Tomorrow afternoon, according to custom, we’ll read my favorite volume of the Bible: the book of Jonah. Jonah is unique among the prophets. He’s the one who doesn’t say “here I am” when God comes calling.
Instead, he runs away, boarding a ship bound for Tarshish, which scholars speculate could have been one of a number of settlements doting the edges of the Mediterranean. It might have been as far away as Spain. What matters is that it was in the opposite direction from Nineveh, the Assyrian metropolis where God wanted him to go.
God pursues him. A storm comes up, threatening to capsize his vessel, and Jonah, realizing it’s all for his sake, magnanimously instructs the sailors to throw him overboard. He nearly drowns, before being swallowed up by a “big fish”, which, for convenience sake, I’ll refer to as a whale. He spends three days in its belly, before it spews him out on the shore. Then he journeys on to Nineveh.
Some of the more hostile critics of religion argue that we practitioners cannot be taken seriously, because we think that a man can live for three days in the guts of a fish. Maybe literal believers in this story deserve such mockery. But we don’t make dogma from Pinocchio, and, more to the point, a fable can hold spiritual meaning even if we don’t accept it as factual truth.
Whether or not the waters really parted when the Israelites were trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, that famous tale expresses faith that unexpected liberation can emerge even in a patently hopeless situation. Similarly, Jonah’s sojourn in the belly of the whale gives us the opportunity to meditate on the experience of finding improbable, even miraculous, refuge at a time when we are drowning.
I have an inkling of what that might be like. Maybe you do, too.
Once, on a hot July midnight, I found myself at the central railroad station in Zagreb, the capital of the newly independent Republic of Croatia. I’d come from Vienna, and was switching to the overnight train running down the Dalmatian Coast to the city of Split, on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. It was the first of three summers I spent traveling, in my mid-20s, between my return from study in Ireland and my enrollment in rabbinical school. I would cobble together a living during the year, tutoring, translating, and eventually doing a little writing. Then, in the summer, I’d make my way over to Tarshish–I mean Europe–usually to attend a Yiddish seminar and do some backpacking on the side.
That summer I was 26, and the sense of movement and accomplishment I derived from seeing new sights every day compensated for the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. In London, I went to the Globe Theater and St. Paul’s. I saw the changing of the guards and the tourist families in Trafalgar Square covering themselves in an excrescence of pigeons. I visited a high school friend who was studying in Glasgow. We stumbled home together from the pubs, at three in the morning, as the northern dawn began to break. I saw Paris, staying in the 16th arrondissement with a Tunisian-Jewish acquaintance, calling at the Louvre, and sitting in the audience at the Comédie-Française. I crashed, in Berlin, on the floor of an architect I had known in Brooklyn. We went to the Bauhaus Museum and to see the Ishtar Gate of Nebuchadnezzer at the Pergamon. The memory is a little fuzzy, but I think he also took me to the opera, a variety show, and a techno dancehall, maybe all in the same night.
From Prague onwards I no longer had any friends to rely on, and had to do my best to strike up conversations at the youth hostels to stave off my loneliness.
I tried to impress a fellow traveller by bragging that I’d been sneaking on to the Czech subway. But, surprisingly, he took me to task, and, bitten by conscience, I began paying two fares for every ride I took.
I spent an evening talking, only talking, to a pretty Canadian, about something dumb like Kierkegaard. When she was gone the next day, I walked the grey streets of Budapest in a blue funk.
In the middle of the night, somewhere in Slovakia, a family of smugglers entered my railway cabin. They began stashing vodka wherever they could find a plausible hiding place. I pretended to be asleep, but after the Polish customs officer had come and gone, I stirred and opened my eyes, and the young man among them winked and offered me a conspiratorial smile.
I had just enough cash to pay for my lodgings in Warsaw, but no more, because it was Sunday and the banks were closed. So I spent a hungry day on my bunk I went to the station the next morning, and though the big board said, and I’m not kidding about this–I have a photograph somewhere–that there was a train leaving for Chelm, I took the one for Vilna, in the land of my Litvak ancestors.
But history was being made in Europe that very summer. Less than a decade had passed since the onset of the savage dissolution of Yugoslavia. We were talking, that year, about Kosovo, as we would later come to talk about Aleppo. In response to allegations of genocide, NATO had begun bombing Serbia in March, a campaign that ended around the time I was strolling through the gardens of Versailles. Out of the same perverse impulse to survey the newsworthy suffering of others that had once taken me up to the Falls and Shankill Road neighborhoods in Belfast, I felt drawn toward the Balkans. My first idea was to go to Sarajevo. But Croatia, which was itself only four years removed from a brutal war, on its own turf, with the Serbs, proved more accessible.
In the end, it was little more than an odd detour.
The station in Split was populated by elderly women offering to let rooms in their houses to visiting tourists. They would walk back and forth along the platform, muttering the word “room” in German, English, and Croatian. Zimmer. Soba. Room.I took one of them up on her offer, staying overnight in the little concrete home she shared with her son and daughter-in-law, and their newborn baby. I have no recollection how we communicated with each other, but they were friendly, and showed me which bus to take to get to the beach. I walked the grounds of the Emperor Diocletian’s palace and climbed the bell-tower of the 4th century cathedral. I treated myself to the cheapest offering at the terrace restaurant of a luxury hotel. The menu was in seven languages. In every column, there was a deliberate pen slash through the same proper noun in a two-word phrase. You could still see what the proprietors had tried to efface, but the message was clear: if you wanted to order the characteristic tomato dish of the enemy, you had better just call it “salad.” (The offending word was: “Serbian.”)
I swam in the Adriatic in the afternoon, and meant to go on to the islands. But I lost my ferry ticket, and, in a snit of frustration, shuffled out of town.
