Elisha Porat
Elisha Porat
was a 1996 winner of Israel's Prime Minister's Prize for Literature, has published more than a dozen volumes of fiction and poetry in Hebrew since 1973. His works have appeared in translation in Israel, the United States, Canada, and England.

He was born in 1938 to a pioneer family in Petah Tikva, Israel. In the early 1930s his parents were among the founders of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, where he was raised and still makes his home.

Drafted into Israeli Army in 1956, heserved in a frontline reconnaissance unit and fought the Six Day war in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. As a lifelong member of his kibbutz, he has worked as a farmer as well as a writer. He currently performs editorial duties for several literary journals. You can contact him at


Posted 06.02
Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, Israel


Clean Slate: Part 1

Yes, for me too, that was my first encounter with a real impostor. Of course, I did not believe it at first. I behaved as everyone did. No one wanted to believe that our Yehoshua, Shuka Mashiah, the platoon clerk, was an impostor from so far back that a long-standing dossier of suspicions against him amounted to a thick file. As later became clear, he was no mere impostor but a cruel one. He worked as a junior associate in a small town law office in Gush Dan. His manners were so refined that I could not imagine that he was capable of such despicable acts.

But these were professional airs he affected, a magisterial flourish of the hand when signing a document, the aura of a haughty sense of confidence while examining a contract's fine print. These were the clever traps he set at his desk. He was a small man, slightly built, not strong. He was quick to redden at the slightest matter and whined like a woman. "Shuka, come here, girl," the men taunted him. "Shuka, hey, don't go. Be a good girl, Shuka, and bring us something to drink." The jeers thinly veiled the revenge they sought for the man who had betrayed their trust, who had cheated them like faceless clients of his law office, as if they had not cowered together, shoulder to shoulder, night and day, under mind-numbing bombardments.

He was called up some days after the war broke out. He was not easy to find, he told us, which was why he joined us late. We could not possibly lose the war, he teased: every position in the platoon had been filled before he arrived. A spot was found for him as assistant to the platoon clerk but he soon took control, ensnaring our apathetic commander in a craftily woven web of compliments and flattery.

Why had he not been found at home? Why had he been late arriving at the emergency depot? Pure idiocy, the blockheads in mobilization forgot that he had recently changed addresses. He had moved to a run-down Orthodox neighborhood in Bnei Brak of small, crowded homes forever steaming with heat and dampness in summer and cooking fumes in winter. From their cramped porches bursting with children rose swarms of flying bees and a melody of foreign Hebrew mixed with Yiddish. There was no post office or telephone, nor any conscripts to be rounded up. His call up order skipped from one end of town to the other until he was finally located.

The neighbors watched in surprise as he went down the peeling steps. Still unsure what to make of him, they accompanied him with muttered prayers of mercy. "Yes, go, don't worry. We will pray for your safety without rest. Fear not, my servant, be not afraid, O worm Jacob." And then, quietly, they whispered to him, "The war won't be over so quickly. Some crumbs of the cake will be left even for you."

Bnei Brak is a small town in the Gush Dan region, built long ago on swamp land overrun with brambles. There is nothing behind it but dense groves of oranges. In his dreams, the dark groves were like the patches of children's forests back in Europe. Twice each day, the train to Jerusalem whistled just outside his window. On rainy winter mornings, puddles of water lapped over the sidewalks and doorways into the little houses. He never spoke so much as a word about the family he once had, even on evenings dripping with heart-rending nostalgia. When we sat in the dark, sealed in our bunkers and frozen hilltop outposts, hearts opened and the men recalled events of their former lives buried for years. But Shuka Mashiah did not soften.

Yes, its true, he once had a family. The battalion gossiped about the two small daughters and a wife he had been obliged to place in a hospital. They had scattered to every corner of the land. He had erased them from his life and now, though he was certain they knew he had been called to the northern front, they did not even write him. He really did seem truthful describing the breakup of his family. We secretly inspected his personal mail for some weeks. No word at all came from his kin, only those scented pink and blue letters from the divorced woman in Tiberias whom he deceived free of any guilty pangs of conscience.

He was a junior associate, shuffling papers from one desk to another in the law offices where he was employed. He raced after the attorneys when they called on clients, set out refreshments, served them cups of tea and cleaned up when they left. How easy it is to see him, a foppish smile on his face, taking on extra tasks as he did with the platoon's papers. The work, though not exceptionally demanding, by its nature was humiliating. He makes that a game with them. They move him about like a piece of office furniture. "Fine, but we'll see." He labors like an Arab porter. There is something in the joke that changes the entire picture. Shuka Mashiah, a junior associate in whom their confidence was still reserved, very reserved.

But he laughs at all of us, the soldiers and commanders and lawyers, even his landlord. He grunts with effort. A glow suddenly flickers on his red face deep in heaps of paper. He winks at us watching him with trepidation. Then, in military jargon seasoned with a dash of the hybrid language of Bnei Brak, he says, "We'll see who is really the boss around here." Not all his virtues and charm were revealed when he became our platoon clerk. Still, with Moshe from the motor pool and Franco the driver, I made the effort to travel to the law offices where he worked. It was clear from the earnest descriptions the people in the office provided that they too saw him as a strange bird ill suited to his tasks. But it never crossed their minds either that they were dealing with a skilled con artist.

I learned from them about his movements, his appealing delivery, his clownish games. He would spend hours glued to the telephone, head bent over the receiver, in hushed tones whispering every imaginable term of endearment to women far, far away. The boys once accidentally overheard a call. It seems he was engrossed in pledging marriage to a nubile secretary he knew in another office. What didn't he promise her? What words didn't he speak? He boasted that there was nothing he couldn't do for her, even going AWOL and deserting the trenches. The way he coaxed her, he was nearly kneeling before the telephone. They were not exaggerating in the least. I confirmed their accounts and even added to them. What I could not forget were the long telephone conversations with his betrothed, the beautiful, innocent divorcee in Tiberias.

"My little darling, sugar, listen to me. Listen to me for a minute. You just don't know what you're saying. You're such a simple innocent, they'll eat you up. Listen to me, I know my way around this sort of business. It's not just because I'm an experienced lawyer. I work magic over the clients. They simply can't resist me. You'll see." The men were utterly bewildered by this flood of sweet talk. Not once could we determine the subject of his conversations with the naive little darling. Lots for sale in a Tiberias neighborhood? The battered car he urged her to sell? Money she and her elderly mother kept in a savings account? This swindler, inflicted with the disease of selling lots and buying apartments, cheated his women without a qualm. Like a busy spider, he spun his webs of fine silk. He snared them the way he might drape their bodies in a new dress he had bought just for them. None of the men attributed much importance to his burblings. There was a war out there, and it shook up everything else. Nothing was as solid as it had been before. Men seduced women on the telephone or on long rides to the front or in the dance halls of Tiberias. No evil was apparent yet in any of his actions. How could I guess that Shuka Mashiah - "Fear not, O worm Jacob,. go, we will pray for you" - how could I guess that he was a criminal charlatan?


(Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks)