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My Lamented Sister

From the moment she found God, I became a local celebrity.

Etgar Keret
January 12, 2006

Original image from: ‘Dad Runs Away With the Circus,’ written by Etgar Keret, illustrated by Rutu Modan

Original image from: ‘Dad Runs Away With the Circus,’ written by Etgar Keret, illustrated by Rutu Modan

Nineteen years ago, in a small wedding hall in Bnei Brak, my older sister died, and she now lives in the most Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. I spent a recent weekend at her house. It was my first Shabbat there. I often go to visit her in the middle of the week but that month, with all the work I had and my trips abroad, it was either Saturday or nothing. “Take care of yourself,” my wife said as I was leaving. “You’re not in such great shape now, you know. Make sure they don’t talk you into turning religious or something.” I told her she had nothing to worry about. Me, when it comes to religion, I have no God. When I’m cool I don’t need anyone, and when I’m feeling shitty and this big empty hole opens up inside me, I just know there’s never been a god that could fill it and there never will be. So even if a hundred evangelist rabbis pray for my lost soul, it won’t do them any good. I have no God, but my sister does, and I love her, so I try to show Him some respect.

The period when my sister was discovering religion was just about the most depressing time in the history of Israeli pop. The Lebanon War had just ended, and nobody was in the mood for upbeat tunes. But then again, all those ballads to handsome young soldiers who’d died in their prime were getting on our nerves too. People wanted sad songs, but not the kind that carried on about some crummy unheroic war that everyone was trying to forget. Which is how a new genre came into being all of a sudden: the dirge for a friend who’s gone religious. Those songs always described a close buddy or a beautiful, sexy girl who’d been the singer’s reason for living, when out of the blue something terrible had happened and they’d turned Orthodox. The buddy was growing a beard and praying a lot, the beautiful girl was covered from head to toe and wouldn’t do it with the morose singer any more. Young people would listen to those songs and nod grimly. The War in Lebanon had taken so many of their buddies that the last thing anyone wanted was to see the others just disappear forever into some yeshiva in the armpit of Jerusalem.

It wasn’t only the music world that was discovering born-again Jews. They were hot stuff all over the media. Every talk show had a regular seat for a newly religious ex-celeb who made a point of telling everyone how he didn’t miss his wanton ways in the least, or the former friend of a well-known born-again who’d reveal how much the friend had changed since turning religious and how you couldn’t even talk to him any more. Me too. From the moment my sister crossed the lines in the direction of Divine Providence, I became a kind of local celebrity. Neighbors who’d never given me the time of day would stop, just to offer me a firm handshake and pay their condolences. Hipster twelfth-graders, all dressed in black, would give me a friendly high five just before getting into the cab that would take them to some dance club in Tel Aviv. And then they’d roll down the window and shout to me how broken up they were about my sister. If the rabbis had taken someone ugly, they could’ve handled it; but grabbing someone with her looks—what a waste!

Meanwhile, my lamented sister was studying at some women’s seminary in Jerusalem. She’d come visit us almost every week, and she seemed happy. If there was a week when she couldn’t come, we’d go visit her. I was fifteen at the time, and I missed her terribly. When she’d been in the army, before going religious, serving as an artillery instructor in the south, I didn’t see much of her either, but somehow I missed her less back then.

Whenever we met, I’d study her closely, trying to figure out how she’d changed. Had they replaced the look in her eyes, her smile? We’d talk the way we always did. She still told me funny stories she’d made up specially for me, and helped me with my math homework. But my cousin Gili, who belonged to the youth section of the Movement Against Religious Coercion and knew a lot about rabbis and stuff, told me it was just a matter of time. They hadn’t finished brainwashing her yet, but as soon as they did, she’d begin talking Yiddish, and they’d shave her head and she’d marry some sweaty, flabby, repulsive guy who’d forbid her to see me any more. It could take another year or two, but I might as well brace myself, because once she was married she might continue breathing, but from our point of view, it would be just as if she’d died.

