The ProsenPeople

Excerpt: The Missing Family Jewels

Friday, December 15, 2017 | Permalink

Gil Hovav, Israel's leading culinary journalist and a popular TV personality, recently had his autobiographical story collection Candies from Heaven translated into English by Ira Moskowitz. Below, read an excerpt from the book, "The Missing Family Jewels," a comical piece about a family myth.

Illustration from the cover of "Candies from Heaven"

Sometime back in the 19th century, a Yemenite man awoke from his sleep on the outskirts of the garbage dump in Sana’a and decided that the time had come to go up to the Land of Israel. Somehow, that Yemenite man was my relative and, of course, related to King David too (because all Yemenites claim there was a family tree in the synagogue in Yemen that documented their pedigree, directly connecting them to Rabbi Shalom Shabazi and all the way back through the generations to King David, but that unfortunately this documentation was lost during the travails of wandering through the Arabian Peninsula on the way to Zion). We weren’t big shots in Yemen – not the most highly educated in the world and not even goldsmiths. We were, in fact, among the world’s poorest. The only solid information my father had about the founders of the Mahboub family was that his great-grandfather’s uncle was a blacksmith who was blind in one eye.

In any case, on that morning in the 19th century, the Yemenite man gathered his belongings, his wife (assuming he had only one) or wives (a more realistic assumption), and of course his children too, and started walking to the northwest, on a path that was supposed to lead them to Jerusalem. All that on foot, of course. They had a donkey, but it carried the father, not their belongings, which were left for the women to bear.

After long wanderings, my ancestors reached Jerusalem and discovered that it was impoverished and run-down, exactly like Sana’a – but here no one was awaiting them, not even on the outskirts of the garbage dump. They settled in the village of Silwan, site of the biblical pools of Shiloach. Later, throughout the years and generations, they married, were fruitful and multiplied, wandered the land and always, but always, made sure to remain dirt poor.

The main branch of the family made its home in the Givat Shaul neighborhood of Jerusalem because the Frumin Biscuit Company was located there. Broken biscuits could be salvaged from the factory’s trash bins and these comprised a key part of the Yemenite menu of those lean years. They weren’t sad – the days were harsh, nearly everyone was poor and, in any case, Yemenites were accustomed to living on a menu made up entirely of carbohydrates. And besides, the main thing was that they were in the Land of Israel.

When Grandpa Chaim Mahboub married Grandma Mazal (née Hoter), they made their home in a tiny apartment consisting of a room and a nook in the Bukharim neighborhood, with a communal bathroom and kitchen in the courtyard. They remained dirt poor because my grandfather, who had studied at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, didn’t really manage to provide a livelihood for his wife and seven children from his (occasional) work as a Torah scribe. Therefore, my grandmother and Aunt Elisheva, the eldest daughter, also pitched in to support the family: Elisheva worked as a nanny at a wealthy family in the Rehavia neighborhood, and my grandmother worked as a janitor at the Gymnasia Rehavia high school, which soon made her one of the only Yemenites in the country (and in the world) who spoke fluent Yiddish.

Forty years later, when the Gymnasia’s principal refused to accept me at the prestigious high school, claiming that my math grades were too low, my father banged his fist on the table and informed him that every tile and stone in the building cries out the name of Mazal Mahboub. The shocked principal immediately reversed his decision and accepted me at the school, apologizing and confessing “I wasn’t aware of the pedigree.” And so, I got into high school – not by virtue of my great-grandfather Eliezer Ben-Yehuda or because my father managed the national radio station, but thanks to the smell of bleach that wafted from my family tree.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the 1960s and 1970s. The seven sons and daughters of Mazal and Chaim Mahboub grew up and married (all of them to Ashkenazi Jews, by the way, except for my father), and all of them did well. No one became wealthy, but all of them worked, supported themselves and their family in dignity, and were content with their lot in life. My father, Uncle Ami and Aunt Gulit lived in Jerusalem. Aunt Elisheva lived in Los Angeles. Aunt Reumah lived at the Wingate Institute, but also kept a home in Jerusalem (“where I hide from my husband David”). Aunt Hadassah the Cossack changed addresses at a torrid pace: Revivim, Ramatayim, Sheffield, London and finally Migdal, near Aunt Chava, who lived in Tiberias.Author photo of Gil Hovav

And here we come to an economic turning point in the story. Despite the fact that none of the members of the original Mahboub (later Hebraized to Hovav) family became rich or even aspired to wealth, we had a distant relative in Tiberias, a very distant relative – the type that Mooma would define as “my grandmother and your grandmother hung laundry under the same sun.” They called him Uncle Shalom Hoter, though he wasn’t really an uncle. We never met him, mainly because he died when my father was a child, but he had (trumpets, please) a private synagogue of his own in lower Tiberias, adjacent to the old cemetery.

As noted, none of us knew Uncle Shalom Hoter, but we considered him one of us – and this included a deep sense of affinity toward the property he had apparently left behind. We didn’t really know how we were related, “but a Hoter is a Hoter,” Dad declared, “and all of us are Hoters, of the Hoter family.” In this way, Uncle Shalom Hoter filled the role of the rich uncle we all dreamed we had in America. His property continued to grow over the years, if not in reality then at least in our Oriental fantasies, and the synagogue on the outskirts of the cemetery became a private beach on the Sea of Galilee. Later, we would refer to the late uncle as “Uncle Shalom, who owned half of Tiberias.”

