Barefoot and Enlightened
Translated from the Hebrew by Janice Weizman and Ayelet Tsabari
“Once, when his young brother complained about their poverty, Haim replied angrily to him, “There is no poverty but in spirit! And in that we aren’t poor!”
—Tuvya Sulami writing about my father, Haim Tsabari, Tangled Prickle Pear Shrub
My four-year-old daughter spills the contents of her piggy bank, filled with Hanukkah gelt and birthday money, onto the kitchen table, sorts the coins into towers and the bills into piles and begins to count. I catch her holding a bill in her mouth, and cry in horror, “Not in your mouth! Money is dirty!”
Sean shoots a glance at me, and I quickly correct myself, “Bills. Bills are dirty,” in a desperate attempt to lessen the damage. So she doesn’t inherit my fear, my hang-ups. Better that she learns from her father’s balanced, rational attitude toward finances instead.
These are the stories I heard from my mother, my uncles, and my aunts: my scrawny, awkward, dark skinned father, whose home in the neighborhood of Sha’ariya had no electricity, studied for his high school matriculation, and later for his law degree, while sitting on the curb outside his house lit by a lone street lamp. He spent his days working as a carpenter’s assistant or farm hand and his evenings in study, but his nights were devoted to writing poetry. He slipped the handwritten poems to my mother with sweaty palms whenever they met. After his literature teacher harshly criticized his work, he gave away the poems and his dreams. In one of his poems, entitled “False Spring”, he wrote:
Try your strength at the labor of a man/
Pound the sledgehammer, grip the hammer/
A poet’s craft is an artist’s realm/
Not for you, son of Yemen.
After he completed his law degree my father proudly walked into a Petah Tikva store to purchase his very first briefcase. He wandered the aisles examining the cases, opening and closing the metal clasps, feeling the textures of the rough leather. The salesman followed him with a suspicious gaze until he shooed him out of the store, yelling, “Those briefcases aren’t for your type! They’re for lawyers!”
My father opened a modest law office in a high rise building on Bar Kohva Street in downtown Petah Tikva, a few steps away from the vegetable market and the central bus station. Yemenites from the neighborhood flocked to him, many without means of payment. In some cases he worked pro-bono, in others he even paid his clients’ trial fees. “Pay me back when you can,” he would tell them, or, “Remember me in your prayers next time you’re in the synagogue.” Sometimes he even said, “I should be paying you, for allowing me to do a good deed.”
On Thursdays my father would hunch over the neighborhood kiosk counter to fill in his weekly soccer score predictions. As his luck would have it, he succeeded in guessing the results of all twelve games correctly, twice. The first time the payout was next to nothing; many had guessed the right scores that week. The second time he bought my mother a used light-green Peugeot. He also took her on a trip to Europe, and in those days a trip to Europe was no small thing. In the photo albums they appear embraced in the Coliseum, leaning up against each other by the Tower of Pisa, cuddling against the backdrop of snow-covered Alps, wrapped in wooly scarves, he in a cardigan and glasses with thick frames, she in a fitted dress that complements her curves, her hair fashionably feathered.
Sometimes, on the way home from the beach, his offspring packed into the back seat of an olive-colored Ford Cortina, my father would take a slow drive through the streets of Savion, gazing longingly at the fancy villas, imagining the house he would build one day, when he had enough money.
For the first eight years of my life we were a seven and then eight-member family, living in a three-bedroom apartment on Herzl Street in Petah Tikva, which overlooked the smoky heart of the city. Under our window buses rushed by on their way to the Sha’ariya neighborhood, where both my parents had grown up. The creaky elevator often got stuck between floors. At night we would sometimes be awakened by the shouting of a drunken neighbor on the first floor, about whom it was rumored that he beat his wife. During the day we would dangle our feet through the bars of our fifth-floor window and hurl stuff—broken toy parts, pieces of Lego, plastic bags of water—and watch them shatter on the asphalt below. Despite the crowded conditions, I remember a sense of well-being, the calm and warmth that comes from not having any worries.
