Image cour­tesy of the author

When Milotch­ka was two, she was scald­ed — not seri­ous­ly, but painful­ly — when she spilled hot fruit com­pote on her­self. She loved eat­ing, and as her grand­moth­er brought the cup of com­pote close to feed her, Milotch­ka snatched at it. The cup over­turned, and the con­tents spilled — main­ly on Grand­ma, but also on Milotch­ka. Milotch­ka burst into tears, and her moth­er and grand­moth­er began a series of emer­gency pro­ce­dures — they dipped her scald­ed hands into cold water, pat­ted oil on her skin, walked back and forth with her in their arms, and so forth. But Milotch­ka went on cry­ing, and after an hour Milotchka’s moth­er got tired and said, Nu, enough, we’ve cried a bit and that’s enough”; and lat­er, Nu, enough already, you’ve cried enough, it shouldn’t hurt after we’ve put oil on it”; and after­ward, Enough, enough, how long can you cry for!” Milotch­ka was star­tled and fell silent for a moment, but imme­di­ate­ly resumed her cry­ing. And then Grand­ma, who hadn’t had time to treat her own burns, took off Milotchka’s blouse and cried, Oy vey,” because there was anoth­er burn on her granddaughter’s bel­ly, which was already blistering.

On numer­ous occa­sions lat­er, Milotchka’s grand­moth­er told her about this inci­dent — which, of course, Milotch­ka couldn’t remem­ber — in a voice weighed down with guilt: You cried and cried, and we didn’t under­stand why. Some­times her moth­er recount­ed it too, in a sim­i­lar tone but with more than a trace of rebuke: See what hap­pens when you don’t have any self-con­trol about food? 

This rep­ri­mand was hurt­ful to Milotch­ka. Dr. Brach­feld, who became her pedi­a­tri­cian once she turned five, had said in the most cer­tain terms pos­si­ble that she had a metab­o­lism prob­lem, so why did her moth­er insist she had no self-con­trol? But Milotch­ka wouldn’t actu­al­ly say any­thing, because her moth­er was prone to migraines and they need­ed to be care­ful not to bring on an attack.

Instead, Milotch­ka would go to bed and look at the small tapes­try on the wall. She lis­tened to the reg­u­lar breath­ing of her grand­moth­er asleep in her bed against the oppo­site wall, and, by the light of the street­lamp out­side the win­dow, looked at the lit­tle goat that was about to be hurt. The tapes­try showed the lit­tle goat with its six broth­ers and sis­ters and their moth­er, as well as a wolf peer­ing out at them from behind a pine tree. Milotchka’s grand­moth­er had told her about the wolf, who wait­ed patient­ly until the moth­er goat went into the for­est to gath­er grass for the family’s meal, and then devoured all sev­en lit­tle goats. Milotch­ka knew that after­ward the moth­er goat would come, cut the wolf’s bel­ly open with her horns, and all the goats would jump out, but she made fright­ened eyes dur­ing the part about the goats being devoured each time her grand­moth­er got to it, because she felt sor­ry for Grand­ma, who had to get down on her hands and knees every day to clean the floor because Milotchka’s moth­er was aller­gic to dust. For the same rea­son, she excit­ed­ly expressed her joy when the lit­tle goats jumped out of the wolf s bel­ly. And only when her grand­moth­er fell asleep would Milotch­ka pet the one goat on whom the vis­it to the wolf’s bel­ly was to leave severe traces — for when the moth­er goat sliced the wolf’s bel­ly open, her horns would graze this goat and harm its metabolism.


Milotch­ka fre­quent­ly lis­tened to the grownups’ con­ver­sa­tions — those between her father and moth­er, her moth­er and father and grand­moth­er, and between her par­ents and grand­moth­er and vis­i­tors. She was unac­cus­tomed to the com­pa­ny of chil­dren. She was an only child and didn’t go to kinder­garten because her father had made it very clear that there was no rea­son to expose her to the dubi­ous care of the teach­ers there when Grand­ma was at home all the time. The few chil­dren she did know weren’t friend­ly, so she gave up try­ing to get close to them and wait­ed for the move to anoth­er city, which had been talked about a great deal by the grownups. Mean­while, she lis­tened to the con­ver­sa­tions and was fas­ci­nat­ed by seri­ous words like econ­o­my, the Mid­dle East, abor­tion, cri­sis, mis­tress, anti­semites, and beau­ti­ful phras­es like in the most cer­tain terms pos­si­ble. Many things were said on the assump­tion that she was already asleep and couldn’t hear them.


A few days after they moved into their new apart­ment in the oth­er city, Milotch­ka looked down at the court­yard from their bal­cony. There was a lawn and a play­ground with a swing, a sand­box, and sev­er­al bench­es. Two girls were play­ing, arrang­ing small stones under a tree. Milotch­ka shook out her doll Ola’s blan­ket, cov­ered her, and told her not to even think about miss­ing her after­noon nap. By now the girls had noticed her. The fair-haired one was cov­er­ing her mouth with her hand — as if Milotch­ka could hear any­thing from four floors up, or lip-read like the deaf peo­ple Grand­ma had told her about — and whis­pered some­thing to the girl with the black braids. The dark-haired one laughed, and the fair-haired one went on whis­per­ing as she shot glances at Milotch­ka. All this didn’t bode well, so Milotch­ka picked up Ola’s blan­ket again and shook it thor­ough­ly to show the two girls that she was very busy and that their mock­ery was of no inter­est to her.

