Next Year in Jerusalem
My mother-in-law beckons me down the hall. “Come here,” she says, indicating that I should follow her around the corner. Instead, I hover near the door to the party room, where the activity is still going on––girls laughing and dancing, clinking their finger cymbals and shaking their hip-tied coin skirts. They tease the bride and foist compliments on her, feeding her honey-dipped pastries and sweet white wine.
“It will just take a minute,” says my mother-in-law. We are together in Israel, her home. She leads me into the mikveh room, which is small and windowless, white stone surrounding a dipping pool, a short flight of stairs leading into the water. The round room is steamy and would be serene if I wasn’t in there with my mother-in-law. A half hour earlier, the bride slipped into a white terrycloth robe and allowed herself to be sung and danced into this room by her female family and friends. At the door, they left her. Alone with the female attendant, she removed her robe and descended the stairs and stepped naked into the pool where she submerged her entire body underwater three times and recited the blessings and after that she was reborn or pure or something like that and ready to be married.
Before my own wedding, I’d performed the same ritual, but the experience was very different for me in Ohio. I went by myself. The building and the mikveh attendant were very quiet. No one danced me down the hall or whooped or yodeled or catcalled from the other side of the door while I was inside the water. After, there was no one to feed me candy or sticky pastries. When my mother-in-law learned of my plan to go by myself, she was very upset. “Won’t you be lonely?” she said. She thought it might be a bad omen for me to go by myself, that maybe if I was lonely on this day I would be lonely forever, and this loneliness was particularly concerning because the mystical power of the mikveh was so specifically linked to childbearing. How might the loneliness translate? Would I be lonely as a mother? “A terrible thing,” said my mother-in-law, “for a mother to be lonely.” Or maybe my children would be the lonely ones. Or maybe––this was even worse, so bad it almost could not be spoken––maybe I would be lonely in the sense that I would not have any children at all. Maybe I would be lonely in this life.
“Pooh pooh,” said my mother-in-law, “I should not have said it, should not have thought it.” She looked at the sky. “I did not mean it as a curse.”
“I’ll be fine,” I told her. “I prefer to go alone.” I thought that the party she was describing sounded embarrassing, that a person from a different culture, as I was, could not possibly tolerate it. Now I see I was wrong. The bride Meirav is like the queen of the world. She is celebrated, adored, the opposite of lonely.
My mother-in-law puts her hand on my hip, pressing me toward the pool. “Put your foot in the water.”
“Excuse me?” I say.
“After a new bride has been in the water––before anyone else has submerged in that water––you put in your foot and it will bring good blessing, good luck.” She stares me down. I don’t seem to have a choice. I take my foot out of my sandal. I put my foot in the water, which is warm as a bath. I take my foot out. There is no towel, so I shake off the water and put my damp foot back in the sandal.
“Now eat this,” she says. She is holding a hard candy without a wrapper. She puts the candy in my mouth and then she tells me that the candy was the first thing Meirav put into her mouth after she stepped out of the mikveh and that it will also bring me blessings and luck. She kisses my cheeks. She presses her hands to my shoulders and the sides of my head. She blesses me to please, please have a child soon, to bring my husband many sons.
“Sons?” I say.
“Daughters, too,” she says and kisses my forehead. I want to rub at the spot where her lips touched. I want to spit out the candy. Instead, I swallow it, the lump of it painful as it travels down my throat. My mother-in-law Rina is a beautiful woman, slim and youthful and simply young––my husband is her oldest child and she had him when she was only eighteen years old. “Let’s go,” I say, and we walk out of the room and back to the lobby where Meirav has changed out of her robe and into a short yellow dress. She has long wet hair and bare tanned skin and she is glowing. Her own mother has left to prepare a celebratory dinner, but Meirav could be Rina’s daughter as well. They have the same dark hair and almond-shaped eyes. Rina has blown out her hair into movie star waves. She is wearing a black, fitted dress that dips to a V and hits above the knee. She is the opposite of me, with her narrow hips and long skinny legs and full, impressive bust. I am sure she looked lovely through all of her pregnancies.
As for myself, though it is too soon to tell, I do not believe that I will look lovely. Already, I can feel my loveliness slipping away.
The sister Gal should have been at the mikveh party. To explain, Rina says Gal could not take the extra time away from the army. The look on her face makes it obvious that there is more to the story.
We pack up the few extra pastries and Meirav goes off with her family. Rina and I go back to the apartment, where Dov, my husband, has been hanging out with his two brothers and father, playing cards around the dining room table, cracking sunflower seeds with their teeth, drinking grape soda, and taking shots of the sweet anise-flavored liqueur I used to like but find repulsive now I am pregnant.
