Shadow Play

On summer evenings, Uncle Nathan used to put on shadow plays. With nothing but ten fingers and a beam of light against a plain white wall, he astounded us with lions and monkeys, alligators and train engines. All eyes watched, riveted, when the silhouette magic began. He didn’t ask for much — a wall, a light. In the back rows of wedding halls, or when holiday dinners were winding down, his fans would gather to marvel: a butterfly, an antelope, Theodor Herzl, a turtle.

In between shows, Uncle Nathan was a dutiful clerk at the VAT office. He was not bitter that life had led him to this — a narrow room, a desk, forms piled high. ‘You see, it was here on this wall that it all began,’ he would say, pointing to the plaster wall opposite his desk and drifting away into sweet remembrance. The wall was bare, with no pictures or windows. Only the roving silhouette of Uncle Nathan’s finger, no longer merely pointing now, but capering — a seahorse, a ballerina, a fighter plane.
As Uncle Nathan chuckled, his eyes aglow, his interlocutor would abandon any notion of pitying this man hunched over a broken desk squeezed between a door and a file cabinet. It was a miserable alcove, sliced out of a larger office. The partition had been ordered years before — six clerks on one side to help customers, and Uncle Nathan on the other with a broken ventilator wedged into the wall above his head.
‘But it’s all right. Without this wall, where would I be?’ And a jubilation of fingers would dance recklessly on the wall as Uncle Nathan astonished his guest: a shark, a tractor, a magician, a paratrooper.
On summer evenings, we gathered in the yard with our eyes glued to the outer wall of the building, waiting for Uncle Nathan. Neighbours brought chairs, knitting and transistor radios. They collapsed in their seats and sat there sleepily, their eyelids drooping. High above, Uncle Nathan would zigzag his hands back and forth to cast his creations upon the wall — a hedgehog, a chariot, Ben-Gurion, a cannon. From year to year, the spectacles grew more involved — a prince, a pomegranate, dancing butterflies, an acrobat.
When Uncle Nathan was pensioned off with a partial severance package, he said, ‘It’s all right,’ and for a long time he withdrew into his little ground-floor apartment, unseen and unheard. Since he lived alone, no one knew what went on between his four walls, but at night, through the slits of the perpetually drawn window blinds, one could detect the beam of a flashlight shining on the white wall inside.
When summer came he debuted his new shows, but there were no more lions or monkeys or train engines.
‘Guess!’ Uncle Nathan shouted, spurring us on. He looked a bit peculiar, a little stooped. He wore a long-sleeved shirt. ‘Guess! Guess!’
When our guesses died down he patiently explained. ‘It’s Stelmakh scoring his famous goal — the moment of impact as he headbutts the ball past the great Lev Yashin!’
And indeed, a comparison with the black-and-white photograph immortalizing Israel’s goal against Russia revealed a magnanimous imagination and a depiction of even miniscule details. Every single finger, and thumbs too, came together to represent the legendary scene.
