Gabriel and Fanny — A Jewish-Israeli Tale of Love and Hate

By Nava Semel

Published October 26, 2009.
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Grandfather left Grandmother. In those days it was considered a scandal, a secret whispered behind closed doors, unsuited, God forbid, for children’s ears. Like death, divorce was never mentioned. In those days people didn’t get divorced and didn’t die.

Gabriel and Fanny Herzig and granddaughter Nava Semel, Israel 1960.
Courtesy Nava Semel
Gabriel and Fanny Herzig and granddaughter Nava Semel, Israel 1960.

Grandfather left Grandmother, but he also left my father, a six-month old baby at the time, and immigrated to America. That was in 1919, when the small Jewish shtetls all over Europe were rife with rumors that the sidewalks of New York were paved with gold and America was called the Goldene Medina in Yiddish. Grandfather promised to send tickets as soon as he was settled. He indeed got settled but the tickets were never sent. On the forms I later received from the Ellis Island Museum, Gabriel Herzig declares that he left a wife behind, but no mention is made of baby Yitzhak. Was it because he feared the immigration authorities, or had he repressed the fact that he’d abandoned his only son?

Every year on his birthday Father received a sign of life from New York in the form of a green one-dollar bill in an envelope. When his friends in the small town of Siret in Romania teased him about his absent parent, he thought to himself that perhaps a dead father was preferable to an absent-living one. “I wished to be an orphan,” he’d tell me when I was an adult – words that wrenched at my heart.

I don’t know if Grandma Fanny preferred to be a widow, but she remained an abandoned wife. According to Jewish religious law a woman who has not been granted a divorce by her husband cannot remarry. This did not prevent Grandpa Gabriel from maintaining a relationship, progressive for its time, with another woman by the name of Clara Mendel, an immigrant like him. They lived in separate apartments on the Lower East Side – Clara on Clinton Street and Grandfather on Norfolk Street. I do not know if she was comfortable with this modern arrangement or if it was forced upon her. Either way, they lived Woody Allen and Mia Farrow-style for more than thirty years. Every morning Grandfather came to her apartment for coffee and then went to work at the New York Stock Exchange. Although he did not pluck gold from the sidewalks, he became an expert in stocks and shares, which for him epitomized the essence of his exciting new world.

By contrast, my abandoned grandmother never knew another man, neither in the Biblical nor the practical sense. The only man in her world was my father whom she followed everywhere. He rescued her from the death transports to Transnistria and turned her into a Zionist against her will, in total contrast to her separated husband for whom the Land of Israel had never been an option and the Jewish supplication, “Next year in Jerusalem”, was but a hollow utterance. Perhaps Grandmother clutched at Father because she recognized in him the charming and handsome fiancé for whom she had faithfully waited for four years when he fought in World War One. “Many waters cannot quench love,” says King Solomon’s Song of Songs, and not even the Atlantic Ocean could quench my grandmother’s love. If I had been in her shoes I’d have fought and rebelled and would surely have pounced on the first lover I found in order to somewhat salve my wounded ego, but in those days women resigned themselves to their fate as if it were the will of God. How Grandmother explained her marital status I can only imagine in the books I write.

In 1946, after the Holocaust, Father, as a young Zionist activist, was interviewed at a conference in Paris by a journalist from an American-Jewish newspaper. One New York morning, over his cup of coffee, Grandfather opened the newspaper and suddenly recognized Father in the article. That’s how he discovered that his only son was alive. Perhaps it was because he was assailed by pangs of conscience for not doing enough to rescue them from the horrors of the Nazi occupation that Grandpa contacted the newspaper and asked for information. I don’t dismiss the possibility that it was the childless Clara who urged her lover to find his son.

Three years later the family was reunited at the ritual circumcision of my older brother Shlomo in a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley. Grandfather came to Israel to meet his first grandson and his son – two for the price of one. Grandmother refused to meet him at Haifa Port, perhaps fearing that the fragile mantle concealing the depth of her emotions would unravel. My attempts to garner information about what happened in that first meeting between my separated grandparents were unsuccessful, other than the fact that both Gabriel, as he descended the ship’s gangway, and Yitzhak, who stood on the wharf, wore nametags on their lapels so that they could recognize one another – perfect, if fortuitous, synchronicity. By the time I heard the whole story Gabriel and Fanny were no longer alive, and even if I’d had the opportunity to ask, I suspect they would not have confided in me, because who revealed their emotions in those days? In any event, the only black-and-white photograph remaining from that visit shows Grandfather at my brother’s circumcision ceremony hacking at the harsh Israeli soil with a grub-hoe and Grandmother, wearing a glum expression, watching him from the side. Thirty years after abandoning her he finally gave her a divorce and released her from the bonds of marriage. Now she was legally permitted to any man. This ancient love story had seemingly come to an end. Grandfather did not harbor any love for the nascent State of Israel either. He saw it as a godforsaken place that didn’t stand a chance in the Middle East, surrounded as it is by hostile and belligerent neighbors. He loathed the kibbutz, regarding it as the “Stronghold of Communism”, whereas he viewed Zionism as an absurdly misguided adventure. He gave Father an ultimatum: “Either you come with me to America, or I’m leaving again.”

Father, of course, refused. Although the sidewalks in Israel were not paved with gold, nor was the land flowing with milk and honey, it was the only place for him and my mother Mimi, an Auschwitz survivor. As far as they were concerned any other promised land was unthinkable.