The problem was that while Uncle Shalom Hoter may have been rich, he was most definitely dead. Everyone knew that Aunt Chava, who as a resident of the city held the Tiberias portfolio in the family, had an old and dusty suitcase containing documents pertaining to Uncle Shalom Hoter. (Aunt Reumah imagined that the suitcase contained “a Turkish deed for all of the lands in Poria!” while Aunt Hadassah modestly added, “I actually heard that the Arbel1 is listed in his name in the Land Registry.”) But Chava didn’t appreciate this talk about our late Uncle Shalom Hoter. Every time someone mentioned the story of the suitcase, when the entire family gathered at the home of Chava and Amos to celebrate the Passover seder, she found various excuses to avoid pulling it down from the storage area. She would always claim: “There aren’t so many documents there, just one envelope with a document I’ve never read, and the seder night is not the time to dwell on our rich late uncle.”

And thus the years passed, and the presumed holdings of our late Uncle Shalom Hoter continued to inflate. There was already talk of houses in Safed and, of course, the complete Crusader wall in Tiberias, homesteads in the Galilee and even entire commercial streets in Jerusalem. Sometimes when we were walking in the city center, my father would stop next to a particularly beautiful building and say: “Do you see this house? This house would be fitting for Uncle Shalom Hoter to own. Who knows, who knows. We really need to check with Aunt Chava.”

We all believed we were closet Rothschilds except for Mooma, who pooh-poohed the whole story of the deeds and Land Registry, asserting: “That dark-skinned father of yours, when he married your mother, could barely scrape together enough money to pay the rabbi. His father would eat biscuits from the trash and his mother was a janitor at the Gymnasia. Listen to me, kudilo – there is no money there. And if there were, it was hidden so well that it will never be found.”

In the end, left with no alternative (I was a 24-year-old student, poor as a church mouse in the best Sana’a tradition), I pressed my father to travel with me to Tiberias, to Chava and the mysterious suitcase, and finally, once and for all, claim the lands to which we’re legally entitled. Chava was happy to host us, but avoided the matter of the suitcase, as usual. “I don’t remember where it is anymore,” Chava said. “It might have completely disintegrated.” Then she claimed that only a crazy person would climb into the storage area and that it was dangerous. I could see that Aunt Chava was just trying to cling to a dream, but I was more greedy than sensitive. So, on our second day in Tiberias, while Chava was busy preparing refreshments (ja’aleh) – tea, dried fruits and nuts, I snuck into the attic, took down a round and dusty leather suitcase, and presented it to my father.


Chava turned pale. “Our late Uncle Shalom Hoter’s document!” she exclaimed, and my father added: “And, of course, the deeds to the lands and houses in Safed.”

“And the private beach at the Sea of Galilee,” I chimed in.

“And the slope of Poria,” Chava said, swept up in the excitement.

With trembling hands, my father opened the suitcase and the envelope inside it. He had a wonderful voice, my father, and it plays in my ears to this day, reading the following words:

Death Certificate

We, Yaakov Azuelos and Yehiel Alfendari, hereby testify that we washed the corpse of the late tzadik Shalom Hoter, and when we did this, we saw with our own eyes that he had only one testicle.

“What does this mean?” I breathlessly asked my father and his sister, who both looked completely in shock. “It means that there is no property,” Chava stated. “Because it proves that he was infertile and had no heirs, and then, if there’s no last will and testament, the property goes to the state,” my father explained.

“Oh well,” I said. “So we’ll remain poor. We’re already used to it. Why are you two so upset?”

“The synagogue by the cemetery is not so important to me,” my father admitted. “But it’s a shame about the houses in Jerusalem.”

“I’m annoyed by something else,” Chava said. “It annoys me that I know – yes, I’m simply sure Gili – that you’ll take this story about one beytza and use it to give a receipt for haminados eggs in one of those awful stories of yours.

“Chava,” I exclaimed, pained to the depths of my soul. “Is that really what you think of me?!”

Poria and Mount Arbel are hilltop sites overlooking Tiberias.

Righteous person

The same Hebrew word – beytza – can mean both egg and testicle.


Slow-Cooked Eggs (Huevos Haminados)

Originally, this involved eggs cooked in a pot with cholent or kubana. They would remain all night in the oven and emerge brown and fragrant. In Israel’s very hot climate, there are few opportunities to prepare cholent and, considering the (unfortunate) fact that most of the population is not Yemenite, kubana is also not a common baked good. Therefore, here is a simple recipe for fake haminados eggs.

Ingredients:

eggs

3 teabags

water

1 tsp salt

1. Fill a pot with water and add the salt. Place the eggs inside and hang the teabags with their tags on the edge of the pot so that the bags will be immersed in the water but won’t fall inside.

2. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and cover. When the water is really brown, you can dispose of the teabags.

3. Continue to simmer over a very low flame for at least 5 hours (8 if possible, and even 10).

4. Peel, cut into halves and serve.

From Candies from Heaven by Gil Hovav, published by Toad Publishing. Copyright ©Gil Hovav 2017. Reprinted with permission.