The pale of settlement, p.5
The Pale of Settlement, page 5
When I married, I was just a girl. I was twenty-four but I didn’t know anything. Do you understand? Things were not then as they are now. It was the fashion at the time to go to Venice on one’s honeymoon. I cried the whole way on the train. Such a silly child I was! I’d brought my dolls with me—my father was furious, saying that I was a married woman now, that I must leave such child’s toys at home. But Josef just laughed and said, No, no, let her take what she wants. When we arrived at the hotel, I arranged the dolls by my pillow on the bed. Then I went into the bathroom, and I stayed there for a long time, preparing myself. When I came out at last, I was afraid your grandfather would be angry with me. But then I saw that he had taken my doll—she was beautiful, with dark hair and green glass eyes—and had pinned a diamond brooch onto her dress. Then I was very happy.
On Shabbat, we go down to the beach, my aunt and uncle and I, my cousins and their wives and kids. Only Gavi doesn’t come along. He’s moved into a new place downtown by the port. We’ve spoken briefly on the phone since I’ve been here, but so far haven’t made plans to meet. Every time I think of him, I feel a twinge like wire twisting in my chest.
My aunt and uncle have five grandchildren now, ranging in age from six and a half to two. We walk along the concrete boardwalk at Hof Hacarmel Beach, find a sunny spot, sit down on the sand. It’s still early spring and the beach isn’t crowded; there’s only a small group of old men, brown as cowhide, sunning themselves on folding chairs. The children run back and forth with buckets of water and yell and scream. My uncle says, It’s a pity Mother isn’t here. Even though the oldest kids already know enough English to communicate with me, the smaller ones are friendliest. The two-year-old charges back and forth between her mother and me, fistfuls of sand draining through her fingers as she runs. Bevakasha! she pants, unfurling her hand over my lap. Todah, I say. We do this again and again.
The married man had children, too; at the time we were involved, his first was not yet two. Sometimes he’d bring her along when we met, carrying her in a backpack; people who saw us assumed we were a family. He’d touch and kiss me as if the baby weren’t there. I shouldn’t have let him, but I did. I knew the baby understood. She fixed me with a steady open stare, as if to say, don’t take what isn’t yours. So later, when the man cried on my shoulder and said he didn’t know if he could bear to leave his kids, I told him he should stay with them.
Although Josef has said he doesn’t want another child, Lila gets pregnant not long after they come to Palestine. She isn’t careless on purpose, but it isn’t exactly an accident either. She waits for her period as her breasts grow full and tender as a bruise. Over dinner, Josef talks about starting a factory like the one he had before the war, a knitwear business, manufacturing baby clothes. He will sell his stamp collection, Josef says, and with the money he got out before the war he should have enough to lease some space, buy machines. Once the war is over, he says. Once the situation with the British is resolved. It is a matter of time. The boys eat silently and fast; Josef lets them go. He cuts himself another wedge of cheese, tears off a piece of bread. Lila wraps her arms around her waist, takes little sips of wine. She imagines the outfits they’ll design: one-piece suits in yellow and white, tiny booties with pompoms on the strings. Yellow jacquard sweaters with matching leggings and a cap. Overalls in red or blue velour with pocket appliqués of dogs. They will help build this country, Josef says. They will join the ranks of the halutzniks, the pioneers. Lila wonders if this time it will be a girl. She has hung her wooden angel to the side of the front door. It looks away from her now, out over her head, its cherub’s face tipped up, a blank expression in its eyes.
I got pregnant after we came to Palestine, yes. But your grandfather did not want another child. It was different, he said, when we had a baby nurse and a nanny and all the family around. Now it would not be so easy to start again. Not so easy at all. And imagine, I was nearly forty at the time! I was crazy to think to have another child then. Crazy! Already we had two beautiful boys, almost fully grown. So I ended it. It was not difficult to arrange; the country was very modern for the time. There were plenty of good Jewish doctors without enough work who were willing to do such a thing. No, it would have been impossible to keep the child. Your grandfather was always right.
