Wednesday, 1 October 2014
My first creative non-fiction piece has just been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. It is based on my mother's diary.
With a terrible cry, the young man let go of the knife and fell to the ground, blood oozing from his throat.
Naomi froze in horror in the late spring morning sun, jostled by the bustling market around her. A boisterous crowd was starting to mill about the young Arab trader, now stretched prone in the dirt, surrounded by Israeli police.
He had slashed his own throat; that much was clear. But why?
Moments earlier she had passed by an old Arab basket-seller being arrested. Her ears still rang with his yells of protest. Bystanders had explained that he was allowed to sell his products in the main street, but not in the shuk itself.
Normally her Sunday shopping expedition to Shuk HaCarmel (the Carmel Market) was a highlight of her week. She would linger over the colorful, long alley of stalls packed tight with hundreds of vendors on both sides, each vying for attention, hocking their wares by seeing who could shout the loudest. Dazzled by the array of spices, pastries, and other culinary treats, she would stop to purchase the fruits and vegetables her mother had requested, slipping in an extra juicy peach or crisp apple for herself.
Now she noticed two officers wheeling away a cart full of vegetables.
“They’re taking it to the police station!” someone shouted.
Apparently the young trader too did not have a permit to sell in the market.
Her routine shattered, Naomi made her way through the dusty, dry streets of south Tel Aviv to her mother’s home, where she was staying during her visit to her birthplace. She had not finished her shopping but her heart was just not in it anymore.
“I cannot say who is right or wrong,” she later wrote in her diary, “but I do feel that something must be very wrong for such a thing to have occurred. You don’t cut your own throat just for the pleasure of it, or as an idle demonstration.”
Her thoughts were interrupted by the cries of a watermelon seller. “Avatiach al a sakin!” (“Watermelon on the knife!”), he shouted from his perch atop his horse-drawn wagon, challenging potential customers to test the ripeness of the fruit. At least she would bring home something fresh for lunch, she thought, as he sliced off a red glistening portion for her.
Tensions had been rife between the local populations of downtown Tel Aviv and Jaffa long before that memorable Sunday in May 1957. Indeed, Shuk HaCarmel owed much of its growth to the Arab riots particularly of the late 1930s, which were held in protest against Jewish immigration and land transfers. As a result, Tel Aviv’s Jewish population had tried to end its commercial dependence on Jaffa. The violence had continued in the years before the establishment of the State of Israel, Arab snipers shooting at Jewish shoppers from the nearby Hassan BekMosque, the well-known Ottoman-style building, which still adorns the road to Jaffa by the Mediterranean Sea.
Naomi’s family, like many others, had been personally affected by the riots. Her father Berl’s laundry in Jaffa was burned to the ground, leaving him struggling to support a wife and two young children without a source of income.
According to family legend, he had no option but to go down to the harbor, where he had found one ship departing for South America and another for Australia. It was July 1938, the eve of World War II, and fortunately, he had chosen the vessel heading for Melbourne, promising his young family that he would send for them as soon as he could.
War, however, was to intervene, and it would be several years before he could afford to purchase even one ticket for a family member to join him. Meanwhile, back in Tel Aviv, his wife Chana was forced to resort to housecleaning to feed her children.
It was late 1946 before Naomi, by then a teenager, had finally been chosen to make the weeks-long journey to Australia by herself. Now, some ten years later, she was back, living with her mother – the only member of her immediate family still in Israel – in the sunny, whitewashed house her father had built in the south Tel Aviv suburb of Shechunat Brenner. She traveling each week to Jerusalem, where she had won a research scholarship to the Hebrew University.
Having changed considerably during her decade-long absence, the shy and reserved teenager blossomed into an attractive and bright 20-something woman, fluent in English, armed with a Commerce degree, and schooled in Australian social mores and customs. Nevertheless, she had never been able to recover completely from the fears and instability of her childhood, recalling as if it were yesterday, the sirens in the middle of the night, at the first sound of which she and her family would rush to their cousins’ apartment in downtown Tel Aviv, further away from the center of the action.
Now, as she unlatched the low front gate and entered her mother’s simple but neat front yard, the grass freshly mowed and the lemon tree bursting with fruit, her mind wandered back to an incident that had occurred just over a year earlier, in April 1956, which she had also recorded in her diary: “Some people spread panic, saying five Arab terrorists were caught in the market next to us. I was really scared, as that would have meant we were all in real danger. Radio programs didn’t mention anything – probably somebody’s imagination. Still, to be on the safe side, we closed all windows and shutters, bolted doors and stayed inside – horrible feeling.”
That had been a particularly anxious time, when the newspapers were full of alarming reports about shootings and attacks. On one day alone – 7 April 1956 – an Israeli woman was killed when attackers threw hand grenades into her house in Ashkelon in southern Israel; two kibbutz members died when their car was fired upon; and there were other attacks on homes and cars in which one person was killed and three others wounded.
Disheartened, Naomi had written in her diary: “Had some very disturbing news concerning the killing of citizens by Fedayeen-Arab groups. It is a horrible feeling being stabbed in the back when one is least aware.”
Four days later gunmen opened fire on a synagogue filled with children in the farming community of Shafir in southern Israel, killing three children and a youth worker and wounding five, including three seriously.
By “Fedayeen” – a term that has since fallen out of use – Naomi meant Arab terrorists, who infiltrated Israel to strike targets in the years after the establishment of the new State. At their peak, four years earlier in 1952, there had been about 3000 such border incursions, ranging from property destruction to murder.
Hastily, Naomi tried to dismiss the memories, striving to quell the familiar anxiety stirring in the pit of her stomach. She would not tell her mother about this morning’s events in the market. It would only frighten her and life was hard enough… How she wished her Australian papers would come through so her mother could finally leave Tel Aviv and join the rest of the family!
Meanwhile, she brightened, they would go to the movies. A new comedy was showing at the Mograbi Cinema. And perhaps tonight, she would accept Yaacov’s invitation and join him for the munitions exhibition? Even though she was not really interested in ammunition…
My sister and I never expected to find Naomi’s diary. Indeed, for many years, we did not even know of its existence. A non-descript, navy-bound volume, it had been stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which our late mother had worked for so many years. Perhaps she had simply forgotten writing it? Or perhaps she had chosen not to share her youthful passions and agonies, hopes and fears with her daughters… We will never know.
I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having been gradually extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, nearly 60 years later as I turn the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I feel grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew, albeit in a younger form, becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.
At the same time, and especially in the wake of the most recent deterioration in relations between Israel and Gaza, it is sobering to read a personal account of the early trials and tribulations, anguish and vulnerability of the new State of Israel.
The ravages of disease had prevented my mother from recounting her memories long before her death last year. Her diary provides a portrait of her, as I never knew her: a young woman dealing with fears and insecurities so foreign to me. It provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the “Australian Jewish News,” she also serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online publications including “Jewish Daily Forward,” “Times of Israel,” “Jewish Writing Project,” “Eureka Street,” “Alzheimer’s Reading Room” and “Online Opinion.” You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au