

my knife I could not forget you. Wherever I travelled you were

there like an angel before my eyes. For almost twelve months I

searched for you everywhere. I wanted you for my bride. But

you were already betrothed. Nevertheless I still desired you. I

who have no right to any woman. Do you understand?

He was shouting so loud she covered his mouth with her

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hand.

He wrenched himself away and beat his breast. -Do you not

understand? It is I who must be punished. He drew on his

clothes and went outside and washed his hands and said the

prayer. She hurriedly followed and prayed alongside him. She

noticed marks on his neck and shoulders that she had made

with her teeth and nails. There were others, she knew, covered

by his tunic, all over his body. The morning was cool. The sky

was so clear and the ground still so wet with dew it seemed to

have just been washed. A bird with yellow-tipped wings flew

by. She thought it a sign.

-Deborah, you must go back, he said. -They will be alarmed.

-Yes, I know. But wait for me. I will return. She gripped his

hands. -We will be married, Aaron. I will ask my father to annul

the betrothal.

-He will never consent.

-He must, she screamed. -He must.

-Even so, I cannot remain here, Deborah.

-We will hide you. Sooner or later the soldiers will stop

looking.

-But you do not understand. I have given my life to Yahweh

and to the struggle for His Kingdom. I cannot stay long in

one place. I must go from village to village to teach, to show

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people the way. I cannot be married. I cannot have a home. I

am a wanderer on the face of the earth, an outcast. Besides I am

wanted by Herod. My life hangs by a slender thread.

She gazed at him in silence for a long moment. -Do you

want me, Aaron? she asked, quietly.

-I want you, Deborah, I want you to be my bride, if you

will...

She touched his beard with her fingertips and repeated the

words of Ruth. -Then wither thou goest I will go. She embraced

him and pressed herself against him with all her strength.

-Wait for me. I will return before the day is over. Please be

careful.

-You also.

They embraced again, reluctant to let each other go. Then

she turned quickly and ran down the path. She looked back

once. He was still standing there watching her.

Deborah returned along the same paths she had come on.

She crossed the low swampland to her father’s farm and was

making her way through the barley field when she saw four

Syrian mercenaries crossing just ahead. She halted and cut

sharply to the left trying to avoid them, but one of them had

already seen her and the next minute all were pushing swiftly

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through the recently harvested area in her direction. They

took her in custody as they would a prize bullock or ass they

had found by accident and, guarding her closely, led her back

toward the house.

Everything on the farm appeared in a state of confusion. It

was almost as if a battle had passed through. Many mercenaries

were in evidence. Some seemed to be guarding the area. Others

were questioning people from the village who were milling

about near the house, gathering in small clusters, talking in low

voices and glancing at them with a mixture of fear and hostility.

A squad under the leadership of a brass-helmeted officer came

by with a burly itinerant laborer in tow. His hands were bound

behind him and his short tunic was stained with blood. Deborah

recognized him immediately; it was Betah, one of her father’s

best workers. She wondered what they wanted with him. She

caught sight of the widow Tamar with her drawn lemon face

and black garments, and the golden-skinned Marta who had

a milky film over her right eye but who was so beautiful no

Syrian could resist gazing at her, and Malchus, the long-haired

dwarf, and the rawboned Zebulon, brother of Chayym, the

scribe, one of the hardest-working young men in the village who

had gone into mourning when her betrothal was announced.

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She was surprised to see that neither he nor the others were

working even though it was not the Sabbath or even a feast day.

She heard her name being called out and stared ahead to see

Zebulon’s tall rawboned figure coming toward her and several

of the townspeople turning their heads in her direction. Did she

look different? Did her sin show? Could they see? They were all

converging upon her now, shouting and screaming excitedly:

Deborah, are you all right? What happened? Where were you?

The Syrians held them off; but Deborah, seeing the happy

welcoming faces of friends who loved her, was suddenly

overwhelmed with feelings of deep isolation and guilt. Her

eyes began to tear and her throat tightened so much she could

scarcely speak.

The mercenaries conducted her into the courtyard of her

house where a centurion in full uniform was seated at the table

talking intently to her parents. The centurion rose stiffly and

Shemei and Sarah, who had not slept all night, were overjoyed

to see their daughter. They jumped up and rushed toward

her embracing her tearfully and giving thanks to Yahweh.

Meanwhile the small crowd of villagers, restrained by the

soldiers, waited at the entrance.

The centurion then sat down across from Deborah and her

parents, removed his helmet, and questioned her about her

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whereabouts last night. He wanted to know (as did Shemei and

Sarah of course) not only exactly where she had been but all the

details: when she left, why, why she didn’t return until now,

and (the centurion’s eyes narrowed and his voice took on a

harsh edge) had she been alone? Both Shemei and Sarah swore

that Deborah had never slept away from home at night before.

-It is true, Shemei broke in. -I take a solemn oath before the

Lord in Heaven. My child is a virtuous girl, a virgin. She is

already betrothed and is soon to be married.

As he spoke Deborah felt a sharp pang stab her heart.

-I want to hear from Deborah herself, the centurion snapped.

He was younger than most officers and very ambitious, and he

trusted no one.

