The Best Place on Earth (7 page)

Reuma finally made it to the café, her coat speckled with white and her glasses steamed up. She stood at the entrance, blind, then found a seat by the window and heaved herself onto it. Thinking of Shaul here, in this faraway, cold place, made her feel lonely. Perhaps she
had
pushed him away. Maybe she had pushed Ofra away too. Across the world. Maybe it had all been her fault. When Ofra was thirteen, she had accused Reuma of treating the boys differently. “Why do I have to help with the dishes after dinner? Why do they just get to sit and watch TV?” Reuma’s mother,
still alive, smiled at Reuma and said in Yemeni, “This one is like hot pepper. Worse than you.” Years later, she had overheard her daughters-in-law complaining that their husbands didn’t raise a finger at home, didn’t know how, that it was Reuma’s fault, she had done everything for her boys. “Poor Ofra,” one had said. “Can you imagine?” It was true: Reuma had been harder on Ofra, but she’d done it for her own good. She had thought she was preparing Ofra for marriage, the same way her own mother had done for her.

A streetcar rumbled outside, and then stopped across the street, letting passengers off onto the slushy road. The same year that Ofra had accused Reuma of favouring her sons, she had invited her aunt Miri, Shaul’s younger sister, to Mother’s Day in junior high—a school on the other side of town, where kids from an affluent neighbourhood, most of them Ashkenazi, were integrated with Yemeni kids from Sha’ariya. The teacher had called to inquire about Reuma’s health because Ofra had said that she was ill. Soon after that, Ofra stopped eating Reuma’s food—Reuma found the sandwiches she had prepared for her in the garbage. “It smells funny,” Ofra said. “Kids make fun of me.” It wasn’t just Reuma she had rejected: she despised anything Yemeni, even her curls, which she began straightening every morning. She even changed the way she spoke; as a little kid she spoke like her parents, with guttural hets and ayins. Reuma lost her daughter over and over again: first she became Ashkenazi, then Canadian; it was in her melody of speaking, the polite words she’d started peppering her sentences with, the way she smiled at passersby on the street. Reuma had heard her speaking on the phone to her friends, and then to Matthew, in English, laughing in English. A stranger. And now she was no longer Jewish.

Ofra burst into the café, her cheeks flushed. “My God, Ima, you scared me half to death. Let’s go home.”

“No.” Reuma crossed her arms against her chest, not looking at her daughter.

“We planned a special dinner for you,” Ofra pleaded. “And I need you here. Please.”

Reuma stared out the window.

“Let’s at least talk about it,” Ofra said.

Reuma watched a woman decorating a Christmas tree at a store across the street, hanging sparkly ornaments on its branches. She looked around the café, the young people hunched over their blue laptop screens, the steam rising from the coffee machine behind the bar. She got up and put her coat on.

They walked the two blocks silently, the wind whistling between them, their faces buried in their scarves. Everyone they passed was bundled up, faceless, anonymous figures. What a lonely place to live, Reuma thought.

The warmth of the house enveloped them. Matthew peeked out from the kitchen and smiled. Reuma hurried in, scowling in his direction, and climbed up the stairs to her room.

Ofra followed her. “Don’t be mad at Matthew. We made this decision together.”

Reuma scoffed. “He’s not even Jewish.”

“Who? Yonatan? Of course he is.”

Reuma jerked her chin toward Matthew in the kitchen. “What’s half-Jewish? You and I both know there’s no such thing.”

Ofra gave her a hard look. “He was raised Jewish. He feels Jewish.”

“Doesn’t matter. According to the Halacha he’s not Jewish.”

“Since when did you become a rabbi?”

“Is that why you married in city hall? Like the goyim?” Reuma felt as if she couldn’t stop. “You’d never think not to do brit on your own.”

“That’s not true,” Ofra said. “I’ve been thinking about it for years. I’ve done a lot of research. You know, I prayed for a daughter just so I wouldn’t have to deal with this.”

“It’s not right.” Reuma sat on the bed, inconsolable. “Your father would have never accepted it.”

Ofra looked down. “I know.”

“He would have been furious at you.”

“Ima, you’re acting like it’s the end of the world. If you just took some time …”

“It is.” Reuma shook her head. “It is.”

“But we’re happy, I’m happy. I have a son, a family, a home. How can you not see that?”

“What am I going to say to people?” Reuma started crying again.

Ofra sighed at the ceiling. “Who cares?”

Reuma glared at her.

“Fine, then lie.”

