July 07

Festival of Lights

Ayelet Ben-Ziv

Translated by Iris Avtalion and Adam Rovner
The Hebrew term for the act of leaving Israel to live abroad – yerida, or “descent” – contains a pointed reproach. Small wonder, then, that Israelis living in America are often reluctant to admit that they are immigrants who have exchanged the Promised Land for the lure of the American dream. In person, Ayelet Ben-Ziv describes the cultural exhaustion arising from having one’s heart in the east, but one’s body in the west, as a kind of “jetlag.” Her collection, Yaefet [Gvanim, 2006], whose title means “jetlag,” aroused passionate debate for its sly and incisive snapshots of the Israeli-American experience. This story, “Festival of Lights,” is drawn from Ben-Ziv’s inaugural collection and reprises themes of alienation and belonging common in 20th century American Hebraist writing.

-Adam Rovner, Hebrew Translations Editor

When we got to the mall they were playing those songs that you hear all the time every day before the holiday starts, so even if you really don’t want them to, they end up getting stuck in your head. Maybe I was singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” out loud, because Uncle Nahum said to Mom, “You see how the boy is singing those Christmas songs?” He shook his head from side to side, to show that there was something wrong with me.

“What can I do, Nahum, they learn those songs at school, together with Hanukah songs. That’s how it is here,” Mom told him.

Uncle Nahum told us that at Shiri’s school in Israel they put on a show and sang Hanukah songs so beautifully that even little Roni has already learned to sing the song, “Banu Choshech L’Garesh.”

“Do you know that song?” he asked, and looked at me as if he was the nicest uncle on the planet.

Of course I had no intention of singing it to him, so I made a face instead. But out of the corner of my eye I saw how Mom’s face told me to behave, so I kept quiet, and then he told me the story of Hanukah for the thousandth time, even though Hanukah ended a week ago. He started to tell me all over again about how the Jews fought the Greeks, the few against the many, and how they found a little oil lamp that illuminated the Holy Temple and why that’s the reason that Hanukah is also called the Festival of Lights.

He was lucky I was with Mom, who says that Uncle Nahum is family and that I have to behave nicely. If Daddy was there I’d have told him off already.

Mom saw that in another minute I’d stop pretending I couldn’t hear and I’d tell Uncle Nahum what I thought of him, so she stopped and said that we couldn’t go on like that, and that she had to rest for a minute and that we should go to the middle of the mall where it’s calmer and maybe we could find a place to sit.

“Hold him tight so the meshuggeners here won’t kidnap him,” said Uncle Nahum to Mom, like I wasn’t there, and he immediately began to push his way through the crowd.

“What’s the matter with you? He’s a big boy. I’m not worried,” Mom called after him, but he didn’t even turn around and so he missed seeing how she and I smiled at each other. Then we quickly followed him, filling the empty space that was left behind him, like when a ship parts the waves.

- - -

The mall was full of people. On the side we were on, everyone was walking toward the middle of the mall, and all I saw were backs, all sorts of backs. On the other side, from behind the plants, I saw only faces mixed up with each other. All kinds of strangers pressed up against me, and so that I wouldn’t get pulled away in a different direction, Mom really held on tightly to my hand until her knuckles turned white and it hurt me. I always pay attention to Mom’s hands, even when they don’t squeeze me so hard. For a while now they’ve been bugging me. I like to look at the cracks in her skin that begin where her hand starts, and continue on to her fingers, as if they’re traveling somewhere. The cracks on her hands pass into a net of other lines and if you look closely you can see little squares on her skin. They cover the palm and connect to bigger squares where her fingers begin, and to the straight lines at the red joints around the middle of her fingers. Next come her pink fingernails, clipped squarish like a child’s. Not like the colorful round nails of the other moms.

