Por­trait of Paris von Güter­sloh by Egon Schiele

Bequest of Scofield Thay­er, 1982, The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

Design by Kather­ine Messenger

Con­grat­u­la­tions to the 2020 win­ner of the Paper Brigade Award for New Israeli Fic­tion in Hon­or of Jane Weitz­man: Shi­mon Adaf, for Mox Nox, trans­la­ted by Philip Simp­son. This selec­tion from the win­ning title can be found in the 2020 – 2021 issue of Paper Brigade.

The Paper Brigade Award for New Israeli Fic­tion in Hon­or of Jane Weitz­man seeks to hon­or an out­stand­ing short work or excerpt of Israeli fic­tion pub­lished in Hebrew. The goals of this prize are to intro­duce Amer­i­can read­ers to new Israeli writ­ers; to help Israeli writ­ers gain access to the Amer­i­can mar­ket; and to inter­est Amer­i­can pub­lish­ers in pub­lish­ing new Israeli fiction.

Shi­mon Adaf is one of Israel’s most inno­v­a­tive and high­ly acclaimed young writ­ers, and Mox Nox shows him at the top of his form.

The unnamed nar­ra­tor of the nov­el describes the events of one sum­mer when, as a six­teen-year-old from a small Israeli town, he worked at a kib­butz fac­to­ry. He recalls his deal­ings with two oth­er boys work­ing there, and with the factory’s sec­re­tary — a lone­ly woman who he sus­pects has roman­tic inten­tions toward his father. The nar­ra­tor ini­tial­ly views his acquain­tance­ship with the sec­re­tary as an unwel­come impo­si­tion. But soon her pro­found inter­est in poet­ry and lan­guage prove to be the means by which he can free him­self from the tedi­um of his life; ulti­mate­ly, it will deter­mine the course of his career.

In a par­al­lel, present-day sto­ry­line, the nar­ra­tor — now an estab­lished writer lead­ing lit­er­ary work­shops for socialites — is drawn into a love affair with an old­er woman who under­mines his cer­tain­ties about the world and forces him to reex­am­ine the events of his past. In the midst of all this, ghosts emerge from the fis­sures of every­day life, ghosts that he must con­front in order to ful­fill society’s expec­ta­tions of a son, broth­er, and lover — while also sur­viv­ing as a cre­ative per­son con­tend­ing with unin­tel­li­gi­ble tra­di­tions and the divine.

