Jaf­fa, 1963

Pho­to­graph by Boris Carmi

Con­tent warn­ing, there is a descrip­tion of a sui­cide attempt. 

Like me, Lily didn’t have any broth­ers or sis­ters. And worse still, she didn’t even have par­ents, so not only was I an only child, but I didn’t have a grand­moth­er or a grand­fa­ther on her side, or aunts or uncles or cousins, like all the oth­er chil­dren I knew. At least my father wasn’t an orphan; at least on his side I had grand­par­ents. Even if I rarely saw them, because they irri­tat­ed Lily too.

Daddy’s par­ents, Grand­ma and Grand­pa Zoref, lived on Shabazi Street in the Neve Tzedek neigh­bor­hood near the city of Jaf­fa by the sea, and my sole uncle, Shmu­lik, or Sam as he was now called, lived in Amer­i­ca, where he’d gone right after he’d fin­ished his army ser­vice. He’d mar­ried Ida, an Amer­i­can Jew­ish woman who Lily referred to as Her High­ness.” I’d nev­er met his chil­dren. This uncle would vis­it Israel once every two years, and every time he came, with or with­out Her High­ness, Lily would get angry with my father and my grand­par­ents for eager­ly antic­i­pat­ing his arrival.

I won’t lift a fin­ger for your Ameri-show-off broth­er,” she would declare as Dad­dy did his best to pre­pare an extra-spe­cial fes­tive meal, and she demon­stra­tive­ly refused to set the table. And when my grand­par­ents and my uncle arrived for din­ner, she would sit there scowl­ing, and the more she scowled, the more I smiled. I was hap­py that final­ly it wasn’t just the three of us. For a moment we were like all the oth­er fam­i­lies I knew, sit­ting around the table for sup­per, even if out of six peo­ple, five were adults and two of them real­ly old. Despite every­thing we were cheer­ful, except for Lily, who nar­rowed her eyes at my father and was silent most of the time, hard­ly respond­ing when some­one spoke to her.

Those vis­its were spe­cial occa­sions for me and a break from the sti­fling rou­tine that pre­vailed in my child­hood home. Each time he came, he took the fam­i­ly out for din­ner to Tziyon’s Restau­rant in the Kerem HaTeiman­im neigh­bor­hood. Of course Lily would make her usu­al scene and say that he was flash­ing his dol­lars around as if he were some kind of Amer­i­can mil­lion­aire, when in fact he was noth­ing more than a garage own­er from Brooklyn.

My poor father, torn between Lily and Sam, would make futile efforts to calm her down. For good­ness’ sake, Lily, my broth­er only vis­its once every two years. Please don’t force me to hurt his feel­ings for the two weeks he’s here.

I can’t bear it when you make your­self into a door­mat for him,” she would say, los­ing her tem­per. I can’t bear it that your moth­er behaves as if he’s her only son. As if he even both­ers with her when he’s in his pre­cious Amer­i­ca. It’s you who runs all your par­ents’ errands to the insur­ance insti­tute and the health fund and the bank. He hasn’t even intro­duced her to his chil­dren, and to her he’s the king of the world.”

My heart con­tract­ed with envy when I saw oth­er fam­i­lies host­ing their rel­a­tives on the day of rest, Shab­bat, and for hol­i­day meals. And I hat­ed the New Year hol­i­day most of all. Through the open win­dows I heard the sounds of fam­i­lies chant­i­ng hol­i­day bless­ings and prayers, laugh­ter and com­mo­tion and the hap­py shrieks of chil­dren, while we were three silent peo­ple. The only way I could sur­vive that pathet­ic meal was to lose myself in a fan­ta­sy world where I was sur­round­ed by dot­ing rel­a­tives. I squeezed my eye­lids shut until Lily’s voice roused me from my rever­ies. Again you’re dream­ing. Fin­ish what’s on your plate and clear the table.”

