A Time of Love
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Miri Varon
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
So in the end, everyone gave in and Pnina would stand under the chuppah with the gornisht. The ceremony would take place at the community hall on Rothschild Boulevard at one-thirty in the afternoon.
It was a gray winter day, and the sidewalk was wet and muddy. Bricks and wooden boards blocked the pathway because the rain had put a stop to the construction work. Pnina walked at the head of the procession wearing a blue dress made for her by a seamstress, an old acquaintance of the Mameh’s who had recently come to Israel from Poland and worked in the clothing store on Ahad Ha’am Street. The Mameh thought they should make a dark dress that Pnina could wear again after the wedding. A ribbon with crimson silk edges decorated the opening at Pnina’s solid neck, slightly softening her worker’s look. Ita, Aron’s wife, walked at her side, asking occasional questions and offering last-minute advice that sounded to Pnina unnecessary and too late in coming, but today she had patience for everyone.
The main thing is not to argue too much, Ita said, and not to think you’re better than he is.
Pnina nodded with a smile.
Nu, tell me, how did he propose? Ita asked.
He didn’t, Pnina replied. When I found out that Dinka was going to Jerusalem with Natan, I said to him, Hanan, my big sister’s house will be empty.
He said, okay, we can live there free of charge. But, she added, her face glowing, the Mameh said she’d open the knipel and give us money to build a little house in his parents’ yard on Bograshov Street.
That I know, Ita said sourly. She never helped us, she said, holding back the anger rising in her throat.
Pnina stopped and gave her a sideways glance. The bride’s astonished expression made Ita regret her complaint and she changed the subject, rebuking herself. After all, today is the little one’s wedding day…
Take my ring, she whispered. From what I know of him, he’ll probably forget to bring one.
It didn’t occur to Ita that he’d forget to bring himself, but that’s what happened. It began to drizzle, it was one-forty and Pnina stood, pale, at the edge of the stairs leading to the community hall. Her brothers and sister paced back and forth, and the Mameh stood with Ita, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. The man in charge of the hall occasionally stuck his pockmarked face out the door and asked with a half smile, nu, he’s here? Pnina stared at the silent street. The trees swayed in the threatening wind. There’d be a thunderstorm soon, and then she could scream from the depths of her humiliation and escape to the Mameh’s bosom. She looked at her old mother. The Mameh stood there, tall and wrapped in her navy blue wool coat, holding a silk kerchief she’d brought with her from Minsk, ready to burst into tears at any moment. And he wasn’t there. Mute with shame, Pnina missed the nights when she would run to the Mameh, frightened and coughing, every time thunder made her head explode.
A big hero you are, the Mameh would tell her playfully. Getting hit by the English doesn’t scare you, but thunder makes you pee in your pants? She would hug her close and warn her, don’t start with your coughing now, in the middle of the night.
At three o’clock, after scanning the street, Uncle Aron walked up the steps and cleared his throat, his expression heralding the delivery of a previously prepared speech.
I should go home, he said, because if I see him now, I’ll just smash my wine bottle over his head. And don’t say I didn’t tell you.
What are we doing here, he asked his mother. In another minute, you’ll have an attack and we’ll have a different kind of family occasion on our hands. That little one, whatever she wants, she gets from you, even at the cost of her own life. I don’t understand, I don’t understand how I let this happen. Reboyne sheloylom, what more can we expect from the son of that speculantit, now that she’s thriving. Thousands of poor people come from Europe and she has a few plots of land to sell even before she has permits. Hallelujah! On the places where she sells land, they won’t build till the Messiah comes. I say we should go home now. The money for the food and drinks I’ll pay. And this mayseh we can tell at Café Radski, where all the writers sit. They’ll turn it into a tsimmes for sure.
