(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Judith Rotem
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
At the end of the summer vacation, Fifi went downstairs, dressed in a long blue skirt purchased at Hoffman's in Allenby Street and a white blouse which the dressmaker Marcela made up from an old blouse of her mother's. Tilly gave her the honor of being first in line for the skipping rope. Fifi learnt to distinguish between Hannah and Batyaleh, who weren't even twins, and without her understanding how it happened all the girls wanted to be her best friend. Perhaps they liked her precisely because she was new, like a new exercise book with smooth pages and nothing written in it yet. Haya and Rivka quarreled over her, one bad-mouthing the other, and both of them warned her: "You shouldn't be friends with Tilly, she's vulgar." Fifi decided not to listen to their spiteful slanders against each other.
Only when there was no alternative, like Zephania said, were you permitted to listen to evil tongues, because "Onnes Rahmana patrei," which was Aramaic and meant that God exempts you from punishment if you are acting under compulsion, but even if you listened, you were strictly forbidden to believe what you heard.
They both lay on the scratchy gray blanket her parents had been given together with the Jewish Agency bed. Bogar, Zephania’s dog, panted next to them, exhausted by the heat, and Zephania touched the yellow patch on his forehead and said that Bogar was already old and he didn't know what he was going to do with him when he went to the yeshiva, but with God's help everything would work out. Afterwards he opened the Book of the Laws of Slander or: He that Desireth Life. On the first page was a picture of Rabbi Israel Meir ha-Kohen of Radun, and Zephania exulted: "Lift up your heads, O ye gates and the king of glory shall come in! This is the Hafez-Hayyim (He that desireth Life) of blessed and saintly memory, who is called, like the Hazon-Ish, may he be granted a long and happy life, after the title of his book. Both of them sages and geniuses, the righteous who are an everlasting foundation, and God willing, I too will be like them."
"And you'll never be guilty of slander?"
"No, certainly not, I told you, I'm going to be a real zaddik, a righteous man, like the Hafez-Hayyim."
She turned to her left, a pine needle in her mouth: what was so important about being wise and righteous? Zephania's eyes were closed and a smile illuminated his face. For the first time in her life, she felt a stab of envy. If she wanted to, she too could be like the women she had read about in Ein Yaakov. She would have to decide who she would be like when she grew up, righteous like Rachel, or wise like Bruria.
Rachel, the daughter of the wealthy Kalba Shavua, was married to Akiva, an ignorant shepherd who was illiterate until the age of forty. Her father disinherited her, but she stayed by Akiva so that he would study and become great in the Torah. Akiva exiled himself to a place of Torah study and when he came home after twelve years he was already Rabbi Akiva, a great man in Israel with twelve thousand followers. Rabbi Akiva stood at the door of his house and heard a neighbor urging Rachel to leave her husband, who had deserted her for twelve years. “If my husband were to return at this very moment, I would tell him: Return to the place of your Torah study and come back to me at the end of another twelve years!” Rachel replied. And Rabbi Akiva, who heard every word with his hand on the handle of the door, turned back and returned to his students.
Another twelve years passed and Rabbi Akiva returned to the town with twenty-four thousand students. Rachel ran up to greet him, and the students pushed the old woman out of his path. “Leave her alone,” said Rabbi Akiva, “for what is mine and yours is hers!”
Bruria, the daughter of Rabbi Hananya ben Tardion, and the wife of Rabbi Meir, was learned and wiser than the sages who said, “If any man teaches his daughter Torah it is as if he is teaching her wantonness.” Every day she learned three hundred laws by heart. One day she met Rabbi Yossie Ben-Yoezer and he asked her: “Which is the right way to go to Lydda?” Bruria mocked him and said: “Aren’t you the one who said, “Do not indulge in lengthy conversations with a woman — this they say even regarding a man’s own wife; how much the more so of his neighbor’s wife.” You should rather have asked in brief, “Which way to Lydda?”
One Sabbath her two sons died. Bruria took white sheets and covered their bodies. When her husband returned from the house of worship, she said nothing to him. “Where are my sons?” he asked. “They have gone to the study hall. First make the havdala to conclude the Sabbath day and distinguish between the sacred and profane,” replied Bruria. After he had said the prayer, he asked again: “Where are my sons?” “Rabbi,” said Bruria, “if someone gave you a deposit and came to claim it, would you return it?” “Certainly, my daughter, how can you ask?” Rabbi Meir inquired in surprise. Bruria took him to the room, removed the sheets from her sons and said: “Here is the deposit, and they have already come to take it from you.”
