The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Sarit Yishai-Levi
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
Shortly before my eighteenth birthday my mother Luna passed away. A year before that, when the family were sitting round the dining table eating lunch together, and she was serving her famous sofrito with peas and white rice, she suddenly sat down and said: ‘Dio santo, I can’t feel my leg.’
My father ignored her and went on eating and reading the newspaper as usual. My little brother Ronny thought it was funny and he jogged mother’s leg under the table and said: ‘Mom’s leg is like a doll’s leg.’
‘It isn’t funny,’ my mother said crossly, ‘I can’t stand my foot on the floor.’
My father went on eating and so did I.
‘Por Dio, David, I can’t stand on my leg,’ she said again. ‘It doesn’t do what I tell it to.’
By now she was on the verge of hysteria. Father stopped eating at last and took his eyes off the newspaper.
‘Try to stand,’ he said. Mother was unable to steady herself and hung onto the edge of the table.
‘We have to take her to the HMO clinic right away,’ said Father.
But the minute we walked out of the door Mother’s leg obeyed her, and she could feel it again and tread on it as if nothing had happened.
‘You see, it’s nothing,’ said Father, ‘You’re hysterical as usual.’
‘Sure, hysterical,’ said Mother, ‘if it had happened to you people would have heard the ambulance sirens from here to Katamon.’
The episode passed without leaving any signs, and Mother would recount it over and over again to Rachelika and Becky and anyone else 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?’
And then the second incident happened. Mother returned from the grocery, and just before she was about to step into the house she fell and lost consciousness. This time an ambulance was called and Mother was taken to the ‘Bikur Holim’ hospital. She was diagnosed with cancer and she couldn’t stand or walk and had to use a wheelchair. This was the time when Mother started to stop talking. Mainly she stopped talking to Father. He would talk to her and she wouldn’t answer. Her sisters, Rachelik and Becky, neglected their husbands and children and stayed with her almost twenty four hours a day. Despite their pleas she refused to leave the house. She was ashamed for people to see her, Luna, the woman who once had the most beautiful legs in Jerusalem, in a wheelchair.
However much I hardened my heart in those days it was still pitiful to see Rachelika peeling an orange for my mother and urging her to eat her favorite fruit, and Becky carefully and gently painting her nails with red nail polish, since even in her sick, weak state she was still scrupulous in the matter of manicure and pedicure. And both of them, Rachelika and Becky, doing their best to behave naturally, as if nothing terrible had happened, and chattering away ‘yack yack yack like a couple of chickens’ as Grandma Rosa used to say, while only Mother, the greatest chatterbox of them all, remained silent.
At night one of them would stay to sleep with Mother, who was now sleeping in the living room, on the couch that opened into a bed, surrounded by dining-table chairs to save her from falling out.
All my father’s pleas for her to sleep in the bedroom while he slept on the living-room couch were in vain.
‘She says she can’t breathe in the bedroom,’ Rachelika said to Father. ‘You at least should get a good night’s sleep so you’ll have the strength to look after the children.’
But Ronny and I didn’t need Father to look after us. We exploited the fact that everyone was busy with Mother and took advantage of our freedom to wander the streets at will. Ronny preferred the company of boys his own age and spent whole days in their homes and sometimes nights as well, and I spent my time with Amnon, my lover. Amnon’s parents had a bookshop in the center of town, his sister was already married, and their big house in Hamaalot street was completely at our disposal. My father never asked me where I was after school hours – if he had known what we were up to he would have thrashed Amnon within an inch of his life and sent me away to a boarding school on a kibbutz.
When I came home later than usual, Mother no longer called me a ‘street girl’ or threatened me: ‘Just wait until your father comes home and I tell him what time you got in.’ She never even looked at me, just sat in her wheelchair staring into space or whispering with one of her sisters who were the only people who could get a word out of her. Father would make supper, and he too didn’t ask me any questions or show any interest in my activities. It seemed that they all preferred me to spend as little time as possible in the house so that I wouldn’t God forbid annoy my mother, who even when she was in a wheelchair didn’t get any special treatment from me.
One afternoon when I was on my way out to meet Amnon, Rachelika stopped me.
