Just the Jasmine
By Ricky Rapoport Friesem
The braying woke her. The same loud, rasping noise had greeted her every morning since her arrival in Tel Aviv two weeks earlier. By now she knew the unfamiliar sound was a donkey’s braying. That first morning in her uncle and aunt’s apartment, she had been convinced it was someone pumping water, or maybe even oil, right under her bedroom window. Why not? Everything was going to be different here in Eretz Yisrael, Sarah smiled to herself. Here, anything was possible.
With a sigh, she snuggled deeper into the canvas-covered straw mattress. It had taken some getting used to. Back home in Kobryn, her bed was soft, the fine cotton sheets ironed smooth by the maid who helped her mother run the house. But this bed, rough and lumpy though it was, had already begun to conform to the contours of her body. She had struggled against the newness at first, and then, given in. Now they were one. Its hollows and her curves. Give and take. Livnot v’lihibanot ba. To build the land and be built by her. Wasn’t that what the pioneer’s song said?
Sarah stretched out full length and closed her eyes. The window over her bed was open, letting in a soft breeze with just a hint of the sea. The thought of the sea filled her with joy. Joy that she, Sarah Katz, from frozen White Russia, actually lived within five minutes of that incredibly blue and warm wonder. She let the breeze caress her face and lift her thin cotton nightgown ever so slightly, like a sail catching a hint of wind. In Kobryn there’s probably still snow on the ground, she was thinking, suffused with the sheer pleasure of the Mediterranean morning.
“Sarah, it’s late. Avram’s waiting,” her Aunt Dora’s commanding voice rang out, pronouncing her name with the doctrinaire emphasis on the last syllable.
Avram. Her body convulsed as it had seven hours earlier when she had felt her uncle’s hand grope towards her under the summer coverlet. Instinctively, her knees had snapped to her chest, as she drew herself into the fetal position, as far as possible away from the side of the bed where Avram had seated himself. Had it really happened? Avram? Uncle Avram? The Zionist ideologue, the local hero whose eagerly-awaited letters from British-mandated Palestine were eagerly passed from hand to hand back in Kobryn? Sarah shuddered. She would never be able to tell anyone. No one would believe her.
Avram was sitting at his usual place at the head of the table, absorbed in dipping a tea bag up and down, into a tall glass of hot water. He looked up as she walked in. His Charlie Chaplin moustache was fringed with white from the labeneh he had just eaten.
He looks ridiculous, Sarah thought with satisfaction. Avram intercepted her glance with a bold stare.
“Boker tov. Good Morning, Sarah,” he called out. “What do you think, you’re still in Kobryn?
Here we start early. Remember? Yalla. We leave in five minutes.”
Sarah headed for the kitchen to make a sandwich for her lunch at the dairy which Avram managed and where he had found her a job. The very sight of him now was enough to make her want to throw up. She planned to sweep right past him, face averted. But in the split second it took to execute her decision, Sarah found herself nodding to her uncle.
By the time she’d reached the shelter of the kitchen, Sarah knew that she had to move out of the apartment immediately. She wasn’t made for this game. She should have confronted her uncle at the breakfast table, stopped this Jekyll and Hyde charade. What did he think? That he could pretend it never happened? And here she was, nodding to him politely.
That very afternoon at the dairy, she approached the good-looking young supervisor who had been flirting with her from the moment they had been introduced. “Listen, Moshe, maybe you can help me. I have a problem.”
“Sure, sure,” he responded eagerly, not waiting for her to continue.
“Moshe, I’ve got to move. Living with my aunt and uncle isn’t working out. It’s just too crowded. Maybe you know of someone with a room for rent?”
“Give me a little time,” he replied. “I’m sure I’ll come up with something.”
And he did, the very next day. “It couldn’t be better, with Uncle Max dying and all!” Moshe exclaimed, as they set out after work. He caught himself and added hastily. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounds. You know what I mean. Aunt Fruma must be very lonely. It’s just perfect.”
