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City of Refuge

When my grandparents came to Palestine from Berlin in 1933, they settled in the new white city of Tel Aviv. Many German refugees came in the 30s, bringing to this infant metropolis their considerable intellectual and emotional investments in enterprise, the arts, and cutting-edge architecture. Mendelsohn, Kaufmann, and other protégés of Gropius, successfully transplanted the vision cultivated in Weimar to the bright squinting heat of the eastern cup of the Mediterranean.

They had no idea that of all the cities in the world, it would be theirs, the first Jewish city founded since ancient Israel fell to Rome, which would produce the largest number of buildings according to Bauhaus principles. No other city at that exact moment in history replicated the condition of being so prolifically built while numerous practitioners schooled in ‘the building of the future’ were in abundance, in residence, and otherwise unemployed.

Though I was born in this city, I wasn’t raised here. My parents decided to try their fortune in a larger metropolis, and instead of Bauhaus in the neighborhood, I spent my childhood staring up at the heavy walls of Manhattan’s tall buildings. But I returned after high school, and six months after I completed my army service, my grandmother died, followed soon after by my grandfather. I moved in, loyal and content, to their apartment on Arnon Street.

At that time, in the mid 80s, there were fewer hotels on the beachfront and the sea was seen and smelled from the balconies. And this is where I remain, 15 years later, married with a child on the way, wondering how my grandparents, my father, his two brothers, and a long string of stray dogs, managed to live in these strangely distributed 40 meters.

Dan, my husband, insists that we (which means I) start looking for a new place to live. But I don’t. I love this apartment and I want to raise my little one here amidst the monolithic pieces of dark furniture which are all that remain from my grandparents’ life in Berlin. I want her to read Leah Goldberg’s books about the children of Arnon Street, suspecting that my father Abe was among the characters.

“But Dori,” Dan takes my hand in his, tracing the lines of my palm with his paint- and nicotine-stained finger, “we need more space and more light. The baby will learn about Abe from you. He doesn’t need to live in this ruin.”

And when I don’t answer, resisting his attempt to wrest me from my birthright, Jacob I call him to his face but with the volume off, he ups the ante and tempts me with creature comforts and the promise of his attention.

“We’ll get one of those old places near Jaffa and renovate it, a loft like in New York. My studio will be there and that will make it easier for you when the baby comes. I’ll be home all the time.”

The mess of pottage smells better with each conversation. But then it only takes a seven A.M. walk down the narrow path between my building and the yard next door, to Biterman’s at number 17, to strengthen my resolve not to move anywhere.

Biterman’s market has not changed in the 35 years I’ve known it. Summer mornings I’d run over barefoot to buy fresh rolls and white cheese. For a child from Manhattan, bare feet and warm rolls were a sample piece of heaven. Set back from the building front, Biterman’s was, and remains, dim and airless. A couple of weak electric bulbs barely help. Any natural light is screened by trees in the yard that have grown sentinel over the decades. The market’s shadows are saturated with smells — fresh bread, cheese, and cookies that continue to talk to me.

While Biterman would assemble the few items on my grandmother’s list, and wrote down the day’s purchases on the family’s index card, the definition of a credit card in those days, I would loiter near the cookie tins. Sometimes Mrs. Biterman came out from behind the counter, lifted a milky plastic cover and gave me one with a thick chocolate stripe down the middle. Biterman’s eyes would flick up, catch the transaction, and then flick down again to focus on the numbers being scratched out beneath his pencil stub.

They died when I was in high school and their son sold the shop to Yankelovich, a recent immigrant from Russia, an enormous man who looks like an ex-body builder. He smiles a lot, showing off a couple of gold caps, and has changed absolutely nothing in the old store. The refrigerator with the steel framed glass doors is in the back. The cookie boxes with milky plastic covers are in the front. Wooden shelves for daily delivered breads and rolls are in the middle by the small counter. Even the faded Biterman sign still hangs none too securely over the narrow metal entrance.