‘I have to go home,’ she said. ‘Stay with your mother until Becky comes.’
‘But I’ve got a test! I have to go round to my girlfriend’s to study.’
‘Invite your friend to come here to study.’
‘No!’ My mother’s voice, which was hardly ever heard in those days startled us both.
‘You’re not inviting anyone here. If you want to go, go, I don’t need you here to look after me.’
‘Luna,’ said Rachelika, ‘you can’t stay by yourself.’
‘I don’t need her to hold my hand. I don’t need Gabriella 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!’
‘Luna, don’t be angry, I haven’t seen Moise and the children for two days, I have to go home.’
‘Go wherever you like,’ said my mother and withdrew into herself again.
‘God forgive us,’ Rachelika wrung her hands. I had never seen my aunt so upset, but she quickly pulled herself together and instructed me, ‘You stay here next to your mother and don’t move. I’m just going home for a few minutes, I’ll be right back, and don’t you dare leave your mother alone for a single second.’
She turned round and left, and I remained to my dread alone with my mother. You could have cut the air with a knife. My mother with a sour, angry face sitting in her wheelchair and me standing in the middle of the room like an idiot. At that moment I would have done anything 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,’ said my mother.
What? My mother was asking me to sit with her alone in the room together?
‘I want to ask you for something.’
I tensed. My mother never asked me for anything, only gave me orders.
‘I want to ask you not to bring any boyfriends or girlfriends here. I don’t want any strangers in the house until the day I die.’
‘You die?’ I was in such a panic that the only way I could dismiss what she had said was to retort with words that even I could not believe came out of my mouth: ‘You’ll still bury us all.’
‘Don’t worry, Gabriella, it will be you that buries me,’ she said quietly.
The room was too small to hold both of us.
‘Mother, you should give thanks to God. There are people who get cancer and die right away. God loves you, you’re can talk, you can see, you’re alive.’
‘You call this living?’ my mother sniggered sarcastically. ‘My enemies should live like this. It’s a living death.’
‘You’re the one who chose to live like this,’ I said. ‘If you wanted to you could get dressed, put on make-up and go out.’
‘Right,’ she snapped. Go out in a wheelchair.’
‘Your friend, the one with red hair, who lay next to you in Hadassah with a war wound, he was in a wheelchair, and I remember that he was always smiling.’
My mother looked at me as if she couldn’t believe her ears.
‘You remember him?’ she asked quietly.
‘Sure I remember him, he would seat me on his knees and turn his wheelchair round and round, like the bumping cars in the Luna Park.’
‘Luna Park,’ murmured my mother, ‘the ghost train.’ And suddenly she burst into tears, signaling me with her hand to leave the room and leave her alone.
I couldn’t get out of there quickly enough. The almost intimate conversation between us was hard enough to take. The only thing approaching a mother and daughter conversation we had ever had, and it too ended in tears.
She wept in a keening voice, rising and falling, and I shut my ears in my room. I couldn’t bear the sound of her despairing weeping, her desperate lament. I didn’t have the heart to go to her and take her in my arms to comfort her.
Many years later I regretted that moment. Instead of my heart opening it closed. I lay on the cold floor of my bedroom, stopped my ears with my hands and cried out silently to God: Shut her up, please God, shut her up. And God foolishly heard my prayer and shut her up. That same night the wailing of an ambulance rose in the air and it stopped with a screech of its brakes at our door. Four sturdy men climbed the fifty four stairs to the top floor, laid my mother on a stretcher and took her to the hospital. On the operating table the surgeons discovered to their horror that my mother’s whole body was eaten away from inside.
‘It’s over,’ my father told me, ‘there’s nothing the doctors can do, your mother is going to die.’
Many years after her death, when I found a place in my heart for my mother, my aunt Rachelika told me the secret of her anguish, the pain that never abated, but by then it was already too late to repair what was broken between my mother and me.
I am a woman of autumn, a yellow autumn leaf. I was born at autumn’s end, two steps from winter.
In my childhood I would wait for the first rain and the blooming of the squills, and I would run into the fields, roll around in the wet grass, press my face to the earth and breathe in the smell of the rain. I collected tortoises and stroked their hard shells with my slender fingers, I rescued sparrows’ nests fallen from the trees, I picked crocuses and meadow saffron, and followed the snails that flooded the fields with the first rains.
