Sarah Tuttle-Singer
A Mermaid in Jerusalem

Village life and death

There was a girl and her mother who lived down the road from where we live – their garden was strewn with seashells and piece of broken pottery. They had wind chimes hanging from the fig tree in the front, wind chimes made from spoon and forks and butter knives that dangled in the breeze and clanked when the wind blew.

There were little windows, one patched with cardboard and chicken wire, and every morning the girl fed the rabbits they had in a little hutch by the front door.

I know all of this because my daughter was friends with the girl – her name was Svetlana and she born in Israel, but in an Israel where she didn’t learn Hebrew until first grade, where she grew up on lullabies sung in Russian, fed on folk tales about cold winters and mittens and little white rabbits and warm fire places.
Her mother didn’t speak any Hebrew even though they had lived in that little house for years and years – her mother grew up just outside Tel Aviv by the sea in a place that smelled like salt and tar and gasoline, that could have been pretty if people weren’t so busy trying to make enough money to feed their kids and maybe buy a pack of cigarettes to get them through each day.

We lived in a caravan when we first came to the village – a little one that the landlord destroyed because it was’t legal – a little one where the sewer would backup into the shower once a week, and the roof leaked even in the summer, but it was home. We Iive in a bigger place now — it used to be a chicken coop but it isn’t any more, and there’s a window and a door and three bedrooms and I’ve hung all my pictures on the wall.

Svetlana and her mother lived in a place with only two rooms – a living room with tiny windows and a bedroom as big as a broom closet, and my daughter said that the mother slept on the little couch with the high back, and her daughter took the bedroom, and the bathroom was in the kitchen but they hung a shower curtain so you could pee with no one looking.

My daughter liked to play there because Svetlana would brush her hair and braid it, and wrap each braid around her head, and they would play with the rabbits and dunk sweet biscuits into sweeter tea, and sit outside and watch the cars drive by.
“They’re like us, Mama,” my daughter would tell me. “Svetlana’s mom is from somewhere else, and Svetlana says Please and
Thank you, and they have a crazy garden.”

Last year, one day, the house was gone, just like that – a few pieces of broken wood, cardboard and chicken wire and the wind chime with the spoons and forks and butter knives splayed on the ground like a broken ballerina next to the fig tree toppled over. The family that had rented out the place wanted to build on top of it – they wanted a bigger house with large windows and a staircase and a dozen rooms, and Svetlana and her mother moved away and we have no idea where. One day they were outside with the rabbits and the next day they were gone, and so was the house, just the earth, the color of ash.

“Will we be like them?” my daughter asked.

I didn’t have the words except I hugged her, and I picked up the wind chime before it could blow away.

The owners built their new house brick by brick, and it’s tall and white with huge glass windows that show grey walls inside for all to see. They put in a sapling of a lemon tree, and it died within a month, the ground was dry and wasted, and it’s roots withered as soon as they touched the earth.

Within a year, they got divorced because scorched earth yields nothing, only dust and disappointment.

So I sit on my porch with my kids in our messy garden, and I listen to the water soak into the ground while the wind blows through each leaf on all the trees outside, and through the wind chimes, too.

For more stories like these, check out Sarah’s intimate memoir about living in the hottest piece of spiritual real estate in the world: Jerusalem, Drawn and Quartered

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.