Shluchim: A Tale of Tel Aviv — Thomas P. Balázs
It was a night like any of a thousand I had spent precisely the same way in the same place, silently, mindlessly, waiting, heedless of anything but quiet, patient hunger. I was perched halfway up a low, gray, steel utility tower bearing a sign warning pedestrians in three languages of the danger of death should they climb to where I sat. It stood at one end of a narrow, shadowy street, one of the small, dark arteries of the Yemenite quarter branching off from the Carmel Market in South Tel Aviv — Butcher’s Alley. Hours ago the vendors had closed up shop, swept the pavement, and hosed down the streets, but the smell of draining animal flesh still lingered.
Locals knew better than to pass that way so long after sunset, but every now and then a solitary soul, new to the city, a tourist, perhaps, or a visitor from Netanya or Petah Tikva, would lose herself in the maze of streets as she tried to find her way to the strand alongside the abandoned Dolphinarium where drums beat all night long. I never went in that far, so close to the beach where the young folk gathered, because I didn’t like crowds, though there was that one time when I heard a blast and felt the boom of hot air against my chest, and my curiosity drove me toward the water, but I had to flee because there was so much blood.
This one was different. She was tall, slender, making her way in a black silk blouse with sleeves nearly to her wrists and a neckline veiling her clavicle. Her pleated cotton skirt was so long it nearly hid the low heels that clicked against the pavement as she moved beneath me. Such modesty was uncommon among the women who wandered here late at night, the ones in mini-skirts and halter tops. She was young, like them, but paler and more alert. The beach-goers usually reeked of cigarettes and beer, tottering and reaching for the boarded up stalls for support as they meandered one way or another. This one was sober, and fresh-smelling and moved with purpose. But the most remarkable thing about her was her gleaming black hair, not beach blown or sundried or tangled in curls, but silky and rich with bending bangs that overhung her forehead, and a straight straight sheath of tresses that draped her shoulder-blades and bounced lightly as she walked.
I fell down silently behind her, my landing soft as the cats’ that padded the corrugated rooftops around me, and I went for those dark locks, shining like obsidian in the muted yellow light of my utility tower, because when the thirst was on me, that’s what I liked to do, grab a handful of it, draw the head back sharply, the other hand pressing the sternum, and expose the throat to the stars. It was a ritual of sorts—the only one I had left. But this time, when I pulled, I found myself gripping a handful of what felt like the pelt of an ermine or a chinchilla or one of those aforementioned felines, and I was so surprised, my other hand dropped to my side. Even more strangely, she didn’t scream or run, but instead deftly reached into a pocket of her skirt and drew out a broad blue kerchief, which she used to cover over the shortish, mousy brown locks I had exposed. She was looking at the ground and tucking in stray strands, when I handed her back the wig and spoke for the first time in a long, long while.
“Slicha,” I said. I’m sorry.
And then she lifted her head and looked me in the eyes, a foolish thing to do. But her pupils didn’t dilate as one would expect, but instead drew me in, swallowing me in a retreating vortex of soft brown bands. She ought to have been paralyzed, caught like a rabbit in the stare of a cobra, but it was I who was momentarily mesmerized. Then she took the hair I handed her, said, “Toda,” only pronounced it “Toad-Dah,” and asked in English, “Are you Jewish?”
Then I remembered that I was and answered her in her own language, “yes.”
“Then you’ve got to meet my husband,” she said, and motioned for me to follow her.
She led me out of the boarded up market and onto what I later recalled was Allenby and then across to Hamelekh George, streets crowded with young revelers, brushing up against me, the scent of perspiration in my nostrils, the throb of plasma thick in my ears, and I thought I would go mad, but I suppressed the craving and trod silently behind her. I thirsted for her, but there was something about the way she carried herself that made me feel I ought not to touch her, so I simply followed instead until finally she turned off into a public garden and from there onto a side-street to a crumbling old pre-modern structure with cracked plaster and faded brown shutters. The upper floors with their blank windows and crumbling terraces didn’t even seem habitable, and it reminded me of my own hollowed out abode off the shuk, except that a lamp shone behind a drawn curtain on the first floor whereas all the light in my home had long ago been extinguished. She approached the entrance of the building, climbed a few stairs, and reached her hand up to a small slanted wooden box affixed to the doorpost, touched it, and kissed her fingers.
“Go ahead,” she said, looking down at me. “You too.”
I hung back for a moment, suspecting some trap. You don’t live as long as I have by rushing into things, but I didn’t sense any danger, so I went ahead and put my finger to the box and then to my lips, and for a brief moment it seemed to me I could remember things I had long ago forgotten, words, something about a sign on my arms and between my eyes. But then it went away again, and she put a key in the lock and opened the door and did another foolish thing, something that can’t be undone except through arcane and complex measures mostly forgotten by her kind. She invited me in.
I hesitated again, this time not for my sake, but for hers, because I thought to myself if her family is in there, it will be a massacre. But she insisted. “Please,” she said. “Come in.”
And so I stepped inside. The door opened into a wide, brightly lit room. I had not been in such luminescence for a long time, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust, but I noticed right away we were not alone.
In the center of the room sat a long table covered with white cloth around which sat some eight or nine individuals hunched over books, triangles of something red and white next to each one and glasses full of black bubbling water. Behind them, in the far corner, a pair of candles burned in two slender silver sticks below a painting of an old man in black with a long gray beard. He was holding out a cup full of wine, a warm grin wrinkling the skin around his eyes. One entire wall was covered with plywood bookshelves packed tightly with leather-bound volumes, and everywhere there were potted plants and cut flowers. At the head of the table, sat a young man with sharp blue eyes and a wiry brown beard not quite so long as the old man’s in the painting. He wore a crisp white shirt, dark pants, and a black velvet skull cap. When I entered, he stood up with a smile.
