In My Mother’s Footsteps

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

I recently experienced an amazing coincidence in Jerusalem. It is an honor for my latest piece to be published on the great philanthropy expert Danny Siegel’s blog in the Times of Israel. With gratitude to his exceptional student and philanthropy consultant in his own right, Arnie Draiman

 

This is a guest post, written by Shira Sebban of Sydney, Australia, who had arranged with my Talmid Muvhak(“Exceptional Student”) Arnie Draiman, to take her and her family to meet the Mitzvah heroes and see the magic that happens when we do.

It is no ordinary building. Not for its residents, nor for me. Yet, at first glance, the three story cream apartment block looks like any other in its central Jerusalem neighborhood – apart from its ramp and lift.

The Apartments complex has long been renowned for enabling adults with severe physical disabilities to live independently within the community. Unique in Israel, the project allows people in wheelchairs to reside privately in their own apartment, with a second bedroom available for a caregiver should they so choose. A large communal room and wheelchair-accessible garden provide opportunities to socialize, while a specially equipped van and driver are on hand to take residents to and from work, shopping or to appointments.
On a recent Tzedakah Adventure Tour led by philanthropy consultant Arnie Draiman, my family was privileged to meet with Shalheveth founder, Miriam Freier – one of Danny Siegel’s Mitzvah Heroes – and to tour the complex with director David Eliav, being introduced to several residents and visiting their homes. So popular have the apartments become – the waiting list is now very long – that additional funding is being sought for another facility.
Before its transformation, Miriam told us, the building at 36 Shimoni Street, in the “Rassco neighborhood” had been a dilapidated apartment block owned by the Jewish Agency, the only such building in the area.
Rassco – built by, and named after, the public Rural and Suburban Settlement Company – and the Jewish Agency rang a bell for me. Hadn’t my late mother stayed in the Jewish Agency-owned Anglo-Saxon Hostel in Rassco when she first arrived in Jerusalem in 1955?
I only knew this because it is detailed in her diary, a non-descript navy-bound volume, which my sister and I had found stashed away in a drawer while sorting through our mother Naomi’s belongings after her death in 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Indeed, so precious has the diary become that I have since embarked on a journey of discovery, exploring Israel of the 1950s in order to recreate stories from my mother’s vivid experiences recounted on its now yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script. While her handwriting may be familiar to me, the young passionate woman revealed by her words is a stranger with whom I am still becoming acquainted.
While in Israel to celebrate our youngest son Jonathan’s bar mitzvah, I had planned to visit several of the sites mentioned in my mother’s diary. I managed to tour the upmarket cultural, leisure and shopping center of Sarona in Tel Aviv, originally a German Templer agricultural colony, which by Naomi’s day, had become Hakirya, the central government and military compound where she would frequent the library. I also surveyed the bronze, haloed Madonna on the roof of Jerusalem’s Terra Sancta College and explored the renovated First Railway Station, now a cultural and entertainment center: my mother would usually travel by train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where she attended classes at the Hebrew University, then located in the ornate, neo-classical surrounds of the Franciscan-owned College in leafy, affluent Rehavia.
The Anglo-Saxon Hostel, however, was not on my list. I already knew from my research that it had provided tastefully furnished accommodation for professional immigrants, offering breathtaking views of the Jerusalem Hills, a communal dining room and maid service. I had even seen a photo of it from the 1950s when it was brand new, standing alone on a recently constructed and completely deserted street without a tree or blade of grass in sight. Surely the hostel was long gone, I had assumed, surveying the now crowded, built-up neighborhood. But that was before I discovered Shalheveth.
Trembling with excitement, I stood on the entrance steps leading down to the street up which my mother had once hauled her heavy suitcase alone, abandoned by the taxi driver, who had blatantly overcharged her for the then two-hour trip from my grandmother’s home in south Tel Aviv. I took photographs of the stairwell, down which she would have tiptoed, after a night spent illegally at the hostel on an uncomfortable mattress without sheets after she had officially moved out, only deciding to return briefly when her possessions had not arrived at her new student abode.
We spent the rest of that inspiring day, the eve of Jonathan’s bar mitzvah, meeting some of Arnie’s (and Danny’s) other Mitzvah heroes, including Judy Singer of Matnat Chaim, Israel’s foremost kidney donation organization, who had donated her own kidney to a complete stranger in 2013. Since 2009, around 280 such low-risk, live transplants have taken place in Israel, where hundreds of people remain on the waiting list, kept alive by dialysis, which severely impacts their quality of life. Every year some die while waiting their turn, hence the urgency of Matnat Chaim’s work in combating the severe kidney shortage by encouraging more voluntary donations. Judy’s altruistic attitude certainly left a lasting impression on us.
We also visited Alice Jonah, who has helped established a supportive and dignified community for elderly Russian immigrants residing at the Diplomat Hotel, the five-star resort-turned absorption center. Some of the residents, including a pianist and a former opera singer, put on a concert in our honor, and I will never forget the charming and joyful 89-year-old lady, so elegant in her full black skirt, bounding up to us in between song-and-dance numbers, beaming from ear to ear, to tell us in stilted Hebrew about her seven great-grandchildren.
We met Moran Shelly of Shachen Tov (Good Neighbor Association), founded and run by student volunteers, who distribute thousands of food baskets to needy families across Israel, as well as organizing clubs for youth at risk, tutoring centers, and mobile coffee shops for the isolated.
The day ended with a visit to a woodworking and art workshop at Shutaf, which provides informal education programs for young people with special needs. Started in 2007 by dynamic mothers Miriam Avraham and Beth Steinberg, who could not find an appropriate program for their own children and so decided to create their own, the organization offers inclusive after-school activities and holiday camps where young people with disabilities have the opportunity to socialize with their more able-bodied peers.
Over the past five years, Arnie Draiman has led our family on three Tzedakah Adventure Tours, each coinciding with the bar mitzvah of one of our sons. We have distributed toys to sick children at Shaarei Tzedek Hospital, visited the border patrol unit in the Old City of Jerusalem that supports soldiers’ families in need, met with Ruth Schlossman, who having narrowly escaped a terrorist attack herself, decided to establish Gift of Comfort, providing massage and alternate healing therapies to survivors of terror. We have talked to toyshop proprietor Aryeh, who on his own initiative helps individuals in need, and with Robbie Sassoon, director of the Crossroads Center, where more than a thousand at-risk, English-speaking teens come for help each year.
In so doing, we have strived to teach our sons what becoming a Bar Mitzvah is all about, enabling them to learn from the example of Israelis working to make the world a better place. To be able to combine this with my own journey of discovery involving my mother’s past, has been a true privilege.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, who also serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work on her blog.

