Nonfiction | September 01, 1997
A New Youth
The scent of petrol hit my nose on my first day of school in Israel in 1959. I was a ten year old used to the processed smells of an American schoolroom: the artificial sweet scents of chewing gum, cheap nail polish and hair spray, blended with those of dusty chalk and vinyl floors. The stench came from the back of the room, where a girl with shorn hair sat fingering her pencils, eyes lowered.
“Kinim,” a girl with long tresses announced loudly, pointing at her.
I stared in horror mixed with fascination. The word kinim was familiar to me from the Passover hagada. It was the plague of lice sent to the Egyptians. I wondered what was so unique about the girl, that God had bothered to send a plague just for her.
Her name, I soon learned, was Hanna Shaloush. A thin girl with shoes curling at the toes, she was chosen to sit next to me when the lice were gone. Our classmates envied her, her proximity to my sixty-four, triple-decker Crayola set and the privilege of using my pencil sharpener with the attached can. She was the only one in class who had learned a few English sentences, mastered while serving behind the counter of her parents’ fish stall.
“Fresh today,” she would say when she wanted to convey to me the teacher’s instruction to write on a new page in our notebooks. “Please come again,” she would tell me at the end of each day. The coins she dropped into the green collection can—passed around for the planting of new trees in Israel—glistened with fish scales.
Although I didn’t understand much of Hanna’s jumbled English, the new palette of smells to which she introduced me was a language in itself. She reeked of camphor oil rubbed into her chest on cold days. Whereas my American friends had arrived at school on Fridays with curlers in their hair, hopeful to unravel thick Shirley Temple curls by sunset, Hanna’s hair on Fridays glistened in the winter sun, rinsed with tangy-smelling vinegar in honor of the coming Sabbath. A more subtle odor emanated from her head on the days she fancied a special hairdo: Sugar mixed with lemon kept in check the loose strands of her uncoiled braids.
My American paraphernalia was a source of constant wonder to Hanna. She saved the silver paper in which my sandwiches were wrapped, and decorated her notebooks with little cutouts of the “mirror paper.” She never tired of watching me blow bubbles with the gum constantly in my mouth, and I fed on her admiring gaze.
We became real friends primarily because of my inexhaustible supply of Scotch tape. Large horn-rimmed glasses slid down Hanna’s snub nose; a thick Band-Aid held together the ridge of her broken frame. The Band-Aid curled into an ugly brown and swelled at the edges after a few hours of perspiration, and by noon, the rash between her long-lashed, squinting eyes had turned into an angry red. I changed that. After a week or so of watching this ugly transformation, I began to yank off a strip of transparent tape from its plastic holder in my pencil case and carefully mend Hanna’s frame. She let me do this without a word. From then on we were friends.
In the first few weeks of school the favorite pastime of my classmates at recess was to play with the invisible nylon zipper on my sweater. Back and forth, back and forth.
“Like a train on tracks,” a freckled girl from a higher class exclaimed to me in German, the language we spoke at home.
“Do snowflakes stay in your hand?” several of them wanted to know.
“Is it soap that bubbles in your mouth?”
“What is it like to watch TV?”
“Weren’t you afraid to sit inside a metal box the shape of a hollow bird racing in the sky?”
No, I answered through my German translator. Snowflakes melted like ice cream, and an aeroplane was like a flying bus, without a bell to tug at stops.
The girls listened avidly, gathered around me under the blossoming orange tree that washed us with its fragrance. They wore cotton skirts with faded designs, the hems heavy from the spare fabric folded over until the skirts ballooned like limp tires around their scraped knees.
The bubbles in my mouth were from chewing gum, I explained. With my tongue I stretched the pink ball of Bazooka and blew a bubble that grew rounder and rounder until it burst on my face. The girls squealed. The gum proceeded from mouth to mouth, cheers erupting for the triumphant one who had managed an “American balloon.”
“Is your mother an American movie star?” they asked, the first day she came to fetch me in her high heels and wide-brimmed straw hat.
I didn’t tell them that my mother was dressed up because she was a newlywed. Nor that I had not been afraid on the flight because I had been too absorbed fantasizing about her new husband.
My imagination—well-oiled by hours of watching TV—conjured up a Clark Gable awaiting my beautiful mother with a bouquet of red roses. Instead, Nathan, met us with a bag of peanuts, a deep crease in his suit jacket around his middle, where the button strained to meet the buttonhole, a gold tooth glinting in the sun.
