The Unreliable Narrator

I have long been drawn to novels that feature unreliable narrators – until I discovered the perils of living with the most unreliable of narrators in my very own home.

Two days ago we were invited out to Shavuot lunch at the home of a family with many children. Not only was the  house chaotic, but our hosts had invited at least thirty guests, including over a dozen children who ran around freely between the upstairs, the downstairs and the backyard, such that it was impossible for my husband Daniel and me to keep tabs on our four little ones, the oldest of whom just turned six. At the end of the meal, when we were gathering everyone up to leave, we noticed that our oldest was nowhere to be found. “Where is Matan?” we started asking around, until our four year old daughter piped up, “He went to walk the dog.”

“What dog?” I asked, suddenly worried. And our host repeated, “What dog? We don’t have a dog.”

“The dog,” Liav repeated matter-of-factly, as if surely I understood.

“When did he leave?” I asked her – hoping that a four-year-old’s sense of time would not be too far off.

“Um, I think lots of hours ago. Yes. In ten minutes he left.”

“Did he go with anyone?”

“No. He went by himself. But the big kids left first. He went to find them.”

“Oh. Which way did he go?”

“He went to Raanana, I think. To our cousins.” We were in the heart of the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. This was not going well.

My first thought was of Joseph, who was sent by his father to go find his brothers in the pastures of Shechem (Genesis 37:12). Joseph did not find his brothers there, but he ran into a man who was able to point him in the right direction, toward Dotan. Rashi says this man was the angel Gabriel, who appeared to show Joseph the way to his brothers. Where was the angel Gabriel when I needed him? And why was my only source of evidence someone with no sense of time or direction?

I was reminded of a phrase that appears in the Talmud in the context of women’s testimony. לא מפיה אנו חיים – we do not live off her words. The Mishnah in Ketubot (12b) speaks of a case in which a man marries a woman but does not find signs of her virginity on their wedding night. The bride claims, “Actually, I was a virgin when you betrothed me, but I was raped after our engagement, and, well, your field got flooded.” The Mishnah’s term “your field got flooded” is essentially the English equivalent of “shit happens” or “sucks for you” – that is, you had the bad luck of betrothing a woman who got raped when she was already your acquisition. Rabban Gamliel says that we believe the bride, but Rabbi Yehoshua insists that no, “we do not live off her words.” According to Rabbi Yehoshua, the bride in such a situation is always an unreliable narrator whose words cannot be trusted.

A few minutes later, Liav changed her story. “I think he went with the big kids,” she told us, “Not alone.” I looked at Daniel. If he had left with a group of big kids, then hopefully those same kids would return him. But then I was reminded of another Talmudic phrase that once again gave me pause. הפה שאסר הוא הפה שהתיר – that is, the mouth that forbade is the mouth that permitted. The Mishnah (Ketubot 22a) speaks of a woman who announces—presumably upon arriving in a new town where she is a stranger to everyone—“I used to be married, but I’m now divorced.”  The rabbis say that she is believed. Similarly, if she announces, “I was taken captive, but I was not defiled by my captors,” she is also believed, because “the mouth that forbade is the mouth that permitted.” That is, the very same woman both incriminated and exonerated herself; had she not announced that she was taken captive, there would be no reason to suspect her of sexual impurity in the first place. (The rabbis assume that any woman who was taken captive was likely raped by her captors.) In other words, one statement is canceled out by another – which seemed to be the case with Liav as well. Had Matan left the house alone, or under supervision? And had he really left the house at all? Or was he merely playing upstairs behind a door we had yet to open?

A half hour later Matan indeed returned with the aforementioned big kids, an eight-year-old and a ten-year-old who had taken him under their wing when he ran out of the house to tag along as they walked a neighbor’s dog. We reprimanded him, gently but firmly. “You can’t leave the house without telling us where you’re going!”

Matan looked at us earnestly and explained. “It’s OK. I told Liav where I was going.” Liav looked at me, blinking fast and furious. “I told you. I was right and you were wrong.” I looked at Liav, my little Nelly Dean and Humbert Humbert, my Nick and Amy rolled up into one. I didn’t know what to say. But the next day, when Matan told me that he’d forgotten his glasses at the Kotel—where my husband had taken the kids at 6am—I told Daniel to wait a minute before jumping on his bike to race back to the Old City. I walked into the bedroom and looked on the ledge by Matan’s bed, where he often rested his things absent-mindedly. Sure enough, there they were – my child’s glasses, the lenses through which I have come to see the world.

2 thoughts on “The Unreliable Narrator

  1. Peter Nack says:

    Ilana — I look forward to reading — owning — your book. I hope that the Book Revue will be a stop on your US tour, where you will be greeted as local-roots author and a daughter of the HJC. Perhaps you will even read a page nested on a branch of what I think of as Ilana’s tree across the street. Ilana, thank you also for your visit during Sarah’s shiva. You are a lovely soul and talking with you meant much to us. — Peter


  2. Tamar says:

    Was the neighbor’s dog Kippur? Jeff’s and Judith’s sweet canine companion? Sweet, too, is this happy-ending post. Visiting your blog is always a great pleasure and learning experience, and I’m grateful for your gifts. Toda raba, raba


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