The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem
Translated by Anthony Berris
Expected: April 5 by St Martin’s Press
The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem is a dazzling novel of mothers and daughters, stories told and untold, and the binds that tie four generations of women.
Gabriela’s mother Luna is the most beautiful woman in all of Jerusalem, though her famed beauty and charm seem to be reserved for everyone but her daughter. Ever since Gabriela can remember, she and Luna have struggled to connect. But when tragedy strikes, Gabriela senses there’s more to her mother than painted nails and lips.
Desperate to understand their relationship, Gabriela pieces together the stories of her family’s previous generations—from Great-Grandmother Mercada the renowned healer, to Grandma Rosa who cleaned houses for the English, to Luna who had the nicest legs in Jerusalem. But as she uncovers shocking secrets, forbidden romances, and the family curse that links the women together, Gabriela must face a past and present far more complex than she ever imagined.
Set against the Golden Age of Hollywood, the dark days of World War II, and the swingin’ ’70s, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem follows generations of unforgettable women as they forge their own paths through times of dramatic change. With great humor and heart, Sarit Yishai-Levi has given us a powerful story of love and forgiveness—and the unexpected and enchanting places we find each.
About the Author
SARIT YISHAI-LEVI is an English-speaking journalist and author. She has been a correspondent for Israeli newspapers and magazines and has hosted Hebrew TV and radio programs in Los Angeles. She is the author of four non-fiction books and the bestselling and award-winning novel, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem. She lives in Israel.
THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF JERUSALEM
MY MOTHER LUNA PASSED AWAY shortly before my eighteenth birthday. A year earlier, while the whole family was sitting around the table for lunch as usual, and she was serving her famous sofrito with peas and white rice, she sat down on her chair and said, “Dio santo, I can’t feel my leg.”
Father ignored her and went on reading the paper and eating. My little brother Ronny laughed and shook Mother’s leg under the table. “Mother’s got a leg like a doll’s!”
“It’s not funny,” my mother said angrily. “I can’t feel my foot on the floor.”
Father and I continued eating.
“Por Dio, David, I can’t stand on my leg,” she repeated. “It’s not doing what I tell it.”
Now she was on the verge of hysteria. Father finally stopped eating and took his head out of the paper.
“Try and stand up,” he said. Mother was unsteady on her feet and held on to the corner of the table.
“We should get you to the doctor’s,” Father said.
But the minute they walked out the door, Mother’s leg did as it was told, and she could feel it again as if nothing had happened.
“See? It’s nothing,” said Father. “You’re being dramatic as usual.”
“Yes, right. I’m dramatic,” Mother replied. “If it had happened to you, people would have heard the ambulance siren from here to Katamon.”
The episode passed as if it had never happened. Mother would recount it over and over to Rachelika and Becky and anyone else who was prepared to listen, and Father would lose his temper and say, “Enough! How many times do we have to hear the story about your marionette leg?”
Then the second incident occurred. Mother came home from the grocery, and just as she was about to walk inside, she fell and lost consciousness. This time an ambulance was called and Mother was rushed to Bikur Holim Hospital. She couldn’t stand or walk and was diagnosed with cancer. That was when Mother began to stop talking, especially to Father. He’d try to engage her and she just wouldn’t answer. Her sisters, Rachelika and Becky, neglected their families so they could sit with her almost around the clock. Despite their pleading, she refused to leave the house, ashamed that people would see her, Luna, the woman who had the most beautiful legs in Jerusalem, in a wheelchair.
As much as I hardened my heart at the time, it was distressing to see Rachelika peeling an orange for Mother, begging her to eat her favorite fruit, and Becky gently painting Mother’s nails with red polish, for even then, when she was so sick and weak, she was still meticulous about her manicure and pedicure. Rachelika and Becky both did their utmost to behave naturally, as if nothing terrible was happening, and chattered away, “yackety-yak like a couple of hens,” as my grandmother Nona Rosa used to say. Only Luna, the biggest chatterbox of all, remained silent.
At night one of them would stay over to sleep with Mother, who now occupied the living room sofa’s pullout bed, encircled with dining chairs to prevent her from falling off. All of Father’s pleas that she sleep in their bedroom and he in the living room fell on deaf ears.
“She says she can’t breathe in the bedroom,” Rachelika told Father. “At least youcan get a proper night’s sleep so you’ll have the strength to look after the children.”
But my little brother Ronny and I didn’t need Father to look after us. We both took advantage of the fact that everyone was preoccupied with Mother and gave ourselves the freedom to roam. Ronny preferred the company of boys his age and spent whole days in their houses, and many nights as well, while I spent my time with Amnon, my boyfriend. Amnon’s parents had a bookshop at the center of town and his sister was married, so their big house on Hamaalot Street was ours for the taking. Had my father known what we were up to, he would have beaten Amnon to a pulp and sent me to live on a kibbutz.
After her diagnosis, Mother no longer called me a “street girl” or threatened to tell my father when I got home late. She wouldn’t even look at me, but just sat in her wheelchair staring into space or whispering with one of her sisters. Father would make dinner, and he too wouldn’t ask me any questions or show interest in what I was doing. It seemed they all preferred that I spend as little time as possible at home so I wouldn’t annoy Mother, God forbid, who even when in her wheelchair didn’t get good behavior from me.
One afternoon when I was about to leave the house to meet Amnon, Rachelika stopped me.
“I have to stop home,” she said, “so stay with your mother until Becky gets here.”
“But I have a test! I have to go to my friend’s to study.”
“Ask your friend to come here.”
“No!” My mother’s voice, hardly ever heard in those days, made us jump. “You’re not asking anyone to come here. If you want to go, go. I don’t need you to stay here and look after me.”
“Luna,” said Rachelika, “you can’t stay here on your own.”
“I don’t need Gabriela to hold my hand. I don’t need her to look after me or you to look after me or Becky to look after me or the devil to look after me. I don’t need anything, just leave me be!”
“Don’t get angry, Luna. It’s been two days since I saw Moise and the children. I have to go check in.”
“Go wherever you want,” my mother replied and withdrew into herself again.
“God forgive us,” Rachelika said, wringing her hands. I’d never seen my aunt in such despair, but she quickly regained her composure. “You’re staying here with your mother!” she ordered me. “I’m going home for a few minutes and I’ll be right back. And don’t you dare leave her for one second.”
She turned and went, leaving me alone with my mother. You could have cut the air with a knife. My mother sitting in her wheelchair, her face sour and angry, and me standing in the middle of the living room like an idiot. At that moment I would have done anything just not to be alone with her.
“I’m going to my room to study,” I said. “I’ll leave the door open. Call me if you need anything.”
“Sit down,” my mother said.
I paused, caught off guard by her request.
“I want to ask you for something.”
I tensed. My mother never asked me for anything. She only ever told me what to do.
“I want to ask you not to bring your friends here. I don’t want any strangers in the house until I die.”
“Until you die?” I was so alarmed that the only way I could deflect what she’d said was to respond with words that even I couldn’t believe. “You’ll bury us all.”
“Don’t worry, Gabriela. It will be you who buries me,” she said quietly.
The room felt too small for the both of us.
“Mother, you should be thanking God. There are people who get cancer and die right away. God loves you. You can talk, you can see, you’re alive.”
“You call this living?” My mother snorted. “My enemies should live like this. It’s a living death.”
“You’re the one who’s choosing to live like this,” I retorted. “If you wanted to, you could get dressed, put on makeup, and go out.”
“Yes, right,” she said. “Go out in a wheelchair.”
“Your friend the redhead, the one who was in the hospital with you during the war, he was in a wheelchair, and I don’t remember him not leaving the house, and I remember he was always smiling.”
My mother looked at me incredulously. “You remember him?” she asked softly.
“Of course I do. He used to sit me on his knee and spin us in his wheelchair like the bumper cars at the Luna Park.”
“The Luna Park,” Mother murmured. “The ghost train.” She suddenly burst into tears and with her hand signaled that I should go.
I took to my heels. The almost intimate conversation we’d had was too much for me to take. It was the closest we’d come to having a mother-daughter talk, and it too ended in tears.
My mother wept in waves that rose and fell, and in my room I shut my ears with my hands. I couldn’t bear the sound of her despair. Years later I’d regret that moment. Instead of my heart opening, it closed up tight. Instead of taking her in my arms and comforting her, I lay on the cold floor of my room, hands over my ears, and uttered a silent cry to God: Shut her up, God. Please shut her up.
And God foolishly heard me and shut her up. That night the ambulance siren wailed and its brakes screeched outside our house. Four brawny men climbed the fifty-four stairs to the top floor of our apartment building, laid my mother on a stretcher, and rushed her to the hospital. On the operating table the surgeons discovered to their horror that my mother’s body was completely ravaged inside.
“It’s all over,” my father told me. “There’s nothing the doctors can do. Your mother’s going to die.”
Many years after her death, when I found room in my heart for my mother, my Aunt Rachelika told me the secret of her suffering, the never-receding pain. But by then it was already too late to fix what had been broken between us.
* * *
I’m a woman of autumn, of yellowed falling leaves. I was born at its back door, two steps before winter.
As a child I’d eagerly await the first rain and the blossoming of the squills. I’d run to the fields, roll in the damp grass, press my face to the soil, and inhale the smell of rain. I’d collect tortoises and stroke their hard shells with my slender fingers, save wagtails’ nests that had fallen from trees, pick autumn saffron and crocuses, and follow the snails that populated the fields.
I’d disappear for hours, and Mother, who was sure I was at Nono and Nona’s, never came looking for me. When I’d get home with damp soil stuck to my clothes and a frightened tortoise in my hands, she’d glare at me with her green eyes and say in a whisper that felt as harsh as a slap, “So different from everyone else. How? How did I have a child like you?”
I too didn’t know how she’d had a child like me. She was so thin and fragile, always dressed in well-cut suits that showed off her slim waist, with high heels like those in the magazines at the seamstress, who’d make all my mother’s clothes according to Hollywood fashion.
There was a time when Mother would sew identical dresses for herself and me, from the same cloth and in the same cut. She’d dress me, warn me over and over not to get dirty, tie a matching ribbon in my red curls, clean my patent leather shoes with spit, and hand in hand we’d go to Café Atara near our house on Ben-Yehuda Street. But after I dirtied the dresses time after time, didn’t show them the proper respect, she stopped.
“What kind of a girl are you? A horani, a primitive. You’ll never be a lady. Sometimes I think you were born in the Kurdish neighborhood!” she’d say, and that was the most terrible thing she could have said, because my mother despised the Kurds.
I could never understand why Mother hated the Kurds. Even Nona Rosa didn’t hate them, certainly not in the way she hated the English. I never heard her say, “May the name of the Kurds be erased.” But whenever there was mention of the English who were in Israel before I was born, she’d always add, “May the name of the Ingelish be erased.” It was well known that Nona Rosa hated the English from the time of the Mandate, ever since her little brother Ephraim disappeared and went in hiding for years as a member of the Lehi underground organization. My mother, on the other hand, had nothing against the English. On the contrary, on numerous occasions I heard her say it was a pity they’d left the country: “If the English had stayed, then maybe the Kurds wouldn’t have come.”
