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from the September 2016 issue

Ingathering of Exiles

Yenta Mash interrogates the uneasy position of Jewish immigrants in the new state of Israel.

I don’t know about other cities, but in Haifa the street called Kibbutz Galuyot—Ingathering of Exiles—is definitely worthy of the name. Other cities may have bestowed the name when the street was still under construction, without knowing whether it would turn out to be a good fit. In Haifa, though, the street was already in its glory when it got its name. If they’d called it Kibbutz Olamot—Ingathering for Eternity—that wouldn’t have been wrong either. The street must date back to the Ten Commandments, maybe even back to the Creation. Certainly it’s as chaotic as the dawn of time—a bedlam of languages from all corners of the earth. People quarrel in Hebrew to get a point across; they fling insults in Russian to show how important they are; and to pull out all the stops they curse in Yiddish. Sometimes a few punches are even thrown, but by now the scrappiest old fighters have passed on, and these days people don’t want to get their hands dirty. When a skirmish breaks out, most of the time the police don’t even hear about it; the parties patch it up among themselves and move on.   

Residents of Haifa don’t particularly boast about the street, but they’re not ashamed of it either. It’s like a part of the body you don’t want to show off but can’t do without. People who live in affluent neighborhoods like Denia and Ahuza are always coming down to Kibbutz Galuyot to get an old tool soldered or a musical instrument repaired, or to hunt for a bargain on an old-fashioned flatiron, a copper mortar, a samovar. Who needs such things, you ask? Good question. The answer: restoring antiques and decorating your parlor with them is the latest fad, and you can’t find things like this at the big Carmel market for any amount of money. So people get in their shiny new cars and drive down to Kibbutz Galuyot to see what they can find.

Haifa residents do, anyway. Tourists content themselves with looking down from the terraces, which is too bad, because from up there you can’t see much—only a tangle of streets, lanes, back alleys. The best way to explore Kibbutz Galuyot is up close, provided it’s not Shabbat. On Shabbat, the day of rest, all you can see is doors, mostly iron ones, bolted and locked with a thousand locks, as if to protect untold fortunes. There’s not a soul on the street, except maybe a black cat, omen of bad luck, that has forgotten about the holy day and is out looking for someone’s path to cross.   

On Sunday, though, no matter how early you arrive, the place will be swarming with cars and people. For all I know, the congestion may even begin Saturday evening, the minute the Sabbath is over. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was about to say there are almost no signs on Kibbutz Galuyot. One or two handwritten ones, perhaps, but only to attract attention, not to point the way. People already know where to go, and besides, everything is in full view, either spread out on the sidewalks or hanging on the doors.

Take the first store on the right, for example. The owner, Nakhum Zeyde, is quite the character who sells only what fits in his doorway. Why? Very simple. He won’t go anywhere near the mountain of merchandise down the block for fear that it will fall and crush him. Besides, if he tried to display one more thing, there’d be no room for his chair, which is right where he likes it, next to the door, sheltered from sun and rain. No matter when you come, he’ll be sitting there reading his newspaper, Viata noastra, which tells you he’s a Romanian Jew. He’s not old, Nakhum Zeyde, but not young either. In winter he wears a knit cap pulled down to the top of his glasses and a long coat that extends to his ankles. Judging by the fabric and style—ten buttons the size of plates, five to a row—it was made for him when he got married. I once bought a cast-iron pot from Nakhum Zeyde, and he was very pleased, not so much with the sale itself as with our friendly conversation, our mutual appreciation for old things. He hates it when people ask, “What’s this, what’s that?” These types aren’t customers, they just get on his nerves and distract him from his paper. Nakhum Zeyde is not desperate for business. His pitchers and ladles and saucepans and Primus stoves will sell one of these days, and meanwhile they don’t cost him anything. He has a good meal waiting at home regardless, says he. So you have to wonder why he drags himself to the store every day, rain or shine. And when I say drag, I mean drag. He can’t stand up without splaying his feet sideways, and since he suffers from asthma, he pants and gasps on the way to his door, pants as he unlocks it, and gasps some more as he bends down to reach the bottom locks. He claims to be wealthy and says he comes to the shop only for the exercise and to get out and see people. I have my doubts, but who’s to say? 

Across the street, Moyshe Grynman describes himself the same way: he’s rich and doesn’t need the money. Him I believe, even if he is Polish. You can tell he’s got money by the signet ring on his finger. He looks about 75, and all things considered he seems to be doing well. Ramrod straight and always dressed to the nines in a sharp suit and a tie. He sells ready-to-wear clothing, secondhand of course, mostly men’s—he’s not interested in women’s clothes unless you hand them over for free, and even then he’s picky. He doesn’t pay much for men’s clothes either, always acting as if doing you a favor as he examines each item and points out the imperfections—a stain here, a patch there. Even if the garment is in perfect condition, he’ll find something wrong with it: no one wears such old-fashioned pants anymore, he’ll grumble, they never sell. So he says, all the while not letting the pants out of his hands. Then he slips you a little something and you leave with no pants and barely enough money for the bus fare home. Quite the businessman. Though I must admit he has hands of gold. He can take old, wrinkled clothes, press and clean them, hang them up, and they’ll look brand new, just like in a fancy store.

I’ve had occasion to study him closely, this Moyshe Grynman, because the window in front of my desk at work faces his store. A window is no small thing, especially one that overlooks Kibbutz Galuyot. It’s a welcome bonus on top of my modest salary—but I keep that to myself. There’s no reason my bosses need to know. I have not one but three bosses, all fellow countrymen from back home, and the tales I could tell . . . but let’s not get into that. Business is business, my bosses like to say, and they take the idea to extremes. If a poor man comes in begging for charity, they put him through the wringer, hassling him and demanding to know how much he really has in the bank, and only after that will they go over to the drawer and pull out some magnificent sum—say, 20 agorot—and since in the old currency that was 2,000 lir, they act as if they’re being enormously generous.

But let’s move on. We pass a few shops and come to Shloyme Stolyer, who used to be a carpenter and claims, like the others, that he keeps his hand in only out of habit and to maintain his health, not for the money. I have no idea what he’s actually worth, but they say he’s loaded. I call him Shloyme the Millionaire, even though the role of rich man suits him like a yarmulke on a pig. When it’s hot he goes around shirtless, with his belly button hanging out like the young people, trying to blend in with the crowd. He looks ridiculous. When he comes in to see my bosses, even before saying good morning he’ll mutter something confidential under his breath—“and seven,” for example—meaning that the dollar is currently valued at 1.77 shekels. Every summer he goes on vacation in the Swiss Alps, and when he gets back he can’t stop talking about what a surprise it was to bump into his neighbor, a simple bookkeeper. It’s not really surprising—the two of them are not all that different. Shloyme’s Missus, on the other hand, is something special. Every day, this Alexis, as she calls herself, shows up slathered with makeup and dressed in the latest fashion. She stands around in her white pants, showing off her figure. Now and then she holds a board for him while he works a saw, or straightens old nails with a hammer. The real reason she’s there is to keep an eye on her husband and make sure he doesn’t slip any money to his two married daughters from his first wife. Everything has to go to their son, she insists. The rich man suffers, but what can he do? Everyone has troubles; this is his.

Not far from Shloyme’s, we come to the only butcher shop in the neighborhood. The only things left from the original store are a chopping block and hooks for hanging meat. The rest of the place is up to date, with all the necessities—tiled walls, a washstand for ritual ablution, an electric saw for bones and frozen meat, and on the desk a Japanese calculator, ledger, and checkbook. Needless to say, there’s a kosher supervisor, an unusual one, very young and not bad-looking, you could even say handsome, but far too impressed with his own appearance. You can see him making his way down the street, posing next to cars and gazing into side mirrors as he twirls the long curls at his temples, humming happily to himself. He spends as little time in the butcher shop as possible—only stops by for a moment before taking his leave, not just singing but practically dancing down the street with his earnings wrapped up in a newspaper under his arm. He reminds me of the Jews back in Russia, who used to bundle up their prayer shawls in newspaper when they walked to the synagogue on the Sabbath, so as not to attract attention.

