It had always been Amy’s story. As far back as she could remember, when she was six or seven or eight, her father, Hans, had told it to her when he tucked her in at night. He had told it at family gatherings, at dinner parties in their Park Avenue apartment, at his B’nai Brith meetings. Amy came to realize that her father told the story because he wanted her to understand her origins and her history – and also his. After all, what proud Zionist – even one who’d left Israel for America – wouldn’t want to brag that Golda Meir used to braid his daughter’s hair?
Even though there were things in the story Amy remembered, or thought she did, she was never entirely certain how much of the story was true, and how much Hans had invented. Still, as she grew up, she told the story to her friends, and then to her boyfriends. And why not? Even if there were embellishments – more, she knew, with each telling and retelling — it was an exciting story. It fit perfectly with Amy’s striking Levantine beauty – her olive skin, her dark hair, her deep brown eyes. The story defined Amy as not only one of the prettiest and smartest girls in the class, but also the most interesting, the most exotic. She learned that her story was guaranteed to liven up a dull party or a dull date. And she knew that the story explained why she always slept with her head burrowed under the pillow.
So it was natural that, when Amy took a creative writing class in her last semester in high school, for her final paper, she finally committed her story to writing. She was convinced she had produced the perfect combination of Hans’s family lore, her own distant memories and her eighteen-year-old’s idea of thrilling fiction. Her teacher thought so as well, returning the paper marked “A” and “Well done!” Just in time for her father’s fiftieth birthday, too. Excitedly, Amy put the six typed pages into a leather binder and gave it to Hans in his study the night before his party.
“Will you read it now, Abba?” Amy pleaded.
“Of course, Ayele,” Hans replied with the proud papa smile Amy knew so well. Then, with Amy sitting across from him, he opened the binder and read Amy’s story.
Ayelet had never seen snow before in all of her six years, so her father woke her up when the plane landed in Gander for refueling on the way to New York, and took her down to the tarmac to touch and feel it. Getting off the plane, shuffling through the strange white powder, scooping up a handful, cold in her small fingers, and then feeling it melt against her tongue was one of those memories of childhood that stayed with her for the rest of her life.
But it was not her first plane flight. She remembered that flight, too – or thought she did. It was in 1948, when she was just four, and she was the only passenger.
Ayelet had spent her whole life up to then living in Jerusalem — Eternal Jerusalem, City of David, City of Peace. It was in Jerusalem, with its gleaming white stone walls, domes and towers, wide boulevards and narrow stepped backstreets, amidst cedars, palms and olive trees, that her parents had met, ten years before Ayelet was born. Her father, Hans, had come to Palestine from Munich in 1934 as a committed Zionist, to take a job in the Jerusalem branch of a German Jewish trading company. The Nazis would shut down the firm two years later, but the Jerusalem branch continued on and so did Hans. Ayelet’s mother, Gavriela, was a sabra, born in Palestine, the daughter of sefardi immigrants from Morocco. In 1934, she was a struggling young violinist.
As her father told the story, he had heard Gavriela playing Haydn trios, and he had been captivated. Hans would never say whether it was Gavriela’s dark eyes or the way she executed Haydn’s turns and trills that had thrilled him most. He had pursued and won her with champagne dinners at restaurants like those she’d only dreamed about as the child of a Moroccan Jewish family living in Jaffa, with gold, emerald and garnet earrings and necklaces like the few treasured heirlooms her mother had brought from Rabat, and with Swiss chocolates that were an indulgence she could never have afforded on a musician’s salary.
The young couple lived in a lovely garden apartment in leafy Rehavia and Hans rose in the firm. Gavriela stopped playing when the baby was born, but they named her Ayelet, which means “musical instrument” in Hebrew.