I actually liked the Kurds a lot, especially the Barazani family who lived in the other half of Nono and Nona’s house after our family’s financial situation forced my grandparents to move into the Kurd neighborhood. The two yards were separated only by a thin fence, and once a week Mrs. Barazani would light a fire in the yard and bake a tasty pastry with bubbling cheese inside it. And before the day my mother, with threats of a beating, forbade me to go anywhere near the Barazanis’ side, I’d wait for the moment when “the Kurdia,” as Nona called her, invited me to sit on the floor by the tabun and enjoy the heavenly pastry.
Mr. Barazani would wear a big dress—“like the Arabs in the Old City,” my mother would say—and a rolled-up kerchief on his head, sitting me on his knee as he laughed with his toothless mouth and talked to me in a language I didn’t understand.
“Papukata, where did your mother buy you, the Mahane Yehuda Market?” Mrs. Barazani would laugh. “Because it’s impossible that you and she are related.”
It was only years later that my Aunt Becky told me that our family had a long score to settle with the Kurds.
My Aunt Becky was Nono and Nona Ermosa’s youngest daughter, and she loved me as if I were her little sister. She looked after me and spent far more time with me than my mother did. I was also her alibi when she went to meet her boyfriend, Handsome Eli Cohen, who was as good-looking as Alain Delon. Every afternoon Handsome Eli Cohen would pull up on his shiny black motorbike and whistle. Aunt Becky would go out into the yard, dragging me after her, and shout to Nona Rosa, “I’m taking Gabriela to the playground.” And before Nona had a chance to answer, we’d already be on the bike, me pressed between Becky and Handsome Eli Cohen. We’d drive along Agrippas Street to King George Street, and as we passed the modest building opposite the Tzilla perfumery, where my mother bought perfume and lipstick, Becky would always say, “There’s our Knesset.” Once we even saw Ben-Gurion leave our Knesset and walk toward Hillel Street, and Handsome Eli Cohen drove after him on his motorbike until we saw him enter the Eden Hotel. “There,” Becky told me, “is where he sleeps when he’s in our Knesset, in our Jerusalem.”
At the city park, they’d send me off to play on the swings or slide and they’d kiss until it was almost dark. Only then, when the park emptied of children and mothers and I was the only one left in the sandbox, Handsome Eli Cohen would drive us back to Nono and Nona Ermosa’s. Mother, who’d come to collect me, would yell at Aunt Becky, “Where the hell have you been with the child? I’ve been looking for you all over Jerusalem!” And Becky would reply, “If you’d take her to the playground yourself instead of sitting in Café Atara all day, then maybe I’d be able to study for the exam I have tomorrow, so you’re welcome!”
My mother would smooth her sleek skirt, pass a hand over her perfect hairdo, examine her red-polished nails, and murmur, “Go to hell,” through clenched lips before taking my hand and leading me home.
Eventually Aunt Becky got engaged to Handsome Eli Cohen at Café Armon. It was a lovely party with tables of food and a singer who sang Yisrael Yitzhaki songs. Aunt Becky looked as beautiful as Gina Lollobrigida. When the family had our photograph taken with the engaged couple, Nono Gabriel sat in the middle surrounded by the whole family, and I sat perched on my father’s shoulders and looked down at everyone. That was the last photograph taken of Nono Gabriel, because five days later he died.
Only after he died, during the shiva, the seven-day mourning period, when my mother fainted all the time from crying so much and they had to pour water over her so she’d wake up, and Nona Rosa kept saying, “Basta, Luna! Pull yourself together so we don’t have another tragedy in the family!” and Tia Allegra, Nono Gabriel’s sister, said, “May he rest in peace, Gabriel. Not only isn’t she crying for him, she won’t even let her daughter faint over him”—it was just then that Becky found the right time to announce her wedding date. They all congratulated her but said she had to wait a year out of respect for Nono Gabriel, and Becky said there was no way she’d wait that long, because by then she’d be too old to have children. And Tia Allegra said, “Gabriel, God forgive your sins. What kind of girls did you raise that they won’t even give you the respect of a year?”
My mother, who had come around from her faint, whispered, “Thank God she’s finally getting married. I was worried she might die an old maid.” A fight broke out and Aunt Becky ran after my mother with her sapatos, her slippers, and threatened to murder her if she ever dared call her an old maid again, and my mother told her, “What’s to be done, querida. It’s a fact. At your age I was already a mother.” At that Aunt Becky darted out of the house and I after her down the steps of Agrippas Street until we reached the Wallach hospital graveyard. She sat down on the wall and sat me next to her and suddenly burst into tears.
“Oy, Papo, Papo, why have you gone, why have you left us, Papo? What will we do without you?” Eventually she stopped crying, hugged me tight, and said, “You know, Gabriela, they all say that Nono Gabriel loved your mother Luna more than any of us, but I never felt that he loved me less. Nono Gabriel had a heart of gold and that’s why everybody took advantage of him. And you, my lovely, never let anyone take advantage of you, you hear? You’ll find yourself a boy like my Eli and marry him and be happy. Isn’t that right, my good girl? Don’t search right or left. When you meet a boy like Eli, you’ll feel the love here.” She took my hand and laid it between her breasts. “Right here, Gabriela, between your belly and your breasts, you’ll feel the love, and when you feel it you’ll know you’ve found your Eli and you’ll marry him. Now let’s go back home before Nono Gabriel gets angry with me for running away from his shiva.”
In the end Aunt Becky waited a year until the mourning period was over and only then married Handsome Eli Cohen at Café Armon, where they’d gotten engaged. I wore a white dress and walked in front of the bride, throwing sweets with my cousin Boaz, Aunt Rachelika’s eldest son, who was stuffed into a suit and bow tie. Mother and her middle sister Rachelika had picked out my and Boaz’s outfits together. They did everything together. When Rachelika wasn’t in her house on Ussishkin Street, she was with my mother, and when my mother wasn’t in our house on Ben-Yehuda Street, she was at my aunt’s.
After Nono died, my grandmother remained in her and Nono’s house, and every now and then she’d stop by ours for a visit. She’d always come with chocolate and bamblik licorice sweets, and fascinating stories about the time she’d worked in the homes of the English.
“Enough of those stories already!” my mother would say, annoyed. “Cleaning the toilets of the English isn’t exactly a great honor.”
And Nona would muster up strength and say, “It’s also nothing to be ashamed of! I wasn’t born a princess like you, with a silver spoon in my mouth. I had to feed my brother Ephraim, and besides, I learned a lot from the Ingelish.”
“What? What did you learn from the In … ge … lish?” my mother would reply mockingly, drawing out the wordIngelish for as long as she could. “And anyway, how many times do I have to tell you, it’s English. English.”
Nona would ignore Mother’s taunts and reply quietly, “I learned to lay a table. I learned Ingelish. I speak Ingelish better than you who learned it in the Ingelish school, and to this day your Ingelish is like my troubles.”
“Me? I don’t know English?” My mother would become angry. “I read magazines in English. I don’t even read the subtitles at the cinema, I understand everything!”
“Right, right, we’ve heard all about you. You understand everything except for one thing, the most important thing, respect and manners. That you don’t understand, beauty queen of Jerusalem.”
And Mother would storm out of the kitchen and leave me with Nona Rosa, who’d sit me on her knee and tell me, “Remember, Gabriela, there is no work that is beneath a person, and if ever, God forbid, you find yourself in a situation, tfu-tfu-tfu, where you have no choice, there’s no shame in cleaning toilets for the Ingelish.”
I liked spending time with Nona Rosa. She was a marvelous storyteller and I was an excellent listener.
“Before you were born, a long, long time before you were born, Gabriela querida,” she would tell me, “our Jerusalem was like abroad. In Café Europa on Zion Square an orchestra played and people danced the tango, and at five o’clock on the terrace of the King David Hotel there was tea and a pianist, and they’d drink from delicate porcelain cups, and the Arab waiters, may they be cursed, wore tuxedoes and bow ties. And the cakes they served there, with chocolate and cream and strawberries … And the gentlemen would come in white suits and straw hats, and the ladies in hats and dresses like they wore at their horse races in Ingeland.”
But my grandmother, so I learned years later, had never been to Café Europa or the King David. She told me what she’d heard from the people whose houses she cleaned. She told me her dreams, some of which would come true years later, when her wealthy brother Nick, who Nona called Nissim, would come visit from America and the whole family would gather on the King David terrace, and he would order coffee and cake for everybody. And as the pianist played, I’d steal a glance at my nona, dressed in her best clothes, and I’d see a rare glint of pleasure in her eyes.
Nona Rosa had a hard life. She lived with a man who respected her but didn’t love her the way a man loves a woman. She never knew true love, but she never complained and she never cried. Even during Nono Gabriel’s shiva, when rivers of tears flowed from my mother’s and aunts’ eyes, threatening to flood all of Jerusalem, not a single tear trickled from hers. Nona Rosa would never hug. She didn’t like touching and didn’t like being touched. But I’d sit in her lap, wrap my little arms around her neck, and plant kisses on her withered cheek. “Enough, stop it, Gabriela, basta, you’re annoying me,” she’d chide me and try to shake me off, but I’d ignore her, taking her rough hands and putting them around my body, forcing her to hug me.
Once Nono died, Nona stopped inviting the family over for Shabbat, and we’d hold it elsewhere. After the heavy Shabbat meal I’d walk with Nona to her house and stay there until Mother or Father came to get me. What I loved about her house were the glass-fronted cabinets in which porcelain and crystal tableware stood in perfect order, and the wedding photographs of Mother, Rachelika, and Becky in their silver frames. I loved the big picture of Nono and Nona on the wall: Nono, a handsome young man in a black suit, white shirt, and tie, a white handkerchief peeping from his jacket pocket, sits upright on a wooden chair, his elbow on a table and a rolled-up newspaper in his hand. Nona stands beside him in a black dress buttoned to the neck, the hem reaching to her ankles, with a gold pendant relaxing against her breastbone. She isn’t touching my nono but her hand is on the back of his chair. Nono’s face is finely chiseled, the nose, the eyes, the lips almost perfect. Nona’s is broad, her black hair styled as if stuck to her skull, her eyes wide. They are not smiling, just looking at the camera with serious expressions.
There was the heavy dining table with its lace cloth and center bowl that was always filled with fruit and the upholstered chairs around it, the wide, deep-red couch with cushions that Nona herself had embroidered. My favorite of all was the wooden wardrobe that stood in Nona’s bedroom, which was separate from Nono’s. Lions had been carved into the top, and I would stand for hours in front of its mirrored doors, pretending I was Sandra Dee kissing Troy Donahue and we were living happily ever after.
Their yard, partly protected by the tiled roof, was surrounded by an iron fence entwined with purple bougainvillea and lined with geraniums in white-painted cans. There were stools in the yard, and the chair with the upholstered cushion in which Nono Gabriel loved to sit as evening fell, and next to it a wooden table on which Nona sometimes served dinner. After Nono died, his chair became a monument to his memory and nobody sat in it.
The yard was my kingdom. I’d sit on a stool, gaze at the sky, and wait for a rainbow, because I’d once asked Nona Rosa what God was and she’d told me God was the rainbow in the sky. When I wasn’t searching the sky, I’d imagine I was one of the Hollywood actresses my mother so admired. After all, it was in our Jerusalem that they shot Exodus, and the star, Paul Newman, who my mother said was even better looking than Handsome Eli Cohen, stayed at the King David. Every afternoon during filming my mother would take me by the hand and we’d walk to the entrance of the hotel in the hope of catching a glimpse of him. After a few days of failing to see him, we crossed the road to the YMCA tower, bought tickets for five grush, and climbed to the top, the highest point in Jerusalem. “From here,” she said, “nobody can hide Paul Newman from me.”