Pages From My Mother’s Diary: A Bus Trip to Ashkelon

Monday, 7 December 2015
Another story from my mother’s diary has been published
← Rescuing The Past
December 7, 2015 · 7:00 am
By Naomi Gross (Tel Aviv, Israel) and Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

My sister and I never expected to find the diary of our late mother, Naomi Gross. Indeed, for many years, we did not even know of its existence. It was only when we sorted through our mother’s possessions after her death in July 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, that we came across the non-descript, navy-bound volume, stashed away and seemingly long forgotten in a drawer of her writing desk.

The diary reads like a film script, relating experiences in the Israel of the mid-1950s of a young woman whom I did not recognize. After almost a decade’s absence, she had returned to her birthplace from Australia, where she had gone to join her father after World War II, only to discover that she had become somewhat of a stranger in her own land.

At the same time, and especially in the wake of the most recent deterioration in relations between Israel and the Palestinians, it is sobering to read a personal account of the early trials and tribulations, anguish and vulnerability of the new State of Israel.

Now, nearly sixty years later, I have decided to bring the yellowed pages filled with my mother’s distinctive script to life once more, recreating stories from her diary, which has become one of my most cherished possessions.

Shira Sebban

*******

There was not a soul in sight. Surrounded by orange groves, my mother expressed her growing unease, “recalling some unfortunate encounters workers had with Arab infiltrators some months ago.”
I picture her, as she was then, an attractive and bright 20-something student, alone – except for her cousin Miriam – in the hot afternoon stillness. She would have been unable to get the image of those poor workers out of her mind. What if she was attacked too?

The infamous date of 4 October 1956 must have been etched in her memory. Only six months previously, five Israeli construction workers had been killed in an ambush in broad daylight on a desert highway near the Dead Sea, just a few hours away from Ashkelon.

Why on earth had she agreed to visit the South in the first place? It had been sheer madness to try to walk to the 5000-year-old site of ancient Ashkelon from the beach cafe, and they were still two kilometers away from the excavations.

