Category Archives: Memoirs

About Being Frugal

My mother called it saving, my cousin Alex calls it being stingy, my husband says it’s frugality and I say it is recycling.
Why am I bringing this up? Let me tell you.
I was daydreaming under the shower and while feeling a little guilty about wasting all that water, I was reminded of the shortages I grew up with.

My early years don’t come with memories of shopping malls and ordering the latest on the Internet. No, my early memories are about packages arriving twice a year from the U.S.

The day a package arrived the entire family was excited. Mom and her sister Batya would go to get it from the post office. After dragging the heavy box tied amply with twine, they came home breathing hard. We, the children, couldn’t wait for the box to open. What surprises would this treasure contain this time? One thing was for sure; bubblegum would be hidden in there somewhere.

Out came the “new” goodwill dresses, pajamas, shirts and pants. Some time cans of dry milk, butter, cheese and egg powder. Never toys. I guess our aunt in America didn’t deem them to be important, or perhaps she thought we already had those in abundance. Instead we played with discarded dishes, rocks and mud pies.

These “new” clothes would now start their journey. Children’s dresses and pajamas went first to my cousin Ayala. Ayala, two years my senior, was the princes of the family. Tall, skinny and smart, she also grew like dough with lots of yeast, with the result that after few months some of the dresses and pajamas would end up in my closet. In spite of their history, they got to me in great shape since my cousin Ayala took perfect care of everything she owned.

In contrast, I was not all that tidy in taking care of things. In spite of that, when I had grown out of these treasures they were passed on to even less fortunate kids, such as the children of our equally poor neighbors. This happened for lack of younger family members of the female gender. The pajamas stayed in the family and ended up with my cousin Alex. By then they had been creatively repaired with colorful patches on the elbows, knees and the posterior areas of the pants.

The journey of the shoes was similar but also different. Shoes started off as one size bigger with the idea that you can grow into them. So we had to adjust them by inserting some newspaper in the front. As our feet grew, paper was removed and just for a while they fitted perfectly. But our feet didn’t stop there. They kept on growing and the shoes didn’t and became one size too small. That required a trip to the shoemaker, who apart from resoling them also turned them into “fashionable” open-toe sandals. All this, while I waited barefooted in his storefront, as the shoes in repair were the only pair I owned. And you were wondering why I have flat feet and hammer toes?

The next story about frugality is the one that brought me to this train of thought. Water was scarce and even weekly bathing was a luxury for us. I suppose people’s noses were not that sensitive those days.

It was a great, happy day when a bathtub was first installed at our house, after years of taking “showers” in a tub. A ritual was established. As mentioned there was a shortage of water in Israel at that time. As a result, the bathtub was used only once a week, on Fridays. Mom would fill the tub with cold water from the tap and then added hot water from a kettle heated on the stove. I was the first to go in. She would scrub me clean and let me play for five more minutes in the tub before getting me out to rub me dry with a coarse towel. I suppose Egyptian cotton had not been invented yet?

Second in line was mom. Without draining the tub, mom added a bit more hot water and got in. After she was done, the tub would then wait for it’s last body—that of my dad’s. When he came home, black as coal from his welding job, a bit more hot water was added to the “mix”. Shivering in lukewarm water, it did not take him very long.

After he was done and the family declared washed and clean, mom would bail the bath water with a pail and wash the deck and the steps outside. The remaining water in the tub would finally get drained.
Now, due to desalination and overflowing shopping malls most of these shortages are something of the past, a past of which I have the fondest memories.

Blue Eyes and Purple Dresses

I don’t know how you feel about being taken for a ride. Personally, I really hate it. While organizing one of my closets I was reminded of one such occasion. I was trying to determine what to keep and what to donate. According to my husband, who has no right to speak as his closet is overflowing also, I should give away ninety percent.

One of the candidates for a trip to the goodwill store was a long purple dress I had not worn for years. As I stood there, trying to make up my mind, I remembered its origins.