Perfect it isn’t, Sarah thought. Truth was she was scared. Everything was happening too fast.
Yesterday she had been relieved. Today, striding beside this virtual stranger, she was in turmoil. What do I actually know about him? That he’s soft-spoken and has a nice smile?
She had succumbed so quickly to his purposefulness. And now, as they headed down the shaded sidewalk of Rothschild Boulevard, she felt she was being dragged into this stranger’s life. She pictured herself as a puppet on a string, dangling from Moshe’s broad, suntanned hands. For an instant, the vision of her uncle’s pale freckled hands rose before her. She shuddered and drew closer to Moshe. She let herself imagine Moshe’s muscled arms encircling her. Those bronzed hands cupping her breasts. And she wanted him to. And yet, at the very same time, a chill of revulsion ran up her spine. What’s happening to me? she wondered.
The enormous flame trees on Rothschild Boulevard were in full bloom. In the short time she had lived in Tel Aviv, Sarah had come to love those flamboyant trees almost as much as the white birches that were an inseparable part of the landscape of her childhood. She had discovered the tree-lined boulevard on one of her first outings, drawn there by an overwhelming fragrance that she later discovered was the scent of the jasmine lining the paths. So unlike anything she had seen in Kobryn. And so like everything she had imagined Tel Aviv to be.
The calm that came with late afternoon had settled over the boulevard. The residents, who had taken shelter indoors from the damp, summer heat, now ventured forth to enjoy the cool breeze coming in from the sea. The street was quiet, the voices muted, as if the nervous energy of daytime Tel Aviv had dissipated with the fading light. Moshe slowed his brisk pace, falling into step with the languorous strollers. They walked in silence, Moshe seemingly totally absorbed in the task of guiding her to their destination.
Ninety-two Rothschild Boulevard stood on a corner. A three-storey apartment building. Flat roof. Smooth white stucco finish. Long balconies stretching the entire length of each floor, a double row of tubular metal railings their only adornment. The angle where the east and north side of the building met had been rendered as a curve. The entrance was unassuming, slightly recessed and shaded by a jutting rectangle of concrete.
“This house was designed by Bernstein,” Moshe said proudly. “You know — one of the Bauhaus architects from Berlin?” he added, reacting to Sarah’s blank stare.
It looks like Dora and Avram’s new icebox, Sarah thought, and responded with a noncommittal, “Oh.”
She followed Moshe meekly up the spotless terrazzo stairs. The stairwell was bathed by the grey-blue evening light, filtering in through two parallel rows of glass bricks which ran vertically down the front of the building. There was just enough light for Sarah to make out that this was a more luxurious apartment house than the one where Avram and Dora lived.
For the first time since Moshe had mentioned his Aunt Fruma, Sarah allowed herself to think about her prospective landlady. I hope she’s not as serious as her name sounds, she thought, nervously smoothing her skirt and wind-blown hair. And, please, let there be shades on the light bulbs and a rug on the floor. Moshe rang the buzzer.
“Who is it?” a breathless voice called out.
“It’s me, Moshe, Tante Fruma.”
“Oh, Moshe, eyn minut. Ich kum. Ich kum. One minute, I’m coming.”
The tap-tap of rapid footsteps. A lock turned twice, and the door opened. The light from the apartment spilled into the hallway. A small, fine-featured woman, with a head of thick, gray hair pulled back loosely into a bun, looked up at her visitors.
“I was expecting you earlier,” she said reproachfully.
“I’m sorry, Tante,” Moshe apologized. “It was such a lovely, cool evening, we took our time.
Tante, this is Sarah.”
“Another Kobryner,” Fruma responded, ignoring Sarah’s outstretched hand and giving her a warm hug instead. “We’re almost landsmen. I’m from Malch.
Sarah felt a surge of relief. Silently she reproached Moshe for not telling her that his family hailed from the same part of White Russia.