For a long time before she fell asleep that evening, Milotch­ka gazed at the tapes­try. Just like in the old apart­ment, it had been hung by her bed, and a street­lamp filled the room with com­fort­ing­ly famil­iar pale blue light. Like all its sib­lings, the lit­tle goat was still hap­py, because the tapes­try cap­tured it in the scene before it was beset by metab­o­lism. Milotch­ka stroked it with the tips of her fin­gers out of deep com­pas­sion for all the suf­fer­ing it had coming.


When Milotchka’s par­ents came home from work the fol­low­ing after­noon, they packed soap, tow­els, and a change of under­wear in a bag, and went down to the court­yard togeth­er with Milotch­ka and her grand­moth­er. They crossed the lawn and went into the build­ing oppo­site their apart­ment, where there was a notice in the entrance: Bath­house No. 5.” There was no hot water in their new build­ing, because it hadn’t yet been con­nect­ed to the gas grid. Milotch­ka read the words aloud, look­ing for signs of amaze­ment on her par­ents’ faces, but they were already used to their daugh­ter know­ing how to read even though she was only five and a half. Only her grand­moth­er ran a caress of praise over her curls.

In the bath­house, Milotchka’s father bought tick­ets at the counter, gave three to her moth­er, and went into the men’s sec­tion. Milotch­ka and her moth­er and grand­moth­er went the oth­er way. A woman with a young face but white hair was sit­ting at the door of a spa­cious hall. She was wear­ing a blue uni­form. Milotchka’s moth­er hand­ed her the tick­ets. In the hall there were dozens of women dress­ing, undress­ing, brush­ing their hair, and talk­ing by long rows of lock­ers and bench­es. No, no, we’re going to the pri­vate show­ers,” Milotchka’s moth­er said in fright. That’s exact­ly what I want­ed to tell you,” the woman said, hand­ing back the tick­ets. Go down the cor­ri­dor and turn left.”

Before they left the hall, Milotch­ka caught a glimpse of the two girls who had been play­ing in the yard the day before. The dark-haired one was stand­ing with her back to a woman who was comb­ing her hair. With each pull of the comb, the girl whined, Moth­er, it hurts.” The oth­er one was stand­ing beside them, and her damp blonde hair fell in a grace­ful curve against her pro­file. Milotch­ka looked in awe at her shoul­der blades, which pro­trud­ed from her back like two point­ed hills. The dark-haired girl’s breast­bone could be clear­ly dis­cerned beneath her pale skin. Milotch­ka was glad that she wouldn’t have to undress in their presence.


That evening an argu­ment broke out between Milotchka’s par­ents. As usu­al, it took place in the most civ­i­lized man­ner pos­si­ble—that is, qui­et­ly and with hate-filled voic­es. Milotchka’s moth­er said to her father that the mis­er­able pro­mo­tion he’d been giv­en was no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for mov­ing to this provin­cial city, and her father replied that one might think she was from Leningrad or some­thing, and any­way, it was­n’t as if she hadn’t known where they were mov­ing. Milotchka’s moth­er said that she was sac­ri­fic­ing her­self for his career, which in any case was nonex­is­tent, and that he should have said in advance that there wouldn’t be hot water. But I didn’t know, Milotchka’s father replied. Who could’ve imag­ined that a build­ing where peo­ple have been liv­ing for two years still wouldn’t be con­nect­ed to the gas grid? And if you’ve got com­plaints about my career, show me anoth­er Jew who’s reached a posi­tion like mine. Milotch­ka was already in bed in the oth­er room and couldn’t see her par­ents, but she knew that at times like this her father took off his glass­es and cleaned them with his hand­ker­chief in irri­ta­ble move­ments, and her moth­er mas­saged her tem­ples to pre­vent a migraine from com­ing on. After­ward her father said that if they were talk­ing about mak­ing sac­ri­fices, then what about him — forced to endure his moth­er-in-law liv­ing with them so that his wife wouldn’t have to do house­work or look after the child? Milotch­ka was glad to hear the snores com­ing from the oppo­site wall, because she loved her grand­moth­er and didn’t want her to be hurt by what her father was saying.


Milotch­ka observed the court­yard through the green leaves of the climb­ing vine twined around the bal­cony rail. Sum­mer vaca­tion had already begun, and chil­dren of school age had been play­ing there since morn­ing. The younger ones would arrive in the after­noon after com­ing home from kinder­garten. Milotch­ka had already learned to rec­og­nize them. Aliosh­ka and Kol­ka, who at first had seemed so alike it was con­fus­ing, were now com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er. Aliosh­ka had a pale face and black hair, and gave orders in a squawk­ing voice. Kol­ka was qui­eter, with hair that had fad­ed in the sun to be almost the same light brown as his skin. The blonde girl was called Tanya, and her friend was Pola. Some­times a younger girl named Valya played with them, but Tanya and Pola were the reg­u­lar pair.

With Ola in her arms, Milotch­ka moved to the left-hand cor­ner of the bal­cony where the vine’s big, bell-shaped pur­ple flow­ers were. From this cor­ner she could clear­ly see the shapes that the girls had made out of stones on the ground: squares of dif­fer­ent sizes in which they had placed match­box­es. Milotch­ka looked at Ola with bore­dom, laid her down under the blan­ket, and asked her grandmother’s per­mis­sion to go down to the yard.

