1993. Jerusalem. This is not a happy story, it does not end well, but it is my story, and I am here to tell it.
Allow me to introduce myself: Manya Zalinikov. Zalinikova, if I use the feminine form. Also, my husband, Yuri, my daughter, Galina. Olim, this is who we are, new Israelis. Since six months, we are here from our home in St. Petersburg, Russia, for this reason: to live like Jews. This is what Yuri tells us. Learn to be Jewish, he says, after a lifetime of knowing that the less Jewish one is, the safer one is; after coming from a country where being Jewish is a birth defect.
The old Soviet Union is dead, the new Russia is a difficult place, but not as difficult as Israel. This country is like no other. It takes you in yet you are never in, as a sabra — a native-born Jew — is in. It takes you in, and then it breaks your heart.
Israelis are proud people — chauvinists, my Hebrew language teacher called them. They want everyone who comes here from another country to love it. I have tried. I have passed dislike. I have passed distrust and confusion, without yet arriving at love.
In Russia I was a concert pianist, when I could find work; Yuri, a mathematician at the Academy, working with false identity papers one can buy for cash, papers with fancy gold stamps and a false religion: Christian. Galina was allowed to attend college; we were allowed a small dacha in a forest of pine trees. Here in Jerusalem I perform on the piano in a supper club, The White Nights, owned by a Russian with a murky background, meaning rich, and silent as to his history. Yuri studies how to be a Jew with a Reb, a teacher, who is brilliant, who knows he is brilliant, and considers me a creature who is beyond his powers of rescuing. Galina is at the university and, unless she marries, in danger of turning into a soldier, as happens with all Israeli young people, except — and here there is irony — the fiercely religious.
I begin at the beginning, a day on which Amit, a clever young television director of more than average good looks and intelligence, was rehearsing his people on the set of a not-yet-opened television show, JSingles, that matches young Israeli women with young Israeli men, everyone hoping for marriage. You may wonder why Galina did not put herself forward for this endeavor. My daughter requires hours to select a pair of shoes, a bracelet. Imagine the time she would require to select a husband.
The host of the show, Yuri’s Reb Turrowtaub, who makes no secret of his ambition to be rich and famous, as well as holy. One month before, on a day of rehearsals for the show, appeared Jen, very beautiful, very Swedish, and pregnant, the father, a war hero, recently killed; hoping to honor her dead lover’s religion by marrying a Jewish person. She met Amit, he met her, and they fell in love.
Consider this: geography, religion, sociology, psychology and, what in Russia we call blood pull, tell us that Jen and Amit would not meet. Having met, they should not have fallen in love. That they wished to marry, human beings being perverse, this country being complicated, was miraculous in its optimism.
To marry, to make a beginning, to say to the people you love, next year we will do such and such, and the year after we will do another such and such, in a country whose specialty is endings, is an act of courage, or, maybe a refusal to choose reality, when reality is too difficult. We Russians manufacture melancholy, we luxuriate in it. We export it. While Israelis, not yet my favorite persons, existing on a pinpoint of land surrounded by a sea of enemies, insist upon the normal — weddings, circumcisions, babies, concerts, museums, lectures, carnivals, zoos.
Let us return to the set of JSingles, on that day when the Reb’s nerves were bitten off at the ends from long rehearsals, an absence of sleep, and from not knowing if the show would be a success. I was there with my friend, Ahuva, the Reb’s wife — a woman who is very much an un-Reb type of person, or how would we be friends — following her with flash bulbs, film, cold water, as she used her camera. The Reb, in his satin robe, looked to me like a volcano draped in slippery white, on the tip of erupting if one detail went wrong.
Everyone knew Amit was swept up with Jen, even the Reb, who had closed his lips to speaking about it. After the lunch hour, everyone standing around drinking coffee, I heard Amit tell Oze, his twin brother, also a director, that, before the summer was past, he’d marry with her.
“Does the Reb know?”
“He will, in five minutes.”
The Reb’s response was, “Marry!” his eyes bulging, veins purpling his neck. “I heard you correctly?” He wrung the neck of his plastic water bottle. “A Jew to a non-Jew?” Now his cheeks were a fierce red but Amit — Amit was smoking, and looking calm.
