Circle of Friends
Translated from the Hebrew by Ilana Kurshan
Me, Ofira, and Rivka are best friends. We sit next to each other, go everywhere together, and never share secrets with anyone else. We are all in Miss Dvora’s fifth grade class at the Tachkemoni school, ranking below Adva and her circle of bees, who are the most popular girls. Then come the ordinary girls like Hagit, who Rivka sits next to. Me and Ofira sit together behind them. Me, Ofira, and Rivka are ranked close to the level of the ordinary girls. We’re better students than Sally and Shani, who are terrible. At least we got a few “satisfactory” marks on our report cards. Sally and Shani have normal hair, but they have big broad shoulders and they look like boys, and that lowers their rank. And they don’t have to go to our afterschool group, the one for new immigrants—not just from Ethiopia, but from other places too. At the very bottom of the class is Tamar Stein with the lice and the runny nose. Tamar is in a clique by herself.
Everyone says that Tamar is a psycho because her mother is a psychologist, and those two words sound alike, and only a mother like that could know how to take care of a girl like her. But in the teachers’ room, Miss Rucha said to Miss Chana, who knows which comes first, the chicken or the egg, and the two of them grinned, and Miss Chana said, what can you do, it’s inevitable, every class has a problem child. At least Tamar isn’t especially disruptive.
Since Tamar has lice and is always scratching her head, and since she laughs for no reason and picks her nose and eats it, all the kids drag their desks as far away from her as they can, and she sits against the wall in the back of the room and none of the teachers make any of us sit close to her. The wise-guys—the boys who call me and Ofira and Rivka “grass heads” because of our hair—love to torment Tamar. They say that she has lice on other parts of her body too, and she usually just laughs it off, and who knows if she is laughing at what they are saying or at something else that we don’t know about. Almost everything makes her giggle, which makes her even more repulsive. “What are you laughing at, you jerk?” Noam asks her on behalf of all of us, but Tamar just keeps laughing. She’s awful in gym class, but she just laughs there too. In the high jump, instead of trying to go over the bar she stands and jumps up right in front of it. She can’t figure out the long jump either; she runs up to the takeoff board and then just stops.
Sometimes Noam comes in late and argues with the teacher, insisting that he is not late, and the whole class makes a fuss and tries to stick up for him, and finally things calm down and the teacher says, “Now we’ll start class,” and then the kids make spitballs and throw them at Tamar and it all erupts again. The spitballs stick to Tamar’s hair and skirt, and get into her shirt, and scatter on her desk and at her feet and she sits there laughing. Sometimes they hit her in the eye, in one of her blue eyes, and then something in her changes, and she is like a crystal that has shattered soundlessly, and she lets out a little titter and tries to understand what’s happened to her and where it hurts, and when she figures it out she stands up and thrashes like a fish out of water, first slowly and then more violently, and no one comes near her, including the teacher, who shouts at her to stop it already and screeches her chalk against the blackboard. Tamar cries, the tears streaming down her face, and she licks their saltiness until she forgets what happened and then sits back down and resumes her senseless laughter. I want to take out one of her blue eyes and hold it like a marble and make sure it doesn’t roll away, and show it to her so her other eye can see it and I can tell her “Look what a pretty eye you have.”
As much as Tamar is fair-skinned like Adva and her swarm of bees, long ago they tagged her as black. They avoid looking in her direction because lice are contagious, and because all the bees look to Adva and follow her lead. If Tamar approaches them during ten o’clock recess, Adva and her bees yell at her to buzz off, and they sit on the benches in the schoolyard and busy themselves with their pink things. Even though the bees have enough money to buy whatever they want, they prefer to copy Adva, and they come to school with their hair braided and tied in a bow, just like her. Sometimes while they are jumping rope outside we stay in the classroom and examine each of Adva’s precious possessions: a sharp pencil, a scratch ‘n sniff pencil, a bendable pencil, a decorative pencil with an eraser, a pencil with a seal that reads “Army of the Lord,” a pencil with eyes, colored pencils. An eraser shaped like a wheel, an eraser that looks like half a watermelon, a zebra eraser, a star-shaped eraser, a strawberry-scented eraser, a ladybug eraser, an eraser inside a zipper. A metal sharpener, a double sharpener, a sharpener with a plastic receptacle, an electric sharpener, a wooden clown sharpener, a wooden princess sharpener. A sharpener shaped like a turtle. We lift all these items and save them in our pencil cases for next year.
