Member Spotlight

Sabena Stark

August 15, 2020

Genre

Memoir

I was born in New York City and write poetry, fiction, and literary nonfiction. I am also a musician and composer. My immigrant family history inspires my creative work and my sense of kinship with all people who are seen as outsiders. One of my works in progress, a memoir, was awarded the Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship. My song, “Learning How to Fly” (Sony/Epic) was recorded and is performed around the world by Tuck and Patti.


A version of the story I have included in this spotlight was originally published in Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends Volume 10 Number 1. It is based on experiences I had during my year of writing in Jerusalem at the onset of the Second Intifada, 2000 to 2001. I work for and I write toward the time that we human beings will see ourselves as we really are, members of one extended human family.



And None Shall Make Them Afraid


“And they shall beat their swords in plowshares, And their spears into pruninghooks; Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, Neither shall they learn war any more. They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; And none shall make them afraid.”


     It happened in a poor neighborhood where the Haredi lived, observant, Orthodox Jews, mostly families with many children. The bomb was placed in a stolen car, attached to a cell phone with wires. The bomb makers, several streets away, called the number to trigger the bomb. Pieces of car ripped into people standing at a bus stop, tore into the walls and windows of shops and stony apartment buildings. Fire and smoke singed the brilliant sky.


     The radio announced that two people were killed immediately. Many others were injured. Limbs torn, an eye shattered. And worse. A miracle, it was said, that "only two" were killed. Rain fell and dampened the flames. The ambulances arrived. And Chesed shel Emet, Kindness of Truth, the volunteers who offer first aid and gather the bits of shattered bodies for proper burial, they arrived, too.


     It was February, my first Jerusalem winter. In my neighborhood, winter was a time of contrasts, patched asphalt roads sprouting broken glass and regal irises side by side in unlikely corners. The icy morning air of Old Katamon was rich with the exuberant songs of an assemblage of birds, the aromas of Yemenite spices and car smoke.


     On this day the two security guys who stood guard at the local Co-op Supermarket, two unarmed older men, were more somber, more thorough in their examinations of packages and bags that customers brought with them into the store. They each sat on a chair or stood just inside the automatic sliding-glass doorway. My favorite guard was a short wiry guy in his sixties. He sprouted an unruly gray beard on a gentle face. The other man was tall by Israeli standards, a bit younger, pot-bellied. He was clean-shaven with sparse whitish hair that stood up in a circle on top of his round head. The tall one rarely smiled or acknowledged me but I liked seeing him there, too. I was grateful for the care they both took welcoming and observing incoming shoppers. It was my first Jerusalem bomb.


     Jerusalem, Yerushalayim, City of Peace, as its name says. Just a few months into what was supposed to be a year of respite. I was lost as soon as I arrived. This was not the city I had imagined it would be. Too dirty, too crowded, too un-peaceful. Yet within the blur of people who had migrated here from all over the globe, any human connection was precious. An older man I encountered each week guarding the market was as close to being a friend as anyone.


     "Shalom," I said to my gray-bearded comrade.


    He responded in his smoked-out raspy voice. "Ma shlomech?" 

How are you?


    "B'Seder, gam atah?" Okay. Literally, in order. And you also? He nodded back. I opened my bag and he waved me in.

     I pulled containers from their shelves and into my cart. I like this food. I don’t like that. I should buy this brand instead. What am I forgetting? What did I get? I scanned the long row of refrigerated items: milk, yogurt, butter. Then tahina, humus, and other, more spicy Middle Eastern salads I couldn’t name yet. Something red that came in a plastic container and burned my mouth.


     Because of the bomb, the news was broadcast throughout the market through speakers mounted on the walls. The radio announcer spoke quickly in Hebrew. His voice came from every direction at once. I understood only some of the words. I tried to take my cues from those around me, adults and children who seemed to be living their lives without contracting into fear.


     People had been saying the current conflict was worse than it had been in more than twenty years. They wouldn't call it a war, not yet. It was instead euphemistically referred to as "Hamatzav," The Situation.


     I stared stupidly at my shopping list. Do I buy more food than I need today? Will it be safe to go out tomorrow or the day after? Of course it would. I loaded into my cart a pound of salted butter from Holland, fresh orange juice from Cyprus. Sweet apple and pear sauce for a treat. Two of those.


     Two forty-something women were working behind the glass display case of the cheese counter at the back of the store, both with hair cradled in fine nets against their necks. One woman had dyed a streak of bright blue into her hair, joked about her daughter’s criticisms of her appearance. Like most workers in the store they spoke no English. Unlike most, they were friendly and accommodating to new Hebrew-speakers and Americans. I waited among a line of women leaning against the glass case for my turn. A few of the women recognized me.


     A short, very plump shopper ahead of me turned and spoke in English.


     "My grandson just got called back. He only had two months left of his army service. He was coming home to us.”


     “Why was he called back?” I asked.

     “They lengthened the time for all the reserves."

     "I'm sorry to hear that. Do you know where he's stationed?"

     "No," she answered and looked away.

     The names of places where violence had been the worst during the previous few weeks

sat unspoken on my tongue. Umm el-Fahm, Nablus, Beit El, Ramallah, Sha'aba Farms. These were some of the intersections of anger and poverty, places young soldiers were sent.


     I thought of my son, driving his first old car to high school, back in the States, how he would have been getting ready to wear a uniform, to protect the unprotectable, if he had been here with me. He chose wisely, I thought, to stay behind. I chewed off the top of a thumbnail and left it jagged. When it was my turn to order, I asked for a quarter kilo of something familiar. Plain yellow cheese, please. “G’vina tzehubah, b’vakasha.”


     The news continued overhead. The casualty count from the bomb had increased.

     “Ma pitom!” What a pity! a woman behind the counter said.

     “Ma pitom,” I answered. The expression was familiar. I’d been hearing it said more and more frequently by people in shops and on the street. It was almost a prayer, for the dead, the injured, for their families and friends, for the witnesses and passers-by who were in shock. For those of us hearing about it or watching it unfold on the news, becoming afraid. More senseless violence. What a pity!


     I wheeled past glass cups, spices, pastas and grains, soaps and lotions. At the far end of the store, produce was laid out on tables and bins. There were a few additions to the usual repertoire of edibles found in the States: sabra fruit; dark, sweet shamouti and sour oranges; pale green Ha-Ogen melons. A slender Arab-Israeli man brought out a crate of lush red tomatoes. He moved efficiently to fill the bin as shoppers swarmed on all sides of him, reaching past his tall frame for onions and short wrinkled cucumbers in the adjacent piles as if he were a geographic hindrance. Even on normal days, everyone and everything was a hindrance. Shoppers moved swiftly, purposefully, in this city. Niceties were for being at home with guests, sharing a meal, playing cards. Not for grocery shopping.


     I joined the crush and filled a bag with ripe tomatoes, displacing a tall, youth-in-a-bottle redhead. I was surprised that I could inject myself into the fray so well as to take another’s spot in the tussle.


     A moment later I noticed two men arguing noisily in front of the egg wall a few feet away. One man appeared to be a thirtyish, Modern Orthodox fellow, a woven kippah on his head. The other man, older, darker, looked a bit shrunken. I didn't completely understand the subject of the dispute. The shoppers ignored them, reached behind them for cartons of eggs before stepping out of their way. The two men's voices rose above the sound of the radio broadcasting across the store. Their hands moved menacingly, conducting their words. Another man joined the argument, a tall Haredi man in a black suit jacket and formal black hat.


     As they continued, each man’s words leapt to a new, higher pitch. Soon they abandoned their baritone speaking voices altogether. They attacked and defended, in alternating phrases, angrier and higher, lower and calmer.


     Now they were yelling outright. They waltzed their fight into the corner where I was standing, in the protected little bay where breads filled wooden shelves and wicker baskets. The smell of fresh yeast and za'atar spice filled air amid the cacophony of voices.


     I understood a few sentences as the bent, older man slowed his speech. The stores shouldn’t sell Arab-grown produce, he was saying.


     “Look at what they do!” said the shrunken one.


     “But look at what WE do,” the younger one shouted. “Why are we still in the West Bank? Why are we shooting innocent people? Children! Is that right?”


     “They’re not innocent! We give them jobs and they kill us! Look!” The Haredi waved a community newspaper bearing headlines about the morning bomb.


     The manager was summoned, a blunt, tense man with heavy glasses. A few insults were traded before the three arguers disengaged and disassembled into different parts of the store.


     The bread nook was suddenly quiet. The shelves looked sparser than usual. I took down two breads, not one, and filled a sack with several tender challah rolls. I would freeze them, I thought, in case the stores weren't open again this week.


     A group of teens clustered near the checkout lines, beside a wall devoted entirely to American and American-style breakfast cereals. Tony the Tiger, his image graced by Hebrew lettering, smiled from his box. The teens flirted with each other and spoke into tiny pelephones. They seemed used to arguments and talk of politics and bombs in the middle of a grocery store.


     The checkers were all women of a wide variety of ages. They didn't stand up or provide friendly chatter for customers the way supermarket checkers did in the States. They sat on chairs and punched the register keys, moving groceries along the narrow conveyer belt. There was no petty politeness or even eye contact unless they deemed it necessary. I stood in the line of the checker I knew the best, the only one who talked to me, a young woman slightly older than my son. She would be going into the army soon for her mandatory service.


     "Mishloach, b'vakasha." Delivery please, I said. For a few extra shekels at the register, my groceries would be brought home down the steep, winding streets to my apartment.


     The sound of delivery carts rumbling up and down the asphalt was common throughout the day. The sound was somehow comforting and normal. The deliverymen were all Arab- Israelis. They smoked cigarettes and raced from door to door, rolling and riding long metal carts filled with groceries, collecting tips on the way. A few of these young men worked at the head of each checkout line, filling large red plastic bins with groceries. They were lanky and clean-cut. Their supervisor, an older man, also an Arab-Israeli, joked with me. He had memorized my

address and told it to the checker b’Ivrit, in Hebrew, along with some incomprehensible comment. Then, as always, he laughed at his own joke, which I never understood.


     My checker friend rolled her eyes and said, in English, “Don’t pay attention to anything he says.”


     As was customary, I bagged up and carried out anything fragile: eggs, yogurt in containers topped with thin foil covers, fresh bread, things that wouldn't make it home without cracking or getting smashed. From the end of the checkout line, I could see the automatic glass door opening to shoppers and deliverymen, the wind blowing in the entrance. The security guys were still poking through women’s bags. I was ready to head home to my apartment a few blocks away and not come out for a long time. My older friend at the door was busy, but slipped a smile and a nod good-bye to me.


     The supermarket sat on a busy street, a shopping district imbedded, as everything was, in a residential neighborhood. A constant stream of traffic zoomed by and I often waited for more than a dozen vehicles to pass before crossing. Buses, cars, taxis, bicycles. None of these stopped for people or anything else traveling on foot.


     The air was brisk and drizzly that day. Someone a few stories up in the adjacent building was playing the flute, a snippet of Haydn mingled with a delicious morsel of jazz. I zipped up my coat and watched a young woman leading a small parade of children on the sidewalk across the street. She wore a pudgy black straw hat and long raincoat and was engaged in a conversation with her school-aged son. At a break in the traffic, she pushed her baby stroller and, with three more marchers in tow, began to cross toward me. One of her cluster, a dark-haired toddler, ran a few steps ahead of the others. The little girl darted past the stroller, past brothers and sisters, just as an old silver-colored Mercedes-Benz taxicab came up the hill. The taxi came too fast toward the intersection. As the child reached the center of the street, the car squealed to a stop, just shy of hitting her. The front of the cab stopped so close to the child’s small body, maybe just inches, angels must have intervened. The girl was stunned, quiet. Her father, who I hadn’t noticed before, crossed to my side of the street. He was a pale, fully bearded man. He sported a hand-knit kippah on his head and dilapidated leather sandals and sox on his feet. His response to the near accident was to shout at the driver from the sidewalk. When the driver yelled back, the father stomped toward him in a rage.


     “Get out of the car, you bastard. Get out of that car before I pull you out.”


     The driver, a stylishly bald, wiry-thin Arab-Israeli, yelled back from his driver’s seat. “Hey, you crazy old man. You letting that baby in the street? You think a car can stop just like that?” He opened his window and threw a lit cigarette out. He was, at least from the chest up, all in black. Black leather coat, black gloves. A vein in his temple jutted outward as he continued, “You! You get out of the street and take those children with you.”


     The radio in the car crackled loudly with the voice of the dispatcher announcing pick-ups in other Jerusalem neighborhoods. The father leaned in and yelled through the passenger window.


     “You son-of-a-bitch,” the driver said, in English.


     Two other Jewish-Israeli men on the street approached the cab, shouting curses. They were talking too fast for me to comprehend. The driver stepped out and continued hurling invectives at the father. Several more abuses were exchanged until the driver, as a final insult, spit across the top of his cab toward the father's face.


     A man watching from across the street, a sandy-haired Russian built like a football player, barreled into the crowd. He shoved the cab driver backwards against his car. The driver

wouldn't relent. He pushed back at his assailant who outweighed him by at least half his own body weight. The Arab pressed against the immense chest but the Russian wouldn’t budge. The Russian’s fat hands came down on each side of him and the young driver was surrounded.


     Two more pedestrians approached from across the street, a young couple arm in arm, and entered the intersection. The children’s mother screamed from the sidewalk, "Be careful, he might run over your wife. He's a murderer."


     “Who is the murderer?” The driver said. “Here are murderers,” lifting his shirt to show a large scar on his belly. “Your soldiers did this to me. For nothing.”


     “You are a liar!” the father said.


     Meanwhile, a group of native-born Jewish teens, Sabras, filed out of the market in a clump and stood at the curb. One gutsy Sabra squeezed between the driver and the Russian and tried to separate them. Two more Jewish men came close and joined the crowd. Another young Israeli man shook an angry fist and spouted threats at the driver who was now crushingly outnumbered.


     My heart was pounding and I feared for the cab driver's life. But I stood frozen to the sidewalk with my bag of yogurts and eggs, afraid to intervene. The men crowded in, all talking and shouting at once. The Russian seemed to be interrogating the driver. He pounded on the hood of the taxi for emphasis after each question. The cab driver, though stretched to his full height, appeared thin-necked and vulnerable. His wristwatch fell to the ground but he didn’t bend to retrieve it.


     At this instant another taxicab sped up the street from the opposite direction. It swerved to a stop in front of the tumult. This cab’s driver was a short, muscular older Arab man. He stopped his car in the middle of the street and stepped out into the crowd. A cap and sunglasses shaded much of the aging skin of his face. He was dressed plainly, in slacks, a thin sweater, and a checkered cotton shirt, clothes I thought more appropriate for summer. I could hear the growl of his car radio and wondered if this whole scene was being broadcast to every cab in Jerusalem.


     The older driver marched into the crowd and immediately engaged the Russian. He rested a hand on his shoulder.


     "It's okay, my friend. Let's not make a fight. Let's not get upset." The Russian pushed the driver’s hand away, but the older man stayed cool. He slipped in front, shoved his fellow driver back into his Mercedes-Benz taxi, and admonished him in Arabic to shut up and drive on.


     The first driver shrieked once more out of his window, “What do you know about to be a father? I am father. I work.”


     “Go on,” his deliverer yelled. He slapped the hood of the young man’s car and the driver finally pulled away though he sent one last curse out of his window. The older driver backed out of the angry crowd, returned to his cab and drove off. The Russian hurled more threats down the street before he, too, walked on. The teens had already quietly wandered away. And then the rest of them dispersed. I just then noticed the toddler. She cried for a few moments as the yelling ceased, then climbed on the back of the stroller and bit into a wedge of chocolate that her mother had placed in her hand.


     I crossed the street to the neighborhood makolet that sold candy and newspapers and bought a piece of strawberry licorice for the walk home, still stunned and confused.


     The trip back to my apartment was downhill along a narrow walkway, between a row of apartment buildings and a nursery school. Thick waist-high metal poles blocked the entrance into the neighborhood. No cars could travel there from the main street, making the road more hospitable to foot traffic. As always, the street was dirty, like an alley, littered with pink plastic bags and empty plastic soda bottles, candy wrappers and blackened dog stools.


     I walked slowly, looked up instead of down. I took time to peek into people's gardens. Dry fig and pomegranate branches whipped in the wind. In one yard there were rambling leafy grape vines on a wooden trellis that stretched above a tiled walkway. Along the street, white flowers had burst open on static cherry-tree limbs, their petals fluttering like snowflakes. My bag of food swung at my side. I turned the corner and breathed in a whiff of hot pizza baking in a tiny café planted in the middle of nowhere. All the tables were full.

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