The Gulf Between Our Bodies: A Memoir in Snapshots
Keren Tova Rubinstein
Before I was born they all lived in Iran. My father’s work led him, my mother and their firstborn, my older sister, to Teheran, and within a few months my older brother was born. It was 1970.
In one photo the hard Alburz Mountains are covered with snow that crisscrosses like shaving foam and coffee grounds. My Australian mother’s parents are visiting from Melbourne. They’re throwing snow balls at each other like children. My grandmother has fashionable red hair and wears clothes she knitted herself. In another photo my older brother, a one-year-old with an elegant side part, leans out the car window into the cold sunshine.
‘I remember that Renault,’ he says. ‘It’s amazing. I can even remember “Nights in White Satin” playing on the radio just as we passed a petrol truck burning by the side of the road.’
My sister, the eldest, also remembers those years before I was born.
‘That’s when I developed an addiction to caviar, eating it for breakfast in unlimited quantities,’ she says, hovering behind me in my study.
I imagine the matte bodies of deep-sea sturgeon, carriers for multitudes of eggs, a cargo of little magnets. ‘A four-year-old eating caviar?’
‘Can you believe it? We ate like kings.’ Her memory is spectacular.
In an earlier photo she’s still in diapers in a toy car on a wooden track. Beside her is a young teenager with a black bowl cut. ‘Wow, I haven’t seen this before! That’s what’s his name, the Friedman’s son. I had a huge crush on him.’ She looks closer, leaning into the screen. ‘I remember feeling tense sitting so close to him. Is it weird that I had a crush on someone at that young age?’
What would it be like to remember myself as an infant? I think hard, wrinkle my forehead and squint, then let go, failing to retrieve any data.
‘Persians are liars,’ my dad says, ready to explain. Ever since his children left Israel, each in turn, he’s been urging us to come back, but not in dribs and drabs – dad expects us en masse. Although when it happens, the three of us are too much for him. In 2007 we synchronized our lives to be in the country simultaneously. Having achieved the impossible, it was hard to see him more stressed and distant than ever. At the first opportunity I told him I was writing about my life and wanted to hear more stories. I thought he would be delighted since usually stories would be on a perpetual loop, relayed at the supermarket aisle or in high traffic, as if he were trying to catch up on some conversation that should have happened long ago. But now, just as I entered optimal listening mode, he clammed up.
On the last night of the trip, bags packed and outfit ready for the thirty-hour trip back to Melbourne, I sat beside him on the sofa and poured each of us a big whiskey, hoping to elicit some last minute intimacy.
‘Mum was telling me about Iran,’ I said, at which point he began his tale of Persian dishonesty. He still calls Iran Paras. The incident took place in the southern Iranian city of Bam, near some fallow fields. The company he worked for was hired to install an irrigation system, and sent my father to oversee the project. He doesn’t mention that Bam is also an ancient city whose centuries-old mud huts and tower still stand. He must have visited those ruins over the two weeks he waited for the site to be prepared, but he’s busy trying to remember the details of the corn fields’ irrigation system before he stalls on the subject of food.
Dinner at Bam Inn, he says, was always salad, and lightly seasoned, skewered chicken thighs. Unable to speak more than rudimentary Farsi, dad conveyed to the waiter that he wanted to eat a whole chicken, roasted. A group of Swedish men on leave from the Peace Corps heard him and nodded in what he saw as approval across the dining hall.
They were at the dining room the following evening, as the waiter brought out the chicken he had prepared for my father. It was a huge bird, he says, ‘something like a two kilo chicken. But it looked as though it had been boiled overnight, whole!’ As the waiter approached his table, dad ogled the shiny white meal; the Swedish men looked on quietly.
‘They were looking at me like, whoa, look at the brutal Israeli! He can really eat meat. You know what I mean – a tough guy.’
My dad coughs. He used a word I hadn’t heard for a while – giz’i, literally meaning pure-bred, of racial integrity; an alpha male or top dog, a good fighter.
He contemplated the odd-looking bird as the waiter reached his table. He hesitantly sank his teeth into a drumstick.
It was as tough as rubber.
‘The man just didn’t know how to cook a whole chicken!’
‘Iran is ruled by a thousand families,’ dad’s story continues after a television interlude. ‘There is rampant nepotism and corruption there.’ He rolls on the couch and takes another puff on his expectorant; it looks like the asthma inhaler so many Australians have.
