MY ISRAEL

Paige Holtzman

The smell of honey brown bread crept through the sliver of space beneath my door. I crossed the room and followed the aroma toward the kitchen with sleepy imbalance, rubbing my eyes and wincing at the volume of the old, black radio; its scratched silver antennas extended in a wide vee. The floorboards creaked with each step. I stopped. The door was ajar, and I peered through the crevice with one eye, hiding the other so as not to be seen.

My mother was circling the dinner table dancing to the beat of “All You Need is Love” and knifed a slice of the sweet grain loaf after each round. As she turned, she snapped her calloused fingers and tapped her toes in perfect sync with the song. At the newscaster’s interruption, my mother stopped dancing and gripped her wrist. Though the announcer’s voice paralyzed her body, her mind refused to stop listening for some sacred word that would signal a breaking development and decelerate her stride: Israel had won. The gun-fire had ceased. David was coming home.

In the nascent hours of the morning, my mother danced and began her ritual in the kitchen. While I caught her in what she thought were private moments I attended to the grammar of her body: when she danced, she moved like a run-on sentence, stirring with such pace that I wondered when she would stop. I watched her come to a period, a screeching halt that would arrest her fluid steps. Our eyes met, and she froze upon seeing me. She then continued slicing the bread as though nothing had happened. I twisted the yellow bracelet on my wrist, the one I had begged my brother to buy for me on Ben-Yehuda Street against my mother’s protests. He had used his own ten shekels to buy it. When she saw me staring at her, she noticed my bracelet. I sensed her throbbing heart, her always present fear that David would not return.

***

The day she had heard of Israel’s attack on Egypt I was in my Bible class at school. The principal had poked his head into our classroom and whispered “Chanah,” motioning for me to follow him into the hall. My father had called. I ran home, balancing the weight of my backpack. My mother was on the floor, my father holding her hand, calling her name. Ahava. Ahava. I stood, peering over her quiescent body, when she managed, “Chanah, ha-yad shell-ach.” Your hand. She pointed to my wrist.

That night we didn’t have dinner. My mother rested on the couch next to my father, who pressed a cool washcloth to her forehead. Between trips to the kitchen to soak the washcloth, I sat on the floor with my homework.

“Chanah, you must be hungry,” my father finally said to me after a long silence.

I nodded, almost forgetting that I hadn’t eaten since noon. It was six.

He dug into his pocket for some change and held two shekels in his palm. “Here,” he offered. He then looked at my mother, lowered his voice and grinned as he turned toward me. “Go get some ice cream.”

“But-” Wasn’t it dangerous outside?

“Just go and be back soon,” he whispered. “It’ll be our secret.”

I skipped to the ice cream store, passing other kids who tilted their heads to lick the scoops of strawberry and cookie-dough that were melting over their cones. They all had ice cream mustaches. Mine would be chocolate, I decided. It was David’s favorite.

“Watch where you’re going,” a disgruntled cab driver shouted, honking his horn. My heart jumped, and I scurried across the street. A soldier with a gun slung over his shoulder stood on the corner. A reminder of war. I lowered my head and walked. This wasn’t the time to skip.

The summer heat made my palms sweat, and when I was paying for my cone, the coins slid into the cashier’s hand.

“Chanah?”

I almost dropped my cone when I turned around. Ben Perez-who was in my Bible class and whose cousin, Avi, was fighting in the war-sat on a bench by himself, waving at me. I smiled and walked over.

“Why’d you leave school so early? Is David okay?” He asked, licking his sticky ice cream-covered fingers.

I sat beside him and shook my head. “My mom got really scared about my brother going to war and fainted, so my dad wanted me home.”

“Oh,” he said, tying his shoelaces on the bench.

The chocolate was already dripping over the side of my cone. “How was the rest of school?” I asked. “Did I miss anything?”

“Sheila and Jenny were kicked out of class for passing notes.”

I laughed. “Anything else?”

He opened his mouth to speak but his words were interrupted.

“Two shekels, miss,” said the cashier.

“But I only have one.” I recognized Miriam, a seventh grader whose father was a general. She pushed her younger sister in a stroller. “Just a small scoop.” She lowered her voice, catching everyone’s stares. “Please?”

“No,” and the cashier slammed her window.

Ben turned to me. “I probably should go home,” he said.

I nodded and stood. Miriam sat on a bench, rolling the stroller back and forth and blotting her tears with a napkin she’d found on a table. She should’ve had my cone. “I’m sorry,” I wanted to tell her. “I didn’t have to have that ice cream.” But it was time to go.

Ben walked me home. When we got to my door, I told him I probably wouldn’t see him at school tomorrow. I had to watch my mother.

He nodded. “Want to meet for ice cream tomorrow night?”

“Sure.” I smiled and walked inside.

My father was asleep on the couch, still holding a washcloth to my mother’s head when I tiptoed into the living room. I inched behind the couch to get to my room, but he awoke, smiling when he saw me. He motioned me to sit next to him.

“How’s she doing?” I whispered as I sunk into the cushion.

“She’s been sleeping.” He wrapped his arm around me and paused. “I need you to take care of her when I’m at work. Help clean the house, run errands, and if she wants to be alone, let her. Got that, kiddo?”

“Yes, abbah,” I yawned.

He sighed and kissed my forehead. “Time for bed.”

I walked to my room, stopped at the door and turned toward my father. We caught each other’s glances. I love you, we mouthed. And I turned in for bed.

***

My mother was in the state of a run-on when I treaded softly into the kitchen. I was too hungry to care if she saw me. I took out a bread plate from the cupboard. The news came on, and my mother stopped moving. Her eyes widened, and her jaw locked. She started to speak but the newscaster’s voice stole her words. As I studied her face, I forgot that I was holding the plate. I loosened my grasp from its edges, watching it split into fragmented shapes on our tile floor. She inhaled deeply. I leaned over and began to pick up the pieces. “Leave it,” she said.

Leave the family bread plate?

I walked to her, the rise and fall of her chest growing more noticeable as I moved closer. I took off my bracelet and put it on her wrist.

“Chanah?” She sniffled.

“Yes, ima?”

She hugged me, holding me close to her chest and swaying as though the music was still playing. We were dancing for David.