‘You know that Hittie will be speaking about his new book at Stanford this evening’, Imma said, waiting for my response. From her tone of voice it was clear that she did not expect me to pounce on this once-in-two-decades opportunity to speak with my mother’s cousin. For years I took great pride in the way my relatives were so far apart. ‘Blood ties in our family are no closer knit than asteroids’ I explained, enamored with my wit. ‘The chances of interaction during the span of a human lifetime are minute.’ Imma never failed to remind me to seek help: ‘If only you could see how sad that is…’
I was glad to see Hittie and was all the more gratified that he recognized the two of us. After the hand shaking and back patting at t he end of his talk we chatted a bit. ‘You know I wrote an article about your grandfather’, Hittie said. ‘It’s called My Uncle Simon’. I was intrigued. ‘Where was it published?’
‘In the May 2005 issue of Commentary.’
I pretended to know what Commentary was. Since you don’t want to become a nuisance after twenty years of solitude, we confirmed that our schedules for the rest of the evening conflicted and parted as friends.
‘How well did Hittie know your grandfather?’ Imma asked.
‘Mostly from stories he heard from Abe I assume.’ I answered.
‘Sabba’s kid brother.’
‘How much younger?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Is Hittie younger than your mother?’
‘How old is he?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Than how do you…’
‘Because he’s not seventy yet’ – I was surprised at how inaccurate could be accurate, but the embarrassment continued.
‘Is Abe alive?’
‘When did he die?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Then how do you know he’s dead?’
‘Because if he were alive he would have to be over one hundred, and someone in the family would have talked about it – I would have had to hear something…’ I shrank away but Imma came after me, sparing no nails on the crucifixion of what I dared call family ties.
‘Since when does your family talk about anything?’ Ouch, ‘Writers, poets, editors, chair of the Hebrew Literature department in Jerusalem, head of the English Department in Tel-Aviv, founder and professor at of the School of Editing at Bar-Ilan – so much verbal ability in such a small group of people – and you haven’t developed the skills to talk to each other.’ She was right of course. Perhaps it was time to turn a corner. It was with great effort that I nudged the family sesame stone a fraction of an inch:
‘I was happy to see Hittie.’ I managed; ‘I wonder what he wrote about Sabba.’
‘What you should really do is write something about your grandfather yourself.’
‘Shouldn’t I read the article first?’
‘You need Hittie to tell you about your grandfather?’
‘How can I write about him? I know nothing of his work.’
‘Who said anything about his work, leave that to the researchers, or go back to the university and do some yourself, for now tell your own story.’
It all started when Amatziah, one of Sabba’s students, and Sabba’s daughter, Zephyra, fell in love. To move things along they had twins. They named the girl Michal and the boy Yiftah. Nobody believes me that my first memory of my sister is seeing her drop from her crib to the floor after managing to climb over the side. ‘You were only one year old,’ everyone tells me. To be on the safe side I’ll stick to pictures from an album until we get to an age where my recollection of my childhood can be considered credible.
I first appear in Sabba’s house sitting, or should I say sprawled, in his armchair with Michal leaning against me. We are both gawking at the camera. I can only imagine the conversation in the room:
‘Minnie, someone should hold them.’
‘Oh, don’t worry we’re right here. Now let me take another picture.’
‘Minnie, he can move and they will both fall over.’
‘So they’ll fall over; we’ll pick them up.’
Sabba’s behavior was perfectly normal for a man his age in the presence of babies. As far as he was concerned our diapers were like Hanukah candles – to be seen and smelled but not touched. Grandma knew that the guzzle-excrete-grow process required adult intervention and pitched in for the two of them. Over the course of the next few months Michal learned to smile, while I continued to pose as an unphotogenic imbecile. There was little point in trying to stand out; black hair and brown eyes were no match for blond hair and blue eyes. Whether it created a family undercurrent that I was of minor intellect or not was unclear, but the fact of the matter is that there is no family record of first signs of intelligence on my behalf. Michal is remembered saying ‘Abba, ominous gray clouds are amassing in the West’ when she was three. I am remembered cursing in Arabic, thinking I was saying the magic words, when the key failed to open the drawer of my father’s desk.
‘Did they speak English with you at home? ’ Imma was trying to rebuild my ego fifty years downstream.
