When I asked him why he had made Aliya – that is, why he had decided to live in Israel for the rest of his life – and why, so uncharacteristically, he had decided to do so as an observant Jew – this is what he told me.
He was not at all a religious person, let alone an observant Jew, when he was given what one Groznian prosecutor (and not a judge) smirkingly told him was an indeterminate sentence. He was then thrown into a solitary cell without any fresh air or light.
This was in early 1994, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Chechnya, like so many other breakaway countries and would-be countries in Caucasus was attempting to go through a transition from communism to capitalism, autocracy to democracy, isolation to internationalism, and was trying to find the light itself. In Chechnya’s case, no one knew, between the Chechnyan republicans and the opposing Russian political factions and all the other various separatists and nascent jihadist militias, what government or army or ethnicity would be waiting at the end of the long tunnel, and for a while there was a desperate anarchy in the region.
What perhaps was clearest was that there was no room in this maelstrom for an Ashkenazi Jew (there had been ten thousand of them in Grozny alone, but most by this time had fled to Russia or Israel). Yet that he had remained didn’t fully explain why he had been arrested. What instead came to his feverishly-searching mind were bribes he had finally refused to pay the import licensing commission for goods, including computers, that were just beginning to come into the country; or the time during the blizzard of ’91 that he had insulted a policeman for issuing a parking summons whose fine he could ill-afford to pay when his car had become iced in and snow-removal was typically delayed; or perhaps the small study he had added on to his apartment, for business files and a place to write, that he had failed to report; or, most likely, now that he was thinking about it, the stories he had written that many considered both anti-Russian and against the Dudeyev separatist régime that circulated in underground magazines and were just now beginning to gain him a small reputation abroad.
The latter, of course, was the most obvious explanation; it was why he had stayed: Grozny was not only his home and his hope, it was also his subject. Although the obvious was never so obvious in a closed society with an opaque government.
What he knew was that his incarceration was, horrifyingly, the opposite of the story of Creation. At a time when there was light, he was a man walking around in it, taking it all for granted. Then, like a sudden implacable curtain, he was in the darkness.
His future, he knew, was uncertain – perhaps non-existent – his present whereabouts, at least by him, unknown. So to certify that he existed, and to learn how to live with the darkness, he began to evoke the light of his past.
His earliest memories, since he never knew his father, who had been killed in a truck accident somewhere in the Caucasus mountains during the then Soviet mandatory military enlistment for Jews, were of his mother. In his mind her image floated in and around the complex of squat tenement buildings where he grew up, through its courtyards, and hanging clothes lines, its narrow brick alleyways smelling of frying grease and wood smoke; open crowded markets by the Shelkovsky railroad tracks with rickety stalls of old clothes and tables adorned with large musty roots and rusted pots filled with fragrant meat stews his mother forbade him to eat.
He remembered a round wooden ball she had given him that fit his hand perfectly but refused to roll in a straight line, which signified to him, even then, that life didn’t go in a straight line.
He loved the trolley car, with its clacking, screeching wheels; pungent, oily smell, and infinitely receding tracks. His mother would take him on the trolley car to the heart of the city, to Avgustovskaya Street just to window-shop, or sometimes just for the ride. They would pass the lavish Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, then in scaffolded reconstruction, a whole long block in length, like round colorful hats piled sky high of top of each other and four thin pillars, one on each corner, like crab’s legs reaching taller than he could see through the window, then past the school that his mother would tell him had once been a synagogue. Sometimes they would get off at the Kultury Zvoda Krasniy Mollot, a park inside the wealthy district where there were geese and sailboats and flowering shrubbery that was delightful to play hide-and-seek behind. But most days she would push him in a stroller on long walks through the neighborhood, a kaleidoscope of city scenes – sometimes she would pause to chat with people on chance encounters, or with friends sitting in front of their own squat buildings. Sometimes she would – daringly, it seemed to him – put him by himself on a pony ride offered by gypsies who every autumn cluttered the streets with their caravans and carts. In the open market she bargained ruthlessly. When he was older, it came to him that she was, in all this walking and talking and bargaining, trying to satisfy some curiosity in her own life she had otherwise been prevented from pursuing.
In the apartment, she was often quiet, cleaning and washing, methodically replacing one set of dishes with another; sometimes, for holidays, whole days devoted to nothing but cleaning, in which she would enlist his aid. He remembered, on these occasions, moving furniture, while being fascinated by the sunlit dust motes coming through the windows. At night she read by candlelight.