The term, “infiltrator,” with its connotations of menace and evil, has recently been revived to refer to African asylum seekers to Israel. Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when numerous attacks on Israeli settlements culminated in the 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law,” which defined Palestinians and citizens of surrounding Arab states, who entered Israel illegally, as “infiltrators,” punishable by law, especially if armed or accused of crimes against people or property.

How many incidents had there been in the past 18 months since my mother’s return to her birthplace from Australia after almost a decade’s absence? Five people had been massacred in the previous two months alone: on 18 February 1957, two civilians had been killed by landmines next to Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on the southern border of the Gaza Strip; on 8 March, a shepherd from Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, not far from Ashkelon, had been murdered in a nearby field, while just two days prior to her excursion, on 16 April, two guards had been killed at Kibbutz Mesilot in the North.

No, she decided firmly, she and her cousin would have to miss out on seeing the Neolithic excavations recently undertaken by French archeologist Jean Perrot; it just wasn’t worth the risk. They would then have joined the disorderly, long queue catching the Egged bus back to Tel Aviv. The two-hour trip would be a nightmare, she thought as they boarded, jostling in the narrow aisle against laborers standing cramped two or even three abreast after a hard day’s work.

It had not been as overcrowded that morning, when at least she had managed to find a seat next to Miriam. They were taking every opportunity to spend time together, renewing the strong bonds of their childhood friendship. Born and bred in Tel Aviv, Miriam was eager to inspect recent developments undertaken by the new State, remaining ever hopeful that her enthusiasm would somehow rub off onto her more-worldly cousin.

A high-pitched voice rang out above the din of the other bus passengers:

“Whose idea was it to throw Joseph into the well?”

“Was it Judah?”

The tentative reply was met with squeals of laughter.

“Wrong! You lose a point.”

My mother turned. “The seats behind us were occupied by four Yemenite girls, 15-17 years old, probably recent arrivals to the country,” she subsequently noted in her diary. “Full of joy of life, laughing and continuously talking in squeaky voices, cracking small black seeds and throwing shells on the floor of the bus. They were conducting a biblical quiz concerning the story of Joseph and his brothers in a childish manner, heavily taxing their minds and enjoying it tremendously.”

She was recalling the rescue mission, Operation Magic Carpet, which had airlifted most of Yemen’s 50,000 Jews to young Israel between June 1949 and September 1950 in what had been the first wave of Jewish immigration from the Muslim world.

The exuberance so evidently displayed by the girls would have contrasted sharply with the largely discontented demeanor of most of the other passengers. She glanced out the window and found the land “flat and uninteresting,” the monotony of the green fields “relieved here and there by red and yellow spring flowers.”

Ashkelon itself had been a disappointment – “An old Arab town with one main street containing the shops,” she would write, “now occupied mainly by migrants.”

That “old Arab town” was al-Majdal Asqalan, established under Ottoman rule in the 16th century. A commercial and administrative center, it had been part of the area occupied by the Egyptian army during the War of Independence, when its Arab population, about 11,000 strong, had largely fled, ostensibly temporarily, to nearby Gaza, before the town itself had been captured by Israeli forces in early November 1948. Less than two years later, the remaining Arab population, which had been confined to a fenced-off “ghetto,” had been transferred mostly to Gaza.

Meanwhile, demobilized soldiers and new immigrants, including survivors from the displaced persons camps in Europe and Jewish refugees from Yemen, Iran and Iraq, had been moving into what was Israel’s first development town. After several name changes, it had officially become Ashkelon in 1956 – only the year before my mother’s visit with her cousin. They had not lingered long, boarding another bus for the ten-minute ride west to the recently incorporated seaside township of Afridar.

Touted as a South African-style garden city, Miriam had long wanted to visit Afridar, which was being built on a large tract of land granted to the South African Zionist Federation by Labor Minister Golda Meir. Even its name sounded exotic, an amalgam of “Africa” and the Hebrew word, “darom,” meaning “south.” But as her description reveals, my mother had found the town center frankly uninspiring: on the right was a cinema, while on the left stood “a museum, library, health center, city municipality, all in one building. Likewise there is a row of about ten shops, comprising the entire shopping center, also a café. There is a tall tower with a clock at its top, and there, at the bottom, is the information bureau.”

The buildings, she conceded, were quite attractive, constructed of “colored bricks, with a somewhat oriental touch,” and “surrounded by lawns and flowers,” although multiple official notices forbidding visitors from walking on the grass spoiled the overall effect.

