Haim Beer in Bnei Brak
Haim Beer in Bnei Brak, April 2011. Photo by Nir Kafri
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The spacing between the people. The voluntary choreography. The way people stand at a certain remove from one another and move about. As in dance, spacing is key to viewing a Nir Kafri photograph, and in particular this one of the writer Haim Beer, who stands amid people hurrying for the sake of hurrying in Bnei Brak. Kafri did a shoot of Haim Beer for a special edition of Haaretz’s weekly Books supplement ‏(in Hebrew‏), titled “Places of Reference: Literary Tripping.” This followed publication of Beer’s latest novel, whose English title is “Back from Heavenly Lack,” in which the protagonist, a yeshiva director, leaves Bnei Brak to embark on a journey to Tibet.

Even though Beer is standing in this way among people, possibly leading the viewer to imagine a phantom or spirit, there is no one more substantial than Haim Beer, the wise writer who knows books and knows the human soul. He stands patiently, a bit embarrassed perhaps, responding to the camera while everyone else is in a rush. His presence is humble but full, concrete but not intrusive. His hair is gray, he is wearing comfortable running shoes, his face is cast in patience − a father’s face.

The photograph is staged, but also random. Every detail is important, but not every detail is under control. “No Arabs − no terror” is written on the awning to the left. A sweet little boy being carried in his father’s arms looks over his shoulder with a curiosity that has not yet been stifled. He is looking at Beer. He is interested in him and ignores the imperative to ignore. In the background are paint marks on a plaster wall that hasn’t yet been given a final coating. Behind Beer and to his right, a man in a red shirt talks on a cellular phone. Does he have something to do with the renovations? In between, ultra-Orthodox men go hurriedly about their business; possibly the man with the white beard has noticed the photographer.

In an interview marking the publication of his new novel, a fantastical work that alludes to the famous Yiddish novel “The Travels of Benjamin the Third” and for which he received the Brenner Prize this year, Beer said offhandedly that he has no imagination. What a terrible and wonderful, modest and honest thing to say. Maybe he meant to say that he studies everything, that his observation requires learning, that learning and experience are one and the same. In this photograph, too, there is more knowledge than imagination. The spacing is right. Those who are moving are going nowhere, while the one standing still can go everywhere.

Beer wrote in a column that accompanied the photograph: “And the men, the men of Bnei Brak, like the heroes of [Yosef Haim Brenner’s] ‘Breakdown and Bereavement,’ their brains are filled with dust of prayer books and Gemara tomes, and their blood is diluted with dust-water, a sheer poem of dust.”

It is in the gap between dust-diluted blood and the humor of “a sheer poem” that Beer stands, and his previous books stand with him, rich with imagination despite everything. Imagination! Suffused with culture and layered with language, sincere but respectful of privacy. Brenner and Agnon also stand with him and each of the books in his large library. And not by coincidence in a photograph in a city of fathers and sons, the presence of the boy in red evokes Michael Lev-Tov’s beautiful 2001 film “Links of Life,” which dealt with motherhood and birth, but in which Beer spoke briefly about his father, who had an only child at a late age. As he was telling about him, and about the hopes he harbored for his only son, he suddenly lost control and broke into tears. And those tears are also here.