Immediately, they start dismantling their little picnic––throwing out the plastic cups, dumping the bowl of shells, returning the seeds to the cabinet. My husband’s father sprays down the table and wipes it off with paper towels. He folds down the extra leaf on the table and pushes in the chairs very neat and tight.
“Sunflower seeds?” Rina says as she walks through the door. She is scanning the floor for shells. “Haven’t I told you to eat those outside?”
“Hello, hello,” says my father-in-law. As he greets us, he is straightening chairs, friendly wrinkles around his eyes. He is a nice man, the owner of a falafel stand which is little more than a kitchen and wide steel counter for serving customers with no indoor seating or bathroom, though he does have a couple of plastic tables and chairs with umbrellas that he takes out and sets up every morning and puts away every night. He has had periods when he’s hired a worker for busy days or times of day, but he claims to prefer working alone. It is hard to find good workers, he says. Even if things start out well, at some point there is always conflict and abused trust––arguments over the shortcuts they take with the food or the way they treat the customers, the days they close up early or show up late, the supplies they stuff in their pockets when they think no one is looking. Is he paranoid? I can’t tell. It is disappointing that I can’t actually talk to him about it. Because of the language difference, our relationship is inevitably strained, our communication consisting of a lot of smiling and head-nodding which makes us seem dopey and unintelligent to each other.
In normal circumstances, I understand, he doesn’t spend much time at home. He is always at work, keeping his falafel stand open late. When it’s really late, he’ll step out from behind the counter to sit at one of his plastic tables, sharing food and drink and conversation with his late-night customers. According to Dov, this was the case from his earliest childhood. He thought his father might be a spy. At some point, he figured out that his father just didn’t want to be at home.
When I met Dov, his family was far away, on the other side of an ocean, like a figment of our imaginations. In my imagination, I have to say, they were very wonderful, in a Mediterranean sort of way, gathering together to eat plentiful lunches of fish and fresh tomatoes on their shaded patio, then retiring indoors to rest from the afternoon heat. I first met them a couple days before the wedding, and I did notice a change in Dov when they came into town, but I couldn’t be entirely certain as to the origins of the change. Was it wedding jitters? It had not been wedding jitters. On the plane to Israel, Dov struggled not to puke. He asked if I wanted to get off, to not go. As soon as we landed, his left hand started to shake uncontrollably. I hadn’t known that was something his hands could do.
I follow him into the bedroom where we are staying, which is not his childhood bedroom. That bedroom was given to his youngest brother, who is still in high school. Their sister takes the other room during breaks from the army. Eitan, the brother who is getting married, is already living with his fiancée in the basement of his future in-law’s apartment, which is located in a mountain suburb of Jerusalem. Eitan says the apartment is very nice despite the fact of not having windows. My mother-in-law acts very concerned about the lack of windows, claiming that the couple will suffer from lack of air and ventilation and light, that the apartment is a breeding ground for disease and it is only a matter of time until one of them gets very sick. “And what about a baby?” she says. “You must swear to me that you will never bring a baby into that dark place. A pregnant woman also should not be living underground either. If Meirav becomes pregnant, you must move immediately. At the least, you must promise me this.” But Eitan and Meirav are planning to stay in the apartment for as long as possible in order to save money and because they are comfortable there. They like to hang out upstairs, watching television on the big curved sofa or drinking beers on the huge balcony. They get food from the fridge and often join the family for dinner. Rina claims that she would love for the couple to come live with her. Unfortunately, it isn’t practical. She does not have a basement apartment or much extra room at all. The reality is that her home is small and cramped, and perhaps in order to mitigate the smallness it is also very minimalistic, in a way that feels almost impoverished, with a minimum of furniture and no knickknacks. The floors are pale stone and uncovered because rugs collect dust and Rina has a horror of dust. According to Dov, there was a time when his mother had rugs in the apartment but it seemed they were in the air more often than they were on the ground because she was always having to beat them and scrub them and hang them out to dry. It is easier without the rugs, he tells me, as though this were a normal thing to say. The only rugs are in the bathroom and the frequency with which they are changed is a source of constant mystery to me. Every time I come into the bathroom, it seems, there is a rug being hung to dry on the rack or a new rug on the floor.
Dov is pacing the tiny bedroom like a caged animal. “I’ve got to get out of here,” he says.
“Sure,” I say, “Should we go to the beach?”
“We can’t go to the beach,” says Dov.
