Purim: Making the Rounds in Beit Mazmil
The year is 1959 and a young boy and his family are immigrants from Egypt. They live in a housing project on the edge of Jerusalem, where both Mizrahim and Ashkenazim—strangers to each other—are adjusting, side-by-side, to their new lives in Israel. One veteran immigrant from Hungary, Moshe Farkash, owner of the local grocery store, befriends the young boy. In From the Four Winds (Toby Press), a historical novel, based on award-winning author Haim Sabato’s life, the characters, rituals are brought to life. The following excerpt gives us a taste of Purim in Beit Mazmil.
Purim morning. We returned home in a joyous mood from the synagogue. Father was happy and relaxed—he never worked on Purim. The cantor, Moses Barsano, read the Scroll of Esther as if he were standing in Shushan and describing what he saw: Here were Haman and Ahasuerus dining at Esther’s feast, here were the courtiers mounted on their steeds, galloping with all their might to annul the evil decree, here the city of Shushan, jubilant. When Cantor Barsano chanted, “And Mordecai knew all that had been done, and Mordecai rent his clothes,” his choked-up voice could be heard throughout the synagogue, and when he read, “And Haman had fallen upon the bed whereon Esther was,” he burst into laughter and all who had come to pray laughed with him.
My house was overflowing with plates of sweet baked goods: mamoul cookies filled with walnuts and dates, diamonds of baklava and balls of chocolate dipped in shredded coconut. They rested on the table, chairs and beds. Mother had baked all the pastries—in those days no one purchased prepared pastries. Boys dressed up as Indians, with red and yellow feathers on their heads and arrows tucked into their belts, and girls dressed in white gowns with bridal veils. They came and went with plates and small bottles of wine, masks on their faces as they sang:
A holiday for children
Songs and shakers
Everyone has a mask
No one can recognize us
Father was overjoyed to hear a Hebrew song in the Land of Israel and he gave a candy and a coin to each child, and he responded with a poem:
A God of vengeance
A God of vengeance
Blasts all enemies
With an outstretched arm
Crowned in Shushan
Haman the wicked
Drove the Jews to fury
And mercilessly persecuted
Each and every one of them
As they refused to show any
Fear of his awesome power
Father continued to recite the entire poem in its alphabetic acrostic, until the child at the door, waiting for his mishloah manot, lost patience. It was truly not his fault that the poets of medieval Spain used every single letter of the Hebrew alphabet in their acrostics. But Father didn’t skip over any of the verses. He pacified the child with a candy, and began his recitation of the poem, “Who Is Like Thee, There Is None Like Thee,” the great poem in which Judah ha-Levi recounted the entire story of Esther in rhyme, and concluded every stanza with a verse from Scripture that ended with the word “him.
In the kitchen, Mother supervised the preparation of the gift baskets according to a set of rules known only to her. Everyone received an individual basket, with his favorite cookies. Mother asked which of the children was prepared to bring one to the Ben Haim family, Mr. Raphael the tailor and his wife, Mrs. Grazia. I volunteered.
On Purim I loved to walk through the streets of Beit Mazmil; they were filled with happiness, and I loved Raphael Ben Haim’s house and the garden next door to it. They were teeming with life. Children filled the house all day with their laughing voices. I also remembered [Moshe] Farkash’s invitation to visit him on Purim. Mother had told me that Rebecca, the daughter of Raphael and Grazia Ben Haim, had married Farkash. The young girl, new in the land, had met Farkash in a seminar, where she asked him to explain a difficult Hebrew word. Farkash was a great expert in linguistics and grammar. When he immigrated to the land, he fell in love with Hebrew and in a very short time obtained complete mastery over it. Raphael Ben Haim always said that he owed his matchmaker’s fee to the holy tongue.
I slowly made my way up the hill on Korzak Street, happy and lighthearted. In my hands I held a plate of cookies that Mother had baked, covered in a napkin, and I stared at the costumed children and at several adults—wearing ironed red turbans, perched at a diagonal upon their heads—who held in their hands Scrolls of Esther rolled up and bound in multicolored silk scarves. From their gait it was obvious that they had already fulfilled the commandment of the day and had not waited for the hour of the festive meal to begin drinking. Had the rabbis not said a man is obligated to get so drunk on Purim that he cannot tell the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai?
Grazia Ben Haim welcomed me with joy. I did not understand a single word from the avalanche of blessings in Moroccan Arabic that she heaped on me. I mumbled a thank you and apologized, I could not stay any longer. “Mother might worry,” I said. She gave me dates stuffed with walnuts and coconut cookies and filled my pockets with licorice candies. I asked her to point me in the direction of Farkash’s house. She showed me the way, and I went along. I knocked on the door, which was opened by an old woman with a kerchief on her head, flour scattered in the curly locks escaping onto her forehead.