“Marry with Jen-from-Sweden…” Three words, pronounced as one. “Who, if I am again correct, you met not one month ago? Everyone on the set froze; silence came down like a heavy blanket. Ahuva brought a glass of cold water and two blood pressure pills, which the Reb swallowed without taking his eyes from the younger man.
“A crack in the foundation of the Jewish people,” he continued. “One small crack, then a split, a split becomes a meetmotet.” A cave-in. A wonderful word, I thought, writing it into my language notebook. It sounded exactly like what it meant.
“Ruth,” Amit said, “think about Ruth, also a convert, also the Bible’s most famous daughter-in-law and, let us not forget, a great-grandmother.”
From behind the musicians’ stand, Oze whistled and applauded, calling out, “The kid grew up to be our very own King David, remember?”
The Reb asked, “Does your mother know what you are planning?”
His mother had recently died, said Amit, looking no more ruffled than did Rasputin, when accused of plotting against the Czar.
The Reb pounded onto a table. “Your mother,” he hollered, “should be grateful she isn’t here to see this.” Ahuva reminded him of his health, and Amit said, “Go home, everybody, rehearsal is over.”
The solution, reported to me by Ahuva, was sent down from the top. My fellow Russian, my employer, Dmitri Kanov, whose money, from nobody-knew-where, had bought for him the television station, was as lukewarm Jewish as I. Now he sent word that he loved controversy, audiences loved controversy.
Strong, opposite points of view made good publicity, which made good television shows, which, in turn, made good business.
Amit, he said, had the freedom to love anyone. From what Kanov knew of Jen, loving her made good sense. If she loved Amit back, well, then —. Ahuva and I puzzled over the missing end of his sentence. My interpretation was that it meant whatever anyone wanted it to mean, just do not make problems for JSingles. It also meant the Reb inviting us to coffee on Ben Yehuda Mall to declare peace. Galina was included, because she was close to Jen’s age and could possibly offer girl-to-girl friendship to sweeten the meeting.
And, so, on a blue and gold summer day, the birds slipping in and out of the budding trees, the perfect example of a day never seen in St. Petersburg, we seven persons met on Ben Yehuda Mall, that lively pedestrian walkway with book stores and restaurants and shops selling everything from ice cream to t-shirts to jewelry and musical C.D.’s, one of my favorite happiness places in a city that is not often happy.
Jerusalem was not a city of street music; too anxious, poised always for something terrible to arrive. On most days nobody felt like music in their bones but, on that day, on the corner, a stringy-looking young man in need of a bath played his guitar, and a young girl with dark, tangled hair and a curious, oval-shaped scar across one cheek, in orange and red and gold silk somethings, shook a tambourine and collected coins from the crowd, which she slipped inside her brassiere, or what she wore instead of a brassiere. Neither of these young people looked Israeli, but who does look what is called Israeli?
We watched the musician and the gypsy for a long, silent time. Strangers, we couldn’t jump in with, “So, your mother isn’t well,” or, “I saw your son at the mall yesterday, with what looked like a beautiful girl.” Finally, the Reb, in his television voice, said, “Well, well, just imagine,” and we all laughed in a hollow way, like smiling at the ceiling of an elevator to avoid making foolish talking with the other passengers.
The Reb led us down the Mall to a sidewalk table at the Blue Bird Café, and I watched Galina watching Jen, with her bright yellow hair, like a silk waterfall, her big, wide-awake, yet dreamy eyes, and, over it all, a look of wise innocence.
My daughter said nothing, but I knew, by the way she focused her attention on the other young woman’s hair, clothes, nails, that she found much to admire. Was she the smallest slice jealous, I wondered, that this girl, not Jewish, not Israeli, not Russian, had captured this splendid young man? Difficult to say from the outside. Galina was a talented actress.
Jen that day was like a shaft of light, wearing something white and gauzy. Galina’s clothes leaned in the direction of the theatrical: orange knit blouse, a short but complicated skirt, flowered in red and yellow, a silk scarf tied around her throat. She and Jen, seated opposite one another, leaned across the table to talk, Galina doing most of the talking, since her Hebrew, as bumpy as it was, was better than Jen’s. Two cell phones rang in the same second, at a nearby table. “Did you know that Israel is where cell phones were invented,” Galina said, “which is why our babies get their first one in the hospital nursery?”