“I found another one,” the woman said as she retreated into some other part of the apartment, leaving me standing in the doorway.
“Well done,” the young man called out. Then he came over to me and put his warm hand in my cold one, something no one had done for many years.
“Welcome,” he said. “Thank you for coming. Toad-Ah Rabbah. I’m Eliezer, and that was my wife, Hannah.”
I wanted to speak my name, but couldn’t remember what it was, it having been so long since anyone asked or I had cause to use it. He saw I was struggling and studied my face for a while as if trying to read something there, then turned away and called out to his wife who was still in another room.
“Hannah, what do you think of ‘Shlomo?’”
“Perfect,” she called back.
He looked back at me. “Is that okay with you? ‘Shlomo?’”
It was okay. It felt good to have a name, and there was something homey, something haimish, about this one. I nodded, and he smiled as he took my arm and led me to the table.
“You picked a good night to come, Shlomo” he said. “It’s Shavuos, the giving of the Torah, and we’re staying up all night to study.”
Just then his wife appeared back by my side and offered me a small silky black skull cap and asked if I wouldn’t mind putting it on, and I saw all the others were wearing one, so I muttered “beseder,” and as I lay it on the back of my head I thought I heard someone calling out for everyone to listen and that he was telling us all that the Lord G-d was one, which was funny because I hadn’t thought about Him in a long while.
At the table before me were a motley assortment of males, one young-seeming, smooth shaven with spiked blond hair, another in a ragged gray suit with a close-cropped grizzled beard. Next to him sat a gaunt black in a drab sweater and worn jeans and by him a light skinned creature with curly black hair edged with gray, wearing cracked spectacles and creased tan pants. Another had a thin mustache that curved like parentheses down his lips and the one beside him had long brown hair pulled into a ponytail and wore leather bracelets on both wrists. On the other side of my host sat a large fat fellow dressed all in white cotton, though it was threadbare and graying, and next to him, closest to Eliezer, was a short squat thing of seeming middle-age with bulging muscles and tattoos so faded they looked like massive blue bruises on his bared arms.
Eliezer pulled up a folding chair from against the wall and made space for me between himself and the young one with spiked hair, and I was about to sit down when Hannah returned with a plate for me, one of those white triangles dripping in red gore. “Cherry cheese cake,” she said. “It’s customary to eat milchigs on Shavuos. Would you like some Coke?”
It was then that my lips curled back, and I hissed, though not because of the cheesecake. I don’t know why I hadn’t sensed it right away. The moment I stepped inside the doorway I ought to have, but somehow I’d been distracted by the light, the candles, the books, the painting, by Eliezer’s sharp blue eyes and Hannah’s deep brown ones. But when I drew close enough to see into the orbs of those others, I knew them for what they were, and they me, and the one with the tattoos flung back his chair and rose with fists clenched, and the one with the ponytail twisted his head to the side and darted his tongue like a lizard, and the young one put his hands in the air as if he meant to claw me with his chipped black fingernails, and everyone but Hannah and Eliezer had their lips curled back, hissing and showing teeth—broken ones in some cases, for there were ones here even older than me.
Then Eliezer, put his hand on my shoulder and urged me to sit.
“It’s okay,” he said. “We’re all friends here.”
“Yes,” Hannah said. “And it’s Yom Tov. Have some cheesecake. You’ll feel better.”
I let my mouth relax. My lips slid back down over my teeth.
“What is. Going on. Here?” I asked, the most words I had spoken since I could remember and not in my native tongue, Ivrit.
Hannah smiled. “We’re shluchim,” she said. “Emissaries. Messengers. We do kiruv, Jewish outreach. We help people to become more observant.”
“But,” I said, “we’re vampires.”
Eliezer shrugged. “A Jew is a Jew.”
Hannah and Eliezer, it turned out, were from America, someplace called Lakewood. They were Orthodox Jews, which is why she covered her hair and dressed so tzniut. They told me the whole story as I tentatively dipped my fork into the cheesecake and took an occasional sip of the black water to be polite. They had been members of a Chassidic group that sent out emissaries all over the world to reclaim lost Jews, but they went their own way after Eliezer received smicha, rabbinical ordination.
“They wanted to send us to Tennessee,” he said. “There was an Orthodox synagogue there where the rabbi had passed away, and the congregation couldn’t find anyone to replace him. But they were all old men, and there weren’t many other Jews in the town. There was no room for growth.”
“And I had a dream,” Hannah said, “of a white city by the sea, and it was full of souls calling out to me, and when I woke up and I told Eliezer what I saw, he said that sounded like Tel Aviv.”
“My reb,” Eliezer continued, “said we didn’t have to go to Chattanooga; there were other places. But Israel, he said, was not for us. ‘It’s too secular,’ he said. ‘The goyim of Tennessee will have more respect for observant Judaism than the yids of Tel Aviv. And there are already shluchim there.’ ‘But if it’s so secular,’ I argued, ‘then there aren’t enough shluchim yet.’ He disagreed and forbade us from coming, said we would get no support if we went.”
“I had some money,” said Hannah, “that my grandfather, of blessed memory, left me when he was nifter, and so we came here and bought this building, though we could only afford to fix up the ground floor.”
“And that’s when we opened our mission,” Eliezer said.