I would disappear for hours, and my mother, who was sure I was with Grandma and Grandpa, never looked for me. When I came home covered in the wet earth sticking to my clothes, with a frightened tortoise in my hands, she would glare at me with her green eyes and say with a hiss that sounded like the echo of a slap: ‘Strangest of creatures, how? How did I give birth to a girl like you?’
I didn’t know how she had given birth to a girl like me either. She was so thin and fragile, always dressed in well-cut outfits that emphasized her narrow waist and shod in shoes with stiletto heels, like the pictures in the journals at the dressmaker’s, Sarah, who copied the clothes of Hollywood movie stars for her.
Once Mother had exactly the same dresses made for herself and for me, the same material and style. She would dress me in the dress, warn me over and over not to get dirty, tie a ribbon matching the dress on my red hair, clean my patent leather shoes with spit, and the two of us would go hand-in-hand to Café Atara which was near our house in Ben Yehuda street. But after I dirtied the dresses again and again and failed to treat them with the proper respect, she stopped. And she stopped buying me patent leather shoes and lace socks too.
‘What kind of a girl are you? A little savage! You’ll never be a lady. Sometimes I think you were born in the Kurdish quarter,’ she would say to me and it was the worst thing she could have said to me, because my mother hated the Kurds more than anyone.
I didn’t understand why she hated Kurds. Even Grandma Rosa didn’t hate them. Definitely not like she hated the English. I never heard her say: ‘Damn the Kurds to hell.’ But whenever anyone mentioned the English who were in the country before I was born she would always, but always, say: ‘Damn the Ingelish to hell.’
It was well known that Grandma Rosa hated the English from the time of the British Mandate when her little brother Ephraim disappeared for years and lived underground when he was in the Stern Gang underground organization.
My mother, on the other hand, had nothing against the English. On the contrary, I often heard her saying that it was a pity they had ever left the country. ‘Maybe if the English had stayed, the Kurds wouldn’t have come.’
I actually liked the Kurds a lot, especially the Barazani family who lived in the other half of Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Only a thin fence separated the two yards, and once a week Mrs. Barazani would light a fire in the outdoor oven in her yard and bake a delicious pastry filled with bubbling cheese and until my mother threatened to beat me black and blue if I approached the Barazani side, I would wait for the moment when ‘the Kurdit ’ as Grandma called her, invited me to sit on the ground with them round the taboon and enjoy the pastry which tasted like heaven.
Mr. Barazani wore a big dress – ‘like the Arabs in the Old City’ my mother would say – and a turban on his head and he would laugh with his toothless mouth and sit me on his lap and talk to me in words I didn’t understand.
‘Papokta, where did your mother buy you – in the Mahaneh Yehuda market?’ Mrs. Barazani would laugh. ‘Because you and she can’t be from the same family.’
Only years later my aunt Becky told me that our family had a long account to settle with the Kurds.
My aunt Becky was the daughter of Grandpa and Grandma Ermosa’s old age, and she loved me like a little sister. She looked after me and spent far more time with me than my mother. I was also her alibi when she went to meet her boyfriend Eli Cohen, who was as handsome as Alain Delon. Every afternoon handsome Eli Cohen would drive up on his shiny black motorbike and whistle the tune of ‘On the hilltop stands a flower’. Aunt Becky would go out to the yard, send him a signal, and then drag me outside with her shouting to Grandma Rosa, ‘I’m taking Gabriella to the playground.’ And before Grandma Rosa had a chance to reply we were next to the stairs where handsome Eli Cohen was waiting for us. Becky would seat me between the two of them, and he would drive along Agrippas street to King George street, and whenever we passed the modest building opposite ‘Tzila’, the perfume shop where my mother bought eau-de-cologne and rouge, Becky would say ‘There’s our Knesset.’ And once we even saw Ben-Gurion coming out of our Knesset and walking in the direction of Hillel street, and handsome Eli Cohen rode after him on his motorbike. And we saw him go into the Eden Hotel, where Becky told me he slept when he was in our Knesset, in our Jerusalem. After we saw Ben-Gurion, handsome Eli Cohen turned round and rode back to King George street. ‘Eli! You’re driving like a madman!’ Becky yelled, but he didn’t listen to her and raced the motorbike past Hamaaloth street and stopped at the entrance to the city park. And there we followed the usual procedure: they would send me to swing on the swings and slide down the slide, while they kissed until it was evening and almost dark. And only then when the park emptied of the children and mothers and I remained alone in the sandpit, handsome Eli Cohen would take us home on his motorbike with me squeezed between him and Becky. And Mother who came to pick me up would yell at Aunt Becky, ‘Where the hell have you been with the child? I looked for you all over Jerusalem!’ and Becky would answer her: ‘If instead of sitting in Café Atara all day long you would take her to the playground yourself, then maybe I could have studied for my test at the teachers seminar tomorrow, so say thank you!’
