December 9, 2018

What I learned on Kibbutz Kfar Menachem

You forget, you know, that there are other ways to live. Other than the daily pursuit of “more,” the constant reaching for success, the persistent longing for recognition, validation — for youth and beauty, intimacy and affection. 

Out on Kibbutz Kfar Menachem — 36 miles southeast of Tel Aviv and about the same distance southwest of Jerusalem — on the day an attacker drove into waiting passengers at a Jerusalem bus stop, then proceeded to knife them, though, you wouldn’t know that the world is anything but utter calm and orderliness. The roads leading to the kibbutz are empty, the guard gate unmanned. On the left, there’s only farmland and a large iron depot; on the right, narrow paved streets and sleepy houses, an elementary school with a quiet playground, a middle school with white walls and half a dozen kids hanging out in the front yard. 

I’ve come here to meet Shoshana Saidi, wife of the celebrated Israeli ceramist and sculptor, Moshe Saidi, mother of still-life artist Einat (Natty) Saidi. I’ve never met Shoshana or anyone in her immediate family, have never even directly communicated with her. I don’t know her, but I know her life story, knew it before I knew she existed. I’ve read it in half a dozen books, seen it in an hourlong documentary. One afternoon in the Beverly Hills Public Library, I happened to mention to a few people that the novel I’m working on is about the 100,000-plus Polish refugees who took shelter in Iran during the second world war. More specifically, it’s about 800 Jewish Poles, all children under the age of 16, orphans or separated from their parents by the war, who were picked off labor camps and out of Catholic convents and Polish orphanages, then brought to safety in Iran and, eventually, to pre-state Israel. In all, their journey took three years and spanned more than 10,000 miles, most of it on foot or in cargo trains, in hunger and illness.

They’re known as the Tehran Children. The majority are no longer living, and the ones who are can’t be easily persuaded to tell about it. 

After the talk at the library, a very graceful Iranian woman, Sima Kohanzadeh, came up to me and said, “My uncle, who lives in Israel, is married to a Tehran Child.” 

Shoshana Saidi is a china doll of a woman with a little girl’s timidity and a bone-tired elder’s smile. She speaks with a quiet voice, moves around as if aware that she’s made of porcelain and paint, delicate as a rainbow and just as fragile. She woke up not feeling well, but she has nevertheless agreed to see me. Her grandchildren have prepared a written account of her journey as a child of the Holocaust that she intends to read to me — because it’s easier that way; easier to be one step removed, read from a page than speak from memory. When she realizes that I don’t understand Hebrew, she takes pains to translate every word and sentence into English as accurately as possible,  though she clearly suffers through every line, ignores or skirts the questions I interrupt them with. 

You don’t know what you’re looking for when you go out to meet people whose memories constitute the true history of an era or event. You don’t know what you’ll learn — either about them or yourself — or what you’ll do with it. 

Here’s this beautiful, petite woman, at once radiant and pale, steely and scarred, sitting on a loveseat under a row of her daughter’s paintings, putting herself through unspeakable torment for the sake of a stranger she’ll probably never see again. To one side of her are French doors that open onto a green, sunny garden. To the other are a dining table and shelves of books, a small kitchen, a cozy bedroom. All the furniture in the room is small and exquisite, all the windows designed to let in as much light as possible. Then you hear the music that’s been playing softly in the background from the minute you walked in, and you suddenly realize you’re sitting in a jewel box, a handmade miniature model of a house painted long ago in bright colors and filled with pretty fabrics and lustrous images, sitting on a slight incline above a handmade miniature model of a world built by refugees from that larger, less merciful place. 

A couple of hours into the conversation, Shoshana is visibly spent, and I realize it’s time for me to go. Before I leave the kibbutz, Moshe takes me on a tour. He shows me his works, in ceramic and bronze on display in public areas, his sculpture in the soldier’s memorial house. His studio is a spacious, two-story structure with its back to the sun and furnished only with a worktable and a pair of metal chairs. Everywhere you look, ceramic heads and limbs lie side by side with clay models of life-size sculptures, under a thin sheet of white dust illuminated by bits of creamy yellow light. I stop in front of the grayish torso of a splendidly beautiful young man, gather up my nerve and ask if he would consider selling the statue. 

“Absolutely not,” he says, as if the very idea is ludicrous. 

I’m embarrassed that I’ve posed the question until I remember that it’s not such an unusual thing, as far as I know — not necessarily crass or amateurish. 

“To me, each one of these is a piece of my life,” Moshe explains. “To a buyer, they’d be a trophy or a piece of furniture.” 

I’m about to tell him that I understand the sentiment. For me, it would be like selling film rights to a novel I worked on for seven years, letting a director claim ownership of what cannot be bought or sold. I wouldn’t — don’t — do that, I want to tell Moshe, except for an enormous sum of money. I’m not poor, but I could always be richer. 

Before I can open my mouth Moshe says, “and besides, if I sold them, I’d have to take money for them. And I don’t want money. Money is nothing but trouble.” 

You forget, I tell myself on the drive back to Tel Aviv, the radio spewing news of more stabbings, more war, more refugees, more business mergers, and shrinking and expanding economies, more beauty secrets, fashion alerts, job reports, college acceptance rates. More. 

You forget there are other ways to live, other principles and priorities and basic values. You forget you can stop at “enough,” judge the value of things in other than financial terms. That real opportunity, true good fortune, may not be to have access to greater recognition, wealth or validation; it may be to have the chance to stop, build a place with four walls and a roof, a garden to one side and, to the other, a door you can close anytime on the merciless torrent outside.

Gina Nahai’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”