HALF THE HOUSE
My Life In and Out of Jerusalem
Terror and Ice Cream
Corpses are thrown here, says my father, pointing to a valley in the Jerusalem forest as we drive by. My father exaggerates what he reads in the newspapers. His voice is uneasy. It is this new bad element in the city, these mobsters, who dispose of their victims in this valley, my father adds. The stars shimmer in a July sky, and the air is cool and crisp. I sit in the backseat with my mother. My father is in the front next to my husband, who is at the wheel. Mobsters in Jerusalem, throwing corpses into a valley? I don’t believe it. Yet the words slowly penetrate me and fill me with terror.
I have known this terror since childhood. It doesn’t surface often, but when it does it has an ominous impact on me. As when I once, spontaneously, turned off the lights on a Sabbath Eve, breaking Jewish Law, and was suddenly seized with a formless terror of some unknown force that made me feel powerless, as if the life were drained out of me. And later, on one of my summer visits to Jerusalem from New York, while driving in a car on the Sabbath, my father’s admonishments echo: I am violating a holy space, desecrating not only the Sabbath, but contaminating the purity of this city. I am causing pain not only to my father, my mother, and God, but by driving in a car that sails through the sanctified, almost traffic-free streets, I am responsible for transforming Jerusalem into a mundane, secular, temporal place.
After having moved to New York, after having abandoned, almost completely, the practice of religious observances, I can hear my mother’s voice: A sin, she would say, if I told her that I ride the subway on the Sabbath. She would say that about my other transgressions, such as blowing out the Sabbath candles. (Before leaving the house I’d blow out the candles for fear they would cause a fire.) I could hear my mother pronouncing the word sin in an annihilating voice. Whenever I hear it, even from a great distance, I lie down, feeling barely alive. Lie down as I once did, on the grass by a river, terrified to disobey my parents, who have instructed me not to go rowing in a boat with my friends lest the boat capsize and I drown. I saw my friends rowing, rowing away, and I lay on my stomach writhing in pain.
At home, my mother monitored me, watched my every step. When I was fourteen, a boy in class asked me to be his girlfriend. I blushed, and said, Yes. Once a week, he invited me to go to the movies with him, and in late afternoons he came to pick me up. The boys in our school had to wear yarmulkes, but Tzvi, when not in school, took his off. He stood downstairs in front of my house, whistling “our” whistle, and my mother came out on the terrace to take a look. Seeing him bareheaded, she grimaced. Upon my return from the movies, she said in an angry voice, Why isn’t he wearing a yarmulke? Her voice was sharp, she didn’t expect an answer, nor did the question mean I should stop seeing Tzvi. Perhaps it was her indirect way of inculcating guilt and fear in me, her way of releasing anxiety. Perhaps she was repeating a pattern begun as a child, noticing how her older brother adhered to Jewish law, rigidly.
My mother expresses her pain about me abandoning the practice of Jewish Law, and paradoxically denies that I have done so. I fear her imminent remarks: On Friday mornings, when I call from New York to wish her a good Sabbath, she says, You probably have already finished cooking for the Sabbath. Though I would admit to not having cooked for the Sabbath, implying that I might break Jewish law and do so during the night and the day of rest, I feel like a little girl who must submit to her.
My obedience is a matter of habit. Often, when I disobeyed my parents, I feared abandonment, annihilation, not being well thought of. My parents and God—are they the same? Did they merge in my mind? I think of God as possibility, without which I wouldn’t know there is something more satisfying than my present state. Perhaps my terror has very little to do with my parents or with God. I need to take responsibility for my terror and my anxiety. It would take me many years to acknowledge that I am anxious, and to discover that anxiety is harmful, a kind of a sin: to feel that I deserve God’s forgiveness for what I think of as my sins, and to genuinely ask His forgiveness for them.
And it would take many more years to understand the full meaning of a poem by C.P. Cavafy:
He who hopes to grow in spirit
will have to transcend obedience and respect.
He’ll hold to some laws
but he’ll mostly violate
both law and custom, and go beyond
the established, inadequate norm. . . .
He won’t be afraid of the destructive act:
half the house will have to come down.
I want to do away with customs, with obedience, with respect for the Law. But I fear the destructive act, my own aggression. I fear the house will come down. As I go my own way, having my own thoughts, there is still a voice that forbids the spontaneous word, lest the ground drop out from beneath me and leave me suspended in the air without the law and the rules to hold onto. As I am engaged in thinking, I fear violating both law and custom, disobeying the strict, forbidding, exacting, punishing voice. As I lead my own life, I fear going beyond the established norm even though the norm is inadequate, even though it confines me. I fear surrendering to the great unknown, of “becoming what I had not yet been,” as Yeats would say. But the pull to break through persists. Another voice beckons me, summons me to glimpse an endlessly expansive world. And a conflict widens, like the gorge in west Jerusalem, very close to Mount Herzl, near my parents’ house; it is forever widening, ready to consume, to swallow. I bend, prostrate, kneel. I am still the little girl looking for Mother’s and Father’s approval.