I was in the second grade when my father began building the house of his dreams, an expansive villa with many floors in the Mahane Yehuda district of Petah Tikva, a Yemenite neighborhood where land was cheap and the infrastructure was poor. The road that cut through our small street was not yet paved and ran alongside a ditch that overflowed in winter. Many of the builders worked for free, returning favors owed to my father. My mother selected the floor and wall tiling, kitchen cupboards made from dark wood, and new electrical appliances. My father installed a shower in the parking area where, on returning from the beach, we could wash off the sand before going inside, a grand gesture for my mother, the neat freak. On Saturdays we wandered through the unfinished rooms, awestruck by the spaciousness, dizzy with the promise of the future they held for us.
A year after moving into the house he’d worked so hard to build, my father died of a heart attack. As the weeks passed, the large house became too small to contain our grief and its emptiness echoed. Its many rooms seemed like dark mouths that threatened to swallow me up. Over the following years, the house grew neglected until it became a concrete monster, open to the winds and the forces of nature. Rain dripped from the ceilings onto our beds, puddles spread like floor mats across the living room tiles, mold bloomed on the walls. Rats chewed their way in, doves built nests on the windowsills, and crows cawed on the roof. Occasionally a lost bird would fly into our living room, hesitant and confused, gliding along the high, sloping ceiling, its cries growing louder as it searched for a way to escape.
While my three older siblings grew up in a small home but in relative financial comfort, me and my other two brothers grew up in a large house under an austerity regime. We always had plenty of food in the fridge – my mother made sure of it, buying whatever was on sale and storing it in the freezer, cooking elaborate meals with few ingredients. At the market she would first stride determinedly amongst the fruit and vegetable stands, tasting, smelling, and touching, comparing prices and quality as she devised a strategic plan. She would then retrace her steps and fill her baskets with whatever was the best value. We didn’t go hungry, but I was never given any pocket money, we never ate in restaurants, and most of my clothing was bought at the discount stands in the Carmel market in Tel Aviv.
At night, worries about our finances kept my mother awake, and during the day they played out on her lovely face which grew sullen, her mouth downturned. She never recorded her expenses in a notebook or computed them with a calculator, but sometimes, by the cheese counter in the grocery store, I could see in her troubled gaze, her wrinkled forehead, the numbers piling up, one on top of another.
During my military service, owing to my tight economic circumstances, the army granted me a work permit, and several times a week I hurried straight from the base to my job as an usher at the Lev Cinema in Petah Tikva. Most of the time I sat in the dim theatre, watching movies and eating bowls of greasy popcorn. Even with the extra income I couldn’t manage my meager resources, and my overdraft at the bank quickly grew to disastrous proportions.
Six months into my service, during a weekend guard duty, some weapons were stolen from our dormitory while we were sleeping. I became a suspect. The army police conducted a series of interrogations, during which the investigators took particular interest in my financial situation. My overdraft, it turned out, was a sufficient motive. I remembered the play The Trial, based on the book by Kafka, which I had seen at the Ha-Bima theatre a year earlier. I imagined the books that I would write while in jail.
After a few weeks, and a lie detector test administered in a civilian police station, the army was apparently convinced of my innocence, because eventually the army police stopped calling me in for interrogations. My life returned to its former path. I was almost disappointed.
On a Manhattan rooftop, where, over a sweltering, impossible summer, I shared a miraculously cheap (but un-air-conditioned) studio apartment with a girlfriend, my brother, nine years older and a practicing lawyer who was in New York on business, surprised me with an envelope containing several hundred dollars. “Because I grew up with a father and a safety net,” he said. “And you didn’t.”
I was twenty-two. I had arrived in Manhattan from India, where I’d travelled in the wake of heartbreak, several months earlier. The life I had built after my release from the army – a studio apartment with a boyfriend in a northern Kibbutz and a successful career as a freelancer for local papers and magazines — unraveled, mainly due to my own folly.
I told my editors at the newspapers that I’d be back in two or three months. With the money I’d saved, I travelled first to India and then to New York, and from there, I set out down the highways of America in an old Buick, stopping in remote campgrounds and godforsaken towns. I called my brother once more from the deserts of New Mexico, after Visa threatened to revoke my credit card, and then again from Nepal, with a growing sense of shame, after a year of wandering.
That was the last time in my life that I asked anyone for money. Year later, even in times of hunger, I never told a soul.
One of the sections in my father’s poetry collection, published after his death, is entitled “Poor and Proud.” His friend, the poet Tuvya Sulami, explains that this was a commonly used expression amongst the Yemenite Jews. In the introduction to the book, Sulami wrote about my father’s legendary drive and willpower, his “…ambition and persistence, all the while keeping his self respect, sometimes stretching the limits of ‘Poor and Proud.’ For example, as a student, he refused to apply for assistance, claiming that if he deserved it, they should grant it without him pleading and pandering”.