Reuma looked at the photos on the corkboard, the strangers hugging her daughter, the photo of Ofra in the sheer dress. It was as though she didn’t know her daughter at all. What a fool she had been to think this trip would bring them closer.

From the kitchen she heard water running, dishes clattering. The smell of cooking permeated the room, growing familiar: turmeric and chilies, cumin and garlic. “What are you making?” Reuma said, her hunger awakening.

Ofra smiled. “Matthew wanted to surprise you.”

“Matthew?”

“He’s been making Yemeni soup every Friday. He even learned to make jichnoon. We have a whole Yemeni dinner planned.”

“Matthew cooked?”

Ofra nodded. “He got some recipes from Shoshi—”

“From Shoshi?” Reuma cried. “You should have gotten them from me.”

“Then it wouldn’t have been a surprise, would it?” She looked at Reuma. “Are you okay?”

Reuma didn’t answer. She looked at her lap, twirling her wedding ring on her finger. Ofra hesitated, then placed her hand on Reuma’s shoulder and squeezed. She left, her footsteps tapping on the stairs.

Reuma remained seated a moment longer, then went to the washroom to wash her face. She looked at herself in the mirror; her eyes were red, her skin blotched from crying. She threw water on her face, then pinched and patted her cheeks.

Downstairs, Ofra was setting the table with Yonatan strapped to her chest. Matthew poured salt into the soup and smiled at her over his shoulder. Any other time she would have been pleased by the pungent tang of Yemeni spices in her daughter’s kitchen, by the familiar spread on the table: a finely chopped vegetable salad, a bowl of schug, the cilantro in it smelling fresh, as though it had just been prepared, and even a bowl of hilbe, a spicy fenugreek paste none of her daughters-in-law had ever learned to make. But now Reuma slid into a chair, not offering to help, her hands resting in her lap. She couldn’t help it; knowing it hadn’t been her daughter who prepared the meal soured it for Reuma. These recipes had been passed down through the women of their family for generations.

“Thank you, honey.” Ofra walked by and kissed Matthew on the cheek. “It looks amazing.” She turned to her mother and said
in Hebrew, “Can you believe how lucky I am? And wait till you taste his jichnoon.”

“You know,” Reuma couldn’t resist. “My mother always said that women’s hands are better for kneading dough.”

Ofra raised an eyebrow.

“It’s true,” Reuma continued. “Our hands are naturally colder. Men’s hands are too warm.”

Ofra smiled, saying nothing.

Finally Matthew placed a bowl of steaming yellow soup in front of her, his face open and expectant. Reuma examined the soup. It looked right: a shiny film on top, a yellow chicken drumstick, a carrot, half a potato, wilted stems of cilantro. She raised a spoonful of it to her mouth, feeling the urge to criticize—it could have used more garlic, less turmeric—but holding herself back. It tasted different, but it was fresh and spicy.

“So?” Ofra said.

“It’s good.” She nodded, reluctantly, and Matthew grinned, recognizing the word.

Reuma said nothing until she finished the soup. Then she pushed away her bowl and leaned back, letting the heat settle in her stomach. Her daughter sat across the table, nursing Yonatan. Reuma knew she had to give it one last try. She owed it to Shaul, at least. “So what’s going to happen if you come back?” she said.

Ofra looked up. “Come back?”

“Did you ever think about what’s going to happen to Yonatan then? And in the army? He’ll always be different than the other boys. Everyone will make fun of him.”

Matthew glanced up from his plate quickly, tensely. Ofra looked at her as if she was studying her. “I’m not coming back, Ima.”

“Not now, but maybe later.”

“No, Ima.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I’m sure. We’re sure. This is my home now.”

“But you’re alone here.”

“We have good friends,” she said. “We have Shabbat dinners with them.”

“You have Shabbat dinners?”

Ofra nodded. “Every week.”

Reuma felt more confused than ever. “It’s not like having a mom here. To help you.”

“Then come here, stay with us. Live with us.”

Reuma stared at her daughter in disbelief.

“You can stay in the guest room,” Ofra said and Matthew nodded. Perhaps he understood Hebrew more than she thought.

“And leave my sister and my friends? And your brothers?”

“It’s up to you,” Ofra hurried to say. “Even just for a while. I could really use your help.”