Sometimes Adva and her bees hold hands and skip in pairs, but Adva stands out because she is the tallest. Then they sit down and Adva tells her bees stories about Florida, and they are all riveted because it is so far away and none of them has ever been there, except on television. They think of Adva as a TV star, and this makes her even more special, like her name, which is not from the Bible, unlike the other bees who are named Sari, Dvora, Estie, Saraleh, Michal, and Yael. When someone new arrives, Adva introduces herself with, “Pleased to meet you, I’m Adva, ripples-on-the-surface-of-the-sea,” smiling smugly because her name is so exotic.
When the foreign basketball players pass by after their workouts at the municipal athletic center, we all run to the gate to ask for their autographs, and Adva speaks to them in English, with a thick American “r” and she is the only one who can understand their accent. On Chanukah, when all the bees gather around her, she is like the tallest candle, and she calls Chanukah “Hanukah” and goes on about how much she misses “Hanukah and Christmas.” Ofira already told her once that Christmas doesn’t just happen in Florida; even Svetlana from the second floor brought us a crystal globe with a Christmas tree and snowflakes inside. But Adva ripples-on-the-surface-of-the-sea shook her head, tossed her braid from side to side, and told us that a Christmas tree is for the goyim, and then she turned and ignored us. I think we all still remember that, even if we never talked about it, and even though so much time has passed since then—we celebrated on Tu B’Shvat, we were serious on the Fast of Esther, we were back to being happy again at the Purim carnival, and we had a long Passover vacation. We behaved like adults, and didn’t breathe a word about it, but when she passed we averted our eyes and exchanged looks of hatred. Perhaps Ofira remembered it most vividly because after Pesach, I saw that she had written in pen in tiny letters in a small notebook, with the heading underlined crookedly:
I wish I could chop off her sandy-haired braid
Unravel the blue tassel on her turquoise shirt.
I wish she would do warm-ups, and trip over her own foot, and fall off the vault during gym class,
And I would just cross my fingers as all of it happens from God.
I wish that the queen of the class would topple.
And in the sixth grade yearbook I would write her a message with all my heart
And fold it up like a deep dark secret:
“May you grow.”
And she would grow and grow and grow and become gigantic,
And I would never see or hear about her ever again.
After that, the page disappeared from Ofira’s notebook, but I knew she was referring to Adva.
Chinese jump rope they won’t play with us with us because we’re the best at it, even better than Adva and the bees, and even better than the ordinary girls and Sally and Shani, who are big and tough and better at dodge-ball and at beating up any boys who mess around with snails. When we play Chinese jump rope, we can go all the way up to our armpits without getting out. We can’t get the game out of our heads. We’re always counting to ourselves, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three. All day long we walk around to the rhythm of one-two-three. Even at bedtime. Sometimes when I am counting to myself, Ofira and Rivka say to me, “You’re counting now, right?” and I say “Yes,” and Ofira says, “Me too,” and Rivka says, “Me too,” and we all feel united.
On Shabbat, Adva and her bees and some of the ordinary girls go with the wise guys to scouts, and after the Saturday night activity, they all hang out at Pizza Moti, and Tamar, who is from their neighborhood, trails along. We don’t go. It’s far away and really not all that interesting. But on Sunday, that is all they can talk about, like it’s the most important thing in the world: how Noam covered Tamar’s pizza with ants, which is the most un-kosher thing in the world. Miss Rucha said that eating pig is a violation of just one Biblical commandment but eating insects violates five. The ants are sprinkled on like pepper, and she eats every last bite and smacks her lips and laughs along when they burst out in hysterics.
We try hard to be the best at all the games, and sometimes after the ten o’clock recess we’re drenched in sweat and our hair is practically standing on end. We need a special comb that we don’t bring from home, and there is no mirror at school, so we don’t look all that great. Sometimes during jump rope we skin our knees, just below the hem of our jeans skirts, but that’s all right, we know that being good at anything requires hard work.
Our parents don’t allow us to be rude to anyone. We are careful how we speak to our teachers and never act like smart-alecks. When Adina the math teacher asks us to help her carry all the worksheets she photocopied to her white station wagon, we do it, even though we know that she would never ask Adva and the bees, maybe because they always look like they’re busy. The last time we went to her car, the other girls stood there watching Adva win the Flower Queen contest, holding a bottle of mineral water and watering the plants. We don’t have time for contests like that.