He settled my mother in the front seat of the metallic gray Chevrolet as if she were precious cargo. When Nathan drove with his hands off the wheel, my brother squealed like he did at a lurching merry-go-round. I wasn’t that impressed. There were hardly any cars on the road. The traffic was nothing compared to the racetrack that was Kingston Avenue back home in New York.
Two months earlier, my mother had collected us from the aunt who had taken care of us during our mother’s three-day trip abroad. Boxes were piled into a pyramid on the faded oilcloth of our kitchen table in the little flat above the garage on Kingston Avenue.
“These are gifts from your new father in Israel,” my mother said.
The wrapping paper on the offerings had come from the corner store, I noted. But in my excitement at the news that our new father owned an ice cream factory, I forgot to comment on it. I saw a ring with layers of diamonds on my mother’s finger, the shape of a miniature wedding cake.
My mother was only thirty years old when my father died. She was left with striking good looks, little money and a dowry of four children. Nathan was a childless widower—an old family friend from prewar Hungary—who, unlike my parents, had chosen to build a new life in Israel. Old friends they had in common had been the matchmakers. And now he had walked into my life to change it forever. Within the span of a few weeks, I had a new father, a new country, new classmates and a new name.
The name did not seem to fit at first. In class, I felt as if I were concealing a dark secret.
“Bronfeld,” the teacher would repeat several times before I jumped up with a start, realizing from the silence around me that she had called my name. After a few occasions on which I failed to respond, I noticed that whenever the teacher addressed me, she moved her lips, exaggerating the syllables. When this also failed to elicit my immediate response, she solved her problem by transferring me—along with my “fishy” interpreter—to the front row, calling on me as little as possible.
In America, my peers had viewed my fatherless status with pity, mingled with admiration. The fact that I had no grandparents from either side made me even more pitiable. It took me some time to realize that in this country I could relax about my past. Death, here in Israel, seemed to be everyone’s relative. Loss and confusion were a daily occurrence. Brothers and fathers were frequently summoned to the army, names of fresh victims—killed in ambush at the precarious borders—were broadcast daily. Death, over here, was a neighbor who made himself part of family life.
After the initial flurry of excitement over the whiff of Americanism I had brought across the sea, I became uninteresting to my new playmates. While they were tall, strong girls with already budding breasts, I was small, pale, prone to sickness in spite of the hateful spoonful of cod-liver oil I was obliged to swallow every day. I was never included in their giggles behind a girl’s back, as they casually patted her between her shoulders to find out whether a hook was concealed beneath her cotton camisole. I felt my classmates were treating me the way I treated my little sister.
Neither was I adept at their games. Hours of fastening cutout clothes on cardboard dolls had not prepared me for the art of throwing dice in the air and catching them with one swift manipulation of the wrist. Nor did I thrill at the prospect of rolling down the ill-paved street, tucked inside an abandoned truck tire. I longed for the hours I had spent curled up on the sofa with a book. Reading material in English was scarce, my knowledge of Hebrew still very limited.
“I found something for you in English,” Nathan came home beaming one day, and handed me an English translation of the Bible.
“Thank Aba,” my mother whispered. She insisted we call him Father. “How thoughtful of you, Nathan,” she said.
I spent most of my afternoons tagging behind our sixteen-year-old Yemenite au pair, Pnina, the oldest of fourteen children, who worked so that her father could afford to offer her future husband the dowry of two donkeys. She slipped around barefoot on the tiled floor as she threw bucketfuls of water that wetted the tips of her embroidered pantaloons. On Pnina, I practiced the new Hebrew words I learned in school.
She tolerated me. “You are lucky,” she liked to remind me. I remember one time when she prepared a pile of shirts to iron. She sprinkled them with water and rolled them into thick sausage-like shapes, piling them into a plastic bag in the fridge. “So lucky, do you understand?” she kept saying. “No one ever ironed my underpants.”
The other person in our household was Geveret Chaya, a cook who wore orthopedic shoes and the white coat of a nurse, her flat curls kept under a transparent net while she stirred with a wooden spoon the goulash simmering in our pots. My stepfather had hired her as soon as he discovered that my mother despised cooking. But the woman was no ordinary cook. As a sign of respect, my mother served tea to Geveret Chaya in her best teacups.