Deborah swallowed hard. Her cheeks burned and her

sleeveless dress was soaked with perspiration. The material

stuck to her back and her breasts hurt. Always she had difficulty

telling even the simplest falsehoods. Everyone, she was sure,

could see right through her into her soul. It seemed impossible

for her to lie. Yet it was necessary. To tell the truth would be to

betray the man she loved, as well as the Cause he had dedicated

his life to. Fortunately her fertile imagination came to her rescue

and she was able on the spur of the moment to concoct a tale

about how she went looking for several lost sheep late yesterday

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and before she realized where she was, it began to rain. She

kept looking, hoping the rain would stop. It didn’t of course. By

now, she continued, becoming more and more engrossed in the

story herself, she had wandered out into the wild country far

beyond the boundaries of her father’s land. The storm became

more violent. There was lightning, thunder. She didn’t know

what to do. She couldn’t go home. The blasts from the sky

were frightening. The lightning terrified her. The only shelter

she could find was a big fig tree, but it was totally inadequate.

Lying there on the ground she saw the driving winds tear off

an immense branch right above her head. The rain soaked her

through to her skin. She shivered from the wetness and the

cold. Curled up, she nevertheless fell asleep somehow against

the tree’s thick trunk. When she awoke it was daylight and the

storm had ended. She removed her wet clothes, laid them out

to dry in the hot morning sun and afterwards hurried home.

She glanced swiftly at the Syrian. His eyes had never left her

face. The fingers of his right hand tightened around the handle

of his sword. Did he believe her?

-Were you alone? he asked expressionlessly.

-Alone? Her throat felt dry as sand. She needed something

to drink desperately. -Who could I have been with?

-Aaron who works for your father disappeared yesterday

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nearly about the same time you did. He is still missing.

-Aaron? There was a roaring in her ears.

-Did you see him? You knew him of course. He was working

here. He was a travelling artisan. Also a rabbi.

She shook her head silently, unable to trust herself to speak.

The centurion leaned forward. The muscles behind his jaw

were clenching and unclenching. -Are you sure?

-Yes. Her voice trembled weakly.

His hard searching eyes found hers. They would not let her

go. She wanted to turn away, to scream, to cry out, to confess

her lies, her sins, only please please stop this. Nevertheless she

could not, would not flinch. Moments passed and she continued

to sit there as if frozen, staring back unblinkingly into the two

whirling black pinpoints of his irises.

Suddenly the officer picked his brass helmet off the table,

rose, bent his head forward slightly to put it on, turned stiffly

and walked quickly toward the entrance. But before leaving

he halted, looked back at Shemei once more and declared in

his deep harsh voice that he would return. Then he was gone,

followed by his men.

As soon as the mercenaries disappeared, Shemei and Sarah

once more embraced their daughter, holding her close in their

arms and swinging her around as they used to when she was a

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small child.

While her mother poured the wine her father whispered

hurriedly into her ear: -You do not know what has been

happening here. They believe I have been helping Aaron, giving

him refuge.

He glanced around and lowered his voice even further. -Joel

the Merchant spoke the truth. He was indeed the one who

instigated the peasants and slaves at Beth-Arath.

Deborah listened silently as she sipped the wine, afraid that

if she said even one word she would give herself away. Shemei

then invited the townspeople, who were still waiting outside,

to come in and share their happiness and, while Sarah went into

the house to get food, he himself passed around the wineskin.

Still, during the eating and the drinking and the overall

gaiety, the tension remained, for the soldiers had not departed.

Moreover, their officers had warned that they would not go

until the fugitive was apprehended. The fact is, even in his

absence, Aaron was the center of attention. There was much

hushed and emotional discussion and even violent arguments

about him, who he was and the role he played. Some of the

more conservative ones blamed him for the presence of the

mercenaries and the threats against Shemei, and the village

itself. Others declared that he was a brave man doing Yahweh’s

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work, that the path he had taken was the one that could lead

the people to a rebirth and to freedom. Deborah listened and

watched their sweating faces. None apparently associated her

with Aaron in any way. None seemed to notice the marks of

guilt that she was sure were erupting all over her flesh, on her

forehead and cheeks and between her breasts and on the most

intimate parts of her body.

The big meal celebrating Deborah’s safe return did not

end until well after the noon hour, at which time the women

began to return to their homes and the men to the fields and

their work-benches. Just as Shemei was setting out with his two

helpers (the other three had been taken away for questioning

because they were itinerants), Deborah suddenly darted up

beside him and asked if she could speak with him, alone. She

had something important to tell him. He smiled at her serious

demeanor and ordered his men to go on ahead and begin the

day’s harvesting, he would be with them soon.

He then put his arm around her shoulders, led her toward a

row of tall oleander bushes, and asked her what was on her mind.

But before she could answer he plunged on enthusiastically:

-The wedding, yes? Of course. What else could it be? It is almost

upon us. Soon we complete the harvesting of the olives and the

grapes... Then come the holy days, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur,

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then, praise heaven, the haknashah, the big event. Your mother

says you are almost ready...

Deborah wet her lips. What she was about to tell him was

going to be even more difficult than she had thought.

-But, he continued, -last night I was afraid it would never

take place. I kept seeing a funeral instead of a wedding. His

voice took on a sterner tone. -Deborah, in the future, there

will be no excuses. You will be home before the evening meal.

Even if it should storm hail and brimstone. He abruptly caught

himself, reached across and gently touched her cheek with his

fingertips.

-You know, we worry about you... It will be lonely for us when

you are gone.

-Father, she blurted out, -I do not want to go.

-Of course. He kissed her forehead emotionally and drew

her close. -What young girl wants to leave the bosom of her

home and family? I do not want to see you go either. You are

my only child.

But you must. It is the will of Heaven. It is a sacred duty. The

Almighty said to Abraham, multiply and be strong. And I say

the same to you. He smiled wanly. -But your new home will not

be so far. We will see you...

