We cried for our Iraqi shoe salesman.There have been many moments in this Israeli adventure of ours when I’ve said, “OK, now I’ve taken one step closer to being an Israeli.”
Moments when I have felt I had accomplished some major acculturating event, such as the day our son Alex entered the Hebrew-speaking public school system, or the day I successfully navigated the hospital and insurance bureaucracies to have my husband Alan’s wrist operated on.
But today, I think, I had the experience that, tragically, makes me closer to being an Israeli than any other. Today I made a shiva visit to someone whose wife was killed in a bus bomb.
Yaffa Mualem, 65, was the wife and mother of a father and son team that owns our neighborhood shoe store. Each day she prepared and brought food to her husband and son. Each day she cooked a hot afternoon meal they came home to when they closed the store between 1 and 3 p.m. She carried groceries up three flights of stairs, particularly after her husband broke his leg in last winter’s snowstorm. As a traditional Iraqi wife, she took care of her husband’s and three sons’ every need.
Last Thursday, after stopping in at the shoe store, she told her husband she was going to the shuk to buy him his favorite pita. “Oh, don’t bother,” he said. “Just pick up some here in the neighborhood.” “No,” she insisted, “I’m going into town.”
At first, when she did not return, they didn’t worry. In typical Israeli fashion, they said, “Yehiye b’seder.” (‘It will be OK.’)
But after several hours, they began to worry. They raced to each Jerusalem hospital until they were asked to identify her in the morgue at Hadassah-University Hospital. Not only did father and son have to perform this terrible task, they had the gruesome experience of seeing only their loved one’s head. That was all that was left of Yaffa Mualem. Her body was completely blown off by the bomb that had been strapped to a young Arab terrorist dressed like a Hassidic Jew.
Like many relationships here in Jerusalem, my relationship to these neighbors is not close, but somehow deep. I used to buy my kids’ shoes in the center of town or in a nearby mall. But when the intifada broke out, I began to shop at the Mualem store.
The quality of the sneakers and sandals was not great, and they had a limited selection. But the store was close and presumably safer to visit. As I returned each season with my boys and then with our baby, I developed a rapport with these men.
They were not particularly outgoing or affectionate with my kids the way many Israelis are. The old man was quiet, his son friendly, but reserved. We got to know each other in a limited way, as neighbors. They always said hello to me and my boys when we walked by their shop. They always remembered my son Ezra’s name, the same as their son/brother.
Then on 9/11, I found myself sharing my deepest fears with these shoe store men. With Alan at the office, I was completely frantic at home with the kids. I was desperate to watch the TV, but didn’t want the kids to see it. We had no idea what would happen here. It was a terrifying night. I had to get out of the apartment, so I decided to do something completely mundane. Our oldest son Alex needed new sneakers, so we went to the Mualem store. The streets were empty. The store was empty. The atmosphere was tense. The younger Mualem and I talked briefly about the situation.
“This is it,” he said. “This means war. This is how it starts here.” After buying the sneakers, I left the store knowing that this young storeowner and I had had some special connection based on our shared fear at that terrible moment.
During the past two years, we’ve become devoted customers. Just a few weeks ago, I took Ezra to the mall to buy new sandals. After he tried on several pairs, and we picked one out to buy, I wasn’t convinced they were the best for him. I felt unsatisfied buying these shoes from a young clerk at this chain store who didn’t know us and didn’t care particularly about this sale. Ezra and I talked about it and agreed we’d rather go to “our friends” in the neighborhood.
The next day we visited the Mualems and bought Ezra new summer sandals. Father and son Mualem talked briefly to us, played with our baby Maayan a bit, gave us Ezra’s old shoes in the new box and thanked us, as always, for the purchase.
A few days ago I noticed the familiar black and white sign announcing a death on the entry gate of an apartment building down the street. I read the name, as I always do, but did not notice the details, “We are shocked, fallen, broken in our hearts by the murder of our wife, mother, sister, grandmother.” Then someone stopped me on the street to ask for directions to 20 Yehoshua Bin-Nun St., “the home of the Mualem family who lost someone in the latest bus bombing.”
I still did not realize whose home it was, but I cried as I passed the sign later that day, pained just by the fact that someone in my neighborhood had become a victim of the ongoing terror. Then today, a friend stopped by and told me she was on a way to make a shiva visit. She shared her anxiety about going.
“I don’t really know them,” she said. “I just see them all the time on the street and feel like I should go.” I finally put it all together. This was my shoe store family. I did not know Yaffa, but I knew her husband and son. I was one step closer to the death that is all around us.
So I, too, walked over to their house. I have learned that here in Israel, everyone makes shiva visits. It does not matter if you are family or not, a close friend, an acquaintance or just someone who shops at the family store. Close family time comes after the week of shiva; the week itself is a time for anyone with any connection to the grieving family to visit, to listen, to eat. When the death is a result of a terror attack, people come out of the woodwork.
So today, I visited the Mualems. Father and sons sat unshaven, in ripped shirts. I listened to the old man tell the story of his wife innocently going to buy him pita. I felt his sadness and worry that he has only sons. If he had a daughter, he said, surely she would now take care of him. I took pleasure in the smile on his face when he talked to Maayan, hoping that for that short moment, we were providing a distraction from his grief.
My eyes filled with tears when he told me Maayan clapped for him the last time we came in the store. We chatted. We cried. Everyone. Together. Then I got up to leave. I wished this gentle old man and his family the only thing I could, “Me hashamayim, tinochu” (‘May you find comfort from the heavens’).
My friend Rachel and I left the apartment and cried as we walked down the stairs. We cried for our Iraqi shoe salesman. We cried for his wife buying pita. We cried out of fear for the proximity of this war. And the loss. And the randomness. And the madness. And the failure of the world to face up to what is really going on here.