We were not bilingual. Sabba was a staunch protector of Hebrew in the family. He never spoke English with my mother and uncle, even during the eleven years that they lived in Chicago. On the other hand, Mother and Grandma were happy to have a mother tongue that the children did not understand; ‘little pitchers have big ears’ they used to say. We started learning English on the way to the United States.
‘Why did you go?’ Imma asked.
‘Mother received a Fulbright grant to complete her PhD thesis in Princeton.’
‘When did yo u know you were going?’
‘June 1964, a week before the end of first grade, mother told us to ask for our report cards because we would need them when we registered for second grade in America…’
‘How did you travel?’
‘We used to watch those ships, my father worked on the docks.’
‘So you watched your seven year old husband sail off to America. You must have been shattered thinking that you would never see me again’
‘Don’t flatter yourself – you’re doing great – keep talking – how did you learn English?’
‘Dr. Seuss – The Cat in the Hat and its sequel.’ When we first opened the book this is what we understood:
____ ___ __ ____ __ ____
____ ___ __ ____ ___ ___
Knowing nothing and lacking hints was a pretty crummy way to get started – and to top it all we took the plunge in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. We thought that if we gathered everything that looked the same we could kill identical birds with the same stone:
This was no ____ ___ ____
This was no ____ ___ ___
As it turned out there was no noun to hang on to there, nor was there a normal verb that as Hebrew speakers we could relate to. Reversing the strategy nudged us along:
This was no time for play
This was no time for fun
Now that we understood what ‘time for play’ was – all we had to do was understand that it wasn’t… To this day I have no understanding of English grammar. In its defense I can say that it’s not because it’s English; it’s because it’s grammar.
People think mastering a language is a problem comprised of vocabulary and grammar. Unfortunately this is true for mother tongues only. Foreign languages also have to be pronounced correctly:
Zis was not time for play
‘Hold your tongue between your front teeth – thhhis, thhhhat, …’ mother kept showing and telling us. Abba did a decent job as well although it sounded different. Still it was impossible; zere were so many of zese words – diabolical.
When ourrr mozerr went out
Down to the town forr ze day,
‘The ‘r’s come from under your tongue, not from the throat.’ Try as we may, there were no ‘r’s under our tongue. And even if there were, how could we get them out with our tongues between our teeth?
‘But isn’t He Hu (הוא)?’
‘Who is Mee (מי)’
‘We thought Me was I’ – and we were only on the third page. How many pages were there in the English language? Sabba had a four thousand-page Webster dictionary – with mo re than two hundred thousand entries, sitting in his library on the only bench that could support it. Wasn’t this book what we needed? As children all we could do was panic; lose our appetites and throw up whatever we did manage to swallow. We spent the first week with Grandma’s sister Doris and her family in Brooklyn communicating in sign language, before we moved to Princeton.
Children learn quickly, all the more so when the subject matter is a survival skill. On the first day of school someone asked me what my teacher’s name was and I didn’t know what teacher meant. A few weeks later the teacher advanced me from grade level C to grade level A when I blurted an unprovoked explanation of the function of the ‘silent E’. I was changed from a mad man to a made man. Man, what a language. How on earth did Sabba master twelve of th ese, being able to read and write literature and poetry and prove that he understood it all with brilliant criticism and translations?
Stuart Little was the first ‘real’ book I read – with very few pictures and every page printed from top to bottom. It was the first real book I read in any language. I started one afternoon and read to page seventy. The next day I was faced with a problem: when you read on your own, were you supposed to read a book from start to finish in one day for it to count? To be on the safe side I started over and read the book from beginning to end… Years later I found out that Stuart Little was the first book Sabba had my mother translate to Hebrew as part of the drills to keep her from forgetting that language. A mouse was our language teacher…
If you read one book a day, regardless of size and complexity, it would have taken you twenty-two years to read through Sabba’s library. It was a mix of the old world and the new, Judaism and humanism, Shakespeare and Virgil, Homer and Seferis. The full Judaica encyclopedia and Mishna side by side with Whitman and Emerson, Hebrew poetry from the middle ages next to Spenser and Shelley, volumes of Torah over a hundred years old in glass covered shelves facing new testaments and the Zohar on the other side of the room; the monster dictionary sharing the bench under the window with a gargantuan Babylonian Talmud. They lay side by side; you closed one to open the other, flipping cultures as easily as flipping the pages.