During the summer of 1979, on a family visit to Israel, my cousin Alex and I decided to do a little shopping in the Shuk, also known as the Carmel Market. What was then a common market has now been uplifted to the status of a tourist attraction.

While on our way there, I asked Alex, “Do you remember the trips we used to make to the Shuk? Our mothers armed with shopping bags and us in tow?”

“Do I remember? Of course I do. They always dragged us along against our will. I think they did not trust us alone at home?”

To be truthful, I have good memories of those trips and will always remember the rather dirty and narrow alleys with merchants on both sides loudly advertising their wares that varied from fruit and vegetable to housewares and clothing. The venders, in order to be heard in the general din, had to really shout and scream at their customers and curse at each other over perceived, unfair trading practices, such luring away customers with lower prices.

At the ShukOur mothers would go from one to the other, touching and testing the products and eliciting remarks such as, “Ladies no hands. You are bruising my tomatoes.” My mother would totally ignore such warnings—resulting in arguments, followed by relentless bargaining and eventual agreement. Money then changed hands and shopping bags were filled.

Mostly good memories, but on our way to the market I reminded Alex of the terrible sight of chickens hanging by their necks and big slabs of meat, covered with flies.

“They are still hanging like that. Nothing much has changed, although they seemed to have gotten rid of most of the flies,” he said.

“Do you remember old Mrs. Spizeisen, the fish monger? Is she still there?”

“Of course, I remember her, although she’s long gone. Your mom used to take a ages to choose just the perfect carp from the bathtub full of fish.”

“Yes,” I said, and I then had a pet for a day in out bathtub at home, until she turned the poor thing into Gefilte Fish. I always hated to have to eat my own pet.”

We now arrived at the Shuk and a vibrant colorful scene welcomed us as we entered the market. We felt like kids in a toys store. So many things to see and to eat and then my eyes met his . . . With his bright blue eyes topped by a head of fiery red hair, he stood in his stand surrounded by racks of colorful long dresses.

“Let’s get some of those beautiful long dresses,” I said to Alex.

Like the typical man he is, he asked, “What do you need those for?”

“They are great for wearing around the house or even for a stroll along Dizengoff during a hot summer evening,” I said. “Your dear Anat would love to have one too.”

Reluctantly he followed me to the stall of the man with the bright blue eyes, who received us with a welcoming smile. While picking up a purple dress, he said, “Come try this one on. You will look beautiful in this one and it is just your size.”

Shopping for a Dress.As I stood there thinking, “How does he know that purple is my favorite color?” I said, with my eyes glued to his, “And where exactly do you expect me to try this on? You are not suggesting I strip right here, or do you?”

Alex, observing my shameless flirt with this stranger and worrying I might next invite him over to tea, said, “You know these dresses only come in three sizes, large, medium and small and you are obviously. . .

“Small,” said the redhead.

Without taking my eyes off him, I asked, “How much?”

“Fifteen shekel,”

“I’ll give you no more than eight and take five of them.” I said.

He didn’t argue, which surprised me, as usually these merchants will go into lengthy bargaining sessions—back and forth until agreement is reached. This one did not argue at all, but grabbed a bag and opening it in front of me, he said, “Five?”

“Yes five.”

As the blue eyes were smiling at me he folded the dresses neatly and counted, “One, two, three, four and five. Here you go. Enjoy your new dresses.” He handed me the bag and I, completely hypnotized, gave him the money.

On coming home I wanted to show Anat the dresses and, while I bragged about the fabulous bargain I pulled out one, two, three dresses. That was all there was in the bag. “Buyer beware of blue, smiling eyes.”

Birth of a Country

Sitting on my deck, I watch my chickens foraging in the grass. I watch them with vague feelings of affection. My chickens, they seem to be so busy all the time.

I used to not care for chickens, or for that matter, any other animals. I grew up in an environment where the lives of people and animals were strictly separated. My mother was afraid of dogs and hated cats. No one in our neighborhood owned any pets, not even a goldfish. It was therefore not surprising that as a child I feared and disliked all animals.