-But, Father, she broke in, -I do not wish to marry Jason.

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-So...? He inhaled, patted her hair tolerantly. -I understand,

child. These moments of anxiety come to many betrothed girls

as the wedding day approaches. It will pass.

-No, she cried out, -it will not pass. I tell you, I do not wish

to marry Jason.

-But you will, my child. He was having difficulty controlling

his impatience.

-Father, I wish to marry someone else.

He stared at her. -Someone else? You have cast your eyes

on another man? He was breathing rapidly. -You, a betrothed

woman? This is a sin.

-Forgive me, Father. I love him.

-Love? He began to laugh so violently his face turned a

fiery red. She put her arm around his shoulders and patted his

back gently. -What does love have to do with it? You have a

duty to the Law, the Torah, the Almighty, to your family. You

are betrothed to Jason ben Joel, a fine young man, the son of

a merchant. No one could have provided you with a better

match. You will marry him and you will respect him and in

time you will come to love him as a good Jewish wife should.

And you will share his bed and bear his children...

-No! The cry rose almost involuntarily from her throat. -I

cannot.

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-You defy your father! Choking, perspiring, he gripped

her shoulders and began shaking her with such rage her teeth

began to chatter. -What are you trying to do? Shame me and

my family before the whole village? Do you forget your sacred

vows?

-No, Father, I...

-Who is this man?

Her mouth went dry. She could not speak.

-Tell me who he is.

She swallowed. -Aaron. Her voice faltered.

He stood there for a long moment, his eyes fixed on her.

-Aaron? You said, Aaron...? Which Aaron? Not the artisan?

-Yes, Father, she nodded. -I want to marry him.

-Marry him? Are you mad? Never! he shouted, his face

contorting in fury and anguish. -Even if you were not betrothed

I would not consent. You will never marry Aaron as long as I

live.

-I must.

-You must? He gripped her arm. -Why? Why?

She felt his shriveled eyes boring into her own and his

fingers digging into her flesh. She could not tell him that in

her soul and in the eyes of Yahweh, who knows all things, she

was no longer a virgin, that she was already married. It would

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destroy him. -Father, she pleaded, avoiding his stare, -you must

annul the betrothal, and allow me to marry Aaron... If you love

me and seek my welfare...

Shemei shook his head slowly from side to side. -This cannot

be, he wailed. -This cannot be my own daughter, speaking like

this to me. It is a demon. Yahweh punishes me for my sins.

Deborah, my only child, is possessed by profane beings. The

Evil Archangel, Azazel himself, has taken control of her. I hear

her voice, but the words she speaks are his. He beat his chest

with his fist. -Woe is me. He wrapped his tallith tighter around

his shoulders. He took out his tephillim and quickly wound

the leather thongs around his right arm and head and, bending

forward and backward, murmured aloud to himself the fifth

verse of the nineteenth psalm contained in the little black box

pressed against his forehead. -Nothing shalt thou have to fear

from mighty terrors nor from the arrow that flies by daylight. Then

once more he focused his red watery eyes on Deborah and,

pointing a trembling broken-nailed forefinger at her breast,

warned her once again of the consequences that would ensue if

she broke her solemn vows and failed to marry the merchant’s

son, Jason. Heaven’s curse would follow her all the days of her

life. She would be unable to bear children, only monsters and

imps. Her nipples would grow long as cows’ udders and she

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would give suck to unclean beasts such as pigs and wild boars.

In time the marks of Satan would appear on her private parts

and cause such virulent itching that she would be tormented

with lascivious thoughts night and day, and she would lust

after every man, even strangers, but none would have her.

Deborah hid her face in her hands and tried to shut out

these harsh pronouncements. Already she felt the curse of the

Almighty and the twin serpents of fear and shame spurting

their poison into the depths of her being. But her father had not

finished.

-Do you know who Aaron ben David, this man you seek to

marry, really is? he cried. Deborah lifted her eyes. The Syrian

officer, Shemei explained, had told him many things about

the young man in order to impress upon him the danger he

represented, as well as to frighten him into revealing where the

fugitive was hiding. -I told him I did not know where he was.

It is they who know everything. He abruptly lowered his voice

as two mercenaries passed by. -This man you say you love is a

fanatical rebel. A Zealot!

-He is a rabbi, Deborah murmured.

-I know. The officer already told me. But this makes him

even more of a threat because a rabbi’s words are listened to

and acted upon by many people. They are sure he was one

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of those who incited the rebellion at Beth Arath and was also

a leader. But this is only the latest of many terrorist acts they

accuse him of.

-Terrorist acts? In Deborah’s mind Aaron’s knife gleamed

dangerously. Between her breasts she felt its cold sharp

excitement. Her flesh tingled involuntarily. -How do they know

what he did?

-They know everything. They have spies and informers

everywhere, watching, listening. He glanced around nervously.

-Aaron was born from a nest of vipers.

-Vipers?

-If you were to marry him, your children would grow from

the same nest.

-Vipers?

Shemei shrugged. -The officer’s word. Not mine. Still,

Aaron’s father, whose name was David, had a violent nature

and his mother, Rachel, was of the same breed. He committed

acts of rebellion, of violence mainly in the vicinity of Sepphoris.

She assisted and supported him.

Deborah wondered if she would have enough courage to

assist Aaron in the same way.