“Before the war in Hungary, I used to watch her ride past my house in a carriage pulled by four horses.” My mother liked to tell this story repeatedly, as if it contained some special truth that we should grasp.
“Their house was so beautiful that it was the first Jewish house in Budapest confiscated to house the Nazi general. And now,” she would shake her head with wonder, “now she is my cook.” In her mind she still perceived portly Geveret Chaya as a young girl wearing satin shoes, descending the narrow steps of a carriage. The only sign of superiority I detected in Geveret Chaya was the way she sprinkled salt into the food: She shook it from far above the pot, as if, instead of the grey, lump salt, she aspersed the meal with a scented powder.
Only on days when my mother arrived at school did my classmates’ interest in me revive. She was an impeccably groomed beauty who caused any room she entered to look suddenly shabby. The smell of her French perfume overpowered the odors of petrol and chlorine.
I noticed how the austere school principal’s hand flew up to her dark chignon—held with many pins—patting it into place, while her other hand straightened the cameo attached at the throat of her starched, long-sleeved blouse. The mothers of my other schoolmates wore heavy nylon stockings held up with elastic bands, that sagged on their bandaged, varicose-veined legs. They wore loose shirts, which they were often unable to button completely over their swelling bellies. The country was busy procreating, and vanity in dress was considered unzionistic. Behind their backs, women like my mother, who sat idle in their living rooms the whole day, were called “salon ladies. ” The only other hourglass-shaped woman familiar to my classmates was Miss Ama, the curly-lashed, smiling woman on the label of the sole cleaning product manufactured locally. A frilly white apron was tied about Miss Ama’s tiny waist, and cheerful slogans issued from balloons in her mouth. They were a pleasure to look at, Miss Ama and my mother.
I don’t know if my mother was conscious of the impression she made on my young schoolmates, but she was aware of my loneliness and wanted to do something to help me adapt to my new circumstances.
“Your eleventh birthday is coming up,” she said after one of her visits to inquire about my progress in school. “Let’s invite your friends to our house.”
Geveret Chaya offered to bake her famous apple strudel-a recipe received straight from the mouth of the owner of the largest cafe on the main street of Budapest. I said no.
The girls, I believed, liked only garinim (salted sunflower seeds) and falafel. I had no idea that for most of my peers, homemade cakes on a weekday, baked with eggs and sugar, were delicacies beyond their means.
Pnina brought in her mother to produce authentic Yemenite falafel. Geveret Chaya brought the popular roasted sunflower seeds that she denounced as “bird food spit out by humans like cows.” My mother shopped for the coarse cotton skirt and the colorfully embroidered blouse that was as much a symbol of festivity in those days as was the white and blue national flag with which she decorated our living room.
The birthday party was a catastrophe. My friends swayed into our apartment in an exaggerated imitation of my mother’s gait. They were dressed in layers of skirts for a petticoat effect. Crimson geranium petals were stuck to their nails, a substitute for nail polish.
“Hi,” they uttered in American, chewing hard on toffee, pretending it was gum.
“Shalom,” my mother greeted each of them courteously, trying to keep a straight face. In a nearby bedroom, Nathan was guffawing loudly at the charade.
“Whoever thought that one day we should worry again about the color on the tips of our fingernails,” I heard Geveret Chaya muttering to herself. “Who would believe it. WHO?”
They sat on the edge of our sofa; the straight pencil-lines drawn on their pre-adolescent legs—an imitation of my mother’s nylon stockings—smudged when they crossed and recrossed their legs.
“They have no American Coca-Cola, nor popcorn,” I heard someone whisper in a disappointed tone when they were shown to the table laden with refreshment. “Only garinim and falafel.”
They turned their attention to the tinkling chandelier above the table, taking turns rotating the delicate crystal pieces. “Like those in Franz Joseph’s palace,” they marveled, forgetting their put-on sophistication. “Sissy,” the story of the Austrian-Hungarian Empress, starring Romy Schneider, was then being serialized on the movie screens, giving my little friends their first glimpse into opulence.
When they tired of looking at the chandelier, they discovered the two air conditioners my mother had brought with her from America; an air conditioner was a wonder they had never seen before. They held their hands against the cold stream of air, squealing when it blew the geranium petals off their nails.
“Winter in the summer,” a girl marveled. “How can that be?”
