Michelle Orrelle
Live & Learn

Invisible threads

My grandmother sewed costumes for Habima after she came to Palestine from Odessa in 1919; in 2019, I think I spotted them in the theater's window

A couple of months ago I joined a writer’s group that meets every few weeks in Tel Aviv. The first time I went, I drove to the city, parked underground and took the escalator to the surface. As I emerged from the artificial light, I saw the white tower of the Habima Theatre sprinkled with fairy lights against a streaked purple sky. It promised magic.

I checked the address and walked purposefully by the glass wall of the theater, but I didn’t get very far. Within a few steps I was no longer alone: mannequins dressed in costumes from plays gone by were on display in a neat row, for length of the building.

I was struck by them because I knew my grandmother had sewn costumes for Habima after she came with her family to Palestine from Odessa in 1919. She was 17.

I went inside to get a closer look. I wanted to lift the skirts and examine the hems, to see, no, to touch the thread, in the hope it was one she had touched. I wanted to reach out across the decades to the young woman everyone said I looked like.

But most of all, I wanted to let her know that in a way, she’d made it back to Israel because I was here.

I remember my great aunt Ola telling me about the day my grandmother set sail to Australia. My grandfather, her Polish, Swiss-trained watchmaker husband was taking her and their 5-year-old-boy, Nachman, far away from her family and new home, in search of adventure. Ola told me that my grandmother cried and cried, not wanting to leave, not knowing when she would return.

But in 1939 she began a new life in Sydney. Her name was changed from Fenya to Frieda, and her son’s name was changed from Nachman to Newton. It was difficult for her to adjust and she never mastered the language or culture. Sadly her husband died young, leaving her and Newton to look after each other. But things turned out well: he worked hard and became a doctor, he fell in love and married into a big, Jewish-Australian family, and she was blessed with two granddaughters all of which made her happy.

But I know deep down, she always dreamed of returning to live with her family in Israel. And I understand her, because in this way, my life mirrors hers. Living far away from my family and home in Australia, pains me too.

So now each time as I walk by those costumes in the window, I think of her and imagine that I’m closing a circle. I want to tell her that her great-grandchildren, whom she never knew, are growing up here, serving in the IDF and living amongst the people and places she loved. As I brush by her handiwork on the other side of the glass wall, I imagine I am tacking together the years she was away with the years I have been here, into one unbroken seam.

About the Author
Michelle is an Australian Jew who moved to Israel in 2004 with her three US born sons, and British-born, Israeli-raised husband. She is the co-founder of Crew 972 animation production company, Director, Arizona-Israel Trade and investment Office, Residence Event Manager for Australian Ambassador to Israel, and guides at ANU Museum of the Jewish People.
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