Tuesday, December 12, 2006

David Kossoff, "Shem"

I'm not a religious man, you understand, and I didn't have much in the way of an education, but I'm not young and I've travelled a lot and listened a lot and you learn, you know, you learn. I was born in Samaria in the same year that Herod became King. Herod the Great he was called. Well, maybe he was great. He didn't do much for us in Samaria. All right, we are a mixed lot but we are not lepers. Our law is based on the same rules as the rest of Israel. The Law of Moses. One of those Laws is that the children shouldn't suffer for the sins of the fathers. That's a joke. All my life I've suffered for some nonsense generations ago about my people wanting to help in the rebuilding of the Great Temple and being refused because our religion wasn't holy enough. You'd have thought a few extra gods and idols would have made it more religious. And Samaritans are good builders. My family have been joiners and carpenters for a long time. I think that's what first drew me to Joseph.

I'm a journeyman; I work anywhere. My tools are my luggage. When I first met Joseph and his little family in Bethlehem it was the first time I'd ever been there and I've worked all over; Phoenicia, Syria, Parthia, Egypt. Not a big place, Bethlehem. One big inn, a decent synagogue, a meeting hall. Anyway, this inn had been damaged by some sort of religious demonstration. There'd been crowds of people who'd broken things off for souvenirs. A lot of the timber in the stables needed replacing. I heard about it and was taken on. I found a room on the edge of the town. And met Joseph, who lived next door. When he told me he was also a joiner, I told him about the inn and he smiled and said he'd like to help with the repairs. So I put in a word for him and we worked together.

Very quiet man he was. His wife was younger. Her name was Mary. They had a baby boy. Joseph and I worked together for some weeks before I told him I was a Samaritan.
"Oh," he said. "I've never been in Samaria. Will you eat with us this evening?"

One night I got in very late. It was pay night and I like a drink. The street was quiet and dark. As I got ready for bed, Joseph knocked on my door.
"Can you help us?" he said. "We have to leave right away."
We went next door. Mary was packing and the baby was fast asleep in his crib.
"We have been told by God to go down to Egypt. Right away. Tonight. We know nothing of long journeys. Please help us."

I went next door and packed my tools. We were out of the place in an hour. We joined a trade caravan of merchants and we kept to ourselves. If people got too inquisitive I used rough talk and said loudly I was a Samaritan. That got rid of them. Sins of the fathers can be very useful sometimes.

Now you might ask why did I go with them. Well, there was nothing heroic in it. I've moved around working in different places all my life. And Joseph had hardly been out of his town. Also we were both joiners, and carpenters can pick up work anywhere if you know the way. Another thing, as I told you, I'm a Samaritan, which at that time, thirty five years ago, just before Great Herod died, was the same as being a leper nearly. No one had a good word for you. You walked by yourself. Well, Joseph was an orthodox Jew and he accepted me like a brother and so did Mary. Even the baby liked me. I was one of the family. Of course I went with them. I looked after them.

We stayed with no one long, for Joseph and Mary were afraid. My gentle friend, who never raised his voice, was a wanted man. Mad King herod himself was after him. Well, not him so much as the baby. I don't know all the ins and outs of it even now, but somehow or other Joseph and Mary had got an early warning that Herod was going to kill all the baby boys under two in Bethlehem. They were not hysterical people, and when they went I went with with them, but I didn't really believe such a thing would happen. But it did. We heard about it. Mary wept for days, and Joseph was quieter even than usual.

We didn't go deep into Egypt. We stayed this side of the great delta of the Nile and found a little house in a village. There was enough work round about and the village people were used to travellers. Joseph never spoke much. Once, when I said I'd no idea how he knew about the order to kill the babies, he said, "I didn't know. I was told in a dream by an angel of God to leave immediately. My little son was given to Mary by God. I did as I was told." He was quite serious. I made a sort of joke, I remember. I said, "Well, when the angel tells us to go back home, let me know I'm not too fond of Egypt." Joseph laughed.

I forget now exactly how long we lived in the village but one morning I came down and Joseph had the little boy on his knee. Mary was my the stove, Joseph smiled.
"Good morning," he said. "We can go home."
"Another angel?" I said.
"Same one.' said Joseph. "Herod is dead. It is safe now."

Well, it wasn't so safe really. There'd been riots and disturbances and mass executions, so he would not go back to Bethlehem, but farther north to Galilee, where it was more peaceful. He knew Galilee, he came from Nazareth, and that is where we finished up.

I went with them and helped them find a place and get it fixed up, but then I moved on. Nazareth was a very religious, very orthodox place. Joseph fitted in well, me not at all. I was sorry to go. I saw them from time to time. Then I worked in Syria and Cyprus for a long time and lost touch. But I think of that time often.

by David Kossoff
from The Book Of Witnesses