Looking for a place to have lunch, I picture the two women entering the information bureau.
“Welcome to Afridar,” the official behind the counter – clearly a new South African immigrant – would have intoned in stilted Hebrew. “This is the first modern neighborhood of Ashkelon, and the first, and up to now, only Anglo-Saxon settlement in Israel!”

“It’s impossible to utter any genuine impressions or opinions in front of the local people,” my mother would later record in her diary. “They will bite your head off as they can’t take any criticism. Still, the overall impression is a poor one, which might change with the enlargement of the place.”

She described the sea from a distance as appearing “beautiful, very blue and calm.” Small single- and two-family homes with red tiled roofs, arched front balconies, and spacious private gardens dotted the broad dirt road, an occasional old, rickety bus ambling past. Upon closer inspection, however, she expressed her disappointment as “the shore was poorly looked after, the sand none too clean and quite uninviting,” the only saving grace being the “most beautiful purple, yellow and orange wildflowers” growing in abundance.

At that time, the coastal dunes were quite deserted, save for two buildings, one a hotel and the other a café, which stood closer to the edge of the sandstone cliff running along the beach. The hotel was none other than the Dagon Inn, which had been established in 1954 by the Government-owned Afridar Development Corporation. Sharing the name of the Philistine god Dagon, whose temple Samson knocked down in biblical times, the Inn was one of the South’s first hotels, its then 16 vacation cabins even attracting the Prime Minister himself, David Ben-Gurion.

Its sole neighbor, Café Maurice, had proved to be the perfect place to have lunch, which was ” beautifully prepared and exquisitely served,” my mother wrote, although “the bill was tremendous – 12 lirot for both of us, which was very high for Israel, but perhaps worth it.”

“The place belongs to my parents,” the waiter had told the women in response to their compliments. “They’ve been in Israel for ten years – lucky for me as I was kicked out of Egypt last month.”

“What were you doing there? Your English is excellent,” my mother noted.

“Thank you, I speak five other languages as well. I studied hotel management in Switzerland and then owned some big hotels in Egypt. It was a great lifestyle – working six months a year and travelling around the world for the other six. But it’s all over now – I left with 20 pounds to my name. I’m leaving for Brazil soon. Prospects look good there. Israel’s a lovely place for idealists, but it’s got nothing much to offer me. Even if you have great talents to share, the country can’t cope yet.”

The waiter was part of the “second exodus from Egypt” after World War II, an expulsion that lasted for around 20 years, reaching its peak in the wake of the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Of Egypt’s once 80,000-strong, multicultural Jewish community, 34,000 would immigrate to Israel, the rest leaving for France, Brazil, North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. Forced to leave their property behind, many of these largely middle-class refugees were deported with little more than the clothes on their backs, their travel documents stamped “One way – no right to return.”

On the trip back to Tel Aviv, a frail, elderly lady had squeezed onto the bus, complaining of a sick heart, but no one was prepared to give up their seat. Huddled in the aisle, my mother and Miriam must have watched in disbelief as the mother of a little boy, nonchalantly sitting next to her, vociferously stood her ground, to the loud protestations of those around her.

“I paid for his ticket! He doesn’t have to get up for anyone!”

In a vain attempt to block out what my mother described as the ensuing “lively discussion,” peppered with frequent swearing, the cousins strove to share their impressions of the day.

“Miriam was most enthusiastic with all she saw,” my mother wrote. “Perhaps patriotism makes one so. As for me, I couldn’t work up a spark of enthusiasm or particular pleasure. Pity, I seem to be missing something vital.”

For other stories based on my mother’s diary see: http://jewishliteraryjournal.com/creative-non-fiction/blood-in-the-market/ and http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/2015/08/sordid-beauty.html
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, she previously worked in publishing and taught French to university students. She now serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online and print publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Australian Jewish News, Times of Israel, Eureka Street, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion, as well as The Jewish Writing Project. You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au

Sordid Beauty

Thursday, 20 August 2015

After we lost our mother, my sister and I discovered her diary in a desk drawer. Her diary entries read like a film script, inspiring me to bring them back to life as stories. Today the Australian Jewish News has published one of them, “Sordid Beauty”. You can also read another story from the diary here http://jewishliteraryjournal.com/creative-non-fiction/blood-in-the-market/

Garishly painted faces leered at Naomi as she scurried nervously down Jaffa’s dark, unpaved lanes. She shuddered as strange, shadowy figures darted urgently past the workshops, factories, stores and cafes, where the smoke of nargilehs mingled with a heady aroma of spice and perfume. Police seemed to be on guard everywhere.

