“The Teacher” by Michal Ben-Naftali [Excerpt]
There are three more forthcoming Open Letter titles by women that I want to share for Women in Translation Month. First up is The Teacher by Michel Ben-Naftali, translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir. Here’s the jacket copy:
No one knew the story of Elsa Weiss. She was a respected English teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, but she remained aloof and never tried to befriend her students. No one ever encountered her outside of school hours. She was a riddle, and yet the students sensed that they were all she had. When Elsa killed herself by jumping off the roof of her apartment building, she remained as unknown as she had been during her life. Thirty years later, the narrator of the novel, one of her students, decides to solve the riddle of Elsa Weiss. Expertly dovetailing explosive historical material with flights of imagination, the novel explores the impact of survivor’s guilt and traces the footprints of a Holocaust survivor who did her utmost to leave no trace.
Ben-Naftali’s The Teacher takes us through a keenly crafted, fictional biography for Elsa—from childhood through adolescence, from the Holocaust to her personal aftermath—and brings us face to face with one woman’s struggle in light of one of history’s great atrocities.
The book officially releases on January 21, 2020, but if you want to preorder, use WITMONTH at checkout and get 40% off!
The Teacher by Michal Ben-Naftali, translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir
The sidewalk was cleansed of the blood. Rivers of rain, water hoses, and street sweepers joined forces to scrub the surface after the last remnant was removed. Submissive, the street continued to absorb convoys of people, scraps of paper and cigarette butts hurled absentmindedly in its direction, strollers and bicycles crowding its narrow path. Children played, stumbled and fell, animals evacuated their bowels, garbage cans were tossed back after being emptied. Every so often ambulances rushed by. The fallen leaves piled up and were swept away. Who could remember that stormy night, thirty years ago, when a woman jumped to her death from her rooftop apartment in one of the few still-intact buildings? Of sound mind, with the same parsimonious strictness she used to do everything—pay bills, swim in the pool, or teach, with the same icy ruthlessness she used to drag her long fingernails across the blackboard to force her students to stop making noise—the teacher took her life.
No one knew the story of Elsa Weiss. Few called her by name. Most addressed her as one would a general or a sheriff, an authority figure, or a role that she herself created out of thin air and performed with a devotion owed to no one, neither to her superiors nor to those under her supervision, but to something greater and obscure, which she herself perhaps did not fully understand. She was called as one summons the goddess of wrath, a Gorgonteacher, a Fury, subjecting her students to a torrent of tasks, to see if they could take it, if they had the stamina, if she could count on them to hang on, as if she wanted to destroy them to ultimately gain their trust.
Elsa Weiss left no testimony behind. She refused to talk about herself, in fact, refused to discuss anything, to lecture or preach in the classroom. The sphere in which she operated did not expand to infringe on our preferences, influence our fate, shape our moral compass or consciousness. She never relayed to us a cohesive philosophical or political theory that could reveal something of her deep beliefs about knowledge, truth, or faith. Perhaps we could have made assumptions. We could have assumed she was not a woman of faith, that she didn’t keep kosher or observe the Shabbat. Her anger wasn’t that of a religious person. Or perhaps the opposite was true, despite every fiber of her being shouting defiance. If there was anything religious about her, it manifested in the zeal and extreme fervor with which she performed her tasks, in the ardent belief that accompanied her actions. We could have said that she gave her heart and soul, but what she really gave was something else.
A single photograph, capturing her portrait more or less in her fifties—a rare passport photo taken about two decades after her arrival in Israel—traveled through all the yearbooks, as if it too carried the same consuming quality that seeks to make room for something else, something that isn’t a message or a vision, something that lends this word, teacher, its very meaning. Her face was a mirror of her life. It bore the pride and severity of someone who rarely talks to another soul, the crushing, tormented face of a Madonna and priestess, once seething with existential angst but now dulled into a blank mask that made you avert your gaze. It was impossible to linger on her face without feeling unsettled.
Elsa Weiss made her way to school each morning with swift, efficient strides, without pausing. She probably walked down Dizengoff Street, turning onto Ibn Gabirol up to Sprinzak. Or perhaps she chose the narrower streets, Huberman or Marmorek. And yet, no one actually saw her. No one chanced upon her outside of school hours—in the cafes, the theater, Meir Park, the Beit Ariela public library, where she sat and read for hours on end, in the pool where she swam—no one saw her coming or going. She entered the classroom as if materializing out of thin air, seeking to be left alone, to be seen when she wanted to be seen, invisible when she didn’t. And in any event, no one could keep up with her brisk and confident pace, which discouraged accompaniment.
She was about sixty when she was our teacher. Her small, wrinkled face, which could be cupped in one hand, seemed to have been shaped by a sudden blow of old age. The locks of her hair were coiled neatly and meticulously, as if on a potter’s wheel, and stacked high into a regal pyramid, elongating her already solemn expression. Had it been released from the dark pin that clasped it, her hair would have reached her waist and created the false impression that it had never been cut or shaved. The bun, towering above a very thin and narrow, flat-looking frame clad in cotton blouses and wool calf-length skirts, lent her a lofty height. Her eyes were a faded green-gray, their color diluted by filmy liquid, but the blue eye shadow she applied enlarged them, brightening her pupils like burning coal. Her fleshy, almost swollen lips—as if bitten too many times—were painted umber, not to say I am pretty, or even I am present, but to express strength and indignation. The heavy makeup, provoking the very idea of beauty and in complete contrast to the distinguished gray of her clothes, did not seek by way of deliberate embellishment to powder her face into a young and prettier image. It made a different statement: stay away, or better yet: keep your distance. As if attempting to conceal herself within an alienated body, which greedily gauged her age. However, she did not disguise herself as a teacher. Her disguise was herself, sui generis, a battle-seasoned tigress, pretty and ugly, nimble as a doe, despite the fact that no noble animal rhymed with her name, despite the fact that nothing noble was ever associated with her. Her colors were war paint, as if heralding a latent battle in which she was trapped, letting us know that in the center of the microcosm we high school students had founded stood a savage society still foreign to us, a society she embodied with her essence and life experience, without claiming her throne. Had we been children, perhaps we could have appealed to her with rudimentary requests that would have turned her world upside down. But we were teenagers, we revealed nothing more about ourselves than what reluctantly seeped out by dint of our forced coexistence in the classroom.
And yet, she did not allow us to be adolescents. She positioned herself in the midst of youth and at the same time denied it, silencing its voices as if driving them out of the classroom. She did not want to hear anything irrelevant to the curriculum. Our lives were of no interest to her, our origins, our histories, our concerns. She extracted from us an obedient, passive, silent, and unspontaneous quality, as if uprooting us from the realm of youth before we were ready, leaving us floating in an undefined space. We were reticent around her, wore serious demeanors. She would not have us teach her anything, just as she spared us her own story. The wisdom of generations was sealed off from the unknowing wisdom of children, or from the sometimes contrary and uncreative lessons of youth. Life was already behind her, and she was ready to stop in her tracks without taking another step. We were waiting for what still lay ahead of us.