Akiva kicks the side of the dumpster for the third time and hurts his foot. He swears and staggers down the road. He is pretty drunk, and the weight of his full backpack adds dangerous momentum to his sway. A few people wander around, Jerusalem Chassidim in big fur hats and gold overcoats, hands in their belt-sashes cupping bellies swollen with Shabbos dinner, members of a nice little fraternity, like the one Akiva just left.
He came from Florida with standard expectations; his parents thought he’d benefit from time in a “real Yeshiva” in the holy land, and his brother Motti’s stories of adventure in the golden city stoked his interest. “You’ll make us proud,” his father had said, and Akiva had wanted nothing more. He flew to Israel with khaki shorts on his legs and excitement in his heart.
His first day in Yeshiva, he got in a “situation” (as his father would call it) with another student over the stupidest thing – he unknowingly sat in some else’s seat in the Beit Midrash. He arrived at the beginning of his first morning seder, found a spot, and was already deep into the first mishna of his masechta when twenty minutes later a kid his age with matted blonde hair and lightly acned cheeks approached the opposite side of the table and stood there, silent, staring at him. Akiva stopped learning, unsure what he did wrong, and just stared at the words of his sefer, which had reverted back into ink.
“I’m Yitzchak,” said Blondie nasally, and extended his hand.
“Akiva,” said Akiva. He pumped the hand once, then let go, only to find Yitzchak was a double-pumper and who still grasped Akiva’s now-limp hand and shook it like a halachically invalidated palm frond (due to the limpness, and the spread. Akiva would try to tell this joke to others later. No one would get it). The Miamian remedied the situation by resuming his own squeezing and shaking, whereupon, for the third pump, Yitzchak released his sweaty grip Akiva was left holding the shake. He let go and the cycle of violence finally broke, Yitzi’s hand dropping to his side as if he were the subject of a street hypnosis demonstration. Yitzchak smiled and nodded in agreement with nothing.
“So, you’re new here,” said Yitzchak, shooting the schnitzel.
“Yep,” said Akiva.
“Has someone given you a tour of the Beit Midrash, uh, the study hall yet?”
“No,” said Akiva.
“So,” he said, and smiled conspiratorially while wagging a Talmudic finger. “Would you like a tour of the study hall?”
“Alright,” said Akiva, and closed his gemara.
As the less new and more comfortable students filtered into the hall at more comfortable times, Yitzchak catalogued the shelves that lined the cavernous room, effusive in his appraisal of this set of Shas or that set of Ritva. Akiva trailed behind his new tour guide and wondered how many of these books he’d open in his time in Yeshiva and how many students would be so friendly as Yitzchak. They finished in a quiet corner far from the air conditioner, where heat leaked through a cracked window and the ceiling fan sliced an irregular wobbling ellipse that threatened to hurl its blades across the room at any moment. Yitzchak gestured to a bookcase.
“These gemaras don’t get used much,” he said. “So,” –with a Talmudic intonation and the return of the finger– “if you take one of these for yourself I doubt it’d be a problem with anyone. Why don’t you check them out?”
Akiva had already found three promising volumes when he realized he was alone. He turned and saw Yitzchak sit where he’d been sitting, a chevrusa waiting for him.
“Am I really the new kid?” he thought as he pulled out a wobbly seat at the quiet table and sat in it. He opened his new dusty sefer and was through the Mishna and half as much again when he heard the stray cat standing on the windowsill outside scratching on the pane, as if it longed for the warmth of the study hall.
The thought of that first day drags Akiva all the way up the steep hill outside Yeshiva, every stride a rebellion, until heaving for breath he leaned against a lamppost and took a break. Some charedi stares at him and he stares back directly, thoughts full of violence, until the man shuffles off. Imagine if I’d looked at Yitzchak like that, he thinks. It brings a wry grin to his face. No, he never could have done it. Not then.
Akiva wasn’t long in exile corner before he discovered the Yeshiva’s courtyard, shady and peaceful, chairs and shtenders and an assortment of greenery surrounded on three sides by tall walls of Jerusalem stone and on the fourth with a gated fence that bordered an alley that ran alongside Yeshiva.
It was to here that he’d bring a small plastic bowl full of cold milk from breakfast each morning. He placed it on the ground next to his feet, pulled his favorite lectern close, and sang words of G-dly wisdom into the silence. It was a benevolent silence in that small space; it didn’t mind if he stumbled on the unfamiliar words, and didn’t wonder at the small orange and grey cat that squeezed through a hole in the fence links and minced over to the bowl on the cobblestones. When she had licked it clean she leaped onto his knees and he continued his learning stroking her head. After an hour and a half, almost always just the two of them, she would jump off and he’d head off to class with a “see you later.”
He didn’t name her even as the months passed and his aptitude with the holy books grew. Mistakes in translation receded into memory, and the thrill of Rashi and the drama of Tosfos opened before him. A scrabbly black beard began to grow on his red cheeks. The Rabbis called on him in class more often, and he’d quietly offer his thoughts on their sugya. Though he had no friends among his peers in Yeshiva, he desired none, and was happy.
One day, he shared too much. They were going around the Shabbos table talking about dreams with Rabbi Morgenthal and Akiva spoke the truth, which was that he mostly dreamed about girls. In the ensuing confusion, misunderstanding built upon misunderstanding until the entire roomful of teenagers was in an uproar, and the Rabbi, white-faced, suggested Akiva go for a walk around the block. He did, after he took out the whiskey flask he kept in a ceiling tile in his room and sank into its burning depths. The way they looked at me! What they think I am!
