First place winner of the 2020 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest
Simcha was the man who sold air from the Holy Land, not to be confused with those unimaginative con artists who sold oil from the Oily Land or water from the Dead Sea. One summer, he tried his luck selling oil; he picked enough olives from public gardens and private lawns to make a few bottles’ worth. As for selling water, he filled up bottles from the tap in the kitchen sink and added plenty of salt to make it authentic, as if it had been siphoned directly from the Dead Sea. These projects all proved too much work, too risky and too costly. Air was everywhere, he didn’t need anybody’s permission to bottle it, and most importantly, it was free.
Like the Mediterranean Cabernet Sauvignon of the Judean Valley, Simcha’s product came in boutique bottled packaging designed for the sophisticated customer with a discerning palate. He made little sticker labels for each bottle with his daughter Lali’s help. On each label, she drew an old, bearded man blowing a gust of wind, apparently a Greek god of some kind she studied in school, but Simcha thought he looked more like the Miser, the owner of the falafel place down the street, who enjoyed quoting biblical verses from Kohelet and sold half a measly pita for a small fortune. Together, Simcha and Lali polished the empty bottles with a rag, placed them side by side in a blue trolley and went out in search of tourists willing to buy air.
With his keen eye and sixth sense—a tingling sensation in the presence of the very wealthy—Simcha zeroed in on them from all the way across Dizengoff Street,
window-shopping. Two middle-aged American tourists, Jewish of course, and proudly patriotic with their “I heart Israel” shirts, probably with plans to marry their daughter off to an El Al pilot. Simcha got closer, innocently pulling his trolley along.
He could tell they were rich by the shine of their teeth. The husband’s wallet practically bulged out of his back pocket, plump as a peach. The man was red-faced, sweat pooled under his arms and made his turkey neck shine. The young wife, petite and dressed impeccably in white linen, was star-struck by a golden necklace in the window, playing with the diamond ring on her finger. Her hair, like the necklace, was golden. Although Simcha knew that her hair was not really spun of solid gold, it did give her a certain advantage. If in dire need she could cut off her hair and sell it to the highest bidder.
Simcha pulled his trolley along in the tourists’ direction, empty bottles clanking and clinking as he went, while Lali came over from the other end of the street, wearing her adorable dress spotted with starfish and sea snails, holding Moshe Dayan, the
one-eyed cat, in her arms. Simcha reached the tourists, who were peering at the glittering display in the front store window of Zehava’s Jewelry and Judaica: silver goblets and mezuzahs, pearl necklaces, blueberry-size diamond earrings sitting snugly in a green velvet case. Lali stopped in front of Simcha, admiring the bottles of air arranged in the blue trolley, while Moshe Dayan, curled up in her arms, groomed his grey fur, licking his forepaw with his quick, scratchy tongue.
“Mister sir,” Lali said, in the English they had practiced, “what do you have there?”
“Oh this? I’m only selling air.”
“Air? Why would anyone buy air?”
“This isn’t just any air. It’s very special. I’ll tell you a secret.”
Lali leaned in, and her father whispered gibberish in her ear. The tourists stopped and were staring now, dumbstruck by the interaction.
“I want ten of them!” Lali said.
“Ten? You couldn’t afford even one, my dear.”
“I can sell my cat, Moshe Dayan. Please.”
“This cat? He only has one eye. How much could he possibly be worth?”
The tourists looked mortified. The golden-haired wife clicked her tongue in disapproval as if it was unkind to remind the cat that he only had one eye. “Visually challenged feline is the correct term,” Simcha imagined her saying at an annual dinner for the charitable foundation she set up in support of dim-sighted kittens. The rich couple stopped to stare and now came the final blow. Lali went over to the tourists, the visually challenged feline in her arms, stared at her shoes and gave her speech.
“Hello, ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “I offer you my cat, Moshe Dayan, to purchase. He may only have one eye, but he doesn’t break things often. He is named after the famous Israeli war hero, who lost his eye in the struggle for our nation’s freedom.”
“We can’t buy your cat, honey,” the American lady said. “It wouldn’t be right.”
Lali hid her face in the cat’s fur.
“What’s in them anyway?” The American man said.
“Oh, in these?” Simcha said. “Nothing. Only air.”
“Then, why does she want them so bad?” the husband said. “How much are you charging?”
“Fifty shekels per bottle, for the usual customer. For the girl, I will give a very special discount, 50 percent off! Now, only twenty-five shekels per bottle.”
The wife looked at her husband, raising one eyebrow like a golden bow. The husband looked annoyed, drumming his fat fingers on his thighs. It’s nothing, she mouthed. The husband looked at his wife, and Simcha imagined him trying to calculate the cost of refusing to buy the bottles of air. Would they fight for the rest of their holiday? Would she give him the silent treatment and act as if he did not exist? Would she leave him for a younger Israeli man who ran ultra-marathons and worked in tech, a man who bought bottles of air on a whim, just because, without thinking twice, because money meant nothing to him? The husband sighed, nodded wearily, accepting his fate with modest bravery.
