The Goodness of Our Fathers
By Sarah Marx Levin
Hadas Benayoun grinds spices. Every morning, the palms of her hands are a new color – bloody paprika, or the marigold splendor of turmeric – and the colors are starting to stay, every day a little stronger, so that one morning she will wake up and her skin will be the rich multilayered brown of the whole spice cabinet mixed together. She walks in a cloud of smells that announces her presence before her. She is twenty-five and unmarried, and she lives at home.
She never intended to become good at what she does. She certainly never intended to make anything public, and in fact she hid her spice blends for many years in a box on top of the pantry, gathering dust with the heart-shaped cookie cutters and her mother’s old sifter for flour. But after a while she began to tire of unremarkable food, bare of all the scents that floated in her head, and she snuck bits and pieces in: a dash of Chinese five-spice powder here, a dollop of harissa there, until her father’s guests and her brothers’ friends started to notice and the word spread through the little yishuv in the Galilee where they lived.
Soon, the girls with whom she had gone to school were at the door every Friday morning, asking for a packet of this or that for the Shabbat stew they would make for their families. “My husband loves your spices,” they would say, reflexively adjusting, as if for emphasis, the elaborate headscarves that marked them as married women. And Hadas, in shock from all the sudden visits, filled their hands with fresh-ground delights.
At some point, her oldest brother Yechiel noticed – Yechiel, so much like their father, short and dark and practical. “Dasi,” he told her, “you shouldn’t be giving these girls what they could be buying at the grocery store. You’re worth a thousand times more than a plastic bottle at Levy Deals, and they know what they’re getting when they come to you.”
“So?” She was cleaning the living room in the frenzy of a Friday afternoon, and did not look up from the swishing of her broom.
“So start charging a little for what you do.” Noticing the squeamishness that wafted over her face, he added, “It doesn’t have to be a lot. Just enough to cover your costs, maybe a shekel or two extra for your labor. If you don’t think it’s personal enough, add a note.”
So Hadas began making her blends for the rest of the yishuv, first in baggies and then in spice shakers she had recycled and washed clean from the very same Levy Deals supermarket her brother had deplored. These days, under the label that identifies the spice, she places a little note – “A peaceful and blessed Shabbat” – bordered in hand-drawn grapevines that twine their promise around the words, like the grapevines that grow in the yishuv’s vineyard. This is as close as she is willing to come to a signature.
“Hello?” She is driving to the big city, to the second-rate bank in Tiberias where she works at the counter. The green hills are cloaked in gentle morning light; on the horizon, the Sea of Galilee shines like a mirror. As always, she has pressed her bulging form into a pencil skirt and sensible shoes, and her phone is teetering on the taut fabric over her knee.
Her full name. It must be something official: the doctor's office, a tax collector. She switches the phone to speaker mode. “Yes?”
“Hadas, it's a pleasure to meet you.” The voice on the other line speaks as though hopping on hot coals, racing through the words. “My name is Avi Mizrachi. I'm the manager of the Levy Deals supermarket chain, northern division.”
Hadas searches her mind for possible explanations and finds nothing. Maybe they refused my credit card, she thinks, and prepares herself mentally for an argument. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“Listen, Hadas, I'm sure you're busy. I don't want to waste your time. I've heard a lot of interesting things about you.”
“Really. For one thing, I hear that you make a harissa paste that would make my Moroccan grandmother cry.”
She feels her heart start to leap in her chest. “Well, I wouldn't say –”
“Not exaggerating. That's what I've heard. For another thing, I've heard you've already started marketing.”
“Labels, a signature, things like that. Look, Hadas, I'm in charge of a local business. We may have stores all over the country, but at the core we're a local business. We want to make people feel at home. And your product – local girl, local yishuv, products that taste like Grandma used to make – is exactly the kind of thing we're looking for.”
She pulls over to the side of the road and stops the car.
“I don't know what to say.”
“At this stage, you don't have to. Come into our offices, give us a few tastings, pitch your brand, sign something, and we'll work from there.”
A revulsion rises suddenly in her throat. “Can you give me a few days to think about it?”
“Hadas, I’m telling you, this is an opportunity you don’t want to give up. We’ll find you a real factory, something a little bigger than your kitchen. You could be on the shelves of every supermarket and convenience store in Israel. We'll put your picture on the labels. Everyone will know your face.” She stifles a snort at the image, and thinks, You haven’t seen me yet. Plain plump Dasi, with her crooked glasses and her sullen mouth, pushed up into a smile for the camera. “Come in tomorrow – you don't want to lose this.” He speaks so fast.