‘Now guess this one!’
Shadows wove swiftly together. No one could guess.
‘Come on, it’s the paratroopers standing in front of the Kotel. Can’t you see?’
‘Do a train engine!’ someone called out from the darkness.
But Uncle Nathan persisted. His face was radiant with the love of his craft. He juggled his fingers. ‘Here’s Sarah Aaronsohn, hero of the Nili underground, committing suicide. And this is Operation Entebbe, just as the first Hercules lands at the airport. Now let’s see if you can guess this one!’
When we sat shiva for Grandpa Mendel at Danny’s place, Uncle Nathan did Mordechai Spiegler scoring his World Cup goal.
‘Not now, it’s not right,’ someone murmured, and the emotionally restrained crowd offered quiet yet heated consent.
But Uncle Nathan went on. ‘Here’s 1977, President Sadat stepping off the plane at Lod Airport. And this is 1978, “A-ba-ni-bi” winning the Eurovision Song Contest. The encore. And now, the three-way handshake at the Camp David peace accords.’
At Oren’s bris he did Eloise kissing Abelard. Uncle Menachem said, ‘Goyishe stuff. Not appropriate,’ and a hum of agreement went through the room. It was enough. This had to stop.
‘Okay, if you don’t want it, that’s fine,’ Uncle Nathan said meekly. He smiled. Then he sat down between Avner and Sima and leaned back quietly.
No one noticed that he wasn’t at Galia’s wedding. He came to Avraham Kimel-Strusman’s shiva, but only sat near the table, slack-jawed, and stared at the pretzels and juice and the stack of yarmulkes.
He was absent from the Passover seder. On Shavuot the whole family gathered at Aunt Perla’s for blintzes, cheesecake and a blank wall. Without Uncle Nathan.
The blinds in his apartment were always drawn. I hoped he was getting ready for summer, but at nights I saw no light through the slats.
When summer began, they came to tell Aunt Perla that Uncle Nathan was hospitalized. In a mental institution. Everyone wanted to know what had happened, and Aunt Perla said, ‘A breakdown.’
An embarrassed trickle of guests proceeded to visit him. People sat and talked. Brought him soft pretzels, juice, pocket money. Tried to cheer him up. ‘Won’t you do a monkey? Or a lion? Paratroopers at the Kotel?’ They gave him frightened looks.
When we left the hospital we stood in the sunny parking lot. Uncle Yitzhak’s Bella wanted to know if what had happened to Uncle Nathan ran in the family. ‘Is it genetic? Because I’ve heard they had other cases.’
‘Well, Nathan is not exactly family,’ said Uncle Menachem and looked at everyone. I looked back at him.
‘I thought he and Aunt Perla were family,’ I said.
They got angry at me. ‘What are you talking about? Don’t interfere.’
Then Uncle Menachem recounted how he had met Nathan after the war, in Poland. He was a stranger, not-family, taken in out of pity because he had lost everything. Uncle Menachem didn’t look at me while he talked, but at Bella. And at everyone else.
Danny said, ‘We always treated him like family. How could this have happened? Poor man…’