At two o’clock, when school empties out, we reluctantly show up for our afterschool group in the main building, which has two stories and includes the principal’s office, the secretaries’ office, the teachers’ room, the guidance counselor’s office, and the library. These are all one floor above the computer room and the first and second grade classrooms. We go to the science classroom, which is also our cafeteria. When we walk in, we see Chaya the supervisor standing next to the sink making fruit punch from concentrate and lots of cold water. There is a skeleton leaning against the wall, looking as if it is about to fall, and another wall is covered with anatomical drawings of the human body. There is a shelf with jars of preserved embryos, yellow, pink, wrinkled, smooth, floating in formaldehyde. This year Tamar joined our group. Me, Ofira, and Rivka have to share a table with her because she’s from our class. Tamar with the lice and the runny nose arrives and sits with us and we are completely grossed out and can’t understand why she is suddenly part of the afterschool group for new immigrants. We bet that it is all because of Adva, who refuses to have anything to do with Tamar, but the fact is that they look alike—Adva also has blue eyes and a sprinkling of freckles on her nose.
Chaya, who stands behind the science teacher’s desk and has been in charge of our afterschool group for four years now, doesn’t care about anything we say. When Chaya seats Tamar next to us, she doesn’t realize that this lowers our score. Because of her, and because of the stupid afterschool group, the other kids in the class whisper behind our backs that we’re friends with Tamar. If we try to object, Chaya stands over us, looming large, and makes a face as if to say that we should be grateful that we have this club at all. And we know that this is on the tip of her tongue, because she has already told us again and again that we have no idea how much it costs to run the afterschool club, and we hardly even pay; but she doesn’t ask us if we want to be there, so she doesn’t know that we couldn’t care less. Chaya forces us to be quiet, absolutely silent, and tells all the kids to sit down. She pulls out her list and takes attendance. Anyone who has been absent twice is in trouble with her. Then she selects one student to set the table and another to make the blessing over the bread. Chaya reminds us sternly to chew with our mouths closed and then she tells us to start eating, but we don’t want to. We figured out a while back that the food that is delivered to the classroom in huge containers is leftovers from what other people have eaten and picked over at Ron, the event hall where Adva and her friends will have their Bat Mitzvah celebrations next year. And now that Tamar Stein is sitting and playing with her food and some of it is dribbling down her shirt, we really don’t want to eat, but Chaya makes us, and she never lets us complain that eating thick bean soup in the middle of May is disgusting.
We tell ourselves that we don’t care what happens to us; it’s our right not to eat. And when she brings us a big garbage bag filled with hand-me-down clothing and dumps it out in the TV room and tells us to pick out what we want, we don’t object; we select a few items and then throw them into the street at the first corner we come to, because we prefer our own clothes. She asks us about the food, “What, it’s not good?” and we answer, “Oh, it’s very good,” and we never tell her that we refuse to eat it; we gulp it down like medicine and then throw it all up in the bathroom, and we wait until it’s time for immunizations, when the nurse Tzvia will give us an additional shot because she says we are missing one. Adva and her bees don’t have to go through any of this because they fly out of school and head straight to their afterschool activities. Adva goes to a swimming group like she used to when her family went as Israeli emissaries to the Jewish community in Florida, which is in the United States, where she didn’t have to deal with the inconvenience of carrying all her stuff around because she had a locker with heart-shaped stickers and photos of Miss America, and so now instead the bees carry her bag for her.
Sometimes when the afterschool group is over we bury our noses in our collars and hide our faces inside our shirts. We take out our Chinese jump rope and play, and if we feel like it and no one is watching, we sneak through a hole in the fence and into an orchard. No one can see or hear us there, and we can do whatever we want. Sometimes we go in very far and take off our shoes and tell terrible secrets and ugly lies that we swear we won’t share with anyone else, and we hug each other three-ways until we fall down and sink into the wet ground. Then one of us climbs a tree and starts repeating one of Chaya’s favorite sentences: “Do you want a collective punishment?” And the other two of us shout, “Collective punishment, collective punishment.” “This will enter your personal record,” and then two of us call back, “Personal record, personal record,” and we all burst out laughing. We keep playing; one of us dresses up as Tamar, and then as Adva, and Adva and Tamar play with their hair in the same way, and we think that maybe they are sisters and that this is written in their personal record, and we sit and try to figure out how we can get ahold of it. We’re sure that the personal records contain information about each student from the moment he or she is born, information so confidential that no one knows where it is hidden or what it looks like; it could be many pages long or just one page with everything scribbled in code, like the handwriting of Dr. Bella at our local clinic. Rivka says that it contains material that even we don’t know about ourselves, and it is bigger than our parents and all of our teachers combined. The record system is so enormous and powerful that even the teachers only receive a bit of the information, depending on how important they are. In the end we decide that Chaya is not that important, and anyway a personal record is psycho like Tamar. We go still deeper into the orchard, covering our faces with our shirts and walking blindly until we bump into something and stumble. Then we make our shirts into bags and we pick oranges and throw them in, including the rotten ones. When we leave the orchard, we spread the oranges among the other trees by the roadside, and we come home panting and desperately in need of a shower.
