Sarah Tuttle-Singer
A Mermaid in Jerusalem
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The mermaid mothers

I can speak Hebrew the whole day long, but I'm never fully myself, and that hurts
Illustrative: Collage of Hebrew letters. (iStock)
Illustrative: Collage of Hebrew letters. (iStock)

When I was a kid in LA, I didn’t think about it much, but now that I do, now that I live here, in Israel, now that I’m a mermaid, I remember there were these mothers who would always stand in the back during school-type things — book fairs, or the holiday concerts.

They were the ones who spoke funny, who mixed up words, who wore jeans that were a little too tight, and had hair that was a little too big, one had green eye shadow, another clackity shoes, and they didn’t talk much, and when they did, it sounded strange — like big round rocks rolling down stairs, da-dum DUM… another like a river washing over bamboo reeds, hwish hwish, and another like the wings of a humming bird fweee fweeee.

When their kids were around, they would speak to them in Spanish or Farsi or Mandarin, but when they were alone, they’d stand in the back, arms clasped, or folded, or in their pockets, and it’s not like they could even talk freely to one another, and they’d just stand there. My mom and the other mothers — Susan and Eileen and Marikay and all of them — were nice to them. It wasn’t that they were left alone on purpose, it’s just, it was hard to get beyond the pleasantries, and the smiles. Because the short hand of shared language and culture my mom and Susan and Eileen and Marikay and all of them took for granted, these women just didn’t understand.

The distance was too vast between them, the distance of growing up in the same kind of boxes on the same kind of grid and watching the same kind of TV shows and eating the same kind of hamburgers with fries, and knowing what all the words say without having to read them letter by letter, sound by sound, and the distance of being from somewhere else, a place of mountains and smoke, or green rice fields, or blue fountains, or cold bread lines, or dirty sand, a place that when you said where your from, you’re met with the quick head tilt and the vague, “Oh that’s nice.” Or ARGH: “Oh, what was that like?” and then you’re reduced to explain your childhood in three sentences or less.

OR WORSE: “Why did you come here?” and then you’re stuck explaining about the Revolution, or the Drug Lords, or how it felt watching your mom give blow jobs for a roll of toilet paper, or whatever it is that made you give up the comfort and ease of your language and your own box and your own grid for someone else’s.

I never thought about them much, those other mothers, those different mothers, those mermaid mothers, but now living here, I think about them all the time.

I think about them and I want to find them, and I want to get down on my knees and wrap my arms around their legs and beg them to tell me how they did it, how they survived. Day after day, year after year, how they did it, how they lived through the loneliness, how they continued on feeling stupid all the time, how they raised their kids to be so foreign from them, to speak like the others who ignored them.

Because it’s true, I can speak Hebrew. I can spend the whole day in Hebrew. I can spend the whole day and even find my way back home again and order a fucking glass of whisky in Hebrew.

But I’m not smart in Hebrew. I’m not funny in Hebrew, I’m not INTERESTING in Hebrew except maybe as novelty and a “Oh, why would you leave America?” or ARGH “What do you think of Israel,” and then I have to hurry up and say it all before their eyes glaze over, and I’m just standing there with my strange feathers and fins, my funny weird voice and the quieter I am, the louder the difference, and the conversation turns into something that I can’t follow, and so I sit there with my hands clasped, drowned bird, flailing fish.


No one.

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer is the author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel. She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems, and she now lives in Jerusalem with her 3 kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors, talks to strangers, and writes stories about people — especially taxi drivers. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.
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