One of the few things I have kept from my time with the married man is a series of photographs of me in a swimming pool in Mexico. I am smiling up from the too-blue water, arms folded over the pool’s blue tiled edge, my head tipped back, my hair short and wet. The look on my face could be vanity, or love. I look happy, although I don’t remember feeling that way. The man had said, Give me your camera. I want you to see how beautiful you are. I wanted to see myself that way, too, of course. But it was strange, the things you saw or didn’t see. Of all the people who later looked at those pictures from my trip to Cozumel, the trip I said I went on all alone, no one ever asked who had taken those photographs of me. It makes me wonder about that photograph of my grandmother with her back turned to the sea. I pick it up and hold it up to the bedside light, and what strikes me now is the faint shadow at her feet. If you look closely, you can just make out the jut of elbows, the curved outline of a head. It makes me wonder, what about that crooked smile, that slight crease between her brows, as she lifts a hand to brush the hair back from her face—as if she were trying to peer backward through the camera’s lens to another eye? She wasn’t necessarily looking at my grandfather when she smiled that way. Not necessarily, no.
From the lookout on Panorama Street, you can see the black plumes of smoke from the refineries that the Stern Gang sabotaged five days before. The smoke billows from the giant oil tanks and spreads out on the wind, an ink-black fog, smudging out the sun. You can smell the burning oil everywhere. Lila stands at the railing with her dogs, looking down at the boulevards of the German Colony, the rooftops of the Hadar, the crooked arm of the northern coast, crosshatched in black. It is March and the hillside is flecked red and blue with flowering sage and flax. Everyone says war is very near. War again. The British have already evacuated their women and children and nonessential men; only police officers and soldiers remain. Her Fritz is sixteen now, and she holds her fingers crossed that he won’t be called to fight. Of course he’s dying to join the Palmach. Josef is trying to arrange to send him to textile school in England instead. Then her boy will be gone, but England is better than a prison cell in Acre, better than the fate of that poor Dov Gruner, who will almost certainly be hanged. The dogs are pulling at their leads, noses to the ground. She turns her head against the acrid wind and starts to walk.
I want to say that this is where it happens, right here on Panorama Street, under the rustling Carmel pines, in the shadow of what is now this hotel. He walks up and stands beside her, looking out at the conflagration by the shore. He has unruly hair and blazing eyes, a bony concave build. (In a photograph of sixteen early pioneers, he’s the one you notice right away, there in the front row, kneeling with one elbow resting on a knobby knee, his deep-set eyes focused right on you.) I want to say that he’s a socialist who left Odessa after the First World War, making him almost an old-timer here. I want to call him Lev. So rewind that last scene just a bit. Before the dogs grow impatient and she turns to leave. Instead, she turns and looks at him—he’s leaning forward, gazing out at the black plume of smoke, his forearms resting on the rail—and she says (in German, as if to herself), When will it end? And he says, End? (His German isn’t bad. Perhaps he studied in Berlin before the war.) But this is just the beginning! She notices his broad forehead, his wild hair, his ropy hands, the intensity of his gaze. Their eyes connect. Maybe nothing happens then, but I want to believe it does. I want to believe that desire rises out of smoke and ruin, out of loneliness and loss. I want to believe that there ar
Once, when your father was just a baby, your grandfather and I went for a fortnight’s skiing holiday to Zürs. It was the first time I’d ever left him, and even though my parents came to stay with him, I was terribly upset. I can’t go without my baby! I cried, but your grandfather insisted we leave him home. It will be good to get away, he said, and so we went. At the hotel where we stayed, there was a very nice man from Vienna who took a great liking to me. In the evenings, we played bridge and danced. On my last day, he came to the train station to say good-bye and brought for me an enormous bouquet of flowers. On the train, I held the flowers and I cried. I don’t want to go home, I said. Your grandfather said, What? I thought you missed little Fritz so terribly! But the truth is I didn’t want to go back at all.