But from there we couldn’t see him either because each time he arrived at the King David the black car took him right to the hotel’s revolving glass door, and he slipped through without even a glance back at the crowd that had formed to see him. Eventually Mother managed to see Paul Newman as an extra in the scene where the establishment of the state is announced. She brought the binoculars that Father had bought her for bird-watching on our walks in the Jerusalem hills, and though she had finally gotten to see Paul Newman with the binoculars, my mother was disappointed.
“I saw him, but he, nada, he didn’t see me. Well, how could he from a mile away?” My mother was convinced that if only Paul Newman could have seen her up close, he wouldn’t have been able to resist her. Nobody could resist my mother. Somebody just had to mention to Paul Newman that my mother was the beauty queen of Jerusalem. But nobody told him, and Mother made do with going to see Exodus every day when it was showing at Orion Cinema. Alberto, the usher who had lain wounded in the hospital with Mother during the war, got us in for free.
My mother very much admired movie stars, first and foremost Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Doris Day and Rock Hudson. I dreamed that one day I’d go to Hollywood, even though I didn’t know where Hollywood was, and come back as a famous film actress, and then Mother would stop calling me “primitive” and stop saying that I was different from everyone else and asking how, how had she had a daughter like me. And so I would practice until I made it to Hollywood.
At every chance I got, when Nono and Nona’s yard was empty, I acted like I was living in a movie. I was named Natalie, like Natalie Wood, and I’d dance for hours in James Dean’s arms, and when James and I finished dancing I’d bow to an imaginary audience. One time after I finished dancing I heard loud applause and shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” I froze and saw the whole neighborhood standing by the fence. Embarrassed to my core, I ran into the house and directly to Nono’s room, lying on his bed and burying my head in the pillow, my eyes filled with tears of shame. Nona Rosa, who witnessed the whole scene, didn’t come after me. A long time later, when I came out of the room, she sat in her armchair in the living room, looked at me, and said, “Gabriela querida,why are you embarrassed? You dance so beautifully. You should tell your mother and father to enroll you in ballet lessons with Rina Nikova.”
Of all our family I was closest to Nona Rosa. While Nono Gabriel was alive his and Nona’s house was the center of the family. We gathered there on Friday evenings for Shabbat, and on Saturday mornings for huevos haminados that we’d eat with cheese-filled borekitas and sweet sütlaç rice pudding, on which Nona would draw a Star of David with cinnamon.
After Shabbat breakfast we’d play in the yard, Mother, Rachelika, and Becky would chat, and Father, Rachelika’s Moise, and Becky’s Handsome Eli Cohen would talk about soccer. There was always shouting because Father was a Hapoel Jerusalem fan and Eli and Moise were Beitar fans. That’s how the time passed until lunch when we’d eat macaroni hamin. After the hamin Nono would take his afternoon nap, and we children were sent for a nap too so we wouldn’t disturb him. Mother, Rachelika, and Becky would carry on chatting, and Father, Moise, and Eli Cohen would go to my father’s sister’s house. Aunt Clara and her husband Yaakov lived on Lincoln Street opposite the YMCA stadium, where every Shabbat afternoon there was a Beitar Jerusalem soccer game. “Watching a game from Clara and Yaakov’s balcony is better than sitting in the reserved seats,” Uncle Moise would say.
My little brother Ronny and I nicknamed Uncle Yaakov “Jakotel” after we saw Jack the Giant Killer, which translated to Jack Kotel Haanakim in Hebrew, at the Orna Cinema maybe a hundred times, because the usher there too had been in the hospital with Mother during the war. “It’s lucky that Mother almost died in the War of Independence,” Ronny would say. “Otherwise how would we get to see movies for free?”
After Nono died and Nona stopped cooking, the Shabbat lunch macaroni hamin tradition moved to our house, and instead of napping after the meal we’d all go to watch the Beitar game. From below, I felt that at any moment Aunt Clara and Jakotel’s balcony would collapse together with the millions of family members on it, so I’d make sure not to pass under the balcony and instead walked on the crowded side of the street next to the stadium.
Left with no choice, every Saturday Father was forced to watch the Beitar Jerusalem team with us from the balcony, even though he always cursed “the sons of bitches” and prayed they’d lose. Everyone would yell, “Damn you, David. Is this what you came for? To put the evil eye on the team?”
Nona Rosa never came with us to see a Beitar game and would go back to her house after lunch. Sometimes I’d walk with her, and while she took her afternoon nap I’d rifle through all her drawers looking for hidden treasure, and when she woke up she’d lose her temper with me and say, “How many times have I told you that you mustn’t put your hands into places that aren’t yours? You know what happened to the cat that put its paw into a drawer that wasn’t his? His paw got trapped and his fingers were cut off. Do you want a hand with no fingers?” And I’d be so frightened that I buried my hands deep in my pockets and swore I’d never ever put my hands into places that weren’t mine, but I never kept my promise.
Every now and again in the afternoon, when Mother went out to Café Atara or someplace else, Nona would come and look after me and Ronny. I’d beg her to tell me stories about the old times before I was born, about the time of the Ingelish and Nono Gabriel’s shop in the Mahane Yehuda Market and his black car in which they’d drive to the Dead Sea and Tel Aviv. And about the time when they lived in a house with an elevator on King George Street, and how the whole family came to see the bath with the two faucets, one for hot water and the other for cold, a bath like my nona had seen only in the homes she’d cleaned.
I asked lots of questions, and my nona would say that I must have swallowed a radio and I was giving her a headache, but you could see that she enjoyed telling me what she’d perhaps never shared with anyone before.
One day Nona sat down on Nono’s chair for the first time since he’d died and said to me, “Gabriela querida, your nona’s an old woman who’s seen a lot in life. I’ve had a hard life. My father and mother died in the cholera epidemic in our Jerusalem and we became orphans. I was ten years old, Gabriela, like you are today, and Ephraim, may he rest in peace, was five and the only one I had left. My brother Nissim had run off to America, and the damned Turks hanged our brother Rachamim at Damascus Gate because he didn’t want to join their army. We had nothing to eat and nothing to wear, and every day I’d go to Mahane Yehuda after it closed to collect what was left on the ground, tomatoes, cucumbers, sometimes a bit of bread. I had to take care of Ephraim and started doing housework for the Ingelish, and there the lady would feed me and I’d eat half and save the other half for Ephraim.
“And then, when I was sixteen, Nona Mercada married me to her son, your Nono Gabriel, may he rest in peace, and all of a sudden I had a good life. Gabriel was very rich and handsome. All the girls in Jerusalem wanted him, and out of them all, Mercada chose me. Why she chose me, the poor orphan, I only found out after muchos anos, many years, but back then I didn’t ask questions. I knew Gabriel from the shop in the market. Every Friday I’d go to get cheese and olives that he and his father, Senor Raphael, may he rest in peace, would distribute to the poor. Who could have dreamed he would end up my husband? That I would be the mother of his daughters? What chance did I, an orphan from the Shama neighborhood with no family and no pedigree, have of even coming close to the Ermosa family? And then, out of the blue, of all the girls in Jerusalem she chose me for her son. Dio santo, I thought I was dreaming, and although she told me I could take some time to think about it, I told her yes right away and my life changed completely. Suddenly I had a house, suddenly I had clothes, I had food, I had a family. That’s not to say that everything was rosy. A lot of things were bad because of my sins, but that didn’t matter to me. The main thing was that I no longer had to clean houses for the Ingelish, and I knew that Ephraim would now grow up with clothes and food. Instead of the family I’d lost, I’d have a new one: a husband, children, a mother-in-law I hoped would be like a mother to me, sisters-in-law I hoped would be like sisters, and brothers-in-law I hoped would be like brothers.
“Gabriela, mi alma, I’m an old woman and soon I’ll die, and after I die, you will be the only one to miss me. My daughters, may they be healthy, will cry a bit and get on with their lives. That’s the nature of people. Time heals, people forget. But you, querida, you don’t forget, not like your mother, who has the memory of a bird. I noticed it when you were still a baby. You never shut your mouth, avlastina de la Palestina, asking questions all the time as if you wanted to inhale the whole world. Now, querida mia, I’m going to tell you about your Nona Rosa and Nono Gabriel and our family and how, from being very wealthy and living in a house with an elevator and a bath, and having the loveliest shop in Mahane Yehuda, we became horanis, poor primitives, with barely enough money to buy wine for Friday Kiddush.
“Everything I know was told to me by your Nono Gabriel, who related the family history as he’d heard it from his father Raphael, may he rest in peace. After Raphael died, Gabriel promised to continue telling the family story, from the day they arrived from Toledo after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, may their souls burn in hell, expelled the Jews from Spain to Palestine. And because Gabriel and I, for my sins, had no sons, he would tell the story over and over to Luna, Rachelika, and Becky, and make them swear to tell it to their children. But I don’t trust your mother to tell you because her head’s in the clouds and her memory, wai de mi sola, so it’s best she keeps quiet. So come, mi alma, come, bonica, sit here on your old nona’s knee and listen to Nono Gabriel’s story.”
I did as she asked. I climbed onto her knee, burrowed into her bosom, and closed my eyes, inhaling her warm familiar scent that had the sweetness of sütlaç and rosewater. My nona toyed with my curls, rolling them around her thin finger, sighing deeply and pausing the way you do before saying something very important. Then she continued with her story as if she were telling it to herself and not to me.
“After they expelled the Jews from Toledo, the head of the family, Senor Avraham, and his parents, brothers, and sisters traveled all the way from Toledo to the port of Saloniki and boarded a ship that brought them directly to the port of Jaffa.”
“And your family, Nona?”
“My family, mi alma, also came from Toledo to Saloniki and stayed there for many years until my great-grandfather, may he rest in peace, came to Palestine. But I won’t tell you about my family, Gabriela, because from the day I married your grandfather and became part of the Ermosa family, the story of his family became the story of my family too.
“Now listen and don’t interrupt again, because if you do, I won’t remember where I stopped and won’t know where to continue.”
I nodded and promised not to interrupt anymore.
“From Jaffa, Senor Avraham traveled for maybe three days, three nights until he reached Jerusalem. His dream was to kiss the stones of the Western Wall. In Jerusalem he met other Spaniols who took him to the synagogue and gave him somewhere to sleep. At the time small merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, and also goldsmiths and silversmiths who traded with the Arabs lived in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City. There was respect and good relations with the Ishmaelites, and the Spaniols wore dresses like theirs. They even spoke Arabic, and some of the Arabs even spoke Ladino.
“Life was hard in this country back then—Dio santo. A woman had eight children one after the other, and they all died at birth or when they were babies.
“I also had five children with your Nono Gabriel, but only my three daughters, may they have a long life,pishcado y limon, lived. The boys lived less than a month, and after Becky was born my womb closed up.
“I did everything I needed to do to give Gabriel a son. Between the engagement and the wedding I and my future husband, your nono, were invited to a relative’s circumcision. During the ceremony they let me hold the baby and then hand him to my future husband, who passed him on to others, which was the custom for ensuring that a young couple would have sons.
“And truly, blessed be His name, not many days passed after the wedding and I had conceived. How I loved being pregnant. Even my mother-in-law Mercada, who never made life easy for me, was good to me. She and all the women in the family pampered me with honey sweets to make sure I wouldn’t have a daughter, God forbid, and that with God’s help a son would be born.
