Thursday, April 26, 2012


Shael Siegel

The first time I met Moshe Posnitz was in Jerusalem, 1977. He was walking down a half flight of stairs with a towel slung over his right shoulder. His attire consisted of an old pair of tan shorts reminiscent of the pre-state days and an old yellowed undershirt that should have been turned into a rag years ago. Incongruous with his age and apparel were his flip-flops from a different time. They were worn so thin as to resemble those paper throw-aways given to clients having received a pedicure. so they can shuffle over to the manicure chair without disturbing the polish. He was of average height and appeared to be in his 70’s; at least that’s what a fare-skinned, blue-eyed, short cropped-grey haired, pot- bellied man would seem like to a thirty year old—perhaps he was younger. I have no way of knowing, nor wilI I ever know.

In the three years I knew him, we hardly spoke a word to each other, which was odd considering we were so close in proximity. He was my next-door neighbor sharing a common wall. More than that, the common wall we shared was the divider between his one room and my bedroom. It was even more intimate than that: the wall that we shared had a door that was locked on my side, as I’m sure it was locked on his as well (sort of like a hotel room with the possibility of adjoining the rooms). I guess he may have creeped me out a little.  When I moved in, I intentionally shoved a  large, oak wardrobe up against the wall, a product of Beit Jalla in the occupied territory, making sure that it covered completely any sign that a door was extant except for the high arch typical of old Arab construction.

I had been traumatized earlier in my initial aliya when I was rooming in an absorption center in upper Nazareth. My roommate was a middle-aged Russian immigrant, who, in the middle of the night appeared at the foot of my bed naked showing me his various scars earned like medals and ribbons from World War II. It was undoubtedly a very lonely and difficult time for this immigrant who probably sacrificed so much in order to immigrate to Israel. I imagined that he suffered much deprivation and witnessed horrible things, having lived through World War II, the Stalin years and the harshness of communism. He hadn’t family with him and I was afraid to ask about that, fearing that it would be difficult for me to process his tragic past. Unlike me, who spoke passable Hebrew, he didn’t know a word and was reduced to a baby trying to make himself understood. In spite of my sympathy for him, I wasn’t thrilled when entering our room one day I caught him rummaging through my belongings.  He was trying to protect me, he claimed, making sure that my “documents” weren’t exposed since there were known thieves at the absorption center. He advised me to secret all of my “papers” under the mattress. Needless to say I didn’t tarry there much longer.

Moshe Posnitz struck me as a lonely man although he never confided that to me, nor was there ever a “show and tell” session where he exposed himself and his scars. In fact, he rarely spoke to me and when he did, it was to complain about something I had done. “Your music is too loud” he’d mumble, rarely making eye contact. Or he’d complain that I was impinging on his turf at the entryway, which was shared, but with no demarcation between what was his and what was mine.

I was single and it seemed typical of my generation to still be flirting with life and searching for fun—I was not quite ready to settle down, never feeling alone although perhaps lonely at times. I never saw a guest enter his room nor did I ever see him dress to “go out”. The contrast between his personal status and mine was stark but nevertheless ominous. I was curious about how he lived, as though having more detail would blunt the truth about my own future. Although there was a thick wall separating Moshe’s existence from mine, he nevertheless succeeded in penetrating my consciousness. To be blunt I was afraid that I was destined to become Moshe Posnitz in the years ahead; a lonely impoverished old man whose entire universe was packed into one room.  I tried convincing myself that I was nothing remotely like him. I was a healthy young man with a bright and promising future, living in this apartment only as a temporary pass through. Deep down however, I couldn’t help thinking that his presence in my life was a sign of my imminent future. His presence was an omen: a vision of who I was to ultimately become and I found the thought oppressive. Lying in bed, staring up at the arch above the wardrobe I tried imagining who Moshe Posnitz had once been. What was he like as a young man? Did he have promise as an artist, writer or intellectual? I didn’t think that he had gone through the Holocaust, since there wasn’t a number tattooed on his arm. But perhaps he was in a resistance movement during the war and suffered greatly, maybe loosing his family. Perhaps he had fought in the War of Independence, was severely wounded, and reduced to his current existence through no fault of his. Fate. I promised myself to engage him in conversation when the opportunity would present itself. It never did. In any case, I felt that I needed to be kinder towards him even though he wasn’t open to my friendship. 

His door was usually open along with the window opposite the door for ventilation. I don’t think he owned a refrigerator, because his one or two apples, and an occasional tomato or cucumber were always parked on the windowsill. One naked incandescent light bulb hung from a frayed wire, suggesting that this room could have been a movie set for a KGB interrogation room in a ‘b” movie. That was all I could see from the doorway, as I would pass by slowly, careening my neck nonchalantly in the hope of gathering other details that would reveal something about this unusual man. I was always disappointed that it only took a few small steps to cross the breadth of the doorway—his personal possessions hidden from my line of vision.  

Although Moshe Posnitz never interacted with me in a socially meaningful manner, he did relate to the elderly Mrs. Liebschitz who shared his other wall with him.  Moshe Posnitz, sandwiched between the elderly Mrs. Liebschitz and me. What a thought! They fought like cats and dogs, mainly about petty things like usage of the clothesline.  Sometimes the rage went over the line, perhaps suggesting to a time when they had been passionate and illicit lovers. Now, all that remained was scorn. Sometimes the complaints were legitimate, like how much time he took or she took in the outhouse that was a half landing above our floor.  

I could never understand how anyone could or would spend much time in there. It was drafty and not very comfortable. Most of all, it wasn’t very private. The outhouse was constructed on an outside stairway, what is referred to as “Florida” style construction like a motel, except this one was two stories and built out of rugged Jerusalem stone. Neighbors living on the second floor would have to pass the outhouse going up the stairs and could hear private sounds through the flimsily constructed door. Similarly, the occupant could also hear the footsteps approaching or receding causing anxiety, which would have played havoc on my colonic system.

Apparently, that is where Moshe Posnitz was coming from, the first time I met him. The image of him descending the stairs like his namesake Moses, descending Mt. Sinai, left an indelible impression on me. Except Moses, they say, was humble; Moshe Posnitz had an imperious, smug, satisfied look on his face, as though, and unlike Moses, was relieved from unloading such a great burden.  

Moshe was the cause of much of my consternation. Typical of my generation, I hadn’t the privilege of knowing my grandfathers, hence, no clear idea of what older people were like. In a sense, unaware to me, but known to my subconscious, Moshe became the living symbol of what old age was all about. I even fantasized that I physically resembled him, in an Ashkenazi way. Would I become like him when I got older? Would I still be living here, in these primitive conditions, alone in the world when I reached his age? Looking at Moshe Posnitz was, in a sense, looking into my future and that became a life long obsession. 

Coming home from a prolonged trip abroad, I noticed that Moshe’s door was closed which was unusual, considering the season. Later that day I learned that he was gone. Gone, but in no way forgotten. Over the years I have thought much about those three years. During the intermittent years I travelled, raised a family and more than occasionally thought of Moshe. Periodically, I visit that old Jerusalem address and imagine him descending those stone stairs alone without a friend in the world. I am quickly approaching Moshe’s age when I first encountered him. Although my life in no way resembles his, I oftentimes sit back and consider the little I knew of Moshe—the powerful impact he had on that thirty-year old who shared a wall with him for a short three years.