‘Shchainim’…. Neighbors

It is one o’clock in the morning and I am unable to fall asleep. I walk into the kitchen deciding on whether to make myself a cup of coffee or a cup of tea. Since a cup of coffee would only keep me more awake, I settle on a cup of hot tea. But what is a cup of tea without a cookie.. or two. .or three ? I opt for three.

Sipping the tea and munching the cookies, my thoughts go back sixty years….”the good old days”. I remember life on Geula Bet, a dirt street in Rishon Lezion where I was staying with Yitzchak, Klara and their five children. In summer the dirt street was comfortable to walk but in winter, after heavy rains, the “street” was turned into “botz”…mud… and feet could easily fall into the thick wet remnants of it.

The street was lined with small cottages, no apartment buildings existed in those days, and Yitzchak’s garden was, in spring and summer, a paradise of perfume. Cherry trees, small pear trees, and lemons growing only a few feet away from my bedroom.

The main central streets of Rishon were paved but most of the residential areas were surrounded by fields. Opposite Yitzchak’s home, goats were munching on field grass and cackling hens were hastening to pick up bits of the goats’ manure. It was somewhat primitive but happy. Neighbors were friendly and greeted one another sincerely.

Life was not easy. To have a telephone installed in a home required a wait of seven years. Cost-conscious people did not buy toilet paper but instead used torn pieces of newspaper or the fragrant paper wraps from Jaffa oranges. Local and long distance calls had to be placed in the central post-office and one was lucky if he/she could be among the first twenty people waiting in line.

A telephone call that I made from Nahariya in northern Israel to Jerusalem was an adventure. First, I had to crank up the telephone by hand and wait for an operator. It was required to give the number from which the call was being placed and the number to which the call was being made. The operator then told me to hang up and to wait for her call. It came almost one hour later. The telephone system in the 1950’s was not as advanced as today’s Bezeq.

Next door to Yitzchak’s home lived an old couple, originally from Russia.  Avrom, the husband, was a religious Jew with a long grey beard who wore a black cap. He would hitch up his horse to a wagon every morning and begin his rounds collecting scraps of wood and metal which he sold. To whom, I never knew.

His elderly wife, Chana Liebe, always covered her hair with a kerchief and wore a long apron. Several times a day she would step outside her home to feed the chickens and goats in her back yard. Whenever she saw me she would wave to me. She spoke no Hebrew, only Yiddish, and occasionally when I heard her singing Yiddish folk tunes through the open windows in her home, I joined in and sang the songs through my window.

She enjoyed it and frequently, when she saw me, she handed me a piece of strudel or a lekach (sponge cake) which she had baked.  In late afternoons, one could hear the tinkle of bells in the distance. It was a sign that Avrom was on his way home. As he approached our “street” he would always shout out at the top of his lungs to his wife: “Chana Liebe, Chana Liebe. Efsher macht mir a glozzele tay”… make me please a glass of tea.

As he unhitched the horse from the wagon and saw me, he came over to his side of the fence and called out to me “Shchainim, vos machst du tayere shchainim?” Neighbor, how are you dear neighbor? And he thrust his fist over the fence and grabbed my hand in a firm and friendly hand-shake.

Since there were no telephones and no television and no telephones, the only way to “socialize” was by greeting the neighbors whenever you saw them. And everyone had time to talk about family, about the day’s events, about Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s latest remarks. These conversations were our common vocal newspaper.

How I miss much of those good old days when neighbors knew how to be neighbors, who shared and who cared.

On Friday nights Yitzchak and a small group of friends would sit on his terrace playing poker and munching on sunflower seeds. They were usually his friends who worked with him at the nearby Gavish glass factory. I would often go there to watch Yitzchak blowing what seemed to be large glass bubbles from a very long pipe, cutting them off and placing them in a vat of water. Moments later, out came a drinking glass or a flower vase. A miracle to see and to wonder.

I still remember the names of those friends and neighbors who worked with him. There was Rachamim, the Yemenite plant foreman, Yossi, a Turkish Jew, Gabi, a Greek Jew, and Gyorgi, a Greek Christian. He had a lovely daughter, Christina, who dressed up beautifully every Sunday morning on her way to the Greek Orthodox church in Jaffa.

Jews and Christians, Hebrew and Greek conversations, all warm friends and good neighbors.

In later years, Geula Bet was transformed into a residential area…but no more private homes. Yitzchak and family now lived on the fifth floor of a walk-up apartment building.

No more cherry trees. No more pear trees. No more lemon trees. Only concrete. No more Avrom and Chana Liebe. No more horse and wagon. No more “Shchainim”. How I miss those days !

It is now two o’clock in the morning. No more hot tea. No more almond cookies. Off to bed to sleep.. and perhaps to dream… of happy days when I was young.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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