“Hello, little boy, Happy Purim to you. Are you looking for a bride already?” She asked in the singsong voice of a matchmaker. “You still look like a boy, but who knows, these days anything goes with the new immigrants and their habits. Take heed, in Meknes, Grazia Ben Haim married the tailor Raphael when she was thirteen years old.”
“I’m sorry,” I said in embarrassment and shame and turned away.
“No, no, don’t go, boy, who are you looking for?” I was still staring right in front of me when the great laughter of two girls caught me by surprise. In one motion the matchmaker removed the kerchief and wig from her head and the mask from her eyes. “Welcome, new immigrant, grandson of Hakham Choueka, how nice that you came.” And there was Farkash standing before me with a wicked smile in his eyes. “Do you remember me?” he asked. “We met next to Segel’s grocery when you were returning home from Rav Leuchter’s school. At the time I told you that I know how to get dressed up so that no one can recognize me,” he added in a triumphant tone. “Until this day a woman from Zangwill Street is still looking for the match that I suggested for her son on Purim four years ago.”
Farkash introduced me to his children. With pride he pointed to the baby in the crib, “This is Yossi,” he said. “And this is Yehudit and Tzipi. Yossi is short for Joseph. And this is Tzipi, short for Tziporah, and Tziporah is Feige.”
“When father calls me Tzipi,” Tzipi said, “he is talking to me, but when he calls me Tziporah and looks into my eyes, I know that he is not talking to me. He is talking to Feige. Feige is Grandma’s name, Dad’s mother. I was given her name.”
“We are getting ready to deliver a round of Purim baskets,” Farkash said. “Come with us, we won’t go very far from your house.” His wife, Rebecca, rushed in from the kitchen and protested loudly, “Again you are taking the girls there, to that other world? I told you already, it’s not suitable for them. They have the happy souls of children. Why are you taking them? And you are also taking him? What does he need all of this for? An Egyptian boy, innocent and happy.”
“Mother,” Farkash answered in an affectionate tone, indicating that this frequently came up, “emissaries who fulfill commandments of the Lord cannot be harmed. All we are going to do is deliver one round of Purim baskets, genuine Purim baskets.
“Come, children,” he called out, “let’s see if the Arangloska is ready.” And he pointed to a wonder pot on the stove and said to me by way of explanation: “Do you know how to make Arangloska? No, no, don’t even bother trying to repeat the name,” he laughed, “even my daughters can’t pronounce it properly; after all, their mother is not Hungarian. Perhaps you might be able to pronounce gloska but you will never be able to get Aran correctly. The vowel of the first A is neither an ahh sound nor an ohh sound, it’s something unique, between the two sounds.” And he pressed his lips and made the sound of an oah. “This oah comes straight from Hungary,” Farkash laughed wholeheartedly. “Yet another new immigrant that the land did not absorb.
“This is golden cake,” he said. “Look, you take a strip of yeasty dough, put circles of yeasty dough covered with raisins and jam on top of it, roll a strip of dough on top of the circles, and bake it in the wonder pot. Simple, eh? Not so simple. The trick is to take it out without breaking it. Come, look here”—and he turned over the pan, and, artfully pulling out the cake in its entirety, cut me a warm slice and said: “Peel it with pleasure, piece by piece, circle by circle, dip it into wine and eat. The taste of paradise. Ohh. For you, especially.”
He looked at Yehudit and Tzipi and said, “You never ever ask what I am baking, where I learned to knead dough and to bake challah. I was a boy just like him,” he said to Tzipi, and pointed to me, “I used to get up at two in the morning, and heaven help me if I was late. Three and a half years, night after night, I used to fill up the great barrel with water from the deep well for the old baker.”
Suddenly he stopped. He looked into Tzipi’s eyes and said, “Feige, I am baking Arangloska on Purim and also for Simhat Torah, the festival in honor of the Torah, just like at home. Take a piece, Tziporah, it melts in the mouth. The taste of paradise.”
And Farkash began to sing in Yiddish:
Oh my Feigele
Oh my Feigele
When you come to my window
Don’t sing to me
I can now remember I did not understand that song
I was so young
I could not understand a single word and was about to ask Farkash, but Yehudit signaled to me with her finger on her mouth not to utter a word. Thoughts swirled within me and I was filled with imaginary fancies. Which barrel? Which old man? And what was Arangloska? And why do they bake it in celebration of Simhat Torah? Why should they get up at two in the morning, who was Feige, in what language had he sung, and why did she signal to me not to say anything? But I didn’t ask. I wanted to return home as quickly as possible, to Mother. Something was off. Something seemed terribly wrong to me.
