A ghost in Givatayim

Superstitions, unexplained phenomena, eerie energies – sometimes the desire to be scared is as much fun as it is freaky.

Givatayim (photo credit: SARAH LEVI)
(photo credit: SARAH LEVI)
So, if I’m to trace this story’s chain of events right from the very beginning, I would say it began when my ultra-Orthodox neighbors hired that god-awful Bukharan singer to liven up the birthday or bar mitzva or whatever it was they were celebrating in their garden. At first I found the zany slightly- Persian, slightly-Slavic tunes that rumbled from across the road to be fascinating, but after a couple of hours my fiancée and I unanimously agreed that we’d rather be hearing a raccoon with pulmonary insufficiency play an untuned tuba solo, and sought refuge in the neighborhood bar.
There we met, perchance, a couple of friends I knew from ulpan. We sat together, populated the table with beers, and promptly started shooting the breeze. Now, I’ve known my wife-to-be, Sivan, for just over three years. But that night, the whimsical nature of conversation and the looseness of tongue that comes with drink proved that no matter how well you think you know someone, there will always be stories you’ve never heard.
And the reason Sivan had never told this story was because it continues to scare her to this day.
NINE YEARS ago, Sivan rented a room in an apartment in Givatayim. She lived with another girl, who was a bit withdrawn and superstitious, but also warm and caring. They became good friends.
One day she confided to Sivan that she wasn’t sleeping well; every night, when she got under the sheets, she felt a presence in her room that unsettled her.
Eventually, the flatmate turned for advice to her family rabbi. When she told him where she lived, the rabbi said she had to get out of that apartment, because something bad had happened there.
Before leaving, she pleaded with Sivan not to stay, worried that something might happen to her. But Sivan wasn’t entirely convinced by this spiritual hooey and, more to the point, she had her eye on her flatmate’s room, which was twice the size of hers and had a jacuzzi.
The flatmate left, Sivan moved into the empty room and soon regretted it. She suffered the same sleeplessness as the girl before her, and felt the room did indeed contain a presence she couldn’t put her finger on. Restless, Sivan turned sheepishly to a friend, whom we’ll call H.
After hearing Sivan’s story, H. was befuddled.
Sivan had always been a rational person. Why was she talking about bad energies all of a sudden? She went to consult with her own rabbi, Shulamit.
H. had no more than told her spiritual adviser that her friend in Tel Aviv was feeling bad energies in her room, when Rav Shulamit interrupted: “Your friend does not live in Tel Aviv, she lives in Givatayim. She is called Sivan, she lives on the first floor of [address] and she has to get out of that house immediately.”
H. passed the message onto Sivan, but she wasn’t yet willing to leave. And then one night, Sivan stirred awake in the wee hours and saw, standing at the foot of the bed, a middle-aged woman with a black bob haircut and a blue polka-dotted dress. She was angry, her face a distorted mask of outrage and confusion. When she spoke, she didn’t mouth the words, and the message rang not in Sivan’s ears, but rather emerged in some deep part of her understanding: “Who are you? What are you doing in my room?! Get out of my house!” That was the last night Sivan spent in the apartment. The next day she packed her stuff and moved into her parents’ place, not caring that she’d paid for two more weeks. The next time she saw H., Sivan told her about the apparition. H.
became ashen and confessed that she hadn’t relayed everything the rabbi had told her. “The reason she said you had to leave that apartment,” H. said, “is because someone was murdered in there.”
THE NEXT day, I woke up with a hangover.
I smiled as I vaguely recalled the ghost story Sivan had told in the bar. I stumbled out of bed, heavy-lidded and groggy-headed, and grabbed my phone.
The first thing I noticed was a Facebook message from the Jerusalem Post Magazine editor. She was thinking a month ahead, to the October 30 (pre-Halloween issue), and asked if I’d “stumbled upon any Israel-related ghost stories” that could be “spooky and fun” for the mag. “Funny you should ask,” I wrote back, and briefed her on the previous night’s tale.
As a rule, when you pitch a story and your editor replies “OMG,” you know you’ve got the job. I’m not even sure why I took it. Perhaps it was the last dregs of moonshine in my system, or maybe even the excitement of having the exact story my editor was looking for – but now I had a problem. I mean, it’s a good story, but how do I go about writing a ghost story? Because – I wouldn’t say this to Sivan, but – ghosts don’t exist, right? The tone would probably have to be blithe and jokey, but still the most bothersome question in journalism hung in the air: What’s the angle? TO MAKE his horror stories more plausible, the 19th-century author Guy de Maupassant usually gave them a matryoshka (nested doll) structure. That is, “I, the narrator, walked into a bar and met this peculiar fellow who was drunk as a skunk and told me this creepy story that had happened to his cousin.” By making the narrator not the protagonist of the story, but rather the messenger who heard it from someone else, we find the tale easier to digest; stories become deformed or exaggerated when passed from mouth to ear – even more so when they are told under the influence.