“Now you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, Gabriela, but whenever she could, my mother-in-law Mercada, may she rest in peace, would stick a knife in my back and through my heart too, but during that first pregnancy she made sure that everyone showered me with love.
“And when the time came, Gabriel rushed to the synagogue with the other men in the family to pray for my well-being and the well-being of the baby. I stayed with the midwife and the women in the family, and my shouting that night was heard from our house in the Old City as far away as Nahalat Shiva in the New City, and I pushed and pushed, dala dala dala, until my soul almost left my body, and it was only when I was sure that the Almighty was taking me to Him that a male child was born. Mercada opened the door and shouted, ‘Bien nacido, it’s a boy!’ and all the family standing outside the door responded, ‘Sano que ’ste, may he be healthy.’ The midwife took the baby, washed it, wrapped it in a white cotton cloth, and laid it on my bosom. But before I could even kiss his red hair Mercada took him from me and ordered the children to run to the synagogue and fetch Gabriel.
“When Gabriel came, he took the baby from Mercada and held it to his heart as if it were precious crystal. Only after he gave thanks to the Almighty did he turn to me, lying between the sheets like a muerta, and for the first time in our lives he kissed me on the forehead.
“What can I tell you, querida mia, that was one of the happiest moments of my life. For the first time since the wedding I felt a little love from Gabriel. Even Mercada, with her face as sour as a lemon, who never smiled at me and always spoke to me curtly and never asked how I was, said to me, ‘Como ’stas, Rosa? Quieres una cosa? How are you, Rosa? Do you need anything?’ And before I could reply, she ordered her daughter Allegra to fetch me some leche con dvash, milk and honey.
“I was happy, Gabriela. I felt that for the first time since I’d become an Ermosa, Mercada and Gabriel were pleased with me. I’d given Mercada a grandson and Gabriel his first son. I felt a warmth in my heart, pride. I felt that now perhaps I belonged. Now perhaps I was part of the family.
“The baby was named Raphael after your great-grandfather, who had died a short time before I’d married Gabriel.
“How I loved Raphael, the apple of my eye. As tired as I was after the labor, I cleaned the room we lived in until it gleamed so the baby wouldn’t catch an illness, God forbid, and die, God forbid, like the babies of the Yemenites in Silwan who dropped like flies just from all the dirt. Raphael’s cradle stood under the window, and over it I hung a tara, an oil lamp that Gabriel brought from the synagogue, and every day after evening prayers Torah scholars would come and recite from the Book of Zohar in honor of baby Raphael.
“But the baby, as much as we pampered him and loved him and prayed for him, he cried all the time, in his cradle, when I carried him whispering words of love: ‘Querido mio, hijo mio, mi alma, what’s hurting you, Raphuli? What’s hurting?’ I didn’t know what to do. I was a child myself, sixteen, maybe seventeen. The baby cried on and on, and then I cried until I ran out of tears, but he never did. He cried without even a break to breathe. Mercada said maybe I didn’t have enough milk, maybe we should bring in a wet nurse, but I didn’t want my baby to feed from another woman, didn’t want strange hands clasping that little body to strange breasts. To increase my milk, Mercada forced me to eat garlic even though I hated it, telling me over and over that only garlic would make baby Raphael feed properly, and then he’d be happy and stop crying.
“Most of all I was frightened of the evil eye and evil spirits. I’d even dress Raphael in girls’ clothes to deceive Lilith, the worst spirit of all, who we knew especially liked to harm baby boys. According to our belief, Gabriela, to appease the evil spirit we had to ‘sell’ the child to somebody else. Gabriel’s mother had been sold when she was a baby, and that’s why she was called Mercada, which means bought.
“When the time came to sell little Raphael, I went to my good neighbor Victoria Siton and informed her, ‘I have a slave for sale,’ which was the code for selling the child. Victoria agreed to ‘buy the slave’ and as payment gave me a gold bracelet. The next day our two families got together and slaughtered a goat for absolution and changed Raphael’s name to Mercado—bought.”
“Is Victoria my other nona?” I asked, interrupting Nona Rosa.
“Back then we didn’t know that Victoria’s son, your father David, would marry Luna and we’d become related, but at the time Victoria Siton was our neighbor in Ohel Moshe, and it was custom to sell your child to a neighbor. Victoria Siton kept baby Raphael in her house for three days, and then we held a new sale ceremony and bought him back from her. But nothing helped, Gabriela, not the girls’ clothes I dressed him in or selling him to Victoria Siton. The damned evil spirits outsmarted us, and when Raphael was almost a month old and we hadn’t yet held the redemption of the firstborn ceremony to celebrate that he’d been bought back, he turned blue like the eye hanging over his cradle to protect him, and by the time Gabriel and Mercada arrived, he was already dead. Mercada lifted Raphael’s blanket over his body and looked Gabriel in the eye and told him it was God’s punishment. At the time I didn’t yet grasp why your grandfather deserved such a punishment from God, and it was only after muchos anos that I understood what that sour old woman meant.
“On the night little Raphael died, I died too. I didn’t die when the accursed Turks hanged my brother Rachamim at Damascus Gate, I didn’t die when my father and then my mother died in the cholera epidemic and I remained alone in the world, a ten-year-old orphan girl with a five-year-old brother. I didn’t die when I realized that my husband didn’t love me and perhaps never would and that the only thing that seemed to interest my mother-in-law was making my life miserable. But when my child Raphael died, I died too, and your grandfather Gabriel died as well, and it was only after your mother Luna was born that he began to live again.
“After Luna was born, we had another son, and he died even before we were able to have him circumcised and give him a name. But for me, even after Luna was born, joy did not come back into my heart, and it didn’t after Rachelika and Becky were born either. Do you know who restored joy to your nona?”
“Who?” I asked, looking wide-eyed at her.
“You, mi alma,” Nona Rosa replied, and although she didn’t like kissing, she kissed my head and I felt as if my heart might burst.
“You brought happiness back to me. My daughters, may they be healthy, have never loved me the way you do, hija mia, and perhaps I didn’t love them the way a mother loves a child. My heart was filled with pain and longing for baby Raphael, and there was no room left for them. But you, querida mia, you, mi vida, my life, I love you a lot. The moment you were born my heart opened again, and into it you brought happiness I’d forgotten could exist in this world.”
“I love you, Nona, I love you best in the whole world,” I said, tightening my arms around my grandmother’s broad waist.
“Love.” Nona Rosa laughed. “In our family, Gabriela, love is a word we never spoke. I never heard words likelove from my mother, may she rest in peace. Her whole life was spent in poverty until she died from the epidemic that almost killed the whole of Jerusalem, and Gabriel, of blessed memory, I never once heard him tell me ‘I love you.’ And anyway, what is love? Who knows? Before they got married, my daughters said ‘I love David,’ ‘I love Moise,’ ‘I love Eli,’ and I said, ‘Love? The time of the Messiah has come.’ It’s luck, luck from heaven above that we only had girls, because in our family the men marry women they don’t love. The men of the Ermosa family, Gabriela, don’t let the word love out of their mouths, not even when no one is there to hear. But stories about love that broke hearts, Gabriela, stories about love in which there was no love, that’s something we have in the family. That, praise God, He didn’t keep from us.”
She sighed. “Well, get up. That’s enough for today. I’ve already said more than I wanted. Get up. Your mother will be here soon to take you home and she’ll be annoyed that you haven’t had dinner. Come, querida, help me cut vegetables for the salad.”
* * *
The following Saturday after we ate the macaroni hamin and everyone went to watch the Beitar game from Clara and Jakotel’s balcony, I went to Nona’s again. Once more she sat me on her knee and continued the story of the Ermosa family.
“Your great-grandfather Raphael was a very pious man, a scholar who studied the Kabbalah and even made the journey all the way from Jerusalem to Safed to pray with the Holy Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria. They say that Raphael had decided never to stand under the wedding canopy, that he almost vowed never to have children and instead devote his whole life to Torah study.”
“So how was Nono Gabriel born if his father wasn’t married?”
“Paciencia, querida, all in good time. Listen to me and don’t interrupt, because if you interrupt again I’ll forget what I wanted to tell you and you won’t know anything. Dio santo, why do all the girls in the Ermosa family have no patience?”
Nona took her time before going on with the story, lowering her voice as if whispering a secret. “They say that one day Raphael’s righteous father came to Safed and informed him that he’d found a bride for him—Rivka Mercada, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Rabbi Yochanan Toledo, a pious Jew and rich merchant. Raphael couldn’t disobey his father, but he demanded, and was granted, permission to remain in Safed for three more months, when the wedding would take place. From that moment he dove even deeper into a modest, ascetic way of life.
“The three months passed slowly, and as the wedding date approached, Raphael became even more pious and spent days fasting. And then, Gabriela, then something happened that changed Raphael’s life forever.
“You’re still a little girl, Gabriela, but you should know, mi alma: Love is not only blind, it also blinds. Love can bring great happiness, but it can also bring great tragedy. Your grandmother, Gabriela, didn’t know what the emotion of love was. Your grandfather never loved me the way a man should love a woman, and perhaps I too didn’t love him in the way the Song of Songs says. I was just by his side and gave him daughters, sanos qui ’sten, may they be healthy. I took care of him and the girls and did my best for us to have a good life, no more and no less. But every night before I fell asleep I’d think about what love was, and I couldn’t get this story I’d heard about your great-grandfather Raphael out of my head.
“One day, so I heard, Raphael was walking down one of the alleys in Safed toward the Yosef Caro Synagogue, immersed in himself and murmuring a prayer. His eyes half closed, he accidentally bumped into a young girl. Raphael was startled, and when he raised his head, his eyes met hers, blue as the sea and deep as a well. Her hair was pulled into two golden braids and her skin was white as snow. Raphael, who felt as if he’d seen the beauty of the Divine Presence, quickly covered his eyes with his hand and hurried on his way. But in all the days and nights that followed, he couldn’t clear the girl’s image from his mind. It came to him in the morning when he said the morning prayer, and at night when he said the evening prayer. It came to him in the mikvah ritual bath, and it came to him when he lay down to sleep. He didn’t understand what he was feeling. He only knew that her blue eyes had hit him like a bolt of lightning. Dio santo, he thought to himself. It’s a sin, what I’m feeling for this strange woman, a sin.
“He decided to fast even more and swore he would keep away from places where women were permitted, for he knew that his betrothed was waiting for him in Jerusalem. But the image of the Ishkenazi girl in the alley haunted him like an evil spirit and allowed him no peace. No matter what he did, he could not drive the girl from his thoughts, and he soon found himself lying in wait for her at the top of the alley where he had first bumped into her. He saw her leave one of the houses and followed her, but when she turned and transfixed him with her blue eyes, he again fled for dear life.
“That same day Raphael decided he’d return to Jerusalem earlier than planned to rid himself, once and for all, of the dybbuk with the blue eyes. He couldn’t even imagine speaking to the girl who came from the Ishkenazi community, for he knew that things like that were forbidden, a sin. Do you understand, Gabriela? A sin!”
I didn’t really understand what the Ishkenazi community was, and certainly not what sin meant, but Nona didn’t notice. She carried on telling the story as if possessed by a dybbuk herself, absent-mindedly rocking me on her knee as if she forgot I was there, and probably went on talking even after I fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was quiet and only the murmur of praying and calls of the congregation from the nearby synagogue could be heard. I found Nona sitting pensively in Nono’s chair. “Good morning, querida mia,” she called to me even though it was already evening and dinner was on the table in the yard. Every now and then when I slept over at Nona’s, she’d bake borekitas especially for me and make me sütlaç with the Star of David just the way I liked it.