With my huge stomach I cannot run over but I continue to walk down the three flights of stairs of my building every morning, loping along 15’s narrow path and crossing over the lopsided fence into 17’s equally narrow one, and stepping down into the shop to buy milk and fresh rolls. Students on their way to high school sign their parents’ cards for the sandwiches and bags of chocolate milk they will eat during the 10 o’clock break. The index as credit card lives on in this neighborhood.

I am in love, I suppose, with the old ficus whose roots have shifted the path’s pavers. And ever since my stomach has announced to all the neighbors that Stein’s granddaughter is having a baby, Yankelovich always spoils me with a cookie or two. I cannot give this up, and Dan’s promises of proximityequals- involvement are basically a lie. Not that he doesn’t want this to be true. In his mind when he hears the baby cry he will quickly wipe and set down the brush. He will clean his hands on his pants and come over to the crib, lift the child and hold her against his chest until the sobbing is soothed. When he lays her down again she will sleep the day away. Gracefully, romantically, Dan will return to his studio to work the painting with the renewed vigor of knowing he is someone’s father.

That the baby needs changing, feeding, consoling, entertaining, the outdoors, does not occur to him. That caring for a baby requires an investment of time, huge blocks of it, and that one cannot simply return to work in between burping, is not a fact known to him. As of course it is to me. Most of my friends are mothers already and I’ve seen their lives turn upside down.

What Dan also doesn’t realize is how I will no longer be available to him, as I have been for five years of marriage. And what I have come to realize is how much I need this baby to stake out what I will allow him to take from me and what I cannot now give because of her, but really because of me. I’ve tried and failed to get across to Dan that he must stop expecting and demanding that I care for him so much. That sometimes I also need tending.

Like this morning. I am on the Number Four bus coming back from the Carmel Market, the shuk. It’s been a few years since the bombs went off regularly on Tel Aviv’s streets and buses. Anyway, I’m a fatalist. Either the bomb has my name on it, or it doesn’t. I’m not afraid. Of Dan, maybe; of bombs, no. Go figure. Usually I walk home from the market, a slow journey of looking into old shops and especially into the new on Ben Yehuda Street. I have a pit-stop at the konditorei on the corner of Frishman: a short espresso and a cremetörtchen. But now, eight months pregnant, I simply cannot manage a half-hour walk carrying heavy bags of produce. I have no choice but to take the bus.

For the longest time, even before the pregnancy, Dan has insisted I stop shopping in the shuk. He prefers one of the fancy new supermarkets near the house. It will take less time, he says, it’s less distracting. But the new markets’ fluorescent lights and steel shelves are sterile and predictable. And the produce is not nearly as fresh.

“You’re living in an Israel that doesn’t exist anymore.” He is exasperated by my stubbornness. “Holding on to the 70s and the little girl who went to the shuk with her grandmother. Thank god you’re a vegetarian or you’d be in the chicken stalls blowing at asshole feathers.”

“Are all the other thousands of people who shop there everyday also nostalgic or just looking for quality?” I ask, thinking I should have never told Dan about how I would go with my grandmother to the back streets of the shuk to choose a chicken for lunch. She would stick her hand in the cage and lift up one chicken at a time, inspecting its small helpless body, blowing feathers away from the asshole to check for fat and health. When she was satisfied with one, she handed it over to the butcher whose long gray beard and smock were flecked with splattered blood, a carnivorous Spin Art. Finding refuge behind a wooden column holding up a loose dirty awning, I watched as the butcher laid the chicken on a wood block and pressed its neck down flat. Thwack he chopped off its head and handed my grandmother the still twitching body. On our way home I would quietly inform my grandmother that come lunch time, I wanted only salad. She said I was being ridiculous. What did I think happened to the animals before they showed up for sale in plastic wrap in the New York supermarkets I went to with my mother?

It is 11 in the morning on bus Number Four. I lean my head against the window and watch the traffic. Lots of people are walking, lots of people are talking. Lots of cars, taxis, bicycles, strollers, dogs, vendors, tourists, pensioners, lots of mothers with young children. Action, all that street action I’m missing out on riding inside this whale of a bus making its way slowly north on Ben Yehuda.