And my mother would straighten her well-cut skirt, pat her hairdo into place, examine her red nail polish and mutter under her breath: ‘Philistine! Go to Gaza and Ashkelon!’ And then she would take my hand and take me home.
Aunt Becky got engaged to handsome Eli Cohen in the Palace Café. It was a fine party with tables laden with delicacies and a singer who sang Yisrael Yitzhaki songs. Aunt Becky was as beautiful as Gina Lollobrigida, and handsome Eli Cohen was as handsome as Alain Delon, and when we had a family photograph taken with the engaged couple Grandpa Gabriel sat in the center, surrounded by the whole family, and I sat on my father’s shoulders and saw everyone from above. That was the last picture of Grandpa Gabriel, because five days later he died.
And only after he died, during the shiva, when my mother kept on fainting from crying so much and they had to splash water on her face to wake her up, and Grandma Rosa kept on saying, ‘Basta, Luna! Pull yourself together so we won’t have another tragedy here!’ And Tia Allegra, Grandpa Gabriel’s sister, said, ‘Gabriel, may he rest in peace, not only doesn’t she cry for him herself, she won’t even let her daughter faint over him.’ Becky chose that moment to announce the date of her wedding to handsome Eli Cohen, and everyone said ‘Mazaltov, but you have to wait a year out of respect for Gabriel,’ and Becky said that there was no chance she would wait a year, because if she waited she would be too old to have children, and Tia Allegra said: ‘God forgive us. Gabriel, what kind of daughters did you raise that won’t even give the respect of the year.’
And my mother recovered from her faint to whisper: ‘Thank God she’s getting married at last, I was beginning to think she would die an old maid,’ and then an uproar broke out and Aunt Becky ran after my mother with the sapatos and threatened to kill her if she ever called her an old maid again, and my mother said, ‘What can I do, querida, it’s a fact, at your age I was already a mother.’ And Aunt Becky ran out of the house and I ran after her down the steps of Agrippas street until we reached the graveyard of the ‘Wollach’ hospital and she sat down on the cemetery wall and sat me down next to her, and suddenly she burst into loud tears.
‘Oy, papo, papo, why did you leave us, papo? What will we do without you?’ and suddenly she stopped crying and turned to me and hugged me tightly and said to me: ‘You know, Gabriella, everyone says that Grandpa Gabriel loved your mother Luna more than any of us, but I never felt that he loved me less. Grandpa Gabriel had a heart of gold and that’s why everyone took advantage of him. And you, my beauty, don’t you ever let anyone take advantage of you, you hear? You’ll find yourself a boy like my Eli and marry him and be happy, right, my good little girl? Don’t look to the right or to the left, as soon as you meet a boy like Eli and you feel the love here in your heart.’
She took my hand and put it on her body between her lovely breasts, ‘Here, Gabriella, you’ll feel the love right here, and when you feel it you’ll know that you have found your Eli and you’ll marry him. And now let’s go home, before Grandpa Gabriel gets mad at me for running away from his shiva.’
In the end Aunt Becky waited until the year of mourning was over and only then she married handsome Eli Cohen at the Palace Café, where they had held their engagement party. I was dressed in a white dress and sent to walk in front of the bride and scatter candies together with my cousin Boaz, Aunt Rachelika’s eldest son, who was born a few months before me and was dressed up in a bridegroom’s suit and a bowtie.
