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Uncommon Readers


by Ksenia Tserkovskaya

Uncommon Readers

This story was submitted to The LoveReading Very Short Story Award 2019

Early Jerusalem morning. I am on a bus again, which is running annoyingly late - and we've just set off. I've been annoyed since yesterday evening, so now my face is nothing but a huge crumbling frown, and that's not to mention nature that is already calling from somewhere in the distance, and I still have a two hour long journey ahead of me before we are anywhere near a bathroom. That’s what happens when an inter-city commute meets the whole hydration-is-key-when-living-in-Israel obsession meets a weak bladder, so I’ll just have to stick it out, breathing deeply, inhaling the stench of petrol and people and exhaling my own mental fumes.

The bus is crowded, and next to me is a frum lady – in public spaces women cling to women, even if the lengths of their skirts drastically differ. While I am trying to take my mind off (all the annoying) things with an Alan Bennett that I brought over from London a month ago, she is boisterously talking on her circa 1995 phone in her circa 12th century language, her Yiddish surprisingly littered with modern Hebrew fillers, "likes" and "rights".

Finally she's done and hangs up the phone. I breathe out in relief, thank gods for the sweet silence, and settle in to Bennett’s quiet humour and stylistic brilliance. But the lady has some thanks to pass on to gods – the G-d, to be more precise – as well, so she too takes out a book, pages stained and crumpled, and starts rocking, whispering the familiar words of the morning prayer.

Well, to each her own book. Another character appears on Bennett's stage, and suddenly I realize that my mental library-like quiet is being disturbed again. "Could you say Amen for me?" I stare blankly back at her. "Amen, could you say the Amens after me?" Probably through her thick glasses she spots confusion in my sleepy eyes and decides to grant me with further details of this peculiar request: "You know, I will be saying the blessings now, and it's nice if someone says Amen after each one".

Amen. Amen. Amen. I follow the lines of the prayer as she reads them out, stealing a glance over to the next page to count them up and start counting them down, while making sure I contribute to her performance in time. It's not much, the prayer, the usual stuff about “might” and “chosen” and “bless my soul”, and the lady has years of experience, so we are done in a minute or two. She thanks me, saying that when there is cooperation, prayer becomes even a bigger gift to the Almighty; kisses the book and stows it away into her faux leather purse. I on my part might as well be kissing my Bennett, happy as I am to get back to his soul-soothing – and very much secular – Britishness.

…And yet she stays with me. All too often on the days when I work in Tel Aviv I say my first word of the day at around 9 o’clock, entering the office and shouting the obligatory but not necessarily sincere “good morning” to the only one of my colleagues who arrives earlier than me and who is already safely tucked away in his cubicle, protected from the wrath of my morning self fresh out of an inter-city traffic jam. Today's verbal activity though started with a dozen of Amens; rather pleasing, such a change of routine. Now I'll just have to balance the universe out by performing a Bennett dialogue or two with a frum. I'll keep you posted on our progress.

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