We wandered through the Summerland farmer’s market. There was a booth there of photographs, many of which were of scenes in Jerusalem. One of them stood out to me. It was a portion of a stone wall with the shema (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”) written on it in Hebrew.
The artist and proprietor of the booth, a large, friendly guy with a decidedly artsy look about him, saw me looking at the photographs and said, “This guy looks like a graphic artist. Are you a graphic artist?”
“No, I’m not. But thanks. I’ll take that as a compliment.”
I walked by to talk to Dixie, but I was intrigued by his photography, so I returned to his booth. I was carrying my CBC-Radio Canada bag. He asked me if I worked for CBC. I can’t remember exactly what he said–something about a “fuckin’” something. Funny how that word still stands out to me when uttered casually by strangers.
I said that, no, I don’t work for the CBC. I told him the bag was obtained at a gift shop. “In fact, I think my wife bought it at an airport.”
All the people at the farmer’s market are, of course, trying to sell something, and rightly so. Yet I can be a cynic at the best of times, and I’m immediately suspicious of sales people. This guy seemed a little too friendly. Probably working me.
“So what do you do then?”
“I’m a student.”
“What kind of student?”
“I’m in seminary.”
“Seminary! Ah, so that’s why you’re interested in all these Jerusalem scenes!”
“Yes, I just noticed the shema in this picture. Is it incomplete?”
“No, it’s there: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eluheynu, Adonai echad. You know the shema?”
“Sort of–not really well. Is that modern Hebrew? I would expect there to be a he here.”
We talked about this for a few seconds. Then he said, “Let’s say the shema together.”
“I don’t know it that well.”
“I’ll say it and you’re with me so it’s together.”
He put his hand on my shoulder, closed his eyes, and rattled off the shema from memory like he prays it every day. And not just the part about loving God with all your heart, soul, and strength, but all the way through the part about wearing it on your head and putting it on your door posts.
I was a bit awkward through this whole exchange. I’ve never known how to deal with such outgoing, energetic and uninhibited people. I also didn’t know exactly what was going on with him saying the shema. It all happened so fast. One minute he’s cussing, the next he’s saying the shema in Hebrew. Was he praying? The way he put his hand on my shoulder and closed his eyes, speaking Hebrew in the middle of the Summerland farmer’s market crowd, he certainly seemed sincere.
And suddenly I was ashamed of my prejudice. I was angry that immediately I viewed this guy as no more than a huckster, a scheister. I was frustrated with my inherent discomfort with strangers, my unwillingness to be open with them, to show a manner of hospitality for those few moments.
I really liked the photograph. The first portion of the shema written on stone at the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem with a mezuzah–a box containing a parchment with the shema in it–cemented into the stone below it. Unfortunately, his full-sized photographs were priced at more than one hundred dollars. This one was one of the least expensive, but still–a hundred dollars.
“Here,” he said, fumbling through his collection. “Here’s one all rolled up and ready to go. It’s the one hundred dollar size, but because it’s a bit beat up and you’re a student, it’s yours for twenty bucks.”
“What’s it like inside?” I asked. It was taped shut. “Oh, it’s taped. You don’t have to open it.”
“No, I can open it. But if you and I trust in the same Guy…” he continued, pointing upwards. He said something about trusting that the picture was in good shape. He wandered off to find a knife. He came back and unrolled the photograph. It was bit creased and damaged around the edges, but good enough.
“Do you take cash?” I asked.
“I take cash, but I won’t return it!” he replied, laughing.
I bought the picture. We carried on for a while. He told me he had studied Torah in Jerusalem for five years. I was wearing a Michigan State t-shirt–blue with a big yellow “M” on it.
“You know what the ‘M’ stands for, don’t you?” he said. “Moses.”
I thanked him, nearly walked away from his hand, outstretched to shake mine. As I walked away, my mild xenophobia and judgmentalism continued to bother me. I overheard him talking to someone else about his rabbi. This guy–Mitch is his name–seemed like the real deal.
I wandered back and forth around the farmer’s market, hoping for another opportunity to talk to him. About what, I have no idea. Maybe ask him about his Jewish faith? Maybe about his travels? His photography gear? Who knows. I would have awkwardly fumbled through something. I just wanted to talk to him again, to somehow redeem what I thought was very apparent discomfort around him. I wanted to let him know that I was interested in him, that I did seem him as a human being. I had some weird guilt to deal with. Or maybe he was just charismatic enough, just interesting enough that I felt a pull towards him.
A little later, he spotted me and walked up.
“You know what just happened? Someone said, ‘I’ll be back.’ I’ve heard lots of ‘I’ll be back’s, but this person actually came back. And look what’s in her hand–that same shema picture, the one hundred dollar one on cardboard! You know what that is? Min hashamayim! Do you know what that means, min hashamayim?”
The words sounded so familiar, but I needed a minute to collect my thoughts, shift them into Hebrew.
“It sounds familiar. I’m trying to remember.”
He was walking back to his booth, to talk to the person who had just bought the picture. I imagined that perhaps he thought I was the fraud, the scheister, because I had said I knew the shema and studied Hebrew, but could remember little if anything during our conversation.
Suddenly it came to me.
“‘From the…from the heavens’! It means ‘From the heavens!’”
But he didn’t hear me. He was too far away, and was already talking to the other customer. He called me over and introduced me to the customer. I can’t remember what he said–there was some connection between us.
I had heard this customer ask for his card, so I did the same.
“Do you have a website?”
“Two websites. Unfortunately, my parents just died and I buried them, so I have no money and the sites are down. They cost about a thousands dollars a month to run.”
He gave me his card, wrote his name and phone number on the back. He told me and the other customer about a film he had been involved with in L.A. He said he was the cinematographer. I thanked him again and headed back to mom’s place. There I went straight to the computer, thinking that perhaps his websites might still be available. They aren’t. I searched “Jaffa gate shema” on Google images but found nothing resembling his photograph (but he had said, it was taken at Jaffa gate in the 80s “if it’s still there”). On IMDb, I checked the movie he mentioned. Different cinematographer named.
Was this whole encounter a long sales pitch? Or was this guy the real deal? Or was it a bit of both? It doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s a great photograph and I will frame it and hang it up somewhere special. More importantly, this exchange made me keenly aware of my own cynicism, distrust, prejudice, and the whole load of issues I have when it comes to strangers. I can’t say for sure that this was one of those special moments–a watershed encounter–but I won’t forget it for a long time, and it will forever be associated with the photograph of the shema and the mezuzah.