“Her father manufactures ice cream and ice air,” Miri, the number one student in our class explained to the others. The girls nodded in assent. This made sense to them.
After the party I fell back into anonymity. My Hebrew vocabulary gradually improved, and my mother stopped her frequent visits to school. When I eventually made one more attempt to be part of the gang, I failed dismally again.
The whole class was looking forward to the coming Pourim party at school. Weeks before the Jewish Carnival, the girls in my class plotted, exchanging secrets about their “tachposet.” Disguise. Masquerade, the dictionary explained, when I looked up the word “tachposet.”
My mother offered her wide lace skirt, her ivory fan and red blouse. “With your jet black hair you could be a perfect Spanish dancer,” she said.
I turned down the offer. A better idea for an unrecognizable disguise was brewing in my mind.
I went to the backyard of the local chicken store for my “tachposet.” There, surrounded by noisy chicken crates, four women sat on low wooden stools, plucking feathers from freshly slaughtered birds with nimble fingers. They hummed a throaty oriental tune that clashed with the cacophony of the nervous fowl. Willingly, they parted with the feathers I needed.
Back home, I spread copious layers of glue, then stuck feathers all over the white sheet with which I had covered myself. I cackled all the way to the schoolyard, proud about my ingenious disguise. My self-satisfaction lasted, however, only until I reached the classroom: “Tachposet,” I soon realized, meant costume, not disguise. The celebration was an occasion to carry out one’s fantasy, not conceal one’s identity. My friends all strutted, resplendent in stiff, shiny attire, gold cardboard headgear crowning their proud heads.
“The American Hen,” the queens, brides and dancers called after me, holding their noses whenever I passed. The feathers stank, and the name clung to me long after the feathers blew off the sheet.
The principal of the school must have heard of my new nickname because she asked me one day to step into the small cubicle that was her office. She took a leather-bound book off the shelf, folded a deep pleat in one of its heavy pages, bent the page backwards, in the opposite direction, and put it upright again. The page stood erect, restored to its previous condition.
“The author of this book is the Rambam,” she said. “An illustrious sage and scientist. He believed that the middle path of behavior in life is the Golden Path. Sometimes, he says in this book, you have to bend your behavior to the extreme, so that when you change back to your current behavior, you are onto the Golden Path. Do you understand?”
I didn’t understand exactly what she meant, but the restored page somehow left me reassured that with time things would straighten out.
“For example,” she went on, “if a person suffers from stinginess and wants to repair this flaw in his character, the Rambam advises him to spend money excessively. After a period of time, he should stop. He will then spend his money in a normal way.
“You are trying hard to be like one of us,” she said as she accompanied me to the door. “Don’t worry. One day, sooner than you think, no one will remember that you ever were a newcomer.”
While I was trying to adapt to the new country and the ways of my classmates, my mother had her own adjustments to make.
She came to Israel well-equipped: two air conditioners, soft toilet paper, various kinds of kindly smelling pesticides, heaps of nylon stockings, a large refrigerator and many other electrical appliances.
A week after turning on all these appliances at once, she ran into Israeli reality: the electrical system balked at this excess, and the main fuse of the building blew, causing Mrs. Albo, our corpulent neighbor, to run breathless down the stairs.
“A military attack,” she warned us, trotting down to the cellar for cover.
Through the dressing gown loosely draped around her, I could see the hastily hooked metal eyes of her salmon-colored corset, one with a pocket for her jewelry sewn inside, in case of just such emergencies.
It turned out that no spare parts were available anywhere in the country for our electrical wonders. Soon we were like everyone else, rushing down the stairs at the sound of the ice man jingling his bell, trying to be first in line when the horse-drawn cart rattled into view. Daily, we purchased a block of ice to slide into our lifeless refrigerator, where it melted into a large plastic tray.
“An insult to our modern fridge,” my mother complained each time we hauled the block of ice up the stairs. But there was nothing she could do.