I used to think this description illustrated my father’s humility and generosity of spirit. Here was a man who made do with next to nothing and didn’t ask anything of others. Reading it now, I see in that pride a resistance and inability to accept help. It doesn’t fit with his generosity toward others, his ambition, his dreams, as though he wanted money to fall on him from heaven, pure as manna, as happened with his lottery winnings. As though money was profane, mundane, earthy, like road dust he wished to shake off. I think how disposable money has always seemed to me, how easily it passed from the hands of customers in the restaurant to the pockets of my apron, and from there it continued on, to the travel agent, the money changer, so quickly, as though it was a hot coal or dirty napkin pinched between the tips of two fingers.
At the age of 25 I found myself in Vancouver with a long-haired Indo-Canadian man I met during my travels on the sub-continent. We began our relationship poor, nourished by love and canned food in a little apartment facing English bay, which we filled with cheap furniture from Ikea.
When we broke up I found myself alone in a foreign city, homeless and unemployed, all of my worldly belongings packed into a suitcase. For several months I drifted from couch to couch, working at odd jobs. I bought damaged vegetables and expired food and smoked cigarettes bummed from passersby. During the day I strode though the city with a sense of elation. On buses I saw people staring at my only pair of shoes, whose soles flapped like gaping jaws, and I glared squarely back at them, refusing to be ashamed. I sat on park benches for hours at a time, watching the sea, inhaling the grey city air, intoxicated by my freedom.
At night, I would swing on rusty park swings in the nearest playground. Every time I caught sight of the twinkling city skyline over the tops of the trees my spirit was filled with wonder and joy. How distant and anonymous I was in this far northern city. How free and light. I felt resourceful, adventurous, a survivor. Within the constraints, the spaciousness afforded by scarcity, I discovered an unexpected liberty. I had nothing, so there was nothing for me to lose.
A the age of 29 I painstakingly collected my pennies and saved up for a one-way ticket from Canada to Thailand, in the hope that once there I’d be able to buy a cheap ticket to Israel. I set myself up in a salt-eaten bungalow on the beach, ate fruit from the trees and drank from forgotten bottles of water. Because I had lost my sandals and couldn’t afford a new pair, I went barefoot.
When I landed in Israel with two dollars in my pocket, dressed like a cliché in fisherman’s pants, sea shells braided into my tangled hair, my legs eaten by exotic insect bites, now infected and swollen to the size of ping pong balls, a good friend in Tel Aviv reached into his wallet and sighed as he pronounced, “you’re out of money, I assume?”
I spent six months waiting tables at a sea-side restaurant in Tel Aviv. That summer I celebrated my 30th birthday, my entire fortune stored in my underwear drawer at my mother’s house, all of my possessions stuffed in a knapsack.
My wanderer’s life, which I had always worn as a crown, was beginning to lose its luster. Secretly I began to dream of a place to call my own, filled with furniture of my own choosing and framed pictures on the walls. A sunny porch with a cuddly cat and flower boxes filled with fragrant herbs. Sometimes I wondered how my life would have looked had I made different choices. Though I had begun my adult life with an overdraft and no financial security to speak of, my prospects were nonetheless far better than my parents’ had been. I could have funded a university degree with a loan from the bank, lived in my mother’s house to save money, and waitressed in the evenings while completing a law degree. I could have continued my career as a journalist, which I began at an early age, and do freelance work, as I had after my army service, putting money aside each month, perhaps eventually buying a small apartment. Instead, I chose to leave, to not attend university. I chose to wait tables, clean houses and buildings’ staircases, because those were jobs that asked nothing of me, made no demands, required no banks or surplus charges, kept me out of the game. The notion of money weighed heavily on me. Dealing with it was unpleasant. And so instead of fighting, I quit the race.
I had been in love with the image I had created for myself, barefoot and enlightened, modest in my needs, dressed in an Indian lungi. I had believed that it rendered me better than others, more spiritual, different from the herd with its empty chase after money and property. I thought it made me more interesting, a poor, tortured writer who had chosen a life of art over material comforts, even though. But in reality, years were passing and I had still written almost nothing.