-He made implements for the land, Shemei continued,

-plows, scythes, and also he repaired them; but that was not

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enough for him. Whenever there was a riot against taxes, he

joined it. Once when a big landowner, a high priest named

Hsidas, decided to build a road through the holdings of some

peasants to transport his produce, Aaron’s father incited all

the people nearby to resist. Troops were called. The resisters

were suppressed in a bloody attack. Twenty peasants were

slaughtered. David and the other leaders were crucified;

Aaron’s mother was sold into slavery; the children all fled and

scattered. There were six girls and five boys. Aaron was the

youngest. All the sons, this officer told me, are wanted by the

authorities.

Deborah’s chest was so tight she was unable to speak.

-A few years later Aaron appeared in Jerusalem. In their

records he is listed as an artisan, one of thousands, who worked

on the rebuilding of the Great Temple. The project has been

going on for a long time, ever since Herod became our ruler.

Some day, Deborah, after you are married to Jason, he will

surely take you on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and you will see

the magnificence of the Holy Place with your own eyes. I tell

you it is a shrine worthy of Yahweh Himself.

In a sudden vision Deborah saw the lean agile fourteen-

year-old Aaron, naked except for a loincloth, clambering up the

high towers of the sanctuary, perspiring on the summit of the

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golden cupola in the hot sun. It was so real she wanted to call

out to him. But Shemei’s voice intruded:

-They have other records, he was saying, -showing that

Aaron studied the Law at the school of a rabbi from Babylonia

named Hillel. He shook his head. -But his father’s blood was in

him already at this early age. He joined a secret sect of young

fanatics who claimed to accept no ruler except Yahweh and

were sworn to resist unto death the payment of tribute to any

foreigner. They meant of course Herod, the Idumaean. They

spoke in the Temple courtyard and organized followers. And

those who did not accept them, they attacked with violence.

Meanwhile everyone of their names became known to the

authorities. For, you see, even in such a dedicated sect the king

was able to place his spies.

Deborah listened, but said nothing.

-Thus it was that when Herod erected the large golden

image of a Roman eagle above the main gate of our holy

temple, defiling our sacred Law of Yahweh against graven

images, two of the leaders of this sect, scholars and teachers,

Judas ben Seraphaus and Matthias ben Margoloth, both rabbis,

decided to act. Shemei kept glancing around. His voice was so

low Deborah had to step closer to hear him. -Only part of this

was told to me by the Syrian officer. I heard much of it from

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two merchants at the last market day in Kafar-Nahum who

had just come in by caravan from Jerusalem. They told me of

many rumors about the king’s health. He is said to be confined

much of the time to his bed...that he is suffering from a terrible

disease. Some even claim that he has lost his reason...

-What about the rabbis, Father? Did they do anything?

-They surely did. The merchants said that along with other

young zealots, they climbed up on the gate and, crying out that

they were doing the will of Yahweh, tied thick ropes around the

eagle and with the help of the mob pulled it down. And that,

as it smashed to the ground and broke into many pieces, the

immense crowd that had gathered let out a great roar. He shook

his bowed head. -Surely the Evil One is abroad in the land.

-Did Aaron take part in any of this? Deborah asked

nervously.

Shemei frowned. -Do you think he is not as mad as the

others? But what I cannot understand is that they are all young

men with learning, some rabbis, some even priests who serve

in the Temple... Of course when Aaron first came here I did not

know anything about him. And when I heard the story from

the merchants I did not connect him with the incident. But after

that officer who questioned me described him and informed

me that he was one of the first on top of the gate, I understood

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everything at once. He said the Temple guards were called out

very quickly. They captured Judas and Matthias and many of

the others and King Herod gave orders to burn them alive. One

of the merchants witnessed it. He said they died still shouting

defiance with the name of the Almighty on their lips. Shemei

drew in a breath and lowered his eyes in a kind of reluctant

homage.

-And Aaron?

-He was one of those who escaped. It is known that he fled

from Jerusalem, for there have been reports of his appearances

in many parts of Judaea and Galilaea since, especially Beth

Arath. They are desperate to capture him...and I cannot see

how he can avoid capture much longer.

At her father’s words Deborah felt a cold chill of fear pass

through her body, but at the same time she felt a sense of pride

and admiration for the man she loved and wished to marry.

-Father, she said after a long silence, -I think I detect in your

speech a certain regard for Aaron. Am I mistaken?

He glanced at her. -No. It is true, he admitted. -Though I

deplore his methods I cannot deny his courage.

-Why then are you so angry when I ask for your consent to

marry him?

-Because, my child, you are already betrothed.

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-But...

-And also, he burst out, -because he is not for you. He has

nothing. He is a fugitive, always running, hiding. Living with

him you would spend your life in fear never knowing from day

to day where you would sleep at night, or whether you would

have food for your children. And what happens when he is

captured and executed? Then what would you do?

-Father, she choked, -I...I love him.

-But I love you, he exploded. -I want for you a good life, not

to suffer and starve and grow old before your time. In less than

a month you will be married to a handsome young man who

will provide you with everything you desire. Anything else is

out of the question. Do you hear? he screamed. -And I refuse to

hear another word about it!

Deborah watched her father lumber away to the fields with

a feeling of hopelessness in the pit of her stomach. It was as

if she were locked up in a dungeon. He had a key to release

her, but nothing could convince him to use it. She wanted to lie

down on the ground and curl up and die. In a month life would

be over. Slavery would begin for her in the midst of feasting and

rejoicing. Did other young girls on the brink of marriage feel

the same? Was she the only one? Why did she feel so alone...