The meagerness of material life in Israel affected us in all sorts of little ways. My father shaved with cream that smelled like tar. The little bottle of Chanel No. 5 on my mother’s dresser transformed into a large one containing rose water. The shortage of my mother’s beloved nylons meant that I was sent to a Bulgarian woman on the corner who made repairs, a well-endowed lady in a flowered dress who frowned while she counted, and charged each loose stitch by the length it had run. On a wooden chest stood faded photographs of three little girls with floppy satin bows in their hair and sailor suit dresses. A thick candle burned in a glass, throwing a flickering light on their faces, almost giving them live expressions. A scratched record sobbed Bloch’s Kaddish (a prayer for the dead) on her gramophone. Each time the violin faltered on a scratch, Mrs. Milovitz would stop, her needle held in midair above the stocking extended on a wooden mushroom. Her husband with the brilliantined mustache would put down his cigarette—made of tobacco rolled in newspaper—and slowly rise to touch the needle. As soon as the music resumed, Mrs. Milovitz would begin working on my mother’s stockings again.
After our washing machine followed the ways of the other American appliances, my mother considered employing additional staff.
“In our house we had servants, of course,” Geveret Chaya sniffed. “But girls had to learn how to be good housewives.”
My mother took this comment to heart, and soon my sisters and I were taking turns treading on the laundry that was soaking in the bathtub, dancing on it as if it were grapes that someday would become wine.
We took turns beating the Persian carpets too, while the latest model of upright Hoover leaned against the wall. After a few weeks of watching us drag the carpets to the balcony for their beating, my mother rolled up “those dust nests” and stacked them in a corner, remembering to unroll them only on the High Holidays.
“Shaloush?” The teacher called out Hanna’s name from the roll a few weeks after Pourim. There was no answer. Almost a week had gone by since Hanna had been to school.
“Is she ill?” the teacher asked. “Has anyone been to visit her?”
No reply. Hanna was not one of the popular girls in class. She was the oldest child of a large family and never had time for after-school activities.
“A classmate is absent for a week and no one has bothered to find out why?” the teacher said. “Who is going to visit her? Today.”
I raised my hand. By now, I felt confident enough to explore new surroundings on my own. Besides, Hanna was the only friend I had, and I had never been to the market before.
I found out that afternoon that Hanna was not sick. Her father was.
“Fresh today. Fresh today,” I heard her calling. I found Hanna beckoning to a group of American tourists. She stood on a low stool that made her slight figure seem taller behind the fish stall. Hanna’s father, of Moroccan origin, sat in a little room behind, peering under the fin of a fish with a magnifying glass, in search of stowaway, unkosher worms. His gray beard was soft and clean, his fingers long and bony. On the wall above the sink was taped a blood-splashed Talmud page that he frequently consulted. His skin had a transparency that I associated with the radiance of a saint. I was too young to connect it with heart disease, nor had I ever heard of diabetes. He had become very weak lately, Hanna said. She had to help until he got better.
Hanna’s mother sat in front of the door, gutting fish, throwing the viscera and the fish into large metal pails on either side of her swollen knees. Unhealed cuts ran under her chipped nails. “Hanna’s American friend,” she said, fastening the flowered kerchief into a tighter knot around her head. Her face shed years when she smiled, revealing white, even teeth. An alarm clock with three feet performed a jig in a soup plate, ringing in a loud tone.
“Medicine time,” Hanna’s mother announced, looking at her husband. “You must eat something now.”
He sat motionless in the chair, a bluish tinge around his mouth.
“Go call the doctor, Hanna,” her mother instructed. “It is his sugar level again.” The father lifted his hand in a feeble protest, but Hanna was already at the door.
“Come,” she said to me. “We’ll go to the phone.” She hoisted a long wire from a hook on the wall; its end was bent into a loop.
I ran, attempting to match Hanna’s quick steps, skipping over swarms of tiny flies feasting on rotten fruit. The thought of being reprimanded at home for ruining my good shoes nagged at the back of my mind.
At the phone booth, Hanna fished a hollowed token out of her pocket and attached it to the looped wire. She pushed it down the phone and dialed the doctor’s number.
“Doctor Krautstein?” She dipped the wire at the sound of the click. “Doctor, this is Hanna Shaloush. My father needs an injection.”
At a signal that came from the phone’s belly, down went the wire again. “Can you please come?”
“People are watching,” I whispered to Hanna, eyeing the queue that was forming behind us.
“My mother said I should tell you that he needs ins-u-lin.” Hanna fed the phone’s belly again. She covered the mouthpiece with her hand. “Stop worrying,” she whispered to me. “They all do it.”
The woman behind us, protecting herself from the warm winter sun with a faded parasol, listened openly to the conversation with the doctor, her lips mouthing Hanna’s words. From her pocket peeped a similar looped iron wire.