With television and MAD magazines moving into the mainstr eam I had less and less time for hard-covered culture. The largest of my hard cover specimen was an anthology of children’s stories, including Rumpelstiltskin and excerpts from Through the Looking Glass. The latter were beyond my grasp; I couldn’t make heads or tails of The Walrus and the Carpenter because I had no idea what Oysters were. Prior knowledge was working against me… I thought that the Carpenter was holding a magnifying glass looking for something on the beach. Sabba had such a glass; I used it to set fire to pieces of dried bark in their back yard. Sabba used the glass for greater purposes, scanning through miniature books – tiny dictionaries most of them. They fit in the palm of my hand, the smaller ones no bigger than a matchbox. I could have used those dictionaries when Mary Poppins hit the screen. We were well into our sixth month of English – quite confident we had mastered the language &nda sh; little intellectual snobs scoffing at our father’s accent. We were in for a rude awakening. Each song was a mouthful of new vocabulary: twines and twigs, ladder of life’s bottom most rung, choose me bristles with pride – didn’t we go through this ‘me’ stuff before? Grandma, who came back to the US to help mother type her thesis with her typing wizardry, took us to see the movie in Brooklyn. I was petrified of being with Grandma in a theater. She couldn’t behave herself in Israel – what would she do on her home turf?
‘In her own special way to the people she calls…’ the bird woman sang.
‘Grandma, what are saints and apostles?’ our curiosity getting the best of our respect for the theatre’s code of silence.
‘Pictures and Statues’ Grandma answered as if we were the only people there. Cringing deeper into our seats; hoping that Grandma would be more sensitive to our plight we managed:
‘Why are they on the cathedrals?’
‘That’s how the Goyim decorate their churches’. We were only making things worse, Grandma was getting belligerent; spoiling for a fight; let someone in the audience try to hush her. No one did – perha ps Grandma was still feared in these parts where she was the protector of four younger siblings – not taking crap from nobody – fifty years before we came along. We let the bird woman sing.
We remained in America for eleven months, two weeks, and three days. Grandma flew us back. We were ecstatic to return home to Jerusalem only to find out that in our absence the children of Israel had studied the books of Genesis and Exodus; we would have to quickly make up. First English, now Torah, our lives were in shambles once again.
Sabba seemed very calm about it: ‘All you need is to remember the text, just read it a few times’ he said – just like that – Biblical text – a few times. In desperation I agreed to accompany Sabba to synagogue on Saturdays, seeking pity from an angr y god – none was granted. Fearing the wrath of failure we hit the books. Grandma volunteered to test us when we were ready.
‘Recite to me and I’ll correct you if you make a mistake.’
‘Now these are the names of the sons of Israel…’ I began, and kept on going, until I recited the book of Exodus from memory. I had no cognitive awareness of having absorbed it all; neither did Michal. We cinched the test, but at eight years old I was past my peak. With the exception of my Bar-Mitvah this was the last time in my life where panic drove me to perform such a feat of learning. I had studied a biblical text like Sabba studied from the age he was three until he was fifteen – first by heart then worry about the meaning – ‘that can come later, much later ’ he used to tell me.
Sabba could recite the entire Old Testament from memory. He and Abe would have verse completion competitions that emerged out of what seemed to be perfectly normal conversation. Abe was good; he could pick up a verse in mid air, no matter what book it came from and complete it before it landed. Sabba would correct him every now and then – gently – big brother thing. Abe would dig his heels in – little brother thing; and then they would both go back to the text – scholarly thing. They each opened their own Bible – as though that would give them an advantage, but they always came to terms as gentlemen. At times Abba was the tiebreaker.
Sabba had a Bible dressed like a prizefighter for these intellectual bouts. It was bound in silver and studded with turq uoise stones – too corny for Jewish heavy lifting, but a fine ornament for competition. I was dazzled by its looks – turquoise studded silver would beat any book wrapping hands down. I envisioned myself bringing it to class and becoming an instant celebrity.
‘Sabba, can I have that bible?’
Sabba thought less of my noble motives. ‘I’ll give it to you if you promise to read one chapter a day.’ This was too much to ask of a child who had already been through so much learning… Besides the fear of God has to come from within – I could not be bribed into believing. So Sabba kept his bible and I continued to watch him read every Saturday.