“What does that mean?” I say. I throw some things into a beach bag and tell Dov to come with me. We go out into the living room and Rina is there. She has changed into her house clothes––a pair of very tiny silk shorts and an oversized t-shirt. She is always showing her legs. As she should. I could never wear shorts like that. Because I am staring at her legs, it takes me a minute to notice her expression. “What are you doing?” she says.
“We’re going to the beach,” I say.
“No, no.” She clucks her tongue, shakes her head.
“What do you mean?” I say.
“You cannot come back here after the beach. Not today. Not today.”
Dov shoots me a look. “It’s too messy for her. She doesn’t want us to bring sand into the apartment.”
“Oh,” I say. Because Rina looks so terrified, I try to be kind. “We’ll shower out of the house,” I say. “We’ll rinse everything. We’ll be careful.”
“Sand is tricky.” She shakes her head emphatically. “Sand goes where you don’t want it to go.”
She might have a point. I’m not sure what to say. But I do know that we are going to the beach.
“We’ll think of something else to do,” says Dov.
“No we won’t,” I say. I turn to Rina. “If we really can’t get rid of the sand, we’ll stay at a hotel. That’s fine. But we’re going to the beach.”
The beach is delicious. I am so glad we decided to come. Dov feels it too. He puts an arm around my shoulder, takes a deep breath. Already, he is so much better. As an extra measure, I lead him over to the little beachside bar. I buy two beers and bring them down to the water with us. I’m not planning to really drink. I will only have a couple of sips. What I want is to hold the beer as much as to drink it, to have that feeling of being relaxed, to press the cold bottle to my forehead, let the condensation bead.
Under a palm-thatched umbrella structure, we lay out our blankets and hold our beers and slowly sip and stare off into the distance. For a short stretch of time, the beach is quiet and serene, just the sound of seagulls and waves. I stare at the blue water and the blue sky and the blueness and brightness wear on my eyes in an exhausting but pleasant way. The sand is hot under my feet, the wind whips my hair. There is so much to stimulate my senses that I am not feeling the queasiness in my stomach. It seems to be burned out of me, the queasiness, thank goodness. Though we sit very close, Dov and I do not touch. Already, I seem to feel my skin stretching even though that doesn’t make sense. But I believe that I can feel it.
“We should buy a place here,” I say, “in Ashdod. We’ll stay here when we visit and meet your parents in Yavneh for dinner.”
Dov doesn’t speak.
“What do you think?” I say.
“The real estate is expensive here. It’s a lot more than you’d think.”
By noon, the Israeli teenagers are showing up on the beach with their speakers blaring as they play their awful beach game with the ping-pong-size rackets and hard white ball that makes a sharp cracking sound with every contact. Crack crack crack, they go, at least three games within hearing distance. Dov’s eyes are closed but I know he is not asleep. His face winces with every crack. The teenagers have deep tans and spiky gelled hair, tank tops and tiny shorts and earrings in their ears and chains around their necks. These boys are everywhere, inescapable, spilling out onto the streets and the malls and the parks, filling up the buses. There are girls too, of course, but the presence of the girls is not as aggressive. A few of them play the ping-pong game but most lay back on their towels, sunning or resting or just practicing being as docile as fish, waiting for the net.
I say, “What will they do if I say something to them? Tell them to go away?”
Dov sits up and drinks from his beer then puts it down and rubs his eyes. When he picks it up again, the bottom is crusted with sand. “This is the reason I left,” he says.
It’s not the reason he left. There are so many reasons why he left.
“They have annoying teenagers everywhere,” I say.
“These ones are different. They have no dignity. They have no respect. They were like this when I was a kid and they’ve only gotten worse.” He takes off his sunglasses and rubs his eyes again then makes a face like he’s been wounded. His eyes are very sensitive to the sun, which seems odd to me considering that he grew up in this bright place. Shouldn’t he have evolved to survive in his natural climate? The beach is the only part he likes. He likes to swim in the ocean, far enough out to make me nervous but he hasn’t gotten in the water yet today. He says that he would like to swim in the Great Lakes of America some day. He could join the polar bear club. That is one of his dreams. He likes the water cold, like cutting ice when you slice through it, and he claims to love the cold winters and the snow and the short days in America but I wonder how long that will last. I wonder if he is someone who grows to hate everything eventually.
