I found a photograph of my grandfather, arm-in-arm with my grandmother on the hillside at Armon Hanetziv, glued to the inside of a suitcase in his study. Their shadows pass over the lip of the walkway wall and spill into the backdrop of old Jerusalem behind them. They are unsmiling, but something about the straightness of their spines, the way they lean slightly against one another, and the slight elevation of their chins, implies that they are hopeful. My mother, exploring the study with me that afternoon, helped to date the image: sometime in November, 1958.
My grandfather was born in Palestine in 1928. We found artefacts of his childhood in all corners of the study: trinkets of his Italian parentage, sheet music scored with scales and arpeggios, a roughly-cut dreidel, a doll in the stance of a golem. It seems as though he spoke Italian at home, and probably Yiddish with his school friends at the local kibbutz. Of this group there is little evidence; it is obvious that even before his parents repatriated to Italy in 1938, music had already taken hold of the child. As well as the numerous scores, some including dedications from benevolent aunts to the ‘bambino intelligente’ in the inside cover, files of childish doodles sketch out violins, cellos, pianofortes, catalogues of percussion, sometimes whole orchestras in crayon.
His first record (Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, captioned ‘Il mio primo disco’) is framed on the study wall. This would have been the start of his collection, accumulated furiously over two decades, culminating in the library of wax and vinyl that now papers the room. The records are shelved according to region of origin, mapping for us the histories of Europe over the centuries and pointing me – pushing me in fact – towards the truth of my grandfather. He seemed to favour the pastoral, but not just those arable cantatas and serenatas that paint the Italy of his teenage years; here we find Meyerbeer, Rameau, Williams, even Wagner.
I caressed these records gently when I first arrived in Israel and took over my grandfather’s house. They connected me to this man, who I knew only in childhood memories, in the same way that each symphony connected me to its composer. I entered into a new world, a past I had yet to nurture for myself.
I did not want the house; the Israeli countryside was too far removed in every sense from my life in Venice. The fact that I had been born here, less than a kilometre away in Tiberias Hospital, meant nothing to me. While Venice rippled with energy, the Jordan Valley was a cultural swamp. I was surrounded on all sides by the klezmer wheezing out of Tzfat, the old country tarantellas of my family and the tepid Israeli rock dripping from Tiberias.
I had left Venice at the birth of Italo-disco, the inception of nightclubs and first stirrings of actual, adult love. I returned there immediately, donating my grandfather’s house to the daughter of his first cousin. The study, she promised, would remain undisturbed. I took with me a suitcase of his vinyl fossils, the same suitcase that welcomed me with a photograph from Armon Hanetziv. I emptied it of its letters and postcards to make room for the records, and left inside only the photograph and a lone record (marked onlySymphony No. 1, ‘Dy Alt Welt’, op.55) that I hadn’t yet come across. It was worn, covered in fine scratches and, held horizontally, almost indecipherably warped. I laid the other records on top of it, locked the suitcase, and sent it ahead of me to Venice. My trip to Israel had lasted just three days.
In Venice, adventures opened up before me one after the other: lovers, motorcycles, mild criminality, literature, politics. I associated with students, disco dancers, skinheads, priests, the homeless, businessmen, factory workers, the neighbourhood. I wrote poetry to no success, some essays for local pamphlets and a novel. I boxed, and met beautiful women in cafes. I met my wife, bought a house, and worked as many hours as I could afford. A routine developed: the assembly line, dinner, a bar, and one of my grandfather’s records before bed. I selected them from the suitcase, taking the first, listening to it half-cut for sometimes weeks on repeat before filing it permanently on the shelf and taking out the next. After a year, the suitcase was still three-quarters full. I remember vividly, as our first boy rolled around on the carpet and our discoteche were looking more and more distant, playing Howard Hanson’s Symphony no.2 for one solid month. Sometimes, rather than drawing a new record from the suitcase I would revisit one from January, April, June, and re-dose myself. It took almost a decade to reach the bottom of the suitcase. By then, I was thirty years old.
My son was cycling, schooling, and back-talking, which he did in a uniquely Italian way. I was proud that he was going to grow up a Venetian, not from some abstract love of the city but because he would be given all the same advantages for adventure that I had. He would be growing up in the same city as his great-grandfather (that man whose records now surrounded his sleep) and his father, who never imagined living again anywhere but Venice. Childhood would be simple, full and sweet; adolescence would be a gondola, taxiing and taxing him, taking him away from me, making him. He would be a part of Venice and Venice a part of him, and he would be his own man with a whole city at his fingertips. That was the future I imagined as I reached the bottom of my grandfather’s suitcase.