They had been in the city for nearly a year, trying to reach out to the Tel Avivians, but the young people here weren’t interested in observant Judaism, and the few that were had already been found by more established outreach organizations. “My reb was right,” Eliezer said. “The living in Tel Aviv are obsessed with modern Western culture, desperate to out-goy the goyim. We had all but given up and returned to New Jersey.”
“That’s when I encountered Moishe here,” Hannah continued, and she indicated the vampire with the tattoos, who turned up the corners of his mouth in what seemed more like a leer than a smile. “He used to be a merchant marine, was stranded in Jaffa somewhere around the turn of the century when he was turned. One night, I was walking home from Dizengoff Square where I had been giving out packs of Shabbos candles, when a hand reached out from a darkened doorway and pulled me in. The grip was cold and hard as steel, and I knew I was facing my death.”
“So she covered her eyes,” Eliezer said. “And spoke what she thought would be her last words, but the moment she called out, ‘Shema Israel, Moishe released her and covered his own eyes, and when she finished, he said ‘Amen.’”
“So I brought him home,” Hannah said. “He could hardly speak, but he had no trouble with the prayers when we handed him a siddur.”
“That’s when we realized,” said Eliezer, “that there was an entire population of Tel Aviv Jews no one was paying attention to—not Aish or the Breslovs or even Chabad. No one ever thought to reach out to the undead.”
Since then, Hannah had periodically combed the back streets of the city, feeling her way for the haunts of the alukot, the leeches, putting herself at peril for the sake of their neshamas, and she had had remarkable success. Eliezer and she now sponsored regular study sessions in the parsha, the weekly portion of the Bible that all Jews read together, and they were planning a whole course in Kabbalah. But until now, they had not assembled enough to have proper prayer services. They needed nine plus the rabbi to make the minyan.
“I had a feeling we would get lucky tonight,” Hannah said. “It being Shavous.”
“And here we are,” Eliezer said. “And you’re the tzenter.”
That night he and Hannah hosted their first-ever minyan of the undead. He gave us all prayer books, and we davened ma’ariv, the evening prayer. I was surprised at how familiar the service felt. I hardly needed to read the words. Afterward, Eliezer took out a large bible and told us he was going to read the Ten Commandments, which had been given on this day more than three thousand years ago.
“We are taught,” he said, “that every Jewish soul who ever lived was present at Mount Sinai when these laws were given. So all of us have been together before. As you listen, remember you too were part of the Exodus from Egypt and hear the words again as if it were the first time.”
And then he began, “Anokee Adonay Elokha,” and, as he spoke, each word was like the clink of a chisel loosening a stone in my memory. But I didn’t see Har Sinai or the smoke or hear the thundering voice of Hashem. Instead, I saw myself, as a child, playing in the dirt in the shadow of an old stone synagogue on a hill and then I saw what must have been my father’s hands lowering themselves over my eyes as he murmured that I should be taught when standing and when sitting and when lying down or when on the road, and then I saw my own fingers bringing together four strands of corded string and then I felt the knot of a leather strap on the base of my skull and the press of something hard and flat against my forehead. And then I realized the rabbi was no longer reading but was looking up from the closed book and smiling at me while the others stared blankly.
“Where were you just now?” he asked.
“I think,” I said, “I was in Jerusalem.”
Afterward, he gave us each a pamphlet containing the entire “Book of Ruth” and the opening portions of each chapter of Tanakh, the Bible, and we took turns reading out loud. Once in a while the rabbi would offer an interpretation, and occasionally one of us would correct his Hebrew, which was not very good. Several times during the night he recited Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and everyone would answer at the appropriate points, “amen” and “y’hey smeh rabba m’vorach l’olam ul omay ameya”—may His great name be blessed forever and for all eternity.
After the initial reaction to a newcomer, the others relaxed. They had all fed before coming. I could tell. I was still thirsty, but the prayers and the scripture kept my craving at bay—at least for the time being. I felt as though everything we read was both familiar and new to me, as if I were rediscovering my true self, though memories proper were fleeting, like lightening that illuminated only for a moment a path in front of me but then left me in darkness.
Our study went on for many hours, and it was just after we completed a review of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, that I noticed the rabbi’s wife was missing, and I grew alarmed, counting heads at the table to make sure none of the others had abused the young couple’s hospitality, but the minyan was still complete. Then just as I was about to ask after her, she showed up, rubbing her eyes, her luxuriant black sheitel back in place. Apparently, she had been sleeping, a remarkable act given the nature of her guests.
“She is going to say some brachas,” the rabbi explained. “It’s not proper for us to say them because we haven’t slept, but after each one you should answer, ‘amen.’”
She began, appropriately enough, by thanking G-d for returning her soul to her body, and then for instilling in her fear of Himself and then for commanding her to wash her hands and then for enabling all the cavities of her body to function properly and for implanting in her a love of Torah, and after that for helping her to distinguish between daytime and night—and that’s when I remembered we had all better get home soon.
“Sunrise is coming,” I pointed out.
“Yes, yes of course,” Eliezer said. “Forgive me. You have to go.” And we all got up from the table and began filing out the door as Hannah pressed into our hands slices of cheesecake she had wrapped for us, and wished us “Gut Yom Tov.”
“We hope you’ll come back for Shabbas,” she said.
The others were non-committal, but I said I would be there sometime after candle lighting. Then each of us slipped off into the darkness, eager for the safety of a subterranean hollow. Before I settled down into the bare earth of the narrow cavity beneath my burnt out mansion, I covered my eyes and said the shemah.