Farkash filled baskets with warm bread and cakes he had baked himself and with nougat and marmalade he had bought from the co-op. He placed a basket in the hands of each kid and said, “Off we go.”
We got to a house in the immigrant housing projects and Tzipi said to me, “This is the house of the old woman who washes herself in a tub in the middle of her room.”
Farkash knocked on the door and said, “Happy Purim! Happy Purim!”
The woman opened the door. On her arm was a tattooed number. The house was dark and filled with a depressing smell of mold. I was shocked. I stood outside, baffled. For us, the delivery of Purim baskets was always a pleasant and happy occasion, but here everything was so somber. Farkash opened the shades and the windows. Joyous light filled the room and clear air penetrated inside. Farkash put down the overflowing basket on the table and spoke to the old woman in a language I could not understand. She shouted at him in shattered syllables. Once again, Yehudit signaled to me with her finger not to say anything.
Afterward, we stopped in at Mr. Zinger’s house, at the corner where Korzak Street met Nissan Street. Mr. Zinger was very pleased by Farkash’s visit. Mrs. Zinger offered sweets to me and to the girls, while Mr. Zinger and Farkash began a lively discussion in Hungarian, in which Farkash repeatedly burst into laughter. A joke in Hungarian no one else could understand. For most of the conversation Farkash did the talking, but occasionally I heard Mr. Zinger answer with a few short phrases. I even saw a smile form on Mr. Zinger’s face. On one occasion he even laughed. Farkash left a package on the table, as well as a box. “Those are for the orphans in Diskin,” whispered Yehudit. “Every week Father sends them cakes that he bakes. On holidays he sends sweets, as well as shoes that he has collected in the neighborhood.”
The final stop, the house next to Segel’s store, I already recognized. The shades were always down. This was the house of the old woman the children openly referred to as the witch. It seemed that all day long she waited for Farkash to arrive. Perhaps all year long.
Farkash made everyone happy. He knew to whom to give borekas and bread, to whom to give sweets, to whom to give Arangloska. And he gave with a glowing smile on his face. But with this old woman, who the neighborhood kids in Beit Mazmil referred to as the witch as they pelted her with stones, he had a different relationship. I had the feeling that Farkash had known her for a very long time. From before Beit Mazmil. Maybe it only seemed that way. I didn’t ask. I knew that everything needed to become clear of its own accord. When we were done, I hurried home to Mother. I had never participated in such a delivery of Purim baskets. I had never had a Purim like that one.
Adar 13, 5770 February 27-28, 2010
*Discussion questions prepared by Shira Leibowitz Schmidt.
The excerpt “Making the Rounds in Beit Mazmil” is Chapter Four in the novel by Haim Sabato From the Four Winds (Toby Press) The following are some thought-provoking discussion questions.
1. The four principle mitzvot of Purim are a) reading the Megilla (Scroll of Esther); b) sending Purim baskets (mishloah manot/shalah manot) to friends (minimum: one basket with two different foods); c) eating a festive Purim meal; d) giving gifts, money or food, to two poor people (enough for their Purim meals).
In what way do all four appear in this chapter?
2. The author is known for subtlety in his writing. He does not mention the Holocaust directly. Where does he hint about it?
3. The author’s humor is understated. Explain the remark: “Raphael Ben Haim always said that he owed his matchmaker’s fee to the holy tongue.” Another example: “From their gait it was obvious that they had already fulfilled the commandment of the day and had not waited for the hour of the festive meal to begin drinking. Had the rabbis not said a man is obligated to get so drunk on Purim that he cannot tell the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordecai?” To what does the author refer?
4. Haim Sabato immigrated from Egypt to Jerusalem at age 7. We asked him how he, coming from a Sefardic family, viewed the encounter with Holocaust survivors who were his neighbors in Beit Mazmil, today’s Kiryat Yovel. “As a child, I saw three distinct types of survivors: Those who, unfortunately, were completely unbalanced and dysfunctional. Those who went through the motions of normal life but had a ‘burned-out’ look in their eyes. And those who were proactive, rebuilding their lives and the lives of others.” All three types can be found in this chapter. Can you identify them from the hints?
5. Sometimes food is more than just food. The Arangloska (Hungarian coffee cake) episode reveals the socioeconomic status of the immigrants: Farkash baked it in a wonder pot on a stovetop burner because the immigrants were too poor to own ovens. The child, Haim, realizes there is something mysterious lurking behind this baking episode. To what might the author be alluding? Try the recipe of June Meyer for this Hungarian cake found on the internet.
An Israeli wonder pot for baking on top of a burner.
You can bake it in a regular tube pan and oven.