Sabba attended the Ohel Yosef (Joseph’s Tent) synagogue at the corner of Gaza and Ha-Aari streets in Rehavia, where he had a reserved seat; instead of a seat number – his plaque had ’שמעון הלקין’ (Simon Halkin) engraved on it – which impressed me deeply – if only they had three adjacent plaques ‘Thing One’, ’Grandma’, ’Thing Two’ at the movies. The synagogue was a modest building, two stories high; a smooth, windowless, stone covered wall facing the street, gave it the appearance of a smaller replica of the Western Wall. The real Western Wall was over on the other sid e of the hill but we did not have any idea how close it was, not until after the war.
We started filling sandbags three weeks before the Six Day War. We had to clear the storage room at the back of Grandma’s apartment building so it could be used as a bomb shelter. There were four families living in the building, but it was only natural that Grandma oversaw the work, using kids for cheap labor. We had to build an ‘L’ shaped wall of sandbags to shield the entrance ‘from shrapnel’.
‘Grandma, how does an ‘L’ protect you if the shrapnel comes from the open side?’ I asked.
‘The shells only come from one direction’
‘Ah…’ – Suckers that we were, we fell for it. There was little point in explaining probabilities to us. We buried ourselves in our work. Piling up the first few rows of sandbags was not a problem, but once we had to heave them above our heads, there was only so much that a nine year old could lift. With five feet done and three more to go, Grandma went hunting for more muscle power and caught Mordehai the plumber. Mordehai heaved each bag up to the top of the growing wall, then climbed up and set it firmly in its place – Mordehai watched his balance, I watched his biceps, Grandma watched that Mordehai didn’t cut and run. Sabba worked in his library. On the surface it seemed as if he simply wasn’t interested in all this war, but Sabba was rewinding and fast forwarding through thousands of years of Jewish hi story and creation, from biblical times, through the destructions of the temples, the ancient kingdoms, five evolutions of thought Tanaim, Amoraim, Savoraim, Geonim, Ahronim. Three thousand years of creative thought which led to and included the birth of Zionism and the renaissance of modern Hebrew culture of which he was part – history had not named them yet. They came to Israel in the early twenties, intent on creating new schools of thought that sought to bring together traditional Judaism and modern Humanism. They settled in Tel Aviv; sat in its cafes writing their poetry with Bialik, Shlonski, Alterman and others like them. Sabba sat with them in Cassit, and Arrart – street cafes on new streets of a new city, white color short sleeved shirts, with light colored trousers, under the Mediterranean sun. They struggled with the question of preservation of tradition or its replacement with a new way of life. How much of the old ways should they keep, what would the new Jew be like; Tshernihovski , Berdishevski or Ahad-Ha-Am? At the time it was so new, so vital, so essential and embryonic. Debate and doubts were valid. There was so much free intellectual space to claim – They flourished in the creative adventure – it was the big bang of rejuvenation of a people, the Hebrew language was being reborn, they were creating it with their poetry, the speed at which it was happening was blessed, not a reason for concern. The time for reflection came on the eve of the war as the grandchildren were filling sandbags.
The teacher was late that Monday morning. We celebrated a few minutes of extended freedom, ignoring the siren, thinking it was another drill. By the time mother and Grandma showed up, shells ware falling around our school and in the surrounding neighborhoo ds. Mother spent her time calming children, Grandma did the same, but every now and then she would look up when a shell burst – if she could get her hands on whoever was firing them… A quick car ride past bombed apartments on Chopin streets, up Ha-Keshet, straight through the no-entry sign of Radak, across Gaza road, continuing on Radak through another no-entry sign, and we were at Grandma’s. Law abiding child that I was, I made a mental note of the fact that you could disobey traffic laws during a bombardment. Sabba was sitting in the living room in his armchair, reading.
‘Simon, come to the shelter.’
He didn’t budge.
‘At least get away from the window…’
He pointed to the drawn metal shades and continued to read. The shades were made of hollow metal strips. Clearly these shades were baseball proof, but what about bullets. As far as Sabba was concerned it didn’t matter – he did not join us in the shelter; as if saying that what happened to him was of little consequence considering what was at stake. Grandma spent the war between the shelter and the apartment, checking on Sabba from time to time; ‘at least we’re on the first floor,’ she kept repeating. Among the best-of-bad-choices they teach you about when preparing for a war, there is the notion that lower floors are safer. Consequentially, Ezra from the third floor stuck to the shelter. Ezra had a transistor radio. I gauged the progress of the war by his whoops of joy more than having a clear understanding of what was happening on the ground. By the time the paratroopers reach ed the Western Wall, the shelling had stopped and Ezra was back in his apartment – but I could hear his ‘HA-HAAA’. The country was in euphoria.