‘Ah right. So why do I say Persians are liars?’ He resumes the original thread. ‘This goes back to the corn seedlings. So I’m waiting at the inn while the village power station gets organized with the crops, so that I can come around and begin the project. The foreman calls and says that after two weeks they’re finally ready, I can come around with the team.’ He coughs. ‘Pour me a little more whiskey?’ He drinks and clears his chest.
‘So the foreman tells me they’re ready for me and the team. I gather everyone with the equipment and we travel to the site. We arrive, and, what do you know?’ His mocking tone and a certain angling of his head remind me of the way he sometimes speaks disapprovingly of his step-son. ‘One guy lies, another lies, and so on and so on. Turns out the fertilizer hadn’t arrived, the crops weren’t ready, and the foreman wasn’t even there!’
I look at him, expectantly. Is this the punch line?
‘We just couldn’t do the installation of the electric irrigation system!’
I shake my head and rearrange myself in his wife’s undersized armchair.
‘What amazed me was that there had to be such a long chain of lies to sustain this facade.’ Hence, he concludes, we can assume the probable falsehood of Ahmadinejad’s claims of nuclear armament.
I was in Rechovot on leave from my boarding school, even though it would have been safest there, nestled in the hills of Jerusalem. It was becoming clear that we were approaching another war; nylon sheet and masking tape sales skyrocketed with talk of exotic weaponry; some invoked once again the Holocaust and the gas chambers. My uncle and countless like him increased their stockpiles of non-perishables at home and in the underground shelters of the buildings.
Also staying with us in the small flat in Rechovot was my step-dad’s ex-wife and her son, Idan, casually fleeing Tel Aviv. Idan was a couple of years older than me and went to a well-known art school. Our previous interactions were tense; he listened to the Wu Tang Clan on his Discman, plugged in all day. We sat beside each other on the living-room couch and watched Garfield on the Middle East channel. The space between Idan’s body and mine on the sofa was dense, a hand’s length away, our thighs charged and the hairs sticking up.
I knew that since he was staying with us, at some point we’d go into my room and he’d see my soft toy monkey, notice my happenstance music collection and dorky clutter. My room had a sofa bed with little amoeboid shapes like Joan Miró blobs on the upholstery; I had a stereo and turntable, which glowed in orange. Above them the window was open to the evening air and the neighboring apartment building almost within arm’s reach. At the foot of the bed were our kit boxes – our defense in case of Atomic, Biological, or Chemical bombs: the ABC; the kit’s main features were a gas mask and a capped syringe filled with atropine. I wrapped my box with purple paisley gift paper, like some others had done at school; after carrying it with me everywhere for a couple of months the gift paper was worn and ripped in the corners.
I was fifteen and restless. Would anything ever happen?
One evening Idan and I were sitting on the sofa bed, talking seriously about being sad, his dad in New York, my dad half an hour out of Tel Aviv. Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” gushed out of the speakers; my favorite album, an opera of ecstasy, anguish and heavenly bodies. This was on the military radio station, which had the good cutting-edge music. Idan took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. They seemed too large for their sockets. The skin on his temples and nose was so delicate, perfect.
He stopped talking. Then he leaned in and tried to kiss me. I averted my face, as if by instinct, and the kiss landed on my ear. Warm shivers radiated through my body.
We leant closer into each other, our chins about to touch, when the radio transmission stopped and the low intent voice of a military officer repeated ‘nachash tsefa. nachash tsefa’ – viper. This was code for attack. The neighborhood sirens boomed outside the window. We grabbed the masks and our boxes and rushed to the sealed room as we had done a few times that week. The sealed room was the bedroom of my mum and Michael, my soon to be step-dad. It was the largest in the apartment, and could fit us all. All of us together; so rarely did we sit in such close proximity without arguing. There was thick masking tape around the door frame sealing us in, X-es of duct tape on the windows in case of a blast and around the edges to keep the air clean. Inside the masks, each of us was a sealed room.
Before the end of the week Idan left to be with his dad in New York. His mother went to stay with friends up north. He and I promised to stay in touch by way of letters, but I didn’t write. My diary reveals that I was already preoccupied with someone called Nir. A couple of months later I received a letter from Idan, written on a piece of torn paper:
In answer to your letter – (1) shame you didn’t write earlier (I don’t believe you wrote the wrong address – you might be in year nine but you’re not an idiot) (2) I expected you to write a bit about what’s going on with you – not just one page, not to do with “us” or just what’s going on – with the war etc. (3) I feel an immense relief! I felt a distressing obligation to write to you at first – another annoying relationship when everything here is so new and inviting, but when I didn’t get an answer I understood something happened, now it’s all clear. Thanks!