“And not a word to your mother, Gabriela, so she doesn’t get used to it!” she said. “Let her go on making borekas for you and not ask me to do it.”
Like the rest of the family, Nona didn’t know that Mother bought ready-made borekas from Kadosh, and believed that she baked them herself. My mother had made me swear never to tell anybody, and I kept quiet.
Nona carefully peeled a hard-boiled egg and split it into four. “Eat, eat, good girl. You need to grow.” Then she sat back down in Nono’s chair and continued the story from where I’d fallen asleep a few hours earlier.
“Do you understand what happened, Gabriela? Raphael, may he rest in peace, fell in love with the Ishkenazi girl from Safed, and it was absolutely forbidden for Spaniols to marry Ishkenazim. It was the time of the Turks, when there were maybe six thousand Jews in Palestine and almost all of them lived in Jerusalem. At the time there were not only Spaniol Jews in the country but also Jews from the Ishkenazi countries. Wai wai, how hard it was for the Ishkenazim. Miskenicos, poor souls, they didn’t know Arabic and they didn’t know Ladino and they just didn’t have a clue. Well, the Ishkenazim were Jews too, right? So the Spaniols opened their doors, let them pray in their synagogues, and the Ishkenazim did everything like the Spaniols, even started speaking Arabic and wearing dresses like the Spaniols, who dressed like the Arabs. They did everything they could to blend in with the Spaniols, because after all, we were all Jews and we should help one another. But marry? Heaven forbid! Because the Spaniols wanted to keep themselves for themselves and only marry one another, so as not to mix, God help us, with Ishkenazim and have half-and-half children.
“Wai de mi, Gabriela, what scandal and shame an Ishkenazi bride could bring down on a family. Like Sarah, the daughter of Yehuda Yehezkel, who married Yehoshua Yellin the Ishkenazi. And though Yehuda Yehezkel reminded everyone over and over that the groom’s father was an esteemed Torah scholar, it didn’t matter. Nothing helped, what shame. The Sephardim were so opposed to marriage with Ishkenazim that Sir Moses Montefiore himself offered a prize of a hundred gold napoleons to anyone entering into a mixed marriage. And do you know how much a hundred gold napoleons is, Gabriela? Something like a thousand lirot, maybe ten thousand lirot, and despite the poverty in Jerusalem and even though a hundred gold napoleons was a sum that most people could only dream of, nobody jumped at the offer.
“Raphael, may he rest in peace, couldn’t stop thinking about the Ishkenazi girl. Her blue eyes followed him wherever he went. You understand, Gabriela, mi alma, even though he’d just caught a glimpse of her she’d plunged deep into his heart and stayed there, and instead of studying Torah day and night he thought about the Ishkenazi girl. As I said, he walked the alleys of Safed moonstruck, looking for her—in the morning after morning prayers, in the afternoon when the hot sun forced people to stay inside their cool stone houses, and in the evening after prayers when his friends gathered at the synagogue. Late at night too, when even the moon and stars went to sleep, he would wander through the alleys, peeking into windows, opening yard gates, hoping he’d see her. But it seemed that the Ishkenazi girl had vanished. He never saw her again, and although she was still in his heart, deep inside he felt relief and saw it as an omen from heaven.
“A few weeks before the wedding he went with his father to the home of the bride’s family to meet her for the first time. The whole way there Raphael was silent and didn’t ask his father even one question about the bride. And the bride, poor thing, locked herself in one of the rooms in the house and refused to come out and meet her groom. For the three days and three nights prior, so they said, she had been so frightened she didn’t stop crying, and all her mother’s words of kindness and love didn’t help. The more her mother told her about her role as a wife and the more she gave her precise instructions on how she must behave with her husband on their wedding night, the more she wept.
“Raphael and his father sat in the family’s living room for a long time, waiting for the bride-to-be to come out. When her father’s patience expired, he excused himself, went into the room where his daughter was crying her heart out, and threatened her with a thousand deaths if she didn’t stop shaming him.
“Rivka Mercada finally left the room, hiding behind her mother, and peeped at the groom with the red beard, not daring to look him in his eyes, which anyway were fixed on the floor. The meeting was short and Raphael was glad that on their way home his father didn’t ask his opinion of her.
“On the morning of the wedding the groom’s mother, the bride’s mother, and relatives from both sides gathered in the bride’s house, and together with her close friends they escorted her to the bagno, the bathhouse, singing and dancing and throwing sweets at her. After the ritual bath Raphael’s mother took the cake she had brought from home, sliced it above the bride’s head, and gave the slices to her virgin friends and blessed them, saying she hoped that they too would find a groom swiftly in their time, amen. Then each of the women went to their own houses, and Raphael’s mother had a talk with her son, giving him specific instructions for how to treat his bride on their wedding night.
“‘Querido mio,’ she said, ‘today I am putting you into the hands of another woman. From today you are hers, but don’t forget, I am your mother and I will always be more important than your wife. And when you have a child, with God’s help, and he marries, your wife, his mother, will be more important than his wife. That’s how it is with us. The mother always comes before the wife. The mother is the first senora. Your wife, mi alma, is one of us, a good woman. Your father and I chose her after we met with many girls. Her father and mother have spoiled her, and that’s why you must put her in her place right from the start so she knows who the master of the house is! Don’t pamper her the way her father has. She has to make sure you have a clean house, cook for you, and do your washing, and with God’s help give you healthy sons, but you have to care for her too, provide for her, respect her, and treat her like a princess. On the night of the wedding, mi alma, treat her as a man should a girl, but be gentle with her, do not force her, and if it doesn’t work the first time, then try again, and if it doesn’t work the second time, then try a third time. Very slowly, gently, and with God’s help, in nine months’ time we’ll celebrate a circumcision.’
“Raphael was embarrassed and lowered his head, trying not to hear what his mother was telling him. But she talked and talked, and only when he raised his eyes and gave her a piercing stare did she stop.
“‘Just one more thing, querido,’ she said before he lost patience with her. ‘Just before you stomp on the wineglass, put your foot on the bride’s foot for a moment to make sure that you will be the senor of your house, the master, the king.’
“When the time of the wedding arrived, with good fortune Raphael dressed in his best clothes and strode at the head of a big procession to the Yochanan ben Zakai Synagogue. After the marriage was sanctified, after he swore, ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning,’ and after his mother whispered in his ear not to forget the matter of the foot and he did as she asked, he stomped on the wineglass and everyone shouted, ‘Mazal tov!’ Then he found himself alone in the yichud room with his bride, both of them standing embarrassed and not knowing what to do. Raphael felt that something had broken inside him, and from that moment he lost the fervor of faith. On the spot he decided to give up fasting and Torah study. And when he lifted his new bride’s blushing face and forced her to look into his eyes, he swore that he would make his wife a happy woman and would do anything for her and their future children.
“On the wedding night he treated her with gentleness, and she submitted to his touch and let his body enter hers. But in the act of love on that first night and the nights that followed, he did not kiss her even once. And Rivka Mercada, whose mother had never spoken one word about kissing, didn’t feel that Raphael was keeping something from her, and she lay silent until he got up, went to his own bed, and left her to sleep in peace.
“Aaach … God forgive my sins.” Nona Rosa sighed. “That’s how it all began.”
“What began?” I asked, not understanding what my grandmother meant.
“The whole business of the men in the Ermosa family wanting other women and not their own wives,” she replied in such a low whisper that I hardly heard her. “It began with Mercada and Raphael. He wanted another woman and was married to Mercada. He came to her at night but not out of love, and she didn’t suspect he was keeping something from her. And I too never enjoyed the act of love. I just lay on my back and waited for my husband to finish. You’re still young and don’t know about making love. When you grow up, I pray for your sake that the curse passes you over. Don’t look at me like that, mi alma, you don’t understand what I’m saying now, but when you grow up and meet your betrothed, promise me you’ll do everything you can to feel love. Don’t lose the opportunity like I did. Promise me, Gabriela, never marry a man who you feel doesn’t love you more than you love him, so that life doesn’t pass you by and you become a dried-up old woman like me. Love, Gabriela, fills a person, and anyone whose body does not flow with love, withers. Remember, Gabriela, remember what your grandmother’s telling you.”
* * *
My Nona Rosa never spoke to me again about love or the men in our family who loved other women and not their wives. Never again did I sit on her knee in Nono’s chair. Mother no longer dropped me off to sleep over at Nona’s, and Nona didn’t come to our house to babysit Ronny and me when my parents went to the cinema or dancing at the Menorah Club. Instead Father picked up Nona every Saturday in the white Lark and brought her to our house, and when I’d run to her and encircle her body with my arms, kissing her wrinkled cheeks, she wouldn’t shake me off with a laugh as she used to and say, “Basta, basta, Gabriela, you’re hurting me.” She wouldn’t say anything. She’d just look at me like I wasn’t there. She also forgot how to speak Hebrew and spoke only Ladino, which I didn’t know, and when I’d tell her, “Nona, I don’t understand. Tell me in Hebrew,” my mother would lose her temper and say, “That’s all I need right now, for you to start nagging. Leave Nona alone and stop bothering her.” And my father would say, “What do you want from the child, she doesn’t understand what’s happened to Rosa.” My mother would reply, “And you do? Who understands what’s happened to her? Old people get sick, but she’s as healthy as a horse. She just forgets. My mother’s different from other people.”
Now my nona too, not only me, was different from other people. Perhaps that’s why I’d felt as if she and I had shared a covenant, and the more she shut herself up in her world, the more I wanted to enter it. But from day to day my beloved nona moved further away, and her face that I loved so much turned blank, and her eyes dimmed, and her big soft body turned stiff, and when I put my arms around it I felt like I was hugging a wall.
Nona also started doing strange things. One Saturday when Father brought her to our house and sat her at the table where we were all eating macaroni hamin, she took off her dress and sat there in her petticoat. Ronny started laughing, and I realized that something awful had happened because Mother got hysterical, and Father quickly covered Nona with her dress. For the first time in my life I wasn’t forced to eat everything on my plate, and in the middle of the macaroni hamin we children were sent to play downstairs. My parents stayed in the living room with Rachelika and Moise and Becky and Handsome Eli Cohen, and they talked and talked until it got dark. They forgot to call us back upstairs, so we went up without being called, and as I peeked into the small living room, I saw that Aunt Becky was crying and Rachelika was crying and my mother was standing at the window smoking a cigarette, and my father and Moise and Handsome Eli Cohen were talking together. And in the middle of it all Nona Rosa was sitting completely detached from the commotion around her. I heard Rachelika say that Nona mustn’t be left alone, that she should sleep at our house that night. Mother said, “But where can she sleep? With me and David?” And Father replied, “I’ll sleep on the couch in the living room and she can sleep with you.” And Mother said, “Don’t talk nonsense, David. How can I sleep in the same bed as my mother?”
Then I came into the room and said, “I’ll sleep with Nona Rosa in my bed,” and Mother said, “That’s a good idea. Gabriela can sleep at my mother’s and look after her.” Father lost his temper. “Are you out of your mind? A ten-year-old girl, what kind of ‘look after her’ do you have in mind?” And Mother said, “All right, she’ll sleep here on the living room couch, but only tonight. Tomorrow we’ll have to think about an arrangement. It can’t go on like this.”