The driver raises the volume of the bus radio and a psychologist responds to a caller’s question about women who slide into the role of social worker in their love relationships. “If you find yourself listening to his pain and his woes,” the psychologist says, “if this becomes the main topic of your conversations, if you try, as you will for you love the man, to make it okay for him, if he comes to assume that this is the role you play in his life, then, woman, run for the hills!” and she chuckles, while sounding serious. I look around to see if the other passengers are listening. Most are quiet, watching the street through the windows. What assuredness, what bravado, I belittle the radio psychologist in my mind, but of course for her this is just a story, a situation, a scene — for me it’s my life.

The air-conditioned glass of the bus is cool against my face and the bags of produce lean heavily against my legs. My eyes pass over the small jewelry and notions shops, the tourist stops and kiosks, while my ears reluctantly take in the ongoing string of pearly wisdom coming over the radio waves. I reject out of hand the pathetic simplicity, the pedestrian quality of her words, but I also know there is something to what she is saying. Beneath the bravado and the commonplace, I know she knows.

It seems to me that even the vendors in the shuk know. Not in the sense that I’m “hearing things” — newspaper headlines with double entendres, traffic signals with secret pulses in between the red, the yellow and the green, traffic itself an ongoing sign. What I mean is that I am slowly able to accept an image of myself that the world beat me to. My system senses that I am in trouble, that Dan and this marriage are threatening to make me invisible, in the way that Ellison meant: keep this Jewish bitch running.

Because the shuk wasn’t crowded this morning, I was able to take more time and not guard my stomach from the push, and it’s always an intense push, of an Israeli crowd. Vendors belted out their sing-song advertisements: “Come lady, look at my fruit, it’s better than any other in the world.” “For you a special price. Come see for yourself.” The usual market hooks. When one man over his mound of cucumbers and tomatoes noticed my stomach he sang, “What a shame such a pretty woman is left to do the work alone,” and he dispatched a teenager to take the heavy bags off my hands while I wound my way to the end of the shuk and back to the bus stop.

“Your husband working?” the boy parked my purchases at the stop and reluctantly took a tip.

“Of course,” I smiled.

The vendors know, the boy carrying my packages knows, the radio psychologist knows, my cousin Orli knows, Yankelovich knows. And there are more.

I wait to pass the Mondrian fruit store just past Frishman before ringing the bus bell. My stop approaches. Carefully I navigate my way towards the front. I permit an octogenarian waiting curbside to take my packages graciously as I slowly make my way down the steep stairs. I think of Dan working long hours in his studio, of the many appointments he makes for himself when he is not working: gallery owners, writers, painters, friends, masseuse, workouts at the gym. Time for so much, but not for carrying packages home from the market.

“You can manage?” the old man asks me.

“Yes, thank you,” I smile sweetly at him. He stands tall after his gentlemanly deed. And he knows.

It is very hot so I walk down the street slowly, barely able to carry the heavy bags, and collapse on a bench to call Dan. Typically he doesn’t answer and my call is transferred to voice mail. I don’t leave a message, and call my cousin Orli in Ramot. She recently left Tel Aviv and moved to the Galilee to be with a man who, she says, is strong enough to be gentle.

“Go to the station and get on the first bus north,” she instructs me.

And I think I’ll do it, and I won’t tell Dan. Until then he can look for me in the ancient city of refuge, he can look it up in the Bible, locate it on a map, paint it on a canvas if that’s what it takes to grab his fucking attention, to stake out a little bit of property in his brain. I stand to catch a cab and can already see a cluster of small one-storey homes there, surrounded by wild gardens and trees. There are children, too, playing by the water’s edge, throwing stones for dogs to retrieve, tracing pictures on my stomach for the baby. I’ll be safe there, among the bits and pieces of farm life, in a place where husbands can for once feel the absence of their wives, and wives can feel the boundaries which both protect and divide them.

Miryam Sivan has been living in the Galilee in Israel for 16 years. She teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa and has just completed a novel, Make it Concrete.