From the yellowing pages of Ein Yaakov Bruria emerged as a living woman, an aristocratic princess. Her husband Rabbi Meir was the aspiring son of converts who envied her high birth, her firm opinions, the breadth of her knowledge, and the depth of her womanliness. "Women are light-headed," he tried to belittle her. She laughed at him. "One day you'll admit I was right," he exclaimed in his anger. He instructed the chief of his students to seduce her, and Bruria was seduced. Was it his jealousy which had driven him out of his wits, or her arrogance? How had he taken it upon himself to put another human being — his wife — to the test? And how had he persuaded his young student to stick the sword of temptation into her? And why had the student agreed to go along with it, out of love for Bruria or love for his Rabbi?
For hours Fifi sat in the hollow under the tree, thinking of Bruria and the great and terrible test, which if it hadn't been so hard, she would surely have passed. Fifi both knew and did not know the nature of the test which Bruria failed. When she found out, she read in Rashi, Bruria strangled herself.
What did she find out? Zephania was unable to explain to her exactly what Bruria found out, but to Fifi it was clear that Bruria no longer wanted to live because her husband and her lover had betrayed her. And Rabbi Meir, the book went on, fled because of the shame and disgrace, to the lands of the sea. And on his way into exile he saw a beautiful woman on the other side of a river and he made himself a raft from the branches of a tree and crossed the water. But she, Lilith, vanished into thin air like a cloud. Fifi hated him. How she wished she could have seen him in his disappointment and heard the ringing laughter of the beautiful demon!
In Givat Shmuel Fifi spoke Hungarian to Nagymama and Nagypapa, but even then she wasn't sorry that she was gradually forgetting the language. The children always laughed at her and her "igen-migen" parents, and most of all they laughed at her name. Wherever she went they called after her: "Fifi, Fifi, do you need pipi?" She tried to explain to them her name was pronounced with an F not a P, but they kept on anyway. And what could she tell them, that her real name was Fradel? That would have made them laugh too. Fradel was the name her father wrote on the inside of the cover of the Book of Deuteronomy, together with the passage read during the week when she was born.
His boss, Dr. Rosenbaum, suggested calling her Shlomit — "A beautiful name, and one day she'll thank me for it" — and her father, who was still afraid of opposing him, agreed. After that her teachers called her Shlomit. She herself preferred to be called Fredrika, the name given her by the nuns in the hospital in Buda, the beautiful ancient part of Budapest next to the king's palace. "Fredrika is the name of a princess," her father told her, and she stored his words in her heart and believed that there, deep inside her, where nobody could see, she was always a princess.
The first time her father stopped working for the Jewish Agency was when they were still living in Givat Shmuel, because "he couldn't stand the sight of that Dr. Rosenbaum any more," as her mother said. He started a button factory with two partners: Mochi Alpert and Shmuli Verdiger. They called the factory "Buttons and Bows" at Fifi's suggestion, and her father announced proudly to everybody that "the name was Fifi's idea." The factory was a dilapidated little building in the neighborhood of Naveh-Ahiezer, and every day Fifi and her mother would prepare sandwiches and wrap them in wax-paper and take them to him together with a hot dish in a pot wrapped in a towel, because "a hot meal is a cure for every illness."
Afterwards her father fell ill with typhus, which had suddenly flared up after being dormant in him since the camps, according to the doctor in the Balfour Hospital in Tel Aviv, and the factory went to the dogs. Mochi and Shmuli, who had to do her father's work as well as their own, quarreled all the time, and the buttons came out with one hole or none, or broken. Sometimes the two of them would meet by chance in the Rozners' kitchen, and their yells would raise the roof.
So it went until they saw Yutzi, Fifi's aunt, who had arrived from America. She was sitting at the table, her lips painted bright red, her almond-shaped eyes outlined in black and her face framed in the little sausage curls she wound round rollers before she went to bed. She was wearing a white blouse with a baby collar and mother-of-pearl buttons, and a black skirt over a fully-gathered petticoat. A broad, shiny red belt emphasized her narrow waist. Mochi and Shmuli sent her looks as dark as the bitter black coffee she had brought with her from America, and from the moment they set eyes on her the yelling stopped. Fifi's mother served slices of turos and kakaos cakes and kindli cookies, and the only sounds to be heard over the cups and the plates were "koszonom" and "tessek" — please and thank you.
