Saturday, July 29, 2017

ET: Almanac

For years we had a regular arrangement for a telephone link with the family in Tel Aviv. We used to phone them every three or four months, even though we didn't have a phone and neither did they. First we would write to Aunti Hayya and Uncle Tsvi to let them know that on, say, the nineteenth of the month--which was a Wednesday, and on Wednesdays, Tsvi left his work at the Health Clinic at three--we would phone from our pharmacy to their pharmacy at five. The letter was sent well in advance, and then we waited for a reply. In their letter, Aunti Hayya and Uncle Tsvi assured us that Wednesday the nineteenth suited them perfectly, and they would be waiting at the pharmacy a little before five, and not to worry if we didn't manage to phone at five on the dot, they wouldn't run away.

I don't remember whether we put on our best clothes for the expedition to the pharmacy, for th phone call to Tel Aviv, but it wouldn't surprise me if we did. It was a solemn undertaking. As early as the Sunday before, my father would say to my mother, Fanta, you haven't forgotten that this is the week that we're phoning Tel Aviv? On Monday my mother would say, Arieh, don't be late home the day after tomorrow, don't mess things up. And on Tuesday they would both say to me, Amos, just don't make any surprises for us, you hear, just don't be ill, you hear, don't catch cold or fall over until after tomorrow afternoon. And that evening they would say to me, Go to sleep early, so. you'll be in good shape for the phone call, we don't want you to sound as though you haven't been eating properly.

So they would build up the excitement. We lived in Amos Street, and the pharmacy was a five-minute walk away, in Zephaniah Street, but by three o'clock my father would say to my mother:

"Don't start anything new now, so you won't be in a rush."
"I'm perfectly OK, but what about you with your books, you might forget all about it."
"Me? Forget? I'm looking at the clock every few minutes, and Amos will remind me."

Here I am, just five or six years old, and already I have to assume a historic responsibility. I didn't have a watch--how could I?--and so every few moments I ran to the kitchen to see what the clock said, and then I would announce, like the countdown to a spaceship launch: twenty-five minutes to go, twenty minutes to go, fifteen to go, ten and a half to go--and at that point we would get up, loc the front door carefully, and set off, the three of us, turn left as far as Mr. Auster's grocery shop, then right into Zechariah Street, left into Malachi Street, right into Zephaniah Street, and straight into the pharmacy to announce:

"Good afternoon to you Mr. Heinemann, how are you? We've come to phone."

He knew perfectly well, of course, that on Wednesday we would be coming to phone our relatives in Tel Aviv, and he knew that Tsvi worked at the Health Clinic, and that Hayya had an important job in the Working Women's League, and that Yoga was going to grow up to be a sportsman, and that they were good friends of Gold Meyerson (who later became Gold Meir) and of Misha Colony, who was known as Moshe Kol over here, but still we reminded him: "We've come to phone our relatives in Tel Aviv." Mr. Heinemann would say: "Yes, of course, please take a seat." Then he would tell us his usual telephone joke. "Once, at the Zionist Congress in Zurich, terrible roaring sounds were suddenly heard from a side room. Perl Locker asked Harzfeld what was going on, and Harzfeld explained that it was Comrade Rubashov speaking to Ben Gurion in Jerusalem. 'Speaking to Jerusalem,' exclaimed Perl Locker, 'so why doesn't he use the telephone?'"

Father would say: "I'll dial now." And Mother said: "It's too soon, Arieh. There's still a few minutes to go." He would reply: "Yes, but they have to be put through" (there was no direct dialing at that time) Mother: "yes, but what if for once we are put through right away, and they're not there yet?" Father replied: "In that case we shall simply try again later." Mother: "No, they'll worry, they'll think they've missed us."

While they were still arguing, suddenly it was almost five o'clock. Father picked up the receiver, standing up to do so, and said to the operator: "Good afternoon, Madam. Would you please give me Tel Aviv 648." (Or something like that: we were still living in a three-digit world). Sometimes the operator would answer:  "Would you please wait a few minutes, Sir, the Postmaster is on the line." Or Mr. Sitton. Or Mr. Nashashibi. And we felt quite nervous: whatever would they think of us?

I could visualize this single line that connected Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and via Tel Aviv the rest of the world. The line wound its way over wastelands and rocks, over hills and valleys, and I thought it was a great miracle. I trembled: what if wild animals came in the night and bit through the line? Or if wicked Arabs cut it? Or if the rain got into it? Or if there was a fire? Who could tell? There was this line winding along, so vulnerable, unguarded, baking in the sun, who could tell? I felt full of gratitude to the men who had put up this line, so brave-hearted, so dextrous, it's not easy to put up a line from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. I knew from experience: once we ran a wire from my room to Eliyahu Friedmann's room, only two houses and a garden away, and what a business it was, with the trees in the way, the neighbors, the shed, the wall, the steps, the bushes.

After waiting a while, Father decided that the Postmaster or Mr. Nashashibi must have finished talking, and so he picked up the receiver again and said to the operator: "Excuse me, Madam, I believe I asked to be put through to Tel Aviv 648." She would say: "I've got it written down, Sir. Please wait" (or "Please be patient"). Father would say: "I am waiting, Madam, naturally I am waiting, but there are people waiting at the other end too." This was his way of hinting to her politely that although we were indeed cultured people, t here was a limit to our endurance. We were well brought up, but we weren't suckers. We were not to be led like sheep to the slaughter. That idea--that you could treat Jews any way you felt like--was over, once and for all.

Then all of a sudden the phone would ring in the pharmacy, and it was always such an exciting sound, such a magical moment, and the conversation went something like this:

"Hallo, Tsvi?"
"It's Arieh here, in Jerusalem."
"Yes, Arieh, hallo, it's Tsvi here, how are you?"
"Everything is fine here. We're speaking from the pharmacy."
"So are we. What's new?"
"Nothing new here. How about at your end, Tsvi? Tell us how it's going."
"Everything is OK. Nothing special to report. We're all well."
"No news is good news. There's no news here either. We're all fine. How about you?"
"We're fine too."
"That's good. Now Fanta wants to speak to you."
And then the same thing all over again. How are you? What's new? And then: "Now Amos wants to say a few words."
And that was the whole conversation. What's new? Good Well, so let's speak again soon. It's good to hear from you. It's good to hear from you too. We'll write and set a time for the next call. We'll talk. Yes. Definitely. Soon. See you soon. Look after yourselves. All the best. You too.

But it was no joke: our lives hung by a thread. I realize now that they were not at all sure they would really talk again, this might be the last time, who knew what would happen, there could be riots, a pogrom, a blood bath, the Arabs might rise up and slaughter the lot of us, there might be a war, a terrible disaster, after all Hitler's tanks had almost reached our doorstep from two directions North Africa and the Caucuses, who knew what else awaited us? This empty conversation was not really empty, it was just awkward.

Amos Oz - A Tale of Love and Darkness

No comments:

Post a Comment