Everyone knows, you can’t be a Christian if you’re a vampire. You can be charitable, of course, but you can’t be devout because if you have the faith every time you see a cross you want to crawl into a hole and die, but you can’t because you’re already dead. And just try taking a little Host or sprinkling yourself with Holy Water and see where that gets you. Straight to the undead burn unit, if there were one, which there is not, because we are not, generally speaking, good at organizing and don’t have any infrastructure whatsoever.
But it’s not easy being a Jewish vampire either, at least not if you’re observant. We don’t have all those bugaboos about symbols and sacred objects. I can wear the Magen David around my neck without leaving scars, a kippah on my head without writhing in agony. Mezuzahs, challah, tallit, they’re all fine.
But prayer is not so easy, not because it will stick in our throat the way the Lord’s Prayer will strangle a Christian vampire, but because the Jewish prayer service is structured around daylight hours. One is required to pray three times a day. The first, Shacharit, must be commenced within four hours of sunrise, and Minchah, afternoon prayers, need to be finished before sunset. Only Ma’ariv can be said after sundown. And one of the greatest mitzvot, laying teffilin, what the gentiles call phylacteries, is strictly forbidden at night.
So what is one to do if one sleeps through the whole day, every day? I tried bringing an alarm clock into my crypt, set for the appropriate hours, thinking I might at least say parts of Shacharit while lying there—though clearly “the standing prayer” was out as the hole I had excavated beneath my building was less than three feet high. But I crushed the thing the moment it went off and fell right back to sleep.
And just try getting a minyan of the undead. Gathering ten arpadim for full-fledged prayer services is no simple matter. The nine of us Hannah and Eliezer had over for Shavuot was the largest gathering they ever managed, the only time they got ten male Jews, living or not, under their roof. Several of our “congregation” disappeared soon after that. Maybe they lost interest. Perhaps they simply got lost. It’s not uncommon for a disoriented vampire to find himself on the wrong side of the ground come daylight, which is just as well, otherwise the city would be overrun.
Of course one can pray without a minyan; it’s just not ideal. The real problem for the Jewish undead is blood. It’s not kosher. It doesn’t matter if it’s pig’s blood, cow’s blood, or even the blood of Christian children. It’s totally forbidden. Yet keeping kosher is one of the pillars of observant Judaism, virtually a sine non qua. You can imagine the problem this poses for the frum—that is the religious—vampire.
I waited a long time to bring it up with the rabbi as it was an awkward subject. Like the others, I had learned to feed before coming, so I could concentrate better, be more at ease. But there were times when I felt uneasy sitting at Eliezer’s and Hannah’s table fresh from a kill. It took me a while to put the words together, but I rehearsed them to myself until I sounded reasonably fluent.
“Rabbi,” I asked one Friday night after he had made the blessings on the wine and the bread and Hannah was passing around slices of marinated beef. “If you were starving. On the point of death. And the only to keep you alive was treif. Maybe a bit of pig. Would you eat it? Would it be permissible?”
He put down his knife and fork and smiled. “The Torah,” he said, “is made so we may live. I would eat it, if there were no other way.”
I was relieved, though there was something in his words that left me uneasy. I took a sip of wine and thought about the young woman who had quenched my thirst earlier that evening and saw there was still a problem.
“But what if,” I asked, “your survival depended on the death of someone else? Another Jew?”
“Ah,” he said. “Like in the Holocaust?” And then, as he often did, he told us a story.
“There was a town in Poland during the War, occupied by the Germans, and one day the Jews rioted, rose up against the soldiers, and killed one of them before the rebellion was suppressed. The Nazis declared the next day that one hundred Jews would have to die for the one Nazi soldier they had slain, and they gave the townspeople a list. Now there was a man in the town whose son’s name was on the list, and he had some money hidden away, some gold, and he knew he could use it to bribe the Germans to take his son off the list. But he also knew that if he got his son off the list, some other Jew would have to take his place.
“So he went to the town rabbi and asked what he should do. Was it permissible to substitute someone else’s life for his son’s? The rabbi thought to himself for a long time and then answered, ‘under circumstances like this, you have to decide for yourself.’
“So the father tried to make a deal with the Nazis to take himself instead of his son, but they said no. He had to choose some other Jew to go in his son’s place. He couldn’t make such a decision. He begged them to take himself instead, pressed the gold he had secreted away into their hands. And in the end they took his gold and killed his son anyway. Afterward, he went weeping to the rabbi to ask if he had done the right thing by refusing to sacrifice another person to save his boy. The rabbi could only say ‘Hashem will tell you in the World to Come.’”
Eliezer paused and took a bit of bread from the challah board.
“And?” I asked.
“I don’t understand. Was the father correct? Or should he have saved his son?”
“What the story tells us is that there are some circumstances that even the sages could not have anticipated.”
It was not the answer I was looking for. But I didn’t push the matter because I knew he had offered me the only response he could. Like the rabbi in the camp, he was out of his depth.
I’ve since heard stories of “good” vampires drinking the blood of animals—sheep, goats, rats—but those are simply tales to comfort the living. There is only one sort of bodily fluid that can sustain unlife in a vampire and that is the blood of a living human. Not even warm pints of drawn plasma will do. Blood banks will not suffice. The aluka must drink straight from the vital flesh, and once he begins he can’t stop until the body is drained—unless he means to turn his victim, and that is, generally speaking, a rare thing for a vampire to do.