P.S. – I’m okay, studying hard for the finals, not going to school, watching movies and waiting breathlessly to get back to Israel and see all my friends there.
Tel Aviv, 2:46 p.m. I am a passenger stationary at some traffic light directing the convergence of an unprecedented number of cars, motorcycles, buses, bicycles, vans, pedestrians, and countless leashed dogs. I am in my father’s car, and he is cursing all the other drivers. I’m taking holiday snaps, arty ones. At the forefront of the crowd waiting to pour onto the striped tarmac stands the army of mothers. Dressed in stretchy tops and trendy cargo and denim, funky accessories and armed with prams – not just any prams, only top of the range – and of course, the babies. They look straight on, never making eye contact. They are headed somewhere, each and every one of them. They don’t dare look down or to the side, for fear they’ll catch the gaze of another mum. A warrior mother must remain focused on her own mission. I’m not a mother, let me state and enable all mothers who might read this to feel the sweet narcotic twist of self-righteousness.
There are only three or four of them, but it is a regular day; during a Jewish or public holyday, or across from a park, imagine how many there could be. A flock of women, healthy and oversized, equipped with any number of sanitary products, nourishment, toys, and additional clothing. They could knock over all kinds of obstacles, physical and mental. Not just with their prams but also with their minds – the fierceness in their eyes is only temporarily compromised when they lean down to tuck the corner of a blanket to the side of a velvety infant, or shove a dummy in its mouth. I am probably mistaking Zen-like focus with the automaton gaze that takes over after significant and unrelenting sleep deprivation.
My step-brother had his first child a week after I arrived for this three-week homecoming. I am excited to meet the newborn, but exaggerate my excitement because there is little else to talk about in those awkward hours before Eti, my step-mother, leaves for work in the mornings.
‘Keren likes it when babies are born,’ she tells her daughter—already the mother of four—on the phone, as they rejoice at the birth of another grandson, the first nephew. She says it in a pointed tone—‘Keren doesn’t actually have a baby, not like you, my ultimately disappointing yet thankfully maternal daughter.’
‘You’d make a good mother,’ Eti tells me a couple of days before my departure. We’ve already had a chance to cycle all phases of our troubled and distant relationship: initial faux enthusiasm, ensuing intolerance and cold war standoffs, and the crescendo of outright rudeness. I’m flushed by her outpouring of compliments about my hands, feet, eyes, and potential for motherhood; she loves me despite the fact I feel so little love for her, I think, as she compliments me on the things she finds of utmost importance: appearances and breeding.
On a car ride with my dad I was imagining the ideal boyfriend to bring home to meet him.
‘Would you rather I had a non-Jewish boyfriend, or an ultra-Orthodox Jewish boyfriend?’
The ultra-Orthodox are kind of crazy, we agreed. Yet he is never really happy with my choice of partner. We were driving home that afternoon, after one of the few things my father loves unconditionally: meat. Israeli meat is delicious. Although Australia is the land of meat on the barbecue (as almost every nation claims to be), Israeli meat manages to come out on top. Is it the kosherness?
Take the Israeli shawarma, made of turkey meat. I firmly believe that what makes it so delicious is that those who vend it often set up shop in a stall on the footpath, or sometimes in spacious traffic islands, so the fumes of stagnant streams of traffic jam imbue the turkey strips with a unique spicy edge. There has to be a bit of road in there to really lift the flavor.
Stranded in one of those jams with my dad, I imagined bringing home my boyfriend: the shawarma. A large skewer, ever warm and sizzling, fat dripping off him but miraculously failing to stain my father’s suede sofa.
My father’s eyes light up the moment we step in the door. Finally he can rest easy, now that at least one of his children has found a partner he can back whole-heartedly. Shawarma and I sit in the living room, as everyone looks at him with such interest and enthusiasm, loving him instantly.
While the rest of the family chats away gaily, my father takes shawarma around the corner for a moment, and subtly slides his finger through two particularly juicy layers of turkey breast, savoring the good taste of road and sticky poultry fat.
‘I’m really happy to have you in the family,’ my father says gently and puts his arm around his future son-in-law.
Keren Tova Rubinstein was born in Israel and migrated to Australia aged 15. She completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University, in which she examined Israeli autobiography and national identity. She currently teaches Israeli language and culture, as well as Jewish comics and graphic novels, at the University of Toronto.