My brother Levi says that if I weren’t a woman he’d kill me. Just like the Arabs.
The reason he kills Arabs is that they are evil and kill us. He doesn’t kill his sister because because, he says, women think with their hearts and not their minds. Because they see only the here and now and not history. Because they trust too much.
drawing by Avi Katz
So, he said, I will spare you and let the Holy One, Blessed Be He punish you. That Arab could have killed you. Or worse. With you alone in the house. But now everyone in Meah She’arim knows. Soon you’ll be called to testify in their courts and the whole Yishuv will learn of your shame. Perhaps that is the punishment that your life has been spared to receive.
As the summer of the year that the English call 1929 wanes, I ask you, My Rock and My Savior, is this so? More than seven weeks have passed since that Friday and Shabbat of slaughter and fear. So many of your people died. And I saved none of them. Instead, I rescued an Arab.
It was Friday, a bit after noon. I was alone, sitting on my high stool, plucking a chicken. A small one, as I would be alone on Shabbat. Shlomo was, is, in Europe, collecting funds for the kolel. You took Mother from me when I was sixteen. Father’s mystical dreams took him soon afterward to Safed, where he forgot about his children. Sarah married a Belgian businessman. She writes on occasion. You have not yet given me children. Levi, seventeen and wild, lives with me but learns long hours, so I am mostly alone. When the hours get too long, as they usually do, he runs off and plays soldier for the Zionists. He had already told me that he’d be on duty that Shabbat, probably at the Kotel, where the Arabs, may God take revenge on them, had thrown stones down from the Temple Mount on our worshipers all week.
I did not know then, as I squinted in the dim light that came in through the small window behind me, that mobs of Arabs, fired up by their preachers, had descended from their mosques intent on killing Jews. I did not know that they had fallen on the Gorji compound and slaughtered women and children, that they bludgeoned to death two brothers at Jaffa Gate. I was plucking a chicken and wiping sweat from my eyes and trying to keep my back straight and my spirits up. No one came to tell me. I heard rumbles in the distance, shouts, but I barely paid any attention. I suppose because people often shout in Meah She’arim. The heat clouded my eyes and made it hard to think. Whatever thoughts I had were elsewhere. I was crying softly and heard only myself.
I heard the sound of feet. Running, perhaps. I really wasn’t paying any attention. The voices got louder. Someone banged on the door. I put down the chicken, wiped my hands on my apron, washed my hands, dried my eyes. I walked the few paces to the outside door, the one leading into the courtyard, and opened, not really thinking about who it might me. I suppose I assumed it was Rivka Levin from across the way, who bangs without bothering to knock first.
My eyes were dazzled by the sunlight. The shouts were much louder now. Men were running out on the street, but in our courtyard all was quiet. The Levin girls were shelling peas. Some boys were tossing a ball, jeering at one who was not good at catching. A man stood before me, a small man, obviously an Arab, may they burn in hell, despite his carrot-colored hair. He was breathing hard. His shirt was stained with sweat. His mouth was wide open and he had gaps between his teeth. His eyes had dark circles around them and his nose was bright red. His breath smelled very bad. His eyes were wide open. I took a step back. I expected him to scream, but he didn’t. I intended to slam the door, but then he whispered a word, over and over again. I couldn’t quite make it out. Something like “hilak.” I don’t know many of their words, their Arabic is very different from what Mother and Father spoke to us, but he kept saying it, “hilak, hilak, hilak,” gesticulating wildly and pointing to his chest.
He made me laugh.
And you know the amazing thing? He was not insulted. He held his pose, then looked behind him. Mad a show of cocking his ear to listen. He sighed loudly and smiled broadly, as if to say he had not heard whatever he thought he might. Then he took a bow. Just like the hand organ man on King George Street does when you give him a grush.
Three Jews suddenly ran into the courtyard from the street, calling out to each other. Two had big sticks in their hand and one had a knife.
I grabbed my Arab, pulled him in, and slammed the door.
