Yeshu Carpenter—Yeshu Storyteller
A relentlessly curious seven-year-old, I eagerly joined the crowd of kids outside the open door of the carpenter’s workshop to listen to the man inside singing. The voice was compelling and melodious like wind moving through tall trees. At first the words were just sounds till we realized that the carpenter wasn’t singing at all. He was telling a story, and by the way he looked up from his work now and then, we soon figured out he was talking to us.
One by one we edged into the room, which was light and airy despite the numerous logs and boards stacked against the walls. The floor was covered with sawdust and wood curls that made you want to dig your toes down until your feet disappeared. Just the way we seemed to disappear into his story. I remember few words that were spoken that morning. What lingers to this day is the scent of freshly cut cedar and pine.
In the months and years that followed, as Yeshu seemed to just get better and better at storytelling, and when we had no pressing chores to do, that abiding freshness drew me and the other village kids back to his workshop.
To encourage us to come in and stay, he built a collection of small stools out of spindly sycamore limbs and set them along a wall he had cleared for us to lean our backs against. Each morning whoever could do so would fill those seats, sometimes locking arms at the elbows, and Yeshu would fill our heads with stories.
Some of these stories he had learned from his maternal grandmother, whom everyone called “Mama Ana,” and some from the Temple rabbis in Jerusalem. Other times, he made up his own. Those stories were my favorites. Whenever I got the chance, I’d ask him for one.
Yeshu always worked while he told his tales. His hands and eyes stayed fixed on the plow handle or table or door that he was making, but the rest of him belonged to the story and to us.
Between stories—and sometimes within them—there were stretches of silence. Yeshu would labor on, while we struggled to sit still. If we started whispering about who was fastest or who could jump the farthest, or if we giggled from the strain of keeping a straight face, Yeshu would quietly look up in a way that made you sit back and think again about the story he had just finished.
EXCERPTS FROM THE NOVEL
YESHU is a book written by a lifelong storyteller, and narrated by a budding young teller who has formed a deep bond with his neighbor the carpenter—a man destined to become perhaps the greatest storyteller of all times. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the novel, when Daavi is first discovering his friend Yeshu’s empowering gift.
Journey into the Wilderness
We finally arrived at the great cedars of Lebanon just at sunset. We said our evening prayers and pitched camp beside a tiny brook. No one spoke. We were bone-tired from the daylong trek, and from the weeks of walking and working. Nonetheless, keen anticipation was bubbling up inside me, and from the looks of the others, inside them too.
Our eyes were scanning the dark trunks up ahead as dusk spread its cloak over the forest, and we sought a way into the place we had imagined for so long. It seemed that each of us was gradually descending inside ourselves in the waning light, till soon it would no longer be clear just what was inside and what was out.
Yohanan broke the spell by reminding us we had things to finish before the last of the daylight vanished. By the time the campsite and fire were ready, water boiling, it was too dark to enter the forest for a good look. We ate a few handfuls of dried berries, drank herbal tea to warm our insides, and crawled into our blankets. There was very little night talk that evening, and soon we were all asleep.
When I awoke, it was still dark. In the cool air it sounded like the stars were singing, but I realized it was birds high in the cedars greeting the first light of dawn that had not yet reached us.
Well, most of us. I could hear someone stirring and I sat up to see who it could be. Yohanan was kneeling on his blanket, sitting back on his heels, his hands together in his lap. He was praying along with the winged creatures invisible on their branches.
Soon Yeshu turned over and sat up. Pushing his hair aside with the back of his hand, he rubbed his eyes and combed his tangled beard with his fingers. He looked over at Yohanan. Without first standing, Yeshu rolled to his knees. Gazing down at his hands and then up at the sky, he too began praying.
I tossed aside my blanket and carefully crawled through the sleeping bodies to find a spot between Yohanan and Yeshu where I could join in.
Imagine that. A former shepherd boy, now a sandal maker, becoming aware of his voice rising softly up on the words intoned by Yeshu and Yohanan.
One by one, other members of the group awoke. We were joined by Maria Magdalena and Martha, then Joanna and the Thunder Brothers. Soon the sound of a small chorus wafted up, as most prayed on their blankets that were still warm from sleep.
By the time the sun thrust over the horizon, the forest birds were in full throat and so were we. Soon, the chirping was muted, as the feathered scavengers went about their search for seeds and berries and tiny bugs.
Eager to see and be touched by what we had traveled such a distance for, we all headed into the forest, following the first rays of morning sunlight through the giant trees. Walking slowly across the woodland floor, our group fell silent, allowing the hush of the forest to settle steadily into us like a gentle rain, centering our souls.
Soon we were filled to the brim and everyone stood still. One after the other, we peered up and up at the soaring treetops that seemed to brush the newly blue sky with ancient fingertips.
Yohanan was the first to sink to his knees. We all followed and remained for a long time kneeling in a loose circle on the soft needles. I was just behind Yohanan and Yeshu. They were side by side, their shoulders touching, their backs gently rising and falling as they breathed together. I wanted to jump up and hug them both, but dared not break the spell.
Instead, I reached out and carefully took hold of a corner of each of their cloaks and held fast, as if I were in a chariot behind two powerful horses standing stock-still, waiting to carry me to glory.
I looked around at the faces of the others. All of them were smiling, several with their mouths open. Eyes glistened. The only sound was that of our breathing.
I cast my eyes about the great cedar forest for something to anchor my feelings. The gently rolling floor was covered with lacy ferns of every shade of green. The morning sun that streamed down over the delicate fronds as they swayed in an almost imperceptible breeze, cast a shifting kaleidoscope of shadow and light across them.
I imagined that the sunlight and the moving air of the warming earth were being guided by an invisible hand that was inscribing our story on the scroll of the forest floor. Not in words, of course, but in the unique language of souls on fire, stoked by the power of rising chests and beating hearts. It felt so clear and yet the inscriptions vanished before the mind could read them.
We all knelt there enveloped in profound stillness for a long, long while.