This piece is one of an ongoing series that we will be sharing in the coming days from Israeli authors and authors in Israel.
At Jewish Book Council, we understand the value of fiction and stories to share individual experiences. It’s more important now than ever to give space to these voices and narratives.
This is a work of fiction and the views and opinions expressed below are those of the author.
Ruth Mutzafi turns on the light but the room remains murky. She maneuvers the wheely bag that holds her swimming things through the doorway, then shuts and locks the door behind her. Her feet ache and she’s exhausted. Not from swimming, she’d barely done that, but from walking home all the way from the YMCA because she’d been afraid to take the bus.
When she turns to open the shades that cover the large living room window she sees Ezra sitting on the couch. He has a pencil in his right hand and the Israel Hayom sudoku open on the coffee table. She holds in the hiss that wants to come out and surveys him slowly, from bald pate to rumpled slacks. She freezes.
“I let myself in.”
The cumulative agony of years of pain wells up from deep within her body. Hadn’t they reached a way of managing this since their separation? Why this violation?
“I knocked and there was no answer. You rejected my call.”
“You should leave.”
He examines the sudoku, ponders, and inverts his pencil to erase a number.
“Don’t you think we should be together at a time like this? With children and grandchildren at war?” he asks, staring down at the puzzle page.
“Remember what I whispered to you in bed, on the night you cast me out?” He looks up at her. “‘I remember your devotion when you were young; how, as a bride, you loved me; how you followed me through the desert, through a land not sown.’ I still do.”
“And how did you repay that?” Ruth trembles. “You raised your hand against me! You tried to turn my children into my enemies.”
The first split second sounds faint and distant, like the horn of a car way out on Ben-Zakkai Street. But the wail grows louder as it rises up the scale and seems to be sounding from all directions. Ezra grabs her hand, she shakes it off. “No time for that,” he commands as he opens the door. His fingernails dig into her forearm as he pulls her out and down the stairs from the second floor and through the dazzling light of the yard and down into the gloom of the shelter on the other side. He releases her arm only when a figure envelops him in a bear hug.
“Ezra!” the bear rumbles. “Blessed is he who revives the dead!”
It’s Yizhar, Etti Badihi’s son, the one who’d turned into a Haredi rabbi, dark suit and homburg and the works. While he was in high school he’d worked for Ezra at the shawarma stand.
An explosion, muted by the shelter’s thick walls, then another.
“Interception,” Ezra says.
“Where’s your mother?” Ruth asks. The siren is still sounding.
“You know Ema. Fearless. She refuses to come, just went on ironing.”
“I’ll go get her.” Ezra grabs her arm again. She tries to shake it off. “Also, I need to hang up my swimsuit and towel or they’ll get smelly.”
“Sit down,” Ezra directs, propelling her through the dusk toward a plastic chair. And to Yizhar: “We were just updating each other about the grandkids in the army. You know how it is. Some call her, some call me.”
The siren fades out. The murmur of the other neighbors in the shelter becomes audible. They’re talking about her, she knows.
“How many?” Yizhar asks.
“Four of the boys, two of the girls,” Ezra replies. “And Amram …”
“That pipsqueak?” Yizhar laughs.
“Not such a pipsqueak, he’ll be forty in November. Anyway, he packed up his kitbag and wanted to go but Miriam blocked the door and said no way.”
“Forty? No way.”
Ezra is so absorbed in the conversation that it gives Ruth an opening. She slips off the chair and, moving silently through the perimeter of darkness along the shelter’s walls, reaches the heavy metal door, which remains half-open, and sneaks out. She heads for the next entrance over, not even waiting for her eyes to adjust to the sun, up three flights. The door to the Badihi’s is half open. She knocks and calls out, “It’s Ruth.”
“Come on in.” Etti’s raspy voice is barely audible over the radio, which is on very loud. Non-stop coverage of the war. She’s at the ironing board in the kitchen, a cigarette sticking out of the side of her mouth. A breeze, and a ray of sunlight, shine through the window over the sink. A young woman sits at the kitchen table, her back to Ruth, her hands clasping a glass of tea and her eyes directed at the window. She seems not to notice Ruth at all.
Ruth thinks that Etti is telling her that the girl’s name is Naama, but two broadcast voices are analyzing the bombing raids in Gaza. Etti points with her cigarette. Ashes fall off, some on the shirt she’s pressing.
“She’s a friend of my Hadas’s. Her boyfriend lives in Kfar Aza,” Etti says, raising her voice. “Or lived. Missing. No sign. Apartment burned.” Naama, if that is her name, seems not to hear, and continues to gaze at the sunray. “Can you imagine.”
Etti goes back to her chore, but looks Ruth up and down. “What is it?”
“Ezra. I came home from the pool and he was sitting in the living room.”
“I told you to change the lock.”
“He grabbed me and dragged me to the bomb shelter.”
Etti looks away. “I’m so fixated on the news that I haven’t offered you anything.” She puts her iron down and reaches over to switch on the electric kettle.
“Yizhar says you refuse to come down.”
“I have too much to do.” Etti puts tea bags and mint leaves in three glass mugs, stirs in sugar, and pours. She glances at Naama. “Too much to do. What are you going to do about Ezra?”
“I don’t know. He scares me. Even at home I’m in danger.” Ruth watches Etti take the still full tea glass from Naama’s hand and replace it with a fresh one. Naama accepts it passively, not even looking at it. The glint of the sun off the glass startles Ruth. The door opens and Yizhar walks in. Ruth sees Ezra in the shadows behind, waiting. Etti sees him, too.
“Ema …” As Ruth looks desperately for a place to hide, the siren sounds again, both from outside and from the radio. Yizhar steps forward and reaches out to his mother. Ezra slides into the light and extends his hand. Etti slaps Ezra, and the sound of it reverberates over the siren. He recoils. Yizhar pleads: “Ema, we should go to the shelter.”
“Go, go, you and your friend.”
“Ema, I’m just trying to protect you.”
“The world’s a dangerous place, Yizhari. Nothing you can do about that.”
She pushes the two men out the door. “Ruth and me, we’re safe here.”
Haim Watzman lives in Jerusalem and is the author of three books: Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel; A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley; and a story collection, Necessary Stories, a selection of the more than 150 he has written. His play The Chair won the 2021 Theater Institute Award of the Contemporary Jewish Drama International Competition sponsored by the Estera Rachel and Ida Makinskie Jewish Theater in Warsaw. He has translated more than 50 books from Hebrew into English, among them works by Shlomo Avineri, David Grossman, Hillel Cohen, Amos Oz, and Tom Segev. He edited the English-language version of Yuval Noah Harari’s worldwide bestseller, Sapiens. Subscribe to his Substack newsletter here.