The Mermaid and the Rabbi
Between jellyfish and starfish, she waits for him. She waits for him: the soldier, the sailor, the Rabbi. She waits for all 3 since the tide turned. And he, the Rabbi, no longer under conscription and not a very good seaman, felt his prayers thicken that day. For some reason, he had spent the night studying the story of Jonah and the ship had been unpleasantly rocking as if it were an infant and the ocean couldn't decide whether to 'wake' it or 'calm' it.
Had he been Jonah, he would have possibly been cast overboard, for he carried with him a message that was his motivation for his invitation to visit this new country of America. Sailing from the Queen's country of England he had promised to deliver the letter in person concerning his own Rebbi's concern for his American brethren's violation of the laws of Shabbos. It was nearly impossible to find employment that didn't include ones working on the Sabbath and the Rabbi's Rebbe had organised for the Rabbi to deliver a speech that he should write for the community of Philadelphia to hear and reflect upon.
At dinner that evening, after eating vegetables and boiled eggs, the Rabbi thought back to his time as Army Chaplain. For a long time he had considered giving up being a man of the cloth, as the gentiles sometimes called him. Giving 'vidui' (confession) to so many young men had left him with a disappointment in his personal life and he was much, if not happier, then at least less moody now he was the 2nd in command at a beautiful English shule (synagogue) .
Upon taking his after-dinner walk, and singing to himself a tune from benching (after dinner prayer) , the Rabbi looked out to sea where something completely unexpected happened. At first it was a simply a blur, but the Rabbi soon suspected it was, in fact, figure. It was her, but he was concerned someone had fallen overboard. The Rabbi rushed to throw a buoy in the direction of the creature. Then as the last beacons of the sun's light slipped beneath the water, he saw what appeared to be a fin and woman's hair. He called out to her, but she dived below immediately.
Perhaps it was the strain of being the only Jew on board, but the Rabbi knew that it couldn't have been a dead body as she had not been floating. Again, maybe it was the weighty responsibility of delivering the letter, and it was causing him to see things. And after saying his night time prayers, he davened (prayed) that if in fact it had been a drowned person, that their soul was at rest and not transformed into a demonic force, heaven forbid!
He also thought that Jonah had had much faith to draw straws with the other sailors. Had it been him, he surely would have lost on account of his Jewishness alone. It did occur to the Rabbi that he had glimpsed something that Rashi (a great Rabbi) had called a 'sirena', and that Christopher Columbus had sighted himself. But the Chaplain in him, no longer dreamt that vividly during the day unless it was for davening in which he had always retained his fervour.
In the morning, between the seaweed and aquatic-life, she danced.
The Rabbi considered going to the starboard deck to calm his nerves and gaze upon a peaceful ocean. And his eyes focused, he stretched his body walking the boards admiring the Ribbono Shel Olam's (God's) ocean. He savoured the blessing and pronounced it:
'Blessed are You, Hashem, King of the Universe, who made the great ocean.'
At this, she turned towards the ship and sensing he was near, flipped once in the air, her hair covering her body.
'Mamishe..! '' cried the Rabbi, trailing off.
'It's a ness! ' he proclaimed.
Again, 'A ness! A miracle! '
What if it had been a dolphin?
Nonetheless, the Rabbi picked up his Siddur (prayer book) and read the blessing said upon seeing exceptionally beautiful people:
'Blessed are You, 'Hashem, King of the Universe, who has such in his universe.'
It was not just gratitude the Rabbi felt, it was joy. His gait was lighter. He felt warmer than usual and left his overcoat inside his quarters for some time. His praying came even more easily than it usually did. It was not that he had fallen in love with the creature, but more that he had fallen more in love with God which, combined with his role as messenger to a new country, made him feel a sense of choseness. He spent the rest of the day by the sea's side only returning to his quarters to daven minchah (afternoon prayers) . He felt very much the only Jew on board to his knowledge and longed to share his experience with someone. Yet he didn't consider it a good idea to speak to the crew about 'the dolphin' that some meshuganuh (crazy) Jew had mistaken for a 'mermaid'.'
And so like Jonah, the Rabbi kept quiet, hoping the sea would also calm itself and there would be no need to address the Captain with an unwitnessed event. It was not that he didn't want to see her again. It was just that as Chaplain he had found occasion to keep special miracles to himself.
Crying now, she decides to find him. Dark waves cover all her body, her long hair is the only clue she is a maiden.
He walked down to the deck on his usual after-dinner walk, alone. Of course he was alone, none of the other passengers speak to the man with the peos and beard besides exchanging pleasantries. It's hard for him to imagine being this alone and he wondered if she shares this sadness.
He decided to write a letter to his Rebbe:
' February 7th 1890
To my dear Rebbe,
I trust you are well, praise God. I am writing to you although I will not have an opportunity to post this letter until I have made it, God-willing, to Pennsylvania.
I have had the great fortune of witnessing a miracle. Upon walking the decks the other night, a sirena jumped into the air as if to contact me. I have not mentioned it to anyone as I am the only yid aboard. Surely it is a benevolent sign and I am taking it as such. I will endeavour to spread the good news upon arrival for what else can it mean but a good sign for the Jews and hopefully, a sign that their emunah (faith) must come first.
