My ex-wife Miriam died old, childless, embittered and to a large extent, no longer interested in the events that took place out there, in the external world. She left behind several books, a few pieces of old furniture, a dilapidated piano, some records and some family pictures, including some of her parents in the company of their old friend, Albert Einstein, in his apartment in Berlin, the city where she had been born. She also saved the letters she received during her relatively long and mostly perverted life. I have no idea what happened to her goods but as for the letters – her nephew placed them, with other personal effects, in some large suitcases and buried them all in the garbage. A neighbor that was in his fifth or sixth year of recuperating from a nervous breakdown and had nothing else to do, got curious, took the suitcases out, and being skilled both in Hebrew and in German read them all and formed in his mind a vicarious picture of her life. He got so much involved that he even tried to attach himself to her “family,” – me and her second ex-husband, Arie. I did not like his presence nor his comments on the relationship between her and me, and soon cut off the communication. In response I got some nasty emails. It could have been an amusing post mortem episode but the thought of the most personal and intimate effects of her life ending in such a ridiculous way, in the garbage, has been disturbing.
I was reminded of it when, while unpacking my things after moving to Vancouver, I found a big pack of letters from Miriam and me, mainly from Miriam, to my parents during the time we were married. The letters, which she wrote at least once a week, including one or two from Austria where she spent some time with her parents, covered all the period when we were married, that is – the first part of the fifties. They gave a precise account of our daily life at that time, when I struggled to find my place in a world that was so different from the one to which I, unsuccessfully, have aspired all my life. A world of books, music and intellectual discussions, resembling more the Salon life of previous centuries than the actual confused reality of my life in a new country while it strived to come into being, and later in other new places. The letters dealt with what interested my parents most, an accurate account of our affairs, with great sensitivity to their comprehensible anxiety about my situation. She mentioned her sickness and doctor visits but of course not the fact that many of those visits related to her mental state.
I took it for granted that after my death, my friends would not throw the letters to the garbage, but in order to save them extra work I destroyed the letters myself. What came to mind while reading and shredding was the memory of the shock I experienced when hearing my mother talk about Miriam after our divorce – an aversion contiguous with hatred. During five years of marriage I never suspected that my mother had harbored anything even resembling such a sentiment. At that time I thought that my mother probably was a very wise woman, that in order to keep the relationship going played, and played it very well, the role of a loving and caring mother-in-law. However, about thirty years later, when I took care of her at the last stages of her life, I had an exasperating experience that led me to understand her behavior in a different way.
It was my mother’s brother, Yitzhak, who answered the telephone most of the times I called her in the year preceding her passing away. He usually explained that my mother was too sick and in no condition to answer phone calls. Later he also claimed that she no longer was able to take care of herself and must be placed in a nursing home. It sounded reasonable, however, I asked him to wait until the end of the semester when I could come and choose the place myself. Later I learned that while being in her house he and his wife systematically emptied it of everything valuable. Having a power of attorney he also manipulated her bank account and possibly, much more. When I discovered it I was too grossed, disgusted and cross to explore the matter further. I knew that neither he nor his children needed the money. Both he and his wife were motivated by pure greed and as far as I was concerned, being gluttonous was punishment enough for whatever they did. They were the ones who had to see the face of a thief and a crook every time they looked in the mirror or at each other. Besides, my mother trusted them fully and such a family clash could have affected and risked her health considerably.
I arrived in Israel planning to stay for about a week or two. As far as I remember, my luggage consisted then of not much more than a pair of short pants, sandals and two or three T-shirts. In three weeks time I was scheduled to have an operation in Vancouver, Canada, and there was no point carrying with me a heavy load. Little did I know! The morning after my arrival my mother was scheduled to see her doctor and two of my uncles, Yitzhak and Jonathan, came with us in order to introduce me to the current situation. The visit was in the hospital and together with other geriatrics and their relatives we waited outside the doctor’s door. My mother sat very quietly, hands knitted on her knees, her gaze fixed on a certain point on the opposite wall. Her brothers found a seat somewhere else in the room and were engaged in a lively conversation. I asked my mother if she would like to read the daily paper and she conceded with a thankful smile. She read it with interest. A childhood friend, the doctor in charge of the department passed by, we exchanged greetings and niceties, he looked at my mother, noticed that her eyes were clear and alert, and commented that she seemed to be in a good condition. When her turn arrived, the doctor checked her blood pressure and listened to her heart. She joined our small company and we returned home.