Ayelet’s first four years were idyllic: every morning, her mother brushed her rich brown hair and put it in braids, before sending her off to the gan yeladim or to play in the sandbox in the small park behind their apartment. In the afternoons, Ayelet went out with her mother in the big French-made pram, as the sun glinted off the stone walls of the Old City, the glorious Dome of the Rock and the minaret of the Al Aksa mosque a mile to the east, turning the Judean hills in the distance a luminous gold. Then she’d be brought home for a bath and her father’s return from work in time to read her a story and tuck her in before her parents went out for dinner, or dined by candlelight in the formal dining room, sometimes with dinner guests.
The apartment was filled with fresh flowers and sunlight during the day, and music and delectable aromas at dinnertime. The dinners were prepared by Serena, the Lebanese ozeret who came in five days a week. Ayelet remembered the scents and tastes of her lamb and chicken tagines, redolent with cumin, cinnamon and za’atar. And she loved her desserts, especially the knafeh, a luscious pudding made from butter, ricotta and fresh goat’s milk mixed with pistachios and topped with crisp philo pastry. It was a carefree childhood anyone would cherish.
Until the shooting started. Shortly before Ayelet’s fourth birthday, there was great news: in a place called Lake Success, where Hans’s relatives in America lived, something called the United Nations had approved a partition plan for Palestine; Ayelet’s family would be living in a new Jewish nation called Israel. But soon, the news was not so wonderful: the new nation was at war. Before long, the road leading west out of Jerusalem was blocked, cutting off supplies to the Jewish parts of the city. Ayelet was kept home in the apartment for days on end – no more trips to the park, no walks in the pram with her mother. Food was rationed and Serena could not reach their apartment from East Jerusalem, so the meals became skimpier, whatever Gavriela could heat up from cans and the few fruits and vegetables brought in by the armed convoys that occasionally made it through the siege. No more fresh-baked desserts and no more knafeh; what little milk could be obtained was given to Ayelet to drink. And no more music at night.
Instead, the nights were filled with the scary sound of distant gunfire and exploding bombs and mortars, and an acrid, metallic smell lingered in the air. Once in a while, Ayelet heard the booms and pops and rumbles during the day, but they were always there at night – almost every night, sometimes explosions so close that the buildings shook, even in tranquil Rehavia. Ayelet burrowed her head under the pillow to muffle the shooting and drown out the horrid smell, and her mother sat with her until she fell asleep. But she often awoke with a start, with the sounds of war in her ears or in her dreams.
There were lulls in the fighting, and sometimes the shooting stopped for a week. During one of them, Hans thought it safe for him to leave Jerusalem to take care of some urgent business for the firm. But then the siege began again, and Hans couldn’t get back. Ayelet was again confined in the apartment, with meager meals and nights with her head burrowed under the pillow trying not to hear the bangs and blasts. But now it was just the two of them.
One night, her mother tucked her in as usual, but did not stay with her until she fell asleep. “Your uncle is visiting,” her mother told her. She knew she had an uncle because he was often a guest at her parents’ dinner parties. He was tall and handsome, and had a moustache. He was a flyer, her mother had told her – although Ayelet wasn’t quite sure what that was. “But why, Ima?” Ayelet asked. Her uncle had never visited so late, after dinner, after she was in bed. “Just some family business, Ayelet. Now go to sleep.”
But Ayelet couldn’t sleep. Still awake in her bed, she heard them talking in the living room – her mother and her uncle, but also another man, whose voice she didn’t recognize. It seemed like they were all talking at the same time, and loudly. Ayelet couldn’t remember ever hearing raised voices at home, especially not her mother’s.
The next night, her mother sat with her as usual until she fell asleep. But then, much later, Gavriela shook her awake and dressed her – in warm clothes, although it was early July. Then her uncle arrived. With him was the man whose voice Ayelet had heard the night before. Her mother kissed her and hugged her. “Go with your uncle,” Gavriela said. “He will take you to Abba in Tel Aviv, where there will be no bombs and no shooting.”
“Aren’t you coming too, Ima?” Ayelet asked.