The Rabbi held the letter in his hand for a long time and then fell asleep. He found himself dreaming that Klal Yisrael (the Jewish People) a sirena and the Ribbono Shel Olam was the Ocean. At first, the sirena was smiling and cheerful, but she saddened as the dream went on. The Rabbi fell into the ocean and she spoke to him: 'Some Joy before the War.'
At this, the Rabbi awoke shaking. He was a widower and to have another female enter his dreams had disconcerted him. Still he found a good interpretation of the dream, that she knew a war was coming could simply mean one held between himself and ship's chef who gave him the evil eye every time he asked for a poached egg. Maybe that was too simplistic, but she was becoming a joy to him, that much was certain.
He went out of his cabin, wearing his thick evening gown which barely protected him against the Eastern wind. There, looking at the stars, he pictured her. Not as a specimen, but as a real being. Her beauty was not just in her fragility or rareness. She had come to deliver a message and in that they were bound - messenger to messenger. It was as if she were snow, and he was looking up at it falling through an open sky-light of a greenhouse. Somehow he had decided to put all the plants at risk by simply opening the sky-light to see the beautiful sight of the snow falling on the frangipanis. She was not a danger without virtues.
Still, she may not be real. And his (kosher) diet and poor sleep pattern together with his aloneness made him question his sanity. The only thing he needed was a witness and it was the very thing she could not afford, so, gazing up at the night sky he whispered aloud to the stars: 'She is real, you are my witnesses.' The inky night poured over his words.
The next morning the Rabbi saw it fit to compose another letter to his Rebbe.
'9th of February 1890
Dear esteemed Rebbe,
I trust you are well, praise God. I have cause to write you again, even though I still have not arrived in Pennsylvania. Rebbe, I am struggling. I struggle against the tides so to speak. The mermaid if she is real then... she has confounded me...'
The Rabbi stopped writing, he could tell his Rebbe anything, but not always on paper. It was also that he didn't know how to describe that ''Starry night'', 'when he beseeched the stars to be his witnesses - as if the Ribbono Shel Olam (God) weren't enough. And yet he did not feel blasphemous in any way. In fact, he longed for the dark so he could see those stars again and look deeply at their fires, knowing that inside of them was a bond between a Rabbi and a mermaid.
And so he prayed.
And so he ate.
And so he strolled.
'Good day, Madame.'
'Good day, sir.'
He examined his beard and thought of King David. Was it really because he was a warrior that he could not build the Temple? Or was it simply because he saw Bathsheva bathing on the roof, another watery maiden seen from afar.
And he napped. And with each paddle into the bay of dreams, she escorted him.
'Some Joy before the War', she said again.
And he admired her, as if had returned to that greenhouse and opened one sky-light after another so that the snow fell intermittently between the lilies and the fern trees.
'February 11th 1890
Dear honourable Rebbe,
I trust you are in good health. I am still aboard 'The Zephyr'.
I have had cause to say the prayer for the Ocean each and every day. I feel a bit more of that prayer's secret unfold to me, but I am frightened of my dreams of the sirena. I dream of her often and it is repeated to me that a Great War is coming. It is almost enough to make me turn away from the whole incident since it surely cannot be as foreboding as she makes out. Perhaps she is referring to the War I took part in? Either way, I refuse to honour anymore of her warnings. I must block it somehow. Still, the sirena warms my very own heart, and were it not for that element of the dream. I would be happy to think of her again and again - even though that is what I sometimes feel I'm doing regardless.
What would your advice be Rebbe? I do miss you and my fellow brethren and the shule very much and long to see it again after my mission is over.
That afternoon the Rabbi dozed as susual, but his dream was not that of the sirena. He dreamt again of the greenhouse and, this time, his departed wife. She was sitting on the the house's roof. The Rabbi was in the garden itself.
'All you need is faith to jump up', said his wife, and so the Rabbi did, and found himself on top of of the glass plates with her. She had filled a tea can with snow and was pouring it on to the plants below. When the garden was finally filled with snow, she poured snow on top of the Rabbi.
'Who pours the stars? ', she then asked 'Not the Ribbono Shel Olam?
The Rabbi spent the afternoon in bed contemplating the dream until rising for lunch, only later rising from his quarters at the rocking of 'The Ascension' in the storm.
The sirena waits in the sea slopes, in the salt and crystal of the Ocean.
He sensed she was near and going to the lower decks was just in time to see her flip three times in the air. The crash of her body against the waves resounded in his ears and he opened his eyes.
He searched the deck for other witnesses and not finding any closed his eyes again. She cried and he heard this cry, but he was not a soldier, a sailor or widower. He was a messenger who was taking on board her message and it had to end there. He looked at her beautiful eyes and said the brief prayer one more time:
'Blesssed are You, Hashem, King of the Universe who has such in His universe.'
He then swiftly walked away from her, showing her his back. In his rooms, he found the tin can he had borrowed from the chef at lunchtime and left it out therë on the deck as an offering to her as it collected rain water from the Ribbono Shel Olam's great ocean. He could almost hear it filling up with water like a music box.
Comments about this poem (The Mermaid and the Rabbi by Eli Spivakovsky )
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