“We’ll have plenty of time to talk about the old country, won’t we, Sarahle?” The elderly woman leaned towards Sarah conspiratorially and steered her towards a small, white-painted table set for three.
Sarah looked up at Moshe, raising her eyebrows in a wordless question. He shrugged in a gesture of helplessness and motioned for her to sit.
“I’ll be right back,” chirped Aunt Fruma, exiting towards what presumably was the kitchen. The bird-like tap of her shoes echoed down the hallway.
Fruma’s chatter had momentarily lightened Sarah’s mood. Now the heaviness settled again. The apartment, though much larger than Dora and Avram’s, reflected the same commitment to a rigid asceticism. Spotlessly clean and bare. No rugs. Unadorned light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. An uninviting, straight-backed, olive-green sofa against one whitewashed living room wall.
Next to the sofa was a little alcove in which hung two large oval-framed sepia photographs, side by side. For a brief moment, Sarah thought that they were her own Bobeh Sheindel and Zaide Mordechai, so similar where they to the portraits of her grandparents that hung in the dining room in Kobryn. Now, seated across from the alcove, she could see that Aunt Fruma’s ancestors bore no real resemblance to her own. It was the soft blur of sepia and the stolid stare imposed by the studio photographer that had succeeded in creating what at first looked like a matching set of ancestors. As did her longing.
The only other adornment on the wide expanse of wall was an olivewood-framed certificate.
Sarah got up to examine it more closely. It was in Russian. Boris Zaretzky had graduated as an engineer from the Technical Institute in Minsk.
“Your uncle?” Sarah asked. Moshe nodded. The certificate confirmed the conclusions she had already drawn. The spare, unadorned harshness of this interior was the political statement of an East European intellectual. Notwithstanding the alcove of homage to their shtetl past, the Zaretzkys, like all the landsmen whom Sarah had met in Palestine, were determined to wipe clean the slate of their bourgeois past. Aunt Fruma’s Spartan lifestyle was not prompted by poverty. Poor people didn’t live on Rothschild Boulevard, and they didn’t have telephones. Sarah’s eyes had been drawn to the black apparatus that stood on a spindly legged table under Boris Zaretzky’s graduation certificate. Next to cars, telephones were the most coveted status symbol in this brave new world. And almost as rare. To warrant a telephone, Zaretzky must have been a high official in the all-powerful Soviet-style Histadrut labor union. In fact, thanks to Uncle Avram, Sarah herself now carried a Histadrut union card, a prerequisite for her job at the dairy. And she had been told that without Avram’s influence, his protekzia, she might still be waiting for that coveted passport to proletarian legitimacy.
Sara suddenly became aware of the clatter of pots in the kitchen.
“I’ll go and help your aunt,” she said, rising, and Moshe smiled approvingly.
Just then, Aunt Fruma reappeared, a platter of shnitzel in one hand, a bowl of boiled potatoes in the other. “I wanted to make them at the last minute, so they’d be fresh and hot for our special guest,” she said as she crossed the room. “Moishele,” she continued, motioning for Sarah to sit down. “Do me a favor. There’s a salad on the counter. Could you bring it please?”
Sarah suppressed the urge to head for the door. This was all wrong. All she wanted was a room.
“Zitz, sit, my child”
Sarah sat down meekly. Fruma chatted cheerfully throughout the meal, asking questions, not waiting for answers. Sarah wasn’t listening anyway. She was thinking how she could politely get out of this situation without hurting this lonely and well-meaning woman — and without upsetting Moshe.
Suddenly she heard Fruma say, “So, don’t you want to see your room?”
No, she thought. I’ve changed my mind. Thank you. No, I don’t. I want to run. Far. To the beach. Out to sea. But instead she heard herself answering politely, “Oh yes, please.”
“Moishele, just put the leftovers in the icebox,” Fruma called over her shoulder as she pulled
Sarah after her down the narrow hallway.
A rectangular room with a shuttered window.