As soon as she stepped out­side, she heard her grand­moth­er call­ing from the bal­cony, Milotch­ka, Milotch­ka! Remem­ber what we said?” even though only a minute had passed since she’d told Milotch­ka that she must only play in the court­yard, and that under no cir­cum­stances should she go to the oth­er side of the build­ing, which faced busy Lenin Street. Milotch­ka saw Aliosh­ka snick­er and then con­tin­ue run­ning after the ball. Tanya, too, raised her head and whis­pered some­thing to Pola, cov­er­ing her mouth as she spoke. All this didn’t seem encour­ag­ing to Milotch­ka. She sat down on the near­est bench, won­der­ing whether to go over to them or to pre­tend that noth­ing both­ered her, as she’d got­ten used to doing in her pre­vi­ous home.

Kol­ka kicked the ball, which rebound­ed off the tree and land­ed at the girls’ feet. Fat­ty!” Aliosh­ka shout­ed as he came to get it, but then he went back to the game. Milotch­ka saw Tanya look­ing at her with cold curios­i­ty in her gray eyes, and Pola smil­ing mali­cious­ly. Milotch­ka low­ered her head and man­aged to hold back tears.

Can I play with you, girls?” she asked polite­ly. My name’s Mila.”

Mila? We heard you’re called Milotch­ka!” smirked Tanya.

Milotch­ka knew that her family’s reg­u­lar use of the affec­tion­ate form of her name, as well as their exces­sive con­cern, caused deri­sion among oth­er chil­dren. But after her moth­er had acced­ed to her request and began call­ing her Mila, she her­self had asked her to go back to Milotch­ka.”

Actu­al­ly, that’s right, Milotch­ka,” she admit­ted. Every­one calls me that. I’m inter­est­ed in your game. What are those squares?’

The girls seemed con­fused. They looked sus­pi­cious­ly at the large girl who freely used grownups’ words like actu­al­ly” and inter­est­ed,” and who refused to back down in the face of hos­til­i­ty. They exam­ined her fair curls, blue eyes, and thick legs. Pola whis­pered some­thing to Tanya, who whis­pered some­thing back.

Do you eat all the time?” Tanya asked. You’re fat.”

Milotch­ka felt her eyes burn­ing. She knew that in a sec­ond, if she didn’t make a tremen­dous effort, the tears would come. She made the effort.

I’m not fat, I’m full-fig­ured,” Milotch­ka replied. I have a metab­o­lism problem.”

She sighed and looked plead­ing­ly at the girls. They clear­ly didn’t know what metab­o­lism was, but there was some­thing infec­tious in Milotchka’s sigh. They sighed too, per­haps out of polite­ness, and exchanged hes­i­tant glances.

A boy with his arm in a cast, and anoth­er one who resem­bled a hedge­hog because of his spiky hair — Milotch­ka already knew that his name was Pet­ka — joined the soc­cer game. Again the ball flew toward the girls, and Pet­ka came run­ning up. He looked at Milotch­ka, yelled Fat­ty!”, and picked up the ball.

Go away,” Tanya told Milotch­ka. We’re busy.”


The argu­ments between Milotchka’s par­ents became more fre­quent, although they con­tin­ued to be held in the most civ­i­lized man­ner pos­si­ble. Like their pre­vi­ous apart­ment, this one had two rooms, but here they were small­er, and Milotchka’s father com­plained that his mother-in-law’s pres­ence was felt far more in them. Milotchka’s moth­er would say con­temp­tu­ous­ly, You want­ed a career … ” and her father would reply that he had want­ed one, and he’d got­ten it — but who would’ve thought that his moth­er-in-law would move to this city with them when she had anoth­er daugh­ter in the city they’d left? Here Milotchka’s moth­er would say that maybe he’d orga­nized this whole move to get rid of her moth­er, because the pro­mo­tion excuse would only con­vince an idiot — and right away she’d get a migraine.

Some­times dur­ing these argu­ments, when Grandma’s snores couldn’t be heard, Milotch­ka would get up to make sure that she was asleep and not insult­ed. On one occa­sion, she saw that Grand­ma was awake, but when she went over to her, Grand­ma closed her eyes. Milotch­ka didn’t say a word and pitied her more than ever, and the lit­tle goat in the tapes­try pitied her, too.

She sighed and looked plead­ing­ly at the girls. They clear­ly didn’t know what metab­o­lism was, but there was some­thing infec­tious in Milotchka’s sigh.


Most nights, Grand­ma would bathe Milotch­ka in a tin tub filled with water heat­ed on the stove. But twice a week the fam­i­ly would cross the lawn to Bath­house No. 5. They now knew not to go into the big hall, and went straight to the pri­vate show­ers. By the counter in the lob­by, they some­times met neigh­bors from their build­ing. When she encoun­tered Tanya or Pola, Milotch­ka avoid­ed eye con­tact, remem­ber­ing that they had reject­ed her. Pola ignored her, while Tanya open­ly scru­ti­nized her. Once, Milotch­ka tried smil­ing and say­ing hel­lo, but Tanya tugged at her big sister’s hand, and they both looked at Milotch­ka as if she were a strange, inan­i­mate object.