As Uncle Aron threatened to memorialize the disgrace and spread the word of the groom’s shameful behavior among Tel Aviv’s workers, they heard the sound of horses’ hooves, and a black carriage filthy with rain and mud pulled up at the stairs. The curly-haired groom stepped out wearing a striped suit and a Russian shirt buttoned up to his beautiful neck. There was no time or any point in listening to his prattle, and everyone pushed inside. Uncle Aron wasn’t ready to forgive so easily, and actually turned on his heel to go. But Ita wouldn’t give in. She grabbed his lapel and pleaded.
Don’t you care about the Mameh? You can’t leave now. You’ll eat yourself up alive if something happens here.
She knew what buttons to push. Aron came back, giving her a look flashing with resentment and impatience.
I’m coming, I’m coming. And you, don’t you preach to me.
They entered the building at the very moment it became clear that the distinguished groom had indeed forgotten to bring a wedding ring, and Ita hurried to take hers off, as promised. Here, she said to Pnina, take it. Give it back to me later.
The Mameh cried bitterly at the right moment. She called out the name of their dead father and invited him to the ceremony, begging his memory and his righteousness to protect her from the disaster about to befall her. Aron went over and put his arm around her shoulders. His brothers, Senya and the good-looking Moishe, and his brother-in-law Natan, Dinka’s husband, stood on the side in their best clothes and didn’t crack a smile. Across from them stood the groom’s mother in her elegant clothes, leaning on the arm of her sister, who was no more and no less than the owner of the Sarona Cinema. Thanks to that tall, bright-eyed aunt, the couple’s friends from the Borochov Youth Movement would be drinking and dancing till dawn in the most beautiful hall in the city. The other members of the groom’s family weren’t there because they always fought each other tooth and nail. Having wealthy in-laws did not console Aron. In his eyes, they were merchant bourgeoisie, and some of them owned land they used to exploit the large number of immigrants coming over in those years and they enjoyed their life in the new, vibrant city. They had no ideology. Just like the “piece of goods” they were planting in his family. Nisht l’oylom hosen. It won’t last forever. I’ll take her back home, if not today, then tomorrow.
Dinka, as usual, took control. What happened to you, she scolded her brothers as they walked to her house to eat gefilte fish two hours late. What is this! The Second Temple fell on you? A finstere chasene you made for the little one. A black wedding! Why are you all so sour! What are you sneering about? So he never opens a book. The handsome groom doesn’t like to read the Communist Manifesto before he goes to bed… never opens a book… what’s the big deal! Here on the sand of Yehuda Halevi Street, all your literature is vert drek! It’s not worth a penny. Lermontov doesn’t help anyone buy cement! You hear me, Senya? All your speeches haven’t brought a single lira in to buy new beds for the house.
Dinka exhaled furiously, then laughed, and beads of sweat formed on her upper lip. For two weeks, she had labored to prepare lunch for her sister’s wedding, making everything from nothing, as she always did. Only under her hands did the margarine smell like butter and the thin strudel dough shine as if it were being served in Café Piltz. Her two brothers, chastised and silent, walked beside her. Behind then walked Pnina’le and Hanan Pikelman, embracing, lusting for each other on one of the last days of their passion. Bringing up the back of the procession was the Mameh on the arm of her son-in-law Natan, who led her carefully over the murky puddles, taking special care to keep her from getting dirty. Natan was a clean person. He knew how to polish tea glasses so well that you thought you were holding the water in the air. He didn’t drink tea in his mother-in-law’s or brother-in-laws’ homes even when he was still speaking to them because Mira, Ita and Zipora didn’t wipe dishes the way he liked. He would say, my wife will make me some at home. Now, everyone was red-nosed with crying and sorrow because they had sacrificed the pearl of the family and given her to the gornisht. Natan, who was a good man and afraid of his wife, tried to cheer up his mother-in-law, who was walking mournfully at his side, sighing from the depths of her being, by describing the wonderful food soon to fill her empty stomach.
Oy, what a knish my Dinka made today, he said, wetting his lips with affection. You’ll remember this day, he said.
Yes, the Mameh said. I taught them all to talk and they taught me to keep my mouth shut.