But things have changed since those long ago days. My current love for animals testifies to a person’s ability to change and adapt. Here I am with my menagerie of pets. There are the two standard poodles, my cat and the chickens of course. They provide an almost contin­uous background of friendly sounds. They coo and they cackle and create an atmosphere that reminds me of the chit-chat in a crowded cafe on a sidewalk in Tel Aviv. At times the dogs will bark at some imaginary intruder and the cat will purr while securely curled up on my lap. Life is so peaceful here, like the slow flow of the nearby Chattahoochee River.

I remember what my mom used to say about life. “Life is a one way trip; we all travel on a road filled with unplanned events that are full of surprises—some good and some bad. There is no going back on this road that leads forward only, till you reach the bitter end.”

My mother had a way of mixing a sunny disposition with a rather pessimistic worldview. My life’s trip started when she gave birth to me, on the morning of April 25, 1943, in Israel, in the fledgling town of Tel-Aviv—now a city, a city built on dunes of sand and mountains of hope.

Our family, my dad and mom, my sister and myself, lived in a small house set in the middle of a large yard of barren sand. The house consisted of one big room, a kitchen and a toilet. On all sides there were neighbors. Most were poor and lived in shacks. There were some larger homes, even one with three stories, but no one in our neighborhood was really rich. All struggled to survive. Because the dwellings were small and the weather mostly sunny, the children spent a lot of time playing outside in the sandy yards or on the dirt road. The road was a safe place to play. Other than an occasional donkey cart, there was little traffic. As there were not too many children on our street, we all played together.

The majority of us had something in common: few had a full-time daddy. Our fathers would come home periodically and leave again unexpectedly and before we really had a chance to get to know them. It was wartime and we were told they were in the underground. I remember wondering why my daddy would prefer to live part of the time underground, when we had a perfectly good house above ground.

When I asked my mom, she got very angry and told me that this kind of talk and questioning would only bring troubles to us all. I should, she insisted, for once listen to her and keep my mouth shut. However, keeping my mouth shut I found very difficult. I liked to talk a lot. My mom used to complain to her sister about me. She would say, “Listen, Batya”—that was my aunt’s name—“this child of mine can be such an embarrass­ment at times. Can you imagine, the other day she started talking to a total stranger, sitting on a bench and minding his own business. ‘Hey’, she said to him, ‘do you have kids? Where is your wife? Do you have a dog or a cat? My mom hates both. Where do you live? Do you come here often? We do.’ Can you picture that Batya? I can’t take her anywhere without her embar­rass­ing me.”

I felt sorry for my mom. The last thing I wanted was to get her all bent out of shape because I talked to a poor, lonely old man on a bench. After all he seemed so lost and quite sad.

Guests who came to our house received the same treatment. I would get their attention and then bombard them with all my latest experiences and made-up stories. I would shower them with a million questions and hardly ever listen to the answers. It was no wonder that I became known as “Lapatoocha,” which is Yiddish for “chatterbox.”

My earliest memories are from about the age of four. At that time, Israel was still known as Palestine and was a British protectorate. British soldiers were often seen marching up and down our street. Most remarkable about their uniform was the red beret that gave them the nickname, “Poppies.” There was even a song, popularized by Shoshana Damari about the Poppies.

Typical of the time were the sirens announcing curfew or some military emergency. Their frightening wail resounds in my ears to this day. The siren started with a two-toned, wavy sound. That meant “Get indoors now and stay there,” If you happened to be out you ran to get indoors somewhere. Once inside, windows and doors were closed and the lights turned off. The “clear” siren was a long wailing monotone, which meant that all was safe and normal life could resume.