Immediately after that Father Hebraized his name from Herzig to Artzi, and the family’s identity was most decisively and unmistakably split. The Hebrew word “artzi” means – how symbolic – “my country.”

Ten years after the divorce and second departure, Grandfather suddenly came back into our lives again. Clara Mendel, or “his common law wife” as she was known in those days, sent a letter with bad news – Grandfather was becoming increasingly blind. And she had no intention of taking care of him. After all, even when he was finally a single man he did not take the trouble to put a ring on her finger. He was the abandoned man now. “Poetic justice,” some would say. I was five years old when Father went to New York following Clara’s letter. He moved into Grandfather’s apartment on Norfolk Street, and became closely acquainted with him for the first time when he himself was already a grown man with a family of his own. The enforced intimacy came too late and they remained estranged, whereas with Clara – who still lived on Clinton Street – Father forged a warm relationship. Perhaps he secretly identified with the mistress’s decision to give the serial deserter a taste of his own medicine.

Father’s letters traversed the ocean every day. After he died I reread them, and the desperate promise concluding every one of them, “My beloved children, I shall return,” demonstrates how haunted he was by the scar of abandonment. His worst nightmare, he would tell me when I was an adult, was that he, too, would be regarded as a father who deserts his children.

After a six-month absence, Father came back to us with Grandfather, an American stranger in an elegant suit and silk tie, the likes of which were rarely seen in our locale, and with a Plymouth automobile that became the talk of the town. In Becoming Gershona (Viking Penguin, 1990) I wrote, “And I didn’t even know I had a grandfather.”

Now the ancient love story intertwined into our lives and created several new problems. Since Grandfather and Grandmother were divorced, according to Jewish religious law they were forbidden seclusion, so I slept on a folding bed in the living room at the feet of the old, moody American man, and my older brother shared the small balcony with Grandmother. The old scars ignited the household. Scathing words uttered in Yiddish still echo within me, tightlipped silences, and a cloud of distress in cramped and suffocating rooms. I was told nothing of all this. As I said, divorce, like death, was a secret that must be kept from children.

A creative solution was quickly found for the impossible living conditions at home. Grandfather proposed marriage to Grandmother and she, surprisingly, accepted. It was my other grandfather who came up with the idea because he felt sorry for his daughter – my mother who was being crushed in the familial pressure cooker. He sealed the transaction between the two parties in advance, as befitting a proficient matchmaker.

Why did Grandmother agree to remarry Grandfather? Was it a euphoric moment of triumph and reparation for the humiliation she had suffered all her life, a belated requiting of the love that been subdued within her for so many years, or was it an irony of fate that provided her with a second chance, one in which the tables were turned and control of her man – blind, old and submissive – was finally placed in her hands. Fanny knew that Gabriel would never leave her again. The modest marriage ceremony was held at the rabbinate in Tel Aviv. The grandchildren – my brother and I – were not invited. There was no wedding gown there, nor a photographer to commemorate the occasion, but the “newlyweds” were now entitled by Israeli law to purchase an apartment at a reduced price, and they moved into one nearby. Only the gleaming Plymouth remained permanently parked under our house, because Grandfather, upon whom total darkness had descended, was no longer able to drive.

A happy ending it would seem.

In the formal photograph that remained in the album Grandma is staring purse-lipped into space, her hands folded across her lap, and there is no physical contact between her and the white-haired man who had walked out on her four decades earlier and had suddenly come back into her life.

The laughing child separating them is me.

The second marriage between Gabriel and Fanny was just as bad as the first. The groom was a bitter and querulous old man who hated Israel, cursed his blindness, and spent his days raptly listening to Voice of America blaring from the radio he brought with him on his new-immigrant entitlements. He tyrannized his bride relentlessly in furious Yiddish peppered with English, while Grandma accepted his insults with stoic tranquility and never ceased demonstrating his dependence on her. Although Father treated him with appropriate respect and read the New York Stock Exchange share prices to him every evening, he never felt love towards him.

“Have you forgiven him?” I asked when I was an adult, saluting my father’s graciousness for not repaying him with abandonment, which would have been accepted with understanding even by the most compassionate of Jews. I hugged Dad tightly when he blushed like a boy and said sheepishly, “Blood is not water” – an eternal idiom in Yiddish, the language that was the cause of much embarrassment to me in my youth.

The family soap opera had one final episode. Three years after the modest ceremony at the rabbinate, Clara Mendel fell to earth from planet New York. She was sold to my brother and me as “an auntie from America.” The plump, cheery woman who wore flowery clothes and whose lips were daubed in dazzling red, brought gifts that made us the talk of the town – a doll in a crinoline dress and a toy jeep with remote control. We were the envy of all the children in our north Tel Aviv neighborhood.

I avoided Clara’s sticky kisses and public displays of affection that included loud murmurs of “sweetie” and “darling”. Like Grandmother, Clara, too, had remained faithful to one man, and perhaps we served as a substitute for the grandchildren she never had. During her three-month visit the mistress stayed in the home of her mythological ex- and his former, now current, wife.

Surprisingly, Grandmother and Clara actually got on very well and were perfectly matched. They joined forces against the man who had played fast and loose with their emotions and his punishment was now twofold. What was whispered behind his back I can only invent in my books. It is my good fortune that this elaborate love saga provides sufficient material for several of them.

Translated by Margalit Rodgers

Nava Semel is an internationally acclaimed Israeli author.


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