I tried to imagine ways to minimize the avera of taking human life to sustain my own. Maybe, I thought, I could limit my appetite to the aged and infirm, but that was a questionable distinction and besides old blood, though adequate for survival, is not satisfying. I didn’t believe I could stick to such a program. Maybe, I thought, I could hunt down criminals, human killers who, themselves, plagued the living, like the ones who sent that boy to blast himself outside the dolphinarium. But I wasn’t a detective. I wouldn’t know where to start. And, besides, I preferred my prey to come to me.
Again, I looked to Eliezer for perspective. “If there is a mitzvah,” I asked, “a commandment one can’t keep because of one’s own weakness—or needs—does that invalidate all the other mitzvot one observes? If, for instance, a man works on the Sabbath, is it worthless for him to lay teffilin or to wear a kippah?”
He answered with his typical generosity. He took my undead hand in his living one and looked in my eyes. “Shlomo,” he said, “we all hold as high as we can, but everyone’s level is different. Let’s say a mugger decides one day he’s not going rob anymore from old women—old men, yes, young women, yes, young men, of course, but old women, no more. Well, he may be greater in the sight of Hashem than a rabbi such as myself who would never consider stealing because for me there’s no real temptation while the thief must struggle with his yaetzer hara every time he sees an old bubba with a purse. If that same thief then came to pray once a week in schul on Shabbos, wouldn’t G-d and all his angels welcome him even more than the rabbi who prays there three times a day?”
So I had my answer. I would do what I could and try not to dwell on what I could not. In the early morning before lying down, I said the shemah; and when I rose, before I left to seek sustenance, I donned a black velvet skull cap and, tzizit, ritual fringes, and davened ma’ariv. I did not hunt on Shabbat or any of the major holidays. Indeed, I fasted for all ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because, I reasoned, going without food for a single day was nothing to me who could survive well enough on one meal in a month.
The others didn’t bother about such questions, and they certainly didn’t adopt any new practices outside of Hannah and Eliezer’s home. They came or didn’t come without seeming to understand or care. The rituals drew them to this house, and the prayers and the Torah readings comforted them, but they didn’t bother about meaning. But I felt driven to take on more, though I couldn’t have said why.
Eliezer, of course, noted this difference.
“You must have been a real tzaddik in the old days,” he would say.
I didn’t know, but I thought that once I must have been very close to God. But though I had flashes of memories, especially when praying, I couldn’t remember what it was that I was before I was what I was then.
And I also knew it was not just love of Hashem that drew me to this house every Friday night. It was also love of Hannah and Eliezer. Their beneficence, their dedication, and yes, their naiveté, touched me. Here they were every Shabbat and every holy day, of which, as you know there are many, inviting into their home total strangers, and dangerous ones at that. They never asked us awkward questions about how we spent our time when we weren’t there or how we sustained ourselves, and they never pressured us to take on more than we were ready for. Yes, we all wore kippot in their house, but only I wore one outside. When I asked him for tzitzit, Eliezer happily provided me with the four-cornered garment but never pressured the others about them. He would take our hands in his, touch our elbows, even hug us goodbye, though all of us stank of the grave.
Hannah, of course, didn’t touch us, but not because she was repelled but because Orthodox women do not touch men, even undead ones, who are not their husbands. But she did everything else she could to make us feel welcome. She showed us pictures of her family in New Jersey, a large one, eight brothers and sisters, and she described in detail what each one did for a living and where they lived and how many children they had, which really were not wise things to tell vampires. And she honored us with special dishes from her kitchen. She learned to cook chreime, a spicy fish stew (though without the garlic, of course) in honor of Yousef, the vampire with slim moustache who we guessed was Sephardi, and she made Jerusalem salad for me because we thought I had once lived there, and she brought marzipan truffles for Chaim whom she believed, for some reason, had a sweet tooth. None of us ever did more than swallow a mouthful, but she never took offense, seemed pleased even for us only to taste what she offered.
They were patient as we worked to recall speech to our tongues, and they gave us a great gift—names, for not one of us, even the youngest, could remember his real one. And if one of us disappeared, even for months on end, he was always welcomed back. Indeed, Eliezer’s and Hannah’s faces would light up at the return.
“We were worried,” Hannah would say. “We thought maybe you didn’t get back on time to your, your. . . .” She thought it was impolite to say “crypt” or “grave,” so Eliezer would finish for her, “Your home, before sunrise. We’re so glad you’re still . . . .” and he wanted to say “alive,” but knew it wasn’t quite the right thing, so she would chime in, “with us.”
Even when Moishe, the tattooed merchant marine, appeared on the doorstep one Friday night, his clothes muddied, dried blood on his fingers and the sides of his lips, they didn’t hesitate to invite him back in—not that he needed a second invitation. Indeed, they couldn’t have kept him out.
“It’s so good to see you,” Eliezer said, touching his arm, though not his bloodstained hands. “Welcome back.”
“If you need to clean up a little,” Hannah politely suggested, “you can use the bathroom.”
Moishe didn’t say anything but moved mechanically inside. I escorted him to the washroom, knowing the mirror would do him no good. Neither of us had seen his reflection for decades, an inconvenience, perhaps, but not something I usually thought about. Indeed, for all I knew there was dried blood on my lips as well. I had no idea, actually, of what I looked like. Still, as I wiped his face and hands with a damp towel, I chastised him.
“How can you come here looking like this?”
“What is that to you, Shlomo?” he said, emphasizing ironically the name the rabbi had given me. “You did not make me.”
“But I can unmake you,” I said, rubbing the caked blood from his mouth with a damp towel. It was a threat I wasn’t sure I could follow through on as he was older than me.