Passing a police car, she noticed some prostitutes sitting in the back, mostly young girls in skimpy clothes. “They were waiting to be taken to the station and charged,” she would later note in her diary. She had known of course that prostitutes, both Jewish and Arabic, had long been plying their trade in brothels on the roads between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, but this was the first time she had been so close to the action and her discomfort was evident.

“Let’s go!” she urged her companions.

Reluctantly, Aliza nudged Motke, raised her eyebrows and shrugged wryly. “You’re not much of a Sabra anymore, are you?”

The evening had not been meant to end this way. Aliza, fun loving and capricious as ever, had been keen to hear Aris San, a 17-year-old, short Greek singer, who had recently arrived from Athens and was already making quite a name for himself. Motke had been only too happy to oblige, driving the women to the well-known Arianna nightclub.

The sharp metallic sounds of the bouzouki wafted through the thick, sweltering May night air as they approached the Salonican Jewish-owned Arianna, the bastion of Greek popular music in Israel. Constructed on the ruins of an Arab building, it was not far from Jaffa’s old central bathhouse, which had been converted into another nightclub known as the Hamam.

“The Arianna looks very ordinary from the outside,” Naomi would subsequently record, “but is situated in beautiful surroundings by the sea and close to mosques, towers and ruins of a house – charming indeed”. A few years later, by the 1960s, the Arianna would have become a favorite haunt for army officers and members of the Mapai Government, the forerunner of Israel’s Labor Party. The crowds, which would line up around the Jaffa Clock Tower to get in, included such luminaries as Major General Moshe Dayan and his wife Ruth, who would go there to dance on a Friday or Saturday night.

For Naomi, however, the spell was broken. The chaotic commotion of Jaffa was too much for her. Perhaps Aliza was right … she had become too Australian. At any rate, she preferred Jaffa by day. Hadn’t she and her cousin Miriam battled through the bustling maze of winding alleys just over a month ago to visit the home of the late War of Independence hero Yitzhak Sadeh? She recalled stopping at the end of the street now known as Zichron Kedoshim to see the house that had belonged to the first commander of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the pre-state underground Jewish army, the Haganah.

Perched near cliffs, with panoramic views, it had been easy to picture the charismatic Major General-turned writer, nicknamed HaZaken (The Old Man) while still only in his fifties, hosting his disciples and fellow warriors, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, in the enormous, blossoming garden, with stairs leading down to the sea. Naomi could even visualize the goat that Sadeh had kept tethered to a tree in defiance of then new Israeli laws.

His room was just as he had left it in 1952 – a modest bed and wooden desk, books and photographs, many of him in action against the Egyptians, a collection of military maps and guns, swords and daggers amassed during his military exploits – all as you would expect of one of the founders of the Israel Defense Forces.

That had been a wonderful afternoon, Naomi thought, remembering how they had earlier visited Tamar, lingering over tea and luxuriating in the stunning surrounds.

Tamar had been most hospitable, and the large garden around her Arab limestone villa overlooking the azure sea far below was exquisite, the hilly lawn carpeted with the purple and yellow wildflowers so typical of the Mediterranean coast. Shaded by pine trees and cooled by sea breezes, the stone slabs and fountains taken from the recent excavations in Ashkelon had glistened in the sunny Friday stillness.

“A most ideal place to live,” Naomi would later pronounce. Indeed, situated south of Old Jaffa, Ajami – the neighborhood where Tamar resided – had been founded as a small, wealthy, upper middle class residential settlement by Maronite Christians in the late 19th century under Ottoman rule.

Since the establishment of the Israeli State, however, the roughly 4000 Arabs who had remained in and around Jaffa were now concentrated in Ajami, where many buildings had been demolished. Meanwhile, Tamar’s family had been among the thousands who had settled in homes vacated by the 70,000 or so Arabs who had fled or been displaced.

Ultimately, Ajami would rapidly deteriorate to become a cramped and dilapidated home to the destitute, both Jewish and Arabic … facts that Sabra-turned-outsider Naomi seemed blissfully unaware of during her visit on that day in 1957.

