Photo: Yehiel Yanai
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Yossi Sucary
Translated from Hebrew by Ilana Kurshan
What’s the matter with you, he chided himself in the early afternoon hours, shortly before he drove to his parents’ home to relay the news to them. Is it more complicated to tell one’s parents than one’s children? At least with my children, I know what to say, but with my parents I’m drawing a total blank, he thought rather childishly. He was reminded of the way his son David would sometimes fly into a rage when he got stuck on a homework assignment. On his way to Givat Shmuel, he passed the sign that indicated the entrance to his parents’ street, Kibbutz Galuyot. The Ingathering of the Exiles, he muttered to himself angrily. As if. Ingathering of the Exiles my butt. The phrase, used to describe a melting pot of all the new immigrants who came to Israel from the four corners of the earth, infuriated him. He was even more irate that there were still so many people who believed that myth. He saw things very differently. Consider his father, who came to Israel from Meknes in 1957, or his mother, who came from Benghazi that same year. Was their experience as immigrants anything like that of his European in-laws? There was no comparison.
Amzaleg tried to silence his thoughts – it was enough already. It was as if his mind enjoyed the opportunity to roam free. His thoughts continued to ramble on, and as he drew closer to his parents’ home, the forces clashing in his head became more voluble and more demanding. Amzaleg parked his car opposite the mini-market. Now his thoughts weighed on him so heavily that he felt that he would drift up like a balloon the moment they left him. So he imagined as he got out of the car and straightened his shirt with its pattern of tiny circles contiguous and overlapping with one another from edge to edge. What would he tell his elderly parents? How would he break the news? He was the first of their clan to get divorced. None of his relatives had ever done such a thing. If they got angry, he’d have to deal with it. Just don’t let it affect their health, he hoped. He climbed one flight up to their apartment with heavy steps, pausing every so often and tightening his grip on the wooden banister. He heard the clamor of children coming down the stairwell as if echoing from a great distance. It’s a good thing his parents didn’t move to that more spacious third-floor apartment they were considering, he thought to himself.
When he arrived at their landing he stood for a long moment opposite the brown apartment door. He focused his gaze on the peephole underneath the black letters that spelled out the name Amzaleg in the shape of a half moon, contemplating the way his elderly parents saw the outside world through that lens. The great man standing at the threshold was hunched over and weak. “A heavy darkness descends upon me,” he muttered. He knocked faintly, and after a few seconds his mother appeared in the doorway. “Ya avni, kapparah, where did you come from, my sunshine?” Amzaleg kissed his mother on both cheeks, brushed his hand against the white hair gathered at the nape of her neck, and went in. “Just a cup of water, ya ami, please?” He approached the sink in the narrow kitchen, and when he opened the formica cabinet above, his hand trembled. He drank the entire cup, accompanied by his mother’s gaze as she made her way to the bedroom to inform his father of his arrival.
He continued to debate how he would break the news. A long hug from his father bought him more time. They sat in the cramped living room, with its three brown armchairs and narrow beige couch pushed close together. His gaze wandered from the bright floral rug to the wall facing him, where a ladder of shelves rested against the wall. He counted them: one shelf contained sacred books, and the other five were crowded with miscellany: an illustrated encyclopedia, dictionaries, a Carta atlas, anatomy textbooks, booklets with sewing patterns, books in French and Italian, who knew what else. The walls of the room were decorated with photographs of relatives from the Maghreb and Kabbalist rabbis. “Hadas and I are getting divorced,” he said with a tremulous voice and cast his glance first at his mother and then at his father.
Silence descended on the room. His father and mother looked at one another and did not say a word. Then his mother stared at him for a long time and muttered something in Italian that Amzaleg did not understand, but he could tell from her tone that it was harsh. Again she sees me as weak, he thought angrily. Amzaleg did not respond and shifted anxiously on the couch. Deep down he thought that his mother was being unfeeling. Yet another betrayal of her maternal role, he thought painfully. Another, because there had been many. Instead of strengthening me, you weaken me. With all due respect. He wanted to tell her that everyone who was in the habit of complimenting her could only do so because they weren’t her children. Before the words could come out of his mouth, he bit his tongue. His father stared at him long and hard, trying to open his eyes, which were covered by heavy eyelids leaving only a narrow crack. He leaned toward his son and rested his hand on his shoulder: “What you have done is not good, ya avni. You need to think again. You don’t throw children out of the hall just because you want to dance alone.”
Amzaleg didn’t respond, dumbfounded that both his parents were blaming him without even inquiring into the circumstances. He murmured to himself voicelessly: You’re the egoist here because you can’t see me. You don’t think for a minute about what I need. Don’t you care about where I fit in to this picture? You’ve been this way ever since I was young. Did you ever try to be strong? To overcome? On the contrary. It was easier for you to make yourself small. And who paid the price? Your daughter and I. Sure, tell me that I’m weak. I’m weak because you’ve always made me that way.