That night they put my nona to bed on the couch and covered her with a blanket, and when everybody else had gone to bed I got up in the dark and saw her sleeping with her eyes open and whispered, “Nona,” but she didn’t reply, so I stroked her cheek and kissed her and hugged her tight until I fell asleep.
In the morning Father found me on the couch, but Nona wasn’t there or anywhere else in the house. She went missing for a whole day. Nona had gotten lost.
They found her only late at night in the Mahane Yehuda Market, sitting in the doorway of the shop that had been Nono’s. Another time she was found wandering in the Abu Tor neighborhood, trying to cross the border and get to the Shama neighborhood, where she was born and which since the War of Independence had been in Jordanian hands. My Aunt Rachelika decided to move Nona into her own house and look after her. “Because if I don’t take her in, she’ll be taken to the Talbieh asylum,” she’d said.
Nona Rosa died in her sleep on the eve of Yom Kippur.
There was no way that Mother would allow me to attend the funeral.
“A cemetery is no place for children,” she said, and for the first time Father didn’t take my side and argue with her. Ronny and I stayed at home on our own, and Ronny, who could feel that I was sadder than usual, didn’t tease me as he normally would. On the sideboard in my parents’ living room, in a beautifully worked copper frame, was a photograph of my Nono Gabriel, my Nona Rosa, and their three daughters: Luna, Rachelika, and Becky. I brought it to my lips and kissed my nona, and the tears that fell from my eyes threatened to drown me. I missed her so much and was incapable of accepting that I would never see her again and that she would never again tell me about our family, whose men married women they didn’t love.
For many months after Nona Rosa’s death I’d walk from our house on Ben-Yehuda Street to hers, stand by the locked gate, and wait for her. Perhaps Nona wasn’t really dead. Perhaps this time too she had just gotten lost and would soon find her way home: She’d walk in her measured gait down the five steps to the narrow alley, across the cobblestones, taking care not to catch her foot on a stone so she wouldn’t fall, Heaven forbid, and crack her skull as she’d warned me so many times, her large frame swaying from side to side “like a drunkard,” my mother would say irritably, and talking to herself as she did before she died, “like una loca,” my mother would say in Ladino so we children wouldn’t understand.
Nono’s chair still stood in its place in the yard, and beside it the table at which I’d eaten sütlaç with a cinnamon Star of David so many times. I approached the small stone house, put my face to the window, and peered in. Everything was in order as it was when Nono and Nona were both alive. No one had touched the house since Nona had passed on, as my father used to say. I pressed my nose to the window as hard as I could, doing my best to see the photograph of Nono and Nona that hung on the wall, but I couldn’t see it.
A hand touched my shoulder. “Chaytaluch, what are you doing here, Gabriela?”
I turned and facing me was Mrs. Barazani, the neighbor my mother hated, in her big floral housedress and a rolled-up kerchief on her head. She clasped me to her warm body that surprisingly felt like my nona’s.
“Ma guzt akeh? Where’s your mother? How long have you been standing here? Your mother must have gone to the police by now.” She took my hand and led me to her house, sat me in a chair, and sent one of her boys to run and call my mother.
I curled up in the chair, watching my nona’s neighbor running here and there, explaining in Kurdish and broken Hebrew to the other neighbors who’d followed us in that she’d found me in the yard, “trying to get into the house, papukata, poor thing,” she told them. “How she misses her grandmother.” And in the same breath she said to me, “Soon your mother will be here to take you home. Meanwhile, eat,” and she placed before me a plate of kubbeh swimming in yellow gravy. But I wasn’t hungry. I just missed my nona terribly and still hoped that in another moment the door would open and she’d come in and hug me and take me to their side of the yard and sit me on her knee and tell me stories. But instead of my nona it was my mother who came through the door like a gale force wind, and before she even said “Shalom,” she slapped my face twice.
“What kind of a girl are you?” she hissed. “Who gave you permission to go to the Kurdish neighborhood on your own?”
I was so shocked that she’d slapped me in front of Mrs. Barazani and her neighbors that I didn’t answer, didn’t even cry. I just put my hand on my tingling cheek and stared hard at her.
“A street girl!” she went on, whispering so as not to embarrass herself in front of Mrs. Barazani any more than she already had. “Just wait and see what Father does to you. My slap was nothing. Just get your little bottom ready.”
“This child has given me a heart attack,” she said apologetically to Mrs. Barazani.
“Sit down, sit. You’ve probably been running around with worry,” Mrs. Barazani replied.
My mother released a deep sigh, swallowed her pride, and sat in the chair offered to her, straightening her posture as much as she could and smoothing her skirt that had ridden above her knees.
“Here, drink, drink,” Mrs. Barazani urged as she gave her a glass of water. I wondered how my mother could refuse to see what a good woman Mrs. Barazani was, how even though my mother detested her, even though my mother hadn’t said a word to her for years, she was concerned for her and gave her a glass of water.
My mother didn’t touch the glass of water. She shifted uneasily in the chair, and I could sense that she wanted to get out of the Kurdia’s house as quickly as possible, but on the other hand, she didn’t want to be rude. Despite the terrible pain in my cheek I smiled inwardly, pleased by my mother’s discomfort. I didn’t understand why my mother didn’t like Mrs. Barazani, and why because some Kurd had screwed my grandfather a million years ago all the Kurds in the world were to blame.
Then Mother quickly rose, grabbed my hand, and roughly pulled me up from where I was sitting. She grasped my hand so tightly that I wanted to scream in pain, but I held it in as she dragged me toward the door, and for the first time since she had stormed in, turned and said reluctantly, “Thank you for looking after her and for sending your son to call me.” She didn’t wait for a reply and pushed me outside, closing the door behind her. By the time we got to my father waiting in the white Lark, she had already managed to yell at me like a madwoman. “You do this to spite me, don’t you? It’s because you know I can’t stand them, isn’t it?”
“But I didn’t go to the Kurds,” I said, trying to get a word in.
“You didn’t go? I’ll show you ‘didn’t go,’” she said and shoved me into the backseat of the car. “She’s driving me out of my mind, your daughter. She’s killing me,” she told my father as she dramatically threw her hand across her forehead as if she was passing out.
My father didn’t say a word. Every now and then I saw him glance in the mirror to check on me in the backseat.
“She’s an embarrassment to me,” my mother went on. “What’s she looking for in the Kurdish neighborhood? And to put me in a position where I have to say thank you to the Kurdia, where I have to stand there like a fool, and in front of who yet?” My mother carried on talking about me as if I wasn’t sitting there, curled up with my nose pressed to the window.
“Why did we take out a loan and move to Ben-Yehuda? Why did I send her to the Rehavia school? Why did I send her to school with David Benvenisti in Beit Hakerem?”
Yes, why? I asked myself. Why do I have to take a bus to Beit Hakerem when all the children in the neighborhood go to school in Arlosoroff, a few yards from their house? But I didn’t dare say out loud what I was thinking and only scrunched up in my seat even more.
“Just you wait and see what Father does to you when we get home,” she went on, threatening me. “Tell her, David. Tell her you’re going to beat her until her bottom’s as red as a monkey’s in the Biblical Zoo.”
“Stop putting words in my mouth,” my father said, getting angry for the first time. My mother tried to go on, but he shot her one of his looks that always shut her up, and she straightened in her seat and patted down her hairdo. She took a red lipstick from her purse, twisted the mirror, and carefully applied the lipstick, even though her lips were already red, whispering Ladino words I didn’t understand through clenched teeth.
When we got home she sent me to my room. I sat on my bed and waited. Father came in a short while later carrying the belt with the painful buckle, but instead of hitting me on the bottom like my mother had promised, he asked me quietly, “What were you looking for with the Kurds? You know your mother doesn’t permit it.”
“I didn’t go to the Kurds,” I whispered.
“So where did you go?” my father asked, not understanding.
“I went to Nona Rosa,” I replied and burst into tears.
“My darling,” my father said, dropping the belt, kneeling, and taking me in his arms. “My sweetie, you know that Nona Rosa won’t be going back to her house anymore. She’s living at Har Hamenuchot now.”
“I thought she’d gotten lost again and that she’d soon find her way back,” I wept. “But she didn’t come. She didn’t come.” My father kissed me and tried to pacify me, but the spring of my tears welled uncontrollably.
“Dio santo, David, I asked you to give her a little slap, not kill her,” my mother said from the doorway, looking astounded at the sight of her weeping daughter clasped in her husband’s arms.
“She was missing Rosa,” my father said. “She went looking for her at her house.”
My mother looked at me as if she couldn’t believe her ears, her stare morphing into an expression I hadn’t seen before. Perhaps there was even some tenderness in it. But instead of hugging me like I wanted so much, instead of consoling me as my father had, she simply walked out of the room and closed the door behind her.
Then came the day when the family decided it was time to remove the furniture and belongings from Nona Rosa’s house and return it to its owners, the Barazani family. Mother said we should sell it all to the junkman, because we’d already sold everything of value when we’d needed the money and everything leftover was worthless.
“Nothing’s worth anything for you!” Becky exclaimed. “The dinner set is worthless? The Shabbat candlesticks? The chandelier? It’s all worthless?”
“So you take them, but we’ll sell the rest to the junkman.”
“Calm down, Luna,” said Rachelika, who was the most reasonable of the three sisters. “The cabinet’s worth a lot. It has crystal mirrors and a marble surface.”
“So you take it. I’m not bringing junk into my house. I have enough garbage as it is.”
“All right,” Rachelika said, “I’ll take the sideboard and the cabinet.”
“And I’ll take the dinner set,” said Becky.
“No, actually I want the dinner set,” my mother blurted.
“You just said it’s all junk,” Becky said, annoyed.
“No, the dinner set is from Father and Mother’s wedding. It was a gift from Nona Mercada.”
“So why should you get it?” said Becky, not giving in.
“Because I’m the eldest, that’s why. I’ve got rights.”
“Just listen to her. I’m going to explode!” Becky stood up and started shouting. “Just a moment ago it was all junk, and just when I said I wanted the dinner set, she suddenly wants it for herself. If Rachelika’s taking the sideboard and you’re taking the dinner set, what’s left for me?” She was on the verge of tears.
“Whatever you want,” my mother said. “As far as I’m concerned you can take it all: the armchairs, the couch, the table, the pictures, everything.”
“I want the wardrobe with the mirrors and the lions,” I said.
The three of them looked over at me, astonished.
“What did you say?” my mother asked.
“I want the wardrobe with the mirrors and the lions on the top that was in Nona’s room.”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” my mother said.
“I want it,” I said, stomping my foot.
“And where are you going to put the wardrobe with the lions? On my head?”
“In my room.”
“All right, you’ve been heard, Gabriela. Don’t interfere in grown-up matters. Go outside and play.”
“I want the wardrobe with the lions!” I persisted.
“And I want a Cadillac convertible,” my mother replied. “Go downstairs and stop getting in the way.” She turned her back on me and continued dividing up Nona’s things as if I wasn’t there.
“All right, we’re in agreement,” she told her sisters. “Rachelika’s taking the cabinet, I’m taking the dinner set, and Becky, you take whatever you want of what’s left.”
“I want the wardrobe with the mirrors and the lions!” I repeated.
“You can want all you like!”
“What is it with you and that wardrobe?” Rachelika asked gently.