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despite what her mother had once said about all brides having

fears similar to hers, had the Serpent of Evil actually wormed

its way into her soul and spread its poison? Was she indeed

possessed as her father had stated? How otherwise could

she have sought Aaron’s body with such passion in the cave

yesterday, and so freely given him her own...she her father’s

pearl, her mother’s joy, one month from the bridal couch,

until that moment an undefiled virgin whose sins had never

extended beyond her imagination?

All she knew for sure was that Aaron was waiting for her,

that he hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since the day before,

and that she had to get to him as soon as possible. But first she

had to remove all suspicion and doubt from herself.

She saw her mother coming out of the house and immediately

went to help her prepare the dough for the bread, then quickly

fetched the water, poured oil into the lamps, milked the goats

and completed all the other normal tasks required of her. After

that she went to the barn and, making sure no one was about,

surreptitiously filled a skin with wine, concealed it inside

the folds of her shift along with a sack of cheese, fruits and

vegetables, and stole hurriedly away.

She walked rapidly along the same route she had taken with

Aaron. Her eyes were everywhere and her heart was beating

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wildly.

Several times mercenaries passed and she had to abruptly

crouch beneath high bushes or flatten herself on the ground,

squashing the cheese against her body and bruising the oranges

and grapes.

She arrived at the cave well before the noon hour. The sun

was a flaming circle hanging low in the cloudless western sky

and shadows were beginning to lengthen. As she entered, it was

so difficult for her eyes to immediately adjust to the darkness

that she became blinded for a moment and her throat caught

with the fear that he was not there. Then she saw him. He had

been sitting cross-legged on a rock writing something on a strip

of papyrus with a split reed dipped into a mixture of lamp

black and gum; but now he was on his feet emerging like some

strange being from the shadows. And the next thing she knew

she was rushing toward him and her arms were about him and

her whole body was shaking with sobs.

She clung to him for a long time and he kept stroking

her back and kissing her hair gently, waiting for her pent-up

emotions to gradually subside. All at once she remembered the

food she had brought and set it out for him on a flat rock. He

was indeed famished and while he gulped it down she told

him uneasily about how her father had reacted to what she

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had asked him that morning. -Aaron, I feel so alone and

so frightened. I do not know what to do. I know what we did is

sinful in the eyes of the Almighty and that I will be punished,

but I cannot give you up. She felt her eyes misting. Through a

haze she saw him stop eating and move closer searching her

face.

-You are truly willing to give up your marriage, your family,

your loved ones? he asked. -With me you would have to live

the life of an outlaw, hunted like an animal.

-I have already done that. I know. I know everything about

you...about your father...and your role in the incident of the

golden eagle...I want to be with you. I am strong and I can work

hard and I can help you... I have no one but you, Aaron.

She felt his hands gripping her shoulders firmly, and drawing

her body to his. -I want you for my bride. Before Yahweh, I vow

to be at your side, to comfort you and protect you for as long

as we shall live. Never will I leave you, Deborah, and on the

Day of Judgement...together we shall march with all the Elect

through the Gates of Heaven.

She kept embracing him, sobbing happily, pressing her

mouth deeply into his. Kissing him, she inhaled on his tongue

and lips the pungent odor of the cheese and wine she had

brought. Her face became hot and small drops of perspiration

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began to form above her upper lip. She was aware of her nipples

hardening and pressing outward against her thin cotton shift.

His arms tightened about her and she felt his heart beating

rapidly in counterpoint with her own and she wanted at that

moment to remain in his arms, shutting out the world forever.

But that could not be. Lying beside him on his heavy coat later,

her fingers entwined in his, she asked him what they should

do.

-I think we must leave here together, as soon as we can.

Together. The word was like music in her ears.

-Where would we go?

-Wherever it is safe. As far as possible. Beyond Galilaea.

The desert perhaps. Perhaps the hills. Perhaps even a large city.

Jerusalem itself. Among all those people it would not be easy

for them to find us.

The excitement pounded in her. Suddenly a whole new

world was opening up, a dangerous world, but marvelous too

and with all kinds of possibilities.

-There are mercenaries all about.

-We will have to avoid them.

-But I must return to my home first.

He frowned. -Why?

-Well, Sabbath begins at sundown. If I am not with my

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family I will be missed. There will be a great alarm. The troops

will be out searching through the whole area and we will surely

be captured.

His eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

-Besides, she added, -I will want my coat for traveling. We

will need food and drink. And I want to see my family once

more before we leave.

-When will you go?

-Now.

-And when will you return?

-After the Sabbath, as soon as possible. At sundown.

He shook his head. -No, I think the following day. The first

hour after dawn. They will not immediately be aware of your

absence and we will have time.

-I will return, then, she said.

Once more they embraced, clinging together, not willing

to release each other. She kissed him one final time, drinking

in the honey of his mouth. Again her face grew hot and her

nipples began to harden. -I must go, Aaron, she breathed and

tore herself away.

She heard his voice calling, -Be careful. I will be waiting.

But she did not look back.

She moved carefully but as fast as she could down between

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the jutting rocks. She thought she saw a large black bird sitting

on a distant hill observing her. It reminded her of the Angel of

Death. She crossed the swampy area through a familiar route

and heard a loud voice calling, and then another answering. It

must be soldiers, she told herself, and paused like a frightened

doe, every sense alert. The voices continued back and forth for

several moments and then she heard the clatter of footsteps

and the clank of armor, and then silence. She waited, listening

tensely. The silence continued. She began to run.