My aunt and I are sitting at her kitchen table, drinking coffee and picking at the remains of a honey cake. She’s trying to talk me into going out with a doctor she’s convinced is my perfect match, but I don’t want to be fixed up. In a few days, I’ll be back home in New York anyway, and I don’t like the fact that she is so concerned. He comes from an excellent family, she says, as if that could clinch the deal. She brushes a few crumbs off her chest and lights a cigarette. Look at you, she says, pushing the cake plate over my way. So thin, just like your grandmother. You eat. Of course, we both know what my grandmother was like. She went on a grapefruit diet if she gained a kilo, which must have been rare because as I recall she hardly ate. She never got into a pool without swimming twenty laps. She rose at five, took ice-cold showers long after a gas heater was installed in the flat, rarely sat still for long. She was of another generation, my aunt says. How do you imagine she and your grandfather got along so well? Did you ever hear her once complain? She did everything for him. My aunt shakes her head; she is not much of one for mortification of the flesh. She says, So your grandmother got migraine headaches. Sometimes for an entire day she had to stay in bed. For holding everything inside, she says, tapping her chest, there is a cost. But what I want to know is what my grandmother was like before—before our memory of her, before the compounded effects of age and time. There is in my pile one photograph of her as a girl of maybe ten or twelve, sitting with her cousin Hansi on a garden bench. For the occasion, they’ve changed places: she’s wearing his leather sandals, his lederhosen, his Tyrolean cap with a feathered brim. He’s got on her dirndl (a little tight across the chest), her puff-sleeved blouse, her lace-trimmed socks and low-heeled white shoes. He looks uncomfortable, his hands curled awkwardly in his lap, but she sits triumphant, cocky, round-cheeked, her feet swinging free. She looks as if she might fly up, like Peter Pan, into the trees. Does this make her the kind of woman who would have an affair at forty-three? Really, I know nothing about her at all.
Since Haifa, though a city, is really a small town, assume that Lev is only visiting from the kibbutz up north where his ex-wife and three grown sons reside. Assume that the pension where he is staying, run by German Carmelite nuns, is small and out of the way, and that the nuns would have no cause to disbelieve him if he said that Lila was his wife. Assume he’s come to Haifa to help organize the resettlement of illegal refugees, who continue to arrive by the thousands, boat by boat, despite the blockade, the deportations, the violence and disease. Remember that everyone is distracted by the approaching war. Remember that Josef is on the road all day and sometimes overnight, that Fritz has sailed for England, that her younger son is still in school. Make the case for opportunity; make the case for need. (Think of her lost parents, sister, baby, her departed son.) Picture the two of them at a café, a few weeks after the Irgun’s famous prison raid. Hear her girlish laughter, see them reach across the table to touch hands. A tinny Russian melody is playing on a loudspeaker; hear Lev hum along, a little out of tune. Smell the salty breeze, the ersatz wartime coffee, the faint scent of pine. It is hot. Lev has leaned his motorbike against the wall, where it casts a long shadow on the dusty ground. His camera (a nice new Leica in a leather case) rests on the table by his hand. In a little while, they will get up and stroll a bit along the strand. She will lean against the rail. He will bend to kiss her, then step back. Smile, he will say. I want you to see how beautiful you are.
When I was sixteen years old, my own grandmother—your great-great-grandmother—died. Like all young girls, I wasn’t interested in my grandparents at all. I thought of my grandmother as a terribly old woman always dressed in black, and I ran out of the room as fast as I could whenever she came in. So the biggest effect her death had on me was that my mother, who was in mourning, could no longer accompany my sister and me to our weekly dancing lessons, so my aunt agreed to be our chaperone. Luckily for me, my aunt was always too busy chatting with the other adults to pay much attention to what I was up to. My sister was always well behaved, but I was a terrible flirt, always running off with the boys. This period after my grandmother died was one of the happiest times of my life.
My aunt’s doctor friend takes me out for lunch to Isfiya, a Druze village in the hills. The road winds up, the vegetation growing sparse and dry as we leave the sea. The doctor is pale and on the pudgy side, although he speaks English well and is a lively enough companion. We stop at an outdoor restaurant and he orders for us both—falafel and hummus and baba ghanoush, little plates of pickles and olives, a stack of pita bread. Do you know Arabic food? he asks. Do you think I live on the moon? I don’t say. Across from where we sit, an Arab villa is going up, with arched windows, a tiled roof, a satellite dish. A Mercedes is parked in front of the piles of dirt. I don’t tell him that I’ve been to Isfiya many times before. Would you ever come to live here? the doctor asks. Would you make aliyah? Israelis often ask me this question. Maybe, I say, although I know now the odds are slim. I doubt the doctor would move even as far away as Tel Aviv. We sit in the lengthening shade of a tree I don’t know the name of, lunch almost done, sipping cups of sweet coffee fragrant with cardamom, or hel. It doesn’t feel like home to me. Of course, I could say that about many places in the States as well.
