FICTION: A Drop of Sunflower Oil by the Forward

FICTION: A Drop of Sunflower Oil

Image by Anya Ulinich

During our first days and weeks in Israel we readily absorbed a dozen or so Hebrew words, which spiced up our ordinary lives with exotic new sounds and smells. Among them was the term madrich, which means “guide” and was to play a substantial role in our lives. I would go so far as to say that this word took on a human form before our eyes.

Moshe was a fellow Moldovan immigrant who appeared in our lives at the very beginning of my family’s Israeli future. He requested that we not pronounce his name as in Yiddish, “Moyshe,” and most certainly not use its Russian equivalent, “Mischa,” but rather call him “Moshe,” as in Modern Hebrew. Moshe had retired early, but found that sitting around idly did not suit him. Instead he began volunteering with the Jewish Agency. He did what was asked of him and took his work very seriously. He was, after all, fulfilling his duties as a citizen and a Zionist.

Part of his mission was to help integrate new immigrants into the boisterous life of their historical homeland. Moshe had immediately told me that he was a novice in this line of work. We were to be the first family he would help to “absorb.”

“Sure, I’ve sent letters to the Soviet Union to help Jews immigrate to their homeland,” he confided in me. “Sure, I’ve sent care packages. But being a madrich….”

As it turned out, he had no reason to worry. Thanks to his guidance, our family soon felt at home in a way that is rare for immigrants to a foreign land. Moshe and his wife, Devorah, were a lot older than my wife and I, closer in age to my mother-in-law, who was living with us in our new apartment. They had come to Israel way back in the early 1970s. A childless couple, they had requested, as true “ideological olim,” immigrants to Israel, to be settled as far away from material comforts as possible. They were offered a home in the northern town of Kiryat Shmona near the Lebanese border, a place that to my Soviet eyes looked on the Israeli map much like the far-northern city of Norilsk does on a Russian one.

Moshe and Devorah lived and worked in Kiryat Shmona for nearly 20 years, he as a bookkeeper and she in a hospital laboratory. Upon retiring, they decided to fulfill their old dream of settling in Jerusalem.

“Our immigration was ideological, of course,” Moshe told me proudly. “We came here motivated, not because we were promised fancy meals or cushy jobs. We weren’t looking for any handouts. We worked hard, struggled and helped to build this country.”

“Well, we’re not slackers either,” I said, making a weak attempt to be the spokesman for our aliyah, our wave of immigrants. “So long as there’s work….”

My statement seemed only to anger Moshe.

“A lot of today’s immigrants treat Israel like an all-you-can-eat buffet,” he said. “They see nice things and think that nothing is lacking. People come here just as they used to travel to Moscow from all over Russia to buy sausage and meat. That’s why we call this wave of immigrants ‘the sausage-aliyah.’”

“Are you really saying that almost a million people have come to Israel just to eat pork kielbasa?” my wife asked with a confident voice, assuming the mantle of defending our “Russian aliyah.”

Devorah answered diplomatically, with the smile of a woman who frequently had to smooth over the rougher edges of her husband’s character: “Moshe was trying to say that Israel is more than just a country. It’s our country. Our Jewish homeland.”

“Exactly!” Moshe said, catching hold of the lifeline that his wife had thrown him. “You took the words right out of my mouth, Devorah.”

We were sitting around a table in the cozy living room of their Jerusalem apartment, where Moshe had driven us in his red Ford two hours earlier. The tasty Middle Eastern delicacies tempted our eyes and noses with their colors and smells, even though my wife and I knew neither how to eat them nor what they were called.

True, the whole meal was perhaps just part of Moshe’s duties as our guide. Maybe he was just using himself and his wife as models of how a simple family could work its way up from new immigrants to successful citizens in the Jewish homeland. We had been strangers only a week ago, and now it seemed that something more than just our situation and their duty had brought us together. That said, we were still separated by a chasm of contradictions and incomprehension. Only a shared bridge crossed from both sides, like in the hymn “The Whole World Is a Very Narrow Bridge,” could bring us together and ensure our friendship. We did indeed become friends years later, but in the meantime, Moshe, with his bookkeeperlike persistence, kept trying to drum into our heads the meaning of the concept of klita, absorption: “You must not only absorb the Israeli air with its scents and olive oil, falafel and shawarma, but also allow it to melt into you. And the most important part: You must forget everything about where you’ve come from.”

My wife didn’t give an inch. “So you’re saying,” she interrupted him, “that we need to erase everything from our memory? Our language, our culture. Pushkin?”

“The language first and foremost!” he replied. “Six months from now I’ll speak to you only in Hebrew. And what do you need Pushkin for? We have Rachel Bluwstein and Haim Nahman Bialik!”

Our charming dinner was at the point of becoming an all-out culture war, when the lady of the house unexpectedly intervened with a suggestion: “Perhaps we should sing something together?” Her words remained hanging in the incandescent air like a white flag of surrender raised in the heat of battle. It wasn’t easy for Moshe to calm down.

“What song would they like?” Moshe asked her. “‘Moscow Nights’?”

“That’s a lovely song,” Devorah answered, not perceiving his ironic jab. “But I think ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ would be more appropriate for today.”

Before we could begin, a strange and somber melody intruded upon our argument. The slow, pensive singing came from the open window.

“That’s our neighbors worshipping their Allah,” Moshe explained. “We’re only about 200 meters from the Arab town of Beit Jala.”