But I’ve run away from myself. I need to back up. I meant to tell you about what happened the night before I arrived in Split–about Zagreb, and the belly of the whale.
The heat was really rising, and the thrill was wearing thin. Though I was sheepish about throwing around my American purchasing power I decided, at the ticket window in Vienna, to upgrade to first-class. I wanted to insure that the 18-hour trip, due south over the easternmost Alps and down to the sea, would pass in maximum peace.
But it turns out I misunderstood the deal. My first-class credentials were only good with the Austrian authorities, and the train line was multinational. At the Slovenian border, the new conductor bumped me down to third-class. It wasn’t so bad. The new cabin seemed nearly identical to the more expensive one, just a different color, and I shared it with only a single other passenger. As evening came on, I ate the cheese and fruit I had packed for myself, and gazed out at the beautiful countryside. I remember pine forests, a shallow river running over a gravelly bed, a heron flapping just above the surface of a lake at sunset. Then I must have fallen asleep.
I awoke as we were crossing into Croatia, and nearing the capital. I don’t think I realized I’d have to switch trains until we got there. It was unsettling, especially in my groggy state, and, again I don’t know how I figured out much of anything, now that I was past that part of Europe where I had any hope of getting by in a local language.
I staggered out to the platform, and followed the crowd.
As I said, it was close to midnight, and very hot, but the station was brimming with locals, bustling on to the coastal train for their holidays, including a horde of schoolchildren in scout uniforms. My pack was stowed in the duffel bag I stashed it in when I wasn’t hiking. I guess I’d been too disconcerted to think about taking it out and hoisting it on my back, so I was dragging it behind me like a corpse as I stumbled forward.
The scouts had beaten me to the next train, and were settling in with their chaperons, full of the bubbling energy kids will exude when adventuring in the summertime. When they saw me, bald, sweating, and grumpy, dragging a sack behind me as I blundered down the hallway, they screamed in terrified delight, ran into their cabins, shut the doors, pulled back the curtains of the little rectangular windows, stuck their faces against the glass and watched as I lurched up and down the hallway looking for a seat of my own.
I couldn’t find one, not in the car I had boarded nor in any of those adjacent. Each of the cabins was occupied to capacity. I was the odd man out, and, after a while, I was just too spent to continue the search. I dropped my bag in the back corner of a hallway and sat down heavily upon it. I laid my head against a pipe that was running from the floor to the ceiling, closed my eyes, and, as the train crept away from the city, tried to reach oblivion.
The conductor came by a few times to hassle me, but his words were meaningless and his sign language unwelcome, and, anyhow, I was too tired to care.
But he kept coming back, and, eventually, it dawned on me that his gestures were always motioning forward. It occurred to me they might hold more significance than a simple “move along.” So I got up and, still dragging the pack behind me, crossed into the next car. It was as full as it had been before. But I kept moving. The next one was also full, and so was the one after that. It wasn’t till I had gone five cars ahead that I came upon the miracle.
I pushed upon the door, and discovered: nothing. Quiet. It was entirely vacant from front to back. It was like a ghost car, each of the cabins totally empty. It was like a dream–and it got better.
I walked midway down the corridor before I chose a spot for myself. The cabins held two facing rows of three seats each, covered in a velvety, maroon synthetic. After a brief period of experimentation, I discovered that these seats slid down on a hinge to a perfect horizontal, the ends of the two facing chairs meeting in the middle without a gap between them. I was alone in the cabin. I let down all the seats and made a king-sized bed. lay down, beside my pack, as if coming to rest against the lining of a plush womb.
Something came over me: a lightness, a giddiness, an abandon, a release from fatigue, anxiety, and frustration. I did, at that moment, what Jonah did, buried beneath the sea, in his improbable refuge: I sang. And every so often the train would slow, and, through the window, I’d see the light from a little wayward station, standing out against the night, on a landscape that might’ve had recently been a battlefield.
There’s really only one other moment in my travels that I can compare to this.
It happened a year later, when I was walking and hitchhiking along the Breton coast, in northwestern France. I got ensnared in a tangle of shops and bungalows, and lost my way. You’d think that in a seaside town it wouldn’t be so hard to find the water, but that’s what happened. Then, suddenly, the road turned, and the bay lay before me. It was dark blue, covered with the sun, and ringed around by flowers. Out on the ocean I could see a small boat, with a white sail fluttering in the breeze. I started to cry, in an upswelling of joy that was out of all proportion, as if my body had experienced a relief in finding its way that went much deeper than a little misadventure on a coastal path. In another era, it might have been easier to characterize this as spiritual transcendence, though, I think, understanding it in physiological terms diminishes very little of its power. It was a moment of emotional release, in the midst of a journey that had started to seem pointless and desperate, and it returned me to myself.
Even more, it carried with it the invigoration of a new courage, just as Jonah might have felt when he set out on the road for Nineveh, or as I started to experience more often, myself, a couple of years later, when I stopped wandering so much and started turning into a rabbi.
It wasn’t exactly a logical intention that prompted me to tell you this story tonight. It just felt right. I’m always looking for a way to express my understanding of Yom Kippur eve, on which we listen intently to words that we barely understand as they whisper of improbable refuge and incomprehensible release.
It’s a night when so many more people than usual arrive at my door, and I wonder: looking for what? running from what? drowning in what? And I started thinking of that night when I rode like a vagabond king through a haunted land, and, in the morning, saw the hot sun rising over the sea, and the bullet scars in the masonry of squat stone houses, and the old woman at the station muttering–rooms, rooms, rooms–in all the languages she knew.
And it occurred to me that the best thing I could say to you is this: come on in. Welcome to the belly of the whale.