Until I was six, we spent hol­i­days with Grand­ma and Grand­pa Zoref. On the eve of the Passover Seder, Lily con­de­scend­ed to go to their house, and I would sit with the four adults, shy about declaim­ing the Four Ques­tions tra­di­tion­al­ly recit­ed by the youngest per­son present. I loved to vis­it them. I loved to go there because of the tight hug I always received from my grand­moth­er, who seemed over­joyed to see me, and the touch of my grandfather’s warm hand on the top of my head as he kissed my fore­head and mur­mured a bless­ing. I espe­cial­ly loved being show­ered with presents. Those toys aren’t for a child her age,” Lily would carp to my father, and Those clothes are from the Carmel Mar­ket.” I didn’t care. I was so thrilled to receive gifts from peo­ple whose love for me was pal­pa­ble, so excit­ed to feel like a real fam­i­ly. I longed for my father to take me to Amer­i­ca to meet my cousins and to have some­one my age who wasn’t just a friend but a rel­a­tive, a real mem­ber of my fam­i­ly, a cousin.

Once I asked, and my father laughed and said that as soon as he won the lot­tery, he’d take me to Amer­i­ca to see my cousins, who lived in a build­ing that almost reached the sky. All my father’s dreams were chan­neled to the Mifal HaPais, the nation­al lot­tery, and mine were swept up in the same cur­rent. Every time I asked for some­thing he couldn’t afford, he would promise that when he won the lot­tery, he would make my wish come true. We would trav­el to Amer­i­ca when he won the lot­tery; he would buy me a bicy­cle when he won the lot­tery; he would sign me up for bal­let lessons when he won the lot­tery. And every time I walked past the dilap­i­dat­ed lit­tle kiosk on Dizen­goff Street oppo­site the David’s Palace Movie The­ater that sold lot­tery tick­ets, I couldn’t under­stand how a place full of so much mon­ey could look so run down.

My heart con­tract­ed with envy when I saw oth­er fam­i­lies host­ing their rel­a­tives on the day of rest, Shab­bat, and for hol­i­day meals.

Now, I wished that when he final­ly won the lot­tery, my dad­dy would buy a machine that would turn me back into the per­son I had been before Ari. A promis­ing young stu­dent in the Depart­ment of Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty who dreamed of hav­ing a Fri­day-morn­ing radio show about authors and books.

Where were those dreams? What had hap­pened to me? How could I have mar­ried a man who con­trolled me exact­ly the same way my moth­er did my father? Lord in heav­en, I sud­den­ly real­ized, I’d mar­ried my mother.

My thoughts assailed me, pour­ing relent­less­ly into my mind. I could hear them pound­ing in my head, strain­ing my tem­ples. Any moment now they would be putting me in a strait­jack­et, send­ing me to the nut­house at Abar­banel. I couldn’t endure the rag­ing tor­rent of thoughts, couldn’t abide myself — some­one had to stop this dance of demon­ic images that was push­ing me to the edge, had to rip up the hor­ror movie play­ing in my head, dis­con­nect me from it, release me!

My father told me my screams brought him and Lily rac­ing to my room. It was lucky,” he said, you didn’t lock the door.” They found me sit­ting on my bed, slic­ing at my wrists with a razor. Cut­ting and scream­ing, cut­ting and weep­ing. Lily, who in a cri­sis was always more quick wit­ted than my father, knocked the razor from my hand as I strug­gled with her, cry­ing and scream­ing. While my father called an ambu­lance, my moth­er held my wrists with her thumbs and man­aged to stem the flow of blood. By the time they car­ried me to the ambu­lance on a stretch­er, I had lost consciousness. 

My sweet­heart,” I heard my father say as if from a dis­tance, are you awake?” I opened my eyes and saw that I was lying in a hos­pi­tal bed, hooked up to an IV. I couldn’t sit up. My wrists were ban­daged and painful, my mouth so dry that though I want­ed to answer my father, it was hard to speak.

What hap­pened to me?” I whispered. 

Everything’s fine now, dar­ling,” my father said. Rest. The most impor­tant thing is for you to rest.” 

What hap­pened?” I whis­pered again. 

You tried to kill your­self — that’s what hap­pened,” Lily said curt­ly, pulling no punch­es, as usual. 

Go out­side, Lily.” My father was unusu­al­ly firm and deci­sive. Go get some cof­fee; you’ve had a rough night. I’ll stay here with Eliya.” 

Sweet­heart,” my father said when Lily left the room, let’s wait for the doc­tor to come and talk to you. Then I’ll tell you what happened.” 