Later I learned that my friend, the doctor, was responsible for organizing a special unit, serving mainly the old and the sick, in which nurses visited the patients regularly at home to take their blood pressure, samples for testing and perform similar services. Also, each patient was assigned a doctor whom one could call at any time of the day when required. Like many of our generation, also he roamed about after the Independence War, and at the age of thirty-five decided to go to a medical school. After graduating he established this service for which the doctors and the nurses got extra pay. The money came from donations by some rich families who benefited from the service and thought it worthwhile to extend it to more people in need. I think that later it became a special branch in the hospital. When I decided to stay, we joined the service and didn’t have to take special trips to the hospital in order to measure her blood pressure. Also, the home visits of the doctors saved many trips to the Emergency Room. All that took place a bit later. Trusting my uncle’s judgment I spent a few days visiting the offices of nursing homes only to learn that it was not as simple as I imagined. There was the question of available space, the legal proceedings of transferring to the nursing homes the bulk of her wealth and property, and similar arrangements. I called my Canadian doctor, arranged to delay my operation and decided to stay and take care of my mother, a decision that caused a lot of consternation among the close family circle.
I soon discovered that without exception, they not only disliked but actually detested my father. It was a shock, a big one. My mother barred my father from involvement in public affairs, as was his natural tendency, and from extending their circle of acquaintances. This was her natural proclivity. For almost forty years her family members were almost the only people that my father met, befriended and trusted. They played their roles very well, the same as my mother in her relationship with Miriam. My mother told me how surprised she was at the large number of people, mostly strangers, who attended my father’s funeral and the unfamiliar people who spoke over his grave. It seemed that in order to get her brothers’ sympathy, my mother told them awful stories about my father’s alleged cruel demeanor towards her, presumably from the first to the last day of their marriage. As they entirely believed her stories, they probably thought that as I also witnessed my father’s alleged behavior I probably felt the same as they did, and freely expressed their sentiment towards him. Later I learned from their children that their parents always entertained similar feelings also towards me, and warned my younger cousins not to communicate with me. This I could understand better as theirs was a close knit family and while they openly alienated my older cousin, the son of Sara and Mendle, I was the one who kept myself outside the family circle and above all, performed what they considered to be an inexcusable sin – emigrating to America, that is, betraying both the family and what they understood as the Zionist ideals.
Now I realize that most of them were somewhat senile and that I should have taken it into account. However, I did not, and almost immediately we established a pattern in which I disagreed with almost everything they did and they criticized everything I had done. As soon as I established myself at home I discovered that in order to “help” my mother they forbade her from doing even simple tasks that she was used to and was able to do. They didn’t even let her cross the road to buy foodstuff in the nearby grocery, where she could exchange words with her longtime neighbors. Of course they didn’t bother to bring her any of the daily papers. Her role was to sit like a zombie and provide them with a place where they all could meet daily, while the day away and claim that they sacrificed themselves for her sake. I started to take her for short walks in the neighborhood, which she liked very much. My relatives however immediately blamed me that I’m doing this, and similar acts, in order to kill her. Asking what could be my motive and benefit for killing her they had no answer but nevertheless were sure that this was my intention. Today I most likely would have seen the ridiculous side in their behavior and would have treated them accordingly, but then I was under a constant shock of discovering and having to come to terms with such behavior from what I always considered to be a supporting family. It was not long before their criticism turned into a blunt enmity. Much later I understood that it was my uncle Yitzhak who constantly inculcated in their semi-senile heads these emotions and the belief that I stayed in Israel in order to hasten the death of my mother.
Yitzhak incessantly claimed that my mother’s place should be in a nursing home where she would get a better care than by me. He even took me to the region’s social worker and asked him to convince me that this is what should be done. When the social worker heard that I was ready to stay and take care of my mother he got up, went around the table and hugged me. By then I did a bit of research and learned that at least third of the people die a short time after being transferred to nursing homes. For my mother who never made friends and lived for about fifty years in the same apartment where she knew her way around, such a transfer could have been tantamount to death sentence. The social worker and I pointed it out to Yitzhak but he was not convinced. Why? What was his interest in meting out such a death warrant?
In those days I still assumed that Yitzhak was earnest in his belief and intentions. It was only about twenty years later that I suddenly remembered that in order to put my mother in a nursing home I was supposed to yield to the institution all her assets and possessions. Did he hate me to such a degree that he was ready to risk the life of his sister just so that I shall be deprived from my inheritance? I now tend to think that having the power of attorney he probably helped himself to a good portion of her property and was afraid that I might inspect the accounts and thus discover all his misdeeds. His insistence on putting his sister in a nursing home was probably an effort to prevent me from checking the accounts. His wife Frida was highly hysterical in her conduct towards me. In those days I thought it was because she just did not like me, but now I believe that what caused the hysteria was the fear that I would discover what they did with my mother’s property and my inheritance. In fact, I truly was very naïve and trusting, and did not even make the slightest effort to check. Frida, however, became really grotesque in her frenzied and out of control behavior, with her high pitched voice and her bizarre and exasperated body language when she blamed me of killing my mother.