She reached her house shortly before the evening prayers

and hurriedly explained to her mother that she had been out

grazing the sheep, then plunged immediately into her devotions,

giving no one an opportunity to question her further.

At the synagogue again, and again during most of the

following day, which was the Sabbath, she implored the

Almighty to forgive her for what she was doing. After all, both

she and Aaron would be serving and dedicating their lives to

Him and all of the Elect of Israel. Besides, she loved Aaron. Did

not that count in His mysterious scheme?

She sought to talk to Shemei and Sarah about personal

matters, remembering small incidents from her childhood, her

first day at the beth-ha-safer, with all the pupils staring at her

and the first time the hazzan struck her with his rod, and how

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excited she became when she learned to read the words of the

ancient prophets from the scroll the way her father did, and

the terrible time of the plague and how the itinerant homeless

fearfully kissed her hand when she offered them food and drink

and a place to sleep, and how gentle and understanding her

mother was during the first onset of her menses. Everything

in sight reminded her of the years that were gone. But now her

childhood was at an end and life as a woman was beginning.

Both Shemei and Sarah listened to her but of course they could

not understand. For Deborah the hours passed slowly.

The Sabbath never seemed to end. During the entire day on

walks to and from the synagogue she did not see one soldier.

But at the time she gave it no significance.

That night before she went to sleep she secretly gathered

her things together and, making sure to include an extra pair of

sandals and a heavy cloak and a dried emptied gourd as well as

water, eggs, and fruit, set them out beside her pallet. She awoke

before dawn and placed everything in a bag; then, after the

morning prayer and the departure of her father for the fields,

she told her mother she was going to take the goats out to graze

on the hillside, and left instead to meet Aaron.

On her way she kept gazing at all the old familiar sights

and animals, especially a favorite ass, two pigeons, Abraham

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and Isaac, whom she had raised, and a pet lamb called Judah,

with an intensity she had never known before, as if to etch the

memories indelibly in her mind. There were still no soldiers

about and she walked quickly, inhaling the cool dry early

morning air, and feeling the blood rush happily through her

veins. By the time she reached the cave she was almost singing.

She entered, called out Aaron’s name expectantly.

He didn’t answer.

She looked everywhere. On the ground she caught sight

of something bright, half-covered by leaves and twigs. She

stepped toward it cautiously, picked it up. Stared. His knife.

She kept searching inside and outside, waiting, crying out

his name again and again.

By noon she knew it was hopeless. It was quite clear that

he was gone. But still she waited. Another hour went by. There

was no sign of him. Crushed, she lay down on the ground

and lamented to heaven. Her body shook with sobs. He went

away without me, she wailed. He did not wait. He had lied to

her. He is a monster, she screamed, spawned by Belial. I am

cursed among women. But still she couldn’t believe it. It was

impossible. Aaron could not have done such a thing. Where

had he gone then? Why? Why? WHY?

It was not until several more hours had passed that Deborah

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finally started back. She seemed in a dazed condition, walking

unsteadily, constantly tripping and falling to her knees, like one

who has been in the sun too long. She never reached her house,

but was found late in the afternoon by Nahum on his way back

from the fields lying in the weeds near the enclosure where the

sheep were kept.

Thus began Deborah’s peculiar condition which no one

could understand until the day her father finally took her to the

old woman in Magdala.

During the return journey Shemei spoke not a word. Not

once did he look at his daughter. His head kept rocking back

and forth.

Soundless cries issued from his throat. Empty tears poured

from his eyes.

That night he did not sleep. He walked about in the dark

muttering strange words and phrases that Sarah had never

heard before.

The following day, instead of going to the fields as he usually

did, he joined the mourners at the synagogue and stood hour

after hour before the hard bench fasting and repeating over

and over the ancient lament, Ysgidal, Vysgidal, Shema, rabo...

Villagers came up to him quietly and asked him who had died,

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the rabbi and the hazzan needed to have the name, was it a

cousin, a distant brother, an uncle, a nephew no one had heard

of? He merely shook his head and said nothing.

When he returned it was after sundown. A lamp glowed

on the table in the courtyard. His two helpers, Nahum and

Malchus, had gone home. Deborah and Sarah came out

carrying the food. For the first time since Magdala he looked

at Deborah. She moved like one in a stupor. Her face had a

faraway expression. He said the prayer thanking Yahweh for

the wine and the bread, for the cheese and the vegetables, but

he did not eat. He told Deborah to sit down and in a low grave

tone ordered her to tell him what happened.

And Deborah told him. She related everything. She spoke

in a monotone without emotion as if in a trance. To hear it that

way from her own lips was difficult, even though if he had

thought about it, he could have constructed the essentials of

the story from the few facts that he knew. But why? he asked

himself over and over. Why did she do it?

He did not chastise her. He had no strength left to do

anything. Instead he blamed Aaron. Surely he was sent from

the Devil.

In her heart Deborah could hear the beat of a dismal funereal

drum. Silently she pleaded with Yahweh to let her die.

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Sarah however refused to accept the consequences of

Deborah’s adultery. -Nothing has changed, she whispered to

Shemei later as they lay tossing sleeplessly in their bed. -No one

knows anything.

-We know, he murmured. -Yahweh knows.

-Yes. It is a weight you and I, and Deborah above all, must

bear. And we must fast and pray and adhere more closely to the

Law of Israel. But still Deborah will marry Jason. The wedding

will take place as planned. Nothing will change.

In the dark he stared at her, trying to see her face.

