At the Fork in the Tongue
Sometimes I am too afraid to plunge into my languages, to speak them when
I must. English is lazy but the others are hard. I prefer listening and the quiet places, the Israel
Museum, where the languages come to you when you are alone, when you are left
alone. The labels, written in Hebrew, Arabic, English, explain that my favorite object is from Egypt,
sort of: a foundation stone from the reaches of the Fatimid empire, defaced when
the Crusaders came to Ascalon and carved their shields and their Latin words into the
rocks and the sides of buildings: graffiti. But more famous is what museum people called the house
of David stele. They powdered the words beit David with talc to make them stand out at the bottom of
what’s left. Jehu’s name is there but Jehoram’s name is supplied twice. The house of Jacob
is a fiction and an anachronism and so it is not there. The last time the Crusader graffito left
Israel I saw it at the Metropolitan Museum, high-contrast from its home. Latin letters on the
label, Arabic ones on the stone. Archaeologists — golden shovels — found the strange-tongued
place where David’s house learned the language, became a nation,
felt the shock of exchange: useful, familiar talk for sacred. In the hills of Judah,
a troubled and a real unreal geography, bending to pick up a tripod on the last day of the season became
a singular discovery: A change of perspective. Almost a mistake. Nothing holy.
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