The shadowman's tale

Yoni Alfasi 1

By Jonathan Meades


The scents of my early teens were barbecued lamb and burning buildings. We listened to yé-yé and explosions, doo-wop and gunfire. We picnicked on rocks under stone-pines. The sea lapped at our feet while a war raged around us. We danced the Madison on a battlefield’s edge. We couldn’t admit that paradise was provisional, that our heaven on earth was turning into hell. A hell we would have to flee. Lime sorbet tastes of immeasurable loss.

I can still see it as though it were yesterday, in Dewachter’s window on Rue Hoche. Chocolate brown corduroy, rope thick, Cardin style, collarless. It was the day before my fourteenth birthday, when my father refused to buy me that jacket. I had set my heart on it. In his opinion, it looked Bavarian, it was Bavarian – the collarlessness. That was it, then, nothing more to say. I didn’t know where in Germany Bavaria was. But, because he had spoken of it so often, I did know that it was the fount of the greatest evil. The waisted jacket he bought me instead had a collar and narrow, rounded lapels, three buttons, raised stitching, a flap over the breast pocket and a single vent. I liked it well enough. His uncle and two cousins had died in Buchenwald.

*   *   *

Was I even then, all those years ago, a Jew?

My mother was not Jewish, so according to the halakha I was not a Jew. My father was non-observant. He could not reconcile modern science with the ancient faith of his and my ancestors. Even though one of them, a rabbi, had given his life for being a Jew, beheaded on the orders of the Dey, the Ottoman military governor, a decade before the French arrived. We French ...

Nonetheless, so far as he himself was concerned, my father was not a Jew. Or only on his own terms. He considered himself above tribalism, above cults and sectarianism. Ahavath Israel was divisive. He insisted for example – mistakenly, with wearisome obstinacy – that Eichmann’s crimes had  been against all humanity. In his version it was humans, not Jews, whom Eichmann had deported to their death. This does not accord with Eichmann’s own statements to Höss, the Auschwitz commandant. My father believed that being Jewish didn’t mean belonging to a religion, obeying what he called its “archaic foibles” and “murky prescriptions.” He even claimed to despise dietary regulation, he pretended to take pleasure in eating pork. But in truth, he never touched it. I doubt that he ever tasted, for example, sobressada or blanquicos or longanisses – what he might, had he lived so long, have learnt to call “king rabbit.”

Being Jewish on his own terms meant having a hippocratic duty to the sick, whoever they were, irrespective of faith, and having a humanistic duty to succour the oppressed, idem. We who have been oppressed throughout all history must side with anyone else who is oppressed. We must care for them because only we have shared their fathomless suffering. Only we have both the competence and the charity to alleviate it. We are chosen because we own extreme empathy. It is a duty and a curse. It implies no divine favoritism. We must side with justice. We must not think of ourselves. We must, above all, not allow ourselves to be defined as victims, for that strengthens the tormentors. (I had observed, at the Avenue Jonnart baths, that many Catholics, too, were circumcised).

I learned from him the paramountcy of justice. There are many forms of justice. Mine differed from his. The figure of Judex, that I have incarnated throughout my life, derives from the god whose justice is vengeful, stern, pre-Christian: Jesus was not much of a Jew. He was the first appeaser, a dupe with faith in rehabilitation and redemption.

A Jew must believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a pyre for a pyre.

*   *   *

His parents and, especially, his sister considered my father’s exalted compassion to be mere vanity. For them his humanitarianism was an expression of guilt, a form of masochism. They thought his work at the hospital was show-off self-denial. That’s what I thought, too. His work and his library frightened me.

He was a proctologist – you see what I mean about masochism. He was an expert in venereal infections of the anus, in malignant anal melanomias, in anal fistulas, suppurations and abcesses. He was the author of A Haemorrhoid Atlas. His bookshelves were no incitement to sexual congress.

He cured filthy, incestuous Arabs of their filthy, incestuous diseases. Diseases I wished never to suffer.

(What sort of gratitude do you get from such people? This sort of gratitude: a slit throat, a bomb in a bar, a van packed with plastic explosives).

His family wanted to bind him to his race. He was always trying to slip away from the ancestral burden. But in the end you can’t. He was too good a man to understand the frailty of goodness.

Read the rest of this story in the Summer 2016 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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