“It opens to the kitchen balcony,” Fruma explained, anticipating Sarah’s question. The narrow cot set against the wall was covered by a beige and maroon striped coverlet with a rough homespun texture. A glass-enclosed bookcase took up the entire wall opposite. It was filled with a disorganized array of books, some piled high, some leaning at precarious angles, many frayed. The comfortable disorder spoke of someone who had given each title loving attention.
“Boris loved to read.” Fruma said, anticipating the question Sarah was formulating. “So many books. Newspapers. Always reading. I’ve given some away. But not anything from this room.” She dabbed her nose with her apron. “I couldn’t bear to touch anything here.”
Great, Sarah thought. I’ll be sleeping in a shrine. She felt sorry for Fruma, but even more than that, she felt trapped. Maybe she should raise the question of the rent. That would give her a way out. She could say, sorry, I just can’t pay that much, and then she’d be free.
“But where will I put my things?” she found herself asking. Fruma’s face fell.
“Oy, mein kind. How stupid of me. I didn’t even think of that. You know what? I’ll buy a cupboard. Why not? I haven’t bought a thing since Boris died. Tomorrow, you’ll come with me to Herzl Street. We’ll choose it together.”
Sarah stood by the door, rooted.
“So what do you think?” Sarah could feel Moshe behind her, even before he spoke. It was as if he radiated some kind of static electricity that drew her to his body.
“Great, Moshe. Great. It’ll be okay. Except that I’ll have to get a cupboard.”
Not a word had been said about money.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then. And thank you for the lovely supper,” was all Sarah said as Moshe steered her out of the apartment.
They descended the stairs to the street. Sarah let herself be pushed gently as they cut diagonally across the boulevard, Moshe’s firm hand still steering her. She had slowed just enough so that he would have to press a little harder. Sarah wondered if he could feel her response.
“Here, Sarah, let’s sit here.” Moshe chose a bench under one of the luxuriant flame trees. It was dark, the light from the half-moon obscured by the thick foliage.
Sarah practically fell onto the bench. The strain of the evening had exhausted her.
“Moshe,” she began, “I can’t . . .”
“Shh,” he interrupted, and before she could say another word, he bent over and muffled her mouth with a kiss. She wanted to tell him it was all wrong. That Aunt Fruma was a sweet woman, but she didn’t want to be adopted by her. She already had a mother, a family. She hadn’t come to Palestine to be taken in by this needy widow.
Instead, Sarah found herself melting into Moshe’s embrace. Her mouth opened to swallow his kisses. Her rigid body relaxed. She felt warm, protected. Then why were her eyes filling with tears?
“What’s the matter?” Moshe whispered gently, as she pushed him away.
She turned her head in a wordless signal to Moshe to drop the question. He reached down, in the shadows, to unbutton her blouse. She wanted to help him, but instead she sighed and rose abruptly from the bench.
“What was that about?” Moshe could not hide the hurt in his voice. She had not been aware that her sigh was audible. “Don’t worry about Aunt Fruma. I’m sure it’ll work out.”
“No, no, it isn’t that. It’s just the jasmine,” she found herself saying.
“The jasmine?” he asked uncomprehendingly.
Sarah couldn’t believe she had said it. The jasmine? The word had just popped out. Jasmine. A word that had entered her vocabulary only two short weeks before. Sarah had tried to describe the scent in a letter to her mother. Sweet, she had written, and then crossed it out. Sweet was too cloying. Heady? Yes, heady was better, but not enough. Sad, she had wanted to write — and joyous. Sad and joyous at the same time. She couldn’t write that. It didn’t make sense. She herself didn’t understand it. Sarah pondered the jasmine now as she had, on occasion, pondered God. Moving in her mind through a long corridor. Opening and closing doors. On and on until she came up against a wall. Blank. Nothing. She couldn’t describe jasmine or fathom jasmine or explain why she had blurted out “jasmine.”
All she knew was that the overpowering scent of jasmine suffusing the Tel Aviv night was breaking her heart.