He stood there, a bit unsteady, by the table in the middle of the room. I poured him a glass of water from the pitcher I always keep there. He raised it, his hand trembling, but once he drank it down he seemed to recover. He looked around. The men outside were still shouting. A girl screamed and a boy cheered. It sounded like they were turning over washtubs. My Arab pointed to the bedroom and strode over. I followed him. Then he pointed at the cupboard. I opened it for him and threw out piles of Shlomo’s shirts and my own underthings. He climbed in and I closed it behind him.
“Would you like some tea?” I asked him in Hebrew. “Shai?”
“Shukran,” he said, his voice muffled by the closet door.
So I went back to the kitchen and put the kettle on the primus. In the meantime, I perched on my stool and plucked feathers.
The outside door swung open and banged against the wall. I knew that sound. It was Levi. I picked up the naked chicken to singe it on the flame. He was panting.
“I need some water,” he commanded.
I turned to look at him. His hair was every which way, his shirt half-open, his chest glistening. I approached the table and poured him water into a glass. He grabbed it and drank it down and held it out for more.
“We’ve put one where he belongs!” he exulted. Then he told me about what had happened at the Jaffa Gate, and at Nablus Gate. “But we won’t let them murder Jews. For every Jew that dies ten of them will fall. Another one got away and we’re looking for him all over. I have to go. The boys are searching outside.”
“I was going to make tea,” I said.
“I don’t have time.”
“Stay a few minutes. You won’t be here Shabbat. Give me just a few minutes.” The kettle whistled.
Levi noticed the second glass on the table, drops of water still clinging to the side.
“Who’s been here?”
“A friend,” I said, pouring essence into three gold-trimmed tea glasses, and then adding boiling water. I added three spoonfuls of sugar to each.
“Which friend?” he asked.
“You don’t know her,” I said.
“I know all your friends,” he insisted.
“Not this one,” I smiled.
“You’re pouring three glasses,” he suddenly noticed.
I knew what would happen. How did I know? Perhaps it was like Father’s mystical visions. But the bedroom door opened and my Arab walked out. He nodded at Levi and blushed. Levi eyed her suspiciously.
How did I know my Arab would change roles? But there he was, wearing a dress of mine, stuffed liberally at the belly and breasts with underwear. He’d wrapped his hair in a shavis and tied it under his chin. It wouldn’t have fooled any woman, but Levi, fired up with fighting spirit, did not look very closely. He never did.
My Arab smiled bashfully, reached out, took his tea glass, and shuffled back into the bedroom.
“She’s folding the laundry for me,” I said.
Levi slurped down his tea and handed me the glass.
“I have to go,” he said. “Don’t be frightened. We’ll catch that Arab, and any other Arab who stalks Jewish women in our neighborhood!”
Levi’s mind isn’t the fastest, which is maybe why he skips out of his yeshiva so often. It took him a week to figure it out. In the meantime, the riots had been quelled and more than a hundred Jews had been massacred. Also, five Jews from our neighborhood had been arrested. They were charged with killing an Arab and attempting to kill Khamis al-Sayyed, a porter from the Old City. Al-Sayyed had told the police that he’d run into a house in Meah She’arim and stayed there until late afternoon, after the mob had dispersed.
“It was you!” Levi shouted.
“Will you report me to the Haganah?” I asked.
“I’d kill you,” he said, “if you weren’t a woman.”
Perhaps I am a bad woman, for I let a strange man into my home while I was alone. Into my bedroom. A man who was not even a Jew, God forbid. And I rescued an Arab, at the same time that his people were slaughtering mine. Oh, and I disobeyed my little brother.
A couple hours after Levi left, the courtyard was in shadow and all had been quiet for some time. I went into the bedroom. My Arab was sitting on my bed. He had carefully folded up all the shirts and underwear and placed them back in the cupboard.
“I think you should go now,” I said. “Will you be safe?”
He made a face and pointed to the dress and scarf he was still wearing.
“Of course,” I said.
He opened the outside door just a slit, put his head out, looked around. Convinced all was quiet, he turned, and with a flourish gave me the same bow he’d given when he first came.
We both broke out laughing. He tiptoed out the door, through the courtyard, into the street.
The three reasons Levi will not kill me are these: Because women think with their hearts and not their minds. Because they see only the here and now and not history. Because they trust too much.
Let me add a fourth reason, my Creator, one you must know because you made me what I am. Some of us laugh in the dark.