From her obser­va­tion point on the bal­cony, Milotch­ka dis­cov­ered anoth­er boy she hadn’t noticed before. His apart­ment was next to theirs, one floor down. A climb­ing vine sim­i­lar to theirs twined around his bal­cony, but there, strings were drawn from the rail to the upper part of the wall, and the plant wound around them, form­ing an angled green and pur­ple roof. Through this roof, she saw him sit­ting for hours, assem­bling an air­plane from light, thin pieces of wood. Milotchka’s grand­moth­er told her that it was called a mod­el airplane.

A few days lat­er she dis­cov­ered that the boy’s name was Borya. A friend of his often came to the build­ing and would call up to him from the court­yard. He was usu­al­ly car­ry­ing pieces of wood sim­i­lar to Borya’s. Togeth­er they would go some­where — a mod­el air­plane club, Grand­ma told her. Borya had no con­tact with chil­dren from the build­ing. Milotch­ka heard his moth­er telling hers that he was going into sec­ond grade, and that they, too, were new in the build­ing, and that they, too, had been shocked to find out that there was no hot water. Going to the bath­house isn’t cheap, she said. Maybe they’d stop using the pri­vate show­ers and start going to the pub­lic hall.

Milotch­ka was sor­ry that she was too young to go to a mod­el air­plane club. Her world was lim­it­ed to the apart­ment and the court­yard, where she no longer want­ed to go. She con­tin­ued lis­ten­ing to the grownups’ conversations. 

Dr. Neufeld’s pre­scribed a new diet for her,” her moth­er told her grand­moth­er in the oth­er room.

Milotch­ka was already in bed, look­ing at the sev­en goats cavort­ing among the firs. Dr. Neufeld was her new doc­tor. Dr. Brach­feld from their pre­vi­ous city had rec­om­mend­ed him. But he said we shouldn’t expect mir­a­cles. Sta­bi­liz­ing an imbal­anced metab­o­lism isn’t easy. It’s impor­tant that she learns to love her­self as she is.”

Shh … ” Grand­ma said, and they low­ered their voic­es so Milotch­ka couldn’t hear any more. Her father wasn’t home. Recent­ly he had been com­ing home from work very late, and Milotch­ka won­dered if it was bet­ter when he was home or not — she missed him when he wasn’t there, but when he was, he said things that hurt Grandma. 

Mean­while, in the oth­er room, they had decid­ed that Milotch­ka was asleep and resumed talk­ing in loud voic­es. I think he’s got some­one,” her moth­er said. You’re imag­in­ing things. How do you know?” her grand­moth­er replied. I just know.” Her mother’s voice sound­ed thought­ful. It’s some­one from work. You should see her. Slim hips, a pen­cil skirt, heels. Not like me.” Again Grandma’s Shh” was heard, and then whis­per­ing, and after­ward Grand­ma said with final­i­ty: It wouldn’t do you any harm to start lov­ing your­self the way you are, either.”


In the morn­ing, Grand­ma began fol­low­ing Dr. Neufeld’s instruc­tions. The new diet con­sist­ed of yogurt and semoli­na with­out even a pinch of sug­ar. Milotch­ka ate it reluc­tant­ly but obe­di­ent­ly. Before she left for work, her moth­er told her: It’s impor­tant that you aspire to lose weight, but you need to learn to love your­self as you are, too.” Milotch­ka repeat­ed the love­ly word aspire, and longed for an omelet.

Today also you’re not going out­side?” her grand­moth­er asked.

Milotch­ka shook her head.

Weren’t the chil­dren nice to you?” 

The tears Milotch­ka had man­aged to hold back in the court­yard now welled in her eyes.


Milotch­ka began sob­bing. The girls told me they were busy … and that I eat all the time.” She didn’t want to repeat the oth­er things they’d said.

Grand­ma stood up, groan­ing with the effort, and lift­ed Milotch­ka into her arms. She pressed her to her breast and kissed her curls.

You’re my beau­ti­ful grand­daugh­ter,” she said. What love­ly hair my grand­daugh­ter has, and eyes, and soft sweet hands. What, hands like a skeleton’s are love­li­er? Even if you don’t lose weight — you’re still my beau­ti­ful granddaughter.”

The last tears were still flow­ing from Milotchka’s eyes, and Grand­ma decid­ed to make her laugh a lit­tle. Come,” she said, imag­ine what will hap­pen if you suc­ceed in the two tasks you’ve been giv­en — you lose weight and then, oy vey! You’ve already learned to love your­self as you are, so you’ll have to put the weight back on right away!”


After break­fast, Milotch­ka plucked up her courage and went down to the court­yard. As usu­al, Pola and Tanya were play­ing under the tree, and she went over to them. Tanya raised her head and observed her with a long, direct, unblink­ing stare, while Pola con­tin­ued to arrange the stones.

Good morn­ing, girls,” Milotch­ka said.

Tanya con­tin­ued to exam­ine her silent­ly. Pola was pre­oc­cu­pied with the stones, and Milotch­ka wasn’t sure if she’d heard her or not. In the end she, too, looked up at Milotchka.

Maybe today you’ll let me play with you?” Milotch­ka asked.

They looked at one anoth­er, then at her, and shook their heads in per­fect uni­son, as if they were twins.

Milotch­ka hes­i­tat­ed and then said: You know, in my last apart­ment in anoth­er city, I wait­ed expec­tant­ly and impa­tient­ly for us to move to our new home.”