From somewhere deep in her belly, she musters up a strength that surprises her. “Let me call you back in a few days.”
“Whatever you want,” he says. She can hear the shrug in his voice. “Call me back soon. Have a good week.”
The line goes quiet, and in front of Hadas there is only the morning silence of the hills.
She knows that she will surrender eventually, that she cannot go on forever making her spices in secret in the dead of the night and working in a dilapidated bank in Tiberias during the day and never sleeping. That the household cannot sustain itself on her minimum wage and their father’s intermittent deposits alone, not while there are holes in most of her dresses and the white tablecloth her mother once laundered by hand every week is starting to turn yellow. That sometimes the Holy One, blessed be He, grants us gifts that we would not be wise to reject.
Just another week, she thinks. One more week and then I’ll sign something.
In the meantime, she cherishes those hours after her brother has gone to bed, along with the whole house and the road and the sky, and she and her steaming black coffee with cardamom and the purring whirr of her spice grinder are the only signs of life. The fluorescent kitchen light, against the endless darkness outside, makes her feel cocooned and warm. Her spices laid out before her on the kitchen counter, she chooses and churns and mixes and tastes.
Sometimes, as she works, she opens her mouth and prayer comes out: not the written blessings she is always careful to say three times a day, rocking back and forth until her forehead presses against the big picture window, but rather something shapeless and full of unchanneled life. It is speech without structure – things she has seen and been grateful for, things she has seen and rejected; sorrows and thrills; episodes and strings of numbers left over from the bank; words from the day that have embedded themselves in her head without her knowing.
And sometimes the prayer is not even made up of words. Instead it is spoken in the whole spices with their funny shapes and bulges and their weight and their rattling sound, and the electronic grinder spinning its blades in its own breeze, and the mortar and pestle whose age-old shape carries the ghosts of ancient kitchens. There are the streaks of colorful debris that stay on the counter, and as Hadas continues to work they become the whorls and speckles of a painting. There are the smells that fill up the room like companions, that embrace Hadas and get into her sinuses and make her sneeze, that hold her like a mother clutching her baby to her breast.
Then, when it becomes too much for her, Hadas opens the windows, and the scents fly out to spread their grace into the world.
On her way back from the bank, Hadas stops at the open market in Tiberias. The city is a glorified beach town, and the sacks of grain and heaps of fresh dates have nearly been crowded out by T-shirt vendors. Even in the market, everything smells like sweat and rotten fish and fried food.
There is a corner she loves, though, a corner in which she feels delightfully out of place in her ironed skirt suit and cheap flats. Old Arab women and stocky, grey-bearded Jewish men in velvet skullcaps sit there with their wares, playing with them, running their hands through them like a child with a new set of marbles even after all these years. Every night she comes back with full paper sacks, each one with a story that it took the vendor at least five minutes to tell.
They know her now and call her by her name. “Dasi,” booms Ovadia the spice man when he sees her coming, “thank God, such riches I have for you today. Such beauty, just look at this! Yesterday they sent me chili peppers like kisses.” He holds up a handful of dried scarlet peppers, shriveled and enticing as raisins, and lets them drop through his hard fingers. His face is broad and expressive, like her father's. “What amazing things you could do with peppers like these.”
“Let her be,” counters Tikvah, whose produce stand bursts with fragrant leaves and ripe fruit. “She knows what she wants to buy – she doesn't need your help. But Dasi, look, the season for fresh garlic has just begun.” Between wrinkled fingers she brandishes a long stalk with a purpled bulb at the end, heavy as a mace. ”Sweetheart, you know as well as I do that fresh garlic makes the best herb paste in the world. And,” she leans towards Dasi conspiratorially, “it's a blessing for marriage.”
And off they go, the two of them, as always. Ovadia insists that the only blessing for marriage is a good heart and that anyway Dasi is too pretty to need blessings. Tikvah clucks her tongue and starts to tell the story of how she won her husband with fresh garlic. “Fresh garlic!” snorts Ovadia. “Last week you won your husband with strawberries, when strawberries were on sale.” In the meantime, Dasi fills up armful after armful of paper sacks, until she gets tired and wants to go home.
To this ritual, too, there is a certain magic. Hadas is not ungrateful. But she remembers when each spice held her own story and not someone else’s, and she could open her pantry door and there they would be, waiting for her like toys. Those were the days that her father brought her spices.
