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-Joseph, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo

Judges inner

Nessa Rapoport 



A note from the writer: This post was written in the world before Coronavirus.  

How to Avoid Writing

“I then have my coffee and come down to this room, sit at my desk, and wait. Without reading, listening to music, or answering the phone.”


That’s how Amoz Oz, whose words these are, wrote 40 books, including 14 novels.


I cannot say the same.


I may begin by looking up something online that obliquely relates to my work. But then –


Some of the rabbit holes I’ve gone down, down, down are:


Anything I don’t already know about Kim Philby, master spy for the Soviet Union, especially after I read Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, with its description of Philby’s betrayal of his closest friend, in addition to his country. I have also watched, scores of times, the riveting 1955 TV interview, “Philby Talks,” in which he denies being the Third Man of the “Cambridge Five” spy ring – which he was. 


Look what he does with his hands


Speaking of the Soviet Union, George Balanchine, who left Russia in 1924, saw his brother again only in 1962, when the New York City ballet went there on tour. The reunion – I read – did not go well. Wouldn’t you want to know why?

The Nili spy ring, based in Zichron Yaakov, can consume many an hour. Hillel Halkin’s spellbinding A Strange Death follows the trail over decades. Who in Zichron betrayed these young idealists during the Great War? How did Sarah Aaronsohn have the presence of mind to shoot herself during her capture and torture by the Turks? As for Avshalom Feinberg: In 1917, he traveled to Egypt, by foot. No one knew what happened to him until 1967, after the Six-Day War, when his remains were found in Sinai under a palm tree that had grown from date seeds in his pocket. 


I am haunted by those date seeds.


More lost and found: The two ships of the 1845 Franklin Expedition, which disappeared in the Canadian Arctic while trying to navigate the Northwest Passage. In vain, Lady Franklin funded several subsequent expeditions to locate her husband and his crew.


About 170 years later, in 2014 and 2016, the Erebus and then the Terror were discovered, underwater. 

You can see the dining room plates, still on their shelves on the Terror:

Or listen to a gorgeous version of the 19th-century ballad, “Lady Franklin’s Lament”:

I compulsively read any story about someone who finds only in adulthood that she is Jewish. And any – any - trustworthy update on Raoul Wallenberg’s heartbreaking fate.


Although the redemptive ending may tarry, still I wait.


I have been known to take my husband’s jeweler’s loupe to examine, under 10x magnification, the photograph I keep on my desk of the summer cottage my family had for a half century – now gone. 


If I keep looking, I might see, behind the porch screen, my grandmother, reading the New Statesman, or my uncle, impossibly young.


So far, the photograph is unyielding. But I believe, ardently, that one day, while I’m avoiding my writing, I’ll take out the loupe, and –

Nessa Rapoport is the author of Preparing for Sabbath, a novel; A Woman’s Book of Grieving, prose poems; and House on the River, a memoir. Her new novel, Evening, will be published in September 2020 by Counterpoint Press. She worked on it for slightly longer than she’s been alive. Now you know why.

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