She glanced at them to make sure that expec­tant­ly” and impa­tient­ly” had aroused admi­ra­tion, and went on: I thought, Now I’ll move to a new home, and I’ll have new friends there.’ When I got here and saw you play­ing — I thought, Maybe they will be my friends.’ And it hurts me very much that you don’t want to play with me.”

As she fin­ished speak­ing, a ball land­ed on the stones that Pola had just arranged, but Pola didn’t look at the ball or at Kol­ka, who had come to retrieve it and had ruined what she’d built. It was evi­dent that Milotchka’s speech had made an impres­sion on them.

All right,” Tanya said, you can build your apart­ment next to us.”

An apart­ment?” Milotch­ka asked.

The stones here are our apart­ments. We build them as if this is my big room, and here’s the lit­tle one, and there’s the kitchen and the toi­let. Apart­ment 27. Next to me is 26, Pola’s apart­ment. And these” — point­ing at the match­box­es — these are tables and beds. You’ll be Apart­ment 8, because you’re from the first entrance.”


The hap­py life Milotch­ka had dreamed about final­ly began. The boys still made fun of her, but her accep­tance by the girls enhanced her sta­tus. The name-call­ing grad­u­al­ly less­ened. In the evening before she fell asleep, Milotch­ka would touch the tapes­try with the tips of her fin­gers, stroke the wound­ed goat, and promise it that every­thing would be all right.

She thought about her new friends. Like Aliosh­ka and Kol­ka, who looked alike only at first glance, the two girls now looked dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er, too. Their iden­ti­cal height, slim­ness, and a cer­tain arro­gance in their faces became less notice­able, and they were shown to be dif­fer­ent not only in the col­or and length of their hair. There was some­thing fast and com­pelling about Tanya. It was she who’d ini­tial­ly dis­qual­i­fied Milotch­ka from join­ing their games, and it was she who had final­ly giv­en the sig­nal to let her join them. Pola was con­tem­pla­tive and tend­ed to day­dream. Her devo­tion to make-believe games was absolute. Build­ing the apart­ments with stones, which she had ini­ti­at­ed, aroused great enthu­si­asm in her, and some­times, when one of the boys destroyed them, she would boil over and get into a fight. To Milotchka’s sur­prise, Tanya proved to be far more cau­tious in such sit­u­a­tions. Milotch­ka sensed that it was impor­tant to form a good rela­tion­ship with Tanya, but also to be wary of her.

At home, the argu­ments between her par­ents became ever more civ­i­lized. Next to her tapes­try, Milotch­ka lis­tened to their voic­es, which became qui­eter as the anger in them increased, until final­ly they were no longer audi­ble. Milotch­ka gath­ered that there was a run­ning bat­tle between her par­ents about her grand­moth­er liv­ing with them. She was gripped by the fear that her father would win. One evening she burst into tears and said that if Grand­ma left, she would leave with her or die. Her father pol­ished his glass­es, her moth­er got a migraine, and the argu­ments diminished.

Milotch­ka start­ed to believe that mat­ters had been resolved. At night she thought about Aliosh­ka and Kol­ka, Tanya and Pola, and Borya, the boy from the third floor who only came down to the court­yard when his friend came by to go to the mod­el air­plane club. But she didn’t have much time to think about him because her own posi­tion was still ten­u­ous. After days of qui­et, Aliosh­ka would dart over, hit her leg with a slen­der birch branch, and burst out laugh­ing. The girls, some­times one and some­times the oth­er, smiled at him like col­lab­o­ra­tors. Aside from the insult, the incon­sis­ten­cy trou­bled her — every time she decid­ed that one of them was her ally, the tables were turned.

In the evening her father lis­tened to Voice of Israel on the radio. After her moth­er remind­ed her that she should aspire to lose weight, but love her­self as she is, he would explain to Milotch­ka that she should be proud of being a Jew. There’s a very impor­tant prize called the Nobel Prize,” he’d say, and the num­ber of Jews to whom it has been award­ed is extreme­ly high con­sid­er­ing the small num­ber of Jews in the world. Borya — our neigh­bors’ son who builds mod­el air­planes even though he’s only, what, eight or nine? — he’s also Jew­ish. So are you proud, my clever one? Are you hap­py?” her father would ask, and Milotch­ka would say“Yes,”eventhough she had her doubts: If her father always asked her moth­er to show him anoth­er Jew who’d reached a posi­tion like his, then what was there to be so hap­py about? Not only that, but also one day he told them that some­body had called him a zhid.

Milotch­ka real­ized that Pola, too, was Jew­ish. She had seen Pet­ka mim­ic­k­ing Pola’s moth­er when she spoke to her once in Yid­dish, and she was glad that her par­ents didn’t speak in that lan­guage, which she only rec­og­nized because her grand­moth­er some­times blurt­ed out a few Yid­dish words — Oy vey,” for instance. Out of her father’s hear­ing, she made her grand­moth­er swear not to say those words in the children’s pres­ence. Pola, with her thin­ness and friend­ship with Tanya, could per­mit her­self to be a Jew. Milotch­ka had enough on her hands with metabolism.

She found great con­so­la­tion in the fact that the voic­es from the oth­er room now sound­ed calmer. One evening they were talk­ing about Chukovsky’s book From Two to Five, in which there were numer­ous amus­ing expres­sions used by chil­dren. Her par­ents laughed, but more than once the rea­son for their laugh­ter mys­ti­fied Milotch­ka. For exam­ple, when her moth­er men­tioned a lit­tle boy who asked: How do you know if a baby is a boy or a girl, when it’s born with­out pants or a skirt?” Milotch­ka thought that the ques­tion was actu­al­ly the most cor­rect one possible.