So, having heard Sivan’s story over drinks in a bar and now being asked to pen it, I had inadvertently become a Maupassant narrator. Voilà, I had an approach. Quote the story, relay the facts...? I could do that! By the time Sivan woke up, I frenziedly broke the news to her. Over a heavy hangover breakfast, we agreed the best way to start was to find out if there had really been a murder in that building.
So, how to know if there had been a murder? I didn’t even know where to start – I’m not a crime reporter. But that’s it! I needed a crime reporter. So I contacted this paper’s very own Ben Hartman on Facebook and had the following very awkward online exchange: “Hi Ben! How’s everything? I wanted to ask you something for an article I’m writing: Is it possible to find out whether a murder took place in an apartment with only the address? I’d appreciate if you have any ideas. Thanks and chag sameach!” “Hey man. Not sure about researching a murder like that; the exact address is almost never written. Which one? Maybe it’ll ring a bell.”
“It was in [address]. The victim was a woman,” I hesitated a moment before hitting Enter, and added “allegedly.”
“When?” “No idea, that’s part of the problem.
But it has to be at least 10 years ago.”
“Oh. Well, if there was an indictment it would be written there probably. Who was the victim?” Feeling that this was starting to rank high among the most absurd exchanges I’d ever had, and being too embarrassed to admit my only lead was an angry ghoul, I conceded: “Don’t know the name, just that it’s a woman. I guess this was a really long shot.”
I clacked my laptop shut. So much for that. But another idea came to mind: perhaps the landlord would know if something happened in her building. It had been nine years, though, and Sivan had lost the landlord’s number. We decided to pay the apartment a visit.
Givatayim is this sleepy mostly residential suburb, originally a tiny worker’s town erected in 1922 on two small hills east of Tel Aviv –“Givatayim” means “Two Hills.” Nowadays, this small city has outgrown its name and has spread over two additional hills, and despite having some budding nightlife, it is mostly known for being as interesting as watching paint dry.
We hopped off the bus and Sivan pointed at her former abode. It was, in all honesty, the most bog standard suburban apartment block you could get.
A dull foursquare building the color of used cat litter. We climbed the stairs to the first floor and rang the doorbell. A confused-looking lad opened. My wifeto- be explained that she used to live here and was looking to contact the landlord. He didn’t look very convinced but let us in anyway.
As he browsed his contacts for the phone number, Sivan’s eyes gleamed with nostalgia as she noted most of the furniture in the living room was the same as it had been nine years ago.
When I asked her in which room the incident took place, she pointed to a closed door. The kid, visibly relieved we weren’t trying to stab, scam or evangelize him, chirped in: “The girl who lives there is out now. I’m afraid you can’t go in; she locks the door every time she leaves.” For some reason, that made us both feel a bit creeped out.
Back home, we contacted the landlord.
The new tenant had told us she was abroad, so we decided to write to her on Whatsapp. Assuming she wouldn’t want stories published about murders taking place in her properties, we sent a message explaining the lighthearted nature of the article, assuring her that we wouldn’t indicate the address. Her reply was brief and adamant: “I don’t want to be interviewed. I don’t want anything published whatsoever! And there was no murder in that apartment!” I was stumped. Sivan claimed the reply was out of character, and the uncalled- for exclamation marks gave us reason to doubt the veracity of what she said. But it wasn’t proof. The article’s submission date was approaching and this wasn’t going anywhere. We had also arranged to go on a vacation soon.
I had to get information for the story at all costs, and the mounting pressure led me to make a desperate decision.
Sivan hadn’t spoken to her flatmate in nine years. It took a few days to track down her new phone number.
The plan was for Sivan to give her a ring and contrast their experiences in the room. It turned out to be a moving encounter; the two friends were happy to hear from each other. The flatmate, now married and with two kids, remembered many strange things about the house: “I really think something terrible happened in that room. Someone told me the landlord bought the property cheaply because something bad had happened there. I don’t know what it was, but it felt terrible. Every night I felt as if someone got into bed with me.”
After hanging up, Sivan said the phone call had made her remember details she had forgotten when telling the story in the bar. Before her flatmate left, and when she understood that Sivan wanted to move into her room, she gave her some advice: “If you feel scared and don’t want to see [the ghost], you won’t – they can’t force themselves on you.
You only see them if you tell yourself you want to.”
Sivan then updated her account of the experience with a missing chapter:
AFTER HER friend H. told her what her rabbi had said, Sivan started sleeping on the sofa in the living room. She didn’t want to move out, so she planned to stay there until the contract ended a month later. But nights went by and the prospect of the comfortable mattress in the room became too tantalizing.
One night she decided she would return to her bed – but asked another flatmate to sleep with her. She reckoned that if two people were in the room she might not feel so afraid. It was that night, the first and only night two people slept in the double bed, that she felt confident enough to look, and saw the lady in the blue dress.
“MY FRIEND said she always felt someone was in bed with her,” Sivan said, as if having an epiphany. “That’s why the lady was angry that night: she couldn’t get into bed!” Could it be? At this stage of the game, I was beginning to lose track of what made sense and what didn’t. Had the lady in the blue dress been going to bed every night since her demise? Is that why Sivan’s flatmate felt someone was in bed with her? Could it be the ghost was confused by the fact there was always someone else sleeping in her bed? Or didn’t she even notice the living beings until they occupied her bed completely?