-Without telling him?

-Why must he know?

-How could we do such a thing? That would be the same as

a falsehood.

-But if we do tell him, the insult could prove to be even

more grave. The marriage must take place. Shemei, sometimes

a falsehood is necessary.

Shemei tried to think of a passage in the scriptures supporting

his position. Did Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or any of the other

patriarchs tell an untruth even for a noble cause? He would

ask the rabbi or one of the elders. Surely one of them would

know something to support her cause. But then he realized that

his question might make someone suspicious. He could not

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risk it. What Deborah had done must remain a secret. -Then we

should go on with our plans as though nothing has happened

and tell no one? he asked.

-Yes.

He lay there on his back gazing up into the dark thinking.

-Can the secret be kept?

-Surely.

-Perhaps someone who was at Magdala might tell what

happened?

-Why? Besides no one knew us...

He kept thinking. -Why then have we not heard from Joel?

-You will hear.

-I hope so. He promised to come and talk to me about the

final details of the wedding weeks ago.

After a moment, Sarah glanced at him. -You think someone

could have told him?

Shemei shrugged silently.

Sarah rolled on her side, facing him. -Shemei, I think you

should see Joel.

He nodded. -Yes. The wedding is very soon and there are

still important final arrangements to be completed.

What Shemei found out when he saw Joel shocked him

even more profoundly than his discovery that Deborah was

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pregnant. Their meeting did not take place until three days

after the Sabbath. The harvesting of the barley and the corn

was just about completed, the vintage was over, and so he took

the opportunity to go by himself to Kafar-Nahum and conclude

the final wedding arrangements with the future father-in-law

of his daughter.

It was a warm bright day with the touch of a breeze to keep

down the humidity. The streets were crowded with peasants

who had come to town to sell their corn, figs, wine, lambs,

woolens, and the linen garments woven by their wives from

the excellent flax grown near Magdala. Asses were everywhere

loaded down with wares, their hooves tapping on the cobbled

walks. Caravans were departing and arriving, waiting camels

flicking their tails to chase away flies. Often Shemei had to step

aside to avoid Idumaean officers mounted on horses or red-

capped soldiers with girls on their arms.

Shopkeepers and hawkers screamed their wares and now and

then a deformed beggar would grab his sleeve or a streetwalker

would sidle up and whisper something in his ear but, oblivious,

he kept on wending his way through a maze of rutted alleys

until he reached Joel’s warehouse.

It was a low white stucco building with small high barred

windows. The clerk, a thin brown-faced Greek named Acmon,

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who was measuring a load of wheat brought in by a peasant

from the vicinity of Chorazin under the watchful eye of a

customs inspector, told him Joel was not in. He might be at The

Happy Lion, his favorite tavern.

The Happy Lion was located near a group of buildings

recently erected by Herod, a Roman hippodrome, a colosseum

copied from the one in Rome, and the public baths. Beside the

baths was a temple to Isis, an Egyptian goddess. As usual the

sight of these pagan buildings aroused Shemei’s sensibilities.

Like every religious Jew they irritated and disquieted him. The

statues and other figures were a blasphemy. He tried not to look

at the exposed male and female genitals that were displayed

everywhere and hurried along as fast as he could. A number of

merchants and shopkeepers were sitting at tables shaded from

the sun sipping wine. Most were talking business (a recent

cargo lost at sea, the high corn prices, the expected arrival of a

shipment of cotton from Egypt), but a few were complaining in

low voices about Herod’s harsh edicts controlling their freedom

to trade, looking around carefully from time to time to make

sure they were not being overheard by one of his spies.

The owner, a bearded Samarian with a missing eye, told

Shemei that Joel had been there earlier, but he had seemed

extremely upset about something and had gone to the baths for

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relaxation.

-The baths? Shemei could not believe his ears. -Joel would

not go to such a den of iniquity.

The tavern owner cocked his head and looked at him

impatiently out of his one good eye. -Are you deaf? he growled.

-I told you he was upset about something.

-Upset? Shemei felt a sudden tightening in his throat. Joel

must know then, he told himself. Joel knows about Deborah.

He stumbled out of the tavern, blinking his eyes against the

harsh sun. He was so nervous he decided to go into the baths

himself. He needed to find Joel and talk to him, at once.

He had never been in the bath house before and was very

agitated as he paid the entrance fee and moved through the

crowded courtyard into the apoditerium, a large changing

room which seemed to him the height of luxury with its large

wall paintings and colorful tiled floor. All around him men

were disrobing assisted by slaves. He felt strange and awkward

in this pagan environment and was about to turn and leave

when a slim black slave wearing nothing but a loose loincloth

approached with a wide smile, bowed and reached out to

remove his robe. Startled, Shemei drew back and wrapped the

garment tightly around his shoulders. The slave gazed at him

inquisitively. -Does not the master wish to bathe? He had a

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soft girlish voice. Shemei shook his head emphatically. -Is there

anything the master wishes?

-I am looking for the merchant, Joel ben Levias. Do you

know where I can find him?

The slave rubbed his chin thoughtfully. -I do not know him.

-But, he went on, -there is a young man named Jason ben Joel...

-Yes, that is the son, Shemei broke in. -But it is the father I

want.

-If he is here I will find him. The slave’s smile widened,

revealing every one of his beautiful white teeth. -My name is

Hababbuk. Come closer and follow me.

Shemei did not like the black man’s deferential and

insinuating manner. He felt increasingly awkward and

uncomfortable, like a sinner, as he followed Hababbuk into the

frigidarium, the cold room, where naked men were immersing

themselves quickly in an icy pool.