It was a Sun­day and her par­ents were home all day. Per­haps it was this being togeth­er that brought about the cir­cum­stances lead­ing to the final cri­sis. Milotch­ka was on the bal­cony, water­ing the climb­ing vine. In the kitchen, Grand­ma was mak­ing sup­per. Many peo­ple went to the bath­house on Sun­days. Milotch­ka saw Borya and his par­ents dis­ap­pear­ing into it. Sud­den­ly her moth­er gave a sharp cry. Milotch­ka ran into the liv­ing room. Her moth­er was sob­bing on the couch, and her father was pac­ing back and forth with his long strides.

Milotch­ka nur­tured the hope of becom­ing Tanya’s best friend. Every­one knew that Pola was Jew­ish — her par­ents even spoke Yid­dish when they walked through the court­yard together.

What you’re pre­pared to do to have a live-in maid!” Milotchka’s father said. To drag your old moth­er every­where with you … Who can endure this over­crowd­ing? … Yes, yes, I’m going to a hotel, it’s bet­ter that way … ”

Her father looked no less mis­er­able than her moth­er, and Milotch­ka didn’t know which one of them she should feel sor­ry for. At that moment her grand­moth­er came out of the kitchen, wiped her hands on a tow­el, hugged Milotch­ka, and said:

That’s it. I’m leav­ing tomorrow.”


There was shout­ing and tears (Milotchka’s and her mother’s); there was an apol­o­gy (her father’s); and there was even a brief faint­ing spell (her mother’s). Noth­ing helped. Grandma’s only devi­a­tion from her announce­ment was that she didn’t leave the fol­low­ing day, but two weeks lat­er — once her oth­er daugh­ter had made arrange­ments to have her, and all the bureau­crat­ic issues had been settled.

At night Milotch­ka lay awake in her bed. She held con­ver­sa­tions with the goat whose metab­o­lism had been hurt, and promised it that per­haps Grand­ma would come back, even though her moth­er had sad­ly told her that she could for­get it. A hasti­ly hired house­keep­er made Milotchka’s semoli­na from a recipe her grand­moth­er had left. The meal had already lost its fla­vor due to Dr. Neufeld’s dic­tates, and now it was ined­i­ble. Milotch­ka began to add three or four spoons of sug­ar, and when her moth­er found out she was very angry.

Milotchka’s moth­er had put on weight. The house­keep­er did far less than Grand­ma, and when Moth­er got home from work, a great deal of house­work await­ed her. To perk her­self up, she’d open a pack­age of wafers and fin­ish it off with­out even notic­ing. Her aller­gy to dust, which had stopped both­er­ing her when Grand­ma washed the floor every day, erupt­ed again with even greater force. She had a per­ma­nent­ly run­ny nose and red eyes. Her migraines were also more fre­quent, and so were the argu­ments with her hus­band. Now they were about the house­hold bud­get, which was tighter because they had to pay the housekeeper.

Dur­ing one of their argu­ments, Milotch­ka saw her moth­er clutch her head and bang it against the wall sev­er­al times. Milotch­ka and her father were dumb­struck, until her father said, Enough, you’re exag­ger­at­ing.” She did it a few more times. Milotch­ka, after being ter­ri­bly fright­ened, sud­den­ly real­ized that her moth­er had banged her head quite care­ful­ly, in the most civ­i­lized man­ner pos­si­ble, and for the first time in her life, she felt con­tempt toward her mother.


Mat­ters devel­oped rapid­ly, with­out any pre­lim­i­nary indi­ca­tions. The school year had already start­ed. Borya came home from school, went upstairs to his apart­ment, and came right down again car­ry­ing a mod­el air­plane. His friend from the club hadn’t come by that day — he was alone. As he crossed the yard, Milotch­ka sensed some­thing brew­ing among the boys sit­ting on the near­by bench. Aliosh­ka put his arms around Kolka’s and Petka’s shoul­ders and whis­pered some­thing. They burst out laugh­ing. He looked toward Borya, who was just pass­ing them, and whis­pered again. The laugh­ter grew loud­er. Come on!” Aliosh­ka ordered.

He over­took Borya and stood fac­ing him. Borya halt­ed. Kol­ka and Pet­ka stood on either side of him. Tanya and Pola left their stone apart­ments to watch what was hap­pen­ing. Milotch­ka fol­lowed them.

Borya looked at the boys sur­round­ing him. What do you want?” he asked Aliosh­ka. In a swift move­ment, Aliosh­ka picked up a thin birch branch from the ground and lashed Borya’s leg. You’re a zhid,” he said. I saw you in the bathhouse.”

Pola stopped look­ing at what was hap­pen­ing and went back to arrang­ing her apart­ment under the tree. Milotch­ka watched her pick up a match­box and, after brief thought, put it into anoth­er room.

With­out a word, Pet­ka also struck Borya with a thin branch. Kol­ka did noth­ing; he just stared at what was going on. Borya tried to grab the branch from Pet­ka, but failed. He was shield­ing the mod­el air­plane with one hand, so only the oth­er was free. He made a futile attempt to move Aliosh­ka out of his way. Aliosh­ka shoved him back.