We pack our bag and toss our beer bottles and get in the car. On the way back to Yavne, we pass construction sites. Everywhere, they are building––high rise apartment buildings and massive shopping complexes, but not malls, because malls are dead, too expensive to heat and cool and build and maintain. The malls are emptying out, hollow shells of themselves. Meanwhile, all over the world, they are building like crazy, but the building seems more intense in Israel, perhaps because Israel is so small and parts are so provincial, because the balance can shift so quickly from the country it used to be to the country it is becoming. Next to Yavne, they are building a new city, which will also be called Yavne but will be even larger than the Yavne that already exists. Dov tells me the site used to be avocado fields, that he remembers running through those fields and exploring them with his father when he was a child, and I ask if he is sad that the fields are gone, and he says yes but he understands why they had to go, and then he says no, he says that leveling the fields was a mistake, they should have kept the avocado fields because the avocado fields were beautiful and irreplaceable, and what they should have destroyed was the old part of town because it is decrepit and stagnant and ripe for burning, the kind of place where families busy themselves by fighting with each other, creating new and old and imagined alliances and grievances and issues and complaints. This drama tortured Dov as a young man. He didn’t understand that it was a game, a means of entertainment.
He doesn’t understand because we live in a different world. In our world, we have the internet and phones and television shows and endless places to drive our cars. We will always be busy and entertained. I believe this is a good thing. We will need each other less.
Before we go into the building, I do an extra check for sand. I brush at our clothing and shake out our beach bag. The yelling spills out into the hall. It is the sound of two women. “Is that your sister?” I say.
“Go in there,” says Dov. “Get the bags and we’ll stay in a hotel.”
“You’re acting so crazy,” I say.
“I’m not crazy,” he says. “They’re crazy.”
“That may be true,” I say. “But you are still acting crazy. Whatever they’re fighting about has nothing to do with you. Don’t you want to see your sister?”
“The sound of their voices,” he says, “makes me feel like I’m going to explode.”
“Please don’t explode,” I say. I remove the bag from my shoulder because it is cutting into my skin. I set it down on the floor. When I look down at my feet, I see the bits of sand that are still clinging to my toes, and I understand that Rina is right, that sand is sneaky and stubborn and pervasive. If a person comes home from the beach, they will be tracking sand back into the house. It is delusional to think that you will be able to wash it all off in one go. I stamp my feet and no sand comes off and I feel very sorry for Dov’s mother, who wants nothing more than a clean house.
I open up my beach bag and take out a towel. I shake out the towel and a little sand comes off. I shake it again. I am afraid that Rina will open the door and catch me. At the same time, I did have to go to the beach. I love the beach, any beach, but most especially the beach in Israel, which is very special to me, though not as special as Rina’s house is to her, and because it is not a fancy house and because she has had it a long time, to keep it nice is all about maintenance––it is all about effort––and that is why she must maintain it, why she cannot allow it to fall apart and become dirty, even for a moment in time.
“Do you know what she used to do to us?” Dov says. “When we went to the beach? We almost never went but when we did it was like a hazmat situation. It wasn’t worth it. And for Passover, for the whole entire month before Passover, we’d be eating out in the hall. Right here in the hall. She’d put down a blanket. After, she’d shake the crumbs off the blanket but she still wouldn’t let it back into the house. She never let it back into the house. I think we were all sure that one day she wouldn’t let us back into the house. She came close. There was a lot of time we couldn’t be in there. She’d shut the door in our face. We had to find other places to go.”
I open the door. As I am stepping inside, I am wishing we had closed shoes to change into, something to hide our toes.
The argument stops. Dov’s sister Gal, a beautiful tomboy with long dark hair who I met once before when she came to America for my wedding, says hello and gives me a hug and then runs off into the bedroom where she is staying.
Rina takes in our appearances. Our hair has dried with sand inside. I am afraid that she will yell at us. For myself, I don’t care very much if she yells at us, but I am frightened of how Dov will react. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to stay in a hotel. I want to stay here and have this be my family, I want this trip to look how a family trip is supposed to look.
Should I tell her about the baby? It’s too early. We’ve decided not to tell. Dov was adamant that we not tell. It has nothing to do with them, he said. It’s our business. But it has everything to do with them. It’s their grandchild. And I want them to care. I want everyone to care. I want to feel like there are many, many people who care about my baby very much.
If I tell Rina now, I am certain she will not yell anymore. She will smile and seem more relaxed. She will beam at Dov with gratitude and pride and she will encourage us to do whatever we want. Pregnant, I will be the queen of this castle, even more than the bride. I will be admired and fed and permitted to lounge around all day long. If I want to go to the beach, I will go to the beach. No one will say anything about it.
To her credit, Rina doesn’t yell. She looks at our feet and looks at our hair and then she goes into her bedroom and shuts the door. In our own room, Dov turns on the television while I get into the shower. An hour later, I come out into the living room and Gal comes out of her room and starts talking to me. She is completely different from the girl who was arguing with her mother. She is trying very hard to be friendly and charming.
