Outside Man’s Jurisdiction

Willa Cather House on the southwest corner of 3rd Avenue and Cedar Street in Red Cloud, Nebraska; seen from the northeast. Built ca. 1878.

In 2015, I retired and moved with my wife to the Land of Israel in the first week of August of that year. Previously, my wife had attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem and, with her former husband and children, had lived in Haifa. For me, our move was only my third trip to Israel. My first was our honeymoon, and my second visit was our pilot trip to determine where we wanted to live. We stayed with friends in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Beersheba. After returning to the US, we compared notes and decided to make Beersheba our home. It is where we live now.

When we arrived in Beersheba, we rented rooms for a couple of weeks, waiting for our longer-term apartment to become available and for our shipped goods to arrive. The rooms we rented were in a part of the city near Ben-Gurion University. As is true of many universities, BGU has numerous eating places in the area where students can gather to enjoy conversation over good, inexpensive food. My wife spent part of her childhood in India, and we were delighted to find a tasty Indian restaurant.

During this early period, old friends of Beth’s invited us to join them at a vacation place they owned in Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev Desert, near the Makhtesh Ramon, the world’s largest erosion box canyon. We were to enjoy some light hiking, but the primary event was a night drive down into the Makhtesh, where we stopped, took out some chairs brought for the occasion, and gazed up at the most glorious, brilliant, blue-black night sky I had ever seen. The specific attraction was the abundance of shooting stars. It was a fantastic way to begin our lives in the land.

Makhtesh Ramon. Photo by Photo by Hagai Agmon-Snir حچاي اچمون-سنير חגי אגמון-שניר. Wikimedia Commons.

Many years ago, while living in Jackson, Mississippi, I had a childhood friend who moved from Jackson to Houston, Texas. I remember the first time I went to visit her. Mississippi is lush, rolling land, deep green, humid, and semi-tropical. I recall one place on the road in Texas where all of a sudden, it seemed as if the world had opened up entirely, flattening its edges like the top of a large dinner table. I did not remember ever seeing so much sky all at once. Of course, I had often looked into the Mississippi night sky. But I had not realized that trees, houses, or hills bound it. That glimpse I had of the horizon in Texas was a gestalt. I wanted to cry out with King David, “Hallelujah. Praise God in His holy place, praise Him in the vault of His power.” (Rober Alter trans. Ps. 150).

Willa Cather is one of my wife’s favorite authors. She has read many of Cather’s novels. One of her favorites is My Ántonia – first read in middle school in Boston. She still has her old copy of the book. I decided to give it a read. And from the beginning, I have been transported into a world, a glorious world, separated from me by the vagaries of time and space but brought alive by Cather’s words and reimagined in my slow reading of the text aloud.

I want to share an early passage that reminded me of that box canyon here in Israel. Jimmy, the orphaned young boy narrating the story, is lying in the back of a wagon en route to his grandparents’ home on the Nebraska prairie. He is looking up at the night sky.

I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia (AmazonClassics Edition). Amazon Classics. Kindle Edition. 

In Israel, one August night in 2015, in the Makhtesh, I looked up into the night sky, and like Jimmy, I felt “outside man’s juridiction.” I was in God’s country.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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