There are other stores just like the ones I’ve described, as well as two banks and an office of the rabbinate, but the real leaders of the street, the big shots, are the owners of the warehouses filled with “old things,” in this case old furniture. I’m not talking about the Arabs who go from courtyard to courtyard collecting old clothes. This is different. When you want to get rid of an old piece of furniture, you call one of these warehouses and arrange for someone to come out and take a look. When they arrive, no matter what amount you’ve jotted down, they offer you a tenth, and you accept whatever they say. You’re at their mercy because you need room for your new furniture. In the warehouses the old furniture is repaired, restored, sanded, and varnished until looks like new. The owners are true professionals, mostly young guys who started out as errand boys, worked their way up, and eventually inherited the business, including the store, the inventory, the reputation, even the few words of Yiddish they learned on the job. Unlike the old shopkeepers on the street, the young ones are in business for the money, not for the fun of it, and they mean business. They’re also gifted at keeping the peace. In the narrow street, if one car hits another and dents a fender or knocks out a headlight, someone will appear out of nowhere and take charge. A whisper into an ear here, a murmur there, a flurry of banknotes, a handshake, problem solved. As I said, the people on the street want nothing to do with police, write-ups, fines.

And now we come to the jewel in the crown—Shuk HaPishpeshim, the flea market. Fleas: ever since these disgusting vermin appeared on the face of the earth, we Jews have bestowed their name on a host of markets, including Haifa’s. The sign on the arch doesn’t actually mention fleas—it says Shuk Hrukhlim, the vendors’ market—but it means the same thing. To get in, you take a few steps down into a big courtyard. I went once, out of curiosity, and couldn’t believe my eyes. Endless rows of stalls—a hundred? a thousand?—with narrow aisles in between for customers. Every stall had a roof; otherwise the heat would have been unbearable. From a distance the place looked like barracks in a prison camp, but piled with old clothes instead of people. These are the piles that shopkeepers like Moyshe Grynman won’t go near. Within them, I swear, lies a century’s worth of clothing fashions. If you know what to look for, you can find antique garments here that belong in a museum: clothes for the Sabbath and everyday clothes, wedding gowns and funeral attire, uniforms and costumes, overcoats and dressing gowns, fur coats and crinolines, fedoras and top hats. Impossible to list them all. Clothes that have gone in and out of fashion a thousand times. A girl might come upon an old-fashioned pelisse, a cape, and call it a poncho. Fine, it’s a poncho, so long as she buys. Customers aren’t easy to come by here, so when they show up the vendors don’t let them out of their hands until they make a deal. They lose a little money here, make some there—it all works out in the end.

When an elderly couple dies, what happens to their belongings? This is a sight to behold. As soon as the second member of the couple closes his or her eyes, immediately after the shivah, the heirs waste no time. The ground burns under their feet, there’s no time for sorting, everything must go. The vendors often get it all for no more than the cost of gas, driver, and wages for those who haul the junk away. The idea is to clear out the flat as quickly as possible. Once the truck is loaded, it goes straight to Kibbutz Galuyot, the cemetery of old things, and when people see the truck coming, they come running and fall on it like worms on a corpse. This one grabs a shirt, that one a pair of pants, this one a robe, that one a tablecloth, cups, teakettles, a kosher cutting board, a noodle pot, a wall clock, a pair of new shoes. Everything goes. Amid the pushing and shoving, the driver can barely manage to stuff the cash into his pockets fast enough. Trampled underfoot on the dirty sidewalk are towels, bedsheets, and blankets that housewives have spent years caring for, washing them and ironing them, mending and folding. Even before the soul has risen to stand before the Heavenly Throne, not a trace of the departed remains here on earth.

So when old residents of Haifa raise their eyes to the sky and piously intone that this is the street where the city got its start, I humbly submit that Kibbutz Galuyot is a place not only of beginnings but also of endings.  

 

From “Kibbutz Galuyot” in Meshane mokem (A Change of Place). © 1993 Yenta Mash. By arrangement with the author’s estate. Translation © Ellen Cassedy. All rights reserved.

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