Asphalt & raspberry juice
Asphalt and Raspberry Juice
A story by Nadia Greenberg
No Words (1998)
Clinging to the walls of my home in Moscow,
writing Russian thoughts in Hebrew.
Inhaling memories and exhaling love.
Choking up on momentary bliss.
It is so pathetic trying to describe
resonances of the past with present words.
These days it is a bit sad being a poet,
a play writer, a novelist… no one reads.
Smelling a puddle of herring brine
is vile to you, to me- sacred.
Comparing my soul to date and spruce
is real- to me. To you, it is corny.
Clinging to the wall and being silent with the lord.
No thinking of anything, no reading Psalms.
I am not answering, god is not asking.
Longing cries with no words,
It was my first flight ever. I was sitting pressed against the window, looking over the rapidly approaching checkered land map. I was asking myself in which square my new home will be. The scent of rainy Moscow was still in my nostrils. May is a very cool and rainy month, and that first rain scent seeps into every particle of the air. I was wondering if every country has its own scent. All people and animals smell different from one another, even homes and furniture. Therefore the scent must change after flying thousands of kilometers. And which will it be? The scent of oranges?.. Of the sea?
I got off the plane, gripping my mother’s hand tightly. Cheers of “Hevenu shalom alehem” (Israeli folk song) were coming from the speakers of the huge El Al plane. I was bundled up in two sweaters, wool pantyhose, and a thick coat as I dipped in the smothering scent of boiling asphalt. I asked my mother if I could at least take off the coat. “Take it off”, mother replied quickly. “Take off the sweater as well. Come, I’ll help you, or you’ll get tangled again. It’s hot here. They said it’s always hot here”.
In Ben Gurion, after they explained that from now on we are “new immigrants”, they treated us with triangle cheese sandwiches and raspberry juice. Of course, my joy of hearing “raspberry” disappeared after the first sip. I found no relation between the flavor and scent of the fleshy raspberry that grows red in my aunt Alla’s Dacha bushes to that pinkish drink, kindly served to us by the smiling flight attendants. To this day, when I hear the name Ben Gurion, I can smell the sticky and overly sweet scent of “raspberry juice” and disappointment (in Israel, concentrated syrup drink is referred to as raspberry juice). When we were asked where to go, the reply was prepared. There is no doubt that we did not fly so far away for the scent of asphalt. “Erusalim”, mother blurted out, and my older brother, the fifteen year old linguist, corrected with some irritation, “to Yerushalaim (Jerusalem) please”.
The address that acquaintances of mother’s acquaintances left for us at the airport was Jerusalem, Ramot Gimel, and a street name we could not read. To the light of the glaring Jerusalem stones, the service cab driver, Moshe, unloaded our luggage, mumbled the standard “Welcome”, and drove away. The three of us were standing in the sun. It was thirty five degrees centigrade. We stared at the luggage that included three bags and a single suitcase that contained our former lives. No one was waiting for us there. Our strong and decisive mother suddenly seemed pale, lost, and so weak. Fifteen minutes later, a brownish woman came out. Her hair was wrapped in a scarf like in a remote Russian village. She offered us water and bananas. The friendly scent of bananas encouraged mother to ask, in a mixture of English and Russian, where is it that we are supposed to go to. While the woman was trying to give the directions to the written address using her hands, I noticed a group of girls my age. They were brownish as well and they were wearing their mothers’ skirts. Those skirts were undoubtedly taken from adult women’s closets. What girl would wear it so long? The girls examined my pink pants and polka dot tank top (such a relief, after pantyhose and two sweaters!) and giggled. A few minutes later a group of sweaty boys walked by. They were wearing black, wide rim hats, like the ones from New Year’s costumes. As they walked by me, they went silent and looked down. I was never shy around boys, but suddenly, I felt embarrassed. I suddenly realized that something is really wrong with me in their eyes, and they, that are weird and strange, are perfectly fine. The brownish woman left and returned with a plastic cup, filled to the top, with “raspberry juice”. Its scent violently forced away the remnants of the banana scent. I was forced to drink it in front of the lady’s stern look toward my bare white shoulders. “Thank you”, I mumbled the Hebrew word that I have already learned in Moscow, and added “I am olim hadashim (new immigrants)”.
Three months later, acquaintances of acquaintances of mother’s acquaintances informed us of a beautiful community village named Psagot. Trailers were brought in to Psagot, and are sold to new immigrants for practically nothing. Mother explained it would be nice to have our own home, but since it is a community village, we have to become compatible community members. That means to be religious. Opposed to mother, my brother and I were thrilled at the idea. To us being religious meant to finally be real Jews. My brother had already learned to tie Phylacteries and befriended Chabad (hasidic sect) people in the area. As faith goes, we already had it.