*******

My sister and I never expected to find Naomi’s diary. It was only when we sorted through our late mother’s possessions after her death in July 2013 following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, that we came across the non-descript, navy-bound volume, seemingly long forgotten in a desk drawer.

The diary reads like a film script, relating the experiences of a young woman I did not recognise in the Israel of the mid-1950s. After almost a decade’s absence, she had returned to her birthplace from Melbourne, only to discover that she had become somewhat of a stranger in her own land.

Now, nearly 60 years later, I have decided to bring the yellowed pages filled with my mother’s distinctive script to life once more, recreating stories from her diary, which has become one of my most cherished possessions. For it provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.

A former AJN journalist, Shira Sebban is a Sydney-based writer and editor. She also serves as vice-president of Emanuel School. Her work has appeared in online publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Eureka Street, Times of Israel, The Jewish Writing Project, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion. You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au

Blood in the Market

Wednesday, 1 October 2014
My first creative non-fiction piece has just been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. It is based on my mother’s diary.
Shira Sebban

With a terrible cry, the young man let go of the knife and fell to the ground, blood oozing from his throat.
Naomi froze in horror in the late spring morning sun, jostled by the bustling market around her. A boisterous crowd was starting to mill about the young Arab trader, now stretched prone in the dirt, surrounded by Israeli police.
He had slashed his own throat; that much was clear. But why?
Moments earlier she had passed by an old Arab basket-seller being arrested. Her ears still rang with his yells of protest. Bystanders had explained that he was allowed to sell his products in the main street, but not in the shuk itself.
Normally her Sunday shopping expedition to Shuk HaCarmel (the Carmel Market) was a highlight of her week. She would linger over the colorful, long alley of stalls packed tight with hundreds of vendors on both sides, each vying for attention, hocking their wares by seeing who could shout the loudest. Dazzled by the array of spices, pastries, and other culinary treats, she would stop to purchase the fruits and vegetables her mother had requested, slipping in an extra juicy peach or crisp apple for herself.
Now she noticed two officers wheeling away a cart full of vegetables.
“They’re taking it to the police station!” someone shouted.
Apparently the young trader too did not have a permit to sell in the market.
Her routine shattered, Naomi made her way through the dusty, dry streets of south Tel Aviv to her mother’s home, where she was staying during her visit to her birthplace. She had not finished her shopping but her heart was just not in it anymore.
“I cannot say who is right or wrong,” she later wrote in her diary, “but I do feel that something must be very wrong for such a thing to have occurred. You don’t cut your own throat just for the pleasure of it, or as an idle demonstration.”
Her thoughts were interrupted by the cries of a watermelon seller. “Avatiach al a sakin!” (“Watermelon on the knife!”), he shouted from his perch atop his horse-drawn wagon, challenging potential customers to test the ripeness of the fruit. At least she would bring home something fresh for lunch, she thought, as he sliced off a red glistening portion for her.
Tensions had been rife between the local populations of downtown Tel Aviv and Jaffa long before that memorable Sunday in May 1957. Indeed, Shuk HaCarmel owed much of its growth to the Arab riots particularly of the late 1930s, which were held in protest against Jewish immigration and land transfers. As a result, Tel Aviv’s Jewish population had tried to end its commercial dependence on Jaffa. The violence had continued in the years before the establishment of the State of Israel, Arab snipers shooting at Jewish shoppers from the nearby Hassan BekMosque, the well-known Ottoman-style building, which still adorns the road to Jaffa by the Mediterranean Sea.
Naomi’s family, like many others, had been personally affected by the riots. Her father Berl’s laundry in Jaffa was burned to the ground, leaving him struggling to support a wife and two young children without a source of income.
According to family legend, he had no option but to go down to the harbor, where he had found one ship departing for South America and another for Australia. It was July 1938, the eve of World War II, and fortunately, he had chosen the vessel heading for Melbourne, promising his young family that he would send for them as soon as he could.
War, however, was to intervene, and it would be several years before he could afford to purchase even one ticket for a family member to join him. Meanwhile, back in Tel Aviv, his wife Chana was forced to resort to housecleaning to feed her children.