After three weeks her father came home from the hospital and sat pale and thin in the kitchen. Their neighbor Karoline came in, bearing a chocolate cake in her fat arms and said that he looked like a Musselmann, and Fifi's mother danced attendance on him and fed him thick, piping hot Hungarian meat soup to restore his strength. Her father said something, and Yutzi, who was prowling restlessly round the room, said something to her mother, who began crying and shouting: "Look what he looks like! How can you be so ungrateful? Is there no God in your heart? Who saved you from Auschwitz? It was only thanks to Tommy that you got places on Kasztner's train!" And Yutzi shouted back: "It wasn't thanks to him! Don't you remember what happened? You didn't want us! If it had been up to you, we would have ended up there like all the others — anyuka and apuka, mother and father, and Dezso and Rochie and Bobo and everyone!" Fifi's father went white, he banged his fist on the table and never said a word, as if he was afraid that if yelled back at her in his weakened state his soul would fly out of his mouth together with the words.
He banged his fist on the table again until his hand turned red, and when he finally found the strength to speak his voice sounded as weak as an old man's. He asked her if she didn't have any shame, and Yutzi replied that he didn't deserve any thanks. Her voice trembled, and Fifi's mother asked them both to lower their voices, so the children wouldn't hear, and begged them in God's name not to quarrel, because what Hitler had done to the family was enough and there was no need for any more.
There was a secret in the air and Fifi sensed it, a secret as complex as a ball of barbed wire, impossible to unravel without being wounded.
The next day her father rose early to go to the factory. Her mother implored him to rest for another day or two, but he shook her hand violently off his shoulder. The left half of his face was white with “mishi” depilatory, and Fifi smelled the repulsive smell and saw how pale his other cheek was too. He wiped his face with a kitchen towel and slammed the door behind him. The moment he left Yutzi went up to the wardrobe — she was already dressed in a pleated tartan skirt and the red angora sweater Fifi loved to rub against her face — and removed all her dresses and skirts and blouses and nightgowns and petticoats and dressing gowns and threw them all silently into her red suitcase. She was always complaining that the wardrobe was too small and Fifi's mother would apologize, but now she crammed everything into her suitcase with eyes as red and swollen as Fifi's mother's, who moved about the kitchen and pretended not to see anything.
The six hundred lira that went down the drain with the factory was the last of her father's money. No one was interested in buying the button-producing machines, and they stood in the yard growing rusty under the tarpaulins which Mimi and Nitza and their friends were happy to use in their endless games of hide-and-seek. Nagymama and Nagypapa went to live in Montefiore street in Tel Aviv and opened a pastry shop nearby, with four tables for "anyone who wanted to have a cup of coffee with turos in the morning." Her mother begged her father to borrow money from them to reopen the factory with new partners, but when she saw that he was adamant in his refusal, she stopped mentioning the factory altogether, as if the word itself was a curse or the reminder of a sin. The frown on her forehead deepened, and they would close their door so she wouldn't hear them fighting, and sometimes they didn't speak to each other for days at a time. Her father would say to her: "Tell your mother," and her mother would say: "Give this to your father" even when they were both in the room with her.
Sacks full of pearly buttons stood in every corner of the house, and they were scattered all over the floor: there were big ones and little ones, flower-shaped ones and tiny ball-shaped ones, and there were some which looked like raindrops or tears, and however much her mother swept the floor she continued to hear snapping and crunching noises under the soles of her shoes.
Her father told her then how were formed: a grain of sand penetrated the shell of certain mollusks living in the depth of the ocean, the mollusk secreted a liquid to get rid of the sand, and a miracle took place — the secretion hardened, and the superfluous grain of sand turned into a pearl. Buttons were made from the inner layer of these shells, and that was why in other languages the buttons were called "Perlmutter" or mother-of-pearl.
The first day at her new school arrived. Rivka and Haya, Batya and Hannah surrounded her like a safety chain, and for a moment the fear choking her throat dissolved. What could already happen to her when she was dressed in a blue skirt, a white blouse with Russian embroidery that her mother had bought her in Hoffman's, and her unruly hair was brushed and plaited in two braids?
