A picture of the house on Belkind Street, taken a few years ago.
I don’t usually post personal blog posts here, but since I am always exploring psychological reality in fiction and in life, I wanted to write this post about a house. It’s not a very fancy house, as you can see from the picture above. It’s not a very big house and it’s not a house where incredible things have happened in it. But houses, like people, have their scars and their emotional histories beyond their rooms and walls.
The house was my grandparents’ house on my mother’s side who we called Safta Shulah and Saba Yechezkel (“Safta” and “Saba” mean Grandma and Grandpa in Hebrew). I say was because on July 17, 2016, the house was demolished to make room for an apartment building. We all knew it was coming.
My grandparents lived on Belkind Street, a small street a few blocks away from Jerusalem Street, one of the main veins of downtown Rishon Lezion, the forth largest city in Israel. The house was a result of my grandmother’s determination to have her own place after having lived with my great-uncle, whom we called Dod Zechariah (“Dod” meaning “uncle” in Hebrew), my grandfather’s older brother, and his family for twelve years.
My grandparents were both Yemenite Jews and it was customary for families to live as a clan all in one house – grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren. So it was hardly a surprise to my Safta Shula that she and Saba Yechezkel moved into Dod Zechariah’s house soon after their marriage. Dod Zechariah had a large house and a large property that included citrus trees and a small stone house that used to have a tool shed and a chicken coop. My great-uncle sectioned off the patio and library and installed kitchen appliances (what was available in Israel in the 1940’s, which wasn’t much) so that they could have their own space. My mother was born in that house and so were both of her brothers.
My grandmother had many admirable qualities but tolerance of others’ needs wasn’t one of them. She liked to live quietly and elegantly and total control of her environment was essential for her happiness. My great-uncle’s house was constantly noisy and active with my mother’s cousins (three girls and two boys) and constant visitors in and out of the house. Dod Zechanriah was the rabbi for the Yemenite community in Rishon at the time and his wife, Doda (Aunt) Esther had an “open door” policy of receiving visitors at all hours. The constant chaos got on my grandmother’s nerves. Doda Esther, a warm and loving woman who adored children, wasn’t exactly my grandmother’s idea of an efficient housewife. She was liberal with the household goods (like sugar, flour, oil, cleaning materials) so a lot of money was wasted in the household budget, which the two families shared (until my grandmother caught on and demanded that they be separated).
So she set about carefully planning her escape. My grandmother was, as the old saying goes, the one who “wore the pants” in her family. She made the decisions and my grandfather and everyone else complied if they knew what was good for them. My grandfather’s salary as a county accountant was enough for them to live on but not enough to really save for a house. So my grandmother took a part-time job as a cook for a nursery school at a time when it was uncommon for women (and especially Yemenite Jewish women of her generation) to work outside the home. She scrimped and saved from the household budget whenever she could. One of my mother’s favorite childhood stories was how my grandmother refused to buy new notebooks for school because she wanted to put the money towards curtains for the new house (but my mother is a storyteller who likes to embellish her childhood memories, so I never took this one too seriously).
In the early 1950’s, my grandmother announced that they finally had enough money to build their own house. She was met with hurt comments like “Why, has someone done something bad to you here?” and “Haven’t we always welcomed you into our home?” Her demand for independence was breaking clan rules. But she had one ally on her side – my Dod Zechariah. An intimidating but clever man, he respected her intelligence and practicality and realized that if Safta Shulah wasn’t happy, no one else would be happy. So he agreed to help her.
My great-grandfather had acquired quite a bit of property in Rishon, including a section of land with nothing but orange groves and brush that my mother refers to as the Sapariah. When he died, as was customary with Yemenite Jewish families, he left most of his property to the eldest son (my Dod Zechariah) but he left part of the agricultural land to my grandfather. But my Safta Shulah had no intention of building her house on the property. There were too many wild animals, too many foxes (for some reason, she was obsessed with the foxes) and it was “the middle of nowhere”. Ironically, the Sapariah today is well populated with tall apartment complexes and private houses and the land that my grandmother rejected is where my parents built their house and where they now live.
My Dod Zechariah, who, despite his intimidating ways, always put family first.So he gave my grandparents a plot of land across from his house on Belkind Street that he had bought some years before. The land was 1 duman (about a quarter of an acre) so it was enough to build a 3 bedroom house. He introduced her different interior styles of houses, as he worked on interiors as part of his carpentry business. He did all the carpentry work for the house for free and he also got his son-in-law, who worked in construction, to help find foundational materials at a low cost.
Saftah Shulah knew exactly what she wanted and used her wiliness and pragmatism to get it. The house was built on stilts to catch the breezes in the summer when the high humidity that fell upon Rishon. She insisted that the wardrobe doors in the house be lined with formica so that they would last, not something that was done in those days because it was expensive. Because she five feet tall, she had cabinets built in the dining room area rather than above the counter and sink so she could easily reach them. She also had the sink and counters built to her height. She asked that cabinets partition either side so that they separated the kitchen and dining room. This made a passageway connecting the two areas so it would be easier to bring in food and it also kept the strong cooking smells out of the dining room.
A picture of my grandparents sitting on the outside steps of the house. Although this picture isn’t dated, it’s probably from the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, not long after they moved in. No wonder my grandmother is beaming!
After twelve years of living in someone else’s space, my grandparents moved into their new house. My mother was twelve and a half years old at the time. The house became a sanctuary for my grandmother, a nurturing space that she decorated with beautiful hand-made curtains and frosted parlor and patio doorways, where she welcomed family and neighbors on the huge back porch and planted fragrant rose bushes and mango and avocado trees in the back. The house was always bright and warm, a refuge for her grandchildren. It was also the house where Saba Yechezkel died, in February of 2011 and where Safta Shulah saw her last days six weeks later.
A few days after the house was demolished, my father sent me the pictures, an empty space with the rubble of broken concrete and wood. Only the iron gate and the round mailbox remained. But I can’t be sad about the house. I think if my grandmother knew that her house had been demolished to build something that would partly belong to her grandchildren, she would smile. Perhaps she already is.