This story is the first-place winner of the 2014 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2014 stories were judged by bestselling novelist Alice Hoffman. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Hoffman and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
According to tradition, Mordechai led the way. When the day was expiring, he emerged from his house in white garments. The cares of the working week fell away, and he prepared with discreet joy for the Sabbath. His hair, just visible under his head covering, would be moist from immersion in the ritual bath.
The city of Safed had a number of mikvahs, and there was one, named after the illustrious Rabbi Isaac Luria, which was reserved for men. Each week, Rabbi Mordechai Davide initiated his Shabbat observance there.
On Friday afternoons, with his tools put away and his workshop swept, Mordechai would pass underneath the arches of the bathhouse and contemplate the gift of sweet hours ahead. He would undress noiselessly. In silence, he would plunge his body into chilly water.
Two doors from Mordechai lived Abraham HaKohen. Abraham would be the second man to emerge from home. He, too, would be dressed in white, for that color was a sign of purity. On the Day of Atonement, worshippers dressed in white. In the coffin, bodies were wrapped in white. For the glorious Shabbat, white was the choice of these men of Safed.
Entering the street, heading west, Mordechai and Abraham’s faces turned to the diminishing sun. As the pair walked on, they would anticipate song, prayer, a sumptuous meal with family, discussions of the weekly parsha—the Torah portion to be read on Shabbat morning—and more song, until their candles had dwindled.
There were others to collect. Shlomo Arbanel, Rabbi Yosef, Gershon Cordevero and Elazar Ariel would join Mordechai and Abraham. Doors would open, and the men would coalesce, so that the street would be brimming.
Through the western gate they would exit, to pour into the fields, and the Kabbalat Shabbat, the service to welcome the Sabbath, would begin. The worshippers would sing the same songs each Friday evening, relishing them as if they had been created that day. And it gave the men pride to know that their own city had inspired some notable zemirot, the most transcendent being the one called Lecha Dodi. That rapturous song, was, for many, the apex of their service. It spoke of welcoming the Shabbat as both a queen and a bride.
On the first Friday in the month of Adar, their Kabbalat Shabbat was disrupted. This was unprecedented. The worshippers saw a young woman, at a distance of about half a mile, running across their line of vision. Her blue dress flowed behind her, and, in the manner of a gazelle or an ibex, she seemed to be leaping through the grass.
To Mordechai, this intrusion in the service was outrageous. Who was this person? Why was she running? Why was she being so brazen as to divert the assembled from their song and meditation?
Abraham HaKohen, shielding his eyes from the sun’s glare, was more curious than provoked. He thought he knew the girl, and although it was not perhaps seemly, he watched her.
Then she was lost from sight. There was a collective murmur, and each man looked at his neighbor. Questions arose: Who was that? Was it someone from their community? How could a young woman move that swiftly? Had what they’d witnessed been some kind of mirage?
It was time to restore order, and Rabbi Yosef called out to the gathered: “Lecha Dodi. We sing Lecha Dodi.”
The sun had fled; the girl did not reappear. Soon, the worshippers turned around for home. Shabbat had come, but Mordechai had not forgotten the fleet-footed girl in the fields.
In the synagogue on Sunday morning, when the chill of the ancient building pervaded bones, Mordechai asked Gershon Cordevero if he knew who the young woman from Friday afternoon might be. He shook his head.
Rabbi Yosef, however, said he recognized her. “It was Miriam Levi.”
“That cannot be,” Mordechai said.
“I have thought about it since we saw her,” Yosef continued. “I am not mistaken.”
“She would not be allowed to act in such a way.”
“Mordechai, I’ve known the family for many years. It was Miriam.”
His friend’s conviction was irritating. “Surely she was at home, with her mother and sister, as is suitable.”
“Surely, you say,” Yosef replied. “I say she was flying through the wheat.”
The affairs of the following week consumed Mordechai. Mending shoes was an exacting and tiring task, but he would not complain. His days were punctuated by morning prayers, the afternoon and evening service, and the sweet drops of study by candlelight, sometimes with Abraham, often on his own. Just after lunch on Friday, when the last customer had taken his leave from Mordechai’s tiny shop, it was time to prepare for Shabbat once more.
Accompanied by Abraham, Mordechai and the cohort of men flowed towards the fields, humming. He wondered whether the girl would be seen again.
The congregation had completed Lecha Dodi when they spotted her. This time she was like a deer, unnaturally elusive, a blur of color against the roseate sky.
Once more, Rabbi Yosef declared it was Miriam Levi.
Founded in 2000, the Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction contest was created to provide recognition to writers of Jewish short fiction. This story is the first-place winner of the 2014 contest. Moment thanks contest judge Alice Hoffman, the Karma Foundation and all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Alice Hoffman and Anita Diamant will join us in New York at the Jewish Museum for our December 11th awards ceremony. The deadline for the upcoming contest is January 30, 2015. Visit momentmag.com for official rules and guidelines.