Jen laughed and took a fiery red instrument out of her bag, passing it among us. “A present,” she said, patting Amit’s arm. This very small machine fit into a palm, and was meant to make and receive telephone calls, but it made other, even more magical things. On a tiny pad on the front of the phone, Jen typed in Swedish the date and position of our café, pushed a button, and the words burst onto the screen in Hebrew. Push another button, the machine wrote in English, delighting everyone.
“Do you have a phone like this?” Jen asked Yuri, as if she knew he was a mathematician, and loved new inventions.
Yuri’s smile was tight, but friendly. Since the beginning of his new life in prayer, in which he thanked God every morning for not making him a woman, he was not at peace with ladies who appeared to be too technological. He shook his head. “This kind of miracle is expensive.”
Jen laughed in her attractive, but careless way. Amit said something about what is money for, and kissed her shoulder. Galina scrutinized Jen, sending eye signals to me, announcing approval of what she saw.
Yuri looked away, his eye tic ticking his discomfort. The Reb’s responsibility as host clicked into place. He jumped to his feet, raising his coffee cup. “To the happiness of the couple,” he said, a hundred million miles away from his first response to Amit’s marrying an un-Jew. A general murmuring agreement floating around the table, we clicked cups with one another. Amit hugged Jen, and looked at her as though, if he looked away, she might vanish. Galina took out a notebook and wrote, probably a reminder to herself to remind her current suitor, Asher, she would love to own Jen’s miracle telephone.
Here now, the bitter coincidence in my story. In this city of one-half million persons, and an equal number of cafés, on that afternoon, at a table some meters beyond ours, but close enough for me to observe, sat a slender man with an ordinary face, not young, not old, wearing one of those stiff black hats that sit unnatural, high on the head, a black silk coat, the white fringe of his tzitzis swinging below his shirt. The tzitzisI did not see until he stood up, but, seeing the hat, seeing the beard, I knew this was a case of tzitzis.
The beard: heavy, dark, not trimmed to a point and romantic-looking, like Yuri’s, or even like Czar Nicolas’ beard, but thick and squared and long, and side curls that bounced in a manner that was both comic and serious, and were, in a strange way, sweet-looking when he turned his head to call the waitress. All in all, an ordinary Orthodox look, in a place where this man was among his own.
And, yet, something. I whispered to Yuri, “Isn’t that man too young to look so old?”
He frowned, and whispered back, “Manya, please.”
Since his change from our family’s un-Jewishness, Manya, please, has become his principal declaration to me when I remark in public upon anyone in black clothing. Or, in private, on why the monthly visit to the mikvah insulted women. Or, on why refusing to eat milk products and meat products together was accepting the medieval amidst the twentieth century.
“That man is fully Israeli,” he said.
I leaned past Yuri, hoping to reach Galina. Still writing, her nose in her notebook, she hadn’t noticed this man. She ignored all men in black. They were beyond her ability to understand, primitives, unfriendly to women, why should she acknowledge them?
Why? Because they were there, and we were there, and every molecule occupying a single Israeli iota changed the emotional temperature of the country. Just as the beggars posted at the entrance to the central post office in St. Petersburg changed the way we entered and exited from that building, making certain to have coins to drop into their hands. Just as the babushkas seated in the corners of every gallery in the Hermitage Museum changed the way we’d enjoyed the art: Do not touch, do not stand too close, do not sneeze, cough, sniff on any object other than another person.
The man was now wearing sun glasses while reading his newspaper, shifting the paper every few moments, reading it upside down, as often as rightside up. Strange, but true, most Israelis’ nerves were so jangled by everyday events, reading a paper upside down could be a result. Should I report him, like I’d report a suspicious package sitting in the post office, looking like it belonged to nobody? Report him for doingwhat? This man was not a package; he was an Orthodox.
I looked around for someone whose arm I might grab, someone where I could whisper, Shhh, there, that man in black, does he look wrong to you? Would an Israeli believe a Russian? Yuri fussed with his wristwatch, shaking it to assure that the time was correct, and Ahuva reminded the Reb to put only one sugar in his coffee, and Jen said, “Where, please, the bathroom?”
I said, “Me, too.” Jen was the one, if my Hebrew could penetrate her Hebrew. She would understand.
