Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Diary From Tel Aviv

Day Four: Offenbach to Ninotchka, with mourning in between

Print Email

Other wars are taking place behind the scenes of this war. Analysts who teach the government how to run the war, old retired officers who teach the army—everyone here is an expert. Our first president, Chaim Weizmann, once told President Truman he had it easy, with 60 million citizens. “Me,” said Weizmann, “I have 4 million presidents.”

Television repeats itself. The same pictures over and over again. And blood. And sadness. And women crying. And buildings destroyed on both sides. War isn’t the sexiest thing in the world, though so many movies are made about war that maybe in Hollywood they know better. I sat and watched the news, zapping for a minute to another station that was showing a beautiful, funny, clever production of an Offenbach operetta, and immediately, assailed by shame or maybe even guilt, I went back to the journalist who was showing the same picture he’d showed earlier.

Offenbach was the son of a cantor, and he converted to Christianity, like so many in the 19th century who wanted to be accepted beyond the boundaries of the Jewish world. I hear his cantor father in the operetta, which is the forerunner of the musical, just as I hear him in Gershwin’s jazz, and I hear what my grandfather used to hum when he came back from synagogue.

Yesterday, I went to a shiva for my friend, the Russian actor who, except for the shiva, had nothing Jewish about him. I sat next to Avi Binyamin, the composer for the theater my poor actor friend acted in. He had just come back from the hospital in Haifa, where he’d visited his son, who was injured in Lebanon, but saved from death. We sat there for a while, unmoving. Everyone else was talking about the war. I was thinking that at my age, the only celebrations left to me are funerals and shivas.

I told Avi Binyamin how years ago, some bastard cut off my cousin’s braid, a braid she’d been growing for 20 years, and he did it because he loved her. My father didn’t want to go to see his niece and my mother wasn’t sure, but I was a child, and that was my first shiva, so I went and my mother went with me. Sitting in a room that looked as if it had been moved straight there from Tarnopol were my cousin’s relatives and friends. A lot of them were crying. My cousin was weeping quietly, restrained and very picturesque, the tears dripping very slowly down her cheeks, as she mumbled repeatedly, “Oh God!” who’s always good to call on for everything. (Just remember how they called out to him in Auschwitz.) My aunt was crying, but she brought cookies and snacks. It was extremely hot, the air stagnant. An Arab on a donkey passed by outside, and my aunt said, “that’s all I need.” My mother stopped crying and ate a cookie. I went into the other room to eat some challah my grandfather had baked. He wasn’t in mourning because you don’t mourn a braid. My mother said, “ah, what a wonderful braid.” Hearing that, everyone broke out into heartfelt wailing.

At the Russian actor’s shiva, I shifted my eyes a little, and saw the television in the other room showing a family crying for a loved one. Suddenly, everyone was crying and nobody was running the war better or worse. I went outside. I saw a family standing on the street. They asked me where there was a good restaurant in the area. I showed them. I realized that they were refugees, like most of the people in our city who’d run away from their bombarded cities for a while. I went for a walk. I came back. Through the restaurant window, I saw the family sitting around a table. They were eating as if they hadn’t eaten in a week. The food flew into their mouths. I understood what sorrow it was to be a refugee 62 miles away from your home, and how food heals the pain. I went and bought a slice of pizza, which was awful, but in honor of the refugees in that restaurant, I ate almost all of it.

In Ninotchka, with Greta Garbo, Melvin Douglas orders coffee without cream. The waiter comes back and says they don’t have cream, but could they give him coffee without milk. That was my father’s favorite joke—after Ninotchka he never went to another movie because he wanted the taste of that joke to remain on his lips. And he was the person who said about our friend, who was always reading medical books—a hypochondriac like most Jews, even the doctors—that he would die of a typographical error. That was my father.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Diary From Tel Aviv

Day Four: Offenbach to Ninotchka, with mourning in between

More on Tablet:

The Kindergarten Teacher Who Won Cannes

By Vladislav Davidzon — Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig stars in Auschwitz drama Son of Saul