Mother and her middle sister Rachelika did everything together. They even decided on my bridesmaid’s dress and Boaz’s suit together. When Rachelika wasn’t at home in Usishkin street she was at my mother’s, and when my mother wasn’t at our house in Ben Yehuda street she was at my aunt’s place.
After Grandpa’s death Grandma Rosa remained alone in their big house. Once in a while she would come to visit us or go to visit her other daughters. She would always arrive with chocolate and liquorish, and she always had fascinating stories to tell about the days when she had worked in the Ingelishmen’s houses.
‘Enough of those stories already!’ my mother would say crossly, ‘It’s not such a great honor to clean Englishmen’s toilets.’
And Grandma would retort: ‘It’s not such a big disgrace either! I wasn’t born like you, a princess with a golden spoon in her mouth, I had to feed my brother Ephraim too, and besides, I learnt a lot from the Ingelish.’
‘What, what did you learn from the Ing-e-lish?’ my mother would say in mocking drawl, drawing out the word as long as she could. ‘Apart from which how many times do I have to tell you: we say English, not Ingelish.’
Grandma ignored my mother’s mockery and answered quietly: ‘I learned how to set the table. I learned Ingelish. I speak Ingelish better than you who went to an Ingelish school and to this day your Ingelish sounds like my troubles.’
‘Me? I don’t know English?!’ My mother would flare up. ‘I read English journals, I don’t even read the translation in movies, I understand everything!’
‘Good, good, we know all about you, you understand everything except for one thing, the most important thing. Respect and manners. That’s what you don’t understand, Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.’
And my mother would flounce out of the kitchen and leave me with Grandma Rosa, who would sit me on her lap and say to me, ‘Remember, Gabriella, there is no work that does not honor the person who does it, if some day God forbid you find yourself in a position, tfu, tfu, tfu, when you have no alternative, cleaning Ingelishmen’s toilets is not a disgrace.’
I liked being with Grandma Rosa. She was a wonderful storyteller and I was an excellent listener.
‘Before you were born, long, long before you were born, Gabriella querida, our Jerusalem was like abroad. They had a band in the Café Europa in Zion Square, and people danced the tango, and on the veranda of the King David Hotel they had five o’clock tea with a pianist, and people drank coffee from delicate porcelain cups, and the Arab waiters, may God curse them, wore frockcoats and bowties, and they served chocolate cake with whipped and strawberries, and the gentlemen would come in white suits and straw boaters and the ladies in hats and dresses like at their horse races in Ingeland.’
But my grandmother, as I discovered many hears later, had never been in the Europa Café or the King David Hotel in her life. She told me what she had heard from the people whose houses she cleaned, she told me her dreams, dreams which came true years later, when her rich brother Nick, whom Grandma called Nissim, came to Jerusalem on a visit from America. And the whole family would go to the veranda of the King David Hotel where he was staying, and he would invite everyone to coffee and cake, and when the pianist played I would steal a glance at my grandmother who was dressed in her best, and see the gleam of pleasure in her eyes and the rare expression of satisfaction on her face.
Grandma Rosa’s life had been a hard one, she was married to a man who treated her with respect but never loved her in the way a man loves a woman. All her life long she never knew true love, but she never complained, she never cried. Even at Grandpa Gabriel’s shiva, when rivers of tears flowed down the cheeks of my mother and sisters and threatened to drown Jerusalem, she never shed a tear, and the only times she ever smiled or even laughed were with me. Grandma Rosa never hugged. She didn’t like touching or being touched, but I would sit on her lap, wrap my little arms round her neck and plant kisses on her wrinkled cheek.
‘Enough, enough, Gabriella, basta, you’re bothering me,’ she would scold me and try to push me away, and I would ignore her, taking hold of her rough hands and putting them round my body, forcing her to hug me.