I returned to visit Hanna every afternoon. The smells and the ever-changing scenes of the market fascinated me. Housewives swinging rigid plastic baskets marched between the stalls, drunk on the power they had over the wooing vendors. Stopping in front of fruit stalls, they palpated the fruit with the seriousness of those who had known hunger. Elderly ladies reeked of mothballs, frayed pieces of fur coquettishly thrown over their shoulders. The children stomped along in their winter shoes, made to last longer with metal half-moons on the soles. When it rained, they stepped and leaped into water puddles and then were dragged off by scolding mothers into nearby shelters, where the adults fashioned dry linings into their shoes for them from the newspapers wrapped around their purchases.
From Hanna’s brothers I mastered the climbing of guava trees. I learned to shake their branches, causing the cloying fruit to plummet on indignant passersby. The place was a mine of adventures, far more exciting than those in my beloved Bobbsey Twins books. Besides, it was far away from Nathan fawning over my mother.
When the weather changed and the hot sun came out, the tableau at the market was transformed, as if the curtain had dropped on a stage and a new scenery had been wheeled in. Fat caterpillars on glistening leaves raised their heads toward the glaring sun. Sweat ran like tears down the faces of women carrying overflowing baskets of fruit, live chickens and fish. They wore sunglasses with long pieces of paper tucked under them to shade their noses from the harsh sun. Slow-moving men knotted the corners of large handkerchiefs to fit the shape of their heads. Some wore shapeless, light-colored straw hats, the brims stained with sweat. Most had cotton hats shaped like lampshades perched on their heads: Tembel hats—idiot hats—they were called because, as Hanna pointed out, you must be a Tembel if you didn’t shield your head from the blazing sun.
The heat magnified the odors. Scents of brilliantine came through the barber’s open door. The smell of pickles in barrels of brine made my mouth water. Cheese reeked sourly behind the protection of thin cotton veils.
I soon became immune to the glassy stare of a dead fish. I learned to clean one without spattering the scales all over the wall and shouted at the top of my lungs “Fresh today!” whenever I saw someone with a camera. Each day, I proudly brought Hanna’s parents bundles of yesterday’s newspapers, thrown away by residents on our street unaware of their value. On this side of town, old newspapers were weighed on the vegetable scales, bought and sold as wrapping paper. Nowhere was I happier than in this live opera.
“You stink of fish,” my mother hissed.
“She is growing wild,” she complained to Nathan. “Children are given too much freedom in this country.”
“Not wild,” Nathan replied. “Strong and uninhibited, unlike the children of the ghetto we knew. Besides, it will do her no harm to see how other people live.”
I was told to shower and change as soon as I came home, and to leave my clothes to air on the balcony. Soon, however, my head swarmed with a colony of lice.
My mother went out to a faraway pharmacy to buy a special product, but came home empty-handed.
“You go,” she told Pnina. “I am too embarrassed.”
Pnina returned with a densely toothed comb and soaked my head in petrol. Now in school, I was the one who sat in the back of the class.
After spending afternoons in the market, I returned to life on our street with the feeling that I was entering another country. Not far from us was Habima, an auditorium surrounded by sand. The inhabitants of the five buildings around it were very proud of living nearby, as if being near culture were equivalent to having it.
Once a month, on the day the Philharmonic played solely for subscribers, my mother dressed in one of her Parisian outfits, pulled on long gloves and shaded her face under a wide-brimmed millinery confection. Thus attired, she traversed the two unpaved streets separating us from Habima to bathe herself in culture.
To Hanna, my mother’s life was a dim mystery. “Your mother has a cook, a cleaning lady, a woman to iron,” Hanna once puzzled. “What does she do the whole day?”
I had to give the question some thought. What actually did she do the whole day?
“She shops,” I answered thinking of the pretty frocks she brought home from Ivanir, the only shop in the country which claimed to offer the latest styles from Paris.
This explanation seemed to satisfy Hanna. She must have pictured my mother going to the market every day, taking her time to haggle over prices. I tried to conjure the image of my mother displaying the slippery fish on the counter as Hanna’s mother did. But even in my imagination, it seemed foolish.
In reality my mother didn’t do much, and Nathan was proud of the fact. “You struggled enough as a child and a widow,” I heard him say to her. “I want you to enjoy life.”