The concerned brothers and sisters often called for a family meeting to discuss my mother’s situation. At first I really believed that they cared and I attended these meetings. Beside the odd behavior of Frida I remember from those meetings the serene voice of my aunt Pola, who for over fifty years worked as a secretary in one of the biggest accounting offices in Israel. Any time I mentioned that something cost only about five dollars, or less, she reminded me in a deductive voice, like a first grade teacher instructing a child, that the legal currency of Israel was the shekel. The current Israeli inflation at that time could reach up to two thousand percent per day. A few dollars were worth some millions of shekels. Everybody else lived then on dollars, and in the morning the banks were chock full of people buying dollars that in the afternoon were worth many more shekels, but by then, the prices of everything also went up considerably. A relatively long time after the introduction of the New Shekel and controlling the inflation, it was quite common to see in the market women calculating: “Thus, the price of the tomatoes or the potatoes is equal to so many million shekels.” It was the only time that even poor people could feel like billionaires.
Each member of the family had a key to the apartment and they all saw it as their birthright to use their key any time they felt like it, with no need to first ring the bell. During the first months I managed to tolerate it as I always could withdraw to my room. However, when my mother’s condition deteriorated their visits became intolerable. Because of dysfunction of the valve in her heart she retained and accumulated water to the point that we often had to hurry to the emergency room to get a shot in order to reduce the accumulation. Many times we spent a good part of the night in the hospital, for that or for other reasons, and after returning home at the very early matinal hours of the day, we both tried to get some sleep. However, everyday, like clockwork, just before seven o’clock in the morning, my uncle Jonathan and his wife appeared in the apartment. On such mornings they would first wake my mother and then, knocking on my door cursing and shouting in a fervent manner, blamed me for caring only for my egoistical needs, while completely neglecting my suffering mother. There was no point in telling them anything about what had taken place during the night. They were on a crusade to save my mother from my lethal claws and any effort to talk with them was an exercise in futility. Now I understand that they were in an advanced state of senility, but then I was not so enlightened in such matters.
My mother’s condition deteriorated. My relations with the family steadily went downhill to the point that we no longer were on speaking terms. My mother’s death saved her from the humiliation in which a proud and strong willed woman turned into a somewhat feeble-minded being who could not even control her bodily functions. During the funeral, most likely also according to tradition (I had never attended a funeral before), they stayed behind me and it suited me fine. It was ironic that the same people who emigrated to Palestine/Israel in the twenties out of idealistic motives with the intention of changing the character of the Jewish people, including their own, ended up displaying such despicable characteristics. I think that at least partly, it was because of their inability to laugh at themselves, or at anything else. Like many of their generation, they could recognize only the colors of white and black and were unable to distinguish anything in between. Personally, I have completely erased them from my family roster.
My father died in 1973, about twelve years before my mother. Recently I found newspaper clippings he sent me during the last years of his life. They gave me a bit of a shock. At that time I taught philosophy and history at the University of Detroit and wished that my students had the level of sophistication he demonstrated both in the choice of the clippings and in his accompanying comments. Throughout his life he never ceased to study, read, think, comment, and ask the right questions. In his letters, especially those from 1972, he sometimes mentioned how much he suffered under the hand of my mother. He must have therefore delved deeper and deeper into questions about the meaning of things and life in general, the same questions habitually raised by the great philosophers. At that time the daily Israeli newspapers regularly gave a lot of space to prominent intellectuals, most of whom immigrated to Israel after being brought up and educated in Europe. The disparity between their secular culture and their efforts to create, in Hebrew, a language satiated with religious terminology, a unique Israeli culture, led to very interesting discussions. My father followed them closely, shared with me the written material and added to the clippings his own opinion. Coming now upon the letters and the clippings I felt the rise of a wave of loving emotion toward him, much more than what we experienced at the time when we played the roles of father and son. Now I miss him as a friend. I could even tell him how much I love and appreciate him. Only now is in the present while the letters represent the past.
I never felt as close to my parents as in those days when we communicated through letters and I could share with them anything that happened without their immediately commenting how stupid and wrong I was. Now they were glad to be in a position in which they could advise me without my getting mad at them for interfering in my affairs. In a strange way, the distance between us and the sharing with them of my affairs in the pursuit of a new career brought us together as never before. It also added content to their life. Deducing from their letters, my being abroad introduced a new ritualistic dimension into their life. Their day started by checking the mail box for a letter from me. Upon getting a letter my father would read it aloud and then each went to a different corner to write a response that always ended with at least half a page of new questions. Then each read his letter aloud to the other and often later, privately, added a sentence or two. When members of the family or others visited, they always asked about me and my parents would read aloud my last letter which all discussed at length. I often asked for new books that were published in Israel and my father not only bought but also read almost all of the books before packing them very carefully and adding more questions to the list. By then, another letter would arrive and the whole procedure would start again.
