By Sasha Vasilyuk
As she made her way to the Wailing Wall in the middle of her mourning, a shopkeeper stopped her with a question.
The hot wind whistled quietly through the row of Jerusalem’s labyrinthine cemetery, built into the dusty yellow mountainside.
I would have never found my grandmother’s grave if it weren’t for Inna, her college friend back from the Soviet Union, where we all had once lived. I called Inna as soon as I landed in Israel, the last stop on my year-long solo trip around the world.
When I met Inna outside of the hectic bus station, I was surprised by the admirable grace with which she wore her almost eight decades on earth. A book translator who still worked part-time, she had curious gray eyes, a neat hair bun and red lipstick that told me she was far from done with life.
When our taxi crossed the cemetery’s gates and descended down a eucalyptus-lined road that snaked into the peaceful kingdom of those who had crossed over, she told the driver to wait and led me down two sets of stone stairs past open-air terraces filled with rows of mountain-colored tombs. I followed my female Virgil feeling as if we were on the back stairs of the world’s most mysterious garage. On the third level down, she led me toward the outer end of the terrace and then stopped suddenly, pointing to a square tomb on the second row from the bottom, marked by black granite Hebrew words I couldn’t read.
“Say hello to your grandmother,” she said in Russian and walked off to gather a few small rocks to place on the small ledge of her friend’s tomb.
Underneath the Hebrew I traced the more familiar Cyrillic characters that spelled the name and years of life of my mother’s mother, my Jewish progenitor who I had not seen for more than two decades since she bought a one-way ticket to Israel.
She left at a tumultuous time, when the eternal massif of the Soviet Union was cracking with astonishing speed, releasing an avalanche of Russian Jews eager to move abroad to Israel, America or Australia. My grandmother, a divorced literature professor living in Uzbekistan, an originally Muslim republic with uncertain post-Soviet future, chose Israel, where she had several close friends, including Inna.
There was no one else in this section of the cemetery, and in the late morning stillness I felt my grandmother beside me. The warmth of her skin. Her round, tanned face. Reddish curls that bounced when she moved. A laugh that rang like wind chimes.
Inna came back and placed three rocks on the ledge of the tomb. I didn’t want to leave this peaceful place that suddenly conjured my grandmother’s image, but I knew the taxi was waiting.
As the cab weaved back up the mountainside toward the city, Inna told me, “I’m really glad you came to visit your grandmother. I see a lot of similarities in you.”
I felt the same way. My grandmother and I had shared a sense of independence that had propelled us to leave one life in search of another. Twenty years after she made her life-changing decision, I also bought a one-way ticket, leaving behind family, friends, and a marriage that no longer worked.
Now, on the final lap of a journey meant to help me put myself back together, I wished I saw her when she was still alive. I wished I could learn more about her life and gain a little wisdom to live my own. But she was gone. I hoped that Inna would tell me more about her, but there was no time as she had to rush home for the start of the Jewish high holidays and I had to meet a friend at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
When she left, I walked down a wide, empty road along the towering Old City’s wall where I suddenly felt more alone than I had through most of my solo journey over the past year. I ached for connection, for wisdom, but there was no one to give it to me here, in a city of strangers. I was on my own.
As soon as I entered through the ancient Jaffa Gate, I was immediately plunged into a dizzying bazaar where I had to put aside my thoughts and join the boiling river of people flowing down the narrow alley. I was running late to meet my friend, so I hurried past the shopkeepers doggedly hawking their wares: red carpets, wooden crosses, miniature chess sets, green carpets, gooey baklava, silver jewelry, evil-eye charms, more carpets.
“Can I ask you a question, miss? Excuse me, miss! I just wanted to ask you…”
I flew by them, weaving my way past tourists haggling over souvenirs and ducking under giant trays of fresh sesame-seed bread carried by deft young Israeli men.
Then, I suddenly stopped. Or rather, something stopped me in front of a shop with unpolished silver antiques. What caught my attention wasn’t the heap of oil lamps, samovars, and menorahs. It was the old shopkeeper who sat on a small stool with a calm of someone who belonged under the shade of an oak tree in a peaceful meadow, not in the madness of an urban bazaar.