“How many bottles would you like, honey?” the wife asked.
Lali stayed with simcha in his tiny apartment on Bugrashov Street on Fridays, and that was only because her mother wanted to get drunk in a dimly lit bar downtown, in Florentin, where it was too dark for the men to see her wrinkles and sagging skin. Simcha’s ex-wife got custody for six days, while he only got one. She worked at a beauty parlor on Ben Yehuda Street, which wasn’t exactly Wall Street, but the judge wouldn’t listen. Apparently, Simcha wasn’t as financially stable. It’s all castles in the air how you make a living, said the judge, waving an arthritic hand, casually proclaiming his sentence of doom. On Fridays, after selling bottles of air to American tourists, Simcha took Lali to Katsanelson’s ice-cream factory and they picked out the misshapen popsicles, the mistakes in production, which were free, and then they went to Independence Park and played with other people’s dogs. They had their tradition of going out to eat falafel at the Miser’s after a big sale of air and then visiting the Dolphinarium.
Simcha and Lali split the money from the sale of bottled air. He kept half and handed her the other half, which she tucked in a tin box with a peeling castle floating in the clouds on the cover. Her mother didn’t know about the arrangement.
The Miser’s Falafel was a tiny place, so small it could fit only the Miser himself. He hired no other employees since he was too cheap to pay them their wages. Simcha and Lali joined a long line of customers who were waiting for their falafel. The Miser took his time, frying the chickpea balls in his bubbling, sizzling grill, where the oil, possibly as old and bitter as the Miser himself, was never replaced.
“Hey, king of the falafel,” Simcha said, “I want two pitas with falafel, hummus, tehina, pickles, salad and cabbage. Don’t leave out the spicy mango amba sauce!”
“Did you get a haircut?” Lali asked the Miser.
“There is nothing new under the sun,” said the Miser, quoting his favorite passage from Kohelet. His hair did look different, lopsided, shorter on one side as if he had gone to the barber’s and changed his mind halfway through. There was no way, Simcha thought, that the Miser would ever pay full price for a haircut.
“Can I have one extra falafel?” Lali asked, as she always did. “I’m hungry.”
“All the rivers flow into the sea, and yet the sea is not full.”
“Come on, Miser,” said Simcha. “Give my daughter one extra falafel.”
“What profit has man in all his toil under the sun?” said the Miser. “It will cost you. I have my reputation to consider.”
The Miser had known Lali ever since she was “this big”—he always mimed her size by lowering his hand to the ground—but even so he refused to give her an extra falafel. It was a matter of principle and Simcha respected him for his steadfast miserly ways but cursed him for the very same reason. As usual, Simcha and Lali split the money from the sale of bottled air. He kept half and handed her the other half, which she tucked in a tin box with a peeling castle floating in the clouds on the cover. Her mother didn’t know about the arrangement.
“If your mother asks,” Simcha said, “tell her I gave you some pocket money.”
“Okay,” she said, licking her fingers.
“Your bat mitzvah is coming up,” he said, as he did every time they met.
“No, it’s not. Not for another”—she counted using the fingers on both hands— “seven years.”
“That doesn’t mean we can’t start celebrating. Where do you wanna go today?”
They went to the Dolphinarium, as was their tradition. Years ago, the Dolphinarium used to be an aquatic zoo, where people paid to watch dolphins perform tricks, flips and other acrobatic feats in the air. At the center of the arena was a circular pool, where the dolphin trainers stood on artificial islands, wearing white shirts and serious expressions, and tossed shoals of mackerel, schools of herring and families of sardines for the dolphins to catch in the air. The crowds would come and applaud the talented dolphins, but pretty soon it became unfashionable because the animal rights groups protested every day by the entrance. Parents stopped coming and bringing their kids, who started seeing the cruel side to the enterprise, and the Dolphinarium was shut down and transformed into a nightclub. The club—which kept the enormous pool at the center, as well as the arena-like structure, and played electronic dance music until dawn—was destroyed in a suicide bombing years ago, during the Second Intifada, before Lali was even born, but everyone still called the wreckage the Dolphinarium.
PRAISE FOR THE MAN WHO SOLD AIR IN THE HOLY LAND
“The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land is a wonderfully crafted, touching story about a failed father whose only way to sustain his young daughter is by means of his overdeveloped imagination. The story resurrects the traditional diasporic-Jewish character of the Luftmensch, the “air person,” whose entire existence and livelihood are suspended in the air. In a creative twist of irony, the writer chose to place that Luftmensch in Israel, the old-new homeland that was supposed to negate the uprooted diasporic existence and solve “the Jewish problem” by returning the Jews to the ground, culturally as well as financially. The story is distinguished by its magical, bittersweet tone; cinematic qualities and fine balance between humor, sorrow and compassion.” — Ruby Namdar, 2020 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest judge. Register for a special event on July 29 featuring excerpts from the winning stories and a conversation about why we still write Holocaust fiction, with Namdar and Ruth Franklin.