In Other Words

Going Underground in Israel

A great Hebrew novelist tells the tale of a young boy with grandiose -- and confused -- aspirations to join the political sub-classes.


From The Life of Elyakum. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.


These are the facts: My mother had a Communist friend who was in the underground, as all Communists were in those years. Or so, at least, my mother told me, and all the residents of our neighborhood believed likewise. I myself was unclear on the matter, since I envisioned all undergrounds as dark, dank subterranean tunnels, dimly lit by torches. My imagination populated these undergrounds with gangs of people who had not shaved for weeks and months, women smoking nervously, and food remnants scattered in the corners (in particular, preserves and cheeses). This picture was wholly unsuited to my mother’s friend, a woman who walked our streets openly, shopped at the grocery store, came in and out of our home, and even argued with my grandmother about the pact Molotov had signed with Hitler at the beginning of the war. Where, then, was this underground hiding?

To quiet my mind, I came up with the following excuse: As far as my mother and I were concerned, the underground was of no consequence. Ultimately, what did we care whether Sima (this was the woman’s name) was a Communist or a Leftist Zionist Worker? But for the British, who ruled the country, Sima and her boyfriend (whose name was Yasha) were in the underground. And since the British — like any regime of police, army, and detectives — were complete idiots, they were incapable of seeing and comprehending what every infant on our street knew: namely, that Sima and Yasha were underground Communists.

This explanation, simple and naive as it may seem, holds true to this day in my view.

Upon hearing from my mother that I was unemployed, Sima was infuriated. She immediately spoke with Yasha. I imagined they would both come to our apartment, shower me with insults and curses, and accuse me of being an idle parasite living at another’s expense and other things of which I blamed myself. But to my surprise, Yasha came to our home in the evening, put his hand on my shoulder, and declared to my mother: "This boy shall not be trampled upon by the wheels of the materialistic chariot! His blood shall not grease the spokes of the rampaging bourgeois!"

My mother began to sob. Words such as "blood" and "rampaging" had the power to reduce certain souls to a depressive state.

Yasha continued, moving his hand from my shoulder to my hair and caressing my head with vigorous affection: "This young man," he said, looking straight into my eyes, "is entitled to live and create, just as any other person is. This young man does not deserve to be worn down and corroded by the filthy mechanisms of capitalist society. The individual must give society all he is capable of, and society must give the individual all he needs. The proletariat has nothing to lose except its shackles…"

Here Yasha paused and I could hear the sound of the shackles plummeting in the dusk, tumbling down somewhere beneath our kitchen table. Mother ceased crying and looked at Yasha as in a dream. Only Grandmother peered at him over her reading glasses, suspended her mumblings momentarily (she was studying the weekly Torah portion in Yiddish), and said, "Yasha, you are lying."

"How so, Grandmother?" Yasha turned to her in astonishment.

"Because everything you say is a lie and a falsehood. Those who seek the truth will find it in the holy books." And she looked back to her page.

Yasha, recovering from the insult, spoke again, his hand never leaving my head: "This young man before us must assimilate within the circle of productivity and the war effort. I am taking him with me, tomorrow, to the desert."

"To the desert?" Mother was alarmed.

But I was not. At the time I believed the veil had been lifted from Sima and Yasha’s underground. I believed they resided in the desert like the ancient Christians, lions sprawled at their feet and serpents squirming in the opening of the cave where they dwelled. Tomorrow, Yasha would take me to that desert and bring me to his sect. And although I was not enamored with Communism (progressive socialism, with slight concessions to the ruling class and an eye toward conquering power gradually and without bloodshed, appealed to me more in those days), I was willing, for romantic reasons — and economic ones — to try my luck at living in the desert underground.

For the next translation, click here.

Benjamin Tammuz (1919-1989) was an Israeli writer, journalist, and artist. This excerpt copyright (c) The Estate of Benjamin Tammuz. Published by arrangement with the Institute for Translation of Hebrew Literature.