All things which are
outside love
come to me now—
This view and the old woman’s understanding
of it, asking to live
one more year, one more year
one more generation, two generations, three,
one more eternity.

—Leah Goldberg, “In Jerusalem’s Hills”


Erna’s sunglasses were already in hand when they walked out of the dim lobby into the late afternoon light. Like a pair she owned decades earlier in Berlin, they had dark green glass and narrow black frames.

“Savta.” Dina looked up at her grandmother as they paused on the front steps of the movie theater. “My Whitman now?”

“Yes.” Erna put the sunglasses on. She took Dina’s soft pale hand in her brown weathered one, and they walked toward the ice cream shop.

At the corner, they paused again. Erna scanned wide Ben Yehuda Street and secured her glasses. Not because her eyes were especially sensitive to the sun. They didn’t bother her when she swam in the bright mornings and the sea contained her and slow, steady strokes reassured her. But the streets were different. They were overwhelming, and Tel Aviv’s loud crowds made her lose the sense of direction and rhythm so natural when she swam out to where ships dropped anchor. The dark green glasses censored some of the mayhem. They calmed a certain vulnerability.

People were beginning to appear. Erna wanted to get Dina her ice cream. She wanted to get the child and then herself home before the streets completely burst with the post-shlaftshtunde wave of workers and shoppers, but Erna was momentarily disoriented. Should they walk north or south?

“Savta, the light’s changed. Can you see colors through those glasses?” Dina tugged on Erna’s hand, and they crossed the street. “Ima says I’m too young to have my own pair. She says I could fall, and the glass would cut me. But I won’t wear them playing or at school.”

“Here, until you get home.” On the sidewalk, Erna took the glasses off and fit them on Dina’s face. They were too wide and slipped to the tip of her nose.

Dina caught them.

Savta’s dark green glasses on the street. Her white bathing cap in the sea.

☙ ☙

That is the opening of a short story I wrote when I was in my early twenties, now forty years ago. Living then in New York where I was born and raised, an urge to write about my paternal grandmother and Tel Aviv—the landscape of childhood summers—came over me. While my friends were sent north to sleepaway camps in the Catskills and Adirondacks, I was sent east to Tel Aviv and spent nearly every day at Frishman or Gordon Beach, depending on which set of grandparents took care of me. I wasn’t prone to writing so close to autobiography, though even in this story I made up lots of stuff and blended it with what I knew, what I thought I knew, and what passed for facts in the family.

I gave the grandmother character a German name typical to that generation—Erna—but in “real life” I called her Savta Pila, Grandma (in Hebrew) Pila. The few German documents in my possession name her Szprince, a Yiddish version of the Ladino Esperanza—hope, a name that threads paths of expulsion from Iberia to Eastern Europe. A name used affectionately by her peers, a name in British Mandate Palestine’s 1942 land registry. And then, suddenly, another name I never knew, Pnina—pearl—a jewel from the sea, appeared on her gravestone. I assumed this was the Hebrew name given to her at birth and scribed on her ketubah. It is also the name that appears on the list of death dates my grandfather recorded in his prayer book.

I was fifteen when Savta Pila died, and hers was my first death. The early story reflects how badly I missed her as well as my limited knowledge of her as a woman with an entire lifetime in her wake. At the time, that was enough. I loved her and she me. There was warmth and affection—a simple relationship.

The story also expresses a pining for the Tel Aviv of the 1960s, long since swallowed up by development and money, a Tel Aviv where barely anyone had a car, small neighborhood markets smelled of fresh bread, and it seemed everyone knew everyone. It has taken me living in Israel for almost thirty years to understand that the misty lens of happy childhood moments is a small piece of the larger difficult puzzle that was Israel then. Nor does this nostalgia help with my contemporary challenges in the complex, frustrating, and fascinating place Israel is now.

I want to better understand how Pila and her fellow immigrants, many of them war refugees like she was, reconciled the sometimes insufferable contradictions between the so-called “promised land” and its enormous trials and heartbreaks. Maybe this will reveal something about my decision to move here—a kind of moving forward and back.