‘Sabba are we safe now?’
‘We cannot survive as oppressors of another people, if there is one thing history teaches us it’s that a conqueror always loses in the end’
‘But isn’t it our land?’
‘It will not end with the old city – we will claim it all – and in the end will relinquish control and look back at a trail of sorrow which would have been for naught.’
Over the years I grew to better understand Sabba’s frustrations – the result of knowing so many answers learned from the mistakes of others – knowing all too well that we would make them ourselves. It was the sad irony of an intellectual – extending onto others the same freedom of thought that made him what he was regardless of the consequences. Someone once quoted Sabba saying ‘If I had known how all this would turn out I would have gone to North Dakota and lived as a Red Indian!’ Sabba knew and he stayed – under the window where shells were no longer bursting, at least not so close, amid political turmoil and growing social rifts, reading, praying, thinking, creating, critiquing come what may. He no longer went to his synagogue but he kept paying for his reserved seat as if to say &ndash ; I am still part of you – I always will be. He continued to pray in the confines of his study, privately. Grandma was less tolerant of the idea that someone else was sitting in Simon’s Seat regardless of where it was. At some point she stopped paying for it.
Grandma walked the family perimeter from dawn to dusk. She set the perimeter according to her terms. She would foray out of the territory for food and errands, but she never let her guard down. Very clear demarcation points were set around her husband, children and grandchildren. You could not cajole your way into that territory, begging didn’t get you anywhere either; hell, you couldn’t even marry your way past Grandma. Grandma reconciled her zeal for her flock with the need to accommodate common courtesy by opening their house to everyone while putting Sabba’s armchair under special scrutiny – none save the immediate family were allowed near it. Rumor has it that Grandma’s battle cry ‘Hey, that’s Simon’s seat’ made the third president of Israel Zalman Shazar get up and find another place to sit – the president wasn’t part of the gene pool and that was the end of that.
When off duty, Grandma played the piano. It stood against the far wall facing the armchair. She played well and played them all: Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Verdi, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto – and she could also spell his name. She could not see the living room when she played, she could not hear footsteps over the music but she could smell…‘ Simon, is that beer he’s carrying around?’
Sabba was delighted to discover that I was willing to drink beer when I was four years old. I would trot after him with my tail raised from the kitchen to the living room, climb up on the armrest and claim my prize. It tasted like soap, but it was worth the spotlight. Sabba let me drink, to the delight of everyone in the living room. At four years old, I was very capable of drinking responsibly. He loved showing me off to his guests, and took great pride in his liberal approach to grandchild upbringing. Grandma was not thrilled, but she could live with it if I could. ‘He’ll be a great drinker like his grandfather…’ someone complemented, only to have his vocal cords severed by Grandma’s glare. Sabba would hand me the glass and I would sip casually, carefully assessing Grandma’s patience with the charade. I would signal that I was done by rubbing my mouth with the back of my hand and holding the glass with my arm extended in front of me – Grandma’s cue to save Sabba from what he was getting me into. I went cold turkey when I was five, and Sabba had to revert to letting me share his tea. He sweetened tea with sugar cubes.
‘Sabba, I want four cubes…’
He found it very hard to refuse a grandchild’s wish.
‘Simon, he doesn’t need four cubes in his tea’
Using a sharp knife to cut a cube into four pieces, Sabba worked out the problem. ‘Sabba, can I have the knife?’
He was horrified when I fell off the chai r with the knife in my hand. Grandma saw it coming and managed to pull the knife away before I hit the floor – she had to grab it by the blade. Grandma lived with the scar, Sabba lived with the guilt; I lived to see another day…
Grandma taught us to swim by dragging us kicking and screaming into the surf. We were a few hundred feet from shore swimming around her when she saw a boy bobbing to the surface and down again. Grabbing him and holding his head above the water, she swam to shore with us trailing alongside. She revived him, gave him hell for swimming alone and watched him flee for his newly won life. Content that he was back on his feet she stomped back into the waves.
Saving a life and preparing dinner were all in a day’s work for Grandma. She was a wonderful cook who had delicious- few choices on her. Her pea soup remains a culinary mystery to anyone who has tried to reproduce it. Watching her prepare the soup was undoubtedly akin to watching a magician – it seemed as if all she did was add peas to boiling water. Maybe simplicity was the secret. Eggplant and chopped liver were the choices of appetizers; pea, chicken, onion or potato soups, roasted chicken, schnitzel or veal with rice, baked potatoes or yams all served with fresh vegetable salad mixed with oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice – and that was pretty much it – at least for the first class menu. If you wanted ‘something light’ she would offer to ‘fix you some feathers’ – ‘say what you want or go away.’
