Small Talk

By Ed Staskus

Rita Staskus thought Gadi Galilli 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 Gadi when he was with the Cleveland International Group. They were both looking up 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. Rita always thought there was something out of joint with him. He never talked about why he left Israel when everybody else said it was the homeland. He didn’t always go to the same synagogue, either. He was supposed to walk to the service, too, 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.

   Rita was working at Born to Travel in Beachwood when she started thinking about learning to speak Hebrew. Beachwood is an ethnic neighborhood on the far east side of Cleveland 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.” Gadi and she would have something in common, other than going out and making out. 

   Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker encouraged her. They were the co-owners of the travel agency. They wanted Rita to guide tours to Israel. What could be better, they said to one another, hacking and spitting in their trash cans, making their plans.

   They were sisters and both were fat. They were always at the head of the buffet line. Sandy was usually ahead of her sister. Sima worked hard, but Sandy didn’t, since she had Sima. Sandy fell asleep at her desk every day, her head lolling on 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 chow. They were from Israel, from when they were kids. They had never gone back. They weren’t even planning on visiting anytime soon.

   Although Rita 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 ghetto and trying to learn Chinese and Hungarian both at once. 

    Sima told her about a language school on Shaker Boulevard, just 10 minutes from where she and Gadi 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, although when she got there every last person was already in the classroom.

   When the teacher walked in, Rita 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. Sit up straight and pay attention.”

   Her name was Ayala. She handed notebooks out with the Hebrew alphabet in them to the class. 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 clapping at the start of every class.  Everybody had to stand up and sing the Israeli national anthem. Then it was down to the business of Hebrew.

   Rita’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 in the foxhole.

   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 in the class called him Gil, although one wise guy called him Mound of Gil, because he was heavyset.

   “Oh, my name’s Rita,” 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 Rita.” 

   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 Rita didn’t know anything, she devoted a little more time to her. 

   Rita 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 Gadi 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 hoodoo for a long time. Everything the teacher wrote on the black board she copied 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 the Hebrew proposal became history.

   The classroom across the hall was a conversion class. Everybody in the class was somebody converting to being Jewish. Rita’s classmates craned their necks, a sour look on their faces, watching them go in their 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 wrinkling his lips.

   Rita thought everybody 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.” 

   Gino, who was the gay Italian travel agent in the office at the desk opposite her, and she were talking about the Jewish look one afternoon when a man walked in and she said, “Tell me he doesn’t look Jewish.”

   She said it too loud. Everybody heard her say it.. Sandy and Sima put down their cigarettes. 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.  

   Gino and she were outsiders because everybody else in the office and almost everybody else in the building and neighborhood was Jewish. Sandy and Sima would sometimes say, “I don’t know why the 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 blue-ribbon plan.

   The Jewish holidays start in September. Yom Kippur is the heavyweight holiday. Everybody in Rita’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 up the hill from Little Italy. Rita 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 Rita 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 didn’t have a wig and never went back.

   Her classmates knew she lived with Gadi. He dropped her off at school and picked her up afterwards. He was OK with her saying she was orthodox. Since everybody thought she was Jewish she knew she had to start being crafty about it. She ran into them where she lived and worked, especially around Corky and Lenny’s in the plaza beside Born to Travel, where she went to lunch every day.

  An old lady with a scratchy voice, the mother of a woman 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,” Rita said. She almost said Christmas shopping, but caught herself. Her family celebrated Kucius, the Lithuanian Christmas Eve. They were dyed in the wool Christians.

   “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,” Rita 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, that’s good,” the old lady said.

   Rita was never certain whether she was getting a good grasp on Hebrew, or not. After every class she thought, “I’m never going back.” One night she finally didn’t go back. She couldn’t bring herself to do 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. 

   Rita 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 in 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 of the stuff.  Most of the people in class were reformed Jews and didn’t take it too seriously, but because she had mistakenly made everybody 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 Gadi. 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 breathing exercises.

   After Alaya hung up, Rita had to meet her 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 Rita glad.

   Gadi’s brother Oz from Israel visited them for two weeks in the spring. He was a big help, taking the time to talk to Rita in Hebrew, helping her get the feel of the language. It sounded like something between Arabic and French when he spoke it. He helped her more in a few days than Gadi ever did.

   Since his brother was visiting, the two men went to services together on Fridays, dressed up in business casual. Gadi 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 Rita sitting alone in the half-dark.

   At the end of the class Rita 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 chaperoning Born to Travel tours to Israel soon afterwards. Sandy and Sima saw her off at Hopkins Airport. They waved goodbye with their long Virginia Slims, their hands smoky, their flat feet achy. They bought giant hot pretzels to tide them over.

   Rita stayed with Gadi’s mother the first time she was in Jerusalem. Oz still lived at home, the family home, and he took her to a wedding. He told her how to dress for it. “Wear a black dress.” Rita wore a black dress. The men sat on one side and the women on the other side. After the ceremony she sat at a table with the women who passed around platters of food. 

   They were separated from the men by a low wall. The women sat and talked, most of the chatter 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, not once. Rita danced with some of the other women. She had a wonderful time.

   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’s that?” 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 stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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