-Do you see him here? the slave asked. Shemei tried to keep

his eyes away from the uncircumcised private parts and look

only at the faces. It was not easy. The merchant Joel was not

here.

The adjoining chamber, the small tepidarium, had no pool

and was somewhat warmer. Here several men were being

massaged by slaves, and pretty male and female servants

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were scurrying around, carrying food and drink to the clients.

Shemei saw no sign of Joel.

-He must be in the caldarium then, the slave said opening a

heavy stone door and leading him through a small passageway.

Clouds of steam coming out of the walls and ceilings

of this hot room, covering everything like a white blanket,

almost overpowered Shemei as he entered. He hesitated a

moment. It was difficult to breathe. He noticed many shadowy

figures sitting and lying about. He could hear voices and see

vague movement but it was impossible at first to distinguish

individuals. Hababbuk was persistent however. Dripping with

perspiration he moved from person to person, questioning each

one softly. Shemei followed blindly.

Suddenly he spied Joel just ahead seated on a stone slab

with a towel over his shoulders. His head was bent forward and

there was an expression of utter dejection on his red overheated

face.

Shemei dismissed the slave, quickly approached, and gently

touched the merchant’s shoulder.

-Shalom.

With much effort Joel looked at him for several long

moments in silence, then let his head fall forward once more as

if it was too heavy to hold up. -What are you doing in a place

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like this? he asked.

-I came looking for you. He hesitated. -I do not mean to

disturb you...

The merchant did not say anything.

-You know there are still one or two details we have not

settled.

-What details?

Shemei hesitated. -Well, in the...mohar. The wedding comes

soon now and I...

-There will be no wedding.

Shemei wiped his face. In front of him were five or six Joels.

He blinked his eyes. -Please, I am not sure I heard. What did

you say please?

-I said there will be no wedding.

Shemei’s knees began to buckle. The sweat was pouring

from his body as if the fiery tongues of fifty serpents were

licking his flesh. -Why? he gasped. -Why? What happened?

-Because Jason does not want it. And also because I do

not want it. Joel did not lift his eyes but nevertheless he was

speaking in a loud angry voice. In the thick steam shadowy

figures began to turn and stare in their direction.

Shemei bowed his head. Hot tears mixed with the sweat

running down his cheeks. -Try to forgive her, Joel ben Levias. His

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voice choked. -For my sake...and for the sake of Yahweh... He

turned and stumbled away, pushing blindly through groups of

muscular young men in the tepidarium. He half-noticed, even

in his present emotional turmoil, that several were standing and

sitting very close together, whispering and laughing intimately,

and that a few were fondling each other in a sinful manner and

were even kissing, and he cried out in his soul for the Almighty

to deliver him from this evil. But it was not until he emerged

outside on the cobbled street that he realized that one of the

young men he had just seen was Joel’s son, Jason.

When Shemei returned home he told Sarah not without

difficulty what had taken place and informed her that a new

husband would have to be found for their daughter immediately.

He understood from bitter experience that it would be difficult.

Moreover she had previously been betrothed which did not

help matters; and there was no doubt that all kinds of questions

would be raised by the prospective bridegroom’s family. But on

the other hand this time he would not be so particular. He was

desperate and would accept practically anyone, so long as the

bridegroom was male and Jewish.

Within several days Zebulon, the brother of Chayym the

scribe, presented himself. Zebulon was tall rawboned with hair

the color of sand and a sparse beard. He came from a family

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of peasants that had been landless for generations. It was a

disreputable family that did not always attend synagogue and

was known in the countryside as the pagans or the gentiles

because of its immoralities. Zebulon’s father often associated

with street women and was seen drunk at all hours of the day

and night. He often beat his wife and finally abandoned her

when Zebulon was a boy. Zebulon’s mother was constantly

ill from too many births and miscarriages and the effects of

watching her babies die. Her home was like a pile of rubbish. She

did no work, railed at her family, and died from the unknown

disease on the Yom Kippur after her husband disappeared.

Zebulon himself however had no time for such goings on. He

had few friends, was shrewd, ambitious, could work like an ox,

and was voracious to own his own parcel of land and have a

proper family. He had set his eye on Deborah a long time ago

when she was only ten and he was twenty-two. Her education

both awed him and attracted him. Besides she was already a

bright beautiful child. And even more important her husband

someday would inherit her father’s property.

Of course he had made no headway. Neither Deborah nor

her father noticed him. On the day of her betrothal his world

shattered like glass.

But now, Yahweh be praised, out of the ashes hope once

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more flamed up into joyful reality. Shemei accepted him.

The betrothal was quick and perfunctory. Two weeks after

Zebulon’s proposal (he was the first and only one who came

forward, for every other eligible young man the stain of her

failed betrothal was an overwhelming barrier) the marriage

took place. Deborah wore her mother’s wedding gown and was

a lovely bride, but she was present in body only. To the guests

in attendance she seemed listless as she sat in the bridal chair,

almost in a stupor, and Shemei looked pale. He had suddenly

become an old man, witnesses remarked in whispers, and it

was clear that his days were numbered.

About seven months later a male child was born to Deborah.

He was named Simon and on the eighth day of his life, as set

down in the Holy Law, he was duly circumcized as a Jew. He

would later become known as Simon the Zealot, one of the twelve

leading apostles of Yeshua ben Yosef of Nazareth, known to

many as the Messiah of Israel.

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