By Ed Staskus
Ruta Zukauskas thought Mendel Arenberg was going to help her learn Hebrew, but he didn’t, not even for a minute. He was from Jerusalem, had a boat load of friends who spoke Hebrew, and they yakked it up among themselves all the time. But he never helped her, even though they lived together, and she was the designated driver who drove him to synagogues.
She met Mendel when he was with the Cleveland International Group. They were looking at the same dinosaur at the Natural History Museum and afterwards she gave him a ride home. Everybody in the immigrant group loved him. He asked her for her phone number. He was a cute guy, and she liked him, but found out later he had almost no patience, even though it is a Biblical virtue.
He was from a Kurd family, was born in Haifa, and was an orthodox Jew. Ruta always thought there was something fishy about his Jewishness. He never said why he left Israel when everybody else saw it as the homeland. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, but she always drove him. She dropped him off a block from whatever synagogue he was going to that day and he walked the rest of the way.
He didn’t want anyone to see him in a car.
Ruta was working at Time to Travel in Beachwood when she started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood is an ethnic neighborhood on the east side and many of the people who came to the agency spoke Hebrew. She thought, maybe I should learn it. It would help me get ahead in my job. Mendel and I would have something in common, other than going out and making out.
Sami and Simcha Fetterman encouraged her. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted Rita to guide tours to Israel. What could be better, they whispered to one another, hacking and spitting in their trash cans.
They were sisters and both of them were obese. They were always at the head of the food line. Simcha worked hard, but Sami didn’t, since she had Simcha. Sami fell asleep at her desk every day, her head lolling on her triple chins. They both smoked cigarettes all day long, stinking up the office, like it was the most important thing to stick in the mouths, next to the chuck wagon. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back. They weren’t even planning on visiting.
Although Ruta wasn’t Jewish and only knew a handful of Hebrew words, she spoke Lithuanian fluently and some German. I’m pretty good with languages, she thought. She used to be a schoolteacher and was sure she could learn. At least she thought so until she tried. I couldn’t have been more wrong, she admitted. It was like having grown up speaking rap and trying to learn Chinese and Hungarian both at once.
Simcha told her about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 10 minutes from where she and Mendel lived. Classes were at night, twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 8 o’clock until 10 o’clock. She made sure to get there early her first night, but everybody was already in the classroom.
When the teacher walked in, Ruta could barely see her, she was so short, maybe five feet tall. She had dark hair and was from Yemen. The first thing she said was, “Yemenite Jews are the most Jewish of all Jews. Be glad I am your teacher.”
Her name was Ayala Shabazi. She handed notebooks out with the Hebrew alphabet to everyone. She started speaking in Hebrew, too, right away, and never went back to English unless she absolutely had to.
She was all business.
“Let’s go,” she said at the start of every class. Everyone had to stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to business.
Ruta’s biggest fear was Ayala calling on her. I would have to speak in front of everyone, she mumbled to herself. She tried to keep her nose buried in her notebook, scribbling notes. She tried to keep her head down.
Everybody in the class was Jewish, except for her. Everybody had to tell everybody else their names the first day of class, Esther, Joshua, Miriam, Daniel, Alexander. One man’s name was Gilead, which Alaya explained means mound of testimony, although she never explained what mound of testimony meant.
Everybody called him Gil, although one wiseacre called him Mound of Gil, because he was heavyset.
“Oh, my name’s Ruta,” she said hesitating when it was her turn. Right away somebody asked her, “What’s your Hebrew name?” She wanted to say, “What the hell, I’m not even Jewish,” but said, “My family calls me Ugne.” Ugnele was her middle name. It meant fire.
Ayala asked questions in Hebrew, and when everyone around her answered in Hebrew, she realized they all knew at least some of the language, while she knew nothing. It was a beginner’s class, but she was as far back from the starting line as could be. When Ayala found out Ruta didn’t know anything, she devoted a little more time to her.
Ruta couldn’t make out the strange alphabet, and on top of that the writing was backwards. When the teacher spoke, it sounded like she was clearing her throat. She decided she wouldn’t be able to make those sounds. I’m not coming back, she decided. But two days later she was back. She told herself, I am taking the class for work’s sake. I want to travel overseas. I don’t want to admit to Mendel I am quitting after one night.
She ended up taking the course from beginning to end, nine months of Hebrew.
Every symbol of the alphabet has to be memorized back to front and back. She tried, but it was her hoodoo for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the black board she wrote down in her notebook. She wrote sentences first in English and then in Hebrew. She wrote her middle name until she got it right.
She wrote, “We have three children in our family, two boys and one girl,” and then she wrote it in Hebrew, over and over.
The Pilgrims, when they landed in America, for a few minutes thought of making Hebrew the national language. It didn’t matter that it was the New World, not the Old World. But, there’s no word in Hebrew for history, so Hebrew became history.
The classroom across the hall was a conversion class. Everybody in the class was somebody converting to being Jewish. Ruta’s classmates craned their necks, a sour look on their faces, to see them going in the door. They didn’t like it, at all.
“Oh, they’ll never be real Jews, those non-Jews trying to be Jewish.” they said.
“Take a look at that shiksa,” a skinny man sneered.
Ruta thought everyone believed her mother was Jewish, although she didn’t know why. She had shoulder-length blonde hair. I don’t look Jewish, she thought, but if you say that in front of Jews, they’ll say, “What? There are plenty of blondes in Israel.”