- - -

The train store stopped me in my tracks and I wouldn’t budge. A toy train, just like a real one, only smaller, went around and around the window. A blue locomotive. Five passenger cars. Made out of metal. The train traveled around a million things that filled up the window. I don’t know if it ran on batteries or electricity, but it sped across a bridge right into a tunnel and came out below, then it went around a mountain, between some reindeer and next to a sleigh filled with presents, moving really fast until it disappeared into the next tunnel, and then came out again over the bridge. Richie got a giant train set just like it, and made a layout that covered his whole playroom, and that was before Christmas even started. I grabbed Mom’s hand and asked her to buy it for me.

“I’m only stopping for a minute to look at it with you.” She wouldn’t buy it.

“You should go into the store across the way and get those fleece sweaters, they’re perfect for Sarit and the kids,” she said to Uncle Nahum, her eyes almost begging him to go so she could stay with me by the window. And he really left.

“It’s not fair, I’ll promise you anything you want. I promise, really, just buy me a train like the one Richie has.” I thought about how Richie would come over and then I’d say, look, they bought me one too, and I’d just look at him like it’s no big deal and like I don’t even care about the present anyway.

“I’ll even clean up my room, please, Mom, pretty, pretty please.”

But Mom said that we can’t buy everything everybody else has and that just last week I got lots of presents for Hanukah. “One present for each night of Hanukah, the way the Jews do here,” she said, sighing.

“I’ll be the nicest boy in the world to Uncle Nahum, and I’ll tell him Hanukah stories all week, and I’ll show him that I do know, even though the holiday is already over. Please, please.”

Mom laughed and said that when she was a little girl she had hardly any toys but that it didn’t stop her from playing and having fun, and how come I have tons of toys but I’m never satisfied? I thought about how I’d tell Richie that we could connect our train sets together, and how he’d want to come over all the time.

“Please, Mom, please, please…” I must’ve said “please” ten times. Mom didn’t understand and it didn’t do any good.

“Stop it! Enough already! You’re impossible. Spoiled rotten!” Mom shouted at me even with all the people around. Just then Uncle Nahum came up to us, holding another bag.

“I have to, and I mean I absolutely have to, go to the bathroom right now,” he said, and then he wiped the sweat from his forehead and straightened the part in his hair. If he had told one more story about children in Israel I would have let him have it. Lucky for him he didn’t butt in.

Mom told him that the bathrooms were in the middle of the mall and that we really should go there and rest. Right before he began pushing through the crowds again, I saw how even though he didn’t want to look, his eyes stared at this toy Santa moving its giant belly and butt forward, to the side, back, and to the side, just like a Hula girl. I followed him and Mom but I couldn’t get over that train.

- - -

We got to the middle of the mall, where there weren’t any stores. In the center, there’s an open space and you can see the lower floors all the way down to where they stuck a giant Christmas tree. Behind it there are giant windows you can look through and see all the cars parked outside. Uncle Nahum went to the bathroom. Me and Mom waited by the railing.

On the big tree poking up from below they hung all that Christmas stuff like shiny balls and small gold frames with pictures in them of kids I didn’t recognize, and little lights sparkling on the tree in all kinds of colors, from top to bottom and all around. Way down at the very bottom Santa Claus sat wearing his red and white suit and having his picture taken with kids. Next to him there was a short line of people waiting with their kids. From above they looked like ants surrounding a big fat red and white marshmallow. I thought real hard about the blue train and about how I could get it and when I should ask Mom again. That’s when I think I came up with the solution – Santa Claus!

When I was smaller, Daddy told me that Santa Claus doesn’t love me and would never come to my house because we’re Hebrew, or Israelis, or Jews, I always forget what we are exactly, and pretty soon after that they told me it’s not Santa Claus who gives presents anyway; it’s the children’s parents who hide them under the tree at night. All the kids in my class know that by now, except for Kim who still thinks there really is a Santa Claus. But as I stood there looking at Santa from up high, I got stuck on the idea of going and checking him out for myself, and I thought that maybe besides having his picture taken he also gives out presents. Maybe if I asked nicely, even though it’s not Hanukah, a miracle would happen and he’d give me that train I saw in the window.

- - -

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