I NEEDED a break. I was rattled at not having anything more tangible to add to this story, other than rumors and apparitions. Our scheduled holiday to Spain the next day seemed to promise the peace of mind I needed to write something reasonable after we came back. I reluctantly put my notes aside and, as Sivan and I boarded the VY7845 to Barcelona, told myself not to think about it until we returned.
The work-free days in Spain went by pleasantly and I indeed thought no more of the story – until the very last day before our flight back. We were sitting with my mother in an Italian restaurant in Barcelona. The subject of what I would work on when I got back to Israel arose, and so we recounted Sivan’s story.
Now, my mother, like any self-respecting British native, has plenty of ghost stories herself. I’d heard most of them, so I concentrated more on my pomodoro e mozzarella di bufala as she related them.
But then, one of her tales of family lore presented itself in a new, relevant light.
MY GRANDAD, Norman Keighley, served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. In 1945 he was sent to the Asian front, as he told it, “to fight the Japs.” He flew in a de Havilland Mosquito, a bulky wooden fighter-bomber that was all the rage among the Brits since four of them successfully raided the Gestapo HQ in Oslo in 1942. The narrow cockpit only had room for two: the pilot and a navigator-bomber. Grandad was the latter. The pilot was his close friend Flt.-Lt. Alan John.
On a sortie on June 1, 1945, their Mosquito’s right engine was hit by an air-to-air missile. They sputtered back to friendly territory and crash-landed in Mingaladon, Burma. John was a very tall man and, when the plane’s nose buried into the ground, his neck snapped back over the bulletproof headrest, killing him instantly. My Grandad survived, but was airlifted to a base in India, where both his legs were amputated to stop the spread of gangrene.
Grandad went on to marry, have three children and live a full life. He never particularly believed in ghosts – although he did have a gift for summoning spirits of the liquid variety. But ever since the crash-landing, he always felt he had “a weight on his shoulders.” He put it down to a side effect of his condition and tried to ignore it.
Years later, he and his family moved to Holbrook, in eastern England, and one night they went out for drinks with their new neighbor, Don Sinclair. After downing a few, Sinclair revealed that he could communicate with spirits, and the reason he told them this was because he reckoned he could see somebody attached to Grandad’s shoulders. After asking Grandad some questions, they realized the spirit was the pilot, Alan John. Sinclair then spoke to John and convinced him to pass away. And at that moment, Grandad genuinely felt as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
“WHEN SOMEBODY suffers a sudden, violent death before their time,” my mother quoted Sinclair, “they don’t realize they’ve died and attach themselves to the last thing that was near them.”
A sudden violent death? That was it! If the woman had indeed been murdered in her room, couldn’t it be possible she then attached to that space, not realizing she’d passed away? The next day we flew back to Tel Aviv and I completely abandoned my initial objective approach to the story. I decided the only thing left to do to make sense of all this was to contact a rabbi.
Sadly, we couldn’t contact either the former flatmate’s rabbi or H.’s rabbi – the two people who, without knowing each other, advised different women to get out of that house. Asking around, I eventually contacted a rabbi with knowledge of Kabbala, who, as everyone does when I tell them what this story is about, asked to remain anonymous.
“Everybody has a certain type of post-life,” he told me over the phone, “that can involve reincarnation, a judgment from Gehinnom, a judgment from Gan Eden… We don’t know. But often people get trapped in a sort of netherworld reality.
You see, passing away can be the most confusing part of our lives. There are people who, because of the circumstances of their death, don’t understand what happened and won’t depart from this world. These people transplant their souls from the body that passed away to another person, an animal or even an object.”
I told him the information that I had to share: a landlord buys an apartment cheaply because something bad had happened in it; two tenants feel bad energies in the same room; both are told to leave by rabbis who recognize the address, one of which claims someone was murdered in that room; one tenant claims she felt someone in bed with her, and the other saw an apparition the night she brought someone else to sleep with her.
The rabbi sighed and told me that years ago, when he lived in Hawaii, he was invited to rid a house of ghosts in Maui: “You have to make these souls understand their situation, and persuade them to be on their way. There are many ways to do it; I use mystical music meditation. I brought a group of people and we played music for weeks, many hours a day. There were three ghosts in the house, and eventually two of them left. The third stayed and continued to make problems for some time.”
“So these ghosts don’t even know they are dead?” “You shouldn’t call them ghosts – I don’t know what a ghost is. They are people, people who are aware of their past lives and are stuck between worlds. More than anything, they need our compassion to help them achieve a resolution.”
I can’t say I’m certain that a murder took place in that building – but if it is true that a woman was killed and got stuck between worlds, then hers is a sad story indeed. The ghost of Givatayim has a lot in common with those that are described in Victorian ghost stories: hovering static figures that look frightening at first but are, in fact, trapped and worthy of our pity.
I shake these thoughts out of my head. The deadline (no pun intended) is today. I’m sitting in the bar where it all began, a blank page glowing expectantly on my laptop. It’s raining outside. I order a coffee and think about the past month.
Where should I begin...