Bruno Conte, who was the gay Italian travel agent in the office, and she were talking about the Jewish look one afternoon when someone walked in and she said, “Tell me he doesn’t look Jewish.”
She said it too loud. Everybody heard her. Sami and Simcha put down their cigarettes. Shlomit the secretary looked up from her typewriter. It just came out. Most people who came to the agency were Jewish, so it wasn’t any surprise, but this man looked like Barbara Streisand.
Bruno and she were outsiders because almost everyone else in the office and building and neighborhood was Jewish. Sami and Simcha would sometimes say, “I don’t know why Christians don’t like Jews.” They made it sound like Christians were a crazy clan. They made it sound like being Jewish was God’s big plan.
The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the big one. Everybody in Ruta’s class was talking about it. One of them asked her, “What synagogue do you go to?”
Most of the class lived on the east side, including her. She lived in Cleveland Heights just up the hill from Little Italy. Ruta thought, “Oh, Christ,” there are a lot of small ones, but they’re all ultra-orthodox. She didn’t want to look overly conservative. When she drove to work, she passed the big Sinai Synagogue, so she said, “SInai.”
It turned out it was ultra-orthodox.
Everybody was good with that, even though Ruta didn’t wear a wig or have a real Hebrew name. She decided she had to go to the Sinai Synagogue to see it. The men were all downstairs and the women upstairs, on a balcony, segregated. She took the stairs. It looked like most of the women were wearing wigs. She never went back.
Everybody in class knew she lived with Mendel. He would drop her off at school and pick her up afterwards. He was OK with her saying she was orthodox. Since everyone thought she was Jewish she had to start being crafty. She ran into them where she lived and worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the little plaza beside Time to Travel, where she went to lunch every day.
An old woman with a scratchy voice, the mother of someone she sat next to in class, called her one evening. It was a week before Christmas. It was the day before the last day of Hanukkah.
“What did you do today?” she asked.
“I just finished all my shopping,” Ruta said. She almost said Christmas shopping, but caught herself. Her family celebrated Kucius, the Lithuanian Christmas Eve.
“But it’s the last day of Hanukkah tomorrow,” she said.
“In my family that’s how we do it, we do everything the last minute,” Ruta explained. “I’m not breaking tradition. Oh, I bought some donuts, too.” Someone had told her to say donuts if she ever felt she was being called out.
“Oh, I see,” the Jewish woman said.
Ruta was never certain whether or not she was getting a good grasp on Hebrew. After every class she thought, I’m never going back. One night she finally didn’t go. She couldn’t bring herself to it. That night Alaya called her at 11 o’clock, just as she was going to bed.
“Why weren’t you in class?” she asked.
Ruta wanted to tell her, “You should be asking me why I go, not why I didn’t go this one time.” But she told her because of the holiday coming up, she had to clean her cupboards, getting rid of all the yeast invading the kitchen.
If you’re ultra-orthodox you have to remove any yeast you have in the house, sweep away crumbs, look under cushions for moldy donuts, remove every trace. Most of the people in class were reformed Jews and didn’t take it too seriously, but because she had mistakenly made everyone believe she was more conservative than them, she was expected to be serious about ritual.
“It never was my intention to say I was Jewish, but a good time to admit it never came up,” she explained to Mendel. What was worse, she was Catholic. That side of her didn’t like Jews. The Lithuanian side of her didn’t like Jews, either. She kept her peace of mind by doing yoga and breathing exercises.
After Alaya called her, Ruta had to meet her teacher on Sunday morning, just the two of them, to make up the class. It was impossible to keep her head down with her teacher breathing down her neck. Alaya told her she was making progress. It made her glad.
Mendel’s brother Baruch from Israel visited them for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to Ruta in Hebrew, helping her get the feel of it. It sounded something between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped her more in a few days than Mendel ever did.
Since his brother was visiting, the two men went to services together on Fridays, dressed up in business casual. Mendel turned off all the lights in the apartment when they went, walking to the synagogue. He had never done that before. He even unscrewed the light bulb in the refrigerator. When they left, they left Ruta sitting alone in the half-gloom.
At the end of the class Ruta got a B, even though she more-or-less staggered through it like wandering in the desert. Her reading and writing were sketchy, but by graduation time she spoke the language tolerably well. Even still, she was glad when it was all over.
She started taking Time to Travel tours to Israel soon after. Sami and Simcha saw her off at Hopkins Airport. They waved goodbye with their Virginia Slims, their hands smoky, their flat feet achy.
Ruta stayed with Mendel’s mother the first time she was in Jerusalem. Baruch still lived with his mother and he took her to a wedding. He told her how to dress for it. “Wear a black dress.” Ruta wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other. After the ceremony she sat at a table with women who passed around platters of food.
They were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of it too fast for her. All the men wore black hats and were having a great time, drinking, singing, and dancing, sweating up a storm, their hats bobbing up and down on the other side of the wall.
The groom wouldn’t say a word to her when she tried to talk to him. He and his bride didn’t dance together, at all. Ruta danced with some of the other women.
The more often she went to Israel the better her Hebrew got. One day she was walking around Jerusalem by herself, sight-seeing the way she liked it. A young man with red hair wearing a yarmulke asked her something as he was passing by.
“What?” she asked.
“Do you know where Jaffa Road is?” he repeated.
Her tour group was staying in a hotel on Ben Yehud Street exactly where it met Jaffa Road.
She pointed over her shoulder.
“It’s over there,” she said in spotless throat-clearing Hebrew.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.