The snow was falling heavily now. Every time Reuma looked outside she was taken aback. She tried imagining herself living here but could not picture it. She wondered how the city looked in the summer, couldn’t fathom how this bleak landscape could possibly come to life again, though she knew that the trees would turn green and the flowers would bloom. Ofra had told her the summers were hot, sometimes as hot as they were in Israel.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Ofra followed her gaze. “I just love this time of the year. It’s magic. I can’t wait for Yonatan to grow up, so we can make snowmen and snow angels …” She looked at Yonatan and her face softened, her tone changed. “Buy you a tiny little snowsuit.”

Reuma looked at her, surprised: Ofra was smitten with the
weather, with the naked trees, with the season; she felt at home in this cold, strange country. Reuma felt a sharp, quick pinch in her heart. Her daughter wasn’t coming home.

Matthew cleared the table and Reuma watched as he began loading the dishwasher, wiping the counters, a towel thrown over his shoulder as Reuma always did. Sleep was tugging at her. “You said you know other Jews who … didn’t,” Reuma said. “How did their families react?”

Ofra glanced at Matthew. “In different ways. Some didn’t mind. One friend’s family didn’t speak to him for two years.”

“You see?” Reuma said.

“What do I see? Is that what you want, Ima? They’re talking to him now, and they missed two years of their grandson’s life.”

Reuma leaned on the table, picking at a hardened turmeric stain on the white tablecloth. “I just … I don’t even know what to think. I can’t accept this.”

Ofra levelled a tired look at her mother. “So what do you want, Ima?”

“I want you to circumcise him,” Reuma said, taken aback by the question. What she wanted was off the table; she wanted to rewrite everything, she wanted the story she had told herself when she was younger, growing old with Shaul, with her family around her, sharing recipes with her only daughter, watching her grandson being circumcised in an event hall by the same Yemeni mohel who had circumcised her children, celebrating the birth at their local synagogue, among friends and family.

“Well, that’s not going to happen,” Ofra said sharply. “Now what?”

Reuma thought of Shaul. Though he had always been quicker to lose his temper, he was also first between the two of them to calm
down. It was Reuma who held a grudge, who struggled to forgive. She wondered if she had it all wrong. Yes, Shaul would have been furious, disappointed, heartbroken, for weeks, maybe months. He would have yelled, slammed doors, and Reuma would have had to beg him to take it easy. “Your heart,” she would have said. “Your health.” But then it would have been him who would have forgiven his daughter first, his baby girl. He would never have been able to keep it up.

“I don’t know,” Reuma finally said. She looked up, stunned into silence when she saw that her daughter’s face was wet.

Yonatan let go of his mother’s nipple, hanging off her arm while Ofra wiped her tears with the back of her hand. She had hardly touched her soup. “Here.” Reuma stood up and stretched her arms out to her daughter. “You eat.” Ofra looked up and her face brightened. She handed her Yonatan over the table. “Hello, my soul.” Reuma looked at Yonatan’s face and saw her husband, the dimple in his chin, the wide nose, the dark complexion. “You look just like your granddad,” she said, her eyes watering. Yonatan flapped his arms. “Who’s Grandma’s little angel?” she whispered. She placed him on her shoulder, the weight of his little body against her familiar and comforting.

THE POETS IN THE KITCHEN WINDOW

The missiles started falling on Tel Aviv
on the night of January 17, a few hours after Operation Desert Storm began in Iraq. They had been prepared, carrying their gas masks with them everywhere for weeks: cardboard boxes with dangling straps, like purses, which some girls in Uri’s class had decked out with stickers and collages. At school they had run drills, with everyone sitting in a row on the floor, leaning against the wall, elbowing each other and giggling. None of them had ever sat in shelters, had ever even heard a siren. The only war in their lifetime had been the Lebanon War, which erupted in 1982, when Uri was four, and had never really ended. From images he saw on the news, Uri knew that people up north had sat in shelters, knew soldiers had died, even a classmate’s brother, but in Ramat Gan, the suburban town where he lived, hours away from the border, it was sometimes easy to forget.

When the first siren sounded, Uri thought it was a part of a dream. He had been dreaming about wars a lot lately; dreams where he was taller and braver and Ashkenazi, his skin lighter, his eyes blue, like one of those black-and-white pictures of soldiers he had seen in history books, tears glistening in their eyes after they’d liberated Jerusalem. Uri knew the exact day those pictures were taken: June 7, 1967. He had memorized those dates for his school exam, mapping the history of the country through a string of military operations, neatly spaced, one for every decade: the War of Independence in ‘48, Operation Kadesh in ‘56, the Six Day War in ‘67, the Yom Kippur in ’73.

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