His eyes matched the deep blue of his simple work shirt and as he stared ahead, his mind elsewhere, I stood entranced by this Middle Eastern Buddha. When his eyes met mine, he smiled and said, “Come in, take five minutes inside.”
“I’m in a hurry,” I said skittishly, without moving. “Someone is waiting for me.”
“Our whole life passes as we hurry,” he replied. “When we are kids, we hurry to grow up. Then, we grow up and hurry to find…”
“Yes, I know,” I interrupted, remembering the hectic life I had left behind. “Everyone always hurries. But I’ve been traveling for almost a year and haven’t felt much hurry.”
“Did you find yourself?” he asked, as if he knew exactly what had sent me away from home and brought me serendipitously to his doorstep.
“I think so,” I said, surprised by his question. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do, anyway.”
He considered me quietly.
“You keep a guard, but you shouldn’t. You’re beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, and a little stubborn. Come in,” he gestured toward the depths of his silver cave. “I want to talk to you.”
I could have said no and left for the Wailing Wall, where my friend was probably already waiting. But I couldn’t help myself. There was something hurried about my visit to the cemetery and the old shopkeeper’s comforting gaze offered a chance to pause, to reflect, to close some sort of loop that I had left unsealed. I walked to the back of his store, past piles of silver fortune and sat on a soft red cushion. He sat down on a chair a few feet in front of me, his small figure framed by rows of ivory bracelets. An antique clock slept above his balding head.
“Are you in love with yourself?” he asked.
Wait, who was this guy anyway? My inner skeptic protested against a question that sounded presumptuous and offensive, urging me to get up and leave. Instead, I sat, unable to move.
I pondered his question. I thought I was able to leave my marriage and go on a long self-discovery journey precisely because I loved myself enough. And yet going through the divorce left me, even a year later, feeling like a failure, my self-esteem at a lifelong low.
“Sometimes,” I said, offering the most truthful and succinct answer I could find.
I paused again, my eyes focused on dozens of beaded bracelets hanging in front of me.
“Can you love yourself even though you feel that no one loves you?” I said in a careful voice of an equilibrist trying not to fall off a rope.
But it was too late: as I heard myself say the words, a traitorous tear rolled down my cheek. I didn’t come here seeking pity and I didn’t want to burden a stranger with my story, a story of a broken heart and loneliness that was too common in the modern world. Embarrassed, I turned away and pretended to look around the store. Trying to find something else to talk about, I asked about an old samovar on his shelf. Surely, it would distract a man of commerce. Yet the mysterious shopkeeper made no reply. When I turned to face him again, he was looking at me with understanding, not pity.
“To love yourself doesn’t mean to be selfish,” he said. “To love yourself means to be at peace with your body, your soul, with who you are. I see that you’re hiding yourself because you feel ashamed of your tears, but even with tears you are beautiful.”
As if encouraged, my tears now started streaming down my face. Yet I was no longer embarrassed. It was surprisingly freeing to let myself cry in front of this kind stranger.
“Love is simple,” he said, pressing his wrinkled hand to his heart. “I know I haven’t known you for very long, but … I love you.”
He said it so naturally that looking into his serene blue eyes, I believed him.
Who said that love was the lifelong emotion that wives feel toward their husbands and mothers toward their children? Why couldn’t love be a sudden burst of kindness in a dusty shop in Old Jerusalem?
The two of us sat quietly, pausing to give space to our serendipitous bond as the clamor of the bazaar was muted outside.
Then, three women walked into the store, and our moment passed. I looked at my watch. I was now an hour late.
Wiping away my tears, I thanked the shopkeeper and rejoined the tourist river outside, making my way to the Wailing Wall.
Sasha Vasilyuk is a Russian-American writer who grew up in disparate climates of Moscow and California. She wrote her first book when she was eight, a lightly veiled tale of the collapse of the Soviet Union, starring safari animals. She is currently working on her second attempt at a book—a memoir about her return to live in Russia after fifteen years in the United States. She has an MA in Journalism from New York University and in recent years has written about Russian chefs for the Los Angeles Times, power couples for the San Francisco Chronicle, mad scientists for Newsweek, and the civil war in Ukraine—where she still has family—for USA Today.