Farewell to Savta Judith

Judith and Zechariah Ratzaby
Judith and Zechariah Ratzaby

How ironic that my grandmother passed away during Passover Seder, a reminder that death catches all of us in the end, and did not pass over her as much as I wanted my savta (granny) to live forever. I was lucky to have her for 52 years of my life, and she lived to be 100 years old–how many get such a long life. But I’m still sad, feel sick actually, as though someone has just punched me in the stomach. When she was still able to do so, she would phone me up but it was always in the middle of the night. She would wake me up at 2:00 a.m., or 3:00, or 4:00, but I was never angry, I knew that it would not last and that one day these phone calls would stop. Nobody wakes me up anymore to tell me the mishmish (apricot) on her tree is waiting for me or that the bounty of shesek (loquat), also growing in her garden, tastes very sweet.

Judith was something special, the first generation in my family to be born in Israel (Palestine back then), her parents came from Yemen and settled in Sha-araim in 1914. She was a nurturer, and worked with students who participated in the special education program at a local school. Together with my grandfather she opened their home to foster children, but they really didn’t have much money, and their home was small, yet they made room for more. They helped shelter ma-apilim, Jews who escaped Nazi Germany; they fed them, clothed them and helped them acclimate to their new surroundings. Everyone contributed to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The memories are flooding my mind at this moment, the reason I always choose to write the minute I’m hit with news–good or bad. I recall the sound of the pigeons nesting on trees that enveloped the house, and savta holding me up to see them, she loved animals. In the mornings I would wake up to the croak of a cock next door, and when I was in the army I would spend the night in their home every couple of weeks, and Judith would wake up early to prepare a melawach doused in honey for me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was never hungry in the mornings, so I would eat it and then return to the Kirya (army base) feeling satiated for the rest of the day.

Walking into their home was like entering a time warp, both saba and savta instilled in me a love and appreciation of my Jewish culture and traditions; they were my anchor in Israel and even though we were in and out of Israel, spending time in England and America during those early childhood years, there was always that longing to get back to Israel to be with them.

My parents had to forcefully pull me away; I still remember crying every time we would leave. They represented a sense of stability, and identity. I knew who I was because everything they did was steeped in tradition. On Fridays, Judith would wake up at the crack of dawn and begin preparing for the Sabbath by kneading the dough for the kubana, which was the traditional Saturday morning bread that we would dip into chicken soup, served with a dollop of hilbe–a spicy fenugreek paste. She would also bake the challah bread and the usual Yemenite fare with a few new modern Israeli additions that my grandfather never touched, though it satisfied the new generation of Israeli grandchildren sitting around the table.

When the weather was good, we would have our Sabbath meal around a table set underneath a canopy of grapevines, and my grandfather’s beautiful voice infused the air with ancient melodies that spoke of love, gratitude, and hope. It’s been years since I’ve heard this type of golden, melodic chime or eaten savta’s kubana, and nobody knows how to make a proper one these days though thankfully Uncle Ami has kept a semblance of those traditions alive.

Passover was something special; my grandparents would prepare the Yemenite matza together, saba would continuously shake the dough so it wouldn’t rise, and she would dip her arm in water and in a flash she would tear a piece of dough and with a brisk hand maneuver she would spread it over the sides of the tabun (open-flame clay oven). Neighbors and friends would crowd their veranda, and revel in this ancient ceremonious matza-making event. Her arms were filled with scars from years and years of shoving her arm into that open-flame fire, but I see those today as a symbol of savta’s devotion to good food and family.

For the Seder, we would sit on mattresses set below tables that resembled the way Passover was celebrated in Yemen, and you know that Yemenite Jews were the ones who preserved Jewish traditions for centuries–just the way they would celebrate before Jews were expelled from the Holy Land. The table was covered in the green leafy vegetables and herbs used to symbolize the Jews’ bitter lives in bondage, and the room would fill with prayer and song. Passover was hard work for savta, she cooked for many people, and prepared a variety of dishes, which turned our experience into a feast fit for Kings. Most people don’t realize that Yemenites have a very sophisticated menu, it’s not all flour and water as mainstream Israelis think. These are the very flavors that easily stir up emotions and memories of a time long gone, recipes that for the life of me have never turned out the same, and how could they when granny would say just add a little sugar, not too much, a cup or two of flour, and a few eggs.

As I stare into my phone thinking of the next memory I’d like to capture, I remember wearing a bathing suit and lying on the warm decorative tiles outside my grandparents’ home, and savta using a hose pipe to wet my cousins and I, as we giggled and frolicked on the wet floor and basked under the soothing, warm summer sun. I also see an image of Judith dancing to the tune of Yemenite music with so much joy and bounce to every step she takes, she absolutely loved to dance. I think that’s how I’d like to end this tribute to a woman I love.

I thank my uncle Ami for his devotion to savta–together with his wife Miriam, savta had the best of care. And I have a lot of love and appreciation for Kalpana Siwakoti Sangroula for taking such good care of her and never leaving her side. Sushila Rai was also there for savta, for many years, and my love extends to her too.

Wow, I can still smell the scent of her skin and feel how soft it was. I will always miss my savta.

About the Author
Ilana was born in London, England, and currently resides in Camarillo, California. She graduated from Manchester University with an LL.B in 1991. Her writings include the play “A Recipe for Hummus,” and her novels, "The Diary of a Wrinkle" and "East End Dreams." "Age Schmage" is a little book intended to help women in their moments of doubt; "A Cookbook for the Woman Who Hates Cooking" is an honest, yet funny approach to cooking; "What if I Had a Different Name?" is a collaboration with her son Jack and it’s a fun exploration of some of the weird and fantastical names that Jack imagines as his own. "The Cloud That Covered My Head" is a whimsical story about a boy who preferred to stay in bed and dream rather than go to school. "Diary of a Wrinkle" is her blog where she muses on the topic of aging and beauty, and @wrinklerevolution is her corresponding Instagram account. You can follow her on Instagram at @soletseat for her daily culinary creations. Her latest children's book "Rotten Tooth Ruth" will be available for purchase on Amazon first week of December 2018.