It was late 1946 before Naomi, by then a teenager, had finally been chosen to make the weeks-long journey to Australia by herself. Now, some ten years later, she was back, living with her mother – the only member of her immediate family still in Israel – in the sunny, whitewashed house her father had built in the south Tel Aviv suburb of Shechunat Brenner. She traveling each week to Jerusalem, where she had won a research scholarship to the Hebrew University.
Having changed considerably during her decade-long absence, the shy and reserved teenager blossomed into an attractive and bright 20-something woman, fluent in English, armed with a Commerce degree, and schooled in Australian social mores and customs. Nevertheless, she had never been able to recover completely from the fears and instability of her childhood, recalling as if it were yesterday, the sirens in the middle of the night, at the first sound of which she and her family would rush to their cousins’ apartment in downtown Tel Aviv, further away from the center of the action.
Now, as she unlatched the low front gate and entered her mother’s simple but neat front yard, the grass freshly mowed and the lemon tree bursting with fruit, her mind wandered back to an incident that had occurred just over a year earlier, in April 1956, which she had also recorded in her diary: “Some people spread panic, saying five Arab terrorists were caught in the market next to us. I was really scared, as that would have meant we were all in real danger. Radio programs didn’t mention anything – probably somebody’s imagination. Still, to be on the safe side, we closed all windows and shutters, bolted doors and stayed inside – horrible feeling.”
That had been a particularly anxious time, when the newspapers were full of alarming reports about shootings and attacks. On one day alone – 7 April 1956 – an Israeli woman was killed when attackers threw hand grenades into her house in Ashkelon in southern Israel; two kibbutz members died when their car was fired upon; and there were other attacks on homes and cars in which one person was killed and three others wounded.
Disheartened, Naomi had written in her diary: “Had some very disturbing news concerning the killing of citizens by Fedayeen-Arab groups. It is a horrible feeling being stabbed in the back when one is least aware.”
Four days later gunmen opened fire on a synagogue filled with children in the farming community of Shafir in southern Israel, killing three children and a youth worker and wounding five, including three seriously.
By “Fedayeen” – a term that has since fallen out of use – Naomi meant Arab terrorists, who infiltrated Israel to strike targets in the years after the establishment of the new State. At their peak, four years earlier in 1952, there had been about 3000 such border incursions, ranging from property destruction to murder.
Hastily, Naomi tried to dismiss the memories, striving to quell the familiar anxiety stirring in the pit of her stomach. She would not tell her mother about this morning’s events in the market. It would only frighten her and life was hard enough… How she wished her Australian papers would come through so her mother could finally leave Tel Aviv and join the rest of the family!
Meanwhile, she brightened, they would go to the movies. A new comedy was showing at the Mograbi Cinema. And perhaps tonight, she would accept Yaacov’s invitation and join him for the munitions exhibition? Even though she was not really interested in ammunition…
My sister and I never expected to find Naomi’s diary. Indeed, for many years, we did not even know of its existence. A non-descript, navy-bound volume, it had been stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which our late mother had worked for so many years. Perhaps she had simply forgotten writing it? Or perhaps she had chosen not to share her youthful passions and agonies, hopes and fears with her daughters… We will never know.
I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having been gradually extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, nearly 60 years later as I turn the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I feel grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew, albeit in a younger form, becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.
At the same time, and especially in the wake of the most recent deterioration in relations between Israel and Gaza, it is sobering to read a personal account of the early trials and tribulations, anguish and vulnerability of the new State of Israel.
The ravages of disease had prevented my mother from recounting her memories long before her death last year. Her diary provides a portrait of her, as I never knew her: a young woman dealing with fears and insecurities so foreign to me. It provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the “Australian Jewish News,” she also serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online publications including “Jewish Daily Forward,” “Times of Israel,” “Jewish Writing Project,” “Eureka Street,” “Alzheimer’s Reading Room” and “Online Opinion.” You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au

Unlocking the Past

Monday, 16 June 2014

My latest piece on finding my mother’s diary… a glimpse into what life was like in Israel in the 1950s
JUNE 16, 2014 · 8:36 AM

by Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)
We did not expect to find the diary. A non-descript, navy-bound volume, it had been stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which our late mother had worked for so many years. Perhaps she had simply forgotten writing it? Or perhaps she had chosen not to share her youthful passions and agonies with her daughters… We will never know.
I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having been gradually extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, as I turned the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I felt grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew, albeit in a younger form, becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.
Written in English in the mid-1950s, when a postgraduate traveling scholarship had taken her back from Melbourne, Australia, to her birthplace of Israel for two years, the diary provides a glimpse of what life was like then for a single, 20-something woman. Attractive and bright, she was courted by a host of mostly unsuitable admirers, although occasionally, one would become the focus of her hopes and dreams. After all, as she notes, her mother had advised her to “secure a future” for herself, urging her to work hard to accomplish her purpose: in other words, “get married”.
Part-travelogue and part-social commentary, the diary reads like a film script, the vividly portrayed characters flitting in and out of various settings. One moment my mother is at a party or concert, describing the dating scene: “Noticed some very good looking men in the audience. Wonder where they usually hide.” The next, she is on a crowded bus, discussing the four young Yemenite girls seated behind her: “probably recent arrivals to the country. Full of joy of life, laughing and continuously talking in high pitched voices, cracking small black seeds and throwing shells on the floor of the bus.”
A picture builds of what life was like in what was then the recently established State of Israel. Many of those she meets are keen to move elsewhere, believing there is more opportunity overseas. A certain unease lurks behind the pages too, and on one occasion, she even has to identify a suspect at the police station after an elderly woman is raped across the street from her home. More often, however, she is scared to walk alone in isolated areas, having heard about “some unpleasant and unfortunate encounters with Arab infiltrators”.
The term, “infiltrator”, with its connotations of menace, danger and evil, has recently been revived to refer to African asylum seekers to Israel. Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when there were several attacks on Israeli settlements, resulting in around 100 casualties and culminating in the “Prevention of Infiltration Law” of 1954, which defined those citizens of surrounding Arab states, as well as Palestinians, who entered Israel illegally, as “infiltrators”, punishable by law, especially if they were armed or had committed crimes against people or property.
Emotions certainly ran high within Israel itself too. On a morning walk through the Carmel market near the family home in south Tel Aviv, my mother describes police arresting an “old Arab who was selling baskets… He was yelling his protests. Bystanders said he was allowed to sell his products in the main street, but not in the market.
“Further on I heard terrible cries, saw a young fellow who had slashed his own throat in protest at having had his cart full of vegetables taken to the police station. Apparently, he too had no permit to trade in the market.”
I had long known that after leaving Israel, my mother had undertaken an epic sea voyage to Italy, also visiting Paris and working in London before deciding to make her way to Montreal, where she would ultimately meet her future husband and my father. Until now, however, I had thought that those often-recounted stories had been buried with her. So imagine my delight to discover that the diary also contains a record of the first part of the journey she undertook by ship from the northern Israeli port of Haifa to Venice via Greece and then on to Milan by train.
Penniless, she could only gaze longingly at the elegant Italian shop window displays, but could “afford nothing no matter how cheap the prices were”. Arriving in Milan and not wanting to stay on her own, she was on the verge of boarding the night train to Paris with nothing to eat bar a box of biscuits, when she finally managed to contact the aunt and uncle of one of her best friends in Tel Aviv, who invited her to stay with them. Successful furriers, my mother writes, they had “made a name for themselves”, their shop frequented by “a good class of clientele”, including members of the aristocracy and movie stars.
Although most of the numerous names that appear in the diary remain unfamiliar to me, the family name of my mother’s good friend stood out. Hadn’t I gone to school with a boy of the same name?
It so happens I had been reminded of that particular family at the beginning of this year – before we discovered the diary — while on holiday in Israel, when I had learned that Michael, my old school friend, was staying in the same hotel. We spent some time catching up and also exchanged contact details.
Now, as I turned the pages of the diary, I realized that the characters so vividly depicted by my mother included various members of Michael’s extended family. My mother’s friend was Michael’s aunt, meaning the Milan furriers must have been his great aunt and uncle. I sent an email to Michael, who immediately put me in touch with the Italian branch of his family and all was confirmed. Even better, his elderly and frail aunt in Tel Aviv could still remember my mother and recalled the deep friendship between various generations of our families.
As it transpires, our familial ties date back at least a century to Poland via Tel Aviv and on to Australia: A tale of friendship and support, harking back to the days of our great grandparents, with the diary key to piecing together the puzzle of just how we are connected.
The ravages of Alzheimer’s disease had prevented my mother from recounting her memories long before her death last year. Her diary provides a portrait of her, as I never knew her: a young, passionate woman searching for intelligent companionship and the man of her dreams. It provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.
Shira Sebban, a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia, worked as a journalist for the Australian Jewish News. She previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She also serves as vice-president on the board of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. You can read more of her work at: http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=13636, as well ashttps://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/category/australian-jewry/ and http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/