Flora’s immigrant absorption

My first Jerusalem neighbors paved the way for me – and my two roommates at the time – to get acquainted with this country and eventually make our lives here.

September 17, 2010 12:22
Flora Yehiya, left, at bat mitzva

311_bat mitzva. (photo credit: Barbara Sofer)

Flora and Moshe Yehiya, whose festive 80th birthday party I attended recently, were my first Jerusalem neighbors. They lived with their 10 children in a one-bedroom apartment that was only partly above ground. On my junior year abroad from the University of Pennsylvania, I lived upstairs with two roommates whom I’d met in ulpan, both by chance from Philadelphia. So we all came from the City of Brotherly Love, and our rental was in the neighborhood called Ahva, which means about the same.

My roommates had just graduated from Columbia and Bryn Mawr, so we had a fair amount of book knowledge among us. We were short on understanding of local mores, cultural savvy and Hebrew. The three of us had bolted the nearly-completed dorms we were assigned to in Givat Ram for what we called “real life in Israel.”

In those pre-Internet decades, you paid for a peek at a list of available flats at Dahaf on King George Avenue. A potential landlord spotted us there and offered us flat, up Rehov Strauss, past the Edison movie theater on Rehov Yeshayahu, left on Pri Hadash and then down Yitzhak Sholal. Large rooms, high ceilings, airy. From the narrow back porch, I watched hassidim hurrying to something called a shatnez factory. “Like a student in Paris,” I thought.

We took it. We dispatched the rental contract by Taxi Aviv to Tel Aviv, where my sabra cousin Mordechai, an attorney, asked about the heating. We hadn’t thought about it, nor the curious arrangement that required going out the front door to reach the bathroom, shower and kitchen. None of us had ever been to Israel in the winter.

THE TASK fell to Flora to teach us how to run outside and stop the kerosene truck when the bell rang, how to fill a jerry can, how to fill and light the space heaters. She and Moshe knew no English, except for Moshe’s single phrase, pronounced with a charming Baghdadi accent: “How are you?”

He had served in the Palmah and the young IDF. On Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar he fell in love with the cerulean-eyed Flora from Fez.

“His parents objected,” Flora told in an early conversation when we could finally understand each other. “They looked down on Moroccans, thought I carried a knife.”

She’d never learned to read, and when her French sister’s letters arrived we sat in the Jerusalem sunshine on the steps and I read them aloud to her.

Ahva was a mixed neighborhood in those days – the extreme religious were the minority. Most were working people, like Moshe, who was part of the building crew in Ramot Eshkol and French Hill. But it was changing.

The first demonstrations against miniskirts marched through our street. (Only years later did we wonder if we were their target.) A flamboyant neighbor named Batya, married to the neighborhood barber, was attacked when her taxi dropped her off on Shabbat. The Yehiya boys often traded blows with sidelock-wearing neighbors.

A delegation of women arrived to respectfully request that we remove our laundry from the clotheslines by Friday afternoon so it wouldn’t be displayed on Shabbat. They were also concerned about the mixed group of male and female students who sang Shabbat songs at our apartment during Friday night dinners. We were startled that we were being so closely observed by neighbors who would dare question our behavior.

Flora was the cultural interpreter for us, teaching us to how to cope in a changing neighborhood. Flora and Moshe told us how theirs was the first TV in the neighborhood, and how the same neighbors who harassed them had crowded into their living room-bedroom-dining room (it was all one room) during the Six Day War. They had a record player, too, and their single single, Aris San’s “Boom Pan,” was played hundreds of times each week, so that we dreamed to the newly acquired Greek sound.

Moshe donned pajamas when he came home and worked out with homemade weights. Flora took us to pay a shiva call when a soldier in the neighborhood died in the War of Attrition. Leah, the woman with one hand, was eager to sell us a self-embroidered halla cover. (I still use it.) When I contracted the Semitic equivalent of Montezuma’s revenge, Flora found time while caring for her own double-digit family to nurse the American upstairs back to health with Iraqi rice and Moroccan mint tea. David, Rosa, Avraham, Herzl, Esther, Rahel, Yehiya (yes – Yehiya Yehiya), Natan, Sigalit and Ilan, and Barbara, too.

A COUPLE of Flora life lessons: She made me aware of my cultural tendency to make a big deal of life’s small trials. Kasheh, the Hebrew word for “hard,” is an early acquisition in ulpan. I can remember standing in Flora’s dark apartment where the mattresses were piled during the day and her stopping me. “Troubles are inevitable. Stop complaining. Don’t say it was hard, say it turned out well.”

One of my roommates came upstairs puzzled one day. There was a word Flora used frequently that we hadn’t learned – ta’anug. Flora, living underground with 10 rowdy children, on Moshe’s modest salary as a day laborer in the building trade, trying without reading skills to shepherd her kids through the no-frills Israeli school system, she taught us the word for great pleasure!

Flora and Moshe’s 10 children all live here. Seven are married with children, and several are grandparents, too. The baby born while we lived upstairs is a widow; her husband was murdered in an intifada bus bombing. They’re as religiously diverse as the old neighborhood. Several are as observant as the neighbors they scuffled with. Others have identified more with secular Israel. Still others are what was a norm called “traditional,” where a Shabbat dinner might be followed by TV. None of the children has a family as large as their parents’.

THE JOINT birthday party, organized by daughter Esther, takes place in a modest Jerusalem hall called Casablanca. Flora and Moshe are still a handsome couple at 80. I hug Flora. Moshe rises to greet me. “How are you?” he says.

The room is scented with the cinnamon and cumin of Moroccan cooking. I once visited Morocco and was disappointed with the food in the kosher restaurant. “All the good cooks left when the Jews moved to Israel,” I was told. The best kosher Moroccan food in the world is right here in Jerusalem.

A son makes a speech I can tell Flora doesn’t love. Another child is conspicuous by his absence. Troubles are inevitable. A stunning granddaughter who has her grandmother’s eyes has made a charming PowerPoint history of their lives – the fair Flora and the muscular Moshe in their native lands, as a young couple, with their growing family, at weddings, as grandparents. “Ta’anug,” says Flora.

My roommates and I are all still living in Israel. We managed to establish careers and families and today we’re all grandmothers. That’s 100 percent for the Flora method of immigrant absorption.

In this season of reviewing the year that has passed and facing the new one, hers are life lessons that deserve our review.

The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of modern Israel and its people.

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