Many years ago my Israeli cousin Hava asked me to join her on a visit to Ramallah. The Palestinian night-watchman at the factory where she worked as a metallurgist had invited us for lunch. My Tel Aviv relatives were horrified. You can’t go there. The mayor was shot dead there the other night! You have two small daughters back home. It would be totally irresponsible to go.
On hearing this Hava burst into tears. Do you know what it means to reject Arab hospitality?
So with some misgivings, we went. At the bus-stop in Jerusalem a group of Israeli soldiers were waiting. Is it safe? I asked, feeling utterly ridiculous, but thinking of my daughters in London and the disapproval of what felt to be the whole of Tel Aviv. They shrugged. One of them replied in his slow Israeli drawl: I would not go there, but if you have to – just be careful.
When we reached Ramallah, I asked for directions in a little Arab coffee shop. We took another bus past elegant white Arab villas which gazed down imperiously on the craggy land claimed by two peoples. It was not built up then; it felt to me alien, a rough, raw landscape full of lurking danger.
The night-watchman’s wife welcomed us warmly in Arabic. She had prepared chicken and rice, selecting the most delicious morsels with her own hands with which to feed us. She stared out at their farm dotted with olive trees which, in my memory, seemed to descend from steppes. Their daughters had left for America but their parents had remained, tending their farm and their garden, nurturing their plants and their anti-Israel sentiments. I no longer remember their names. There was little language between us. But I remember how the wife went on with her resentments, impervious to our presence. The husband was more circumspect.
Hava simply smiled graciously at their hospitality. They did not resent her. She was an Israeli colleague, loved and trusted beyond any fierce nationalism. The night-watchman went out into their garden and came back holding a basket of oranges, a broad smile on his tanned and lined face. After lunch, his wife brought us her daughters’ traditional embroidered Arab dresses and with a wistful smile, took photos of Hava and me wearing them. It was as though she was re-living through us the daughters she had lost to the lure of the West and might never see again.
This all happened many years ago, before Ramallah became the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Before my daughters grew up, before my son was born. Hava’s tears at my near betrayal of her convictions, her enduring trust in humanity is something I remember today. Because in June this year, when Palestinian protestors demonstrated in Ramallah against Israeli annexation plans, Hava died of brain cancer. She embodied that old Israeli pioneering spirit of the chalutz. She and her sister Nomi were brought up in Haifa, the daughters of Czech refugee from the Nazis. They were an artistic family; everything in their Haifa apartment, had been made by their own hands. The long, golden hanging batiq lamp. The black tyre filled with flowers and suspended by a chain from the ceiling. The ceramic coffee table designed by Hava’s sculptor mother illustrating the 12 signs of the zodiac.
The girls eventually moved to Jerusalem where Nomi works as an architect. Her graphic designer daughter Tamar returned to her family roots in Prague seeking freedom from the political hurly burly of Israeli society. Hava lived in a cavernous old Arab house decorated in ethnic style.
She had a lemon tree in her garden. Whenever any of my family came to visit, we were drawn to that lemon tree, an exotic little totem of life in Jerusalem that seemed to express so much of Hava, herself.
The gleaming yellow oval fruit, tart and refreshing, epitomised Israeli society too. The story of a lemon – not sweet as other fruits – sub-tropical, hating the frost, brought its own touch of sun to Hava’s little garden, with a distinct message about new life drawing down from wartime Europe into the Israeli sun.
Perhaps it was the enduring life of that lemon tree that inspired Hava to think of others, embittered and in emotional pain. She recently helped develop an allotment near the Jerusalem Museum, creating a community refuge for people recovering from stress or depression. She believed that making things grow heals the divisions within themselves. It is also a reinforcement of that long-ago Ramallah experience of bringing Palestinian and Israeli neighbours together, in small acts of friendship. Hava and her friends built tables and chairs out of wood, offering tea and biscuits to volunteers who come and help and plant and grow – in every sense. Clearly this refuge, built from love and compassion, will thrive.
Just as she had once put the acceptance of Arab hospitality before personal safety in Ramallah, Hava, though strangely shy, was not afraid to speak her mind and often knew yours before you knew it yourself. She had a penetrating insight and a quiet logic.
Hava did not grow old. Her spirit was adventurous and eternally young. And I could not have imagined my 2018 visit to Israel with my now grown-up daughter Donna, enjoying a delicious meal that Hava had quietly prepared in her unassuming way, would be the last time I would ever see her. As we went to admire the thriving lemon tree before flying back to London, it evoked even then, a strange nostalgia in me.
On her one long visit to the UK in her youth she stayed with my parents and hitch-hiked around the country. When she left after a year, my father, who sensed an equal free spirit in her, pinned a note to the sycamore tree in front of the house. It read: Hava went home.
She has taken something of the free spirit of Israel with her.
Credits: Art by Gus Condeixa. Photos by Gloria Tessler, Wikipedia and Unsplash