The perpetual darkness of his cell put him in glad touch with the light of his childhood; yet he also remembered a wonderful and mysterious darkness back then: a secret in every corner and narrow dim corridor of their apartment, a mystery in every book he could just barely read but still not understand. There was a darkness in the still, silent furniture on shabbot nights, when the lights could not be turned on; a darkness in the low somber notes of the symphonic music his mother sometimes played on the Victrola; and a special darkness in the closet where his father’s two black suits, along with his talis and teffilin, still hung. And, yet, another kind of darkness: of other sullen unshaven fathers who slapped their children in front of his eyes, of muffled shouted confusions behind closed doors in other families he was grateful he was not a part of. And, of course, the approaching darkness at the end of the long day, the peach-colored light waning from the sky as mothers called their children home. And, finally, the absolute darkness of still nights, lying in his bed, when the occasional sound of horses and carts clattering along cobblestones streets, or the trolleys ratcheting on their tracks (he pictured them swaying sideways in time to their rhythm), or a lone voice calling, or a dog barking, would finally smooth his way to sleep.
In the midst of this light and darkness, or, indeed, as though encapsulating it, he could see his mother lighting the Sabbath candles each Friday night – then slowly waving the flickering light toward her closed eyes while intoning the blessing. In this crèche of his memory he saw the halo of light wavering around the two small candles; the oval of his mother’s kerchiefed head – the movement of her lined and graceful hands, mimicked by his own, beckoning the bride of Sabbath toward the infinite darkness surrounding just the two of them. It was she who taught him to light candles, before he was taught by the older men to pray in shul.
It was, of course, a practice, along with other observances, he abandoned once he left secondary school for literature and engineering and, finally, computing. This was when he had been selected for university training by a Soviet government committee that visited his school once a year and hardly said a word. Eventually, in university, the only candles he saw were on the tables of outdoor cafes and, later, in extravagant brightly lit churches where his friends were married.
Then came a government clerking job with the new statistical department, political meetings, his own writing that he spent ever more time at and that was to become the only important ritual to him. After several years, because of his busy schedule, and an unexpected promotion, he stopped going home, but knew, despite his apostasy and absence, that his mother was proud of him. Then she was diagnosed as having lupus, went in for a minor surgical procedure, and died.
Now in prison, he thought about his mother – her pride, her quietude, her curiosity, her ritual observance – and wondered how she would feel to know that he was in this place.
After another day or so – insofar as days could be reckoned when there was no light, no distinction between day and night – it came to him how his mother indeed used to read by candlelight, and that this was exactly what he now needed to survive.
When they next delivered his food – a thin porridge with bits of some kind of meat in it – through the slot he spoke, almost shouted, his request. He repeated it when the shadow of the guard remained still. Reading materials, he implored, writing implements, and a candle to do both by. He tried not to hope. He wasn’t entirely sure the guard understood him.
After several more days the door clanged open and they transferred him to another cell, this time with a tiny rectangular window high up. In the uneven gray light he could make out a bunk and a stained toilet, though not well enough at first to also see if there was any graffitee on the walls. There wasn’t. This would have been company of a sort, though he would have been unable to respond in kind: he still had no writing implements; even his one corroded eating utensil was taken away after each meal.
But shards of hope now pierced the murky darkness. He wondered what the move might have meant. Perhaps his case, whatever it was, was being moved along in a direction toward… even more light. He spent hours looking up at the tiny rectangle of gray light, imagining it to be an open doorway, and himself going through it. Sometimes he had the feeling he would soon be released
Then the bombing started.
At first he heard it in the far distance – an unmistakable rumbling that, after a couple of minutes, built to a closer, louder rolling cascade. This new, alarming fear was not lessened when, in the midst of the bombing, they at last brought him a half-used candle, along with a single match, and, refusing to answer his questions, said, simply, “regulations,” and left.
In a moment they blacked out the window from the outside, casting him into complete darkness again.
He wanted to use the candle. Was the bombing getting nearer? And, when the bombing did stop, would the little patch of light be returned to him?