"Mita gitte shueh," Mrs. Bickel, whose door was always open to the landing, wished her good luck in Yiddish. When Fifi left the building Tilly was already waiting for her at the gate, her golden hair combed and tied in a blue ribbon. "Would you like me to carry your satchel?" she asked, but Fifi turned aside and walked out of the gate without answering. All the way to school, along Or-Haim, Hafetz- Hayyim, Rabbi Akiva and Jerusalem streets she felt Tilly's offended looks digging into her back. Haya and Tirza giggled spitefully: "She's just dying to be friends with you!" Against her will the spiteful gossip about Tilly had seeped into her mind. She asked herself what you were supposed to do when it transpired that slander was not a lie but the truth. What would Zephania have said about it? Tilly herself had insisted on telling her something she didn't want to know, she had tried to block her inner ears, as Zephania had taught her, but at the same time she felt drawn to hear all the details of the daydreams and night dreams that Tilly told her, with sweet smiles of pleasure. "I was naked, in the bath, and this boy, Yochanan from the Gila Educational Institution, who's always riding round my house on his bicycle, the tall, handsome one with the green eyes and the honey-colored hair, was stroking me all over my body, even you know where, and drying me with a big towel and afterwards," but Fifi stopped her ears in horror, she didn't want to know where Yochanan had stroked her, even it was only a dream, a dream that Tilly told her again and again, with small and arousing changes. Her heart expanded in excitement and fear. Strange, shuddery feelings of nausea mingled with fascination welled up in her.
Tilly walked a little distance behind her, like a silent lady-in-waiting, and she remembered the stories Mrs. Bickel told her mother. What was she going to do with this Tilly! She wasn't prepared to be her friend with all those dreams and the things she said. But on the other hand, she was such a poor thing! Mrs. Bickel, who saw everything that happened in Tilly's yard from her observation point on her kitchen balcony, knew everything: she told Fifi's mother about Tilly's father who had died, and Fifi immediately recalled all the orphans in the books she had read — Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Little Nell — how she had pitied those poor orphans with their hard, wretched lives! "The father was a rich man from Belgium, quite old, a zaddik, but his sons from his first wife are spoiled rotten. His second wife, Dina, you can see how young and beautiful she is, married the old man, szegeny, poor thing, for his money, he had a few diamond polishing plants. At first she had a good life, but then he got sick. And before he died, his sons began to worry that he was going to leave her all his vast fortune. So they began going in and out of the house. Especially Ari, the handsome one with the big tchup. He has the reputation of a luftmensch and a sheigetz. You saw the white Cadillac he drives up in? Takes the child and disappears for hours and nobody knows where. The mother is afraid to say anything to him," Mrs. Bickel wanted to continue, but since Fifi was listening to the conversation, her mother signaled her to stop. She managed to say one more thing before Zsuzsi Rozner's looks cut off the words in her mouth: "If she opens her mouth, they'll close the wig-making shop they set her up in, and she and Tilly won't have anything to eat."
But there was no point in believing what Mrs. Bickel said about Tilly, even her mother said that Mrs. Bickel always enjoyed talking about other people's troubles. "It makes her feel that she's not the most unfortunate person in the world, after Auschwitz and her whole family perishing, and her crazy miser of a husband, who goes to eat at weddings where he doesn't know anyone, and each side thinks the other side invited him. I only hope, a jo Isten, the good Lord, doesn't test us to see what we can stand, because there's no limit to what people can stand. If God told everyone to throw down his private sack of troubles and pick up any other sack he wanted to, everyone would run to grab his own sack back, but I'm not so sure that Mrs. Bickel would run too fast." Her mother smiled shrewdly.
Why couldn't she be helped by her mother's shrewdness when she needed it? She could never go to her mother for advice, and this time too she felt that she was lost between her wishes and her fears.
Something about Tilly disturbed her, as if she were hiding a secret which once revealed would become her secret too. And perhaps she was imagining it? She went on walking and she didn't call Tilly to come and walk beside her.