Nineteen years ago, in a small wedding hall in Bnei Brak, my older sister died, and she now lives in the most Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. She has a husband, a yeshiva student, just like Gili promised. He isn’t sweaty or flabby or repulsive, and he actually seems pleased whenever my brother or I come to visit. Gili also promised me at the time, about 20 years ago, that my sister would have hordes of children and that every time I’d hear them talking Yiddish like they were living in some godforsaken shtetl in Eastern Europe, I’d feel like crying. On that subject too he was only half right, because she really does have lots of children, one cuter than the other, but when they talk Yiddish it just makes me smile.

As I walk into my sister’s house, less than an hour before Shabbat, the children greet me in unison with their “What’s my name?”, a tradition that began after I once got them mixed up. Considering that my sister has eleven, and that each of them has a double-barreled name, the way the Hasidim usually do, my mistake was certainly forgivable. The fact that all the boys are dressed the same way and decked out with identical sets of sidelocks provides some pretty strong mitigating arguments. But all of them, from Shlomo-Nachman on down, still want to make sure that their peculiar uncle is focused enough, and gives the right present to the right nephew. Only a few weeks ago, my mother said she’d been talking to my sister, and she suspects it’s not over yet, so that in a year or two, God willing, there’ll be another double-barreled name for me to memorize.

Once I’d passed the rollcall test with flying colors, I was treated to a strictly kosher glass of cola as my sister, who hadn’t seen me in a long time, took her place on the other side of the living-room and said she wanted to know what I’d been up to. She loves it when I tell her I’m doing well and that I’m happy, but since the world I live in is to her one of frivolities, she isn’t really interested in the details. The fact that my sister will never read a single story of mine upsets me, I admit, but the fact that I don’t observe the Sabbath or keep kosher upsets her even more.

I once wrote a children’s book and dedicated it to my nephew. In the contract, the publishing house agreed that the illustrator would prepare one special copy where all the men would have yarmulkes and sidelocks, and the women’s skirts and sleeves would be long enough to be considered modest. But in the end even that version was rejected by my sister’s rabbi, the one she consults on matters of religious convention. The children’s story described a father who runs off with the circus. The rabbi must have considered this too reckless, and I had to take the “kosher” version of the book—the one the illustrator had worked on so skillfully for many hours—back to Tel Aviv.

Until recently, when I finally got married, the toughest part of our relationship was that my girlfriend couldn’t come with me when I went to visit my sister. To be completely honest, I ought to mention that in the nine years we’ve been living together, we’ve gotten married dozens of times in all sorts of ceremonies that we made up ourselves: with a kiss on the nose at a fish restaurant in Jaffa, exchanging hugs in a dilapidated hotel in Warsaw, skinny-dipping on the beach in Haifa, or even sharing a Kinder egg on a train from Amsterdam to Berlin. Except that none of these ceremonies is recognized, unfortunately, by the rabbis or by the state. So that when I would go to visit my sister and her family, my girlfriend always had to wait for me at a nearby cafe or park. At first I was embarrassed to ask her to do that, but she understood the situation and accepted it. As for me, well, I accepted it—what choice did I have?—but I can’t really say I understand.

Nineteen years ago, in a small wedding hall in Bnei Brak, my older sister died, and she now lives in the most Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. Back then there was a girl that I loved to death but who didn’t love me. I remember how two weeks after the wedding I went to visit my sister in Jerusalem. I wanted her to pray for that girl and me to be together. That’s how desperate I was. My sister was quiet for a minute and then explained that she couldn’t do it. Because if she prayed and then that girl and I got together and our togetherness turned out to be hell, she’d feel terrible. “I’ll pray for you to meet someone that you’ll be happy with instead,” she said and gave me a smile that tried to be comforting. “I’ll pray for you every day. I promise.” I could see she wanted to give me a hug and was sorry she wasn’t allowed to, or maybe I was just imagining it. Ten years later I met my wife, and being with her really did make me happy. Who said that prayers aren’t answered?

Translated by Miriam Shlesinger.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.

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