He drew his lips back, showing his long fangs, curled like sabers. “What about the minyan?”
“We’ll need it,” I said, “to say Kaddish for you, if you come like this again.”
But he was right. We couldn’t afford to lose anyone. We were down to four regulars, myself included. Hannah had stopped searching shortly after I arrived, primarily because I counseled Eliezer against sending her out anymore.
“It’s a wonder she hasn’t been killed—or turned,” I said.
“Not a wonder,” he said, “a miracle, the work of Hashem.”
He agreed, however, to let me take over recruitment, but I didn’t have Hannah’s allure. The best I could manage was to drag a couple of unwilling arpadim to the rabbi’s doorstep, but they proved so unruly I wouldn’t let Eliezer invite them in. Sometime after Sukkot, the festival of the tabernacles, Eliezer wanted to send Hannah out again, but I convinced him to wait until Pesach to see whether any of the others would find their way back. I don’t know why I chose that holiday. There was no real logic behind it. Yet I suppose I sensed that was about how much longer the whole thing could last.
Maybe it was all the blood in the story. Blood wiped on doorposts, rivers turning to blood. The rabbi had told us to come to the Seder hungry, and we were foolish enough to take him literarily. Chaim, I would guess, had not fed for a fortnight and was certainly in some discomfort. For Moishe, it was more than a month, as dangerous for him as for Eliezer and Hannah. Yousef and Reuven were not in as bad straights, but none of us, myself included, had fed right before coming as we ought to have.
All this was made worse by Eliezer’s uncharacteristic insistence that we each fulfill the obligation to eat the proper amounts of matzah, two ke’zayot—rabbinically determined portions—when making the motzi, the blessing on the bread, another two making the moror sandwich and still one more for the afikomen at the end of the ceremony. Each serving of the dry, brittle cracker was twice the size of my hand, though thin as paper. It was like cramming our mouths full of pressed dust, and it put us all in an irritable, if not rebellious, mood.
“Must we eat the whole thing?” Chaim asked.
“It’s not a question of ‘must,’” Eliezer said, “But if you can, there’s merit in doing so.”
“But why isn’t one ke’zayit enough?” I asked. “It is on all other days.”
“You know the answer to that, Shlomo,” he said. “This day is not like any other.”
Moishe’s hostility was more direct.
“Isn’t it true,” he asked, “that matzah was once made with blood?”
“No,” Eliezer said, a little shocked, the only time up until then I had seen him disconcerted. “That’s a terrible lie.”
“It might not be so terrible, really,” Moishe said and laughed. The others smiled, but I just glared. My mouth was too dry to speak.
We were about halfway through the evening when Hannah went into the kitchen to bring out the meal proper. By that time, we had read the story of the Jews’ Exodus, drunk two full glasses of wine, eaten bitter herbs, washed hands, asked the four questions, read various commentaries on the haggadah, the Passover prayerbook, and, of course, crammed matzah. By then, the mere thought of human food was revolting, but I braced myself because I didn’t want to offend.
There were seven plates to serve, so at first I didn’t think anything of her long absence, but when I noticed Chaim was also gone, I got up to investigate. Eliezer, meanwhile, was commenting on the story of the three rabbis who stayed up all night discussing the Exodus until their talmidim, their students, reminded them it was time to say the morning Shema.
“Of course,” he said. “They didn’t have to worry about bursting into flame at the first sign of daylight.”
It was an indelicate joke, but, apparently the wine had gotten to him. He was not much of a drinker, had even gotten sick on Purim when he and Hannah dressed up like a priest and a nun.
“I’ll go and see if the rebbetzin needs any help,” I said.
He had her back up against the kitchen wall, one hand over her mouth, another on her stomach, his body pressed against hers, his teeth sunk deep in her carotid artery. I don’t know what disturbed me more in that moment, the fact that he was draining the life out of her or that his hands were on her.
As for Chaim, he was so caught up in feeding he didn’t even hear the breaking of the small three legged table upon which Hannah had set several bowls of chicken broth and which I overturned. I had to be careful thrusting the post I had broken off through his back. I didn’t want to impale the rebbetzin as well. But if he didn’t notice anything until his heart was pierced, the others, including the rabbi, were not so oblivious.
They were all standing at the entrance to the kitchen. Moishe’s eyes lit up at the sight of blood trickling from the twin punctures in Hannah’s neck, Yousef’s were fixed on Chaim’s wildly gesticulating corpse, Reuven was reaching for the rabbi, who was shouting his wife’s name over and over.
I faced a difficult decision then. The rebbetzin was nearly drained, moments away from death, and then she would be lost. The rabbi was about to be set upon by one or more famished vampires. I couldn’t save them both. Hannah was lying on the floor, her breathing shallow, her sheitel askew, her mousy brown hair exposed for all to see. Eliezer would have to fend for himself.
What I did next was sheer instinct because I had never done it before and could only dimly recall that something like it had been once done to me. I brought my wrist to my mouth and bit into it hard, withdrew my teeth, and then pressed the punctured flesh against Hannah’s mouth. Her eyes were closed. I could hear the slowing of her heart, and she was pale, much paler than the night I had first seen her under the glare of the utility lamp in the Yemenite quarter.
At first she didn’t move, and I thought it was too late, but as I spread my unlife’s blood on her lips and gums, she began to work her mouth a little, like a babe taking suck for the first time. And then her eyes flashed wide open for a moment and shut again as she fastened tight onto my arm, drawing blood so hard and quick, I, myself, began to feel a little light-headed until I tore open her blouse and sank my teeth into her.