“I want a memento of Nona,” I said, weeping.
“But sweetie,” Rachelika said, “it’s huge. Who’s going to carry it up five flights to your apartment? Your mother’s right. You don’t have room for it. I’ll take you to Nono and Nona’s house and you can choose whatever you want.”
“But the wardrobe,” I wailed, “I want the wardrobe with the lions.”
“Enough, ignore her. Why are you even talking to her?” my mother said to Rachelika irritably.
“Luna, basta! Can’t you see the child’s sad? It’s not the wardrobe. It’s the sentimental value, isn’t it, dolly?”
I nodded. I wished Rachelika were my mother. If only I could swap so that my mother would be Boaz’s mother and Rachelika would be mine. My mother loved Boaz more than me anyway.
Rachelika held me to her and kissed me on the forehead. I sank into her arms. The softness of her belly and big chest enveloped me, and for a moment I felt I was being hugged by Nona Rosa. Feeling warm and safe surrounded by my aunt’s big body, I finally calmed down.
They sold the wardrobe with the lions to the junkman as well as the chandelier, the couch, the table, the chairs, the armchairs, and the tapestries. Mother took the dinner set but gave in to Becky on the candlesticks and the rest of the porcelain crockery. Rachelika took the glass-fronted cabinet and the big grandfather clock that nobody else wanted.
As I stood in Nono and Nona’s yard for the last time and watched the junkmen load their precious and cherished possessions onto a cart harnessed to a tired old horse, the tears flowed from my eyes. Rachelika wiped them away and showed me a bunch of items wrapped in an old tablecloth that in a moment would be heaved onto the cart. “Pick whatever you want,” she said, and I chose a big oil painting of a river encircled by mountains with snow-covered peaks that reached into a clear blue sky. I had never really paid the painting any attention before, but it was all I had left, and I clutched it close to my heart.
And when the junkmen finished emptying the house and it was time to load the wardrobe with the mirrors and the lions, I stood to the side as they struggled to get it through the door. It was as if the wardrobe was resisting, and they were left with no choice but to remove its doors. I couldn’t stand the sight of the doors separated from one another, and as I ran toward the cart, my mother shouted to Becky, “Catch her! Why did we have to bring her here with us?”
* * *
Every day at two o’clock on the dot Father would come home from the bank. While he was still downstairs he would whistle to the tune of “Shoshana, Shoshana, Shoshana” so we’d know he’d arrived, and I’d run to the landing and look down over the railing. He always carried the rolled-up copy of Yedioth Ahronoth that he’d pick up on the way. Once he walked through the door, he’d go and wash his hands and then take off his jacket and carefully hang it over the back of a chair so it wouldn’t crease. Father always took great care with his appearance when he went to the bank. Even in the summer when everybody was wearing short-sleeved shirts and sandals, Father kept his jacket on and wore shoes that he took extra care to polish. “A person should respect his place of work,” he’d say, “so that his place of work will respect him.”
After he’d take off his jacket he’d loosen his tie, and only then would he sit down at the table for lunch. One day, when Mother served macaroni with kiftikas con queso, cheese croquettes in tomato sauce, Father topped his macaroni with a respectable portion of kiftikas con queso and sauce, mixed it up, and ate it all together.
My mother lost her temper. “Why are you eating like a primitive, David? You should eat each thing separately, first the kiftikas and then the macaroni, and put the tomato and salted cheese sauce on the macaroni.”
“Don’t tell me how to eat,” my father said. “I learned to eat macaroni long before you even knew what macaroni was. The Italians eat macaroni exactly like this, only they have kiftikas with meat and they sprinkle cheese over it.”
“I want mine like Father’s,” I said.
“Of course you want it like Father’s,” my mother hissed. “Great, David. Now your daughter will become uncivilized like you.”
Father ignored her and continued eating. “Not enough salt,” he said.
“That’s because I’m not in love,” she replied. But I didn’t understand what she meant.
“And pepper too,” my father went on. “You cook like my troubles, without flavor and without aroma.”
“If you don’t like it, then go eat at Taraboulos.”
Ronny and I tried to ignore the daggers flying across the table. For a long time now our parents’ relationship had been tense. Through the wall that separated our room from theirs I’d hear them arguing at night, my mother crying, my father threatening he’d leave if she went on nagging, the door slamming, words of hatred shouted in a whisper so that we children wouldn’t hear. I’d cover my ears with my little hands and pray to God that Ronny was asleep and couldn’t hear what I did.
One afternoon, when Rachelika came over with her children and they sent us off to play while they whispered together in the kitchen, I heard my mother tell her, “If it weren’t for the children I’d have sent him to hell a long time ago.” And Rachelika replied, “Paciencia, hermanita. It’s just a bump in the road, and it’ll pass,” to which my mother said, “It’ll never pass. It’s how he is, always looking at other women. Only now he’s looking at the same one all the time and I have to live with it.”
Rachelika said, “I thought you didn’t care what he did,” and my mother replied, “Of course I don’t care about him, but he’s my husband and he humiliates me and I get so upset I could kill him. And worst of all, he lies. I know he has someone on the side, and he lies about it.”
And Rachelika said, “Enough, Luna, you have to get hold of yourself so that nothing happens to you. You must think of the children. Don’t break up your family, God forbid.”
“What frightens me,” said my mother, “is that if anyone breaks up the family, it’ll be him, and what will I do if he gets tired not only of me but of the children as well? How can I raise two children on my own? That woman, may she burn in hell, I’d tear her clothes off and throw her naked onto Jaffa Road.”
Then they started talking so quietly that no matter how hard I pressed my ear to the wall I couldn’t hear, and the more I tried to understand who the woman was my mother wanted to throw naked onto Jaffa Road, the less I understood. And most of all I didn’t understand how it could be that my mother didn’t care about my father, and why my mother was frightened that Father would break up the family, and what breaking up a family meant. Was it like tearing down a building, like they did with Ezra’s grocery in Nahalat Shiva, and putting up a new building in its place?
After lunch my father rose from the table and went straight into the bedroom without helping my mother clear the table. Unusual for her, my mother didn’t say a word about it. She cleared the plates and put them in the sink, cleaned the tomato sauce from Ronny’s face, and took off his stained shirt.
“You’re a primitive too,” she scolded him, and after she changed his shirt and sent me to my room to do homework, she washed the dishes and lay down on the living room couch, warning us to be quiet and not wake her. And it occurred to me then that my mother hadn’t been going to nap in the bedroom with Father for a long time.
When I saw that Mother had closed her eyes, I slipped into their bedroom. Father was asleep on his side in his undershirt and underpants and hadn’t bothered to cover himself. I went over to him quietly and waved my hand over his eyes to make sure he was really asleep and wouldn’t, God forbid, suddenly wake up and surprise me. Peeping from the pocket of his pants that were folded neatly over the back of the chair by the bed was his brown leather wallet. I carefully removed it, took out a five-lira note, and put the wallet back.
I hid the five lirot deep inside my backpack, and the next day, after getting off the Number 12 bus at the last stop on my way home from school, I stopped at Schwartz’s store and bought myself a new pencil box with colored crayons, and even had enough money left over for a pack of yellow Alma gum and a chocolate-banana ice cream. And when my father didn’t say a word about five lirot missing from his wallet, I continued taking from it, a different sum each time but never more than five lirot.
As time went by, I got bolder. I started stealing money from the teachers’ purses at school and stuff from the children’s backpacks in class: erasers, pencil boxes, stickers, and the allowance their parents had given them. One time I stole so much money that I had enough to take Ronny to the Luna Park and go on all the rides and buy us both a falafel and soda.
Mother and Father were so busy fighting that they didn’t notice. Even when Ronny, despite my warning, told Mother that I’d taken him to the park, she said, “That’s nice,” and didn’t ask questions. The fights taking place behind Father and Mother’s bedroom wall became more frequent. My mother’s crying tore through the silence of the night as my father tried to hush her. Sometimes he’d leave the house, slamming the door, and I couldn’t fall asleep until I heard him come back hours later. One night when they couldn’t control their volume and even my fingers couldn’t drown out the noise, Ronny crawled into my bed, hugged me tightly, and cried. I held him close, stroked his head, and rested my lips on his forehead until he fell asleep. When I woke up in the morning I was soaked to the skin. Ronny had wet my bed. Mother came in and when she saw the soaking bed asked me, astonished, “What’s all this? Did you do peepee in bed?” and I wanted to tell her it wasn’t me, but my little brother’s sad eyes stopped me and I stayed quiet.
“That’s all I need right now,” she said. “You should be ashamed of yourself! A big girl like you doing peepee in bed.”
That day after morning recess I was called to the principal’s office, and I knew the game was up—I’d been caught.
My legs were trembling as I knocked on the principal’s door. He was sitting at his big desk, and behind him hung a large picture of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and beside it, one of the president of the State of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Without speaking the principal signaled me to sit in the chair across from him. As soon as I sat down, my homeroom teacher Penina Cohen got up from the chair next to mine and stood beside the principal, who pointed to my backpack situated on his desk.
“Is this your bag?” asked Penina Cohen.
“Yes,” I nodded.
“Yes what?” she asked harshly.
And then without a word the teacher emptied its contents onto the desk. Pens, erasers, crayons, pencil boxes, and piles of coins and bills fell from it together with my textbooks and homework books. The principal looked at me and said, “Gabriela Siton, can you explain this?”
I couldn’t and didn’t want to explain. I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me so I could disappear from that room, from the school, from the world, forever.
Everything that took place in the principal’s office next has been erased from my memory. It was only at home afterward that I heard the story from my father. When teachers’ complaints about missing items increased, they realized that a thief was active in the school. No one suspected the students until students began reporting missing erasers and pencils and pencil boxes and money. And when my teacher noticed that I was her only student who hadn’t complained about theft, and when the children began telling about my after-school spending sprees, the suspicion immediately arose that the thief was Gabriela Siton. And just to make sure it was me, they took me out of the classroom and then searched my backpack without me knowing.
That day I was sent home early. My parents were summoned to the principal’s office, and after they got home, my father beat me with the belt with the painful buckle, but this time he didn’t pretend to pacify my mother. He really thrashed me. Ronny cried and threw himself onto the floor. My father was in a rage and hit me again and again until even my mother came to my defense: “Enough, David, you’ll kill the girl.” He stopped only when I was writhing in pain on the bathroom floor. But that was nothing compared with my real punishment: facing my friends in class the following day.
From then on my status changed. The other kids in school bullied me. Years later whenever I couldn’t sleep, instead of counting sheep I’d recount the nicknames of the children who were with me in school. I remembered them by the order in which they sat in class: Ita Pita, who was bullied because she was fat, Fay the Lay, who, so rumor had it, let boys feel her tits after school, London Bridge, who’d immigrated from London just as we started to learn English, and me, the girl who until then had been class queen, I was called Ganefriela, a play on the Hebrew word for thief.
My father walked around like a caged tiger, trying to hold back his anger. “I’m a bank employee,” he said, “as straight as a die, but my daughter’s a thief!” He couldn’t forgive himself for his terrible failure in my upbringing, and he refused to forgive me. But he certainly made no attempt to understand why a girl who had “ev-ery-thing,” as my mother repeatedly said, had to steal.
My mother didn’t give a thought to it. She didn’t know about the hell I went through every day at school, the insults I suffered, the bullying, and even if she had, I doubt she or my father would have done anything to stop it. They surely would have thought it a fitting punishment for somebody who’d brought such shame on the family. So I didn’t say a word.