Milotch­ka looked on with bat­ed breath. She liked Borya, even though she had nev­er exchanged a word with him. The fact that he was being attacked by boys younger than he seemed par­tic­u­lar­ly humiliating.

Borya shoved Aliosh­ka hard. Aliosh­ka stag­gered back and flushed. He paused, puffed out his cheeks, and squirt­ed a jet of spit at Borya, droplets of which land­ed on the girls. Tanya winced in dis­gust, wiped her­self off, and stepped back. Then Aliosh­ka grabbed the air­plane from Borya, and with a few short, sharp move­ments, broke it into pieces.


The rumors about what had hap­pened reached Milotchka’s parents.

Alioshka’s moth­er went to Borya’s moth­er to apol­o­gize,” Milotchka’s moth­er told them at suppertime.

Anti­semites! Thugs! Who did he learn this hatred from oth­er than his par­ents?” her father fumed.

Aliosh­ka knew Borya’s Jew­ish because he saw him in the bath­house!” Milotch­ka report­ed. How did he know?”

He just saw,” her moth­er said. 

But how?”

Milotchka’s moth­er looked at her father. Her father shrugged. How? What does it mat­ter, how? What, being a Jew is shame­ful? Let them see, it’s noth­ing that should be hid­den!” he said, and got up from the table.

Moth­er, how?” Milotch­ka persisted.

You can see that Jews are Jews when they haven’t got any clothes on. You’ll under­stand when you grow up. Go to bed.”

She helped Milotch­ka undress and put on her nightgown.

You’re not los­ing any weight … you’re still putting sug­ar in your semoli­na. What’ll become of you?”

Milotch­ka looked at her sad­ly, and her moth­er’s face soft­ened. She hugged Milotch­ka and told her to love her­self as she was.


That night Milotch­ka couldn’t fall asleep. After the inci­dent with Borya, she felt glad that Grand­ma didn’t live with them any­more. All she need­ed would be for her to blurt out an Oy vey” in the yard.

She thought about Tanya and Pola. She sensed a bal­ance in their friend­ship, but its vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty was also clear. Tanya loved doing small wicked things, like throw­ing peb­bles at passers­by and pre­tend­ing she had no idea who’d done it. Fre­quent­ly she enticed Pola to join in. Yet there was a cer­tain inde­pen­dence in Pola; she could say no as eas­i­ly as she could say yes, and she could immerse her­self in make-believe games with­out need­ing any­body else — where­as Tanya need­ed Pola’s com­pa­ny very much.

Milotch­ka nur­tured the hope of becom­ing Tanya’s best friend. Every­one knew that Pola was Jew­ish — her par­ents even spoke Yid­dish when they walked through the court­yard togeth­er. Milotch­ka didn’t have that problem.

The sound of an argu­ment came from the oth­er room. Again some­thing about how expen­sive it was to have a house­keep­er. Then her mother’s voice, very agi­tat­ed. Per­haps she was even cry­ing. Why are you telling me fairy­tales, do you think I don’t know? Young, slim hips … ”

And her father’s voice: You’re imag­in­ing things. Calm down, you’re hysterical.”


As soon as he got home from school, Borya set­tled on the bal­cony and began repair­ing the mod­el air­plane. His friend from the club was sit­ting with him, and they were joined by the boy with his arm in a cast. Milotch­ka looked down on them from above, through the leaves of the vine, and searched Borya for signs left by the awful inci­dent. What would have hap­pened if she had been attacked like that? It would’ve been even worse than the calls of fat­ty.” The chil­dren hard­ly both­ered Pola, per­haps because she’d been in the build­ing longer, but poor Borya … And yet there was noth­ing to be seen on him. He was whol­ly focused on fit­ting the bro­ken pieces of his air­plane back together.

In the after­noon Milotchka’s moth­er came home from work, sent the house­keep­er home, and took Milotch­ka to the bath­house. She bought tick­ets at the counter as usu­al, and they went to the women’s sec­tion. Milotch­ka ran ahead to the end of the cor­ri­dor, passed the entrance to the big hall, and was about to turn left when she heard her moth­er call­ing her back.

No, Milotch­ka, no, we’re going in here today,” she said, and went into the big hall, the one they’d mis­tak­en­ly entered the first day. She hand­ed the tick­ets to the woman with the young face and white hair. This time she didn’t send them to the pri­vate show­ers, but silent­ly tore off the stubs. Again Milotch­ka could see the dozens of naked women — women dress­ing, undress­ing, comb­ing their hair, and talk­ing by the long bench­es and the lock­ers. She looked at her mother.

We have to start sav­ing mon­ey, Milotch­ka,” her moth­er said. The pub­lic show­ers are cheaper.”

Milotch­ka tried to take in the mean­ing of the change. In the big hall, the vari­ety of white-pink female nudi­ty was there for her, and every­one else, to see. Shoul­ders, breasts, arms, but­tocks, thighs, damp hair, bras and under­pants, inces­sant noise.

Maybe we’ll even be hap­pi­er here,” her moth­er said, as if con­vinc­ing her­self as well. Isn’t it true that we were a lit­tle sad, just the two of us in the show­er, after Grand­ma left? And look, Tanya’s here, too.”

Tanya?” Milotch­ka felt a strong warn­ing cur­rent hit her spine. Tanya was com­ing toward her, smil­ing and hold­ing her big sister’s hand. Moth­er, let’s go, quickly!”