“No, sweetheart, there’s only room for one.”
Gavriela hugged and kissed her. Then suddenly, Ayelet was wrapped in a blanket and rushed into a car. She sat on her uncle’s lap while the other man drove through blacked-out Jerusalem to an open field. The field was very dark; Ayelet couldn’t see any lights or buildings. They stopped, and her uncle carried her up some stairs and into a strange kind of car, like none she’d ever seen before. This time, she sat on the other man’s lap, while her uncle sat in the driver’s seat.
Both men put on strange-looking straps, and her uncle’s friend held Ayelet very tight with one hand, as he flipped some switches on the dashboard with the other. When the engine started, it was very loud. They started moving, slowly at first, but then faster. Soon, the car was going faster than any car Ayelet had ever been in. Ayelet was now sure she was dreaming, because suddenly the car went up – up! – and she was flying through a black, starless night.
For six weeks, Ayelet stayed with Hans in a Tel Aviv hotel. A nice lady with pulled-back graying hair, deep-set eyes and a gentle smile lived down the hall. Although she usually seemed to be very busy, she took time every morning to brush and braid Ayelet’s hair – something Hans could never manage to get right.
As her mother had promised, there were no bombs and no gunfire in Tel Aviv. One morning, as the nice lady braided her hair, she smiled at Ayelet and told her the war would soon be over.
She was right. By the end of July, the Israel Defense Forces had conquered Lydda and secured the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The siege was broken and Ayelet, Gavriela and Hans were back in the sunny apartment in Rehavia. And soon, the shooting stopped for good. But now, Jerusalem was a divided city: Rehavia was on one side, and the Old City, the Dome of the Rock, and Serena’s apartment were all on the other side.
Hans rejoiced at the new nation’s independence; he told Ayelet stories about the bravery of the young chalutzim who had won it. But within weeks after the war ended, for the first time since Ayelet could remember, her parents began arguing. “This isn’t a peace – it’s just the beginning of the conflict,” Gavriela said. “You left Germany to escape all that. Why would you subject me and Ayelet to it?” Hans tried to argue, but Gavriela was unshakable. “I’m not going to raise children in this godforsaken city,” she sobbed.
Hans’s parents and brother, who had escaped to America and were living in Lake Success, had always begged him to join them, and the firm would be happy to have Hans establish a branch in New York. Hans was devastated at the prospect of emigrating again, this time from the land he had chosen. But soon after Ayelet’s sixth birthday, they were on the plane to New York, and Hans took her down to the tarmac in Gander to feel the snow.
Ayelet grew up in New York. She lived on Park Avenue, and her life was once again filled with delicious food, fresh flowers and music. She forgot her Hebrew. When she started school, Ayelet’s name became Amy. In time, the sunny apartment in Rehavia and the night flight to Tel Aviv faded from her memory, living only in the story Hans told her over and over.
But Amy would always remember the first time she saw snow. And for the rest of her life, she refused to watch fireworks, and would stiffen if she heard a car backfiring. And always, even on the quietest nights, she would sleep with her head burrowed under the pillow to muffle the distant gunfire.
When he had finished reading, Hans rose from his chair, came over and hugged his daughter.
“You wrote it beautifully, Ayele. I give you an A also. But. . .”
“But what, Abba? Tell me!”
Hans hesitated, a pensive look on his face. “No, it’s nothing,” Hans finally said,. “I will always treasure this, mein liebschen.” And to prove it, Hans carefully placed it on the shelf behind his desk, next to his most precious volumes: first editions of Thomas Mann, Berthold Brecht and Shalom Aleichem. And there it remained, like those volumes, cherished but unread.
As the years passed, and Amy went to college, then law school, married, had children, and pursued a legal career, she stopped telling the story. But she never forgot it. In college, she majored in Middle Eastern Studies, including both Hebrew and Arabic. In law school, she took courses in international human rights. After first rejoicing at Israel’s victory in the 1967 War, Amy grew chagrined as that triumph became an endless occupation, so she became active in Jewish Voice for Peace, donated to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and did pro bono legal work for Palestinian rights organizations.