In Israel, my mother found many ex-Eastern Europeans like her, still recuperating from the idea that they were thrown into an Asiatic world. They all deeply loved the country, yet none of them spoke Hebrew or made an effort to study the language. They clung to the far past and sought to reproduce it. None had photographs to bring the past closer. They only had each other to prove that there ever was one. They went out every afternoon to the only fashionable coffee house on Dizengof Street. There, they exchanged Hungarian recipes and reminisced about their early youth, inevitably sliding, I later surmised, into the painful subject of lost relatives and the Holocaust. Their children knew nothing of the Holocaust. We were the future; they wanted that for us, and they expected us to let them live in the past. In exchange, they concealed from us the recent horrors they had experienced.
As for us children, we wanted to speak Hebrew only. Its guttural accents sounded bold. My German—which my mother insisted we speak, even though she vetoed the tiniest kitchen appliance that was German-made—was fading; my sentences were sprinkled heavily with Hebrew words.
I came home late one evening, elated after a busy afternoon in the market. “You were helpful. A good girl,” Hanna’s taciturn father had praised me. I felt useful and proud.
There were guests in our living room: a woman with peroxide curls, in linen clothes, and her tall husband with diamond cufflinks on his snowy sleeves. Next to them, my mother—tan in spite of the straw hats—and Nathan, the sleeves of his unstarched shirt rolled up to his elbows, seemed slightly provincial.
“The Mandelstams,” Pnina whispered. “He is a judge. They just moved to Israel.” Pnina wore shoes for the occasion, and a frilly white apron that was supposed to give her the look of a parlor maid.
The plastic covers had been removed from the satin settees in the living room, the carpets unrolled, and the light bulbs, shaped like dripping candles, were all turned on. The Mandelstams were important people, I assumed. I could hear it from the way my mother was careful with her German accent, allowing no trace of Hungarian.
“Hi,” I barged in, holding up the newspaper with herring I had received from Hanna’s mother as a gift for my mother.
“I learned to skin herring today,” I announced proudly to my mother. “This is for you.”
The Mandelstams’ nostrils widened. My mother’s face darkened, but she emitted a tinkling laugh that sounded like a spoon on a tin cup.
“Debora has a passion for the sea world,” my mother said, her accent under control. “When she grows up she will do research in that field.”
I felt let down. The picture of Hanna’s mother refusing to close the stall before she had ferociously scrubbed the chipped wooden board floated in my mind. I felt as if her honor was at stake.
My eye caught a Lilly Romance peeping from under the sofa cushion—one of those thin magazines that my mother enjoyed reading when no one saw her. On its cover was a blonde maiden, the helpless expression on her face intended to convey femininity. My mother must have shoved it there at the last minute. On the nearby coffee table, a few issues of Time were casually scattered, as if they had just been put down before the guests arrived.
“Did you misplace your magazine, Mother?” I asked in a sweet voice, holding up the Lilly Romance for all to see.
Mrs. Mandelstam snickered. Her husband threw her a furious look, and she covered her mouth, uttering a cough.
From the expression on my mother’s face, I felt I had hurt her far beyond my understanding.
Nathan followed me out of the room into the kitchen and slapped me hard on the face.
“At your age,” he thundered, “your mother did not work, she labored. And not after school, but instead of school. And not because she enjoyed playing poor, but because her life and the life of her little sisters depended on that work. So live your youth all you want, but don’t you dare spoil her new life now. Is that clear?”
It was the only slap I ever received from Nathan, and the longest explanation about my mother’s childhood during the war. I had a red mark on my cheek for days after, and a vague new unease about the fact that I didn’t know anything of my mother’s past.
“Where was my mother during the war?” I asked Geveret Chaya a few days later.
“In a camp,” she answered. Coming through her clenched teeth, the word “camp” had none of the associations of fun that I attached to the word.
“You mean some kind of orphanage?” I persisted.
“I said camp,” she snapped, closing her lips over her teeth. That was all she would divulge. No point in asking more. Since the Mandelstam incident, I was not in her favor.
The bubble of secrecy burst when Eichmann was caught and put to trial, and the horrors of our parents’ childhoods seeped into our lives. In the market, vendors held tiny transistors to their ears. None of the clients inspected the food they purchased, neither did they haggle over prices. They pointed at the items they needed and handed over the necessary coins. People’s eyes had the fixed stare of fish; their attention was tuned inwardly, to an inner voice retelling them the story of their own pasts. The whole country seemed to be in a daze, silent.
