The old man walked into my office one day and started telling me about his wife. I could tell by his Yiddish that he was from Romania.
"She has another man. She wears them fancy shoes and disappears for long periods. One day I followed her to the park and I saw her sitting there with him. I know him from the neighborhood - a real bum. He'll drop her in no time. You know how long I've suffered her infidelities? More years than a man your age could imagine. Now I want to live out my last few years in dignity, and I want you to help me enter an old-age home even before the divorce."
I looked at the file in front of me. Until now it had been used by previous social workers for mundane things like kerosene heaters in the winter, blankets and the usual money for a maid who didn't exist. I made a quick calculation from the dates of birth listed on the file and I saw that he was 75 and his wife was 73.
"Tell me, Mr. Bender, why would a women of 73 begin running around? I've never heard of such a thing. Before we do anything, let me come over to the house."
He didn't leave right away. He began telling me that although he wore no skullcap, he was a religious man, and therefore should be believed. It would do me no good to speak to his wife since she would twist everything around, make him sound like a real villain and create confusion. All he wanted was a place in an old-age home and to be free of her.
I explained to him that the Jerusalem Municipality would not pay for an old-age home for him and continue paying rent for her, because the rent was supposed to be for the two of them all the time that they were married. They would first have to obtain a divorce, then their files could be separated and separate arrangements could be made for each of them.
He looked at me with the knowledgeable smile of a grandfather and said, "I know."
I couldn't stop thinking about my old Mr. Bender. What did he mean - I know? The cumbersome and stupid bureaucracy of the social work office took me so long to get the hang of. How could he know?
How interesting fate was. This colorful old Romanian Jew, after having lived so long and seen so much, all of a sudden walks into my office and places his lifelong marriage and remaining years in my hands. Was it only because I was the social worker for the aged in his district? Could fate be so arbitrarily decided by something so mundane as the municipal bureaucracy?
I planned the house call for two days later. I was looking forward to it; I wanted to meet his wife. The next day I didn't have reception hours, but that was of little interest to Mr. Bender. Somehow or other he managed to wrangle his way past the security man at the entrance.
"I have no reception hours today. Who let you in?"
He paid no attention to me. He was frantic. He stammered out to me, "I have proof. Look in this bag I have. Now you will understand everything."
He had with him a plastic shopping bag, like the kind they give away free at supermarkets. From within his precious sack he pulled out a pair of maroon high-heeled shoes.
"Look, she can barely walk and see how she goes strolling in the park. The old whore has gone berserk. She thinks she is young again. Do you have any idea how embarrassing all this is for me? I go to my children's house to sleep because I can't bear being with her. She curses me and laughs at me because I'm impotent and can no longer have sex."
(When he said the word "impotent," he leaned forward toward me so that I could hear his whisper. Nonetheless his voice cracked.)
"I'm 75 after all. What does she expect? Now that you've seen the shoes, please, I beg you, get me a place in an old-age home."
I began to explain that the waiting list for the old-age home was long. I had lonely, neglected, old people waiting for close to a year. A better solution would be to find another place to live; I could arrange the rent for it after the divorce. I told him that nothing could be done on the spot. Even divorces took time, and Jerusalem was not known for fast divorces.
He looked depressed and gazed down at the gaudy old shoes, whose aroma was beginning to reach me. I began to get exasperated; I wanted to get back to my work; he was bothering me.
"Stop showing off the shoes," I told him. "Do you expect me to go to my superiors with these shoes and get you a place in a home? Please go home. I'll go and visit your wife and then we'll talk again. Then I'll talk to my supervisor and we'll see what can be done."
I was really hopeful that there would be no divorce or old-age home. I had enough work and this whole business was cuckoo. Most likely they had been fighting for 40 years and would continue fighting till the end.
He looked somewhat downcast and said, "Thank you, thank you very much. I have no one, only you. If you don't want me to die of embarrassment, sleeping in the streets, you'll have to help me. But you are a real Jew, I can tell."
He walked slowly out of the room. I said nothing. I looked out of the window at the rain outside and imagined the old man walking slowly along. He had come with neither a cap nor an umbrella. I gazed at my desk and tried to remember what I had been doing before the visit of my old Romanian, Mr. Bender. Then I noticed that on the chair by my desk was the plastic bag with the shoes.