—Philip Simp­son

By the age of ten, I had bro­ken my left clav­i­cle four times. The first time I don’t remem­ber. I was nine months old. My moth­er says I rolled off the bed where I had been laid, and one of the pil­lows sup­posed to pro­tect me fell down with me. I won a lot of quizzes in local com­pe­ti­tions, my father’s face hov­ered over books in the evenings, some way­ward radi­ance of the street­lights min­gled with the light in the room; the pic­ture in the deep recess­es of my mind is still dark. I got used to answer­ing. I trav­eled into the future, push­ing my con­scious­ness for­ward until I arrived. Every school­boy knows that time is com­posed of tiny par­ti­cles with emp­ty spaces in between. I saw hail­stones, I saw firestorms, cities smol­der­ing, moun­tains turned into val­leys. I saw rivers of tar, I saw lime­stone caves, flash­es of unfa­mil­iar beau­ty. The sec­ond time, I tried to catch a ball that was kicked to me too hard, my left arm was knocked back into the flesh; the clav­i­cle col­lapsed. I went around with my arm in a stiff cloth sling that set the bone, painful and irri­tat­ing. My sis­ter had con­jec­tures of her own. In the spring I found, in a pile of trash, a guide to pro­gram­ming, the ancient and prim­i­tive lan­guage of com­put­ers. I read it to the end. I imag­ined loops and sub­rou­tines, pro­ce­dures on paper, games and strate­gies for cre­at­ing obso­lete func­tions. Although my father promised to buy me a com­put­er, he went back on it, claimed he couldn’t afford one. I plead­ed with my moth­er. I bathed in light, pen­sive­ly, as the splen­dor of the world inten­si­fied around me, its clam­or, too. My sis­ter dragged me through a euca­lyp­tus grove. In class I was promised a prize for a puz­zle that I solved; on the appoint­ed day I was too ill to go to school, and when I went back, the whole thing had been for­got­ten. There was a sharp­ness in the air, per­haps hours before the grove had been drenched by the rain. For many years, my father had been tor­ment­ed by a cru­el afrit in his sand­cas­tle, until my moth­er res­cued him with her spells and impris­oned the demon in a date­stone. Two friends in my ele­men­tary school rubbed against each oth­er in mutu­al mas­tur­ba­tion, through their clothes, how dry is the mouth, but what about the plea­sure. I fled from the syn­a­gogue and from my father’s wrath, I saw des­tiny writ­ten in the clouds. One end­less sum­mer, a snatched sum­mer, in a play­ground near the munic­i­pal pool, I was thrown from a swing. I tried to break the fall with my hands and the clav­i­cle went again. I moved around with my arm in a sling, and when they removed it, a white stripe was revealed in the gold­en skin. My body heat was ris­ing all the time, virus­es came, and fevers, strange swellings, mois­ture, phlegm. They asked me, a giant and a dwarf are walk­ing through the for­est, in the dis­tance they see a light that is turned off and turn­ing off — who notices it first? I devot­ed a month of my life to study­ing the mys­ter­ies of kung fu, I decid­ed to invent a style of mar­tial arts that imi­tat­ed a dif­fer­ent ani­mal. I longed for the peace buried in trees. The rus­tle of the leaves grew loud­er until I could hear noth­ing else. I stood in the mid­dle of a swarm of ants. I count­ed them until I felt them swarm­ing up my legs; if I had looked up at that moment, a pol­ished sky would have been revealed to me.

I read until there was no point in read­ing any more. The win­ter came, the win­ter went, the rain fell ver­ti­cal­ly. I stole more books in dead lan­guages, celes­tial bod­ies weighed heav­i­ly on my shoul­ders, in the gloom, syn­tac­tic vari­a­tions glowed, supe­ri­or tropes, hexa­m­e­ters, the anapest and the dactyl, the amphi­brach, which is not intend­ed for our kind. O tem­po­ra, O mores, some­body said. I checked in the dic­tio­nary for the mean­ing of the word ophel — I found it meant a don­jon. I jumped down from the wash­ing machine on the enclosed bal­cony. The clav­i­cle gave in, this time with a dry, explo­sive sound. For some rea­son the drum of the machine was throb­bing, per­haps it had start­ed a spin cycle. I said my father was a god who took on dif­fer­ent guis­es, my class­mates mocked me in the play­ground, I asked my moth­er for proof, and in the end Dad let me dri­ve his sun char­i­ot. After I broke my clav­i­cle in the school cor­ri­dor, the doc­tor who checked my med­ical his­to­ry found ail­ments and fail­ures of the immune sys­tem, found the rea­son for my afflic­tions. The clav­i­cle nev­er healed prop­er­ly, and was doomed to be a per­pet­u­al barom­e­ter of atmos­pher­ic changes. A dull pain was ignit­ed in it; its con­vex­i­ty was too con­vex, threat­en­ing to break through the skin. Some­times it attracts atten­tion, although I’m not in the habit of walk­ing around in pub­lic with­out a shirt. I buried a coin in the sand to pre­serve it, and it lost its val­ue the fol­low­ing day. In eleventh grade, a stu­dent said, it should be, one hand shakes the oth­er. One hand wash­es the oth­er, the teacher cor­rect­ed him. But that doesn’t make sense, he protest­ed, what does wash­es mean here, shakes is more log­i­cal. Wash­es, wash­es, the teacher repeat­ed. I said, it’s a lit­er­al trans­la­tion of a Latin mot­to, Manus manum lavat. The teacher looked at me. It was my mature con­scious­ness, hav­ing crossed the riv­er that no one enters even once, speak­ing from my six­teen-year-old throat. They called the lit­tle fin­ger auric­u­laris, from auris, mean­ing ear, because they used it for scratch­ing, I whis­pered, the infam­is, or wicked fin­ger, we didn’t invent the lan­guage of the body. When I was six­teen, my father got me my first-ever job. Whole nights I spent star­ing into the dark­ness. Some­thing was com­ing — I didn’t know what.


