Money for Menashe
By Ben Kaufman
On our last day together in Israel, my brother and I were called into our grandmother’s room. Our grandparents – whom we call Saba and Savta – have had separate bedrooms since their youngest daughter left home forty-five years ago.
As we walked in, Savta opened the top drawer of her bureau and pulled out a wool winter sock which was knotted up at the top to close both ends. The thick sock had thin strands of fabric hanging off the sides, just as old cotton tends to fray. It was weighed down at the bottom by something hard and lumpy. She struggled to lift the sock by its knot, and I reached quickly to take it from her. I placed one hand underneath the sock and tried to feel whatever was inside. Coins. It was full of coins.
“Savta, what’s—” I started to say.
She raised a finger up to her lips to shush me. “Don’t say anything to your grandfather. Give this to your cousin Menashe,” she whispered in Hebrew, then repeated, “Don’t say anything to your grandfather. And take this, too.” She went into her private bathroom and returned with two bottles of skin cream.
Savta is five feet tall, and her head is nested low between her shoulders. She speaks with a high-pitched voice that sounds as soft as her ancient skin feels. Her voice makes her seem like she never grew out of being a little girl from an upper class Bulgarian family, as though the Nazis and then the Soviets never sent her father to labor camps.
When Savta was a teenager, she had traveled to British Palestine with her mother and brother. They were part of the generation of immigrants who would come together to found the state of Israel. It would take several years for Savta’s father to reunite with her, after he was finally released from a Bulgarian internment camp. The family lost all their wealth in the move. She met my grandfather in the military. According to family lore, both had lied about their ages to join the army (she was fifteen and he was seventeen). Both were searching for themselves after their childhoods were stolen by the Nazis.
Savta was a nurse in the Israeli army. Saba was heading into the navy, where he would go on to become a war hero, once saving an entire medical wing from drowning inside a sinking submarine. They spoke different languages, but they were both beautiful young people. I’m sure it began as a passionate affair.
My father was their first child, born on a dirt floor into abject poverty. Three younger sisters were born, two of them twins, over the next fifteen years. As the family grew, so too did their station in life. Saba worked his way up to a supervisor role in the Israeli state-run electrical company, Hevrat Hashmal. They eventually moved into a home of their own, where they still live today, with a small garden out back where they grow their own fruits. The Israeli dream. It isn’t a happy home, though. It never has been. I once asked my father to tell me a funny story about his childhood, and he responded, “My childhood was not funny.”
Although Saba is a brutal man, I don’t believe he’s ever hit Savta. I’ve been told that she was the one who hit the kids. It was a different time, as they say. The never-ending verbal abuse between my grandparents seems to have always been mutual. They scream at each other for anything and everything. Since he was born in Libya, her favorite insult is to call him a monkey and tell him to “go back to Africa.” Saba calls her fat. Savta calls him fat back. He screams at her to stop screaming.
These days, Savta’s life is decreasing in scope. The house that once symbolized family and growth is now mostly empty. She lives in a quiet suburb with a roommate she hates. When she and her husband aren’t fighting, it’s usually just because they’re in different rooms. Her only excursions out are to the mall or the veteran’s cafeteria. Her physical world is increasingly desolate. But a few years ago, she found freedom on the internet.
Through Facebook, she fell in love with Paul Walker, the deceased former star of the “Fast and Furious” series. She spends hours scrolling through his legacy page. She comments on every post, occasionally leaving him love notes. Saba isn’t on Facebook so he doesn’t know about the affair. Facebook ads have captivated her too, especially after the algorithms recognized her affinity for new age spiritualism.
Part of me cringes at the thought of Savta, innocent to the harms of internet scammers who prey on the elderly, running in circles within the walled garden of her growing subscription list to online psychics. All the while, she must believe that she’s running free through the rolling hills of a wide-open internet.
During that first week in Israel, watching my grandparents fight was torture. My brother and I would shrink into our chairs and feign deafness. Saba spent large portions of the day watching the news while Savta scrolled through Facebook. Her online activity made me wonder about my grandparents’ financial arrangement. How much money did she have? Was it an allowance that he provided? Did she place online charges onto a shared credit card which he was paying off at the end of the month? Did she have her own credit card? But as Savta handed me two bottles of skin cream and a sock full of loose change, all I could think was: Why did she keep a secret stash of money for my cousin Menashe?