I was 31 when I met Sean, a blue-eyed sailor who worked on tugboats in the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia. He smelled of the sea, and of home. Work on the boats was physically demanding but lucrative, and he managed his financial affairs with an acumen that didn’t match his hedonistic lifestyle, his love of travel. It turned out that Sean knew how to spend and save, how to travel the world and develop a career. He owned a car (it was a little old and sputtering, but it did the job), planned to buy a house, and invested in mutual funds. I regarded him with astonishment, as though he were a rare, exotic creature, amazed by his ability to indulge without fear. He, on the other hand, chuckled when he helped me move from a shared apartment to a cheap studio apartment of my own, and saw that the sum of all my belongings amounted to a dozen garbage bags stuffed with clothes, sheets, books and a rolled-up mattress. “Is that it?” he asked. “Are you sure?”
Around that time I stared working at a successful Lebanese restaurant where the tips were particularly generous. I sometimes made 500-700 dollars in a single weekend. Suddenly my wallet was fat with bills; suddenly I could allow myself to shop for clothes and dine in restaurants. For the first time in my life I bought myself a laptop.
In those early days with Sean I felt rich all the time, and it wasn’t just love. After years of scrimping, little things felt like a luxury. Pine nuts. Pecans, Dried tomatoes. Camembert. Ordering a bottle of wine in a restaurant. A dental appointment. A massage. More than two pairs of jeans in my closet. I was 31 the first time I went for a mani-pedi and had my hair styled in a hair salon. The first time I bought a pair of totally impractical shoes (and, looking back on it now, unnecessary, as it turned out to be too late for me to learn how to walk in high heels).
And yet, the first time I ate in an expensive restaurant (with Sean, of course)—tables covered in white tablecloths, sparkling wine glasses, forks laid out according to size, cloth napkins shaped into swans— I immediately informed the waiter that I, too, was a waitress. So he would know that I was one of their own. So he wouldn’t think, God forbid, that I had money. Similarly, I told every cleaning lady I ever employed that I myself cleaned houses for many years, that I am, in fact, a third-generation house cleaner. I also made sure that they knew that we didn’t own the house, we were only renting. Even after living in relative comfort, I struggled to give up that part of my identity, the poverty that had always been my loyal companion. I couldn’t shake the belief that money corrupted, the fear that I could lose myself, my creativity and my truth, if I allowed myself to want and to receive more.
Somehow, during my destitute years of wandering I had forgotten that there had been a time when writing had earned me a living. I had forgotten that the first payment I ever received, at the age of 14, was from Ha’aretz Shelanu, which published a few of my stories and paid me “like a grown-up writer!”, as the editor wrote on the note she attached to the check. I had forgotten that as a kid, the only reason I enjoyed the same indulgences my classmates took for granted was due to my job writing for the youth magazine, Ma’ariv La No’ar, which sent me to cover rock concerts at the Arad Festival, and even to a scuba diving course in the Red Sea. It also funded my trips to the Jaffa flee market in search of dangly earrings and colorful sarwaals.
At some point I stopped writing. Who has time to write, I asked myself, when you’re working six days a week, some of them double shifts? Who has time to create when you worry about making a living? Occasionally I scribbled a few lines of poetry during my shift at one of the “ethnic” restaurants I worked in during my years in Vancouver – Mexican, Indian, Lebanese, Iranian (as brown-skinned immigrants were the only ones who agreed to employ me, to claim me as one of their own). Or sometimes, on the brief breaks during my shift on the beach in Tel Aviv – my thighs red from chafing and sweat, sand in my hair and on my skin, − I jotted down ideas for stories and novels, bits of conversation I had overheard, on the backs of napkins and placemats I stuffed into the pocket of my apron, stained with humus and beer.
But the truth was that I stopped writing because I had lost faith, because I had grown up and awakened from the dream, or maybe the words of my father’s poem were still engraved in my mind. Because when I left home I also lost my hold on the Hebrew language, which drove me even further away from writing. Because instead of clinging to the only home that stayed with me wherever I went, I had given it up along with everything else.
My mother sometimes said my father worried too much about money. He had six children to feed and his dream house to build. He lived in a state of constant stress, and that stress, I always thought, was what brought on his heart attack. The financial worries had killed him.
It all begins and ends with my father.