My father already sensed that my faith was fal­ter­ing, I went to the syn­a­gogue under his watch­ful eye, but he guessed the ques­tions that had begun run­ning around in my brain, the doubts. I cast hol­low glances at the walls of the syn­a­gogue, kissed the cur­tain of the ark at the end of Sab­bath morn­ing prayers with dry lips and made no appeal. He said, what are you going to do all sum­mer, just hang around again. Any­way, we can’t afford to finance you, you’ll soon be respon­si­ble for your­self. I knew what was hid­den behind his words. Now that they were sub­si­diz­ing my sister’s edu­ca­tion, every­one had to con­tribute. He talked to some peo­ple at the kib­butz fac­to­ry where he worked in a facil­i­ty for dehy­drat­ing veg­eta­bles. The sim­ple blue laborer’s over­alls, work­ing clothes they were called, were cov­ered with col­or­ful pow­ders when he came home. He said, I’ve fixed up a job for you in the fac­to­ry tool shop.

I cast hol­low glances at the walls of the syn­a­gogue, kissed the cur­tain of the ark at the end of Sab­bath morn­ing prayers with dry lips and made no appeal.

It was hot. Ear­ly July. Not so hot at the time I had to wait for trans­port. My moth­er roused me at five in the morn­ing or per­haps ear­li­er. Some­where the sun was stream­ing on the launch­pad, only the first rays, breath­ing life into the shad­ows of the day. My moth­er whis­pered my name. I jumped up. My sleep was sweaty enough. She went back to bed and I went out­side after the morn­ing prayers. Always the same, the chill every morn­ing; always the same, the dry­ness of the desert. I went up the road, turned with the bend, and the trans­port, a big vehi­cle — in my mem­o­ry, it was smeared yel­low with two hor­i­zon­tal pur­ple stripes — took me on board. I was wear­ing over­alls like all the oth­ers. Deep blue, close to black, peaked cloth cap. The dri­ver stopped at the gate of the fac­to­ry. Pre­vi­ous­ly, the land­scape had flashed by the win­dows; still bare­ly awake, the trees hud­dled togeth­er in dark mass­es, stand­ing out against the light, my eye­lids sank, silence in the inte­ri­or of the bus, only the exer­tions of the engine, and I felt tired looks glid­ing over my face, some­one want­ed to know if this was my first day, if this was my job for the sum­mer, if I was just a new work­er, in which depart­ment was I des­tined to serve out my time. Some­one want­ed to say, get out of here, kid, why do you need this shit, but kept quiet.

The dri­ver showed me where to go. My father was in charge of the depart­ment, in oth­er words, he was respon­si­ble for it, in oth­er words, he was inti­mate­ly acquaint­ed with the machines, knew every detail of their oper­a­tion, the screws thread­ed into nuts, the gyrat­ing belts, set­ting the rib­bons in motion, clum­sy moth­er­boards, if there were moth­er­boards, flick­er­ing lights, clocks and dials, stress in the air, and despite all this, he received a sim­ple worker’s wage; the title of man­ag­er, the mag­i­cal pow­er inher­ent there­in were denied him. The depart­ment was the last link in the chain of dehy­dra­tion. The veg­eta­bles went out from there flat­tened, woody, sap­less, packed and ready to be com­pound­ed into fast foods, blend­ed by the alche­my of cap­i­tal­ism, and to come back to life in microwaves, in con­vec­tion ovens. My father breathed into his lungs all the dust and the par­ti­cles emit­ted in the process, and some­time — not now, in a few years — he’ll go down with a stroke, a hem­or­rhage of con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed blood.