We were both on the floor. She was in my arms, and I was rocking her, and it was only then with her blood in me and mine in hers that I remembered what had happened, how I had come to the city by the sea, fleeing from my father, trying to escape the shadow of the synagogue that had haunted me throughout my childhood. I had wanted to get as far away as I could from both him and his Torah, and so I had come to the place they were building on the sand by the water, a place my father had warned me against. “Full of irreligious socialists, Zionists,” he said. “An abomination, a Sodom.”
But the city by the sea was not a city yet, only in the dreams of its founders, and they were fanatics of a different sort than the Jews I grew up with in the Old Quarter. They didn’t care about scripture, it’s true, but they were driven by visions of a shining metropolis and a people’s paradise, and they put a shovel in my hand where my father had put a prayer book. I had come to bury my spirit in the pleasures of the flesh, but they put me to work digging foundations, laying pavement, earning my bread by the sweat of my brow.
I don’t know why, but I had brought my teffilin with me, and one night worn out from laying stones like an Egyptian slave, I brought the straps and leather boxes to the beach. I had been helping to lay the foundation of a small mansion where a wealthy young couple were meant to live, and my arms were sore from lifting and my hands rough from the grip of the trowel. I opened the silken bag containing the two boxes and removed each from its protective tin casing and unwound its leather strap, and then one by one whirled each in the air like a sling, and flung them into the waves. I thought I might follow in after and have done with it all, with G-d, with religion, with work, with life, when I turned around to find a woman sitting there on the sand and laughing quietly. Her skin was bleached against the moonlight, and her wild dark hair stirred lightly in the breeze, and when she motioned toward me, I thought to myself, this is what I have come for.
She drew me to her, parting the light cotton robe she was wearing, and I, who had never known the touch of any female other than mother or sisters, took her naked teet between my lips and suckled. We were there for a long time, it seemed, before I noticed something warm and wet in my mouth, and in my childish way I thought it was milk. But when I looked down, I saw my shirt stained with something wet and black, and I drew back in horror. She laughed and bent down over me, ripping my collar open and sinking her teeth into the spot between my shoulder and neck, pressing my mouth back against her breast.
They found me in the morning lying on the beach, not far from where the doomed dolphinarium would someday lay, and I was buried in the first cemetery of what would become the White City because no one knew I had come from Jerusalem, and eight days later I rose and went back to the one who had made me and became hers for a while. But there were still those who studied the ancient ways in those days, who read the pagan texts recorded long before the giving of the Torah, and who knew how to hunt the alukot, and while I was still young in unlife, they took her. But they didn’t know she had made another, and in my grief I went and burned the mansion I had helped to build and made it my abode. People avoided it then, allowed its burnt-out frame to remain untouched, and I was left alone for many, many years, until I forgot her and myself and everything but hunger.
I saw all of this as Hannah and I lay on the floor, locked in a circuit of blood, oblivious to the chaos around us. Chaim had stopped writhing and was now swiftly decomposing, the four decades of death finally catching up with his corpse. Revuen, though still animated, was mostly in quivering pieces on the floor, apparently having been dismembered by Yousef and Moishe who were now hurling each other against the walls, tearing each other’s flesh, fighting over their prey, Eliezer, who, had managed to pry loose another table leg and was furiously pounding it against my back. But he didn’t have the strength to drive a blunt implement through my spine, and when I finally became aware of him, I swatted him away. Then with some difficulty, I dislodged myself from Hannah whose heart stopped the moment I withdrew.
I got to my feet as the rabbi came at me again, and I wrenched the stick from his hand and threw him back against the wall.
“Down,” I commanded, and this time I exerted the power of my eyes and my voice, so that he could not but obey.
In the hallway outside the kitchen, Moishe had his hands around Yousef’s throat as the latter pressed his thumbs deep into the jelly of the former’s eyes. I made another choice then and drove the wood through the younger vampire’s heart. Moishe, feeling the spirit evacuate the body in his grip, let go and turned in my direction, though he could no longer see me. Eliezer was not paying attention to either of us anymore. He had remained on the floor as I commanded but was now sprawled weeping over the corpse of his wife.
“It will be sunrise soon,” I said to Moishe. “We should go.”
He seemed unperturbed by the loss of his eyes. He sniffed the air, and I knew he was smelling the blood of the rabbi. “You’ve fed tonight,” he said. “And on the rebbetzin no less. All I’ve had is the bread of affliction.”
“It’ll have to do,” I said.
He stood there a moment, his face toward me, his eyes wrecked. “You will have them both?”
“No, we’ll let him alone.”
“It’s not wise,” Moishe said. “He won’t thank you for what you’ve done.”
“The light is coming,” I said. “If you can’t see it, you’ll soon feel it.”
I could tell he was weighing something in his mind, whether he who was injured and hungry could take me, who had just fed. He was older than me, stronger, and smarter. “We need to take care of that one,” he said, indicating Reuven’s limbless, wriggling torso. He was turning his head, the only thing they had left attached, side to side and gnashing his teeth, though not making any articulate sounds. Moishe put his hand over Reuven’s eyes and said the shema as I drove in the last remaining table leg. We stood there as the vampire’s skin turned to parchment and then flaked away like leaves in the wind. Then Moishe turned his pulpy sockets to me. “This house is cursed,” he said. “No place for the undead.”