During one of these curfews something happened that has stayed with me till today. My sister, who is eleven years my senior, and I were home alone. Mother was out shopping. The siren sounded its terrifying warning. My sister made sure that everything was closed and while I was standing in my crib, the door was suddenly kicked open. Two British soldiers with guns at the ready stormed into our house. They started to throw things about, looking in the closets and under the beds. They were not careful and one of Mom’s little porcelain ballet figurines “danced” to the floor and broke her leg. This didn’t stop them from their search mission. I later learned they had been looking for hidden weapons. I was terrified and clearly remember the fear in my sister’s eyes. We both kept quiet. After not finding what they were looking for, they decided to leave. As a consolation they gave us each a fake gold ring of the type the colonists had handed out to pacify the “natives” in the territories they were invading. I guess they felt sorry for breaking Mom’s figurine. It was a good thing the Poppies did not search our outhouse. I later heard that my father had hidden a gun under the wooden board that served as a seat.

The year must have been 1947. When Mom came home she said that soon the Jewish people would be free of the British and that we would have a country of our own.

I wondered aloud, “Will we have to move when that happens?”

“No,” she said, “a border will be drawn between us and the Arabs.”

I remember wondering how they were going to draw a border? Would it be a line drawn in the sand like in the game we played, “Who is afraid of the big bad wolf?” I also wanted to know where my friend Yusuf would go? Yusuf was an Arab boy, who lived in Manshiyeh, a district of the city of Jaffa, just two blocks away from our house. We were friends in secret because my mom did not approve of friendship with Arabs. To her they were the enemy, as they had over the years opposed the Jewish settlements into the land of Palestine. As a young girl growing up in Safed in the north of Israel, she had witnessed some atrocities at the hands of Arabs, while the country was still under the Ottoman rule.

As we were one of the few families that owned a radio, our one room that served us as living, bed and dining room, also became the community room for some of the neighbors during the evening news hour. Kids would come with their moms or grandmas and as we had to be very quiet, we invented the “quiet game.” Many years later when I became a teacher I taught my students that same game, and it was always their favorite.

While listening to the news some of the women would cry quietly while the others prayed. The expres­sion, “Oy vay, God help us!” was most common. I guess God must have been busy on the day Mrs. Berenbaum’s nephew, Beryl, was killed in an Arab attack on a convoy to the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. I had a hard time understanding why God didn’t save him, since Beryl was the only family Mrs. Berenbaum had. The rest of her relations had been killed, mom said, by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

It was December 31st, 1947, and the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem was under siege. Mom and her sister, my aunt Batya, were Oy-vaying a lot. Our aunt Devorah, their sister, lived in Jerusalem with her husband, the rabbi, and their four children. I remem­ber that a special letter, requesting help, was written and sent to our aunt in America, another sister, also married to a rabbi. Boy, we sure had lots of rabbis in our family.

However, our real claim to fame was our descent from the Baal Shem-Tov, a famous Hasidic Jew from Russia. He acquired his reputation as a holy man by performing miracles and by creating the Hasidic movement in Russia and Poland. These were the Hasidic Jews that my great grandmother, Bobe Laiye, and my grandfather, Reb Sender, belonged to. My mother was always very conscious and proud of that weighty background and often pointed out we had “Yechus” or clout.

The letter to the aunt in America had the hoped-for effect. A few months later a very large package arrived, containing food and clothing for the family in besieged Jerusalem. It arrived in Tel Aviv, and now the only remaining problem was to get it to them. My mother was very resourceful and she had “Yechus.” One could always depend on her finding a solution for any problem that affected her family. The package went on a secret convoy to Jerusalem. On March 24th, 1948, the convoy was attacked at Bab El Wad and only a few of the trucks managed to get through. We were all devastated, and although I wasn’t quite five years old, some of the disappointment even got through to me. Only much later did we learn that some trucks made it all the way, and our package had actually arrived safely.

On April 25th, 1948, I turned all of five years old. Everything was happening really fast in that year. The sirens went off almost daily, and we could often hear bombs exploding in the distance. Mom said that a real war was about to start. We had not seen my father for ages, and she was crying a lot, particularly when my sister, who was sixteen at the time, forged her papers and joined the resistance forces.