After Grandpa’s death Grandma stopped inviting the family for Sabbath and holiday meals, and the macaroni hamin was cooked and eaten at our house. After the rich meal I would go home with Grandma and stay there until my mother or father came to fetch me. I liked the heavy wooden chests, the sideboards with the glass fronts behind which the china and crystal ware were arranged in exemplary order, and my mother’s, Rachelika’s and Becky’s wedding pictures in their silver frames. I liked the big photograph of Grandpa Gabriel hanging on the wall: Grandpa a handsome young man in a black suit and white shirt and matching tie, a white handkerchief peeping out of his jacket pocket, sitting up straight on a wooden chair, leaning his arms on a table, holding a rolled up newspaper in his hand. Grandma standing next to him, wearing a black dress buttoned up to the neck, a gold locket round her neck. The hem of her dress reaches almost to her ankles and she’s wearing black stockings and shiny shoes. She doesn’t touch my grandfather but holds the back of the chair. Grandpa’s features are well-cut, his eyes, his nose, his lips almost perfect. Grandma’s face is broad, her black hair seems stuck to her scalp, her eyes are wide open. They are not smiling, just staring solemnly at the camera. How old are they? Grandpa perhaps twenty-one? Grandma sixteen?
On the opposite wall was a large oil painting depicting a river surrounded by snow-topped mountains. There were sailing boats on the river and stone houses lining it. The two banks were connected by a bridge and over it all was a pure blue sky with light, feathery clouds.
I liked the heavy round table covered with a lace cloth, in the middle of which stood a big bowl which was always laden with fruit, and the upholstered chairs standing round the table, and the broad, dark red sofa, upon which were set in exemplary order the tapestry cushions embroidered by Grandma, and the wall carpets which each told a different story. I especially liked the wooden wardrobe with the carvings of lions on top. The wardrobe which had mirror doors stood in Grandma’s bedroom, which was separate from Grandpa’s. I would stand in front of the mirror for hours, imagining that I was Sandra Ray who kissed Troy Donahue and lived happily ever after with him. I liked the courtyard too which was partially covered with a tile roof that gave it shade in the summer, and surrounded by an iron fence with purple bougainvillea growing on it and lined with geraniums in tins painted white. IN the yard were stools and the wicker chair padded with cushions where Grandpa Gabriel liked to sit in the evening, and next to it a wooden table on which Grandma served supper. After Grandpa’s death his chair turned into a memorial monument and nobody sat on it any more.
The yard was my kingdom. I would sit on a stool staring at the sky and waiting for a rainbow, because once I asked Grandma Rosa what God was and she told me that God was a rainbow. When I wasn’t staring at the sky I would imagine that I was a movie star like the Hollywood actresses my mother so admired. In our Jerusalem they filmed the movie ‘Exodus’ and Paul Newman the star of the movie, who my mother said was even handsomer than handsome Eli Cohen, stayed in the King David hotel. Every afternoon my mother would take me by the hand and walk to the hotel entrance in the hope of seeing Paul Newman. After a few days without catching sight of him we crossed the street to the YMCA. My mother bought tickets for five grush and we climbed to the top of the tower which was the highest in Jerusalem. ‘From there,’ she said, ‘nobody will be able to hide Paul Newman from me.’
But we didn’t see him from there either, because whenever he arrived at the King David his black motorcar drove right up to the revolving glass doors of the hotel, and he slipped through them without casting a glance at the people who had come especially to see him.
In the end my mother succeeded in seeing Paul Newman when she took part as an extra in the crowd scene which immortalized the moment of the declaration of the State of Israel and was shot in the Russian Compound. That morning she took the binoculars my father had bought to look at the birds on our walks in the Jerusalem hills. Even though she succeeded in seeing Paul Newman through the binoculars my mother was disappointed.
‘I saw him but he, nada, he didn’t see me, how could he from a kilometer away?’
My mother was convinced that if only Paul Newman saw her from close up he wouldn’t be able to resist her. Nobody could resist my mother. Someone should have told Paul Newman that she was the beauty queen of Jerusalem, but nobody told him, and my mother had to be content with seeing the film ‘Exodus’ every day when they showed it at the ‘Edison’ cinema, thanks to the usher Alberto who lay next to her wounded in the hospital during the war and who let us in for free.
My mother adored movie stars so much, especially Paul Newman and Joan Woodward, and Doris Day and Rock Hudson, that I dreamed of going to Hollywood one day, even though I didn’t know where Hollywood was, and coming back a famous movie star, and then she would stop calling me a savage and saying that I was weird and asking how on earth she had given birth to a girl like me.