Grandma ground fish by herself. She bought them fresh from the supermarket on Agron Street. It was massive for a food store at the time – twenty times t he size of the grocery stores which fit snugly on narrow street corners. The supermarket even had a pool with live fish – live until you bought them – which sealed their fate. The butcher would scoop a few up with a net, and bludgeon the thrashing animals with a wooden club. Grandma’s meat grinder was an embellishment of a thick metal pipe bent at a right angle. You clamped it to the kitchen counter with one opening towards the ceiling – where the meat went in, and another opening over the huge wooden bowl. Inside the horizontal section of the pipe lay a screw so big your thumb could fit snuggly in its groves with a handle attached to one end and a four blade cutting knife that circled in front of a metal disk with holes on the other. As much as I loved playing with the bone-crushing machine, my fascination was constantly held in check by the taste of the resulting product. No Jewish grandmother has lived long enough to see her grandchildren’s taste for Ge filtefish cultivated to a point of actually liking the stuff.
Quick with her hands, agile on her feet, compassionate and feisty, Grandma was a lady-tomboy. She socialized with the intelligentsia of Rehavia, went with them to concerts, whipped their butts at Scrabble, taught me how to play cards and joined us when we played soccer in the field behind our house. Her lady friends always rode taxis to avoid buses which Grandma never found too crowded. Grandma always found the person who would give her his seat. On her way to claim what was hers, she sniffed armpits, pointing out the invention of deodorant with directed rhetorical questions. Once seated, she would have the person next to her open the window wider – ‘can’t you tell it stinks in here?’ She rode to the toughes t neighborhoods where she worked voluntarily with needy families’ parents and children alike. ‘Love is not enough,’ she used to say – simple, brutal, practical. More than love is required to raise a child, and she was there with parenting supplements, not shying away from giving them a piece of her mind as she saw fit.
Within the inner family circle, Grandma had to be a little subtler with her opinions. She had a clever mousetrap set at Friday dinner table. After the Kiddush and blessing over the Hallah Grandma would pass the first course:
‘Amatziah, would you like another piece of Hallah with your soup?’
&nbs p; Who could resist fresh Hallah…?
‘Yes, I’d love to’ he’d say beaming at his acceptance.
‘If you stuff yourself with Hallah you won’t have room for anything else…’
For years my Father pretended to fall into the Hallah trap every Friday night. As much as he would have liked to let it pass, he was always aggravated when Grandma turned out to be dead serious. He was the lucky one; all Gallia got was the slice of Hallah – Grandma didn’t offer her a plate at all. It was so insulting it has to be instinctive; with Gallia it wasn’t just the food, it was about reproduction. After all I was a half-breed; having her gene pool further diluted was all but impossible for Grandma to come to terms with. This did not stop her from loving Gallia. Gallia was the only person she shared her fears with, while to the family she remained a pillar of strength.
The day before I enlisted into the Israeli Defense Forces, I visited my grandparents to say goodbye, knowing that from now on I would be gone for weeks on end, and would not be able to see them as often as I used to. Sabba was beside himself with worry. He signaled me to follow him into his library. The two windows did their best to let in whatever sunlight penetrated through the pine and cypress trees that towered over the house. Despite the windows’ best efforts the room had only enough light to make out his silhouette. Sabba did not turn on the light when he entered so I left it off as well, sensing that he needed the shield of darkness. He walked toward the window at the far side of the room. He picked up his Talit (prayer shawl) from the bench, put on his Kipah and motioned me to come towards him and sit on what little space the bench offered. He put his hand on my head, opened the Sidur (prayer book) and blessed me with a safe journey, where ever it would take me. When he was done, we both left the room without a word. His prayer that day was an expression of love, fear, frustration and whatever little hope he dared put into it. It was the only way he could reconcile his pessimistic view of Israel’s predicament, having to send his grandson to bear the brunt of what the foreboding future held, being utterly helpless to do anything about it. It was his way of saying ‘at the speed we are moving, we need a Passover-like miracle to prevent a train w reck, please God, perhaps this is the time to allow our people to find some peace.’ ‘A tank is better than an airplane’ Grandma shouted after me as I was headed down the street – simple, practical, no point shedding tears over it – Grandma’s way of dealing with the inevitable.