For some reason that was unclear to me, Savta had tasked me with a secret delivery of goods. I was bewildered. But I was used to being confused inside that house. It felt like everyone was always playing favorites, playing off family members against each other. When I was six, my mom caught Savta planting a pair of her own panties into my dad’s luggage so that my mom would think he was having an affair. When I was eleven, Saba gave four thousand shekels to my aunt as a gift; then he changed his mind and demanded she pay him back. They didn’t speak for four years.
Menashe was a central figure in the familial drama. He was the first grandchild. At age four, he had been hospitalized with lymphoma. As a pre-teen, his father had left him and started a new family. They became estranged. Several years later, his father died and left Menashe with less money than the rest of his children. Savta felt a protectiveness for Menashe that differed from her feelings for the rest of her grandchildren. She defended every decision he made. She supported him through half-committed attempts to learn Eastern medicine, to become a club DJ, to work as a model. Menashe was Savta’s baby.
Prior to this trip, I hadn’t seen my Israeli relatives in a decade. The biggest change I noticed in Saba was physical. When I was a little boy, he used to swim laps daily and still resembled the boxer he had been in younger days. In ten years, though, all his muscle had been replaced by fat. He struggled to stand up from chairs, and climbing stairs took him a few seconds per step. He had started breathing with his whole body, as though it was hard work.
Everything had changed about Savta. Dementia was setting in. She was replacing memories with fairy tales. She had trouble finishing sentences. If she could get through a thought, she would repeat it over and over again. At least ten times per day, she would ask my brother and me, “How are things in America?” In some ways, our secret exchange of skin creams and a sock was the clearest conversation we had shared all week. It was confusing, but at least she was lucid.
So I decided to accept the mission. I didn’t have a sense of the stakes, so I assumed they were high. I would bring the goods to Menashe without telling Saba. This secrecy briefly felt like espionage. I opened my backpack and slipped all three items into the largest pocket, under a book and a sweater.
“I didn’t even see what she gave you,” David said out of the side of his mouth.
“Money for Menashe,” I said. “And skin creams.”
“I heard her say it was a secret,” David said. “Did she say why?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“What are we gonna do?” he asked.
“Give it to Menashe,” I said.
“Maybe you shouldn’t.”
“I don’t think there’s another option, David,” I said tersely, feeling my anxiety rise.
“I don’t know, Ben. I just don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do about it now?!”
“Give it back,” he proposed. “Just don’t put yourself in the middle of—”
“I’m already in the middle of it,” I said. “Just shut the fuck up.”
I didn’t know why I was so insistent on taking the money. The sweltering heat in the house had started to wear on us. We had kept each other grounded amidst our grandparents’ neurotic and controlling behavior. We were sick of them, but we were also sick of each other.
My brother and I had planned to only overlap for a week in Israel during each of our month-long trips. At the end of our week together, we would travel by train to Tel Aviv, where my brother would board a flight home. I would then spend a few days with my cousins in the city before returning to our grandparents’ house. I had spent most of our last day together mentally preparing to spend three weeks alone with our grandparents, or as I would think of it, three weeks under house arrest. But my brother had gone through the same imprisonment before I arrived, so it was only fair.
We piled into the car and waited for Saba, who walked slowly and led with his belly. The most striking thing about Saba is his stature. Even after developing a significant hunch in old age, he’s still six feet tall. Saba has the loudest voice and the hardest laugh in the room, in any room. He’s quick to anger and erupts into at least one temper tantrum daily. He grew up parentless and homeless in war-torn Tripoli, an urban center of the oft-overlooked African front of World War II. After the war ended, he traveled to Israel alone, a teenage castaway on a shipping vessel to Palestine. He was a striking teenager who resembled a young Cassius Clay, and I was unsurprised that the military had believed him to be old enough for service.
Saba climbed into the driver’s seat with an elderly groan, then left the door open as he caught his breath. I was sitting in the front passenger seat and my brother sat directly behind me. Nobody spoke. Saba placed his keys into the center console and turned to me.
“What your grandmother gave to you?” He asked in slow, deliberate English. His voice bellowed through the car, as raspy as it was deep.
My brain melted into the headrest. I tried to remain calm. “What?” I asked back, a spy.
“What your grandmother gave to you?” he repeated.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
He looked at me wordlessly for five seconds. What a brutal man, I thought. “Tell me what it she give to you.”
My backpack rested on my feet. He indicated for me to open it.
“I don’t know wha— ”
“Just tell him,” David cut me off.