The street where they lived was a typical Nahlaot street. If one were not familiar with the neighborhood, it simply didn't exist. Its whole character could be unknown to even the oldest Jerusalemite. This was the Jerusalem of the oriental Jew from Kurdistan, Iraq, Persia, Syria, Yemen, etc. Most had come during the 1940s and '50s, and were now old people left behind by more affluent children, who lived in modern neighborhoods.
I was new at the job, and Nahlaot was a new experience for me. I walked through the neighborhood like a tourist. I had lived in Jerusalem for 12 years, but I had never seen such dwellings or such an assortment of people. The buildings seemed to have been renovated a hundred times. Wretched hovels alongside modernized single homes. Occasionally a new car would pass by - children bringing grandchildren to see the old folks in the old neighborhood.
The Bender couple lived in a basement apartment. I would have never have found it had it not been for an old lady from Kurdistan who warily directed me to the entrance to their apartment. She took me to where "the old Ashkenazim" lived. I had the feeling that she believed me when I told her that I was the social worker. A policeman or bill collector would probably never have found their home at the back of the building.
Mrs. Bender came to the door out of breath. She looked at me with suspicion and then seeing my beard asked if I spoke Yiddish. As I began to answer her in Yiddish, I felt how strange and out of place the language sounded to me in Nahlaot. She hobbled slowly to a chair and asked why I had come. I replied that her husband had come to my office and told me that they had some problems.
"Yes," she said, "we need another apartment. I can't walk easily anymore and the steps are becoming impossible."
Suddenly her husband walked in. After a quick "Shalom" to me and a glance at his wife, they began speaking angrily to each other in Romanian. After a few awkward minutes Mrs. Bender broke off and said in Yiddish, "Let me make you a cup of tea. How many sugars?"
Seeing a chance to get at the heart of things, I accepted her offer. As she went about preparing tea, I chatted with her husband.
"When did you come to Israel?" I asked.
As often happens in my conversations with European Jews of his generation, he began recounting the horrors of the Holocaust. I didn't want to hear. But I listened. I was stuck. We were both Jews and I had no right not to want to listen to tales of Nazis and death. They lived it and I must live it as well, albeit through them.
There was nothing philosophical about Mr. Bender. He didn't spare me the gory details. Listening to him and watching him talk brought the terrible episode home to me. Within I felt a sense of guilt. I had known only relative comfort in my life and I didn't want to be confronted with so much suffering.
She came with the tea. The conversation ended: Hitler stopped by a tea bag and a cup of hot water.
"Mr. Bender, your wife says she wants to move to an apartment without steps and you say you want a divorce."
For a moment they looked at each other disconnectedly, and then they began shouting at one another in Romanian, presumably so that I wouldn't understand.
I acknowledged Mrs. Bender and for the moment she was given the floor, in Yiddish. "Don't believe anything the bum says. He's a crook, a liar. He took the kerosene heater you gave him from the welfare office and sold it in Mahaneh Yehuda. There is no more dishonest a man on earth. You think he ever made a living for me and the children? Like hell! He was always involved in some dirty business. Now that I'm old and can hardly move, all he does is run around all day with shady characters."
Mr. Bender endured all this abuse with a smirk. Now, whether I liked it or not, it was his turn.
"She is a despicable old whore. The children are ashamed of her. She can barely move around. I have to wait on her hand and foot, do all the cooking and cleaning, and she has the audacity to claim I'm never home."
Mrs. Bender was visibly outraged. I was enjoying this less every moment.
"It's a lie," she screamed, "A woman friend of mine, a neighbor, comes in every day and helps me. That lout does nothing. Ask him where the heater is that your welfare office gave him."
Involuntarily we for some reason faced her husband. I felt manipulated. Mr. Bender had temporarily lost his balance. Before I had a chance to stop him, he ran into another room to bring me the heater. What did I care about the heater! Most welfare recipients sold the heaters given them; it was known. He returned with a heater that was so old and rusted it was highly doubtful whether this was the heater given him only a few months earlier. But what did all this have to do with a couple in their 70s getting a divorce? With an old-age home?
Now Mr. Bender was fully reinstated as an honest man, and he was dying to pick up some new points from his rusty heater.
"Go ahead if you want to see the truth and understand why I want a divorce. Ask her about the shoes. She can hardly walk, yet she goes about with those shoes like a young tzotkila to meet men in the park."
Mrs. Bender at first demurred: "Shoes, what shoes? What is this meshuggener talking about?"