Enough now, Natan chided her. This is not the time to talk like that. Let’s have no complaints. He looked around because he feared the evil eye and didn’t want to anger whoever was watching over him and supplying him with good and evil. When they all arrived at Dinka and Natan’s place, Uncle Moishe was already waiting for them. He had run ahead to light the kerosene stove. His usually tangled shock of hair was combed and brilliantined today, and his eyes were flashing. He stood saluting crisply at the door, and when his sister came in, he sang in a trilling voice, changing the words to suit the occasion:
In a world that goes from topsy to turvy
The future’s unknown for you and for me
The future’s unknown for you and for me
With a piece of bread, a tent over my head
I’m as happy as can be. Tra-la-li.
Years later, Pnina recalled the words written by the poet Avraham Shlonsky and changed so gleefully by her brother that they sounded amusing at the time.
Only later did she find out that her beloved brother Moishe knew, maybe better than anyone, the chaos her life would fall into, but he didn’t have the courage to reveal the truth and cause her pain.
The entertainer is already at work, Senya grumbled. Nothing bothers him. After all, he came out of the same egg, exactly like that metsie we’ll have to suffer now. A perfect match. Aron fixed his belt and looked down to see if the hem of his pants had gotten dirty on the way. He sat down at the foot of the table so he could get up when he ran out of patience, and so that no one could drop any food on him.
Slowly the brothers’ mood improved. Dinka’s food went down very smoothly. They hadn’t had to skimp recently because they had money in their pockets. It was 1934, the year thousands of immigrants had flocked into Tel Aviv in the Fifth Aliya. Two- and three-story buildings were being constructed and they had lots of work.
Tel Aviv is the biggest city in the country today, Senya said.
Sky and sea so blue, so clear/Look, we’re building a pier, sang Moishe from where he was sitting.
Everyone joined in his song, banging on Dinka’s oval table, making the plates bounce.
Ships sailing in all kinds of weather
A thousand hands building together!
Sky and sea so blue so clear,
Look, we’re building a pier!
In the meantime, eat, Natan said. At his wife’s behest, he ran back and forth from the kitchen to the table carrying black trays covered with gleaming, steaming towels. A piece of knish? Pot roast and potatoes? A few kreplach? How about some noodle pudding?
Pnina remembered that meal at Dinka’s as the happiest day of her life. For a moment, she thought everyone was happy with her. Hanan answered her brothers’ questions and promised them, each and every one, that her hands would be white and clean. With me, she won’t have to work too hard, he said, the arch of his eyebrows rising in what, years later, would be interpreted as a wink. And you all know that my word is my bond.
The Mameh focused entirely on the food. She sopped up fish sauce with the heel of the bread, sucked it, and put the drained bread back into the sauce and sucked it again, repeating that till the bread was as thin as a piece of paper soaked in sauce. Only after she swallowed it did she look up. All of her property was sitting in front of her. Everyone was with her, under her control. And that new one, he’d just better get used to it…
They dispersed in the evening. On the way home with his wife Ita, Aron didn’t say a word. He was used to walking at her side like that, her ear almost touching his shock of hair because he was shorter than she was.
The faces of the couple in love who had gotten married in spite of his opposition and anger returned to his mind. Pnina’s hurried glances, the hidden touches, the longing smiles. And again his heart drifted back over the years, conjuring up the image of his lost love. Her name was Irena Suderman, and she had shiny dark braids confining the wave of her beautiful hair that he loved to bury his head in. Irena Suderman’s hair had never been burned by the sun. She had stayed in Minsk because she was an ardent Communist and she let him go without blinking an eye. He gave himself up to the images and didn’t listen to Ita, who was chattering away at his side, skipping from one subject to another, from his mother’s too-salty soup, which she thought was proof of her heartache, to the in-laws, who brought no honor to the family, and to the tasteless dress Moishe’s wife Zipora, called by Dinka, “the squash from Alexandria,” had been wearing.
