She’s at least half a decade older than I. I don’t know her name, but I see her in the early mornings in the locker room. She sighs and says, “You women...,” stressing the Hebrew second person feminine aten, “are lucky that you don’t have varicose veins like me.”
“Which women would that be?” I ask her.
“Anglo women,” she means. American immigrants.
I could tell her that my American-born swimming partner has had two surgeries for varicosities or that an estimated 30 percent of Americans suffer from them. As you have already guessed, this isn’t a conversation about vascular health. Instead, I ask why she thinks we have better legs.
She smirks. “I guess I ran around and worked hard when I was young.”
And we Anglos had our feet up drinking iced coffee? I think, but I don’t say it. “I guess you had a very demanding job.”
She shakes her head. “No, I didn’t work outside of the home.”
“Then you must have had a very large family.”
“No, two children.”
“Aha,” I tell her, not a proud moment, insulted by this absurd attack on my fellow English-speakers and me. “I’ve always had a job and I brought up five children here, so your hard work couldn’t be the cause. It must have been the salt. Maybe you cook with too much salt. Ask your doctor.”
Why does this woman feel free to be so insulting? Why is she looking at my legs? The incident and others took place at the Jerusalem Pool, which closed recently after nearly six decades of providing Jerusalemites Olympic-size swimming lanes, a middle pool superb for teaching kids to swim, and a beloved water slide.
Summer afternoons on the large grass with pizza delivery from neighboring Sababa was the closest we residents of our land-locked capital got to a family beach experience.
Still, not all was rosy within.
In the spirit of intimate personal revelations endangered by the “#me too” movement inundating social media, now that the pool is closed, I feel free to record my least agreeable experiences of the women’s locker room. I’m not comparing them to #me too sexual assaults, but they have their own lasting sting.
There was the happy time I went down two dress sizes on a health-related diet and a woman tells me that I am now so skinny and ugly it’s lucky I have a husband. Another time, a fellow bather recommends plastic surgery to correct what she deems a lack in my figure. Hey, if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, I tell her.
A corpulent swimmer feels free to monitor my swimming friend’s weight, awarding regular kudos or doling out harsh criticism.
Another friend receives the gift of a chlorine bagged-out bathing suit from a slim swimmer.
I’m not making this up.
The acts of toweling, creaming and dressing together create a kind of relaxed camaraderie that can be familiar and pleasant. But the enforced proximity can also be interpreted as license to make comments that would be unthinkable while dressed. A little political correctness would be good here.
The worst was the time I’m teaching two pre-school granddaughters to swim. A much older woman asks them if they are twins, although they’re different ages and sizes. The older one has just undergone a severe illness that has left her bone-thin. I’m thrilled that she is well enough to swim.
The woman sticks a finger out and pointed toward the child’s pitiful rib cage. “Your sister is much better developed than you.”
When I ask her to abstain from commenting on the girls, she rants about her excellent relationships with children and my snobbishness.
These incidents have one useful benefit.
When girls or young women tell me about the hurtful things classmates have said to them, I share my stories. The mean girls will grow up to be mean women, and who would want to be like them? In 2015, author Jennifer Weiner wrote a wonderful essay in The New York Times about the mean girls her grandmother was meeting in a Michigan retirement home. Her grandmother was 97.
The day after the Jerusalem Pool closed I go to swim at the local YMCA. I anticipate a period of adjustment after decades at the Jerusalem Pool. The Y, which opened in 1933 and was the pioneer in heated pools in Jerusalem, is at the cusp of opening a modern sports center, a boon to the city.
Until it opens, I can swim in the historic mosaic pool where my sabra friends learned to swim as children. The first day goes fine.
But on the second day, I join the early morning women’s swim. One disgruntled regular not only screams her disdain for newcomers but actually kicks water at us! The good news is that the lifeguard (thank you, Yechiya) comes down from his chair to reprimand her and apologize for her behavior.
In the ladies’ locker room, the veteran Y-swimmer continues her tirade. She actually says she doesn’t want the newcomer Jerusalem Pool swimmers contaminating her pool with our filth. Talk about territorialism! The motto of the Jerusalem YMCA, the first outside the US and created as a bridge to peace, is to demonstrate a sincere concern for others, for their needs and well-being.
The forthcoming opening of a spanking new sports center in our city, with hundreds of new members starting fresh, is an opportunity to make sure sportsmanship and sportswomanship prevail – perhaps even penetrating the culture of the locker room. As always, I’m an optimist. The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers