s soon as I saw the golden dome rising above the Old City, it all came back to me: my grandmother had given us a set of wooden pieces to build a model of Jerusalem’s Old City. We assembled it dozens of times in a room at my grandparents’ apartment on Avenida Libertador. The apartment I would have liked to move into, without my grandma Elsa, of course. Lots of times I asked if she’d swap homes with us, we would live in hers and she could live in ours. We assembled the Old City in my aunt’s old bedroom. We stored the pieces in a box along with a board that we put underneath it. It must have had instructions to show how the pieces fit together. It also had the walls.
I didn’t know anything about Israel and much less about Judaism. My brother and I would put it together. Always under the watchful, menacing eye of my brother who’d criticize my pronunciation or ask me questions I could never possibly answer. He was five years older than me. And I say was because he’s no longer older than me, nor am I older than him. I haven’t heard anything from him since he went off to China, and it’s been ten years. He went off to China, yeah, it sounds like a joke, but it’s the truth. It seems he even married a Chinese girl there. It’s not uncommon, since there are so many.
Chinese girls here as well, I don’t know why he went looking for one so far away, said my mother’s friend. ―Israel is like this little piece, my grandmother once told me. She pointed to the fringe of the upholstery in their car. They called it the automobile. I always thought of the Batmobile. ―And the Arabs have all this, she passed her hand over the rest of the car’s upholstery. I must have given her a look of ―What do I care? None of that stuff mattered to me. My parents had never spoken to me about Israel. My grandmother always tried to push things that I wanted nothing to do with. She insisted so much that I didn’t know what she was talking about anymore. The only thing I really wanted was for her to stop. My grandmother said my aunt had gone off to Israel but didn’t understand a thing. She spent her time ironing shirts on a kibbutz. Once she also told me that she’d joined us up as members of the Hebraica Club. I don’t remember ever having gone there, I think I saw a membership card once when I was going through my brother’s desk drawers. The papers rose and fell mixed up with some pencils, pornographic magazines, and wires. Grandma later said that Mom must not have kept up the membership dues. Some years we celebrated the Jewish New Year: we ate gefilte fish, a patty made of three varieties of fish, immersed in fish jelly with carrots and little pieces of parsley stuffed inside. Then came the matzo ball soup and the final course, baked chicken with potatoes and yams. We ate in my grandparents’ dining room. I had to dress up for the occasion. When I got there, my grandfather, with his mustache and his eyeglasses, would say ―You just keep getting prettier.
The dinners were tense, usually ending with mom and grandma exchanging irreparable insults. Elsa gave a detailed account of her wanderings through the many fish markets searching for just the right fish to prepare the meal with. She referred to the texture of each fish, how to mix them, how she substituted ones she could find in Buenos Aires for the ones they used to use in the Ukraine. She also told us about her search for chrain, essential companion to gefilte fish. She always warned us it was spicy. She gave my brother and me large glasses of water that were looked upon with disdain. According to my grandparents, it was bad to drink so much water during meals. No one quite understood how we arrived at these situations, and less so, how we worked our way out of them. Sometimes the meals were interrupted midway through, sometimes during the second course. I don’t know what was for dessert; I don’t think we ever made it that far. The dining room was large, with sliding doors. On one of the walls there was wallpaper with a gray background on which you could see, drawn very subtly, an image of a large supper. My grandma Elsa explained it for those who couldn’t quite make it out or see it.
There was a large mahogany colored table and English styled chairs. The curtains were thick clear blue silk. Everything shined. First we sat in the living room to chat for a while. At some point, Elsa announced that we had to come into the dining room. There were other guests, family members or friends of my grandparents. My grandmother had many siblings: she was the youngest of eleven, born when her mother was forty-seven years old. From Russia they had gone to San Juan. Some still lived there: Abrasha, Menasha, Liuba, Sasha and some others.
To me, Russian was a Jewish language, just like the cherry or potato varenikes were Jewish foods. My grandmother loved Russian. She taught it to my brother and me. I’d never heard of Yiddish until my grandmother told me she knew some Dutch because it was somewhat similar to German, which she had learned during her stay in Germany before leaving Hamburg for Argentina, and what’s more, it sounded like Yiddish. My grandmother on my father’s side was also Jewish, but we never celebrated Jewish holidays with her. Dad was anti-religious by definition: anything that smacked of religion irritated him. All he had to say about it was that, as a boy, he had read a version of the bible adapted for children. Once in a while, a comment about something Jewish slipped out of Mom’s mouth. She only seemed to fixate on the fear of the Nazis, on her childhood marked with the fear that the Nazis would come to Argentina.
Everything German upset her and it didn’t go any further. Once, while eating lunch with my grandmother in the family dining room at her house, I told her that I didn’t understand what being Jewish meant. And, it seemed that being Jewish or not was pretty insignificant. She responded that one day someone would call me a ―fucking Je and then my opinion would change. She told me that she went to a German elementary school in Mendoza. ―They sent me there because when we arrived in Argentina I spoke Russian and German, I didn’t know Spanish. I was often told I spoke Spanish very well, so well that it was obviously not my native language. Later she told me the story about her classmate: one day she told her that she couldn’t share a desk with her anymore because ―her father forbade her to sit next to a Jew. My grandmother personally knew how Jews were treated in Russia. Another word she taught me was pogrom. One of her sisters or aunts was raped in a pogrom, a spontaneous uprising against the Jews. ―They’d go out and kill them just like that, she explained. ―And rape the women.
Once I spent the afternoon of the Day of Atonement with my grandmother. She prepared a meal that, she said, we would start eating when the first star came out. Some years she fasted and some she didn’t, depending on how she was feeling. The ―family Jewish New Year celebrations were over by then. They stopped suddenly after my grandfather died, when I was thirteen years old. My interest in visiting Israel came many years later, by way of an Israeli friend. Nothing that my family had told me had sparked my curiosity: it was a remote place visited by people who participated in activities I had barely heard about – clubs whose names I hardly recognized like Acoaj and Macabi, and people who spoke a language that I’d never, except at a distant relative’s wedding or at some Bat Mitzvah, heard a word of. Places where I didn’t belong. Nothing of Jewish religion or culture had been instilled in me; except, of course, the golden dome.