From The Cold

Entry by: David Ades

26th December 2014
Yosef and Lila

Yosef’s transgression was to love wholeheartedly, like a smitten boy, and to continue to love like that long after his boyhood was behind him.

Life was hard in the early days of the kibbutz where Yosef spent his boyhood. The kibbutz was located on barely arable land that had to be persuaded to yield crops. The adults spent long days in the fields and barely had time for the children. Yosef, like most of his peers, grew to be self-reliant and independent from an early age.

Yosef loved the kibbutz girls who were brash and feisty and full of spirit. He grew up with them, played and fought with them, and knew them well, but his love for them was like the love of a brother for a sister: they were his extended family, his familiars. The love of his heart lay elsewhere.

A ramshackle Arab village sprawled on a hillside across the perimeter road that circled the kibbutz. There was an uneasy peace between the kibbutz and the village, punctuated by disagreements over wayward goats and other perceived incursions into territory. Great efforts were made by both villagers and kibbutzniks to resolve such disagreements equably. Everyone seemed to know, instinctively, that the peace was fragile and that if acrimony were allowed to simmer it could lead to an explosion with consequences difficult to predict or contain.

Sometimes, particularly when it was picking season, there was a shortage of labour on the kibbutz, and Arabs from the village were hired to work in the fields with the kibbutzniks. First among them was Sami, a quiet-spoken man who seemed to hold no grudges.

Sami had a generous spirit and was equally willing to learn and to teach. His silence was always the silence of industry. The kibbutzniks liked him and he, having known the land when it was untended and unyielding, found a quiet joy in seeing crops growing where none had grown before. He respected the endeavour of the kibbutz, even as he felt a sense of intrusion and dispossession. He refused to allow that sense to rankle him.

Days when Yosef was not at school and was helping out in the fields, he often found himself working in companionable silence with Sami. The two did not become friends, but there was a quiet tenderness between them.

Yosef was fifteen when he first saw Lila. Sami had forgotten to bring his lunch to work and Lila had been sent by her mother to bring it to him. She came, stepping quietly through the grove. Unlike the kibbutz girls, Lila was covered from head to toe. She had the same quiet, dignified bearing as her father, easily mistaken in her for shyness. Yosef saw wisps of very dark hair, fine-fingered dark-skinned hands, and dark eyes that seemed to blend seriousness and levity. Sami noticed Yosef’s glance, and hurried Lila away. There was lightness in her steps as she left the grove.

Living not much more than a stone’s throw away from one another, Yosef and Lila occupied different worlds that met uneasily, full as they were with the tropes of occupation and dispossession, of national identity and conflicting objectives; full as they were already with a history of blame and recrimination, a history of violence and counter-violence. Both knew this and yet found within themselves an attraction that burned fiercely, the dream of transcending.

Yosef loved Lila wholeheartedly, like a smitten boy. Lila understood that love instinctively, and generous in nature like her father, responded to the kindness she saw in it with a kindness and love of her own. Such a love was never going to be allowed to flourish: there was no future in it.

Yosef and Lila met only a few times, their meetings quiet and tender, spoken entrances into each other’s worlds.

There are no secrets on a kibbutz or in a small Arab village. Word soon reached Sami and Yosef’s family and both sides took steps to prevent any further meetings. Soon, Sami stopped working on the kibbutz. Lila was first confined to her home and then betrothed to a man from another village. Love was not a consideration. She moved away. At eighteen, Yosef was drafted into National Service.

The different worlds Yosef and Lila occupied pushed them further away from one another. All contact between them ended. The stories that they had begun to mesh together were severed. Neither was given time to dwell on it, but each mourned privately, in the place where dreams begin and end, each held on to the memory of the other as sanctuary, as lifeline. They were each like treasured books left behind, opened in their early pages, yet largely unread.

The years passed. Relations between the kibbutz and the Arab village deteriorated and all the early efforts between them to dampen acrimony were forgotten. New generations grew up, less compromising. The kibbutz stopped hiring Arab workers and built high perimeter fences. There were clashes and deaths. The uneasy peace transformed into ongoing hostilities.

Yosef fought in a war, survived it. Lila had four children and was widowed in her late twenties when her husband clashed with an Israeli patrol. She dedicated her life then to her children, desperate to keep them fed and safe, desperate to give them hope. Despite her best efforts her two eldest children - boys struggling to find purpose - grew angry and bitter. She feared for them: she was not a woman who believed in martyrdom. Her fear was not misplaced but the boys somehow stayed out of serious trouble. They grew up, into their own lives and away from her. In their turn, her youngest two children, both girls, also grew up and into their own lives.

Upon completing his National Service, Yosef moved from the kibbutz to the city. He went to University and obtained a degree in mathematics. After some years in an unhappy marriage, and two children of his own, he divorced.

It was forty years after they last saw one another before Yosef and Lila met again. The meeting was unplanned. Yosef was walking through the Shuk in Jerusalem as he did almost weekly, taking in the bustle, the sounds and the scents, not looking for anything in particular.

A woman’s voice, one amongst many voices, stirred Yosef’s memory. Oh, it was familiar, that voice, secretly cherished for so many years, lost and now heard again. The voice was deeper and wearier than Yosef recalled, but unmistakable. He looked around, searching for the face without finding it - and then a woman turned and he saw her, grey-haired beneath her shawl, lines radiating from her eyes, an almost defeated slump to her shoulders.

Yosef’s face turned pale beneath its grey stubble and he suddenly wished that he had shaved that morning. Lila turned to see a man staring at her, wordless, face pale beneath its grey stubble. A hand flew towards her face, hesitated, and fell to her side. She straightened, drew up the fine wings of her shoulders, retrieved her father’s bearing of poise and dignity, and let a spark fly to her eyes, kindle embers into flame.

The colour returned slowly to Yosef’s face, and with it came an uncertain and then irrepressible smile. The smile contained within it a welcome, the welcome an invitation, the invitation a love suddenly riotous. None of it escaped Lila.

“Lila”, Yosef whispered.

“Yosef”, she replied, the exchange of names like tender strokes, soft brushes upon their two damaged hearts.

Nothing more was needed to change the trajectories of their lives. Lila and Yosef held their future in their eyes. No one, now, was going to take them away from it.