They kept visiting him every once in a while, to spend the odd twenty minutes by his silent side, even though he was not-family. But he was slowly forgotten. How long can you sit next to someone who doesn’t even say hello?
We neighborhood kids gathered at Uncle Nathan’s wall. We tried — a train engine, an alligator. But we sensed that the magic was far away, sitting on a chair in a hospital room without talking to anyone.
Aunt Perla visited Uncle Nathan every two weeks. She said he was doing well, that he was quiet, that he’d even become a little religious in the hospital, but not too much. No one took him home for the holidays, but they said he’d made some friends in the institution. That’s nice, everyone said. Eventually Aunt Perla said this couldn’t go on any longer. After all, we were like family, and we had to have him over. No one argued. She was free to invite him. Everyone came to the dinner she hosted, just a little something on Saturday evening after Shabbat.

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When Uncle Nathan walked in he looked the same as always but slightly paler, and there was a large black yarmulke on his head. His eyes were shiny and his mouth was slack, as if he was about to make a joke at any moment. Everyone went up to him and asked how he was, they even hugged him, and said, ‘It’s good to see you.’
Uncle Nathan smiled cautiously.
‘You’ll do a show for us today, we heard?’ some people asked.
Uncle Nathan squirmed. ‘That’s what they say.’
After cake and coffee it was time for Uncle Nathan. They stood him silently opposite a big white sheet that someone had hung across the balcony. When Aunt Perla signaled that everything was ready, Uncle Nathan slowly turned to face the sheet.
He pricked up one finger and waved its shadow as if inspecting something important. Everyone watched. When would he start? We were waiting for monkeys, alligators, tractors.
‘Guess what this is,’ said Uncle Nathan. His voice sounded odd, and the only thing on the sheet was his single finger sticking straight up. ‘This is one,’ he explained.
The room was silent. Everyone looked at the new black yarmulke and waited. When would the show start?
Uncle Nathan added another vertical finger.
‘And this?’
‘Two…’ some hesitant voices offered.
‘That’s right,’ Uncle Nathan confirmed, and closed his eyes approvingly. Then he stuck up another finger. ‘And this?’
‘Three!’ the calls came from around the room. I was calling out too now, ‘Three!’
‘And this?’
‘Four!’ we all cheered.
Uncle Nathan opened his eyes, rearranged his yarmulke, and his face took on a grave expression. ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away…’
‘…because they sold the righteous for silver, and the poor for a pair of shoes.’
‘What are you talking about, Nathan dear?’ asked Aunt Perla.
Uncle Nathan concentrated and cast a complicated silhouette on the sheet. ‘This is Uncle Yitzhak, who for years abused little children and touched them. Ask Galia and Ami. They have problems to this day. They told me.’
A new silhouette.
‘And this is half a loaf of bread. Perla will remember. In the ghetto, during an aktion, they said if she told them where the others were hiding they’d let her live and give her half a loaf.’
‘Nathan dear…’
‘And this is the silhouette of a man sitting with his foot in a cast. It’s Danny, whose wife Rachel put a cast on his leg before the Six Day War so he wouldn’t be sent to fight, and instead he worked at the headquarters and got a commendation for homefront contributions. Ha!’
That was all Uncle Nathan had time for, because Danny got up and lunged at him, and so did Boaz, and others joined in too. They wrapped the white sheet around him to make him shut up and hold him still, but Uncle Nathan squirmed like a white blister. He didn’t yell or scream, he just fought, as if he still had more in him. They held him down firmly and called the paramedics.
Afterwards, every Shabbat, I went with Mom and Dad to sit with the family. Every Shabbat. Anyone who didn’t come was gossiped about.
I wanted to understand what Uncle Nathan had said about Uncle Yitzhak. And about Aunt Perla. But they told me to stop — Enough, Uncle Nathan was nothing but a poor old man who had gone crazy. Aunt Perla still went to visit him every two weeks. They said she was a righteous soul. I asked her, ‘What happened to him? What did he say about Danny?’ But she sighed. ‘I have enough trouble,’ she said, ‘now you’re starting too?’
When Passover came, everyone told each other how good it was that the holiday was here, so we’d have a little peace and quiet. We all went to Holon, where Danny had announced he was hosting the seder that year.
We wore yarmulkes and mumbled our way through the haggadah, and it no longer seemed strange that Uncle Nathan was not with us, that he was in that place. Danny kept bowing his head, and I noticed that his shadow on the wall looked like a sack propped over his shoulders. Uncle Yitzhak, who hardly ever came to family gatherings anymore, put his hand over his eyes and had almost no shadow at all. I looked at Galia sitting next to her husband, singing, ‘Had he brought us through the sea but not sunk our oppressors in it — dayenu,’ and her shadow was swaying more than she was. I looked at her and at Uncle Yitzhak. What had Uncle Nathan said? Why wouldn’t anyone explain it to me? Why wasn’t I allowed to ask?

In the end it was pretty easy to get to him. I just had to duck down in the bus for a while so Aunt Perla wouldn’t see me, and then I had to find his room.
‘Teach me how to make shadow puppets?’ I said to Uncle Nathan.
He looked at me silently.
‘If you teach me, I’ll do what you did,’ I said, and he kept staring at me.
Then he suddenly said, ‘We were all children once,’ and he started to cry. He covered his face and the tears streamed through his fingers and down his hands, but he made no sound.
After a while he got up from his chair. He went over to the wall and began to show me, very slowly — an alligator, a monkey. Then a train engine, a fly, an umbrella.
I started visiting him twice a week. No words, only fingers, and sometimes the name of a shadow puppet — this is a clown, this is a hedgehog, this is Elijah slaughtering the false prophets of Baal. First we did the easy ones, then the tricky ones.
On the first day of summer, I announced that I was putting on a shadow play.

First published in Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and  Culture. Translated by Jessica Cohen

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