The school year is coming to an end. Next year we’ll be the oldest kids in the school, and today we are celebrating Shavuot, the last holiday before the end-of-year ceremony and summer vacation. The ceremony will be held at eleven o’clock at the Veterans’ Hall, and everyone will come dressed in white. Me, Ofira, and Rivka are singing in the chorus led by Mr. Amichai, who plays the accordion. Adva and the bees are also in the chorus, in the same section as us, except that Adva is the soloist. Before it starts we play Chinese jump rope during ten o’clock recess. Adva and the bees are busy with their decorations, out of our sight. Tamar with her lice and her runny nose approaches us, and we want to throw up. “Go away,” Ofira growls at her from inside the jump rope. But Tamar circles us like a puppy, laughing idiotically, wanting to play. Chaya, who is working today as a substitute teacher and schoolyard monitor, looks over from her bench. She wants to do right by Tamar. She yells at us to include her, but we ignore her.
One-two-three. One-two-three. One-two-three. One-two-three.
One-two. One-two. One-two. One-two.
One. One. One. One. Ofira is at one end of the jump rope, and I am at the other. We raise the rope so it is just above our knees. Rivka jumps. Tamar is in the background, standing there waving her hands, wanting to join our game. Her hair is full of knots, more tangled than ours, and pulled back in a ponytail.
One-two-three. One-two-three. One-two-three. One-two-three.
One-two. One-two. One-two. One-two.
One. One. One. One. The jump rope is now up to the middle of our thighs. Tamar moves closer and Chaya yells at us, “If I have to tell you one more time…” Now she comes over and yanks on the jump rope. It’s our jump rope, but Chaya won’t leave, so we let Tamar play and try to ignore Chaya.
Me and Ofira lower the jump rope to our ankles. We wipe the sweat from our brows and begin to count slowly, “Oooone.” Tamar bounces up and down, her hands flailing. As usual, she has no idea what she is supposed to do, so we drag out our counting to give her some more time. She brushes her bangs away from her forehead, blinks her eyes, and breaks into another stupid grin. Her breath quickens. We slowly count, “Oooone.” The three of us stand there thinking: Hold your head up, stand closer to the rope, concentrate, get control of yourself, try harder—we also have to work hard at it. “Oooone.” Tamar is excited. Her eyes dart back and forth. Maybe one day I will catch Tamar and pin her down on the floor or sit behind her on a bench and do her hair with a fine-toothed comb and pick out her gray lice and their white eggs and then I will braid her hair tightly and threaten, “I don’t want to see you with lice ever again!” But she won’t be able to keep herself clean, and the lice will just come back again. If she ever came to our neighborhood, someone would try to pull up her skirt and touch her and she would get candy from the Chabad counselors who come to Liberty Bell Park, and she would finally learn what it is to get a prize, because they give everyone a coloring book, a jump rope, a popsicle, a keychain, a soccer ball, a basketball, a paperback book of Psalms, and lots of other stuff. All she would have to do is repeat with us, “Love your neighbor as yourself” or “Torah was commanded to us by Moses,” or some other line that she’s already heard at school. But she won’t be able to manage even this, and what’s her problem anyway, maybe she’s not ready for our class, maybe she just needs to go back to kindergarten. “Oooone-two-three.” Tamar jumps, first outside of the rope and then inside, but she gets out on “One,” because she is hopeless. “She has no idea how to play,” Ofira yells at Chaya, and the wise-guys stand there holding their sides in hysterics.
The three of us hurry to start the game again. We decide that the round with Tamar doesn’t count, and we are finished with her. We’d like to wipe away the whole encounter with Adva’s many erasers, as if it never happened. It‘s Rivka’s turn again. “Go away,” Ofira yells at Tamar, but she doesn’t budge. Then she jumps and starts laughing, louder and louder, trembling with excitement. We look at her perched on her tiptoes in her long heavy blue skirt. She moves her hands all over her face like a little girl who rubs her mother’s makeup on herself, or scratches her nose and ear with the same hand or rubs poop all over her face. The three of us stand there watching her. Ofira balls up the jump rope and we head back to class and leave Tamar standing there alone in the middle of the schoolyard.