On Saturday night, Mordechai paid a visit to the Levi household. He knew the family, although not very well. The community had helped support the Levis following the death of Ovadia Levi, three years earlier. Hannah Levi was a careful, efficient mother, taking in clothes for sewing and doing washing for families. She was urged to remarry, but would have none of such a suggestion. Her two daughters helped with the sewing. Miriam was the elder, an arresting girl of 17, with a long nose, intensely dark hair, and eyes that seemed to look through you. Her sister was Rachel, a quieter 14-year-old, with brown hair and a round, freckled face. She would probably make a plain bride.
“Rabbi Davide,” Mrs. Levi said, as she swung her door open. “We are honored. Please come in.”
Mrs. Levi showed him into the tiny front room and offered him the only chair.
“No need for me to sit, Mrs. Levi. Why don’t you?” Mordechai replied.
Behind him, giggles betrayed the two sisters’ presence. “Girls, don’t you have work to do?” their mother asked.
“Let them in,” Mordechai said. “I have come to see Miriam, anyway.”
Miriam and Rachel advanced, their eyes to the ground, as good modest Jewish maidens were trained to behave before an eminent man.
“Shavua tov, girls,” said Mordechai.
“Shavua tov,” they replied.
“You are Miriam?” Mordechai asked of the elder girl. He had met her before, but had not seen her for several years. He modestly appraised the maiden: She would make a fine wife for a worthy man.
Miriam nodded. “I am, rabbi.”
“I hear you are betrothed. Is this so?” The girl nodded again, her eyes bowed. Mordechai noticed that her hand twitched. “To whom?”
“To Eliezar Ben Shimon,” she said.
“He is a good man. Now, if I may speak with Miriam alone?”
Mrs. Levi ushered Rachel out of the room. Mordechai and Miriam stood several feet from each other, not making eye contact.
Again, Mordechai observed the twitch of the girl’s hand. “Miriam, may I ask you something?”
“Of course, rabbi,” she said, raising her head a touch.
“It is a strange thing, but just before Shabbat, yesterday and the week before, we who were in the fields saw a young woman. Even from a distance, Rabbi Yosef identified her as you.” He paused, waiting for a reaction, but Miriam did not utter a word. “You were running, as if being pursued. How is that so?”
Now Miriam addressed the rabbi. Her beauty was evident, yet her face was troubled. “I was not in the fields, Rabbi. I was here with my mother and sister for Shabbat.”
Mordechai shuffled his feet. “You were seen racing through the wheat. It is not becoming for a Jewish girl. She should not run so. What is more, she should not disturb men at prayer. I ask: Why was it that you were there?”
Miriam stared at the rushes covering the stone floor. “Rabbi, I do not lie. I was here, all the time, not in the fields.”
Impressed by the maiden’s poise, Mordechai decided to ask another question. “Miriam, when are you to be married?”
“In three months, so I’m told.”
Mordechai considered this. “You are looking forward to your wedding?”
The young woman’s voice wavered. “Yes, Rabbi. I am.”
“Good,” Mordechai said, choosing not to comment on the insincerity of Miriam’s reply. “Well, I should go. Mrs. Levi?”
At once the widow and Rachel appeared; clearly, they had been listening from behind the door. Mordechai found that amusing.
Polite goodbyes were exchanged, and Mordechai left the house. He did not understand Miriam Levi’s discomfort at the prospect of her wedding, although he believed the young woman’s assurances that she had not strayed from home in the moments before Shabbat came in. Yet if she were not the figure in the fields, who, or what, had the congregation witnessed?
Another pressing work week had elapsed. Shabbat was settling on the city. In the fields, the worshippers had sung Psalm 92—“It is good to give thanks to the Eternal”—when every man caught a movement, far to their right. They turned to see the headlong rush of someone very like Miriam Levi. Her hair was free, dangerously unfettered.
Mordechai could not credit the young woman’s swiftness. A thought entered his mind. This was not Miriam Levi: It was, perhaps, a reflection of her, but from the spirit world. If so, why would this shadowy copy impinge upon their Shabbat joy?
Perhaps that was unfair, he mused. If it was Miriam herself, surely she did not run to spoil the Shabbat. He must think. Might it be that she ran because she could? Might it be that she raced because she was free to do so?
These questions occupied him for a great while, until he formed a conclusion that partially satisfied. Might it be that her fleetness was a manifestation of her soul’s desire to be at one with the breeze, the swooping birds, with the expanses of God’s world?
As the darkness encroached, Mordechai found that he could no longer follow the young woman. Around him, his fellow congregants of the field were singing again, except for Rabbi Yosef, who was looking around in the gloom. He appeared perplexed.
On Saturday evening, Mordechai was minded to visit the Levi household a second time, but having mentioned the idea to his wife Sara, and hearing her argument against disturbing the family, he put it off, and went to write some letters.