Hans, of course, told Amy’s story to his grandchildren, but their mother managed to let them know that the story might not be entirely true. They should view it, she said, like the Old Testament stories they learned in Sunday School.
Hans died in 1999, ninety years old and still a Zionist, still proud of his years in Israel, still telling Amy’s story. One evening some months later, as Amy was helping her mother clean out the piles of papers and pack up the books in Hans’s study, she found the leather binder. Amy opened it and read aloud what she’d written thirty-seven years before. Tears welled up as she turned to look at her mother.
“How much of this really happened, Ima?” she asked.
“Well, Ayele,” Gavriela replied, “you know how your father loved to tell stories. So, this one? I think you must know that he invented that plane flight, and he only wished that Golda Meier had braided your hair. But the rest? Well, your father and I did live through the Arabs’ siege, and it was as terrifying as you described it there. And, for sure, that’s why we left Jerusalem and came here.”
Amy wasn’t sure she’d heard her mother correctly. “You and Abba lived through the siege? What about me? Wasn’t I there with you? Isn’t that part true?”
For an instant, the old lady seemed startled. Then she looked at Amy for a long minute.
“No, Ayele, you weren’t with us then. I always thought we should have told you, but your father, well…. I think he felt he was protecting you. And maybe he was also protecting himself – preserving the Israel he wanted to remember, the Israel he talked about at B’nai Brith.”
“Told me what, Ima? Protecting me from what?” Amy sputtered.
Gavriela slowly rose and went over to Hans’s desk, where she found a key and unlocked a file drawer. After rummaging for a few minutes, she pulled out a folder containing some pages printed in Hebrew, and handed it to Amy.
“Do you remember enough of your college Hebrew to read this?” she asked.
Amy looked down at the yellowing pages. The document was dated September 1, 1950 and headed T’udot Emutz – Certificate of Adoption. At the bottom, she recognized her parents’ signatures. But at the top, opposite “Name of Child,” instead of “Ayelet,” she read “Aminah” and in the space marked “Place of Birth,” instead of Jerusalem, she read “Majdal Yaba.”
Weeks later – weeks of inner turmoil and teary conversations — Amy found herself alone one night, staring again at the old Hebrew document. Then she picked up the leather binder and re-read her story. How could it be, she wondered, that she could remember the succulent aromas of cumin, cinnamon and za’atar, the taste of knafeh, the golden sun-drenched Judean hills? How could the nights filled with the sound of bombs and gunfire and the acrid stench in the air still seem so real? And if her story was really all fiction, then why had she always slept with her head burrowed under the pillow?
Consumed by these thoughts, Amy turned on her computer and Googled “Majdal Yaba.” An hour later, she opened a new Word document and began typing.
I had lived for almost six years but I’d never seen snow, so my abba woke me up when the plane landed in Gander for refueling on the way to New York and took me down to the tarmac to touch and feel the snow. Trudging through the strange white powder, taking a cold handful and then feeling it melt against my tongue, is a memory that has always stayed with me.
Although that was my first plane flight, I didn’t even think it was odd to be taken from the land of my birth and flown across the ocean. So much had happened before that.
I was born in the small Palestinian village of Majdal Yaba, about three miles east of Jaffa, on a rocky knoll just off the old road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My parents, Hassan and Gazala, named me Aminah, which means “honest” in Arabic. My first four years were idyllic. Every morning, Hassan, like most of the men in the village, got up early to say prayers at the tiny mosque in the center of town before going out to the surrounding fields, irrigated by Artesian wells, where they grew wheat, corn, barley, vegetables and sesame. Sometimes, for good wages, they helped the friendly Jewish landowners pick their oranges and lemons in the nearby groves. Every morning, my mother dressed me in a clean frock and brushed my curly brown hair, then sent me off to play with the other village girls in the narrow alleys, while the boys attended the old school built by the Ottomans in the nineteenth century.