In the classroom, Adva and the bees are still primping, huddled around Adva’s desk. We find it all boring and annoying; we don’t play along or put on makeup. The boys make noises and the ordinary girls are chatting in pairs, and Sally and Shani aren’t there. Now that the homeroom teacher Dvora has arrived and is standing there with her bag, we can leave. We all walk over to the Veterans’ Hall, which is close by. On the way, Ofira accidentally bumps into Adva, and we see the fear in Adva’s face because someone touched her, and she is holy. When we arrive, we have one last rehearsal. Mr. Amichai stands there holding his accordion and listening for anyone singing off-key. It’s most important to sing together, he says. Moments before the performance, we go backstage to get ready. Adva stands there looking at herself in the mirror of the girls’ bathroom. She puts on berry-flavored lip gloss and her lips blossom with the shine, and then she runs a finger along her eyebrows. She purses her lips, takes the curler out of her ponytail, arranges her bangs, and checks her hair from close up and then farther away. Today she has a special hairdo in honor of the performance, and she examines it from all angles. She flattens her stomach and straightens her skirt and her white shirt with the blue tassel. The rest of the girls cluster around her and try to push their way in. Some of them stand on their tip toes, and climb over each other, but everyone gets only a small section of the mirror. We are last. We wait until they and the ordinary girls leave. We don’t bother with the hair that sprouts wildly from our heads in a “fro,” as the other kids call it. We take off our uniforms, exchanging our blue school shirts for our white gym shirts with the insignia of the city, and we check and double check that the fabric is not see-through. In the toilet stall, Rivka sticks scotch tape on our nipples so that they don’t stick out when we go out on to the stage, where it’s cold.
Our chorus stands off to the side towards the back of the stage. Adva is one row in front of us, and we can see her back and her sandy hair. Mr. Amichai struts back and forth with his accordion as if with a full belly, telling everyone to spit out any gum, and Ofira sticks hers to her palm. We count one-two-three and concentrate hard, just as we do during games of jump rope. The ceremony begins and the first graders parade on stage with their baskets of first fruit and their heads garlanded, strewing flowers across the stage. The principal offers opening remarks, followed by the vice principal, the teacher who organized the event, and several students who pass across the stage and say to everyone, “Shavuot is one holiday but it has many names.” Then we sing “The Northern and Southern Winds,” and Adva is the soloist. We all sing the chorus together:
The northern wind is good for wheat,
Though olive buds dare not come out.
The southern wind brings onerous heat
But enables the grape vines to sprout.
The seven species native to the Land of Israel then parade before the audience and introduce themselves. Then the girls do a dance. When Mr. Amichai gives us the signal, we begin singing the closing song. Only Ofira does not join in; she moves her lips as if she is singing, but she is busy pulling off a small piece of her gum from the wad in her hand, and rolls it into a ball between her fingers, dry, sticky and gross. Rivka yanks on my shirt to get my attention. Ofira sticks the gum on the ends of Adva’s hair, where she can’t feel anything, and then adds another piece, and then another—one for each of us, because the three of us have decided that she deserves it. Then Ofira rejoins the chorus:
Arise, ho, rise up,
Fair villagers, espy!
The grain is ripe and ready
Beneath the summer sky
Arise and take your sickle
For harvest time is nigh.
When we finish singing Hatikva, the audience applauds. The kids file out of the auditorium and spread out all over the hall. Adva and the bees stop at the main entrance, but we go off and lose ourselves by the snack tables, where most of the students gather. We make ourselves tea with three scoops of sugar, stay close together, each of us with a styrofoam cup in one hand and a chocolate rugelach in the other, and look over at the bees. We can see them giggling about something that we can’t quite make out. They are looking from side to side, searching for something or someone. Then they go back to looking at each other and chatting away. Adva runs her hand through her hair, primping. Suddenly she has a horrified look on her face, and she holds on to the ends of her hair and rubs her fingers against one another, and her eyes widen and her face turns red. All the girls make shocked and sorry faces, because Adva now realizes she is contaminated. They surround her and take her to the girls’ bathroom. We stay right where we are, biting into our pastries and chewing slowly so that the sweet taste can break free and spread to every corner of our mouths, and then we sink our teeth back in, chewing until the heavy sticky sweetness starts to slide down our throats, like nectar.
Dalia Betolin-Sherman was born in Ethiopia in 1979. In 1984 she crossed Sudan by foot and immigrated to Israel with her parents and sister. She holds degrees in social work and creative writing from the Tel Aviv University. Her short story collection, When the World Became White, came out in Hebrew with Kineret Publishing in 2013. She lives with her husband and children in Tel Aviv.
Ilana Kurshan is an editor and translator who works for the Deborah Harris Agency in Jerusalem. She has translated A Bride for One Night by Ruth Calderon and The Sages series by Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau. A graduate of Harvard University (BA, History of Science) and Cambridge University (M.Phil, English literature), she was for many years the Books Editor of Lilith Magazine. Her blog about daf yomi and motherhood can be found at www.ktiva.blogspot.com.