Among the paper clippings I found also letters from my mother. Included among them was the letter in which she told me about my father’s death from a heart attack, about the funeral that, to her surprise, was attended by hundreds of people she never met, mainly people who remembered my father from his Zionist activities in Bialystok, and about the commemoration speech by people unknown to her, who described how meeting my father changed their life. There was also a letter from my aunt Pola, describing how surprised the whole family was at learning from people who attended the funeral about my father’s activities as head of the Zionist organization and the Hebrew schools in Poland and beyond, of which they knew nothing. The following letters from my mother spoke of her loneliness and sickness, her sitting alone in the shop, hardly ever selling anything. Reading the letters, envisioning her hanging on to the things she knew, trying to find some meaning in this form of life, was a heart breaking experience. An old woman, bent by years, hardly able to walk on swollen feet, strolling among the empty rooms in an apartment where she had spent the last fifty years of her life, not very happy years, clearing the dust from the furniture that had been especially made for a marriage she never enjoyed. A buffet filled with very expensive and fancy plates, beautiful soup bowls, silver, crystal wine glass and similar art objects, which were her pride during the years and now were of no use.
As was the case with my father’s letters, reading those of my mother’s was an emotional experience. I have always been aware of her love to me however, even though it was not conditional, it was a demanding sort of love. She expected me to be “normal,” that is, like the kids of the neighbors and those of her family. For her, being “normal” meant getting good grades at school, holding a steady and respectable job, having children and often visiting with them and being nice to her and the other members of the family. In short, almost from day one she expected me to be someone other than who I was, fought and criticized me and everything I ever did, for not living up to her ideal of a worthy son and person. Nevertheless, once I left Israel we became closer than ever. I could, and did share, first with both my parents and then with my widowed mother, almost everything I did and experienced without being exposed to criticism. Reading her letters now I recognize how much love she expressed in them. During the years her handwriting became more erratic, less organized, bigger letters and greater space between the words. Nevertheless she wrote often, letting me know how she felt and what was happening with her within the narrowing circle that encompassed her life. Reading the letters I felt a strong urge to embrace this old, sick and lonely woman, something neither she nor I ever did.
The older I get the more I resemble my father in my looks and am aware of some of the qualities I inherited from him, including a certain kind of naive trust in people. However, circumstances never enabled any of us, not either of my parents nor me, to develop our human potentials and abilities. When I told my father that I’m going to America he straight away asked me: “Do you know why the horse runs so fast?” I did not know, and he said: “Because he thinks that the cart will be left behind.” I have not left my cart behind and I am not sure whether I ever was fully aware of the content of my cart. I suspect that most of it is composed of feelings of failure and the knowledge that if I were asked, I would have to answer that I would have preferred not to be born.
At my mother’s funeral, I, according to custom, was supposed to walk in front, but this place was taken instead by the watchmaker – a short, quiet and religious person who used to have a small shop in the house next to ours. He forced himself in front, walking in a manner that clearly and vigorously declared: This is my rightful place. Contrary to what might have been expected, my relatives did not protest the fact that he walked in front of them. Did they know what became clear to me only then, that he was my mother’s lover? It could explain what happened to all the precious presents my father gave to my mother on each of her birthdays and other occasions, hoping in the depth of his heart that they would turn her heart to like him. When I asked her what happened to all those diamond rings and the necklaces, she answered: “father? He never gave me anything.” Did she believe it? She might have. She most likely gave them all to the watchmaker to sell it for her, and convinced herself that it never happened. Same thing as when I asked her why the house was not insured. “Father never wanted to spend money on insurance.” I later discovered that both the house and the shop were regularly insured until the day of his death. However, it may well be that she believed in it and in everything she told her kin about his assumed cruel conduct towards her. They and I were no longer on speaking terms and I did not ask whether they were aware of her affair.
Sheinkin Street has changed. Now it is an intellectual and fashion center for the post-modern youngsters of Israel. Like all of us they also will grow old and the center will move to somewhere else. Number 33 where I grew up still exists but the apartment, the shop and the balcony are no longer there. There is instead a small and intimate restaurant run by two ladies. I pray they did not inherit the ghastly energy that once inhabited the place. A place that was saturated with disillusionments, lost and shattered hopes, and a cluster of strong emotions composed of a mixture of hatred mingled with frustration. It was, in short, hell incarnate. Yet, having a lover, my mother’s life must have been a bit better than I imagined. I was happy for her. She clearly deserved a bit of happiness. In conclusion: there must be some good moments even in hell.