My father’s birth certificate tells us that he was born in Germany in the Westphalian town of Hörde, on the 15th of December 1877, the son of Herz Weinberg, and of Johanna Weinberg née Alsberg both of the “Israelitisch” faith.
What we learn from father’s novel Jahrhundertwende is that his decision in 1913 to say goodbye to Germany and settle in Palestine was an embarrassment to his family. Any talk about Louis, eldest son, pride and joy of his parents, was avoided. He was believed to have lost his mind.
My maternal grandfather, was born in Ponibesht, a district of Kovno, Lithuania. He was a religious man with a Rabbinical Ordination who traded in lumber. In 1882 as a young man, Eliezer Elhanan Schalit, his wife Sarah and their two baby boys, Arieh Lipa and Moshe Aharon, set out for Palestine, fulfilling the age-old Jewish dream of “Next year in Jerusalem.”
My mother was born 1897, one of eight surviving births, in Rishon-le-Zion of which grandfather Eliezer was one of the founding fathers.
Father was working in Jaffa, for Dr. Artur Ruppin’s Palestine Bureau of the Zionist Organization when World War One broke out. He was a German citizen in Palestine under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Like a number of young German Jewish Zionists in Palestine, he was called up for military service. One of father’s lasting friendships was a young political hothead, an engineer by the name of Joss Loewy, robust and full of the joys of life.
Every time they met, years later, over a glass of beer and laughter, father and Joss recalled in a great spirit of camaraderie, their adventurous crossing of the Dardanelles on their journey back to Germany. Whenever Joss and any of his family came down from Naharia, of which he was the founder, our peaceful home filled with the noise and laughter of children. Gloom descended on the house when they left.
My parents, Lt. Louis Weinberg and Malka Schalit, met in Germany. It was 1916, the year when mother accompanied her gravely sick father to Berlin where he died on the operating table. The details of that encounter became part of the family folklore. She wore eine wunderschöne rote Seidenbluse father told us, with special emphasis on the wonder of her lovely red silk blouse. She was, moreover, beautiful and came from Palestine. What more could father hope for? Louis and Malka married that same year. He was determined to return to Palestine once World War I was over. I can never resist the idea that I owe my life to a beautiful red silk blouse.
Father, mother and my sister Racheli, born in 1918 in Bernburg, went home to Palestine in 1922 and settled in Jerusalem. Father, known as Dr. Louis Weinberg, was a licensed advocate with a practice he had given up in Germany. Once in Jerusalem, he had to pass another exam testing his knowledge of English and Hebrew. The new license was granted.
I was born two years later, in 1924. When father was offered a job in Tel Aviv, with the Anglo Palestine Bank, the family, father, mother and two small daughters, moved to Tel Aviv, of which father became a staunch local patriot.
I began life to the sound of two languages. Hebrew and German. If you ask me what my mother tongue was, my answer would be Hebrew, the language mother brought to the marriage. In fact, mother spoke, read and wrote perfect German, so both my sister Racheli and I spoke German and Hebrew from the very beginning. It took some time before I changed Papa to Abba. As for mother. She was known as Ima and remained so.
Besides, we sang German nursery rhymes, like “Fuchs du has die Ganz gestohlen,“ and “Es klappert die Mühle …, klip klap.“ And there was “Hänschen klein. “All of which I would gladly sing to you. You need only ask. We also had Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales as well as the notorious “Der Struwwelpeter” with illustrations water-coloured by my talented sister Racheli.
Ours was a multilingual environment. A children’s Tower of Babel. In addition to our German repertoire, mother, whose French was also fluent, taught us to sing Frère Jacque, frèrè Jacque. Also the song about the petite bergère. From her mother, born in Poltava, she picked up some Russian and probably some Yiddish folk songs.
Growing up in Rishon Le Zion, she spoke enough Arabic to communicate with the Arab and Bedouin men and women doing various jobs on my grandfather’s property. I don’t remember any Hebrew nursery rhymes. They came later.
Years later, I do recall mother counting my fingers and telling me a story, this time in Hebrew, about ‘The Wicked Greek’, and his sharp and polished sword. I demanded to hear the story again and again, and mother happily obliged. It always ended with a big tickle up my arm followed by a still bigger giggle.
In Tel Aviv, we lived happily in an eight room rented apartment on No. 49 Rothschild Blvd. Clawdia, the Russian lay-nun from Ein Karem came down from Jerusalem to help mother, as she did in Jerusalem. She only spoke Russian and Arabic. Clawdia taught me a few basic expressions in Russian, so that I could, for instance, ask her for a slice of bread and butter. From time to time she would disappear, but mother always welcomed her when she turned up again.
I knew only one of my four grandparents. Grandmother Johanna Weinberg, already a widow, died the year I was born. It was Tante Paula who told me about the nightcap her mother always took before bedtime.
Sarah Schalit was my one surviving grandparent.
Mother loved and missed her. It was a revelation to me, a small child, that a grown up woman, should miss and need her mother so. She was lost in a world from which I was excluded as she spoke, half to herself, of her mother. There must have been needs that no one else could satisfy. She always sighed when she spoke of her. Children were not supposed to know about such things. Things that made mother sad made her long for her mother.
One story very commonly known on the Schalit side of our family is about Sarah Schalit’s immense courage. Her character was marked by the determination and endurance she passed on to mother. It was the story we all remember about a snake in the courtyard of the house on Rothschild street, Rishon le Zion. Grandmother Sarah grabbed an axe and chopped off the snake’s head.
Again and again, I listened eagerly to mother’s accounts of brave, hard-working grandmother Sarah’s warmth and kindness. My mother was never called upon to kill snakes when we lived in 14 Nahmani Street, but I have always been terrified of cockroaches. Whenever I saw one, usually in the summer, I screamed Eeeeema!!!! JOOK! Wasting no time, mother came to the rescue armed with an old slipper and brought to an end the life of the poor little cockroach.
Although I am told that grandmother Schalit spoke warmly of her husband’s many virtues, I heard little about it from mother. There were moments when she wished we had been subjected to grandfather’s strict rule of discipline
Mother’s cousin, Russian-born Njunja, was a dressmaker. She came home on a daily basis to make new clothes and alter old ones. I loved those days when the orderly routine of the house was disturbed and the children’s room, the kinderzimmer, was turned into a dressmaker’s salon with needles, bits of cotton, pins, buttons scissors and more needles everywhere.
To the cheerful accompaniment of the foot-operated sewing machine, Njunja sang nostalgic Russian love and folk songs that enriched my own musical repertoire. Whereas mother rarely spoke of her father, Njunja had no fond memories of her uncle Eliezer. Njunja told me that when grandfather came to the dinner table, everybody rose from their seats. In terror. Mother was a good mixture of both her parents. She too could be terrifying.
I remember my grandmother peeling potatoes as she sat on the back staircase leading to the kitchen. She gave me a stern look – I was barely three years old, – as she held a knife in one hand and a half-peeled potato in the other. She said something in Russian that sounded like a telling-off. I have never forgotten it. She said: Paskudnaya djevochka, which means something like ‘naughty’ girl. That is the first and last impression I have of my grandmother, Sarah Schalit.
A law firm now occupies 49 Rothschild Boulevard. Whenever I walk past No. 49, I stop for a moment debating whether I should go in and say “This was my home eighty years ago….” But I know that it would only ruin whatever memories still remain.
Photographs courtesy of Danny Shik. All rights reserved.