☙ ☙

Savta Pila moved to British Mandate Palestine from Berlin in 1934 when she was thirty-three years old. I moved to the State of Israel from New York in 1995 when I was thirty-five. Both of us were married, both of us mothers.

The similarities end there. I chose to come to a place I felt connected to. I knew its sky, its sidewalks, its smells, its trees and their fruit. Pila fled Germany not knowing anything about this new place, not knowing more than a few Hebrew words from prayers. She did not want to leave her “home” but had no choice if they were to remain alive.

What strikes me most, though, about the short story from forty years ago, is how alongside the rosy tint, there are indications I actually knew quite a bit about her. But it was a knowing without really knowing. My father and other family members supplied the major plot points, but there remains the void of truly knowing how she experienced them:

Born in 1901 to a family of Sadigura Chasids in the Bukovina, then Russia, then part of the Hapsburg Empire, now Ukraine. I am not sure where, exactly. My father told me Kamenetz-Podolsk, but the German marriage certificate says Boligrod.

Moved to Berlin as a teenager fleeing the reoccupation of the area by Bolsheviks at the start of World War One.

Married her elder sister’s widower. Had two children with him.

Moved to Tel Aviv after Hitler became chancellor. Lived near the sea.

Never spoke Hebrew well. Let her grandchildren bring pails of sand into the house to play. Made delicious sugar cookies and potato pierogi—fried or boiled according to that mealtime’s whim.

Beyond these facts lie emotions: mine. I felt this woman’s love for me. I loved her and her squat, tortoise-like body. I have a clear sensory memory of her in New York. I am four and sick with German measles. She comes into the bed, and we lie together quietly. Her body comforts me: I am not alone.

One could argue that this is enough—to have known the love. But as I reread the fictional story about a girl and an older woman strolling the streets of Tel Aviv on a late hot summer afternoon, I become aware of hints scattered among the lines, hints of gaps that forty years later irk me. Who were you, Szprinze, coming of age in Weimar Berlin? Who were you when you left religion? Did your devotion to swimming come from Germany’s emphasis on fitness?

Who were you, Pila, when you married your dead sister’s husband, a man you met when he moved into his new bride’s childhood home when you were maybe eight or nine? Who were you when you learned your sister Sara and her son Berthold were taken from their Mitte apartment by the Gestapo and never heard from again? Was the bustle and noise of Berlin bearable, while Tel Aviv’s was not? Did it hurt when both sons moved to New York and you only saw your grandchildren every year or two in the summer?

☙ ☙

Erna and Dina’s monthly routine: a European film at the Gordon Movie House in the basement of the Deborah Hotel (catering to an Orthodox Jewish clientele); an ice-cold milkshake at Whitman’s; a leisurely stroll to Dina’s home a few streets away on Shtand.

Erna and Dina entered the dimly lit ice cream shop on Ben Yehuda Street. Two ceiling fans pushed the air around. The woman behind the counter wore a white laboratory-like smock and lined up glasses beneath a large mirror.

“Chocolate Whitman.” Dina put her hands on the cool stainless-steel counter.

“And for Savta?”

“Thank you—nothing.”

The woman scooped chocolate ice cream into a metal canister and added a little milk. At the seafoam-green bank of blenders, she inserted a metal arm into the mix. Once it was ready, she poured the frosty drink into a tall glass.

As Dina sipped slowly, Erna looked through her largely empty pocketbook. She found a rubber band and secured it to the sunglass arms. When the last swallow of milkshake was sucked loudly through the straw, Erna carefully placed the sunglasses on Dina’s nose and stretched the rubber band wide so it wouldn’t pull her hair.

“It’s so dark. I can’t see,” Dina whispered.

“Outside you will.” Erna paid the woman and held the door open for Dina, who walked as if blindfolded, with arms out in front of her.

Grandmother and granddaughter walked toward Dizengoff. This is where Erna met her older grandchildren, who preferred spending time with their friends or seeing American films at popular movie theaters. Still, they were happy to meet their grandmother occasionally at a sidewalk café and watch the world go by over iced coffee and cremeschnitte. Erna enjoyed sitting with them. It reminded her of when she was young, of Europe, of life before the war.