He was wait­ing for me, at the end of his night shift — respon­si­ble or not, he still had to work nights — and asked, after a cur­so­ry inspec­tion, did you have time to pray? Just the morn­ing bless­ings, I replied. He said, come on, what’s the mat­ter with you, are you not awake yet, and he led me to a tin shack, which accom­mo­dat­ed an impro­vised office with a desk, a fil­ing cab­i­net, and no short­age of paper, and hand­ed me the tal­lit, the tefill­in, the sid­dur. And after this you can make your­self cof­fee or some­thing, he said, point­ing to the cof­fee cor­ner, and come and look for me.

The smell of the tool shop struck me at the entrance, the screech of scrap­ing met­al and the hiss­ing of the cool­ing water, and the smell of oil, heavy and sweet, like incense, and oth­er, cold smells, of met­als lying in wait for their forg­ing, iron ingots. And from the oth­er side, which opened to a neglect­ed yard, blew a vapor of cig­a­rettes, which were for­bid­den in the con­fines of the tool shop, with the flam­ma­ble weld­ing gas­es, oh, and the smell of fire, not burn­ing, the smell of the pre­ci­sion flame, and the smell of men, the col­lec­tive pres­ence of bod­ies and sweat, alarm­ing­ly earth­ly. But it is the brazen way of smells to store up mem­o­ries. This will be the smell of hap­pi­ness. As I pass through the fringes of great cities, in streets of indus­try, avenues of molten steel, exca­va­tions, under the weight of the sun, by garages and fac­to­ries and pow­er sta­tions, this will be the spark that whis­pers in the soul that every­thing is still pos­si­ble. And my father intro­duced me to the fore­man of the tool shop who asked if I had any expe­ri­ence, if I had worked in a sim­i­lar envi­ron­ment, in school per­haps. Yes, all the boys were required to take class­es in sol­der­ing, and before that, car­pen­try, and I had sol­dered a can­dle­stick for my moth­er and con­struct­ed a chop­ping board. I wasn’t good at this, the only pro­fes­sion in which I came close to fail­ure. In phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion, too, only at sprints did I seem to excel. I wasn’t so good at the shot put, the triple jump, the high jump, all those frol­ics, but I nod­ded with what seemed to me an enig­mat­ic smile, and looked in won­der­ment at all the oth­er men, crouched over vis­es, beat­ing out sheets of tin, their eyes cal­cu­lat­ing the dimen­sions required, unrolling mea­sur­ing tapes, enter­ing and leav­ing. Don’t wor­ry, said the man­ag­er, a kib­butznik whose office was up the stairs, its lit­tle win­dows over­look­ing every­thing going on down below, you’ll have com­pa­ny. Two boys your age, sons of work­ers in the fac­to­ry, will be help­ing here dur­ing the vaca­tion. We won’t leave you alone.


I stand before the door of the apart­ment, put the bags down on the floor, fum­bling with the key in the lock, the teeth con­sumed by rust or by over­ag­gres­sive use, the met­al is tired, close to break­ing. I go inside, the light that I left on when I went out, a whis­per­ing neon tube, gives the void an extrater­res­tri­al glam­or even at mid­day. I have stum­bled upon a habi­ta­tion that isn’t mine. Absent­ly, I arrange the gro­ceries in the fridge. I would like to be filled with won­der­ment, not the twist­ed razor of anger. Lat­er I will find the sham­poo that I left crammed between two bot­tles of water. Before I went out shop­ping, I was met in the foy­er of the build­ing by a couri­er, who asked if I knew a cer­tain ten­ant. I answered that although it was me he was look­ing for, whether I knew myself was a dif­fer­ent kind of ques­tion. He hand­ed me a small pack­age, I opened the wrap­ping and peered inside. A green­ish pam­phlet, no men­tion of the sender. The couri­er was already turn­ing to go. Wait, I stopped him. He put on his hel­met, his voice split my reflec­tion on the face mask, muf­fled: what. Who’s respon­si­ble for send­ing this. He shook his hel­met­ed head, don’t know, if it isn’t writ­ten on the enve­lope, you can ask at the office.