We left the rabbi weeping on the floor by his beloved, both of us touching the mezuzah and kissing our fingers as we went our separate ways, I to the east, Moishe to the south. I have not seen him since nor heard of him. I suspect he has returned to the ports of Jaffa.
A week later, I went to see Eliezer. It was not long after sunset, and I was expecting he would be sitting shiva. When he opened the door, there was expectation in his eyes, even joy, but it quickly turned to something else, something less than friendly.
“It’s you,” he said, almost without inflection. “I thought you might come back.”
I was not entirely surprised by his coldness. I thought, maybe, I even deserved it. But his appearance was a shock. He had shaved his beard and was dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, and his head was bare, and he wasn’t showing any sign of mourning, not so much as a cut ribbon.
“My G-d,” I said. “What happened?”
He looked away from me, down at the floor.
“When they saw the marks on her neck and shoulder,” he said, “the chevra kadisha wouldn’t touch her.” He paused for moment and then continued, still staring at the ground. “I had to wash her myself. I never touched a dead body before.”
I didn’t correct him, but he looked up at me as if expecting me to and then went on.
“They wanted me to do horrible things to her body. Unspeakable things. I refused. So they insisted she be buried in a coffin.” His revulsion at this indignity was evidence of his quick assimilation to Israeli life, for in his country they didn’t bury people un-housed as was the custom here where they’re laid in bare earth. “They nailed it shut and put her outside the fence of the cemetery. And then the rabbis came and questioned me, and when they found out what we had been doing, the beit din met. They said we had desecrated the Torah and made ourselves tammei.
“Eli,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“I tried to explain, said we were trying to save your souls, but they said vampires didn’t have souls.”
I felt terrible, responsible, and I wanted to comfort him. He was standing there a few feet away, holding the door, looking lost and inconsolable, and I made a move to step over the threshold, meaning to embrace him, but to my surprise, I couldn’t enter.
He smiled then, but not a happy smile.
“You’re uninvited,” he said, and then I saw there was lamb’s blood on the doorposts and the lintel and hieroglyphs where once the mezuzah had been, and all the windows, even the glassless ones on the second floor, were hung with strings of garlic and wolfsbane.
“You’ve been studying more than Torah,” I observed.
“I’m done with Torah,” he said. “I’m looking to older texts now.” There was something vaguely threatening in his tone.
I apologized again. “I did what I could.”
“You did what you always meant to do.”
I passed over his accusation without comment because I wasn’t entirely sure it was wrong. And I still didn’t understand why he was dressed like he was.
“What did the beit din rule?” I asked.
“They told me to leave Tel Aviv, go back to the States. I had until this morning. Their representative came by at daybreak, and I told him I wasn’t leaving, so they’re going to excommunicate me. I won’t be able to lead prayer services, get an aliyah. They won’t even count me in a minyan.”
I was stunned. “But why? Why did you stay? What’s left for you here?”
“You know why,” he said.
He had commenced his new studies, but had not yet delved deep enough to uncover the truth. I ought to have told him then, but I didn’t have the heart.
When she came to me the next night, wrapped in her burial shrouds, wreaking of burst wood and damp earth, and laid herself at my feet, I rose and lifted the veil off her face and told her I would guide her, show her the way, but only if she resumed her old mission with me—kiruv for the undead.
“I don’t care about all that, anymore,” she said.
“I do,” I said and gently removed the linen cap she was wearing and laid her sheitel back on her head. I had found it in a box along with other discarded clothes outside Eliezer’s house.
“Then you must dress, as I wish,” she said. And she removed from me the tattered linens I wore, the worn remnants of my funeral shroud that in all those years I had not changed, and she washed the dirt and grime that had accumulated on my skin from all that time living in the shuk and had me step into a pair of black pants we found in the box and buttoned me into a bright white shirt. I looked at my sleeves and my pants, wrinkled but clean.
“I wish,” I said, “I could use a mirror.”
She reached behind my ears and drew out the long side curls tucked behind them and twined them in her fingers. “I’ll be your mirror now,” she said, and then she told me what I looked like, and I saw myself clearly for the first time.
The turn, it seems, accomplishes more than undeath, and the heart that does not beat any longer is prone to strange reversals. I was determined to carry on the work she would now just as soon have left behind. I, who once despised the religion of my father, was now passionate to bring it to others.
But our tactics have changed. I don’t haunt the old market anymore, and she doesn’t seek out the undead in the darkened alleys of the city. Instead, we go to the clubs on Allenby and Ben Yehuda and mingle with the living, and Hannah gets a taste of the life she never lived. She wears her old clothes not out of modesty but because it’s what I like, and I am cleaner and better dressed than I once was. We make quite a sight under the strobe lights. Perhaps you have seen us—a tall pale woman in long black skirt with sleeves down to her wrists, her black hair whirling in the air as she turns around a handsome young Yemenite in a skull cap with a short whispy beard and dangling payot?
And when we find someone we like, someone who has lost their way, we take them to the beach and make them a part of our congregation. It’s better that way, to reach out to the young, and my language skills have gotten remarkably proficient from spending so much time among the living and the newly undead.
We’re making our own minyan, but we don’t have a rabbi. Rabbis don’t come to the clubs, and the only one we know doesn’t have the authority to lead services anymore and doesn’t care any more about torah and mitzvot but sits at home every night, poring over ancient texts in forgotten languages, waiting for a lover who will never return and studying the lost arts of our demise.
Thomas P. Balázs is the author of the short story collection Omicron Ceti III (Aqueous Books, 2012). His fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including The North American Review, The Southern Humanities Review, and The Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology. He teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.