The block

The open area under the block in which Vlad lives is filled with large wailing women. They sit on white plastic chairs between the pillars that support the crumbling building, clapping their folded hands over their chests in grief, lamenting the tragic and sudden loss of the father of my friend Vlad.  In the cultural code of Jewish Kazakh women they are all dressed alike, wearing finely decorated blue or black summer dresses and dark patterned scarves to cover their heads. I am noticeably out of place in my jeans and my genes, dwarfed by their heavy bodies and swollen legs which show out beneath mid calf hemlines. They are all, each and every one, magnificent with heavy set faces which express a lifetime of experience; expulsion, war, famine, migration, poverty, loss, grief and suffering. These are not women who care about carbs, these are women who work two jobs a day to pay for their children''s ''designer'' jeans and tobacco habits.
I have noticed these heavy set women with crooked backs sitting three to a bench outside these ''blocks'' on hot summer nights down the main road of Pardes Hanah. When the air inside their small apartments is unbearably still and the smell of fried food lingers, even though the street offers no relief from the heat, there is nowhere else to go. No doubt they are swapping womens remedies for ailments and sharing their common sufferings. I long to listen and to understand.
Now the men site separately in small groups talking quietly while the songs of lamentation fill the neighbourhood like a call to prayer, bringing the entire community through the gates and into the outdoor courtyard where trestle tables have been set up for the meal that will follow the funeral.  
I walk up the six flights of stairs into Vlad''s apartment to see if I can help. Two heavy set Kazakh women stand in the small kitchen while a third one with swollen legs stirs a camp size pot over an outdoor gas cooker that has been set up in the hot living room. The dining room table has been turned into a preparation table and is covered with potatoes, pots, plastic cutting boards and knives. Vlads girlfriend is at the sink washing oversized alluminium pots and strainers. When she sees me, she takes the opportunity to offer me and all the working women a cold cola which of course there is no refusing. ''Drink Rebecca, drink'' she says in Hebrew, mimicking the ways of her ancestry without even noticing. It is strangely out of place because she is only sixteen, but it is she who will clean the apartment and carry the heavy pots of food up and down the six flights of stairs and take care of her boyfriend''s family for the next seven days, while they mourn the loss of their father and husband, and then she will go to school.
I watch the largest and loveliest of the women cut fatty beef ribs into large chunks and cover them with salt, paprika and prunes while another adds a can of tomato paste to a large pot of boiling potatoes. I tell her my grandfather was Russian and she says she feels that she recognises me from somewhere. She asks if I live in the neighbourhood.  No, I don’t I say but I recognise her too. She could be my grandmother. Any of these women could have been my grandmothers, and in a way I feel like all of them are. I am comfortable with them like I have known them for a thousand years. I watch as she adds the potatoes to the meat and lifts the heavy pot to the gas burner. I tell her my name is Rebecca and her face lights up. She tells me something about a ''black and beautiful Rebecca'' but I don’t know what she is talking about, perhaps her daughter, perhaps her grandmother, perhaps a character from a Kazakh Jewish legend I know nothing about.
After the funeral we return to the block. The long rows of tables have been set with plates of fruit, heavily salted battered fried fish, soft boiled potatoes, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bread and crackers. There is a bottle of Vodka on each table, which my friend says will ''mess with your head'' if you drink it, so I don’t.
Now it is the men''s turn. Blessings are said over the various types of food, and symbolisms are explained. The egg represents the life cycle and we are all instructed to say as many blessings as possible because the angel of ''death'' hovers.  Then the meat is served with bowls of rice and I devour as much of this simple food as I can. My mother always said we come from peasant stock; this is my food, and these are my people. The women sitting next to me turn to me frequently throughout the meal and ask me why I am not eating. I show them my bowl full of bones and they nod in satisfaction before returning to their communal conversations in Kazakh.
A young man opens his prayer book, stands up and begins to lead the tefilla but not before demanding silence from all. He bangs his hand down on the table and the women are quiet for a few moments. His prayers are important, no doubt, but the real spiritual work of the day has already been done. These large Kazakh women carry the complete cultural mythical, spiritual and physical load of their entire community. Their sobbing and shrieking, their singing of Kazakh songs of lamentation are the spiritual meat of this rite of passage and they know it in their bones. Again he bangs his hand down on the table, his young spiritual ego demanding respect, and again the women humor him for a few moments before starting up again. He is in battle against the entire force of Jewish Kahzak Matriarchy - there is not a women in the group whos heartfelt grief alone would not force open the gates of heaven; let him bang his hand on the table all he likes, to them he is just a young man. In time he will understand. Death will teach us all that it is the heart alone that moves the heavens.