Authors: Ayelet Tsabari
They paused before the glass doors, the mass of blinding whiteness outside, and Matthew waited as Reuma put on the large, puffy coat that went down to her knees, arranging the furry hood over her head. She tightened her scarf, put on gloves. She had only ever seen snow in Jerusalem, when she and Shaul had been on vacation, and there—crowning the ancient stone buildings, the tips of cypress trees, the surrounding hilltops—it had seemed magnificent, romantic. Toronto was covered with patches of white, which from the air looked to Reuma as though erased, as though parts of the city were missing.
“Ready?” Matthew asked. “Ready,” she repeated, ashamed of how clumsy the word sounded, her
flat, the stress placed on the wrong part of the word. The doors swished open and they were out, the cold assaulting her face, stabbing her exposed calves.
She followed Matthew to the car, squinting against the bright, thin light, the greyness of the sky. She sat in the front, smiling at the baby seat in the back. After a few minutes, warm air started blowing from the vents. Matthew didn’t speak to her beyond asking if the flight was good and if she was tired. Reuma wondered if he intended on learning any Hebrew, now that he had an Israeli son. She wondered too if Matthew would agree to move to Israel. He often told her how much he loved Israel, and at least he had an Ashkenazi name, Levin, even if he wasn’t completely Jewish. Out of her four children, not a single one of them had married a Yemeni. When she looked at her grandchildren she was sometimes surprised. Itay’s daughter, Lilach, had golden curls and grey eyes. Elad’s son, Itamar, had skin even fairer than his mother’s. She was delighted when Ofra said, “Yonatan’s a real Yemeni,” and when Reuma saw photos she began to tear up. Her grandchild reminded her of her dead husband.
They drove on a multi-lane highway through a graceless
monochrome landscape, the view dirtied by slush, spat on their windshield by passing cars, then wiped clean, the wiper blades squeaking rhythmically over the glass. The road curved, hugging the shore of a silvery lake, and the city skyline emerged, jutting out of the earth and moving rapidly toward them. Matthew took an exit, and they were on a busy street with two-storey buildings coloured reds and blues, small quaint stores and cafés, their windows painted over with snowflakes and Santa Clauses, chains of blinking lights framing their edges.
Their house was just off the main street, long and narrow and wedged between two other houses, with snow on its turret roof, like something out of a fairy tale. The trees that lined the street were stripped naked, their branches bowed over, weighed down by a thick layer of snow. Reuma stepped out of the car and her boots squeaked on the sidewalk. “Careful,” Matthew said, and mimicked losing his balance. “Very slippery.” He carried her bags as she walked up the stairs, holding on to the cold railing. Ofra swung the door open with her arms wide and Reuma fell into them, inhaling the baby and breast milk smell of her.
“You look good,” Reuma said, though Ofra was clearly tired, her curly hair unwashed and gathered into a messy bun, her complexion faded by winter.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” Ofra said. “Matthew’s mom just left yesterday but … it’s not the same.”
“Matthew’s mom?” Reuma felt a stab of jealousy. “I thought she didn’t live in Toronto.”
“She doesn’t,” Ofra said. “She came from Winnipeg for two weeks.”
“Where is he?” Reuma looked around.
“Come.” Ofra smiled as if holding a secret. Reuma followed her
up the narrow carpeted stairs to their bedroom, where Yonatan slept in his crib. “My God.” Reuma’s eyes filled with tears.
“Isn’t he handsome?” Matthew whispered, poking his head in between mother and daughter.
“Bli ayin hara,” Reuma said. “Ugly, ugly. You shouldn’t call a baby beautiful. It brings bad luck.” She smiled, as if aware of how silly this might sound. “I also brought a hamsa you can hang over his bed.”
“Okay,” Ofra said. “Later.”
Downstairs, her daughter made her tea with fresh mint, served with what Reuma suspected were store-bought cookies. Matthew had left to run errands. “I even bought you Nescafé,” Ofra said proudly.
“I brought food too,” Reuma said, bending down to unzip her suitcase, unleashing the sour smell of Yemeni spices.
“Ima,” Ofra said. “You shouldn’t have.”
“Of course I should have.” Reuma pulled out a jar of green, spicy schug, some jichnoons wrapped in foil, and a bag of savoury ka’adid cookies, dotted with black nigella seeds. “And some Hebrew magazines,” Reuma said, handing Ofra women’s and parenting magazines, “to read when you breastfeed.”
“Thanks, Ima.” Ofra leaned over to hug her, and took the food into the kitchen.
Snow had started to fall, soundless and slow, sticking to the glass and then sliding down. The fogged-up windows were decorated with a chain of flickering Christmas lights. A Hanukia covered with hardened wax drippings stood on the windowsill. Reuma could tell that someone had made an effort to tidy up, but there was still a layer of dust on the furniture, Ofra’s hairs tangled in the carpet. She had her work cut out for her.
When Ofra returned, she told Reuma of Yonatan’s sleep patterns, his eating habits, his rashes, his dandruff, his gas, and Reuma asked questions and made suggestions—olive oil for the dandruff, tomato juice for the gas—feeling like an authority, an expert.
“I forgot, I brought some baby clothes too.” Reuma hurried to pull the clothes, wrapped in tissue paper, from her suitcase. “And this is from Shoshi, and wait, I have some from your sisters-in-law too.”
“So how’s everybody?” Ofra said. “How are you?”
“Getting old.” Reuma sighed. “Soon you’ll have to hire me a Filipina, or maybe put me in a home.”
“Stop it,” Ofra said. “You’re only sixty-eight. Your mother lived to be a hundred.”
“Or you can come back and live with me, because your brothers sure aren’t going to.”
Ofra just smiled.
Reuma told her about her brothers, how things hadn’t been so good between Itay and his wife lately, how Rami hadn’t been over for weeks, and Elad’s daughter had been diagnosed with learning disabilities. She shared the neighbourhood news: Arnon the butcher had passed away, Shlomo, their neighbour, had already remarried and it hadn’t even been a year. She was going to wait to tell her about Shoshi’s daughter and her recent move home, but she got carried away, describing the new villa they were building on their grandparents’ lot in Sha’ariya, how happy Shoshi had been since she came back. Petah Tikva was changing too, she said; it was no longer just a sleepy suburb. They even had sushi there now, a Japanese food young people raved about, and good cafés with the espresso drinks Ofra used to go to Tel Aviv to get.
Reuma paused, noticing her daughter yawning behind her hand. “You should sleep too,” Reuma said. “If the baby is sleeping …”
“Yes,” Ofra said. “Let me get you set up.”
The guest room’s walls were dark blue, the trim a glossy white. A desk with a computer was placed under the window, and a corkboard covered with photos hung on the wall next to it: Ofra and Matthew clinking wine glasses around a patio table with people Reuma didn’t know; the two of them holding hands on some white-sand beach; a black-and-white photo of Ofra pregnant, wearing a sheer white dress that made Reuma uncomfortable. Outside, the snow was thickening, hiding bushes and fences under a soft blanket. Reuma stood by the window and tried to imagine what was underneath the snow, what the large shape in the corner of their backyard was, how deep the lawn was buried. She lay down on the sofa bed, just to rest her eyes, and fell into an easy sleep.
She woke up to the baby crying
and lay in bed for a minute, adjusting to her surroundings. The room was dark. She glanced at the clock radio. She had napped for an hour and though it was only just after four, the daylight was already gone. She walked out of the room and saw that the door to her daughter’s bedroom was ajar. The baby was lying in his crib, kicking and crying. She heard the shower running. “Hello, sweetheart.” Reuma picked Yonatan up and placed him against her chest, rocking him and tapping him lightly on his back. “My eyes, my soul.” She kissed his face, his neck, inhaling his smell, and then lifted him and smelled his diaper. “You made poo-poo?” she said, laying him on the chest of drawers.
Ofra rushed out of the shower, wrapping her body with a towel as she walked over, her hair dripping a wet trail along the floor.
“Finish your shower,” Reuma said. “Why am I here? I can do this. He needs changing.”
“He’s hungry.” Ofra extended her arms, and Reuma reluctantly handed her Yonatan. Ofra sat on the unmade bed and gave him a nipple. He latched on to it.
Reuma started collecting clothes from the floor.
“You don’t have to do that,” Ofra said.
“I want to help.”
“You just got here.”
“I can do things. At least I can help with the baby.”
“Something’s wrong?” Reuma said, heart pounding.
“With the baby? With you?”
“No. Well, there is something we need to talk about, but we can do it later, over dinner. But nothing is wrong.”
“Did you let Matthew’s mom change him?” Tears welled up in Reuma’s eyes.
“Fine.” Ofra took Yonatan from her breast and handed him to her mom. “Change him.” Yonatan started to fuss.
Reuma looked at her daughter with suspicion.