On the yishuv there is a vineyard, and not a small one. Sometimes when she tells people where she comes from, they will nod in recognition – “Like the wine!” She has neighbors who breed the grapes and others who crush them, and when she was in school she sometimes picked them in the final weeks of summer along with the foreign workers and the kids just back from the army. Everyone from the yishuv, even the ones who go off to university and move to the city, has a thin grape tendril somewhere around his or her heart.
And then there is her father: the farthest-extending vine, whose job it is to sell the wine overseas to every kosher grocery and event hall and restaurant that longs for a taste of holy land.
With good English and a firm handshake – not to mention the ebullient smile that makes strangers weak in the knees – Eli Benayoun quickly found himself at home in the Lincoln Tunnel and on the Beltway, and now the wines of the little hillside yishuv greet customers in every liquor store from New York to Los Angeles. He saw no reason to stop there, and soon he had Europe and Argentina within his sights.
For many years now he has lived one long plane ride, perching ashore and sailing away like a whaler, the half-year of mournful stability after his wife’s death the longest that he has been in Israel at one stretch since Hadas was born. He feels the ache of his absence, of course, even if sometimes he forgets to send money home. He is a good, God-fearing man with a conscience and a heart.
So from every trip, he always brings back gifts for each of his three children. For Yechiel it was first toys and then it became new gadgets, and for Elad who left religion and moved to the city it is the little musical instruments of the street, a darbuka or a kazoo. When Hadas was a baby, he brought her dolls. Then, on a whim, when she was five or six, he visited the Jewish Professionals’ Association in Hong Kong and brought back a packet of star anise. He was taken by the percussive rattling sound they made and their sweet smell and their blossoming many-pointed shape that gave them the appearance of sun-dried stars.
He will never forget the delight on his child’s face as she grasped them between her little hands – first bewilderment, and then pure pleasure, as she tossed them in the air and stuck their points delicately between her lips. Deep in his gut something resonated, like a string tuned finally to the right note, and he saw that it was good.
After that, he brought her tomatillos and hickory smoke from America, and a bouquet of dried lavender from France whose delicate petals still held a hint of purple. On her twelfth birthday he brought a precious tangle of saffron threads from Spain, threads that she still unwinds sometimes and sews into her blends like fibers of gold. When he returned from his first trip abroad since her mother died, he brought Hadas a sack of juniper berries, and they sat together on the sofa and breathed in its faraway fragrance of dried-up desert streams and isolation.
By now they have a ritual. She opens up the packet and says the blessing – “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the World, Creator of good smells of all kinds” – and gravely he says “Amen.” Then they smell it together like partners-in-crime, bending their heads over the treasure between their hands. The next day it will have found its way into a ras el hanout or a seasoning for rice, and soon enough it will find its way also to the dinner table.
She makes too many blends now to rely on her father’s gifts, and so the spices he brings are saved for him alone. They sit there in her pantry, mixing their smells in the thick air, waiting for the next time he comes home.
Yechiel works almost an hour’s drive away in Haifa, and until late at night it is only Hadas in the house. For two months now he has been seeing a vivacious girl from Yavne'el; it is possible that they will be married within the year. “When will you start dating?” he asks her. “The world is catching up to you.”
She does not answer. She is looking forward to having the house to herself, so that she can get up in the morning and pray tearfully in front of the window without feeling as though anyone is looking at her. She will drink her coffee in the morning and drive off to work, and when she returns with her bags of spices she will taste the luscious indulgence of her loneliness.
The last time the house was full of people, it was the anniversary of her mother’s death. Her father was back from Mumbai for the occasion, and after the candles were lit and the stories shared and all the memorial prayers said together, the conversation turned as it always does to happy things. With a father’s pride, Eli bragged about his children: Yechi the backbone of the family, and Eladi with his programming job in the city, and Dasi the culinary genius, Dasi who gathers up the whole world and grinds it into the Shabbat stews of the yishuv. “You’re like me,” he said, a public utterance directed to her. “You don't just sell things. You sell joy.”
I’m not like you, she thought. You take yourself away, and I stay here. I am always here.
Soon Hadas will receive, with resigned grace, the kindness that has come to her from the heavens. She will call back Avi Mizrachi and leave her lair behind, and go to daily meetings in office buildings that smell like bleach, and her face will appear on plastic bottles across the country. Or maybe Avi will be willing to accept a compromise: not her face, only her hand-drawn grapevines twining around the sides, and a little note that wishes the buyer a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.
Only one more week, she says to God, inhaling cinnamon and juniper in the tender hours of the night. Hold off Your redemption for just one more week.