At the corner of the busy street, Erna stopped at a newspaper stand.

“Savta, why does Aba say you shouldn’t buy German magazines?” Dina studied the children’s magazines but watched her grandmother out of the corner of her eye.

Erna folded a copy of Frau under her arm. “I don’t know.”

“Don’t you like our papers?”

“It’s easier for me to read in German, Dina.”

“But why?”

Erna thought of the many fights she and her son Peter had throughout his childhood. He claimed that if only she studied more, she would be fluent enough to enjoy reading the Hebrew newspapers. She always promised to try, but after all that had happened, she had little stamina for the labor involved. She was content with good enough conversational Hebrew. Reading could remain the unexplored frontier.

Like her father before her, Dina wanted to know why this was so. Erna took Dina’s hand, and they crossed the street busy with taxis and buses. Erna wondered how to respond to the child—or whether to at all. She thought about being in her early thirties and coming to Israel with no knowledge of the country, its language and culture, no background in Zionism, and no premonition of the hardships her family would yet endure. It took all her strength to hold herself and the family together that first decade in Tel Aviv. By its end, she just accepted the language barrier as fact.

“I still miss Germany, and when I read German, I feel close to my home,” Erna spoke slowly, surprising herself by saying out loud what she had never said to anyone before.

“Isn’t this your home?” Dina scrutinized her behind the dark green glass.

“My other home. Where I lived when I was your age. You know I lived there until your father was a little boy. That’s a long time.”


Choriner Strasse 10, Berlin

☙ ☙

“We think back through our mothers if we are women,” Virginia Woolf wrote in “A Room of One’s Own.” She was writing specifically about women writers, of which I am one, but this thinking back is not only for the purpose of literary legacies. Many women use generations of mothers’ stories to build personal foundations, sources of strength and meaning, of belonging. I guess I am doing this too, though I am not just thinking back through them. I am also growing older in Tel Aviv like my grandmothers.

When the borders of the world snapped shut like falling dominoes in the spring of 2020, I couldn’t help but think of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s and 40s rushing off to ships, to woods—anywhere that offered the possibility of escape. I know the difference; I was safe, though confined to my apartment, yet the feeling of entrapment was there. I thought of Pila and her family in Germany making the decision to run while they could.

The last time I was in Berlin, I stood in front of Choriner Strasse 10, where my family lived when my father was born. It was July 2014, and another “mini-war” had begun between Israel and Hamas. There was a sinister and unsettling irony in being safer in Berlin than in Tel Aviv, where rockets were coming in by the hundreds. So many Israelis were applying for European citizenship through parents and grandparents. Was it time for me too?

I have scans of poor-quality photocopies of my father’s birth certificate and of my grandparents’ wedding certificate. I have looked at them many times over the years, but now a number of things stand out.

First, my father was born four years before my grandparents married. This makes little sense, given there was no way they would have had children out of wedlock. My grandfather remained a devoutly religious man until the day he died, Psalms and Zohar on his bedside table. There is no one left to ask, so I make the logical assumption that they married according to the “laws of Moses and Israel” in the mid-1920s, and when they had to arrange travel documents to leave Germany in 1933, they had an official civil wedding.

The second curio that stands out is the typewritten comment on the margins of my father’s birth certificate. It states that Szprince was born in Poland. Meaning she was part of the wave of Ostjüden that entered the country at the start of World War One. This made her officially an “Eastern Jew” and thus a perpetual outsider despite living decades in Germany—despite her feeling that it was home. Did she suffer, being a Jew among Germans, an “Eastern Jew” among German Jews, and eventually in Israel, a “German” among Jews?

I know the insider/outsider position well. I knew it growing up a child of immigrants in New York, and I know it in Israel, where, like Savta Pila, I am an immigrant who speaks with an accent, and comfortably reading Hebrew remains a distant shore I don’t have to reach.

The third thing that catches my attention is how my grandparents were identified not only by their fathers’ names but also by their mothers’. My great-grandmothers’ names present themselves to me, Kaufmann and Felder, inviting me to think back through yet another generation of mothers.