Her heart fluttered in her chest like a moth around a lamp in summer when the teacher Fruma called her name out from the attendance list. The teacher was tall and thin, without a drop of color on her ascetic face, which merged into the beige of her long-sleeved blouse and long, limp skirt. Some of the girls said that she was an old maid, that she was already twenty-eight years old which was why nobody wanted to marry her. Rivka said that they were quite wrong, that she looked after her sick old parents, who were both Holocaust survivors, and she didn't have the time to get married.
"We have a new student, Shlomit Rozner, what a pretty name," the teacher introduced her to the class. She forced her thin lips into a faint smile: "In the meantime you can sit in the empty seat next to Tehilla. Take out your prayer books, girls. Shlomit, our new girl, you're the cantor today. Begin to pray."
The prayer book almost slipped from her hands. What was she supposed to do? Everybody stood up and she did too, ignoring the eyes fixed on her and the red spots beginning to climb up her neck. Her voice sounded high and rough to her as she negotiated the pitfalls on the pages. "I give thanks unto thee," "How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob," "Let the living God be magnified and be praised, "Master of the Universe who reigned before all creatures were formed," sang the girls in deep voices which sounded to her like the voices of boys. The letters looked like big black beetles that would soon crawl off the pages and climb up her. "The morning benedictions," the teacher signaled her to continue. All the girls looked at her. "The morning benedictions." She stood up straight and turned the page.
"Blessed art thou, Adonai our God, king of the universe, who giveth to the rooster the instinct to distinguish between day and night" — she stopped at the sound of a nervous and embarrassed rustle which grew louder and turned into bursts of laughter stifled behind hands. The whole class participated in the peals of laughter. Rivka and Haya avoided her eyes. Hanaleh and Batyaleh gave her little sidelong looks, their eyes damp with the release of the laughter. Only Tilly, in the seat next to her, gazed at her in suspense.
She sat down. The prayer book fell from her hand. The girl across the aisle jumped up and quickly picked it up, kissed the cover and put it down on her desk. The teacher almost sprang to her feet.
"Girls, quiet! Shlomith comes from a "Mizrahi"1 school and she doesn't know how to pray properly." The girls swallowed their laughter. Fifi felt the hot flush spreading from her chest to the roots of her hair.
"Shlomit," the teacher turned to her, "we pronounce the name of Hashem2 in the Ashkenazi pronunciation, 'A[do]noi' and not ' A[do]nai,' in order not to diverge from the customs of our fathers, as the Zionists do. Perhaps you don't even know that it's forbidden to utter the name of Hashem except in a prayer or a blessing... we know where you come from, after all." The teacher's eyes avoided her. Fifi had failed, and the teacher looked for someone else to take over the role of cantor. All the girls shot their hands up, hoping to be chosen.
Rivka waved her hand more energetically than all the rest. "Rivka, continue," said the teacher, and to Fifi she said: "Listen carefully to Rivka. What you missed in six years of studying in a Mizrahi school can't be made up in a day, but the girls will help you. We are of the school of Hillel who said: 'Let us learn from our father Avraham and welcome all men gladly.'"
"Blessed art Thou, Adonoi our God, king of the universe, who hath not made me a heathen. Blessed art Thou, Adonoi our God, king of the universe, who hath not made me a slave. Blessed art Thou, Adonoi our God, king of the universe, who hath made me according to Thy will." Rivka was fluent and confident. Fifi hated her.
A hand placed a piece of paper on her knee under the desk. It was Tilly. The note was neatly folded and rolled up, and Fifi opened it carefully, glancing from the teacher to the prayer book as she did so. It held one short sentence: “Don't take any notice of those idiots. Adonoi, Adonai, what difference does it make?"
In the summer, shortly before they left Givat Shmuel, her father and mother had warned her not to make friends with the "free-thinking" children, and she thought then that if she hadn't been religious herself she would have hated the religious because of the way they discriminated against others. The people she saw from the window of the bus passing through Bnei Brak looked weird to her with their beards and earlocks and their long coats, all of them just like the rabbis in the pictures Zephania showed her, when he still spoke to her, before he began avoiding her. On Friday nights he would stand in the corner of the synagogue, fingering the fringes of his prayer shawl and rocking vigorously up and down as he prayed, without so much as a glance in her direction. She already knew then that everything had changed: he no longer came to look for her in the citrus grove, and in any case she no longer ran away to hide there or anywhere else — she wasn't a baby any more.
