Wednesday, September 20, 2017

ET: Almanac

Grandma cast a single startled look around her and pronounced the famous sentence that was to become her motto for the twenty-five years she lived in Jerusalem: The Levant is full of germs.

Hencefore Grandpa had to get up at six or six thirty every morning, attack the mattresses and bedding violently for her with a carpet beater, air the bedspreads and pillows, spray the whole house with DT, help her in the ruthless boiling of vegetables, fruit, linen, towels and kitchen utensils. Every two or thre hours he had to disinfect the toilet and washbasins with chlorine. These basins, whose drains were normally kept stoppered, had a little chlorine or Lysol solution at the bottom, like the moat of a medieval castle, to block any invasion by the cockroaches and evil spirits that were always trying to penetrate the apartment through the plumbing. Even the nostrils o the basins, the overflow holes, were kept blocked with improvised plugs made of squashed soap, in case the enemy attempted to infiltrate that way. The mosquito nets on the windows always smelled of DDT, and an odor of disinfectant pervaded the whole apartment. A thick cloud of disinfecting spirit, soap, creams, sprays, baits, insecticides, and talcum powder always hung in the air, and something of it may also have wafted from Grandma's skin.

Yet here too occasionally in the early evening some minor writers, two or three intellectually inclined businessmen, or some promising young scholars were invited over. Admittedly there was no more Bialik or Tchernikhowsky, there were no more large jolly dinner parties. Their limited budget, cramped conditions, and daily hardships forced Grandma to lower her sights: Hannah and Chaim Toren, Esther and Israel Zarchi, Zerta and Jacob-David Abramski, and occasionally one or two of their friends from Odessa or Vilna, Mr. Scheindelevitch from Isaiah Street, Mr. Katchalsky the shopkeeper from David Yellin Street, whose two sons were already considered to be famous scientists with some enigmatic position in the Hagganah, or the Bar-Yitzhars (Itzeleviches) from Mekor Baruch, he a lugubrious haberdasher and she a maker of women's wigs and corsets to order, both of them devout right-wing Zionist Revisionists who loathed the Labor Party heart and soul.

Grandma would lay out the food in military fashion in the kitchen dispatching Grandpa into the fray over and over again, laden with trays to serve cold borscht with a hefty iceberg of sour cream floating on it, peeled fresh clementines, seasonal fruit, walnuts, almonds, raisins, dried figs, candied fruits, candied orange peel, various jams and preserves, poppy-seed cakes, jam sponges, apple strudel, and an exquisite tart that she made from puff pastry.

Here too they discussed current affairs and the future of the Jewish people and the world, and reviled the corrupt Labor Party and the defeatist, collaborationist leaders who ingratiated themselves obsequiously with the Gentile oppressor. As for the kibbutzim, from here they looked like dangerous Bolshevik cells that were anarcho-nihilist to boot, permissive, spreading licentiousess and debasing everything the nation held sacred, parasites who fattened themselves at the public expense and spongers who robbed the nation's land. Not a little of what was later to be said against the kibbutzim by their enemies from among the radical Middle Eastern Jews was already "known for a fact," in those years, to visitors to my grandparents' home in Jerusalem. Apparently the discussions did not bring much joy to the participants; otherwise why did they often fall silent the moment they caught sight of me, or change to Russian, or shut the door between the sitting room and the castle of sample cases I was building in Grandpa's study?

Here is what their little apartment in Prague Lane was like. There was a single, very Russian siting room, crammed with heavy furniture and with various objects and glass cases, thick smells of boiled fish, boiled carrot and pasties mingled with the odors of DDT and Lysol; around the walls were huddled chests, stools, a dark masculine wardrobe, a thick-legged table, a sideboard covered with ornaments and souvenirs. The whole room was full of white muslin mats, lac  curtains, embroidered cushions, souvenirs, and on every available surface, on the windowsill were crowds of little knickknacks, such as a silver crocodile that opened its jaws to crack a nut when you raised its tail, or the life-sized white poodle, a gentle, silent creature with a black nose and round glass eyes that always lay at the foot of Grandma Shlomit's bed and never barked or asked to be let out into the Levant, from which it might have brought in who knew what, insects, bedbugs, fleas, ticks, worms, lice, eczema, bacilli, and other plagues.

This amiable creature, whose name was Stakh, or Stashek, or Stashinka, was the mildest and most obedient dog ever, because he was made of wool and stuffed with rags. He had followed the Klausners faithfully in all their migrations from Odessa to Vilna and from Vilna to Jerusalem. For the sake of his health this poor dog was made to swallow several mothballs every few weeks. Every morning he had to put up with being sprayed by Grandpa. Now and again, in the summer, he was placed in front of the open window to get some air and sunlight.

For a few hours Stakh would sit motionless on the windowsill, raking the street below with unfathomable longing in his melancholy black eyes, his black nose raised in vain to sniff at the bitches in the little street, his woolen ears pirkced up, straining to catch the myriad sounds of the neighborhood, the wail of a lovesick cat, the cheerful chirruping of the birds, noisy shouting in Yiddish, the rag-and-bone man's bloodcurdling cry, the barking of free dogs whose lot was better by far than his own. His head was cocked thoughtfully to one side, his short tail tucked sadly between his hind legs, his eyes had a tragic look. He never barked at passerby, never cried for help to dogs in the street, never burst out howling, but his face as he sat there expressed a silent despair that tugged at my heartstrings, a dumb resignation that was more piercing than the most dreadful howl.

One morning Grandma, without a second thought, wrapped her Stashinka up in newspaper and threw him in the trash, because all of a sudden she was smitten with suspicions of dust or mold. Grandpa was no doubt upset but didn't dare utter a peep. And I never forgave her.

Amos Oz - A Tale of Love and Darkness

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