He didn’t use the candle. He might need it later, for an emergency, if the window light was not returned to him. But then he realized, in a sudden revelation, he could use it to recreate that cherished Friday ritual of his childhood, that touchstone of sanity and warmth. He then found himself calculating what day this was, trying to think back to what day it was he had been arrested, wondering how long he had been here. Monday – he had been on the way to the bank to deposit a check that missed his Friday deposit when they stopped him on the street. How long had he been here, therefore? Three days, probably four, perhaps even five, maybe longer.…
The temptation, of course, was to say that this was Friday, that would make the ritual perfect – the only way, perhaps, it could be a ritual. Then he could light the candle. Honesty, however, (and he thought this without false modesty or moral irony) remained his curse, his stupidity. He thought the issue over and over, like a mantra, an accompaniment to the bombing and his fevered calculations.
Was it Friday? Was it Friday? Was it Friday?
He guessed (and it could only be a guess) that it could be Friday, or might be Thursday, or even Wednesday. And making an acceptable compromise between urgency and honesty, settled on Thursday, and waited out the bombing’s end.
The next day, as the bombs again began to lay their carpet of terror and death, they brought him another candle, refused to answer questions, and once again clanged the little patch of fading light shut. This time, as soon as they had left, he lit one of the candles and, over the sounds of thunder, found himself saying the blessing, concentrating on the unwavering flame and his words of blessing, recalling every detail of his mother standing there beside him in the glow of light.
The next three nights, and once or twice a week over the next several weeks, the bombing would arrive, along with a new candle, and the sudden pitch darkness. But, unless it happened to be a “Friday” (which occurred three times during the succession of bombings, he held off using a candle. He told himself the bombing couldn’t last forever, and that after each one he would have that number of “Friday” night candle-lightings that he could look forward to.
Finally, the bombings did stop; but the “Friday” nights went on.
In between these Friday rituals, he continued trying to recollect his past life, painstakingly examining every detail to wring from it every nuance and essence; yet he saw a door that would remain closed to him forever: a large green hospital door, just a piece of mute metal, behind which lay his mother’s knife-exhausted body, which the doctors hadn’t let him see much less attend to. Now he began writing a novel in his head – writing each sentence, paragraph, and chapter (the were now three) over and over, again and again; he slept as much as he could in order to be close to his free-floating dreams; awake, he had lengthy conversations with friends he hadn’t seen in years, with people he had never met, and with the dead. After a while, his reserve of candles (eleven at its glorious peak) had dwindled down to three. He refused to think ahead to a “Friday” bereft of its magnificent light, of its hope, of its precious bridge to the past. He almost wished for more bombings, so he could have more candles. Yet each day, he told himself, offered its own eternal hope; he tried to believe this. He wondered if memory itself reflected or was imbued with light – and if that light might outlast death; he wondered how long his reason could endure darkness and isolation – and if he would be able to tell when his own reason had gone. He wondered if, after his last candle, he would be cut loose from all moorings in time – whether, in fact, it would be a just consequence of the delusion, the betrayal, the ludicrousness, of his chosen “Fridays.”
That night, a presumed Friday, instead of lighting a candle to remember the world, the world burst in on him. The door was thrown open and in the garish light stood two uniformed figures, like grey statuary. He stared at them for the longest time before he realized they were waiting for him to come out.
He was ushered down a long corridor into the impossible glare of lights in a room that was filled with suits and uniforms: men and women with identity tags that showed the names of Chechen and Russian, American and Israeli newspapers and magazines many of which he now recognized, people with arm bands emblazoned with a Red Cross, Red Crescent, or that said UN Immigration Human Rights, all sitting or standing on chairs with cameras or pens and pads of paper poised. They were calling out questions, calling his name over and over. The barrage made him wonder whether he might be in some noisy and argumentative enclave of heaven. Finally, when the noise had settled down, when the air assumed a pressured silence into which he felt obliged, he realized, to respond, he offered not an answer (for he had none) but a question which, in his own unsure, disused voice, he felt the need to repeat, more firmly, more clearly, over and over:
“Please, please, can you tell me, what day this is?”
At first, in the silence, they didn’t seem to understand, it was not, apparently, relevant to them. But finally, from the back of the room, came an answer that was echoed by someone, a woman in front, a single word that at first he couldn’t believe, but that in a moment seemed to force open an inner door and offer an unanticipated yet somehow eternally awaited release, enveloping him in a magnificent light that spread throughout his body, and that he knew would never leave him.
It was Friday.
Henry Alan Paper’s stories have been published in The Sun, New Phase, Scottish Life, and Portland Monthly Magazine, Kerem, Response, Jewish Currents, and Webdelsol, an adaption of one of which won a NYU Filmmakers’ Award. He has been featured numerous times on Connecticut Public Radio.