Anyone who wants to burn his tongue should lick the Mameh’s heart today, she said gloatingly. She gave up her Pnina cheaply. And the in-laws, silent as carp. What can they talk about? The uncle committed to the mental hospital in Jerusalem? The epilepsy that runs through the family? The arguments about money they’ve been having their whole lives? And tell me something, who made that shmatte for her? That’s a bride’s dress? A blue dress for the bride of a rich family? Who ever heard of such a thing? Your mother couldn’t take out a few coins from what she’s been saving up for her? The penny pincher. Nothing will help. To think today about a dress she can wear again another day? When? To her mother’s funeral?
Aron stopped walking.
You, he said with loathing and without calling her by name. Don’t you ever mention my mother’s funeral. Even if you live to be a hundred, you’ll never have half the brain she has. He took out a handkerchief and wiped away the bitter, angry words that still wanted to come out of his mouth. They continued walking in silence. Suddenly, Ita began to cry quietly into her collar. He knew that moment well and despised it more as she perfected it over the years. Ita had learned to cry silently and with a unique shift in her breathing so subtle that only he knew she was crying. She felt sorry for herself, for her lost youth, for her defeat in the war against his lost love who had stayed there, forever young, forever unattainable. What wouldn’t she give for the casual touch of his large, heavy hand on her shoulder as they walked. Or at least one tender word.
Why don’t you say something? she asked when they were almost home.
Go and buy yourself a blouse tomorrow, he said. His glance was fixed above her head, averting her eyes, but seeking forgiveness.
Ita took her kerchief off her head to straighten her hair. The kerchief had never helped. Her hair turned into a solid mane of stiff curls, the ends split and burned. She was a tall, dark-haired woman with shoulders always raised in puzzlement. At night, she read Russian novels and she knew how to recite poetry. She always tried to please and be good company for Aron. But none of those virtues were enough for him or for her. She still couldn’t stop being surprised that he had chosen her.
The Mameh had had doubts from the first minute.
Ita has skin the color of olives, Pnina told her when she found out that Aron was “stepping out” with the Russian girl. You don’t see such nice color here.
But she’s taller than him, the Mameh grumbled, and she has meat on her like I have money.
It doesn’t matter who she is, Pnina said. You’re as bitter as you always are when it comes to the moment of truth. Someone is taking your little boy away!
What are you talking about? I don’t want him to get married? But you know that people without any meat on their bones are mean, she said.
It’s not that she’s mean, Pnina said, raising her voice. She’s an orphan. You think she has a mother here who’s stuffing her with bread and butter?
Ita came from a good home in Odessa. She had woolen suits with beautiful leather belts, and she had good handbags, smooth skin, and brown, almond-shaped eyes. But from the first moment she appeared in the Mameh’s house, her shoulders were tense and her eyes darted around like those of a frightened animal trapped in an unfamiliar place. No one would talk to her or tell her anything.
Steel wool you have on your head, Aron would chide her. And tea glasses you should wipe with a starched towel. He never touched her in the light of day, only in the dark when she came to bed bathed and perfumed. With eyes closed in bitter blindness, he would wrap himself around her long, skinny body and gain peace and oblivion at one and the same time.
The night of Pnina’s wedding, they came home distant and brooding after the fight and the tears.
That spoiled little girl, she still doesn’t know what’s in store for her, Ita thought, and touched the ring that was back on her finger. How hard we have to try.
Aron took off his tie and tossed it on the back of a chair. He felt defeated and dispirited, and in the dark, he bitterly calculated the price of that dark wedding: a bride in a navy blue dress and a groom who didn’t have a crumb of truth in his eyes.
Copyright © Miri Varon and Hakibbutz Hameuchad Publishing House
Translation copyright © Miri Varon. Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
Published by arrangement with The Institute for The Translation of Hebrew Literature
Miri Varon was born in Rehovot, Israel in 1944. She holds a PhD in Hebrew literature from Bar-Ilan University. She has published short stories and articles in literary journals including Moznayim, Aley Siach and Iton 77. Varon is active in the fields of education and culture, and lectures at Tel Aviv University and at the Kibbutzim Teachers’ College. She was awarded the Tel Aviv Foundation Award for Wandering Bride (1988).