“Are you having a nice time?” she says. “What is your favorite part of Israel?”
On the wall is a picture of her in a ballet costume, posed in a graceful-looking stretch. She must have been ten years old. She was a pretty, sturdy, appealing-looking child. I feel sure that my child, if a girl, will look nothing like me. She will look very much like Gal did as a child.
“I love this picture,” I say.
“I was a very good dancer,” she says. “I hated it. I only did it because my mother made me. But still, I was very good.”
For the first time in her life, Gal says, she is happy. She is happy doing her army service. This third year that she is serving now was not required. She could have been finished the previous year but for that year she was a rifle instructor, she never got to serve in combat and she had always wanted to be part of a combat unit. The reality is even better than she imagined. She has made very close friends. She feels the work suits her.
Gal apologizes for her earlier fight with her mother. The fight was beneath her, she says, but her mother has a way of pushing all her buttons. They were fighting about dresses, of all things, the dresses they had made for the wedding. Gal takes me into her room to see her dress, which is blush-pink lace and chiffon, full-length and very formal. “Isn’t it awful?” says Gal. “It isn’t what I asked for at all.”
The day of the wedding, we pack up and go to a hotel near the venue to get ready. We will be staying at this hotel for one night, the night of the wedding. It is a lovely hotel, with a pool out back and an all-white lobby and what looks to be a formal restaurant. We arrive around lunch time. I am very excited by the prospect of going to this restaurant for lunch. As the days pass, my tender stomach wants only rich, heavy food, most especially the creamy pasta with mushroom sauce I used to eat all the time when I lived in Israel for a year after high school.
I indicate the restaurant to Rina and she immediately shakes her head. Oh no, she says, she has packed a lunch for us to eat. I should have realized. Dov has told me that he can count the number of times he went to a restaurant as a child on one hand. Our group is Dov’s parents plus Gal and the teenage brother. The bride and groom are not with us. They are with the bride’s family. Almost certainly, they are at a restaurant at this exact minute, eating a lovely and elegant lunch. Perhaps they are even at this restaurant. I peer around the door to see. I wonder if there is any way that I can join them.
As we trudge up the stairs, I feel very sad to not be part of a family that would eat at the restaurant for lunch, which really means that I am sad not to be part of a family that is rich or almost rich. And functional. Meirav’s family is rich. To all appearances, it is functional, too. Dov has only agreed to see his family because of the wedding. To not come would have caused too much conflict, attracted too much attention. All Dov wants is to quietly attend and then quietly disappear and to not come back until there is another wedding. Perhaps, if he is lucky, there will never be another wedding, never be another reason to return.
Rina finds a table in the hall upstairs. Above the table is a window, but the window is too high to look out of while sitting. Standing on my tiptoes, I can look out to the devastating landscape of bare mountains. Whoever designed this room must have been insane to make the window so small, to cover up so much of the view.
In her cooler, Rina has bread and lunchmeats, spicy pickles and potato salad, and stone fruit, cut up and packed into Tupperware containers. I take a slice of plum and it is very cold. Dov motions me to follow him down the hall and around the corner, where he tells me that this is the exact picnic his mother would pack for him as a child. The sight of the fruit, he says, makes him want to throw up. What’s interesting to me is that this is exactly the sort of picnic that Dov himself would pack. He loves very spicy pickles and sandwiches thick with lunch meat. He is the one who introduced me to the idea of cutting up my fruit instead of biting into it. Before Dov, I would never have thought to slice up an apple or peach. I would bite into the fruit whole, of course. “How can you eat like that?” Dov said.
We eat the lunch quickly––all of the food, we eat everything––then divide up into our hotel rooms. Dov watches television while I fall into a heavy sleep and am woken by someone shaking my arm. It is Rina telling me that the hair and makeup person has arrived and will be getting me ready first and so I need to put on a robe and go into the other hotel room. I am very close to telling her that I will do my hair and makeup myself because I really need to go back to sleep. If she knew about the baby, she would not be waking me up. She would tiptoe in and out of the room. She would let me go last for both makeup and hair. She would tell everyone they had to get me ready without disturbing my rest. They would carry me into the wedding on a gilded pillow.
“We don’t have much time,” says Rina. “You have to get up.”
I get up and go into the other hotel room. I look terrible. The makeup guy asks what I want and I tell him to go for full-on drama if he wants. Gal is in the room painting her nails when I say this and she looks pretty horrified, but Rina seems pleased. “Good,” she says. “Yes. If you are getting your hair and makeup done, you may as well get them done!”
It takes a long time but I’m not n