Sandbags had to be filled to create shelters. We, the children, became part of the “war machine” and helped to fill the bags. To me it was mostly a lot of fun. It was at that time the game called “andsup” (hands up) was invented. The sandbags became our trenches and the entire neighborhood our battlefield.

The adults, mostly women and old men, were busy with their “war” and we with ours. Mind you, it did get a little scary at times. The sirens and the hysteria of our elders did have their effect on us children. The alarms went off almost nightly. We then had to run for the shelter, and I can still today sense on my skin the itchy, scratchy feeling of the coarse wool blanket my mom used to wrap me up and carry me to the shelter. But in spite of the roughness of that blanket, I always felt safe and protected in the strong arms of my mother.

Shortly after my birthday, the shelling got really close and mother decided that we should stay at the shelter. Everybody was talking about the Irgun (our soldiers) fighting in the city of Jaffa. Soon we heard that Jaffa was in our hands. Many had been killed on both sides, and most of the Arabs now left the city. I was very sad on that day as I sensed I would never see my friend Yusuf again.

On Friday, May 14th, 1948, the radio announced that Israel was now an independent state. People were dancing in the street, and my mom, as usual, was crying. The Poppies were on their way out and for a few days my father even came home. It was not much later that all the neighboring states attacked our new little country, and the real fight for survival had begun.
Mom & Dad

Apartment For Rent in Tel-Aviv, Israel

Tel-AvivIt is no secret, I am an Israeli. Born and bred there. I was introduced to the world in the city of Tel-Aviv.

Yesterday, I had a phone conversation with my best friend Ruti, who flew from London to Tel-Aviv to help her son find an apartment in the city.

“Lea, she said, you will not believe it, but it is an impossible task. The rents are skyrocketing and for every apartment for rent, there are ten people waiting in line with cash in hand to get it. You should see what you get for your money,” she continued, “a rat hole, dirty and small.”

I had to admit, it was hard for me to believe. My thoughts went back to a story my mom told me long ago. Her father had wanted to give her for her dowry, a nice lot in Tel-Aviv.

“Don’t you love me, Dad,” she said to him, “you want me to live in the sand, like a Bedouin?”

Years later we did have a tiny house in Tel-Aviv, the house I grew up in. We then exchanged it for an apartment on Dizengoff Street, the main street in Tel-Aviv.

I remember, standing on our balcony, looking down the street to see who is already seated on the terraces of the cafés, and who is still parading up and down the main street of the city? My date just had to whistle and I would run down the stairs and arm in arm we would stroll along Dizengoff street.

My mom who always wished for an apartment in a quieter street or even a different city, is dead now. The apartment is gone and my friend Ruti has not found one for her son as yet.

Well, that’s how the cookie crumbles. (That’s one of my husband’s favorite sayings.)For Rent Sign

Am I Lying?

Lying LadyWhen I was in high school, by then a good and avid reader, I used my ability to tell stories to make up all kind of tales, passing them off as true events. The fact, that my friends loved to listen to them, encouraged me to continue. I became addicted to the attention. The line between the real event and the made-up one became so thin that with time it just disappeared completely. Some of you might call it lying but I wonder was it really? After all no one was hurt by it. Call me a liar if you wish, but I prefer to think of myself as a teller of tall tales, an entertainer.

What do you think?

Dyslexia could be a blessing

LeaGrowing up being dyslexic was hard. I loved stories, but couldn’t read till second grade and even then just barely and very slowly. So I had to depend on stories being read to me or just dream them. Every Friday during the last period of the day our teacher would read to us. She read mainly from chapter books. My first grade teacher was very good at reading and acting out the tales. You could listen, head down on the desk and see the story come alive. Oh, she was good. It was agonizing to have to wait a whole week for the next chapter and then another week for the continuation. But I was impatient and blessed with loads of imagination. I would come home and snuggle with my pillow in the corner of the room and dream up the next chapter. That is I think, how later in life, I developed my ability to tell stories.