When we stood up, Galina said, wait for her. In my mind even a small exodus from the table would put a cold towel on the party atmosphere, which was already teetering. I whispered that the bathroom was for one lady at a time, possibly the wrong information, but she nodded. On my side was the fact that public rest rooms in Russia were scarce, inconvenient, and dirty.
Jen slipped her arm through mine, as easily as she would with an old friend, smiling her sweet, radiant smile that so loudly announced her happiness. “Come, come, Missus Zalinikov…” She laughed. “I said it correctly?” I felt a warm wave of affection for this brave young woman, thousands of miles from her family, now eager to move on into a new version of her life, as though she, like Israel, refused to be beaten down. She struck me as having a wisdom I had not yet discovered. Maybe I never would. Maybe she’d be willing to tutor me, to infect me with her optimism.
We walked together to the restaurant building, not ten meters from our table, passing the man in black, who had a look of happy expectation on his face, or what I could see of his face, all that beard to hide in. Jen went inside, but I stopped at the entrance to look back at him. He stood up. I thought, good, he’s leaving. But no. He didn’t walk away.
I continued in the doorway, just inside the restaurant, holding the door open to see what he’d do next. He called out to the waitress, “Please, a glass of water.” In this same moment, a small bird with a shimmering blue head flew onto the tip of the umbrella shading his table. The waitress, a slender young girl with pale, silky curls all over her head, a starched white apron over her blue jeans and t-shirt, and a springy walk that announced good health, brought the water. To look at her was to know that somewhere, even if they lived in a far-away time zone, was a family that telephoned her often, just to inquire about her happiness, and to say, “Good night, we love you.”
I continued holding the door open. The bird was pecking at the yellow umbrella as though someone had planted it with birdseed. The man drank the water, dropping the glass, or throwing it, a crash that caught everyone’s attention, except the bird’s. Then he said, very loud, to no one, to everyone, in Hebrew more poorly accented even than mine, “Goodbye. I will not see you again,” before thrusting one hand inside his jacket, and throwing himself forward.
The sky shook, the earth rocked, birds flying over must also have rocked. Bright light shone everywhere, so much brightness, it lifted up the man in black, exploding him into bits and pieces of bone and flesh that splattered onto the tables and chairs, until there was no man left, only a body without a head or arms. All around him, or what was left of him, where people one second before were eating and laughing and telephoning and kissing, there was empty air above, bloody pools and body parts below.
Glasses, dishes, pitchers flew off the shelves at the waiter’s station behind me, windows cracked, some blew away, along with the door, knocking me to the ground. A man hollered, “Everybody, be calm, sit.” He didn’t mean me. I had to go out. Yuri was out, Galina was out, but he pulled at me and screamed there would be more explosions, come back, stay inside. I went.
A man shouted, “Pigua, pigua! Terrorist!” Then an eerie silence, the earth holding its breath, followed by three shrieks of a siren as sudden as a gunshot. Two shrieks were an everyday sound, announcing an everyday ambulance coming through, carrying someone with an everyday heart attack, a baby impatient to be born. Three blasts meant terror attack. Three blasts meant: once again.
A woman was crying; a sound beyond anything human, beyond pain, beyond grief, as if sorrow had been given its own voice. She wouldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop, until I called out, “No more, please!” and realized, as I kicked something soft, a hand with four fingers, that the voice was me. Then, bodies to step over, some without faces. My right eye felt stabbed. I touched it. My hand came away with blood.
Ahuva and Amit were slumped over our table, not moving; the Reb was underneath, murmuring something I didn’t understand. Yuri, lying on his back, stared at the sky, his jacket and shirt shredded, blood running from an opening in his throat, splashing onto the bird lying next to him, now without its shimmering blue head. Galina, one minute lying flat down, the next, sitting up, looked at me with a face heavy with blood, her stunned eyes registering that she had never seen me before.
Down on my hands and knees, I begged Yuri, “Breathe in, out, in. Breathe.” Don’t die before I tell you how much you are loved.” He struggled to take in air, I thumped on his chest, which did nothing except give me something to do. I wiped Galina’s face with her silk scarf, tying the ruined fabric around her head so that only her eyes showed up. The wild bird trapped inside my chest beat its wings, trying to get out. In minutes, less than minutes, ambulances screamed onto the mall, as though all morning they had waited around the corner, knowing, with that sorrowful Israeli knowing, that, sooner or later, something terrible would happen. Why go home, why bother to take the ambulances into the garage? They will be needed again.
All around me, cell phones rang and rang and no one answered. News played on the radio and the television day and night in this country, a country smaller than Belarus or Ukraine. Everyone listened. Everyone expected tragedy, and all the phones worked. A bomb gets exploded, and everyone called everyone they loved.
The everyones I loved, besides Yuri and Galina, were my friend, Nadia, who was that day in Eilat, and my American-turned-into-an-Israeli friend, Yael, in her office. Should I call? We’re fine, my eye bleeds and Yuri’s throat is slit, Galina’s face is in pieces, but we’re able to move, there are no big pieces of shrapnel or nails in important parts of our bodies. If there are, they’re lying quiet. My cell phone was in my purse, and my purse blew out of my hand when I fell.
Now came the police and the fire people, and the experts in explosives to search for other bombs. Then the Zaka workers who began at once the work of cleaning up. Israelis are efficient people.
Have you seen these Zaka men executing their dance without music? Men in yellow and black vests, skull caps, white gloves, carrying plastic bags, peeling scraps of flesh and bone from under the tables, the chairs, scraping from the few whole windows that remained, scooping from the bloody river running down the street, wading into the ankle-high sea of broken glass that surrounded everywhere, to pick, pick.
“Remnants,” I heard these men say, “collect every remnant.” Every pinpoint scrap of human being must be buried, with the body or without. Did you know intestines are yellow? Have you ever seen an arm or leg lying on the ground, attached to only air? And this: DNA.
The DNA of a hand, even an ear, a finger, can connect a body part to a body, to a life that was, up to the moment of the explosion, busy at the business of living.
Men wearing masks to keep out the stench of burned flesh, a smell strangely like the smell of rotting food, carried out the people on stretchers. Bleeding bodies and ringing pockets. I saw a young girl in an apron smeared with blood, and blue jeans, a head of curls, passing too quickly for me to ask: Alive? Farther off, the ambulances waited. A man in a white coat made wild gestures with his arm, calling to the rescuing people, “Don’t give me the dead ones, bring out the injured.” A pair of wet brown boots stopped next to me. I looked up, into the face of a young girl medic person. “Are they alive?” she said. “We’re taking out the living ones first.”
The funeral was the following day, Jewish law requiring burial within twenty-four hours. Just as well. So many Jews being killed, this way the burial teams can keep up, the roads into and out of the cemeteries don’t get clogged. Even in hell, details are important.
Amit’s family owned an area in the small garden cemetery on the western edge of the city. Jen and I went. The ceremony was short and terrible, in Hebrew, Jen not a part of it, nothing. His mother, also red-haired, was not, as Amit had told the Reb, dead, but after burying her child, wished she could be. Jen wanted to say something to this woman, she didn’t know what, some word of recognition, of alliance. They had, after all, both loved the same young man. Oze, looking like he couldn’t remember where he was, or why, tried to help, but his mother looked at no one and said nothing, her face frozen into deep furrows of grief.
The Reb and Ahuva were minor miracles; serious scrapings, a broken wrist, a twisted neck, damaged ribs, singed hairs. My eye was bandaged; a good thing, because this way my tears spilled from only one side. I ran outside too fast, the doctor told me, didn’t I know any better? “Doctor,” I said, “please understand. This was my first suicide bombing. I’ll do better the next time.”
Two weeks later, Yuri and Galina were still in the hospital, his throat stapled together, living on blood from people we never met; light ones and dark ones, rich ones and not-so rich, most of them speaking languages I didn’t understand. So much blood, so many people, we’ll never be able to thank everyone.
I played the what-if game in my mind, with Galina. What if we’d sat down at another café? What if we’d sat at another table, farther back, farther out? What if I’d said, yes, when she asked to go with me to the women’s room? What if we’d never come to Israel?
Her room was down the hall from Yuri’s. She had, in the first ten days, many times surgeries. To save her face, the surgeon said, also to pick out the nails from the bomb, and the flying metal and glass from everywhere. She’ll have a scar, he said, running the nail of his pointing finger from the corner of his eye to his mouth. I asked, how deep, how wide, how bad? He shrugged. “It isn’t fatal, so how could it be bad?”