What­ev­er you say,” I answered weari­ly, and I closed my eyes. 

I was worn out, my heart beat­ing so fast that I could feel it puls­ing in my head. I kept my eyes closed. I couldn’t even man­age to kill myself. I had failed at even that. Tears poured from my eyes again, and I sobbed and sobbed until I plunged into anoth­er deep sleep. 

Hours lat­er, when I woke, my par­ents were stand­ing by my bed. 

You have to eat,” said Lily in a busi­nesslike tone. There’s mashed pota­toes and some soup. Eat — it will make you stronger.” 

I pressed my lips togeth­er like an obsti­nate child and refused to open my mouth. 

I saw their exchange of glances. Lily seemed to be at her wits’ end. She was try­ing not to show it, but she was on the verge of tears, and I’d nev­er seen Lily with tears in her eyes. 

I remem­bered hear­ing her voice from the oth­er side of my locked door, rep­ri­mand­ing my father and telling him to stop behav­ing like a dish tow­el. You have to behave nor­mal­ly around her, even though she hasn’t left her bed for months. Only then, when she sees that despite the fact that she won’t get out of bed, the house­hold is still run­ning nor­mal­ly, will she pull her­self out of this state.” How angry I had been when I’d heard what she’d said. 

Now I detect­ed a fault in the foun­da­tion of Lily, who I’d always believed to be made of stone, and I was mes­mer­ized by this inti­ma­tion that she had what I had nev­er believed she pos­sessed — sen­si­tiv­i­ty. And maybe she was capa­ble of feel­ing fear. She looked frightened.

I’m going to call the doc­tor,” my father said, and he left the two of us alone. 

Lily sat on the edge of the bed and took my hands in hers. Look how thin they are, like chick­en feet.” I wasn’t used to demon­stra­tions of affec­tion from her. She brought my hands to her lips and kissed my palms, her tears falling on them. That day in the hos­pi­tal was the first time I saw her cry, and I think it was also the first time she kissed me. I’d nev­er felt so con­fused and bewil­dered. I wasn’t sure whether I want­ed to grab back my hand or put my head on her breast and cry with her.

Excerpt­ed from The Woman Beyond The Sea by Sar­it Yishai-Levi. © 2023 Pub­lished by Ama­zon Cross­ing, March 21, 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Sar­it Yishai-Levi is a renowned Israeli jour­nal­ist and author. In 2016 she pub­lished her first book, The Beau­ty Queen of Jerusalem. It imme­di­ate­ly became a best­seller and gar­nered crit­i­cal acclaim. The book sold more than three hun­dred thou­sand copies in Israel, was trans­lat­ed into ten lan­guages, and was adapt­ed into a TV series that won the Israeli TV award for best dra­ma series. It also won the Pub­lish­ers Association’s Gold, Plat­inum, and Dia­mond prizes; the Steimatzky Prize for best­selling book of the year in Israel; and the WIZO France Prize for best book trans­lat­ed into French.

Yishai-Levi’s sec­ond book, The Woman Beyond the Sea, was pub­lished in 2019. It won the Pub­lish­ers Association’s Gold and Plat­inum prizes and was adapt­ed for tele­vi­sion by Netflix.

Yishai-Levi was born in Jerusalem to a Sephardic fam­i­ly that has lived in the city for eight gen­er­a­tions. She’s been liv­ing with her fam­i­ly in Tel Aviv since 1970.

Gilah Kahn-Hoff­mann moved from Mon­tre­al to Jerusalem after study­ing the­ater, lit­er­a­ture, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty. Start­ing out as a free­lance jour­nal­ist, trans­la­tor, writer, and edi­tor, she became a fea­ture writer at the Jerusalem Post and, sub­se­quent­ly, edi­tor of the paper’s youth mag­a­zines. Lat­er, dur­ing a stint as a writer at the Israel Cen­ter for the Treat­ment of Psy­chotrau­ma, she dis­cov­ered how ful­fill­ing it is to work for the ben­e­fit of oth­ers and moved to NGO work in East Jerusalem and the devel­op­ing world. In recent years, she’s come full cir­cle to her first loves and spends her best hours immersed in lit­er­ary translation.