In school, as early as the second grade, they explained to us that Gagarin (Soviet cosmonaut, the first man to journey the outer space) went to outer space and no god was there. However, after the death of my father, I could no longer accept this void in outer space. That is why I made up a god with a moustache, beard, and father’s smile. I would imagine that he is the one holding, in his huge hands, the snow globe of the enormous cosmos. In it, scattered like snowflakes, are stars, planets, and spaceships with all sorts of Gagarins that simply cannot see the divine father through the thick glass. For me, being religious was a way to get father back. Father that always had the nice scent of tobacco from his pipe. The same engraved pipe that surely contributed to his cancer. An amazingly beautiful instrument of death. And what all that meant to my brother? I do not know. I never asked him, and he never told. He wears a kippah to this day.
In Psagot, I rushed to become one of those girls that “wear their mothers’ skirts”. I also made sure my sleeves reached my elbows and began shying from boys. I have to be modest and obviously, what is there to brag about? The utter lack of money? The trailer that leaks in the winter and smells of fresh mold? The cloths that were taken from the village storage and my classmates recognize as their old cloths? My stammered Hebrew? No, you must be modest. My brother and I made a pact. On Saturday we would terrorize mother. She was not yet accustomed to refrain from turning on the bathroom light (why, it is inconceivable that the light will be on throughout the entire Saturday, who will pay the electric bill?), heating the food, let alone listen to the radio! Within a year, we would not even let her tear toilet paper. But most of our attempts to teach mother not to perform the 39 major kinds of work forbidden on the Sabbath were futile.
That is how I became a proud settler. A “biblical sandals” (plane brown sandals), Indian skirt, and a plaid flannel shirt –gave me the true look of a religious Zionist girl. Only a few things were gnawing at the pinnacle of joy. The Muezzin songs coming up from Ramallah made my heart cringe with its strange trills. The busses did not come by often. Also the stones that were thrown at the windows of the rides I would take to get to my painting class in Jerusalem. What amazed me was the similarity between the boys throwing the stones and that group of hat wearing boys I remembered from my first day in the country. Both are brownish, both surely do not like me. The one thing the stone throwers were better at was that they did not look down. On the contrary, they looked straight into the smashing window.
A few years later, at the end of August, my muscovite grandmother, my heavenly father’s mother, passed away. That released a sigh of relief from my mother. Mother announced she must fly to Moscow for the funeral, and that my brother and I will stay alone for a week since we are grown up. “Nadianka, funerals are no place for an emotional girl like yourself”, she said. “And what will you eat there with you being kosher? And by the way, the funeral is on Saturday, just so you know”.
That night I remembered the scent of asphalt, wet from summer rain, and began crying loudly with my eyes shut, as if in my sleep. The next morning I relentlessly hugged my mother with tearing eyes. This cruel and well calculated charade forced my mother to take me with her.
This was my second flight, a head plunge into the past. But as of the moment we landed, we have discovered that the past is gone. That after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow had buried itself in plastic surgeries and mental renovation. A few days after grandmother’s funeral, which I did not attend, I went to my first school. I wanted to meet my classmates, and I thought they would be excited to see me. I imagined myself in their eyes as a real representative from abroad. And so, I met them at the school yard. I was wearing a long skirt and “teddy bear” coat (the Israeli military thick coat). The complete symbol of Zionism. Some of them did not even recognize me, some refused to remember me, and some looked at me with compassion. I examined them: tall boys and girls wearing high heels, miniskirts, and make up for the new school year. No remnant of the uniform, the proud pioneer ties (red ties worn by the communist youth), the equality we were educated towards and never came to be. My old friend hugged me and asked with concern, “How are you doing there? There’s constant war there. I heard they slaughter people in Jerusalem. Maybe you should come back?”
I asked myself if I had stayed, would I become one of these glamour girls. Have I become what I am only because of where I live? How much of my new image was my choice and how much of it was my wish to stop being “different”? Those questions and doubt kept bothering me even when I returned to our trailer that looks over the strange and oh so familiar view of Ramallah. I did not know the answer. All I knew was that I no longer have a past and that the present is some kind of game I played well without believing. I have always been a good liar.
Nearly ten years after setting foot in the holy land, years of saving and working too hard for a widow with two kids, my mother could finally afford to buy an apartment in Jerusalem. In the same year I went to study theatre in sin city, Tel Aviv. The same city that in the eyes of the Psagot settler I used to be was as far away as New York and Amsterdam. I decided that the theatre is the only place you can juggle your identities without being considered a multi-faced liar. The only place in which, me being foreign would be an advantage. The only place in which, when I close my eyes and feel the scents of the past, I would not be mocked. I would be praised for my control of sense memory of the Stanislavski system.
I have been living in south Tel Aviv for over six years. For twelve years I have refrained from visiting the mountain village in which I grew up. Afraid the Muezzin songs will take me captive as the siren song and I will not be able to go back. The questions and doubts still percolate in me. When mother visits and asks which dish scrubber is for dairy, and I say “nevermind”, she sighs heavily. By the time she got a grasp of the Jewish laws, there was no one to appreciate it.
When I step out of my home, I see Africa, Thailand, The Philippines, China, and Romania. There is no need to fly anywhere. You can even buy frozen Russian raspberry in the supermarket nowadays. In my south Tel Aviv that always smells of dense air, garbage, and boiling asphalt I feel at home. Here, everybody is foreign.