* * *
They never mentioned my thievery again. My father and mother carried on with their petty, sad life, and as time went by their quarreling was gradually replaced with tense silences.
When I outright refused to continue with my classmates to Leyada, the Hebrew University Secondary School, they disapproved but didn’t force me. When I went to enroll in a school considered far inferior, they didn’t even bother to come with me to a meeting with the principal, and I handled the entire process myself. And when, at age sixteen, I went to a party at Beit Hachayal, the soldiers’ club, came home with a handsome boy in a white navy uniform, and stood in the doorway to our apartment building kissing him like there was no tomorrow, my father came downstairs, pulled me roughly out of the boy’s arms, beat me, locked me in the bathroom, and gave me a strict punishment: to come straight home after school, not meet my girlfriends, not listen to Radio Ramallah, not go to the cinema. To go into my room each day and not come out until it was time for school the next morning.
That was the day that the unspoken alliance between me and Father was finally broken, an alliance that had saved me from my mother’s anger more than once, an alliance that until then had made my father my safe haven, a place where I was welcome and loved unconditionally. When Nona Rosa died my father had become my only refuge. But no longer. The seeds of the rift had been slowly sown during my adolescent years, and my father was unable to accept the fact that I had become a young woman with needs of her own.
On the third day of my sentence, instead of going to school and coming home directly after, I walked to the central bus station, boarded a bus to Tel Aviv, and then headed to Rothschild Boulevard, where Tia Allegra, my mother’s elderly aunt, lived.
I knew the boulevard well, after all the pleasant vacations I’d spent there. I stood outside Tia Allegra’s house and took in the beautiful Bauhaus building she’d lived in for years, the rounded balcony, the tall trees and shrubs in the entrance garden. I drew in a deep breath, the air of freedom that spread throughout my body every time I came to Tel Aviv, pushed open the wooden door, and slid my hand over the banister as I climbed the marble stairs to Tia Allegra’s apartment on the second floor and rang the bell.
“Who is it?” my mother’s aunt asked.
“It’s me, Gabriela,” I replied. Through the locked door I could hear the old lady hobbling along with her cane.
Tia Allegra opened the door. “Dio santo, Gabriela, what are you doing here, querida? Don’t tell me it’s Sukkoth today and I didn’t know!”
I fell into my old aunt’s arms and started to cry.
“What’s happened, querida mia? What’s the matter, hija? Why are you crying?”
“I’m tired,” I told my old aunt. “I want to sleep.”
She led me into one of the rooms and said, “Lie down, querida, and when you wake up you can tell me why you’re here. But rest now, and I’ll make some habas con arroz because you’ll probably be hungry when you wake up.”
I don’t know how long I slept, but when I woke up it was already dark and Tia Allegra was sitting in her deep armchair by the balcony door. Next to her was her usual trolley with a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits.
She smiled at me. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes.” I nodded. “I was very tired.”
“Go into the kitchen,” she instructed. “I’ve made you something to eat. Warm it up. My legs won’t take me anywhere these days, and they hurt from standing over the stove.”
I entered the kitchen, loaded a plate with white rice and beans in tomato sauce, mixed it, and went back to the living room to eat it beside my aunt.
“How’s the habas con arroz?” she asked. “I’ve lost my sense of taste recently and my children are always complaining that there’s not enough salt in it.”
“It’s delicious,” I said, enjoying the comfort of food I’d known since the day I was born.
“I called your father at the bank,” she said. “He told me that I should put you right back on a bus to Jerusalem. I told him it would be better if you stayed the night. In the morning my son-in-law Shmulik will take you to Jerusalem in his car so we’re sure you make it home and don’t run away to God knows where.”
I remained silent. At least I’d bought myself one night of freedom.
“What’s happened, querida?” Tia Allegra asked gently. “Why have you run away from home again?”
“My father beat me and punished me. I can’t leave the house for ten days.”
“Why, what did you do?”
“I was kissing a boy from the navy who’d brought me home from a party at Beit Hachayal.” I was too ashamed to tell her that my father and I no longer got along.
My mother’s old aunt laughed. “Wai de mi sola, your father beat you for that? What, he’s already forgotten that he himself was young once?”
“Do you remember when you were young?” I asked her.
“I remember what happened when I was young far better than I remember what happened yesterday.” She sighed. “I remember what I lost long ago and I’m still losing things today.”
I recalled how Nona Rosa had once told me that nothing ever got lost because there was a land for all the lost things and there, so Nona Rosa told me, lived all the lost memories, the lost moments, the lost loves. And when I asked Nona where the Land of Lost Things was, she replied, “Do you remember, querida, that once you asked me what God was and I told you that it’s the rainbow? Well, there in the land where God is, the Land of the Rainbow, are all the lost things too.”
“But how do you get to the Land of the Rainbow?” I asked my lovely nona.
“The Land of the Rainbow, mi alma, is very, very far away. You need lots of patience and you must go far to reach it.”
“But where’s the road to it?” I persisted.
“Corazon, to reach the Land of the Rainbow you have to walk to the end of our neighborhood and from there to the fields of Sheikh Badr, where the new Knesset is being built. And after you walk through the fields for a long, long time, you come to a little river, and by the river there’s a long, long path that goes through the mountains and the valleys. And after days, maybe nights, the path melts into the sea in Tel Aviv, and there the path crosses the sea and goes on and on until it comes to the end of the sea. And there, at the end of the sea, where the sun meets the sky, is the Land of the Rainbow, and in the Land of the Rainbow is the Land of Lost Things.”
I told Tia Allegra about Nona Rosa’s Land of Lost Things and she laughed and said, “Your nona, God rest her soul, I didn’t know she knew how to tell stories.”
“She told me lots of stories,” I said proudly. “She told me stories about our family and about the men in the family who don’t love their wives.”
“God forgive my sins, is that what Rosa told you, may she rest in peace? El Dio que me salva, is that any way to speak to a little girl?”
“She told me that Great-grandfather Raphael didn’t love Nona Mercada and that Nono Gabriel didn’t love her, and I know that my father doesn’t love my mother either.”
“Pishcado y limon, hija, what are you saying? Where does this nonsense that your father doesn’t love your mother come from?”
“Is it true?” I asked my aunt, who seemed to have shrunk into her chair and now looked smaller than ever. “Is it true that the men in our family don’t love their wives? And that Nono Gabriel didn’t love Nona Rosa?”
“Gabriela Siton, stop talking nonsense,” she scolded me. “You probably misunderstood your nona. She probably said that Gabriel did love her.”
“No!” I insisted. “She said he didn’t love her. She told me about Great-grandfather Raphael who loved an Ashkenazia but married Mercada, and she told me that of all the young girls in Jerusalem, Mercada chose her, the poor orphan, to marry Nono Gabriel, and when she was ready to tell me why Mercada chose her, she died.”
“May she rest in peace. I can’t understand why she’d tell you such nonsense.”
Tia Allegra, who if Nona Rosa hadn’t died would have been the same age as her or perhaps even a bit older, was very different from my nona. Tia Allegra was wearing wide pants, a white blouse, a buttoned cardigan, and round glasses, while Nona Rosa, even when she couldn’t see very well, had refused to wear glasses. And unlike Nona Rosa, Tia Allegra knew how to read and write, and on her tea trolley there was always a copy of Davar, to which she had a subscription. “Tel Aviv turned her into an Ishkenazia,” Nona Rosa used to say.
I finished eating, took my plate and spoon into the kitchen, washed them, laid them on the dish rack to dry, and went back into the living room. My mother’s old aunt was sitting deep in thought. I looked at her and wondered what people did when they got old, when their legs became heavy and they couldn’t go downstairs to the boulevard and feed the birds, and when they did go down, it was hard for them to climb back up. What did old people do when evening fell and the street noises were replaced by silence, and even the birds stopped their twittering? It was then that I realized I was easing Tia Allegra’s loneliness. For years she had taken care of Nona Mercada, who’d lived with her until she passed away. She, I knew, could continue our family story from where Nona Rosa had left off. I couldn’t let the moment pass and become another lost moment in the Land of Lost Things, so I asked her to tell me what my nona hadn’t had time to relate.
“Why is it so important for you to know all this?” Tia Allegra said. “Why waken the dead from their sleep? Why talk about things that time can’t change?”
“I want to understand,” I told her. “I want to know about our family and the men who didn’t love their wives.”
Tia Allegra sighed deeply and seemed to sink into contemplation. She remained silent for a long time, and I studied her lovely face that so reminded me of Nono Gabriel’s: the same high cheekbones that even in old age gave her a noble appearance, the same slanted green eyes, the same chiseled straight nose. In the light of the lamp I could imagine her as a young woman, as proud as my grandfather, a young woman who admired her elder brother.
Tense, I sat on the edge of my chair, afraid of losing the opportunity. I wanted Tia Allegra to tell me why Nona Mercada had forced my handsome grandfather to marry my poor, orphaned grandmother from the Shama neighborhood. I needed Tia Allegra to remove the veil concealing the curse of the Ermosa women, a curse that maybe I carried with me, even though back then I couldn’t yet have known.
And then, when I was sure that the old lady would entrench herself in her silence and that there would be nobody to continue my grandmother’s story, she suddenly spoke in a quiet voice. “Our family, querida, the Ermosa family, is a good family, a fine family. But something happened, and since then our family has not been the same. It affected all the women and all the men in our family. I’ll tell you about my mother Mercada, who was—how did my sister-in-law Rosa put it?—a sour old woman. But to tell you about Mercada I have to begin with my father Raphael and the time he went to Safed. Listen well, Gabriela, to what I’m telling you, because I’ll say it only once, and I’m still not even sure I’m doing the right thing by sharing it with you.”
The soft light of the lamp illuminated Tia Allegra’s lined features. It’s going to be a long night, I thought and made myself comfortable on the couch. As I gazed at the old woman, I missed my nona terribly. Tia Allegra didn’t resemble her: not in her build, which compared with Rosa’s was slim; not in the gray hair gathered into a bun at the back of her neck, compared with Nona’s braid that she wore coiled around her head. Not in the soft jumper that covered her small breasts or her slim feet in their orthopedic shoes, compared with my nona’s swollen ankles that were always in her sapatos. Not even in her body language. But in one thing she reminded me of her very much: her speech, which combined broken and proper Hebrew and Ladino, whose literal meaning I couldn’t understand but whose essence I could.
“I’m listening,” I told Tia Allegra like a disciplined child. “I’m all ears.”
“Where should we begin?” Tia Allegra asked herself.
“From where Raphael met the Ashkenazia in Safed and fell in love with her,” I replied.
“Dio santo, did your grandmother tell you that as well? What else did she tell you?”
“That she entered him like a dybbuk and that he hurried back to Jerusalem to marry Nona Mercada.”
“May God forgive my sins, what are you getting me into, chicitica? I truly hope that your grandmother, may she rest in peace, doesn’t haunt me in my sleep.”
“She’ll come to you in a dream and tell you you’re doing the right thing,” I said. “She’ll tell you that if she hadn’t passed away she would have carried on telling me our family story herself.”
“All right.” Tia Allegra sighed. “May God forgive me if I’m making a mistake.”
Original text copyright © 2013 by Sarit Yishai-Levi and Modan Publishing House Ltd.
English translation copyright © 2016 by Anthony Berris