The terrible news came to Mordechai as he was studying Talmud in the synagogue. It was his daughter, Shoshanna, who came breathlessly to him.
“Papa,” she said.
He looked up from the tractate. “Did your mother send you?”
The girl was flustered. “It’s about Miriam Levi.”
Mordechai stood up. What news could there be about Miriam? “Tell me.”
“They say she’s been trampled by an Arab horseman, just outside the city wall.”
Mordechai rose. “What? Is she living?”
“I don’t know,” Shoshanna replied. “Mother said to fetch you at once.”
The pair left the sanctuary, rushing into the blinding brightness of the afternoon. Rabbi Yosef met them, and they hurried toward the city gates. Mordechai felt the acrid taste of nausea, dreading what he was soon to encounter.
Standing by her broken body, there could be no doubt as to Miriam Levi’s fate. The ragtag crowd looked on at the dismal spectacle, and there was no sound from anyone, except the jagged wailing of Mrs. Levi. Suddenly the bereaved mother howled and crumpled onto her daughter’s lifeless frame. Rachel, meanwhile, stood immobile, like an incarnation of Lot’s wife.
Mordechai brushed away the words he had inadvertently heard at the corner of Salt Street. Someone had said Miriam had a lover and was rushing to meet him, away from prying eyes, away from witnesses who would report her impropriety to the community, including her husband-to-be. He would not dignify these accusations. Miriam was not that way; he felt sure of that. She was—she had been—a respectful, respectable girl. But why had she strayed from the city walls?
There was no sign of any horsemen. Relations with the Arabs were cordial, so what had occurred?
When the next Sabbath came, the Kabbalat Shabbat custom was maintained. The procession of men went to the fields. For once, Mordechai could extract little happiness from the beneficent sun and the fields. Miriam’s death clouded his mind.
They sang Lecha Dodi in a quieter refrain than normal. And then they saw her. On the horizon, and nobody would dispute it later, was Miriam Levi, running, and with her arms out, as if imploring heaven.
Mordechai wiped his eyes. Abraham HaKohen was following the young woman’s progress. If it was an illusion, it was a shared illusion.
This time, Miriam Levi was not intrusive, or, at least, Mordechai did not find her so.
The next morning, Mordechai whispered to his wife Sara about what had transpired.
“Miriam is not alive,” she said. “We all saw her buried. We all lament in the tragedy.”
“But I saw her, Sara. Abraham HaKohen also, and Rabbi Shlomo.”
“Perhaps Hashem has set her free to race in the fields one more time,” Sara said. “But I would not want to presume.”
“She was like running ink across a page,” Mordechai said.
Sara turned to her husband. “If she were to appear next Shabbat, then perhaps you should bring out her mother.”
Mordechai frowned. “I could not do that to her.”
But Sara was insistent. “If Miriam appears, perhaps it would be comforting to the widow to see her daughter, running free.”
All that week Mordechai ruminated on his wife’s suggestion. By Friday, he saw sense in what she had proposed.
The men set out for the fields at their usual time, with Mordechai still dripping from his ritual immersion. He had spent longer than was customary in the waters, seeking some guidance from above, for he worried how the widow might react to the sight of her daughter, miraculously appearing to be alive.
He had not spoken to Mrs. Levi, and did not know if others had mentioned the sighting the previous Friday. Even so, he had briefed Ya’acov, Arbanel’s ten-year-old son, that he should be ready to run to the Levi household, if Miriam should appear.
They were almost finishing their Shabbat service when Miriam darted into view. She, like the men, was in white.
Mordechai found it impossible to believe that the dead girl was before them, but had enough presence of mind to send Ya’acov back to the town. The Shabbat prayers, meanwhile, faded, as the men, 19 of them, stood and observed.
Miriam was beautiful to watch. She was like a hare, an antelope, a coursing gazelle. And, for once, Mordechai could make out the expression on her face: It was ecstatic.
The words of a prayer from the Shabbat morning service, Nishmat, rose in Mordechai’s mind: “And our hands were spread forth like the eagles of heaven, and our feet were swift as hinds…”
Mordechai was crying when Mrs. Levi arrived. He wept as she wept, as together they observed Miriam Levi celebrate the wonder of God’s creation with lightness of feet, with vibrant hair blown back by benevolent breezes, and with the cry of euphoria all would later say they heard.
And Mordechai understood that the vision had served as some consolation for a bereaved mother.
The men went to the fields for many years, but never, after that day, were they blessed by seeing Miriam Levi.
Born and raised in Manchester in the UK, Paul B. Cohen read English at the University of Leeds and holds graduate degrees from Vanderbilt University and the University of Southern California. Formerly a playwright and theater reviewer, Paul’s plays have been seen in London, Los Angeles, Miami, Detroit, Orlando and New York City. He is now focused on writing literary fiction.