Open the Ruins

Batnadiv HaKarmi

They were hiding in a ditch.

They were starving.

This is how the story opens. The known facts. A flickering light illuminating a small stretch of my grandfather’s past.

They were in a ditch. They were starving. So hungry, they were eating grass.

Once, when I was little, I sat outside my grandfather’s house and tried it. Faint, almost invisible hairs tickled my tongue. Barely any resistance against my teeth. Just a sudden thin green taste.

Now I realize it would have been a different species, out in Siberia. The soft green blade transforms into salty brittle stalks that crumble in the hollow dryness of their mouths.

They were in a ditch. Starving. Sucking on grass to fill their empty mouths.

My grandfather turned to his best friend, Meyer Zelig—

A clue: they are the only people in the story. It was late in the war, then, when the group of seventeen boys who had escaped from Telz, Lithuania, had been reduced to two.

They were in a ditch. Starving. They were “starting to feel low.”

A laconic formulation. But that is part of the story; one of the enduring facts:

They were hiding in a ditch.

They were eating grass.

It was Shabbat, and they were feeling low.

My grandfather turned to Meyer Zelig: It is Shabbat and we’re not allowed to be sad. Tzezein be-simcha—we must be joyful.

It was the fourth of the Shiv’a de-Nahamuta—the “Seven of Consolation” that follow in the wake of the Tisha b’Av fast. Seven weeks of synagogue readings that promise hope after devastation, a transition from the day of the destruction of Jerusalem to the fresh start of the new year.

They were nowhere near a synagogue.

So they decided: My grandfather would choose words from the passage in Isaiah that would have been publicly read that week, and Meyer Zelig, the yeshiva songbird, would sing them. Then they would not be sad.

There is another clue here: it was late summer. Four weeks after Tisha b’Av is mid-Elul, well into August. This explains how they could have been hiding outdoors in the frigid tundra.

They were hiding in a ditch on a late summer Shabbat, when the cold Arctic sun refused to set. They were eating grass.

My grandfather chose the words.

Meyer Zelig sang them.

Ma navu—

A lone voice, ascending in lament. Hovering disembodied over the empty expanse.

That plaintive slow Mmmaa always sets my eyes stinging.

At the closing of every holiday meal, before the dishes are cleared, everybody is called back to the table. Silence, and then the lone voice. For it is forever alone. Even though we all know the song, my father always begins it on his own.

How beautiful on the hilltops

are the footsteps of the herald…

A quiet exclamation: “How beautiful”! But then it repeats, again and again, “the footsteps of the herald,” rising in a hopeless climb. And even though the melody keeps dropping, it picks itself up and climbs again.

Sounding peace

Announcing good

Sounding salvation

Telling Zion: “Your God has become king.”

Did they know, looking out over that vast barren plane, that they were the only ones left? That their families had been utterly decimated?

They must have suspected. After all, after escaping from Telz, they had chosen not to turn around at the border, not to go home.

Your watchmen

Raise their voices

Sing together…

My grandfather had spent his formative years in the all-male environment of the yeshiva. He was awkward, almost shy, around his female offspring.

“Vhat are you lerning?” he would ask, in his slow, laborious English.  It was his main conversational salvo.

The year I was fourteen we studied Isaiah in school.

Suddenly his eyes are on me, bright, excited. 

Yishaya? Yishaya is very important! We read it—the Shiv’a de-Nahamuta. Do I know the Shiv’a de-Nahamuta? Nahamu, nahamu, ami—Take comfort, My people, take comfort! I trail his joyful motion into the narrow, book-lined study, haunted by the photos of his four brothers who always watch me from the corner. He is taking down a crumbling Tanakh. It looks small against his huge hands. His fingers trace the words as he continues in heavy Yiddish laced with Hebrew and bits of English.

I am agreeing inanely. Yes, Yishaya is beautiful. Yes, it is part of the Shiv’a de-Nahamuta. Yes, we are studying it. Yes, it’s important. I trip over myself to nod, nod, nod. I want to show I understand. To keep the intensity of his regard, even as I wish to escape my inadequacy. The tip of his finger half covers the cracked ink of the mem of ma navu. I read the words. They are words. I know I’m missing something. Missing what his blue-gray eyes are trying to say. He knows it too.

Break out, sing together

At its closing, the song breaks away from its dirge-heaviness. Trills and skips, as if the chain dragging it to the ground has finally snapped.

But it stumbles to a halt at the immutable

O ruins of Jerusalem!

A pause. A break.

My grandfather’s finger resting on the crumbling yellow paper.

The voice ascends again. A concluding clarion call:

For God has comforted his people

Redeemed Jerusalem

And it sonorously affirms:

For God has comforted his people

Redeemed Jerusalem.

The story ends here, with the creation of the song.

Did they sing it until the sun finally dropped? Did it stop them from “getting low”?

I don’t know—and now I never will.

I don’t where they went from that ditch. I don’t know when and how they got food. It is not included in the story.

And after a year spent scrambling for facts, I realize it doesn’t have to be.

I think I’m finally beginning to understand what my grandfather was trying to tell me that day. His inarticulate intensity, his blunt fingers tracing these three verses.

That there has to be a pause, a breathing space, in which you see your devastation.

That he and Meyer Zelig looked at that wasteland, and announced their own redemption.


Batnadiv HaKarmi is a Jerusalem-based writer and artist whose works have appeared in Poetry International, Partial Answers, and previous editions of The Ilanot Review. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature, and teaches painting and creative writing at Emunah Ve’Omanut, a branch of Emunah College. Her artwork can be seen at



Return to Table of Contents