Whenever Grandpa and Grandma’s yard was empty I would pretend that I was living in a movie. In the movie I was called Natalie, like Natalie Wood, and I would dance for hours in the arms of James Dean, and when James and I finished dancing I would bow to an imaginary audience. Once when I finished dancing I heard stormy applause and cries of Bravo, Bravo. I came to a stop in alarm and saw the whole neighborhood standing at the fence and watching my performance. Ashamed to the depths of my soul I ran into the house, straight into Grandpa’s room, and lay on his bed and buried my face in his pillow, my eyes full of tears of shame. Grandma Rosa who was a witness to the whole scene didn’t come after me. Only after some time, when I emerged from the room, she sat on her armchair in the living room, looked at me and said: ‘Gabriella querida, why are you ashamed? You dance so beautifully you should tell your parents to send you to study ballet with Rina Nikova.’
Of the whole family I was closet to Grandma Rosa. As long as Grandpa Gabriel was alive their house was the family center. There we all met on Friday night for Kiddush and dinner, and on Saturday morning for the huevos haminados that Grandma would fish out of the pot of the hamin, and we would eat them with cheese filled burekas and sutelatch, a sweet semolina pudding on which she would draw a Magen David with cinnamon.
After Saturday breakfast we would play in the yard. Mother, Rachelika and Becky would chat, and Father, Rachelika’s Moise and Becky’s handsome Eli Cohen would talk about football and they would always end up yelling because my father was a Jerusalem Hapoel fan and Moise and Eli supported Betar. And so the time would pass until lunchtime, when we would eat macaroni hamin and after that Grandpa would lie down for an afternoon nap, and so that we wouldn’t disturb him they would send us kids to lie down as well. Mother, Rachelika and Becky would go on chatting and Father, Moise and Eli would go round to Father’s sister Aunt Clara and her husband Yaakov, otherwise known as Jack the giant slayer, who lived in Lincoln street opposite the YMCA football field, where the Jerusalem Betar team played a match every Saturday afternoon. ‘Watching football from Yaakov and Clara’s balcony is better than sitting in the VIP grandstand,’ Uncle Moise would say.
My little brother Ronny and I gave Yaakov his nickname after seeing the movie ‘Jack the giant slayer’ about a hundred times at the Orna cinema, because Yitzhak the usher at the Orna had also lain wounded with my mother in the hospital during the war. ‘Lucky mom almost died in the War of Independence,’ Ronny would say, ‘or how would we get into the movies for free?’
After Grandpa died and Grandma stopped cooking and the tradition of Saturday macaroni hamin moved to our house instead of taking an afternoon nap we would all go to the Betar soccer match. From the street I could see that Aunt Clara’s balcony was about to collapse together with the hundred-million people, all family members, crowded onto it, and so I would take care not to walk underneath it but to keep to the other side of the street, next to the YMCA football field wall.
My father would go along with the rest of them to watch the Saturday football matches for free from Clara and Yaakov’s balcony, even though he hated Jerusalem Betar with all his heart, and he would curse the ‘sons of dogs’ and pray for them to lose and everyone would yell at him for bringing bad luck to their team.
Grandma Rosa never came with us to see the soccer match and she would go home straight after lunch. Sometimes I would go with her and while she took her afternoon nap I would rummage through all her drawers and hunt for treasure, and when she woke up she would be angry and scold me, ‘How many times have I told you not to put your hands where they don’t belong? You know what happened to the cat who put his hand into a drawer that didn’t belong to him? His hand got stuck and his fingers were cut off. Do you want to have a hand without fingers?’ And I was so frightened I would bury my hands deep in my pockets and vow that I would never put them where they didn’t belong again, but I never kept my vow.
Sometimes in the afternoon when my mother went to Café Atara or about some business of hers, Grandma Rosa would come to stay with me and Ronny, and I would sit with her and encourage her to tell me stories about times gone by before I was born, about the Ingelish and about Grandpa Gabriel’s shop in the Mahaneh Yehuda market, and Grandpa’s black motorcar, in which they would drive to the Dead Sea and to Tel Aviv, and about the time when they lived in a building with an elevator opposite the Yeshurun synagogue in King George street, and how the whole family came to see the bathtub with the two taps, one for hot water and one for cold, like the ones in the homes of the Englishmen she cleaned.