He was the real reason that I left. He was the reason I chose wandering and poverty. Because he was my homeland, and once it was uprooted from me I no longer had a homeland. I no longer had roots. Because I believed that if I didn’t plant roots anywhere, or in anyone, then nothing could hurt me anymore.
And because in my mind, financial prosperity was always linked to tragedy.
Sean asked me to write him a story for our first anniversary. I resented him for that request. It was the first story I ever wrote in English, full of mistakes and rife with clichés. Later, when I signed up for a creative writing program, he suggested that I go a bit easier on myself, maybe give up a shift of waitressing, or clean one less house. Maybe I didn’t need to work so hard. He chose his words carefully. “I know you don’t like to ask for help”.
Years have passed, things have changed, and still, I’m afraid. Still hesitant. Still I identify with the person I no longer am. Poor and proud. Poor and free. Barefoot and enlightened. Even the process of writing this essay, thinking of money and tracing my relationship with it, was accompanied by real and familiar dread. From time to time I sat back in my chair and breathed deeply. Inhale. Exhale. Even now, when I tell new friends about the generous prize I was awarded and confess that these days I make my living from writing and related activities like lecturing and teaching, filled with wonder that this is how things have turned out, that this is my life, I always make a point of mentioning my past, the difficulties and struggles, as though doing so will shield me, protect me, until one day a friend asked, “But why are you apologizing?”
At the age of 33, I started writing in English, through trial and error. I took classes in English grammar, struggled through the classics. At the age of 36 I was accepted into an MFA in Creative Writing at a university, even though I didn’t have a BA, in linguistic and academic overdraft, always a few steps behind everyone else. I worked hard, harder than others.
I wrote my first book during my studies, living on scholarship money and student loans, and at the age of 39, it was published. Two years later the book won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature, which came with an astonishing amount of prize money, a number with many zeros and the power to change a life – $100,000. The prize was followed by a contract with Random House for future books, which was also generous. Sean and I put aside some money for a future down payment on a house, we invested in mutual funds, we bought a newer (still used) car to replace the 23-year old Volkswagen that had been with us since our first days together, on our car trips out east and west. I gave to charities and helped two women in need, both of them very dear to me. I treated my girlfriends to a day at the spa and insisted on paying for meals until one of them yelled at me to stop. I bought myself an electric desk that rises to standing height at the press of a button. And I started to write more, with more energy, more urgency, more frequently.
And yet, even as I write all of this I am uncomfortable. I’m writing and the fear clutches at me. The guilt.
Sean likes to say he always knew I’d be a worthwhile investment, and everyone laughs, including me. Because ultimately, just like in my youth, it was writing that has given me a means of making a living. In the end, it was prosperity, not poverty, that brought inspiration and creativity and took me back home, to the page. Because within the constraints of a foreign language, my tied tongue and limited vocabulary, I found liberty that felt incredibly similar to the freedom that had enabled me to be creative when I had no money: that gave me permission to fail and fall behind, and the freedom to write like there was no tomorrow and nothing to lose.
Shortly after winning the prize I opened a savings account for my daughter. On the day that I signed the documents at the bank tears came to my eyes, and in the midst of the joy and pride, I was aware of that same familiar fiery core of anxiety. With this savings account, what kind of woman will she grow up to be? What will it say about her? What kind of life will she have? How will I raise my daughter to have a strong work ethic and an appreciation of the value of money, but at the same time sow in her the ability to enjoy prosperity?
I watch my daughter playing with her money on the kitchen table, sorting the Canadian bills, made of durable plastic, according to their bright neon colors. It strikes me that if they had been forgotten in the pocket of her pants and washed with the laundry, they would emerge sparkling clean with a pleasant fragrance.
I breathe deeply. Inhale. Exhale.
Ayelet Tsabari was born in Israel to a large family of Yemeni descent. She is the author of the memoir in essays The Art of Leaving. Essays from the book have won several awards including a National Magazine Award and a Western Magazine Award. Her first book, The Best Place on Earth, won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish Fiction, and was long listed to the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The book was also a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Pick, a Kirkus Reviews’ Best Debut Fiction of 2016, and has been published internationally. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, Foreign Policy, The Forward, and The National Post. She teaches creative writing at the University of King’s College’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction and at Tel Aviv University.
Janice Weizman is the founding editor and a fiction editor of The Ilanot Review.