What’s the mat­ter with you, Milotch­ka? We’re not going any­where. Come and take a shower.”

All right, but where we always go. Let’s go to the pri­vate showers.”

Milotch­ka,” her moth­er said, shift­ing into a whis­per, I don’t want to have to tell you again, peo­ple can hear us … The pri­vate show­ers are expen­sive. It’ll be fine here, you’ll see.”

Tanya looked at them curi­ous­ly and unblink­ing­ly, and Milotch­ka recalled the first days in the courtyard.

No,” she told her moth­er, shak­ing her head. No!”

Her mother’s face red­dened. Come.” She took Milotchka’s hand and led her to one of the bench­es. With hard fin­gers, she lift­ed Milotchka’s dress and tried to pull it over her head. Lift your arms up.”

Women were star­ing at them.

No!” Milotch­ka shrieked. More impor­tant things hung in the bal­ance. She pressed her arms to her sides so her moth­er couldn’t take off her dress.

Her mother’s hands began to trem­ble. Milotch­ka looked at her face and saw that her lips were trem­bling, too. Her moth­er pressed her fin­gers to her tem­ples and mas­saged them for a long moment. Then she turned to Milotch­ka again.

Are you ashamed of being seen?” she asked. Milotch­ka didn’t reply. You eat like a cow and then you’re ashamed of being seen naked?”

Milotch­ka couldn’t believe what her moth­er was say­ing. Tears sprang to her eyes.

Get undressed right now.”

Milotch­ka shook her head. Her moth­er grabbed her arms, forced them up, and pulled at the dress again.

In an attempt to free her­self, Milotch­ka threw her­self onto the floor. Her moth­er bent over her. Now she was no longer flushed but as pale as the walls. Her face was twisted.

You don’t want peo­ple to see you? Love your­self as you are! Just as you are!”

No, Mom­my, it’s not only … ” Milotch­ka tried to explain in a whis­per so Tanya wouldn’t hear. I’ll explain lat­er … ” But her moth­er wasn’t listening.

Get up off the floor and stop mak­ing a scene,” she whis­pered. Get up right now.”

Milotch­ka didn’t get up. Enraged, her moth­er grabbed her by the hair and tried to pull her to her feet.

Over her moth­er’s shoul­der, Milotch­ka saw women watch­ing them, whis­per­ing to each oth­er. She mus­tered her strength, man­aged to free her­self, and fled from the bathhouse.


That night her father sat beside her, ran a hand over her curls, and asked her to stop cry­ing. Her moth­er had told him about Milotchka’s behav­ior, which had shamed her in front of every­body in the worst pos­si­ble way. He asked Milotch­ka what had hap­pened, but she couldn’t stop sob­bing long enough to answer. Even­tu­al­ly he said good night and left the room.

In the dark, she slow­ly stopped cry­ing. Her moth­er was now a for­eign, hat­ed woman to her. She had called Milotch­ka a cow and hadn’t want­ed to lis­ten to what she had to say. The roots of her hair still hurt, and her elbow was bruised.

She turned her face to the tapes­try. Sud­den­ly, despite the insult and the pain, she smiled. She had endured a hard bat­tle, but she had won.

Tanya hadn’t found out that Milotch­ka was Jewish.

Who knew what would hap­pen tomor­row, and the day after, and in two weeks. Her moth­er was liable to decide to show­er in the pub­lic sec­tion again, to undress in front of the neigh­bors and undress Milotch­ka, and her father was like­ly to do a sim­i­lar­ly stu­pid thing in the men’s sec­tion. But these wor­ries could be put off until tomor­row. In the mean­time, the dis­as­ter had been avert­ed, and Milotch­ka smiled.

By the light of the street­lamp, her best friend, the goat with metab­o­lism, was look­ing at her.


From Children’s Mate by Bel­la Shaier, 2011, Hak­ib­butz-Hameuchad/ Hasifria Hakhadasha. Trans­lat­ed by Antho­ny Berris with the sup­port of Am Ha-Sefer — The Israeli Fund for Trans­la­tion of Hebrew Books, Israel Min­istry of Cul­ture and Sport.

Eng­lish trans­la­tion © 2015 by Bel­la Shaier and Hakibbutz-Hameuchad.

This is a work of fic­tion. Names, char­ac­ters, and events are the prod­ucts of the author’s imag­i­na­tion. Any resem­blance to actu­al events or per­sons, liv­ing or dead, is pure­ly coincidental.

Bel­la Shaier was born in Cher­nivt­si, Ukraine in the Sovi­et Union in 1957, and immi­grat­ed to Israel at the age of twelve. She holds an MA in lit­er­a­ture from Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty. Shaier worked for twen­ty-five years as a com­put­er sys­tems ana­lyst before start­ing to write. In 2012, her col­lec­tion Children’s Mate was award­ed the Ramat Gan Prize for debut lit­er­a­ture and was short­list­ed for the Sapir Prize. Sand­cas­tles, a short film based on a sto­ry in Children’s Mate, was released in 2016. Many of Shaier’s sto­ries have been pub­lished in antholo­gies and lit­er­ary peri­od­i­cals. A trans­la­tion of Children’s Mate was pub­lished in 2021 in Ukraine.

Antho­ny Berris was born in the Unit­ed King­dom and lived in Israel for most of his adult life. He was a trans­la­tor and editor.