I pulled out the record that had been waiting for me since Israel. I had no immediate memory of its place amongst the letters and postcards as I took it to the record player. I must have noticed again the scratches, the bend. My wife and child were not at home that night; my memory of swinging my feet onto the sofa as the record began is completely intact. The music played.Symphony no.1 ‘Dy Alt Welt’, op.55. The piece begins with heavy, padding chords on a bed of soft brass. The orchestra sounds subdued under the crackle and fuzz of the recording. Its tempo is lupine, but with no threat of danger, evoking moonlight, or at least the forest at night.
Timpani rustles autumnally through the bass. The strings introduce the movement of bird’s feet hopping through puddles. There is a lift and then, flight, a freedom of form drawn out by the cellos. The fleeting wheeze of a clarinet implies a swift passing through chimney smoke. The violins reach a clearing and then descend, with notes of folk that cannot be regionalised, into a village scene. The rhythm settles on the corner of a gazebo, marquee, perhaps a sukka, to watch newlyweds dance their first dance.
The piano and first violin hold each other for the first time, stepping together, spinning together, rising, falling, kicking. Caricatures of the spectators can be made out of the oboe, tuba, harp. Their inflections are flung out like celebratory gestures. Their applause comes in a rush of cymbals, and the strings, with a flutter, migrate back across the forest towards loneliness and nature. There they perch, on primordial undertones, before the French horn pushes through the silence. It is a mating call, a response, or else the bray of a large mammal mourning loss. The horn ambles out of mighty lungs, echoing off the lesser chords of the bassoons, to disturb floating spores in the white light. It drifts, quiet as snowfall, onto a house or cabin, and the sound of human activity resumes.
Cellos provide a flicker of candlelight; the piano and first violin re-emerge. They are disconnected now, the violin violent and desperate, the piano dislocated, providing support. A flute sounds persistently in near-monotone. There is a push, followed by bells, and those bells ring jubilantly with chimes and gongs. The candlelight becomes sunlight and pours in from the lower strings. The orchestra is soaked in dawn, rests a moment in the full warmth of day, and flits on. A familiar theme begins to whisper; the forest is rediscovered.
Again, the call of the French horn. It reverberates through a mist, converses with delicate fungi, fills out the spaces left by spoken life. It is connected to the soil by the left-hand of the piano, stirring. Something large kicks its way through the fallen leaves. It lumbers awkwardly over the woodwind, stamps up and down in the bass drum and splashes into the cymbals. It flees up the keyboard towards the melody of the French horn, describing in broken pieces its pattern, its gait, the path it meanders through its habitat. Suddenly, the cellos embrace the piano in its hue, holding it, the violin softens its previous shriek into joy, and the piano is re-absorbed into a paternal lull.
With a sigh of wedding music, the disparate melodies assemble into one fully-moulded sound, with the French horn calling, still calling across time, and the heavy chords padding across wet mulch, and the moonlight coming to crescendo and, climaxing, coming together into one sound and holding, holding like a living vine, clinging, stretching, and finally snapping, leaving only crackle and fuzz.
The record clipped as it spun out its final silence. It was still clipping when my wife and son returned home from wherever they had been. Our boy went to sleep without protest. I invited my wife to the sofa. I could not speak at first; the words would not put themselves together. An impulse had entered me, via the music, which was still too visceral to describe in language. It was only after a half-hour wrestling with my tongue did I manage to say aloud: ‘We are moving home.’
My wife, cosmopolitan and Catholic to the same degree, could not comprehend. The idea of leaving Venice to take up my grandfather’s house in the Israeli countryside was not just absurd, but impossible; it was even, in terms of our son now ten years old, dangerous. I had no rationale for my passion, only a vocabulary coming to me without words from a piece of music. I tried to explain the anxiety that occupied me, the desire for something I could not even describe, but I was unable. I did not try to explain the music; actually, the secret impulse it had lit in me took me by the fingers and locked the record back in the suitcase. Before my thirty-first birthday, I brought the suitcase and the record to my father and asked him, for the first time in my life, in front of a boardroom of his colleagues, for advice. He brought me into his office.
I asked first if he recognised the record. He did. It was his father’s. I asked if he had heard it. He told me he had. I asked if he knew where it had come from. He explained that throughout his childhood, great piles of records had been sprouting all around the house as my grandfather cultivated his collection. The pastoral sketches he favoured led on to more intensive arable schemes, adagios evoking wider and wider scenes of the fantastical rural landscapes he associated with his childhood in Palestine. He seemed to sidestep the cultural ambiguity of the British Mandate and search exclusively for the hills, valleys, deserts, lakes and forests of what he called ‘Il Vecchio Mondo’ – ‘The Old World’. I knew immediately what my father was telling me before he mentioned the record. He explained how his father had told him and his mother, holding or being held by this record, that they were immigrating to the new Israel, to live out a new life for the family and to complete the life that had been revived in him, suddenly, by an anonymous stimulus.