After the doctor drops me back at the hotel, I go to take a swim. The only other person at the pool is an old woman in a rubber-flowered bathing cap swimming sinking breaststroke laps. I think of the summer I was sixteen when we spent three weeks at this hotel. I hung out by the pool for most of every day. A boy my age did back flips off the diving board while his older brother flirted with me. He was in the army, a paratrooper, he said; he was twenty-two. The edge of my hand brushed against his. He had a solid build, blunt features, greenish eyes like mine. He took me to the beach one afternoon in his orange VW Bug. When my mother found out later, she was irate. I rolled down my window as we drove along the winding mountain road and let the blue wind rush into my face. He rested his right hand on my bare thigh, lifting it only when he had to shift. He parked by the roadside and we walked through the sea grass to the sand. He handed his keys to a woman sitting by the shore. Hold these while I go in the water, he said to her. Don’t steal my car, I’m coming back. I ran into him again a few years later, by chance. I was nineteen then and he would have been twenty-five. His skin looked thicker, his eyes smaller, receded into the flesh, as if something vital had been concealed. We snuck out onto the hotel roof and kissed, but it wasn’t the same.
It is cold, colder in the flat than outside, the tiled floor sending a dull ache up Lila’s chilblained shins. They’ve been forced out of their flat by the British and this new one, on the French Carmel, is damp and unhealthy, facing onto the sea. Lila stays inside and bakes. Apfelstrudel and kugelhopf and a chocolate wafer cake that hardens in the fridge. Hazelnut cookies dredged in powdered sugar with a dot of strawberry jam. Today, kletzenbrot, a dense fruit bread. It will keep for a long while. She measures and sifts and recombines. Josef has managed to buy sugar beyond the ration on t
She really didn’t think that the affair with Lev would go on forever, but now that it’s over she feels betrayed. Now like the city, she feels hollowed out. The British are mostly gone; seventy thousand Haifa Arabs have fled. Jerusalem is under siege. She’s heard that Lev’s kibbutz has been attacked. When the war is over, things will no longer be the same. She will wear her knowledge of him like a pearl, a living thing, against her skin, where it will stay lustrous and complete. She feels like a sleeper waking from a dream, as if she’s traveled to the outer reaches of the universe without really going anywhere at all. She opens the oven and feels the hot breath in her face, rippling like a wave. She smells the faint reek of gas. She kneels before the oven door, her kidneys, liver, heart, and spleen floating loose inside her body: flotsam, unmoored.
Near the end of the Mandate, we had to move out from our flat. The British requisitioned it for their troops. We found another one, not so nice as this, down on the French Carmel. You know that I was always crazy for dogs, and one day, my littlest one ran away. You cannot imagine how worried I was! We searched everywhere, calling, calling, but he did not come. Then the next day, there came a knock at the door. It was the landlord, who lived downstairs. Do you have a small white dog? he demanded. Yes, yes! I cried. Have you found him? The landlord said, He ran back to your old flat. The British have him now. You must go to fetch him there. I was afraid, but I had to get my dog back, so I went up to the old flat. The British had retreated to our street with their guns and barbed wire barricades and armored cars. People called these compounds Bevingrads. I was very frightened, but I spoke with the soldiers at the checkpoint and after some discussion they let me through. I went up the steps to our flat and knocked on my own door. An officer answered, holding my little dog in his arms. He was stroking its ears and head. Here you are, Madam, he said, handing the dog to me. I was afraid that he’d be angry with me, but he couldn’t have been more kind. Not long afterward, after Independence, we got our own flat back again.
by Margot Singer have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on50 votes