I spun around to face my brother, shocked by his cowardice. No, not cowardice, but betrayal. Before I had the chance to reprimand him, a miraculous idea appeared. “Oh!” I exclaimed. “You mean the skin creams.” I dragged my backpack onto my lap, reached into the largest pocket, and pulled out the two bottles of Dead Sea skin care products. I handed them to Saba, who scanned them carefully before dropping them next to the car keys.
“What also did she gave to you?” he asked.
“What?” I asked. “Nothing. Just the creams.”
“I know what,” he said. “I see it happen.”
I sat silently. Did he know? Before I had a chance to test him, my brother made another contribution.
“Don’t do this, Ben,” David said. “Just show him.”
I spun around again, exasperated. What was his fucking problem? Why would he do this to me?
“I’m sorry, Ben. But he knows,” he insisted.
This would be the end of my life, I was certain. If my heart sank any lower, I would have been sitting on it. My chest raced, bereft of its bloody center. I reached into my backpack and pulled out the sock filled with money. Saba took it and undid the knot. He reached in, feeling around to estimate the amount inside. The whole time, he looked calm. I realized he had never raised his voice during the whole exchange. It frightened me.
I was caught, and although I didn’t know what I had done wrong, I felt ashamed.
Saba started pulling out coins in small handfuls and looking through them, then handing them to me. He was counting. I counted, too, cupping a growing number of loose coins in both hands. My brother peered over my shoulder to join in. It took forever, but at least the task distracted us from our fear. I counted two hundred and twenty shekels. About seventy dollars. Saba held the open sock toward me and, taking his cue, I dutifully poured all the coins back into the sock. He tied a new knot to close up the sack of coins, then handed it back to me. Confused, I slid the sock and both bottles of skin cream into my backpack, this time setting them on top of my book and sweater.
“For Menashe?” Saba asked, knowingly.
Saba finally closed his door and started the car. We didn’t speak for the entire twenty-minute ride to the train station. On most drives, Saba would hum classic tunes from the 1950s, occasionally breaking into full-bellied song. He tended toward singers who, like him, had scratchy voices. His favorite was Louis Prima. Ironically, I found his personality similar to the orangutan which Prima voiced in The Jungle Book. They had the same rotund stomachs, the same love of song, the same cartoonishly wide smile, and the same unyielding confidence that they were kings. But this car ride was silent.
When we finally arrived, David and I hurriedly unbuckled our seatbelts and reached for the doorknobs.
“Shneeah,” Saba said, instructing us to wait two seconds. “Wait a little moment.”
He pulled his wallet out of his pocket. Doing so required him to lift his waist awkwardly and press his belly into the driving wheel. His brown leather wallet was thick with bills of cash and ancient receipts. He pulled out five hundred shekels. About a hundred and fifty dollars. A few loose coins spilled out onto his lap as he drew the money from his wallet.
“Give also this to Menashe,” he said as he folded up the large bills and handed them to me. “Tell to him which is from Grandmother, and which is from Grandfather.”
Saba helped us unload all our luggage and paid for our train tickets before saying a cold goodbye at the station gates. From the moment we walked through the gate until we finally took our seats on the train, I could feel my whole body shaking.
I took the window seat and hugged my backpack to my chest. Inside its largest pocket, Savta’s sock full of loose, secret coins lay right beside Saba’s crisp bills. While Savta had entrusted me with something precious to her, Saba handed me his money like it was meaningless. It seemed that his entire goal was to assert power. By revealing her sacred gift to him, I had desecrated it. And yet somehow the whole saga only benefited Menashe, who had just tripled his money.
“He was always going to find out,” said David, slightly afraid of me.
“Yeah, but— ” I started.
“He was always going to find out,” David repeated. “I’m sorry, Ben.”
I began to sob. David wrapped his arms around me. I leaned into his chest and felt my snot and tears pooling onto his t-shirt. “I’m so sorry,” he kept saying. When I finally caught my breath, I pulled away and hugged my knees to my chest, compressing my backpack in between.
“Why does Savta sneak money to Menashe?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Ben,” he replied. “She’s traumatized.”
I thought of Savta online, of her Facebook profile picture: a blooming yellow flower on a blurry, grassy hill. I imagined her scrolling through her feed at that very moment as we sat on the train. She was commenting on a photo of Paul Walker, and she was developing a new crush on his co-star, Vin Diesel. She was entering her credit card information onto a new tarot website. While I was crying, she was running through Facebook, freer than she’d felt in years.