Reuma placed the crying Yonatan on her shoulder and soothed him, whispering words of comfort. Then she laid him on the chest of drawers, buried her face in his belly, cooed at him. Yonatan stopped crying and watched her, intrigued. She lifted his legs up with one hand and pulled the diaper off. She drew a wipe from a box on the chest and cleaned his bum. Then she saw it, a ring of foreskin around her grandchild’s tiny penis, a shrivelled mushroom. She stared at it, counting days. It had been over four weeks.
“You haven’t done brit milah yet?” She looked up.
Ofra shook her head no.
“Was there a problem? Did the doctor say to wait?”
Ofra tucked a wet curl behind her ear. “We decided not to do it.”
Reuma stared at her, letting the boy’s legs down. He started crying. “I don’t understand.”
“We don’t think it’s necessary.”
“Not necessary,” Reuma repeated.
“Ima—” Ofra started.
“He’s Jewish,” Reuma said. Yonatan’s cries grew louder and she turned to him, raised his legs and slid the diaper underneath, working in urgent motions. “Of course it’s necessary.”
“Because … because this is what you do. You don’t think about it. You just do it.”
“That’s not a reason. Why hurt him?”
“Because it’s tradition. Because it’s what Jews do. And it’s also more hygienic and healthy …”
“That’s not actually true.” Ofra spoke quietly, calmly. “And I know other Jews who haven’t circumcised. It’s traumatic for the child. I won’t put him through it.”
“But you have to.” Reuma raised her voice. “Who heard of such a thing? A Jewish boy, uncircumcised? Have you lost your mind?”
“Maybe we should talk about it later.” Ofra stood up, tightening the towel over her chest. “I printed something for you to read.”
“You think I wanted to hurt your brothers? I had to close my eyes to not see how they cried. No mother wants to do it. You just do.” Reuma remembered how faint she had felt when Rami was screaming, his face turning dark red. She had run to the washroom, sobbing until she heard the ululating sounds of the women
and knew that it was done. It didn’t become easier with the second or third. But did she ever question it?
“But Ima, I’m not religious …”
“Religious or not, it’s tradition. Your brothers aren’t religious.”
“I won’t allow it. You should be ashamed of yourself.” She lifted Yonatan and planted him in her daughter’s hands. He kicked his legs and smiled at her. She looked away. “I won’t hold him,” she said. “I won’t.”
Ofra stared at her in shock. “You can’t be serious.”
Reuma stormed out of the room and down the stairs.
“Ima,” Ofra called after her. “Wait.”
She put on the coat, slid her feet into her boots, wrapped a scarf around her face and walked out the front door. The cold felt like an icy slap. Where was she going? Street lights shone cone-shaped beams on the road, and Christmas lights—dangling from porches and draped over evergreen trees—warmed up the whites, blues and greys. The snow was piled high, blurring the borders of things, turning the sidewalks into narrow tunnels. Her tears froze on her face.
Reuma had prided herself on moving with the times, unlike some Yemeni women from the neighbourhood who held on to the old ways, resisted modern appliances, still dressed as though they were in Yemen. Many years ago, when Shaul was still alive, Reuma had taken off the head scarf and learned how to drive; she even drove on Shabbat. She hadn’t asked questions about Matthew’s other half, the non-Jewish part, and she had always been proud of her daughter, saw it as a sign of her own progress and success, that despite Reuma growing up with illiterate parents and never earning a high school diploma, she’d raised a
daughter so smart, so successful. Shoshi’s daughters may have married young, but her own daughter had a Ph.D., which she had acquired in Canada, in English.
But this was too much.
She pulled the scarf up to cover her stinging nose. She saw the lights of a café on the corner. She just had to make it there.
She missed Shaul now, grief gnawing at her as though she’d just lost him yesterday. What would he have done? Shaul, who went to synagogue every Friday, out of habit more than religious duty, his time with the men a reprieve from her and the kids. He watched TV on Shabbat, turned on appliances. He would have been able to talk some sense into Ofra. Perhaps she would have circumcised Yonatan had Shaul been alive; she had always wanted to please him. And when Shaul and Reuma fought—and they had fought endlessly when they were younger—Ofra had always taken his side, always blamed her mother. “You and Shaul are fire and fire,” Reuma’s mother used to say. “You have to give up every now and then, let him be a man. You’re pushing him away.” Later, in their older days—both mellowed and tired of conflict—they had become best friends again. But Ofra was living away by then, in Tel Aviv and then Toronto. She only remembered the bad times.