The peace agreement with Egypt was signed two years later.
It was the summer of 1978.
‘We have to clear the vegetable garden of all Israeli citizens an d return it to the Egyptians’.
I heard what the battalion commander was saying, but vegetable gardens and the military simply didn’t seem to come together.
‘They forgot the vegetable garden and the laundry of the Neot Sinai settlement, on the Egyptian side when they drew the ‘B’ line from El-Arish on the Mediterranean coast to Ras-Muhamd at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula’; the battalion commander continued, his body language like that of a child reading a poor composition in front of the class.
‘In a last ditch negotiation effort , Prime Minister Begin managed to nudge the B line west of the laundry’
‘What about the vegetable garden?’
‘They forgot to tell him about it so he did not bring it up…’
‘I wonder what Sabba will say when he hears this story’ I thought to myself. It was peace making in the works – in the spotlights you saw grand ceremonies where well dressed heads of state were handed felt pens to sign historical documents – while the backstage implementation was at times sloppy and ridiculous – carelessly leaving portions of settlements on the wrong side of the borde r.
‘How much time do we have?’
‘The Egyptians are coming to the ceremony at the El-Arish air strip tomorrow at noon…’
Our battalion was designated as the stage crew that would have to rush in and clean up the mess, so that the stage would be ready when the lights came on. As the battalion operations officer I had to come up with something that resembled a plan.
‘We will flank through the tomato patch, and come downwind through the onions while th e Apaches lead a head-on assault and push the settlers back towards the washing machines’. Sloppy at best – but it suited the moment. We had no time to prepare.
We came in using the ‘cover of darkness’ only to lose our way. We headed right into the melee, exactly as we hadn’t planned – not that it would have made any difference. By dawn we had been scuffling for hours. It was an alley fight but on a grander scale – citizen-soldiers against soldier-citizens. ‘Where’s Grandma when you need her’, I thought to myself. A few barks here, little nip s at some ankles and the settlers would have been herded away from the garden – quickly restoring order without much of a fuss. Well, Grandma couldn’t make it to the vegetable garden on such short notice, and we were only soldiers… It would take ten years to fully ratify and implement the peace agreement.
In the eighties Sabba set his mind on finishing what he had started. Seeing the rate at which the fragments of the new creation were speeding away from each other he was determined to create a capsule of culture that he hoped would survive. A capsule which would someday, should it come to that, be opened to continue the work so many had contributed to. Continue a renaissance which traveled too far, too fast. His last book Mainstreams and Side Streams in Literature< /em> [דברים וצידי דברים בספרות] was a unique literary criticism. Unlike any work that had been published before, it was dedicated not only to the well known writers and poets. Sabba had designated significant sections of his work to the ‘unknown’ which he brought into immortality, and the ‘forgotten’ which they would no longer be: Yehuda Yaari, Yitzhak Lamdan, Regelson, Bistritky, Avraham Hus. All of them sat in Sabba’s living room. Some of them sat with me during my last year at the beer bottle, and continued to pay their respects to Sabba long after I had stepped away to the dining room. The Hebrew University honored the debut of the book with a public ceremony – one of many, which Sabba never cared for. His eyes lit up when he saw Ye-ela, his first great granddaughter which we brought along – she was seven months old. He communicated with her by making funny faces that scared me but made her smi le. She giggled seeing and hearing him repeat unintelligible syllables ‘buuusha’, ‘buuusha’ – he was thrilled by her response – it was their last contact before the stroke.
It was the spring of 1986. We were sitting with Sabba in the living room. Grandma continued to help him to his armchair. Fewer people came to visit these days. Ye-ela was two years old. She walked up to him and made an impish face. She held it for a few seconds waiting for a response. Twelve languages, half a million words, tens of thousands of pages of prose and poetry – not a word made it through. Ye-ela turned away, followed by a flinch of the little finger of his left hand, signaling with all its strength for her to turn around. It was all that mighty brain could move, not enough to pleas e a child. Tal, our younger daughter, was sprawled in his lap not knowing who he was; neither of them has any recollection of him.
