“I just sold it to that couple for 30 shekel,” Yoram, the merchant said pointing to the backs of two people, “why should I give it to you for less?” There was an almost angry lilt to his Hebrew.
“Because I have a great smile,” I quipped without missing a beat. And with that, he tipped his head and handed me the bundle of socks in a blue plastic bag. I paid him 20 shekel and he shooed me away lest anyone be witness to the coup I just pulled.
The shuk at Machaneh Yehuda, the bastion of haggling in the heart of Israel, is so fabulously complementary to the delicate mélange of old-world aura and cosmopolitan glitter that Jerusalem has become. It is a city of unique sophistication built on ancient spirits blended with the sacrifice of souls, old and new, made on her behalf. Hidden in a pocket of the city between the streets of Agrippas and Yaffo, the shuk, a world unto itself; it couldn’t be more ideal had it been expressly planned as a special treat for tourists to go back in time.
Waiting to meet two of my friends at a predesignated restaurant at the shuk, I sat down at a table, and ordered a café hafuch. My mind wandered, drifting through the wealth of colors and aromas that flooded the scene around me, all part of the potent lure of the spirits, which indeed led me back in time.
Shopping at Machaneh Yehuda in Jerusalem never failed to remind me of my mom and how there was never a store established where she wouldn’t “hondle” on the price. She could be shopping in Neiman Marcus, and still she would find a way to bargain down the cost from finding a loose thread or pointing out some microscopic imperfection. The snootier the sales person, the more plucky my mother became. She was damn good at it too. “Nobody could pull the wool over my eyes,” she would always say. And she was right. I used to feel embarrassed when my mom would go into bargaining mode, but today I found, oh God, I’ve become my mother! The shuk has a way of doing that, I suppose. How my mother would love this place, I thought.
My mom was and still is conflicted over my move to Israel. She never planned on her only daughter moving 6,000 miles away, although she loves this land and…her blood is here.
My mom was a tough woman back in the day. Still is, actually. The gangs in our upper Manhattan neighborhood got to know her well. She went after them, literally hunted them down, cornered them and scared the daylights out of them after they attacked my brothers on one of their beat-up-the-Jew for sport games. She lived up to the phrase, “Never again.” She also didn’t hesitate to speak her mind to friends as well as to strangers, would never let anyone take advantage of her and had a thing or two to say to the teens hanging out and shooting up heroin at the park, just down the block from where we lived. They knew better not to answer her back.
“Are you ready to order?” The waiter asked.
“I’m waiting for two people. They’ll be here soon.” I noticed a small group of young women hungrily eyeing my table. I glanced at the time on my iPhone. My friends were clearly running late but I wasn’t about to surrender my table so easily. It was Thursday afternoon at the shuk and vacant tables at the few coffee shops were hard to come by. I stirred the foam of my café hafuch and allowed my mom to once again take over my thoughts.
A child survivor of a Siberia slave labor camp during WWII, she walked around with a spirit that signified that nobody, but nobody, would ever dare look at her sideways again if they knew what was good for them.
So it was a bit unsettling that one time when I came home from school after another ordinary day in the fourth grade to find my mom crying in the living room. I put my school bag down and stood at the entrance of the room watching my Dad try to comfort my mom, his arm around her as she wept.
“What happened?” I asked. My father motioned to me not to speak. I eyed an opened letter on the coffee table in front of them. A few moments passed and my dad helped my mom off the couch and walked with her still sobbing, out of the room.
I headed straight for the letter. The return address was in Hebrew. There were also two photos lying next to it. One of a young woman, her long straight dark hair embracing a face with dark eyes that stared hauntingly back at me. She was sitting cradling a baby girl on her lap. The other, was of a strikingly handsome young man with a full head of dark brown curls sporting a smile that was half sheepish and half cocky.
I began to read the letter. It was written by Aviva, the woman in the photo. It was about Amit Nadav, her husband of 18 months. How he was just killed in action while pursuing terrorists. How he left behind a baby girl, three weeks old, similar to his own father, Moshe, who was killed in the War of Independence when Amit was likewise just thre weeks old. I read how Aviva referred to Amit’s father as my mother’s brother. And to Amit, as my mom’s nephew. I read how Amit was Aviva’s sun… And how the sun would never shine again for her.
I placed the letter back down on the table and sat on the couch stunned.
I had a cousin? A first cousin? I had family? In Israel?
Entirely unaware that anyone had made it to Israel before WWII broke out, I was told that our entire European family was wiped out. I recalled how I felt robbed at that moment. Cheated. Inexplicably obsessed with Israel, I believed that I had been born in the wrong place, convinced that some kind of error of cosmic proportion had been made having been born in New York and it would have thrilled me to know that I had family there.
Within moments, in the time it took to read the letter, I gained and lost my blood relatives in Israel. All that was left was Aviva, a total stranger to me, now a widow with a newborn baby. Aviva, once related by marriage and now no longer, her tear-filled letter a heavy weight in my hands and her anguish finding a permanent resting spot in my head.
I surmised that some wounds run too deep and that was why my mother never mentioned her brother, Moshe. Or that he had had a son. And it wasn’t until much later that I also learned that my mother’s father was shot and killed by the Russians during WWII for being vocal about his Zionism.
Today, I wonder if somehow the souls of Moshe and Amit know that my brother and I, who moved to Israel almost a decade ago, visit their graves. That we feel a great void in not having had the chance to know them. That we love them because they are our family. That we are proud of them and grateful for their ultimate sacrifice. That they have family from the Diaspora that made it home to Israel. That their niece and first cousin, respectively, is in Jerusalem thinking about them, right now, at this very moment.
I mused, while continuing to stare blindly into the bustling crowd, if they could somehow see me sitting in a café in Shuk Machaneh Yehuda, in the center of our radiant capital, and imagined how delighted they would be. I decided that they could see. The essence of souls cannot be extinguished. And in Jerusalem, where the spirits are embedded in each sun drenched stone, their reach can be as powerful as an impassioned caress.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the owner of the coffee shop speaking to the waiter while pointing at me. Looks like I may lose this coveted table after all.
The waiter approached me. This time with a dessert dish of two freshly baked chocolate rugelach. “While you wait for your friends,” he smiled.
The spirits were strong this day.