While he was still sitting on the couch feeling chastened, muttering to himself and thinking about how he could get out of his parents’ home as fast as possible, his mother suddenly got up from her seat and sat down next to him on the couch. She enveloped his neck with arms covered in heavy gold bangles, her movements accompanied by the clinking of metal. She rested her head on Amzaleg’s chest and said, “God will show you the way. Huva dima varani trik albi – He always showed my heart the way.”
This was his mother, who every so often had not made dinner because she came home angry from work. “There’s nothing to eat today,” she would throw out when he came home, usually after she had argued vociferously with her employer or with one of the customers at the tailor shop.
His mother Yolanda Amzaleg who, even in the sweltering days of summer, after she had walked for hours in the streets of Tel Aviv, would not take her kerchief off her head or exchange her traditional dresses made of thick fabric for lighter clothes; she who would not conceal her Arabic tongue even when met with disgusted and disparaging looks. When he was a child in the late sixties and early seventies he used to walk with his mother from their home on Lilienblum Street opposite the Eden Theater, all the way to her workplace as a seamstress in a home tailor shop on Bar Ilan Street. In those days it was impossible for him not to notice the stares she received from passersby. There were those who looked askance at her long dresses embroidered with gold and silver threads, their gaze resting on the colorful turban tied at her forehead, and when she hurried her son on in Arabic, he imagined he could feel their contempt.
Amzaleg looked at the picture on the wall, a sketch of his mother’s great- grandfather, Rabbi Machlof Jerbi. For the first time he noticed the similarity between Rabbi Jerbi and his mother, who was now thrusting her head against his body – as if she were trying to be birthed from me, he thought to himself in horror.
He paid special attention to the high cheekbones that his mother and her grandfather shared. How noble-looking, he thought. I’m proud of those sculpted faces. They said that his great-grandfather was strikingly brilliant, that he held his ground against the winds of change that swept up so many of Benghazi’s Jews. Like his mother, he was known for being stubbornly set in his ways and for always speaking his mind, and those who were closest to him suffered from it. Amzaleg returned his mother’s hug as an old memory surfaced in his mind: He was pleading with his mother not to come in loud, colorful clothing to his fourth grade end-of-year party at the Balfour School in Tel Aviv. “Just once, please, dress like the other mothers,” he begged her, but Yolanda would not accede to his pleas and at seven at night she entered the gates of his school looking tall and proud, wrapped in a long turquoise gown as if she were a famous Lebanese singer, ignoring her son’s embarrassment and his friends’ titters, and saying to him dryly, “Ant takder aliya” – you’ll get over it.
When Yolanda lifted her head from his chest he saw that her expression had softened a bit. “Eat with us,” Yolanda said to her son. “I made assida, it will soften your heart a bit.” Amzaleg’s father embraced him with a trembling Parkinsonian arm and said to him that if his decision was final, even though he didn’t agree with it, he would help him to get through this difficult period. Amzaleg thought his father added, “I’ll take care of you,” but he couldn’t be sure.
“Sit down, Abba, sit down,” he said to his father when they entered the kitchen. Only after he helped his father get settled did he sit down at the table himself, resting his pianist’s fingers carefully on the gleaming formica. As he was setting out the white plates, their borders ornamented with blue birds, he realized that the thing he had longed for all his life was now coming to fruition: He was weak and his parents were strong. He was the one being supported by his parents. Only now, when his life had fallen apart, did he discover a hint of strength in his father Morris. His father’s hunched back suddenly seemed straighter. This was not the hesitant, faltering Morris Amzaleg who had lost all his authority, who was forever bowing his head to the managers atAlumot, the company where he worked serving tea and where his heart swelled every time he was complimented for his diligence. Amzaleg of Meknes who only now, at the twilight of his life, could return to his glory, so that his son might compose a medley of words in his honor.
Amzaleg took hold of the spoon and ate the red dish his mother served him with a display of relish. His friends used to marvel at how delicious his mother’s cooking was, the stuffed potato mafroum spraying from the corners of their mouths. Poor Amzaleg squirmed uncomfortably in his seat when he remembered how his Tel Aviv friends used to lavish his mother in praise while he was full of shame and scorn that he did not then understand. “Your mother is the best cook,” they would compliment him, and Manu wanted to yell, “Shut up already – what do you think, that you’re on a visit to some exotic native tribe?”
His mother rested her palm on his father’s arm. Morris and Yolanda’s love for one another had flourished even in the lean years, when it seemed nothing else could blossom. Even when they couldn’t make ends meet, even when the authorities put a lien on their account and stormed their apartment to confiscate a radio or television. Amzaleg looked intently at their hands clasping one another as if to form a united front against the inevitable end that was beating down their door to extract the lifeline of a fifty-something year old love, that main artery flowing to both their hearts – but their arms would not release their grasp.