I peered inside again, put my fin­gers in to take out the pam­phlet, and my fin­gers met a flex­i­ble cord, fibrous but sol­id under­neath. I took hold of it. When I with­drew my hand, I saw a tail, the tail of some rodent, a mouse, per­haps a rat. I dropped it on the floor in dis­gust, stuffed the enve­lope into the mail­box, a scratched and bat­tered tin, and went to the gro­cery store. The gro­cer, his eyes glued to a giant screen with reports of a war on some con­ti­nent or anoth­er, growled the total. I groped for the remain­ing coins in my wal­let and said, we’d bet­ter can­cel this item and that one. He said, take them any­way, no harm done, they’re on sale. When I returned with my pur­chas­es, a cat came run­ning out from the entrance to the build­ing with some­thing quiv­er­ing in its mouth, I couldn’t see what, and already it had jumped into the sandy back gar­den, gird­ed by bush­es with flow­er­ing blos­soms, thick stalks stretched out to suck. The pack­age was gone from the mail­box, and need­less to say, there was no sign of the con­tents, either.

I go to the win­dows, which I had closed before going out, an anorex­ic girl is walk­ing in the street. I fol­low her skele­tal fig­ure with my eyes until she dis­ap­pears. The film of sad­ness that she arous­es in me remains, pin­pricks in the hands. How con­temptible are our ambi­tions to sur­vive. How ter­ri­fy­ing the ghosts that they engen­der. The street­lights cast thin shad­ows. The clouds go on drift­ing. On the elec­tric cables, the roost­ing place of doves, the crows com­pete in their usu­al style over liv­ing space. I migrate to the writ­ing desk. The com­put­er screen is switched on. I swore to myself that I would make progress today writ­ing one of the meta­phys­i­cal sto­ries, as a brain­less crit­ic described my novel­las. Or at least do some cut­ting. Who was it who rec­om­mend­ed that in order to write good books, one should turn the pen at reg­u­lar inter­vals and use the oth­er end, the end oppo­site the tip. Def­i­nite­ly the poet Horace. If it were pos­si­ble to cre­ate a par­al­lel for piety in the teach­ing of writ­ing, Horace would have done so. I check my emails. Noth­ing. What is new in the cul­tur­al rubrics of dif­fer­ent sites, the gos­sip, I drift to a site track­ing book­sellers in the US. There is some­thing reas­sur­ing in the indif­fer­ent fig­ures, and in the forces behind them, with their refusal to reveal them­selves, with their con­stant peep­ing out from the crevices between the numer­als. I have no choice but to return to the orphaned beginning.

Shi­mon Adaf was born in Sderot, Israel, and now lives in Jaf­fa. A poet, nov­el­ist, and musi­cian, Adaf worked for sev­er­al years as a lit­er­ary edi­tor at Keter Pub­lish­ing House and has also been a writer-in-res­i­dence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa. He leads the cre­ative writ­ing pro­gram and lec­tures on Hebrew lit­er­a­ture at Ben-Guri­on Uni­ver­si­ty of the Negev. Adaf received the Yehu­da Amichai prize for Hebrew poet­ry (2010) for the col­lec­tion Avi­va-No; the Sapir Prize (2012) for the nov­el Mox Nox, the Eng­lish trans­la­tion of which, by Philip Simp­son, won the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s 2020 Paper Brigade Award for New Israeli Fic­tion in Hon­or of Jane Weitz­man; and the I. and B. New­man Prize for Hebrew Lit­er­a­ture (2017).