Then she opened her mouth and put her fingers to her lips, and said to her husband, "You nut. What the hell did you do with my shoes?"
Now I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to bring them, and I blurted out, "I have your shoes. I'll return them at the next opportunity."
"I haven't worn those shoes for 12 years," said Mrs. Bender.
To which I responded, "Then how did you notice that they were missing?"
Immediately I regretted what I had said. How dare I show myself to be so clever, a petty sleuth for such a stupid thing. As I wallowed in my bloop, I noticed that Mrs. Bender looked mortified, while Mr. Bender embellished himself with a triumphant smile.
The room became oppressive; I had to get out. My excuse was that I had to get back to my office. I left telling them that I would get back to them shortly.
Outside, I thoroughly enjoyed the oriental Nahlaot streets. It was hard to believe that I had just left a Yiddish-speaking hell.
In the Jerusalem that I knew, shoes had to be returned to an old couple from Romania by a novice American social worker. It all made sense somehow. If not to me, then to God in His inevitable plan for the redemption of the Jewish people. Meanwhile there were worse ways to try to make a living.
Mrs. Bender came to me during reception hours to get her shoes. Inadvertently she told me she thought the best thing was a divorce, because her husband was no longer any good for a woman, as he was impotent.
The Benders had a son who lived in Jerusalem, and I arranged to talk to him in the hope of finding out what the truth was and perhaps avoid a divorce. After all, they had been married for 55 years and to watch them separate was such a shame.
The son came to see me at my home, since he had a job where it was difficult for him to take off during office hours. He said that the talk of his mother's philandering was pure nonsense and a symptom of his father's craziness. His father was making life impossible for his mother, and the best thing would be for them to get a divorce. Then his mother would be eligible for a rent subsidy from welfare, independent from any arrangement we made for his father. There was a one-room apartment near where he lived in the Katamonim and he was anxious to have his mother close to him.
Mr. Bender came to see me now and then. I managed to get him on the waiting list for an old-age home in the hope that putting him on the list then would shorten the period he would have to wait after the divorce came through.
They had me write a letter to the rabbinical court, to explain the situation and thereby try to get them to hurry up. As a result I was invited to the court proceedings to give testimony. I found out later that this saved them the cost of getting a lawyer to plead their case.
The panel of rabbis listened to my tale of incompatibility, not without a degree of disbelief. I left out the claims of infidelity and said nothing about the shoes. The couple simply said they wanted to correct a 55-year-old mistake and live out their remaining years apart, but in peace. The elder of the panel of rabbis looked pained. After a short attempt to convince them to try and reconcile their differences, he turned to one and asked in Yiddish - "Ir vult gettin?" (Do you want a divorce?) When he was answered in the affirmative, he then turned to the other and asked the same question. When he received the identical answer he said: "Gget" (divorced).
We left the court separately. For me there was nothing left but paperwork. I was glad to have another case behind me.
Mr. Bender entered the municipal home for the aged which was close to my home, hence I occasionally saw him on the street or when I visited the home. Another resident of this home was an old-time Jerusalemite called Ya'acov Greenbaum. Since there were not many Yiddish speakers in the home, and, for that matter, not many men, Ya'acov and Mr. Bender became good friends. One Friday night Ya'acov brought Mr. Bender to pray at the synagogue I regularly attended and I discovered their friendship. Mr. Bender profusely proclaimed me as his savior to Ya'acov.
Time went by. Let's say half a year. Then one day I saw old Ya'acov Greenbaum waiting for a bus at the bus stop near the old-age home and offered him a lift. After greetings and thanks were exchanged, I asked him about my old client, Mr. Bender. I never could picture him conforming to the discipline of a communal home.
"Oh, he left and went back to his wife," he answered.
"What! How could he?" I asked. "They got a divorce."
"Listen to me," says Ya'acov, "I'll let you in on a secret: They were never married. They met after the war and stayed together. When they came to Israel, they posed as a married couple for convenience sake. They said their marital papers were lost in the havoc of the Holocaust. They made up the whole story of needing a divorce and went about obtaining it so they could get married according to Jewish law. You see, living a lie is one thing but dying a lie is another."
"But why," I asked, "didn't they just go and get married? Why all the song and dance?"
Old Ya'acov looked at me with a smile. "They didn't want their children
to know that they were born out of wedlock. They therefore had to first
get divorced in order to get married."
If ever while wandering the streets of Jerusalem I run into the son, I won't say anything.