Our future began to grow around us, with new sounds, smells, words and impressions that mixed together with recollections and habits from our Soviet past. We tried to erase our old lives from our memory or stash them far away, in a corner of our minds, in case of unforeseen events. The bustle of our tumultuous new life, with its disorder and insecurity, obscured the well-established order of our abandoned past. Well, good, I tried to convince myself. In time, I’ll forget faces. Words and expressions will be lost. But how can you forget the house where you were raised? The smells of your childhood home? The stately acacia trees on both sides of the road, which kept me company for so many years on my way to school? Did these things not awaken a longing in me? Probably. It was, however, the type of longing that is extinguished by the thought that there is no going back. Or, as our madrich, Moshe, would say, “There’s no other way.”

We immediately recognized Moshe’s red Ford whenever it arrived in the courtyard of our apartment building: Its entrance would be announced by a loud banging noise, as if the truck were trying to salute itself with a trumpet.

“Well, it’s certainly time to buy a new Subaru or a Mitsubishi,” Moshe said one day. “My Ford is from the British Mandate era. But it’s served me well for nearly 20 years and has become a dedicated and loyal friend of sorts.”

We made quite a few trips through the narrow alleyways of the Old City in that banged-up Ford. We would stop for a while on a hill somewhere, where Moshe, freed from his duties at the steering wheel, would climb out of the truck and begin telling us about our surroundings, like a tour guide. He would start by pointing out things, poking at the air as if his hands could reach back through time. He’d grab the ancient events he was describing and present them to us like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. He often forgot Russian words and would wave his hands helplessly, swallowing hot air and gasping until Devorah, his loyal assistant, came to his aid.

After settling in Jerusalem, the now older couple enrolled in special courses to learn the city’s history. The courses included, as Moshe loved to emphasize, “practical studies of the historic sights.”

“How could we live in Jerusalem and not know what happened where we’re walking?” he would ask angrily, as if we had questioned him.

We were amazed by him and his wife, and quietly somewhat jealous of them for becoming so successfully “absorbed.” It seemed that Ben-Gurion himself would have taken pride in them. In short: “There’s no other way.”

We often darted from office to office in Moshe’s red Ford. We would have to pick up a paper to sign at one office, and hand in a different paper at another. My dear madrich never left my side, thereby preventing the various governmental officials from eating me alive. Moshe was well skilled in this aspect of Israeli life and knew how to talk to them.

“You’ll find a bureaucracy like this only in Israel,” he snorted angrily. “They’re going to destroy our country.”

He quickly realized, it seemed, that it wasn’t appropriate for a madrich to speak this way, because he added softly, “We can take comfort in the fact that they’re our bureaucrats. Jewish bureaucrats.”

Once, before he had even finished walking into our apartment, Moshe began to sniff the air. Watching him, I took a deep breath. Who knew what a long-term resident might smell in the house of a new immigrant?

“What’s that smell?” Moshe asked, peering through the open door to the kitchen.

I allowed my nose to follow his gaze in that direction, and soon I understood everything. My mother-in-law was making her famous Bessarabian salad.

“You wouldn’t believe it, Moshe,” I said. “She actually broke the law so that she could make that delicacy. She smuggled a large flask of Moldovan peasant sunflower oil across the Soviet border.”

My half-joking explanation should have smoothed over the awkward situation, but our madrich was soon in the kitchen, where he received another round of my mother-in-law’s complaints. Of everyone in our family, she was the only one who was not swept up in the whirlpool of the “absorption process” upon which Moshe was so fixated. In fact she didn’t give a damn about it and had no qualms about telling him off at every opportunity, as if he were the prime minister’s official representative. This time her complaint was in regard to tomatoes.

“Our tomatoes in Moldova were proper tomatoes,” my mother-in-law griped. “They were as sweet as the oranges are here.”

I was expecting Moshe to say that no matter their flaws, these were “our Jewish tomatoes.” But I heard something entirely different.

“Sunflower oil,” Moshe said. “Could you let me try a bit of that Bessarabian sunflower oil?”

My mother-in-law remained silent for a moment. Her expression was similar to what it might have been if she had been caught at the border with her contraband. She even began to speak to Moshe in Hebrew, squeezing out the one and only word she knew. “Todah. Todah.” Thanks.

Bending over the small cupboard by the side of the table, she pulled out the aluminum flask that nobody in our family was allowed to touch.

Moshe extended a hand to my mother-in-law and cupped it by clenching his fingers, like the customers at a market stand when they want to try a little oil and are waiting for the merchant to pour a few drops onto the back of their hand. My mother-in-law understood his gesture. She quickly twisted the lid and carefully tilted the flask over his hand. No sunflower oil appeared, however, because my mother-in-law had used the very last of it that morning for her tomato salad.

The three of us stood breathless, waiting for a miracle. Finally, a translucent golden drop rolled out of the vessel’s silver rim. It remained hanging there for a moment as if unsure of what to do, then fell upon the sun-browned skin of our madrich.

Moshe considered the drop of sunflower oil for a moment, as if it were a rare piece of amber. He put his hand to his nose, sniffed it, then quickly and impatiently, as if he had been waiting for this moment throughout the long years of his Israeli absorption, licked his hand with the tip of his tongue.

Boris Sandler was editor of the Yiddish Forward from 1998 to 2016. He is the author of seven volumes of Yiddish fiction.

Translated from the Yiddish by Jordan Kutzik.

FICTION: A Drop of Sunflower Oil


Jordan Kutzik

Jordan Kutzik is a staff writer at the Forverts.

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