Tel Aviv memories: My Aunt Etke

While food preparation went on, the kitchen looked like a battlefield. But when the work was done, it resembled a dollhouse.

Everyone should have an aunt like my aunt Etke (may she rest in peace). Then life might have the taste of an apple pie: sweet-scented and slightly crunchy, like the kind my aunt produced in her small kingdom of a kitchen. On a slab of marble no bigger than 50 x 20 cm she breathed magic into common Jewish dishes: chicken soup, cholent, knishes, gefilte fish, chopped liver, tzimmes, strudel, prune compote, Mandelbrot (almond cookies), and an assortment of cakes. While food preparation went on, the kitchen looked like a battlefield. But when the work was done, it resembled a dollhouse. Doilies and lace napkins covered every counter space, and the floor shone like a mirror. So did all the terrazzo floors of the three-room apartment, which were scrubbed twice a day in the summer and left to cool. Air conditioning was unknown. My aunt Etke's apartment was not much different from the apartments of most Eastern Europeans in Tel Aviv: the living room also served as a dining room, with a large table in the middle. Against one wall stood the sofa, usually a convertible day bed; against another, a sideboard containing the family's service (set of dishes) and other heirlooms. On top of it, a selection of family photographs, and a vase, filled with flowers on Shabbat and holidays. Family and friends always gathered around the center table, a custom brought over from Europe, so different from the upholstery and coffee table set-up popular today. No wonder that food was central on that center table. So were conversation and games, in the days when there was no TV. My aunt Etke was my mother's younger sister. Both were natives of Slonim, a town on the border between Russia and Poland well known for its lively Jewish community. One day two young brothers arrived there from Warsaw to work as carpenters. They found lodging in the sisters' home, and eventually married them. The two young couples decided to emigrate together to Palestine. There, the brothers opened a carpentry workshop. While my mother loved to read, my aunt proceeded to make housekeeping an art. Her whole life revolved around her two children and her kitchen. The beauty of the kitchen I've already described; her children's good looks are captured in photographs in my possession. They were the best-dressed kids in Tel Aviv, outshining the rest of us in their exquisite attire. While bestowing boundless love on her children, Etke did not neglect her husband, who was a strict and silent provider. Many a time she complained to me privately about his tightfistedness, which drove her to some strange stratagems. We all knew her love of luxury and her generosity in showering gifts on relatives and friends. She managed to put away a knippel (nest egg), saved from her weekly allowance, for buying presents without his knowledge. The Persian rug on the floor, which she convinced him was synthetic, was secretly paid off over many years. My aunt Etke had many friends, who would all vie for invitations to her table. But most of them vanished when her circumstances took a turn for the worse. It didn't happen all at once. But before long, the sweet-scented apartment remained empty and sad. Both children left for the States and got married there. Etke saw them and the grandchildren once a year, at the most. Her busy hands no longer had reason to stir the pots. But she was a special kind of woman, and her inner sadness did not overcome her zest for life. For as long as she could walk, she visited the city's open Carmel market regularly, filling her baskets with fresh fruit and vegetables and carrying them home on the bus to produce the best possible meal for her husband when he came home from work. She took in a lodger. His name was Yefet, and he was a parrot. She let him fly all over the apartment and taught him outrageous expressions in Yiddish. When Yefet died of old age, she replaced him with Yefet the Second. When Etke herself passed away, Yefet the Third was there to mourn her death.