Everyone called her Shlomit, but at night, after her father's square of chocolate had melted in her mouth, she would dream that in another, distant place they knew that she was a princess, the Princess Fredrika.
Thanks to the influence of an important string-puller, her father had already been reinstated in his job at the Jewish Agency, her mother could breathe easy again. "Such luck!" she said, "I don't want to think about what would have happened if Dr. Rosenbaum had refused to give your father his job back. Because on the day he let him go, Tommy gave him a piece of his mind and told him what he'd been wanting to tell him all the time: that he should take the yarmulka off his head, because it was a profanation of God's name for him to wear it, and everybody knew that he was a kapo in the camp and one day someone would give him what he deserved!"
Fifi loved the hour when her father came home from work, every evening at six. His shabby brown briefcase seemed as full of treasures to her as Ali Baba's cave, and with her hands itching with delight she would wait for the signal to open it. "Nu, let's see what Daddy has for his little angels," he would say. He had a host of surprises for them there: a dolls' kitchen with tiny pots and pans, toy cars and bicycles and sheets of cardboard with dolls and clothes to be pressed out of their dotted lines, and there were candies scattered in the dark recesses of the briefcase, and bars of bitter chocolate she didn't like and bags of sticky anise sweets, whose taste she hated and whose smell she loved.
But after the brown stain she discovered on her panties when she came home from school she knew that her chances of being a princess were lost for ever. She scrubbed the stain with the big bar of laundry soap, and the blood dripped out of her. Again and again she tried to wash herself, and the blood went on welling out and collecting underneath her in a terrifying little pool. The bathroom door, which she had forgotten to lock in her panic, suddenly opened, and her mother stood in the doorway. "Mazal tov! Now you're a woman," she said, as if she had been preparing for this occasion for a long time, and as if Fifi's face had revealed everything when she burst into the house doubled over with stomach cramps.
"The nurse has already explained it to you, hasn't she? So you know everything already. Just take care that your father, God forbid, doesn't know when it comes." In her hand she had a closed packet of cottonwool. She put the packet down on the edge of the bath and closed the door behind her without looking at her daughter. Fifi knew that her mother was right, something dreadful was liable to happen if her father found out the terrible things that were happening in her body.
What did the nurse say? What was she supposed to do now? Of all the things Nurse Ilana had said and all the instructions that could have helped her, she remembered only the sound of the nurse's monotonous voice and the sight of the poster hanging on the board with pictures of flowers and butterflies on it, which came back to her like a faded and unimportant dream. She remembered that her mother had sat beside her, like all the other mothers, solemn and tense. Rivka and Haya giggled behind their mothers' broad backs, and Tilly, who came alone, sent her a note: "After Ilana stops droning on, I'll explain everything to you." But when the mothers gathered to chat in a corner of the schoolyard, Fifi stole out of the back gate and ran quickly home, afraid that Tilly would tell her again, as she had told her once before, how babies were born. She remembered with a shudder her secretive voice as she came up close to her and whispered: "I'll tell you how babies are born: the mother and father take off all their clothes, they dance together and hug and kiss and come very, very close together, as close as can be, and from that, later on, a baby is born."
On hot Sabbaths, when her father lay on the couch in his wide underpants and read, or when he got out of bed, she saw that thing poking out of his underpants, huge and ugly and frightening as the head of the snake she had once seen peeping out of a bush on her way to the factory. She knew that there was a connection between what Tilly had told her and the warm dripping between her legs and the scary thing that Tilly said all men had, but she couldn't think it through, and when she tried to go on thinking she felt as if she were going to faint.
She didn't believe that her parents could undress naked together, but nevertheless she listened to every movement, every sigh and groan, on the other side of the wall, and her flesh crept with the dread of the things that might be happening on the corner bed. Again and again she said to herself that it couldn't possibly be true: she had never seen them embrace, and they had never kissed. On Saturday evenings, ever since they had moved to Bnei Brak, after her father said the blessing "the Creator of various kinds of spices" and raised the spice-tower, sniffing like a big animal the twigs of rosemary she had picked from the hedge and crushed up inside it, he would bang it down on the table. Her mother would lift it up, caressing the delicate filigree work with her eyes, smell the scent, and offer it her daughters' noses. But there were also evenings when the spice-tower would pass gently from his hands to hers, without being banged down on the table. Each time Fifi would wait tensely, her heartstrings strained until they ached, to see what would happen: would the spice-tower be passed from hand to hand or would it be banged down on the table? And whenever it was banged, the noise of the thud hit her, too, as she protested silently: Why can't he pass the spices straight to her like a human being?
Fifi's father was the best match in Budapest and perhaps in the whole of Hungary: not only rich, but also a talmid chocham, a scholar, and the possessor of great yiches, an impressive pedigree on his mother's side. His father was neither well-born nor a scholar, but what could you expect from someone who had lost his own father at the age of eleven and was required to support his mother and ten brothers and sisters? Fifi's grandfather, the owner of the "Vienna" chain of pastry shops, had started from nothing — a few pathetic little baskets of cookies baked by his mother — and stood from morning to night in the market place, a skinny little boy already shooting up and outgrowing his shabby clothes. People were sorry for him and they also bought his wares for the sake of his beautiful voice. "With a voice like that, a voice like Yossele Rosenblatt and Beniamino Gigli combined, you should study to be a cantor,” they told him, but all he wanted was "keresni, keresni," to earn money, and he was too proud to accept favors from anybody. He saved money and set up a stall, and then he opened a little shop in the market, and when he was twenty-four he bought a pastry shop, and after that the daughter of the chief rabbi fell in love with him, and when Fifi's mother told her this she had tears in her eyes.
Her mother's parents were completely different: refined and elegant people of fastidious tastes, who spoke pure German and polished Hungarian, and employed German Fräuleins to educate their six daughters. In their luxurious mansion eyebrows were raised at the sight of the rich father of the groom ignoring the monogrammed silver cutlery and picking up the food in his fingers. They almost canceled the wedding, and Fifi had a faint feeling that her mother wouldn't have been all that sorry if it hadn't come off.
It was Zephania who explained the meaning of yiches to her, and how important a distinguished family tree was to Hungarian Jews, more important than money, brains, beauty, and perhaps even more important than virtue, because the yiches itself was a virtue.
"More important than a kind heart and a benevolent eye? In The Ethics of the Fathers they're considered the most important virtues!" she protested, but at the same time she enjoyed the feeling that Zephania was looking at her differently, as if she was no longer the same little girl. He explained that the saying "Grapes of the vine to grapes of the vine" applied to her, in other words: double yiches, since on her mother's side she was descended from both "Hatam Sofer" and Rabbi Akiva Eiger.
“Don't look down on lineage,” he said. “Even in ancient times, when the daughters of Israel went out to dance in the vineyards on the fifteenth of Av, they borrowed white raiments from each other so that none of them would be shamed, but they didn't forgo their lineage. 'Young man, look not to appearances, for favor is deceitful and beauty is vain, but look to family.'"
Fifi looked at him sharply. He had never spoken to her like this, as if the influence of his yeshiva-student brothers had already seeped into him. "And besides," he muttered in an undertone, almost stammering, "my parents care a lot about yiches, they'd like it if one day you and I..."
Zephania and her! She couldn't even write their names together in her exercise book like the engravings on the trees in the wood: two names in a big heart carved into the bark with a long arrow piercing the bleeding heart. It was silly to think about it. She was only eleven and a half!
1 Mizrahi — mainstream national religious movement, more moderate than the anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox or Haredi school which Fifi is now attending in Bnei Brak
2 Hashem — Hebrew, the Name, used by the ultra-Orthodox in order to avoid using the name of God, or Adonai, literally "my Lord.”
Copyright © by Am Oved Publishing House and Judith Rotem
Worldwide Translation Copyright © 2011 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature
Judith Rotem was born in Budapest, Hungary. As a baby, she was taken on the "Kastner train," spent several months in Bergen-Belsen, later in a refugee camp in Switzerland. She arrived in pre-state Israel at the age of three. Later she married an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student, and supported the family as a teacher while raising her seven children. In 1983, she divorced her husband and left the ultra-Orthodox community, taking her children with her. She subsequently wrote and edited hi-tech publications, wrote many books and articles, and wrote a number of autobiographies for Holocaust survivors. Rotem has published five novels, a collection of stories, a non-fiction book and a book for children. She has been awarded the Prime Minister's Prize (2002) and the Book Publishers Association's Gold Prize for her bestseller, Craving (2004).