Only a face. I imagined him thinking this, especially on a day when he perhaps sewed a finger back onto a hand, or stitched a kidney, a stomach, back into somebody’s body. I did not say this to anyone but myself: one person’s only is another person’severything.
Those first days, my bed was the floor of Yuri’s room; the beep-beeps of his monitors, the squeak of the nurses’ shoes moving down the hall, these were my lullabies. Lying alone, I thought terrible thoughts about not being able to go on, about why were we here — why? Israel was dying, I sobbed one night to Yuri, who blinked. He heard me. I wanted to go home, my real home. I’d never felt so alone, so sinned against, so angry.
Nadia came with a bottle of red wine. “To help you feel more human,” she said, “especially when taken with music, possibly a nice view of the ocean.”
“Where nearby is an ocean?” I said. “Do you see an ocean?”
She sniffed at the air: soap, disinfectant, floor wax. “The smells in here could kill you.”
Yael came, with her uplifting outlook that usually rescued me, but not that day. She brought a pink flowering plant for Yuri, a book of Israeli poetry for Galina, plus a bag filled with the newest fashion and movie person magazines, “for her less intellectual moments.”
“How are you holding up?” she asked me, in the hallway, away from Yuri’s hearing.
“These are terrible challenges.”
Challenges? A psychology word, a word for people who don’t know what it feels like to be blown up. “Challenge means something difficult to do, with the promise of a reward at the end. My reward is a husband living on borrowed blood and a daughter with a ruined face.”
“Both alive, both recovering.”
“I want to lay down on the floor and howl, I want to…”
“But there is a reward.” She pulled me to her, an un-Yael thing to do. “Now you’re one of us, more sabra than olim.”
“You invite me into your exclusive club of survivors of terrorist attacks?”
“You invited yourself, you went through the initiation.”
“So, I uninvite myself. I was never one to join clubs.”
Jen came to say goodbye, looking that day like a woman who had forgotten about details like lipstick, or making up her eyes. Even her hair, pulled back with a rubber twister, looked without life. “I could have saved him,” she said. I didn’t agree, but I didn’t argue. She was going home to Stockholm, to reflect on how everyone she loved ended up dying.
“Not your baby,” I said.
The doctors called Yuri’s wounds superficial. Not true. Nothing about being blown up is superficial. I asked my husband if he knew what the Reb was saying under that table when the bomb went off. I stayed with minutiae, clinging to the ordinary. TheShema, he said, the prayer for the dying carried by Jews into the gas chambers in the camps.
“Where did you learn these things? You have only just now become a Jew.”
He smiled, a pale, melancholy kind of smile that left his eyes unsmiling, his birth gift from being born a Russian. I squeezed his hand to say what I couldn’t say: All the talking we went through about his God not being my God, unimportant.
Now, the question that plagued me, still plagues me. What decides on a daily basis who is to go on living, who is to die? Luck decides. Good luck says: live. Bad luck says: die. As harsh and final and unfair as that. Don’t tell me about the Book of Life. I like my answer better. If I could choose between being born with the gene for luck, or the gene for wealth, or power, or talent, or even intelligence, I would choose luck. I would choose the mazel gene.
My second question was this: The Jews have been chosen, the scholars say. We have an obligation to carry out God’s commandments, to demonstrate that we choose Him, they say, to demonstrate that we honor our covenant with Him.
Chosen? For this?
If any of you out there speak with Him on a regular basis, please, the next time I want you to say, “Hey, Mr. Big Shot, I have a message from my friend, Manya Zalinikova. Take a minute from your important God work, look down, you’ll see her, a dark-haired woman in her over-the-middle forties, usually wearing something red, now with an eye bandage.”
Tell Him I appreciate His good intentions. He meant well, but ask Him to leave us alone to live our lives in whatever decent way is still possible, one day into the next, no special connections or special memberships with special groups up there where He lives. Ask Him for me to unchoose us, please.
Fellowships in Fiction, several Pushcart Prize nominations, as well as
the Katharine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction, the William Faulkner Pirate’s Alley Gold Medal in the Novel-in-Progress Category, and First Runner-Up in the Novel Category. Piven Playhouse, Evanston, Illinois, produced a Story Theater musical based on her novel, Sadie in Love.