On a trip to Canada with my husband and two sons one summer, we decide to go on a ski lift to see the view from Mont Tremblant, which is opposite us. I must sit on the chairlift quickly or I will miss it. I am shocked at how fast it goes up with just a bar to hold on to. I look at the valley below, the abyss, the vast world; my legs dangle above the abyss. Any wrong move, any inadvertent move, and I will fall. Any move my sons will make, they will fall. I ask my older son, who sits next to me, if he is afraid, and he says No; I turn back and ask my husband and my younger son whether they are afraid, and they say No; it is peculiar then to be afraid, I think. We are going up; the ascent will never end. When we finally land on the mountain, I say, I am not going back that way, my legs dangling in the air is too frightening, I am going down by foot. My husband says, This is crazy, you will sit next to me this time. But the children, I say. They will sit by themselves, he says. Impossible, I say. He says, They’ll be fine. And I am up on the chairlift, I am sitting next to my husband this time, the children sit behind us. We are going down, and I am terrified, and I begin to sob, I sob loudly, I sob uncontrollably, I sob hard, everything in me sobs, my tensions, my worries, my anxiety over my children, my fear of my parents, fears I have about doing the wrong thing, everything sobs, I will fall into the abyss and die, my last and final fall; there is no world, there is no “I.” My terror, my sobbing, and me are one. There is nothing else.
My mother believed in my doing what satisfies me. She gave me room to be. She permitted my feelings of grief and fear, as well as desire. In her presence I feel at ease when I cry. She never tells me to stop. Once, in the kitchen, I cried when she told me something—I don’t remember whether it was about someone’s misfortune or someone’s kindness—and she said, Cry, cry, this is something to cry about. From the time I was two years old, my mother arranged for the neighbors’ children to come and play with me. She wanted me to have friends. She permitted me to stay home on days I didn’t feel like going to school: You don’t exploit anybody, you are straight as a ruler, she said, and you are not greedy. She and my father did not interfere with the way I dressed. My father, only on one occasion, at the age of eighteen, reproved me for wearing black stockings, saying whores wear black stockings. My parents rarely criticized my boyfriends; they made no rules as to when I should be back home from a date.
When my parents thought they were indulging me, they called me Basichidke, which means “only child.” It’s an endearing term and it meant that they cherished me. However, I wanted to have a sibling. I kept looking at my mother’s belly, and I imagined it growing bigger. If only I could have an older brother who would bring home his friends, and they would surround me, and I would pick and choose whomever I wanted as a boyfriend. I didn’t feel my parents spoiled me, though I often felt thwarted by my mother’s over-attentiveness. In winter, she bought me leather boots to keep my feet warm. I wanted rubber boots, the kind my friends wore. But rubber boots do not protect the feet from the cold weather, my mother insisted. Later, when I read Rilke’s “Prodigal Son,” I thought of how similar our experiences have been: upon returning home from roaming in the fields, the son is led over to a table in front of a lamp, and the light falls on him alone, while the others stayed in shadow. I lamented with him not having the right to the slightest danger, and having to promise a hundred times not to die. The son is a creature that belongs to his family; they had long ago fashioned a life for him “out of his small past and their own desires . . .” standing “day and night under the influence of their love, between their hope and their mistrust, before their approval or their blame. . . .” In the fields, though, he can be whatever he wants to be, nothing but a bird if he wants to, without being concerned that he is giving pleasure or pain by what he is doing. He wants the freedom he encounters in the fields, where “none of this became fate, and the sky passed over him as over nature. . . .” He wants a humble love that does not burden him, a love without the anxiety that contaminates it. This is the kind of love I experience when I am in a room writing or reading, and my husband is in another, or sometimes we are in the same room as we attend to whatever we are doing, privately, silently, and the house is quiet, all is still. We talk to each other but mostly we are silent. There is a security of being loved and loving, and a trust that helps me to be true to myself, no longer terrified to be my own person.
I’ve experienced similar moments with my father. For all his reproaching me and agreeing with my mother about my religious transgressions, my father was more relaxed than she was in the way he practiced his religion. I took him for granted. Yet I trusted him. The few bad fights I’ve had with him were honest, straightforward fights. Once, as a teenager, during dinner, I became so mad at him I threw a knife across the table. Another time when my father asked that I take the garbage downstairs, I said, No, I’m afraid of the cats, they jump at me from the garbage bin, shrieking. You are spoiled, my father said, and slapped my arm; the metal band of my watch opened and scratched my hand, which bled. I was indignant and I cried, but secretly I thought I deserved it.
My father once said that had he lived in America, he would have joined a Conservative synagogue where men and women sit together, not separated by a mechitza. When I was ten, I went with him to Tel Aviv. We sat in a café on the beach and had ice cream. It was a hot day, but a canopy shaded our table. There was just the right amount of space between my father and me. I could just be. Away from the city, which has been burdened with an oppressive past, evident in the history-laden alleys that had made their mark on my father’s determined yet hesitant gait, my father was relaxed. His eyes, which were weary most of the time, seemed calm. A light breeze came from the ocean. The waves splashed the shore. My father’s head was bare. He had no hat or yarmulke. I asked him why, and he said, In Jerusalem, one must cover one’s head, but here in Tel Aviv it’s different. The remark came as a pleasant surprise. I liked my father for not sticking to rigid rules, being the way he was in Tel Aviv, unburdened, without a hat.