Gazala spent the day keeping our tiny brick house spotless, washing our clothes with water she carried from the well at the edge of town, and cooking our meals. After lunch, my mother and I would go down to the village market and bring home fresh fruits and vegetables, and lamb or goat or sometimes sweet camel meat, that she cooked with cumin, cinnamon and za’atar. I can still remember the wonderful aromas that filled the small house every evening. I’m sure I eagerly devoured everything my mother made, but I loved her desserts, especially the knafeh, a luscious pudding made from butter, ricotta and fresh goat’s milk mixed with pistachios and topped with crisp philo pastry. It was a carefree childhood anyone would cherish.
Until the shooting started. Shortly before my fourth birthday, horrible fighting began between our people and the Jews who I had always been taught were our friends. Suddenly, the Palestinian towns on the road leading east out from Tel Aviv towards Jerusalem became strategically important. At first, the far-away shooting and the distant explosions were sporadic, but after the declaration of Israel’s independence in May, they became intense. I was kept home for days on end – no more clean frocks every morning, no more games with my friends in the village alleys. The market was closed most days, so the meals became skimpier, whatever my mother could heat up from cans and the few fruits and vegetables my father brought home from the fields. No more fresh-baked desserts and no more knafeh; what little milk they could get was given to me to drink.
The nights were filled with the sound of distant gunfire and exploding bombs and mortars. Once in a while, I heard them during the day, but they were always there at night – almost every night. Always the booms and pops and rumbles, but sometimes explosions so close that the whole village shook, and there was a strange smell in the air until morning. I burrowed my head under the pillow to drown out the noise and the smell, and Gazala sat with me until I fell asleep. But I often awoke with a start, with the sounds of war in my ears or in my dreams.
During one of the lulls in the fighting, my parents sat by my bed and told me it was time for Hassan and the other young men in the village to go away to join the Palestinian militia that were forming to help defend Lydda, al-Ramla and other major Palestinian towns. “Don’t worry, Aminah, habibata,” Hassan assured me, “our tiny village is of no interest to the Jewish army, so you and mother will be safe.”
The next morning, as usual, my father rose early and went to the mosque. I never saw him again.
Soon the shooting resumed, and I was again confined to the house, with meager meals and nights burrowed under the pillow trying not to hear the bangs and blasts. But now it was just the two of us.
One night, my mother tucked me in as usual, but she didn’t stay until I fell asleep. “Your uncle is visiting tonight,” she said. I’d seen my uncle a few times when he came for dinner; he was tall and handsome, wore a long robe and a keffiyeh, and had a moustache. But he had never visited so late, after dinner, after I was in bed.
Still awake in my bed, I heard them talking in the other room – my mother and my uncle, but also another man, a stranger. It seemed like they were all talking at the same time, and loudly. I’d never heard raised voices in our little house, especially not my mother’s.
The next night, Gazala sat with me as usual, until I fell asleep. But then, much later, she shook me out of a deep sleep. “You must get up, Aminah, right now, and get dressed,” she said in a tone I didn’t recognize. She dressed me in a wool frock, although it was summer and very warm, even in the middle of the night. Then my uncle arrived with the stranger whose voice I had heard the night before. My mother kissed me and hugged me, and told me to go with my uncle. “He will take you to a nice place, Aminah, a place where there will be no bombs and no gunfire. A place where you will be safe.”
“Aren’t you coming, too, al'umu,” I asked?
“No, habibata,” she said and turned away. “Now, go with Uncle.”