I didn’t mean it like that, he thought as he trudged up the hill that day. It was all a big misunderstanding. When he’d flop onto his terrible Israeli mattress, parents and friends a continent away, he’d drift away into flip-flops and shorts and a holding hand on the Miami boardwalk, families laughing all around, spray on the breeze. He mulled whether he was evil. He decided he didn’t know enough to even know what was wrong. He would trust the Rabbi’s judgment. He would attack his learning with renewed vigor until the words overflowed his conscious mind and purified his dreams.
His fists ball as he lurches down what he, to himself, always called the High Road. It rings the ridge above the yeshiva, about a half-hour walk around, only a small wooded park closer to the stars. The lights of Jerusalem unfold around him in their thousands, guarded. The sight normally breaks his mind open in the most pleasant way. Now it fills him with anguish. He has a claim against every light. “Where were you when I needed you?” he wants to ask. He knows that if he approached each one he’d find humble streetlights and apartment ceiling lights and even spotlights on some nice building’s façade, and they would sit mutely, radiating as is their nature, and not feel the need to answer his questions because they’re just bulbs for goodness’ sake and what does he expect of them? But this thought merely incriminates them further to his thrashing mind: “How dare you be so beautiful and inspire such awe and be no more than a scrap of metal that cannot protect me? What atrocities have the stars witnessed and said nothing?”
He wipes his eyes with the back of his fist and carries on.
He heard them talking about him three weeks ago as he sat on the toilet. Normally he wouldn’t notice, but the words “milk” and “cat” caught his attention.
“-he’s a little odd, but he doesn’t mean any harm,” said a voice. It sounded older, maybe one of the Yeshiva Rabbis. Akiva couldn’t tell.
“But he barely speaks to anyone. He spends more time with the cats then with the bochrim,” said a different voice. “They steal food from the kitchen.”
“So do the bochrim,” said the first voice, and they both laughed.
Cats, thought Akiva. Strange.
“Part of why he’s here is to learn how to be a mensch,” insisted a third voice.
“There are many quiet people,” the older voice reflected.
“Yeah, they’re the ones that go shooting up schools-”
“Come on, he’s not a normal person.”
“Maybe he’s exceptional. Maybe he’s special and just hides himself from most people.”
“Why would he hide?”
“He’s hiding so someone smart, someone who’s worth it, will look for him.”
Their back-and-forth continued, but Akiva no longer listened. Happy or sad he wasn’t sure, but he used all of his strength not to make a sound.
Over the High Road and up the mountain. It’s hard to find his way in the dark, but he recognizes the tree easily enough, a tall cypress nearly at the peak. He scrabbles on a patch of bare rock and then he is on damp grass and the going is easy. Too soon, he is at the tree. He sits on the grass and wetness seeps through to his skin. He reaches out his hand and touches the freshly-turned dirt at the tree’s base.
“A chevrusa?” said Akiva that morning, dubious. He’d been learning for months without one and made impressive progress on all fronts, according to his Maggid Shiur. Yet here in his courtyard was an older student he barely knew. A shtender and chair had been dragged around next to his own.
“That’s the way it’s done,” said the stranger. “What’s your name?”
He’s friendly, thought Akiva. With a sigh, he said, “Akiva.”
Akiva still held his gemara in the crook of his arm and a bowl of milk in his hands. He said, “Go ahead and sit, please,” as he bent to place it on the ground. As he straightened he looked to the fence for her and saw that someone had finally repaired the hole in the fence.
He was struck by the odd convergence of new realities in his little space. He turned to Shmulik. “Do you know anything about them working on this fence?” he asked.
Shmulik, engrossed in the Aramaic words before his eyes, shook his head absently.
Akiva crossed the gap to where her hole used to be with two strides and knelt down to examine the spot. It was good work; nothing remained of her entrance. How did they even know about it? he thought, as he scanned the alley for her. “Cat?” he called out. He looked back at Shmulik, whose eyes shot back to his sefer.
“There you are,” he said as she detached from the shadows on the other side of the alley and approached. He knew from her eyes that something had changed, beyond simple fence repair. He reached his fingers through the links to pet her head and she hissed and retreated, looking at the fence post a few feet to his right. His brow furrowed. Another glance at Shmulik; another aversion of his eyes.
At the base of the fencepost he found a small plastic box with a tiny red eye that lit up when he moved the fence. Its precise nature evaded his understanding at that moment, but he knew it scared his cat, and he knew it wasn’t there by accident.
“I need a rock or something,” Akiva announced to his new chevrusa.
“What are you talking about?”
“A rock,” he repeated. He examined his shtender, noting its iron feet with approval. He wasn’t sure if he could move it fast enough. Might be worth a try. He grabbed it by its legs and suddenly Shmulik existed, the older student’s hands on his arms.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Akiva hesitated. He thought of his father and of Rashi and Tosfos, and then shoved Shmulik hard enough to knock his chair backward to the ground. As the older student spilled to the cobblestones Akiva grabbed his shtender and lifted it above his head. He turned to the fence and saw her, staring at him, eyes slotted emeralds, waiting for him to break the dreaded device.
Then – a startled cry (Shmulik’s, or his own, he can’t remember), the blaring of an electric horn, a yowl, silence.
Akiva’s face is wet as he unzips his pack and grabs his bottle, three quarters empty. He brings his knees to his chin, clasps his hands around them, and looks out on the Judean hills. In their rollings they form the glittering edge of a pooled night sky, and a moon the color of butter floats above it all. He contemplates the edge, and the lights of man far below, imitations.
He sits and thinks for a long time in the silence, images of other lives flitting before his eyes, tempted to run into the halogen distance and throw himself upon the world’s mercy. He wonders whether he could be a dockworker in Rotterdam or a street vendor in Shanghai, if he could win his life by the hardness of his knuckles, the strength of his arm, or whether he could trap profits with his wits and drive sports cars sleek in the night.
Eventually, the wind dries his face, and he lifts his eyes upward and wonders if it is his decision.