A taste of Tiberias

Shemi Zarhin’s quintessential Israeli story brings to life the humanity of even his most flawed characters in sensual detail

book.tiberias.521 (photo credit: Tiberias Municipality/Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Tiberias Municipality/Wikimedia Commons)
The masterful novelist, film director and screenwriter Shemi Zarhin saturates his haunting novel Some Day with sensuality.
His earthy Israeli characters, while not vulgar, are very humanly rooted in the physical – urinating, defecating, fornicating, masturbating and, above all, masticating the spicy Middle Eastern cooking that is central to the plot.
They are also capable of sublime poetry, tender heroics and abiding love. Sometimes they get carried away by desire, grief, fear or anger. Their decisions and actions are not always rational, influenced inevitably by memories and traumas of the past.
In short, Zarhin’s characters are so real they fairly jump off the page. And yet there is a magical, fantastical quality to these characters as well. They lay curses, suffer mysterious ailments, receive premonitions.
The main protagonists are the married Sephardi couple, Ruchama and Robert (she abnormally tall and he unusually short), and their sons, Shlomi and Hilik.
Living in hardscrabble Tiberias in the 1960s through the early 1980s, they struggle to make ends meet until necessity – and an obese, meddling but endearing Romanian neighbor named Vardina – propel Ruchama to spectacular success in the catering business.
In one rare comic scene in an otherwise dark novel, Vardina explains to Ruchama how to “modernize” her traditional cooking simply by mixing mayonnaise into everything.
Little Shlomi discovers a preternatural gift in the kitchen. From the tender age of seven, he is making up mouthwatering recipes and cooking vast quantities of delicacies under the tutelage of his mother.
The first of many meals they prepare side by side is described in detail, beginning with chicken legs stuffed with fried onions, olives and chopped almonds, parsley and toasted bread crumbs, baked in a stock made from bones. The thighs are cooked with boiled quince, raisins, honey and cloves. Strips of lamb fat are tied around the breasts, which are then glazed with a paste made of crushed garlic, lemon peel and dried mint leaves.
Ruchama teaches Shlomi to roll slices of chicken into a loaf stuffed with pistachio bits and hardboiled eggs, brushed outside with oil and spices.
Sickly and sensitive Hilik hardly touches a morsel, handing over his whitecheese- and-cucumber sandwiches to Shlomi at school every day. His personal passion is collecting words like postage stamps, and he teaches his older brother to read. Though their parents love them and encourage them, it is the boys’ close relationship that carries them through a bewildering childhood.
After the casts comes off Hilik’s arms, which were broken in a fall, Ruchama plans to celebrate by making a “hot, sour soup where chopped fennel bulbs would swirl alongside strips of green onions, garlic, coriander, dill, mint and tarragon.
Then she’d rip pieces of goat cheese, ball them and coat them with flour, fry them in oil and drop them in. The brown coasting of the cheese would crumble, staining the green soup with white pools.”
Aside from cooking, Shlomi’s life is bound up in his love for Ella, the passionate and suicidal daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors (“human powder,” Ruchama calls them sympathetically) living in the next building. Robert’s brief affair with Ella’s mother leads to the death of Ella’s father, as well as a long and tortured separation from Ruchama that ends only when fresh grief pulls them back together.
Zarhin’s quintessentially Israeli story also touches on the tension amongst Sephardim and Ashkenazim, survivors and kibbutzniks of 1970s Israel. Every character, no matter how flawed, is richly portrayed in a way that evokes the reader’s compassion.
The overwhelmingly tragic events of Robert and Ruchama’s lives are repeated in their children’s lives with only slight differences, creating a virtual refrain of generational doom. “Once again life is like a poem, once again it is singing itself, rhyming and multiplying and doubling,” is how Zarhin describes this phenomenon.
When the adolescent Shlomi asks his mother what “self-pity” means, Ruchama replies: “It’s what you feel when you remember childhood. People think it’s longing, but they’re wrong, because childhood is a crummy thing and when you remember it you feel self-pity.”
Certainly that is an accurate description for Ruchama, whose mother taunted her because of her startling height and actually died from choking on her own derisive laughter.
In a narrative that bobs and weaves skillfully across decades, we witness a family’s unraveling through infidelity, deception, misplaced desire, death and disappointment.
In the end, however, we are left with a glimmer of hope that the newest generation of boys in this family – conceived though they were under shameful circumstances – may be spared a “crummy childhood” through the emotional generosity of Shlomi, the quiet hero of the story.
Translating a novel of this depth has to be a difficult endeavor, and I salute Yardenne Greenspan for her fine work.
Occasionally an awkward phrase creeps in, but she has overall managed to convey the beauty of Zarhin’s writing, to the great benefit of English-speaking readers.
Some Day By Shemi Zarhin Translated by Yardenne Greenspan New Vessel Press 450 pages; $16.99