I would ask a lot of questions and Grandma would say that I had swallowed a radio and that I was giving her a headache, but you could see that she enjoyed telling me things that she many never have told anyone else.
And one day she sat on Grandpa Gabriel’s chair for the first time since he died and she said: ‘Gabriella querida, your grandmother is already old, she has already seen many things in her life. I’ve had a hard life, my mother and father died in the cholera epidemic we had here in our Jerusalem, and we were left orphans. I was ten years old, like you are now, Gabriella, and Ephraim, may he rest in peace, was five. He was the only one I had left: my brother Nissim fled to America even before the Turks, God damn them to hell, hanged our brother Rahamim at the Nablus Gate because he didn’t want to join up with their army. We had nothing to eat and no clothes to wear, and every day I would go to the market, after they closed down, to collect what was left on the floor. Tomatoes, cucumbers, maybe a bit of bread. I had to take care of Ephraim and I went to work cleaning the Ingelish houses, and there the madams would feed me and I would eat half and take half home for Ephraim.
‘And then when I was sixteen Nona Merceda may she rest in peace married me to her son, may he rest in peace, your grandfather Gabriel, and suddenly my life changed. Gabriel was very rich and handsome, all the girls in Jerusalem wanted Gabriel and out of all of them Merceda chose me. Why she chose me, a poor orphan girl, I found out only after muchos anios, many years, but then I didn’t ask any questions. I knew Gabriel from the shop in the market, every Friday I would go to get the cheese and olives that he and his father, Signor Raphael may he rest in peace, distributed to the poor. Who could have dreamt that he would be my husband? That I would be the mother of his daughters? What chance did I have, an orphan from the Shmaya quarter, with no family and no pedigree, to come anywhere near the Ermosa family? And all of a sudden, out of the blue, she picked me over all the girls in Jerusalem to be her son’s bride. Dio santo, I thought I was dreaming, and even though she told me I could take some time to think about it, I said ‘yes’ straight away and my life changed beyond recognition. Suddenly I had a house, suddenly I had clothes, I had food, I had a family. Not that everything was rosy, a lot of things were even as black as sin, but I didn’t care as long as I no longer had to clean the Ingelish houses and Ephraim could live like a human being with food to eat and clothes to wear. As long as I had a new family to replace the family I had lost: 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.
‘Gabriella mi alma, I am an old woman and soon I will die, and after I die you will be the only one who misses me. My daughters, God bless them, will shed a few tears and carry on with their lives. That’s human nature, time passes, people forget. But you, querida, you don’t forget. Not like your mother who has a memory like a bird, one minute she says something and the next minute she forgets what she said. I noticed it when you were still a baby, you never shut your mouth, hablastina de la Palestina, asking questions all the time, you wanted to swallow the whole world. Now, querida mia, I’ll tell you about your grandfather Gabriel and about our family and how from rich people who lived in a house with an elevator and a bathtub, who had the finest shop in the Mahaneh Yehuda market, we turned into paupers who didn’t even have the money to buy wine for kiddush on Friday nights.
‘Everything I know I was told by your grandfather Gabriel who would tell me the family history as he had heard it from his father Raphael, may he rest in peace. After Raphael died Gabriel vowed to go on telling his sons and his sons’ sons the story of the family from the day they came here from Toledo, after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, may their souls burn in the fires of hell, expelled the Jews from Spain to the Land of Israel. And since Gabriel and I, may God forgive us our sins, had no sons but only daughters, he would tell the story over and over again 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 is in the clouds and her memory, God help us, doesn’t bear talking about. So come, mi alma, come bonita, sit on you old grandmother’s lap and listen to what I heard tell by Grandpa Gabriel.’
And I did as she said. I climbed onto her knees, cuddled into her lap, closed my eyes and breathed in her warm, familiar smell, which had the sweetness of sutelatch and rosewater. My grandmother played with a lock of my hair, twisting it round her bony finger, sighed deeply, paused like you do before saying something important, and continued her story as if she was telling it to herself and not to me.