I was wrapped in a blanket and rushed into the back of a waiting truck, together with many of the other children of Majdal Yaba, including two of my village playmates. As we children huddled under our blankets, the truck drove through the black, starless night, over bumpy, rutted roads, up and down hills, around sharp curves. We had no idea where we were going, but in the morning, we found ourselves in a strange town, much larger than Majdal Yaba, on a higher hill, and surrounded by old stone walls. And there we remained, sleeping on cots in the town’s school, for four months, until the war ended.
As I now know, on July 12, 1948, the day after I was evacuated, Majdal Yaba, al-Muzayri’a, Khulda, al-Qubab, Jimzu and Daniyal – all of the Palestinian villages surrounding Lydda – were overrun by the Israeli army. Hundreds of defenseless villagers were killed, and the rest rounded up and sent to refugee camps on the West Bank. Determined to clear the way east and break the siege of Jerusalem, eight thousand Israeli troops, supported by the new Israeli Air Force, then attacked Lydda and al-Ramla, where the slaughter and depopulation continued. It was the largest and most intense killing of Arabs by Jews in the history of the State of Israel.
After the war, efforts were made to reunite the children who had been evacuated from Majdal Yaba with their surviving families – if they could be found. One by one, I saw my friends leave the walled town on the high hill, not to return to Majdal Yaba, for it no longer existed, but to join their relatives in scattered refugee camps, where they and their descendants remain to this day.
But no one came for me. Many months went by. And then, when someone did come, it was not my father or my mother or my uncle, but two strangers – Jewish strangers. They spoke two strange languages – although the woman had olive skin and brown hair, the same as mine, and spoke a little Arabic. I was told to call them Abba and Ima, and that they were going to be my new parents. They took me in a big new car, bigger and shinier than any car I had ever seen, and they brought me to a place called Jerusalem, much bigger than Majdal Yaba, even bigger than the walled town on the hill.
I was sure I must be dreaming: Jerusalem was like nowhere I had ever imagined. It had gleaming white stone walls, many domes and towers, wide boulevards and narrow stepped backstreets amidst cedars, palms and olive trees. My new abba and ima, Hans and Gavriela, hired a young Lebanese ozeret to help care for me and to cook our meals. She told me that Jerusalem meant “City of Peace” in both Hebrew and Arabic. And she made knafeh. But it was not the same as the knafeh my mother Gazala had made in Majdal Yaba before the gunfire and the bombs. Nothing was the same; it never would be.
I lived for two years with Hans and Gavriela in a comfortable garden apartment in Rehavia, where I played in the afternoons in a sandbox in the small park behind the building and took walks with my new ima, as the sun glinted off the stone walls of the Old City, the glorious Dome of the Rock and the minaret of the Al Aksa mosque a mile to the east and turned the Judean hills in the distance a luminous gold. Very soon, I learned to speak Hebrew, then English.
As I understood more English, I began to hear my new parents arguing. Gavriela was not going to raise children in this divided city, sure to be the scene of unending turmoil; Hans had family in America who wanted them to move there. And then, one day, soon after my sixth birthday, the three of us were on a plane to New York, and Hanstook me down to the tarmac in Gander to feel the snow.
I grew up in New York. I lived on Park Avenue, and my life was filled with delicious food, fresh flowers and music. When I started school, Aminah became Amy. I forgot my Arabic and my Hebrew. In time, the narrow alleys of Majdal Yaba, the bumpy trip in the back of the truck, the walled town on the hill, even the garden apartment in Rehavia, faded from my memory.
But I never forgot the first time I saw snow. And even today, I still refuse to watch fireworks, and I stiffen whenever I hear a car backfiring. And tonight, like every night, I will sleep with my head burrowed under the pillow to muffle the distant gunfire.
It was after 2 a.m. when Amy finished writing her new story and read it over. A strange sensation swept over her. Her high school teacher would probably have given her an A on this one, too. It was still fiction, of course, but her name meant “honest” in Arabic, and she felt that maybe now she had been. But would anyone want to hear this new story? Would she tell it to her children and her grandchildren? Did it matter?