Sabba passed away at the dining room table. His body lay in his study until the burial services arrived, parking the hearse in the middle of Radak Street, blocking it to traffic. I followed them as they carried his body on a stretcher out of the house. Mother came with me, Grandma stayed with Michal inside, watching from the window – his window, above the armchair. A bus was waiting behind the hearse, not honking out of respect – I nodded thanks to the bus driver, he nodded back – a small gesture at the passing of a great man. Hundreds came to pay their respects when Sabba was dropped to rest. His body, wrapped in a white shroud was lowered from the gurney and released before the man in the burial pit could grab hold of it, a small mishap – b ut Grandma was still on guard. ‘Hey, that’s Simon…’ She turned her head with her hallmark defiance and turned back – she would shed tears after it was done.
When Tal was old enough to walk, Grandma was old enough not to, but she climbed with us to the Amram Pillars, columns of red Nubian stone in the southern Negev desert. Half way up the boulders, Grandma stopped and stood watching, following me with her look as I continued to climb with the girls scampering after me. Grandma sat down as if saying – this is as far as I go – the pillar could lead no more. Later that day we sat on the beach, at the Tabba resort. Israel was haggling with Egypt over the last few yards of the Sinai Peninsula for which ownership had not yet been determined. Hittie covered the story as an obs erver correspondent. Later he wrote:
The negotiations went on until the last minute. In the end there was a difference of 12 meters between where the Israelis thought the border should run and where the Egyptians thought it should run. After a few hours of arguing, Israel offered a 6-6 split. Egypt held out for 8-4, and they argued for a few hours more. Finally, the American observer from the embassy in Tel Aviv threatened to go home if things weren’t resolved immediately, and they were, on the basis of 7-5; on the whole a very successful day.
It was dusk. Grandma was sitting on the sand. The girls were playing at the water line. I was sitting with Gallia a few yards from Grandma. We were watching the girls from a distance, not too close to hover over them, yet close enough to get to them if they waded too far. ‘You’re good parents,’ was all Grandma said – short, kind, simple. Grandma had relinquished control of the territory, no haggling, without self-pity, without complaints. That was the way it had to be. We continued to sit silently.
They lie, side by side, on the western slope of the Mountain of Eternal Rest overlooking the road from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem – the two worlds they tried to bridge, the little patch of land they wanted for their children and grandchildren, a few miles stretching from the shores of the Mediterranean to the hills of Judea. Sabba tried to preserve the soul of a nation. Grandma made sure we all behaved ourselves, stood in line and waited our turns. She played for us while we waited and supported those that needed help. Grandma’s tombstone reads:
1995-1904 מיני הלקין
תודה על המנגינה
In her own special way she was the last of the Mohicans. My uncle donated Sabba’s library to the Hebrew University. A s mall metal plaque with Sabba’s name is placed atop a bookshelf. Rahavia has changed; young students sit at newly opened cafes at the corner of Gaza and Ha-Ari facing Sabba’s synagogue, most of them don’t notice it. The window facing Radak Street has new shades. People passing by think it’s just a window. I can no longer enter the apartment but I will be inside forever.
 Imma (אמא) Mother in Hebrew. This is how I refer to my wife Gallia which is what our children call her.
 Sabba (סבא) Grandfather in Hebrew
 On Santa Barbara Beach [על חוף סנטה ברברה] (poems) 1928; Yehiel Hahagri [יחיאל ההגרי] (novel) 1928; In Six Days and Seven Nights [בימים ששה ולילות שבעה] (poems) 1929;
Baruch Ben-Neria [ברוך בן נריה] (poems) 1932; Collected Essays and Studies [עראי וקבע] (essays) 1942; The Crisis [עד משבר] (novel) 1945; On The Island [על האי] (poems) 1945; Jews and Judaism [יהודים ויהדות] (essays) 1946; Modern Hebrew Literature – Trends and Values 1950; Introduction to Hebrew Literature [[מבוא לספרות עברית 1953; Selected Poems [אולי] 1962; Crossing the Yabok [מעבר יבוק] (poems) 1965; Collected Essays and Studies (3 Volumes) 1969; Adrift [נכר] (stories) 1972; Poems [שירים] 1977; Mainstreams and Side Streams in Literature [דברים וצידי � �ברים בספרות] (criticism) 1985
 Abba (אבא) Hebrew for Father
 A neighborhood in Jerusalem
 The nickname of a paratrooper battalion which was regularly stationed in the mountain range south of the Mitleh pass, a terrain which resembles a arid mountain ranges in Arizona and New Mexico.
 Minnie Halkin 1995-1905 Thank You for Your Melody