My father’s use of the word ‘anonymous’ I am yet to forget. I pressured him for details of the piece’s origin; I demanded names, dates, titles. He had none. I tried to contact the benevolent aunts who had sent my grandfather sheet music as a child, but there were none left. I looked for record dealers who might have served Venice at the time, but there were none. I concluded that my father’s father, himself a virtuoso musician, might have composed and recorded the piece, but no evidence of this has ever been found in his study or anywhere else. The Dy Alt Welt symphony could be linked only to my own feeling of home drawing me towards memories of the Jordan Valley: its rich woodland which I had explored with no fear, its village communities that I had shared in and internalised, and the house of my grandfather. I convinced my family with poetry, and brought my father’s suitcase back to the study where I had found it.
Life in Israel was complicated for all of us. My son, only ten, had to engage with a new language, hearing Italian less and less often even in his own house. My wife struggled to adapt to village life; the kibbutz, I think, was prison-like. There are no canals here, no links to other neighbourhoods, and current affairs are condensed into village gossip. I went to work in the banana fields, sweating under the green gauze that surrounds the plantations on every side, invigorated daily by my grandfather’s Dy Alt Weltwhilst still keeping it hidden from the people I loved. I revisited it only in the mid-afternoon, when my wife was at work and my son was at school. In these few hours I sat in my grandfather’s study, selecting and re-selecting his black disks from the walls, searching for themes, stylistic similarities, musical-genetic codes that would show me where this piece, or more pertinently from which home this piece had originated. But its history would not be known. Whether it was the shared history of my own grandfather or the pre-schismed history of some British imperialist, German nationalist, Italian fascist, I could never know. All I knew was that it drew me home, as it had drawn my father back to Italy when he discovered it in secret in the 1970s, my grandfather back to the Jordan Valley in the 50s, and myself back to the country of my conception, my origin, my home. If my father was still alive, I could question him further. He had chosen to leave the record in Israel, out of sight, and never expected me to discover it. So I kept it at a distance from my own son as long as I could.
I had the option to destroy it; looking back, I wish I had. If it had been published to the world, in my grandfather’s name or anyone else’s, its effect on society might have been brutal. I imagine often my record being played to every father in every country of the world, and every father realising suddenly that they must uproot and move back to wherever they came from, digging out their family with them, and re-conquering their childhood home, regardless of the consequences. Israel then would be empty of all its elderly, as well as all its Europeans and taglit-inspired Americans, and Russians and Ethiopians; hundreds of thousands of Arabs might flow back towards Jaffa from the West Bank, and Jews back to Warsaw, Berlin and Paris, and the entire world might be shaken up by mass repatriation, migration, reinstallation. This could never occur; it would collapse the entire infrastructures of whole continents. The record would stay in my grandfather’s study – my study, even if I could not bring myself to destroy it.
Inevitably, when I was past fifty and still sweating under the gauze of the banana fields, it was discovered. I came back early one morning, after the kerosene we inject into old trees caused a forest fire, to find my record playing at volume throughout the entire house. I knew it immediately, and I knew before I entered the study that it would be my son, visiting us for Rosh Hashanah, who would be there, leant over the record player, listening. I tried to grab the needle but he stopped me. He let the record play to completion, and we listened until it started to clip and the silence opened out a hollow between us.
‘It was your grandfather’s,’ I said, but he already understood.
He had been exploring the collection even as a boy in Venice.
‘I’m moving home,’ he told me, and I had nothing to say.
That day, I lost my son. At the age of thirty, he moved back to Italy. He took his girlfriend, a Zionist who never connected with her religious background, and found a quiet backstreet beside the canals to complete his adulthood. He bought a motorcycle and drove my grandson around the city. He remembered something that perhaps took place before his lifetime had begun, and left us. He left the record behind, but took everything else with him.
I had thought life in Israel was difficult but even in relative peacetime, as I will soon dip out from under the green canopy of the fields, it is more difficult than ever. My son, who I watched rolling happily over the carpet in Venice and dragged off to the place I felt was home, has wandered into the forests where I cannot retrieve him. All that is left is his letters and postcards, stored now in my grandfather’s suitcase, with a record I am unable to play. I read these letters often, and re-find the youth I once spent in nightclubs and cafes. But I cannot follow; the banana field is my forest.
I have found what people call their home.
JOE BEDFORD is a writer living in Brighton, UK. His work has recently been published in Storgy, Spelk, and Spontaneity, and has been performed as part of the Charleston and Brighton Fringe festivals.
A number of his stories are available at joebedford.co.uk