At home, my mother’s tears streamed down her unmade face while she leaned on the kitchen counter beside a dry-eyed Geveret Chaya. They listened in silence to endless witnesses put on the stand. Details of the past were torn out of some of them, like inflamed teeth extracted on a public square. Others started speaking haltingly at first, then continued in a gush of words, as if a painful boil had been squeezed open. I had never seen my mother cry before. Now it seemed that she couldn’t stop.
“You are lucky you can cry,” Geveret Chaya said to my mother in a dull tone. Never before had I heard a tinge of envy in her voice.
I wanted to shut my ears. The horrors were too great to absorb. I hated Eichmann for my own personal reasons. He was like a party crasher: the world of crowded smells and new impressions I had landed in was no more the bountiful little Eden I had thought it was. It was just a hole in a cheese. Outside loomed the world. I was grateful that my mother shut off the transistor whenever I was in the room. But there was no way of avoiding the trial. The tormented voices followed me everywhere. I wished my mother back in her petticoats. I wished she would scold me for smelling of fish. One day I brought home a Lilly Romance and shyly put it beside her. She looked at it with the revulsion of a sick person offered rich food.
It seemed as if her supply of tears were endless. “Cry,” Nathan said when he came home to find her still in her dressing gown. “Only now can we afford tears.”
I slowly began to understand the gift Nathan was trying to give my mother: the youth she had been robbed of. I also understood that without our parents’ silence, our own carefree youth would not have been possible.
Eichmann’s clipped, monotonous voice no longer filled our household, yet my mother continued to spend most of her days leaning on the kitchen counter, blowing rings of smoke into the air.
“Come with me to the market,” I begged her one day, convinced that if I could get her there, she would feel the magic of the place.
“Go,” Nathan urged.
No response, just a dismissing shrug. But as I skipped around her, trying to make her go, she seemed to be studying me through the smoke rings.
“My little gypsy,” she whispered at last.
Her face contorted again, and I steeled myself for a fresh batch of tears. But no, she simply ground her cigarette into the stone ashtray and said, “Okay. You can take me there.”
It’s only to stop my pestering, I told myself. Still, I couldn’t help anticipating the pleasure of bringing together the two important people in my life.
“My mother,” I said to one the next day.
“Mrs. Shaloush,” I announced to the other.
I had imagined the opening of the scene perfectly: Mrs. Shaloush reacted to my mother’s beauty with the same grunt she emitted at the sight of an exceptional silver-finned carp. She hastily wiped a hand on her apron and with something close to reverence, held it out.
For a second my mother recoiled. A filament of fish gut, a thin pink worm, was caught between two fingers of the outstretched hand.
“Debora speaks so much about you,” she said, recovering. In her best “how do you do” manner, she held the crooked hand firmly, as if testing her endurance. The damage, however, had already been done. The blue vein on Mrs. Shaloush’s forehead stood out and started throbbing. It was the one that appeared whenever she began to drive away a bargaining customer with a torrent of insults. My mother, I knew, was under attack.
“Where are you from?” Mrs. Shaloush asked courteously.
“Hmmph,” Hanna’s mother sniffed, her eyes sparking with a fire that, I thought, could burn all of Hungary and everyone in it. “Ashkenaz. European Jews. God didn’t send Hitler to the Sephardic Jews because they didn’t try to become like the locals. We knew who we were.”
“You still know who you are,” my mother said affably as if discussing the weather while holding a cocktail glass. “That’s why you will always remain behind this counter.”
Baffled, I watched the two women I loved. My mother’s face wore a mask of European civility, but I saw the deep contempt in her eyes. And although I had often watched Mrs. Shaloush lose her temper, I had never before seen such ferocity in her expression; her lips parted to reveal a flash of angry fangs.
I stood there, paralyzed. Then I felt my mother’s hand on mine, pulling me away. Somewhere behind me, Hanna’s voice was calling. She was asking if I would be back tomorrow.
My mother marched ahead, gripping my hand. Very soon, we would be out of Hanna’s hearing range. I didn’t try to fight my mother’s steady pull, but I turned my head and at the top of my lungs, I shouted yes, yes.
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