Samuel Halevi was a clay worker in his spare time. He made abaci. More specifically, he made abacus beads out of clay. The frames he made from wood, or had made by a carpenter. In his youth he had spent weeks making a clay frame only to have it shatter on the ground. From that day, clay frames were added to the growing class of impracticality that Samuel was nurturing in his mind. But he never lost his love of the glazed clay beads.
Abacus makers were uncommon, spare time rarer still. Samuel didn’t make much money with abacus beads. His profession, you’ll recall, was tax collecting. Clay was his one indulgence. Walking through town, he would stop along the Tagus and examine the muck, looking for the purest deposits. To avoid dirtying the money, he would dig with his clothes around his hands and arrive home at night caked. His wife Zifura gritted her teeth.
Not for Samuel a cylinder cut into discs—his beads came out of a mold in smooth, flattened spheres. Adding color was his sole artistic flourish. For those to whom Moorish numerals were akin to sorcery (mostly Christians), he made the traditional abacus. For the savvier businessmen, he used the simplified design of Sylvester II, the French pope who fell in love with the numbers of the heathen East. Samuel relished the irony and clearly put more care into the simple version. So, asked his son, why only make the most tedious parts of the abacus? Make an exquisite frame, dye it, glaze it, give it to a noble Almoravid house and let them praise your skill.
“I make useful things,” Samuel would reply, “for people who can count.”
“I’m Facebook friends with an honest-to-god Giller Prize winner!”
Ruth can’t remember exactly how or when she became connected with Johanna Skibsrud—the same is true for at least two-thirds of Ruth’s Facebook friends. But she was impressed enough to become an expert on the writer’s career and the latest kerfuffle in the Canadian publishing industry.
It’s a story tailor-made for Ruth: foremost literary prize goes to unknown author—unknown even by Canadian standards—whose novel is published by a tiny press specializing in handmade books. Tiny press refuses to allow huge publisher to mass-produce enough copies to meet sudden demand.
“They won’t cheapen their craft,” Ruth told everybody, steering every conversation to it. It seems like the moment we came home from up north, she threw herself into an authenticity kick, an artisanal kick. When it became clear the Skibsrud book would be distributed by a midrange publisher, Ruth was too busy firing pots in a Parkdale studio to weigh this new development.
For Christmas, most people on Ruth’s list received a copy of The Sentimentalists and a piece of glazed clay in the shape of a specific emotion. I’ve never heard so many variations on the phrase “oh, wow” in my life.
I’m worried that this fervor may presage a low period for Ruth, although at least that would keep her at home. She got a holiday job at a cheese shop, and I found myself walking by it during her shifts, eyeing the street for men loitering. Luckily, when we go out together we visit places where crowds are minimal: the ceramics museum, the textiles museum, an Inuit throat singer at the library. I admit I enjoyed that last one quite a bit.
I’ve been drywalling a little with Jesus, but mostly the work I hoped for is turning out to be unpaid guard duty. Again. I’ve walked Ruth home enough that she’s getting annoyed. For security reasons, I haven’t even wanted to blog. Ruth drew the line there.
“You’re not using me as an excuse,” she said. “I’ll even give you a topic from Blogging 101: What’s the best gift you’ve ever given or been given?”
The second Samuel Halevi was not good with his hands, except when he held a sword. Exquisite abaci were made for him, not by him. His clothes and eyes were brighter than his distant cousin’s. He didn’t have the first Samuel’s profound devotion, though his family name was imbued with layers of mysticism that remain to this day. What he had was Judah’s charisma and the bearing of a knight. To the Jews, he was Shmuel ben Meir Halevi Abulafia, but not the famous Meir Halevi Abulafia, some other Abulafia, and there were a lot of them, and a lot of Halevis too. To the Christians, he was Don Samuel, treasurer to the king.
It wasn’t enough to follow fashion. Don Samuel had to dictate it. But in that age of unstoppable Christian conquest, he had to outdo the gentiles without seeming to. The pressures he felt from his learned ancestors, his jealous coreligionists, and his much more extravagant colleagues, not to mention his absurdly high standing, combined to make him obsess over his public image and question his identity as a Jew.
And then I fell into his lap.
When that humble miner led me through Toledo’s Jewish quarter, little-changed in geography yet far more prosperous and confident and vital, and presented me to the only Samuel Halevi he knew, the compact dynamo came out of his cluttered chamber and looked at me in a way the first Samuel never had.
I made him wildly happy.
In a glance, he knew my true nature. Instantly calculated my worth. I was a unique extravagance that could never be bested, not even by a king. How to honor Hashem for this gift and square his lifestyle with the ascetics? Don Samuel announced that Pedro had given permission to construct his own synagogue—not a squat, humble affair, but a vaulted palace.
It was my first fine work, and my best. I had slept through the golden age of Holy Toledo, through Averroës and Maimonides, but I made my mark on it. Of course I wasn’t the planner or architect. I cut and raised and piled and joined. I watched the moresco carvers and moved my hands like theirs, and when they were called away to prayer, I kept on. I scraped away at a thousand beams and stones through the days and nights. And you can still see it in old Toledo, overlooking the river where another Samuel collected the clay that made the man that built the esnoga. They call it El Transito for its many lives.
The small press in Nova Scotia has survived and come out the better, yet now we hear that Key Porter Books has not been so lucky. The cessation of operations may be temporary, but “temporary” is frightening. “Temporary” is my least favorite word. How long is temporary? Everything and nothing is temporary. Brief isn’t much better. Short is all but meaningless. They carry a staggering burden, these words.
Ruth has faith that the stories in editing limbo at Key Porter will find their way to book form. “Canadians don’t let these things just fall through the cracks. Art is an institution here.”
The word “crack,” now, I like. It’s much older than “institution.”