☙ ☙

In 1946, Erna went back to Germany. To visit, to see what happened to home, as she put it. In Berlin, she stayed with her sister. Hannah had been hidden throughout the war by Communists, safe house after safe house. She survived with her son, Kurt, and niece, Erika (whose mother had been taken away by the Gestapo). Erna’s former apartment building had been badly damaged. Three years later, in 1949, that part of the city would become part of the Soviet sector of Berlin. Erna traveled to Hamburg to see her oldest friend, Ilsa, and to find out who remained from their clique of friends.

Shaya’s brothers and sisters-in-law, his mother too, didn’t understand how Erna could go back to a bombed-out and dangerous country. The risks were enormous, and her sons were still young. One uncle even accused her of betraying her people: she was going to the land of barbed wire, cattle cars, and ovens, yemach shemam, may their names be blotted out. But her husband defended her. She needs to go, Shaya told the relatives and their sons.

☙ ☙

Twice, Pila fled. As a teenager, she fled west. As a young mother and wife, she fled east.

I can’t really imagine how she felt making her life over a third time, dealing now with the Middle East’s climate and culture, its sparsely built landscape. A far cry from Europe and Berlin!

And then there’s the mystery of why my grandparents married at all. On the surface, there seemed to be little compatibility—he religious, she an atheist. Or maybe my grandfather had doubts, and this expressed itself when he married her and then planted himself in a secular Tel Aviv neighborhood far from the Sadigura rebbe. Here, he could live without judgment and scrutiny. But in his way, he remained devoted to his God and to his Chasidim. My father would take him to the rebbe’s court by motorcycle and drop him off a few blocks away so no one there would see the son’s “goyish” ways. A motorcycle! Blue jeans! A black leather jacket!

Ultimately, all I have are speculations about why they married. These include notions of familiarity, comfort, and grief. Herman’s first wife, Malka, was Pila’s older sister. She died in a car crash in Berlin after ten years of marriage. Herman grieved heavily for his bride and after a few years asked the younger sister to marry him, even though she was not religious.

From his point of view, this decision may not have been such a stretch. He knew her since her childhood, knew the family; they had grief in common. The bigger question is why Pila agreed. Herman’s youngest brother, my Uncle Jules, told me Herman was very handsome and rich and smart. It still doesn’t add up. My grandmother sometimes chuckled at my grandfather’s expense and said, “Look at the rebbe” when he was praying or checking grains for bugs.

Still, the blessing of this peculiar union were the two boys born to them, children my grandfather was not able to have in his first marriage, children my grandmother adored once they arrived and made her a mother. (For as her marriage certificate clearly states, she is ohne Beruf—without a profession or job.)

I have no idea how they lived in Berlin before the war, but I do remember how they lived together in Tel Aviv decades later as an elderly couple: a live-and-let-live policy. My grandfather spent hours every day walking Tel Aviv’s streets. Shpatzirin, he would say in Yiddish and set off. And Pila swam for hours in the Mediterranean. She passed on this love of the sea to her sons—both were Sea Scouts, and my father eventually joined the merchant marines—and to her grandchildren.

☙ ☙

“Ima says that when she and Aba go to Italy this summer, I’m staying with you.”

“You certainly are.” Erna squeezed the child’s hand and guided her around an old woman in a wheelchair.

“Are you going to teach me to swim for real then? Can I go with Saba on his walks? Will he take me to the flea market in Yafo? I want to buy a lamp like Aladdin.”

Erna nodded. She loved Dina’s lively nine-year-old chatter and sometimes encouraged her to speak by asking about a friend in her class or reminding her of their favorite anecdote: how they once almost bought a little white puppy in the pet store near Dizengoff and imagined everyone’s surprise.

Dina’s cheerful, high voice reminded Erna of her younger sister Anya, who was clubbed to death during a communist rally in the mid-20s when Hitler’s brown-shirted mob started making their presence known. Erna left political activism after that.

As they walked up the three flights of stairs to Peter’s apartment, Erna felt a sudden shortness of breath. She leaned against the railing and waited for it to pass. If Peter knew, he would insist she go to the clinic for a checkup. Again. But she didn’t want to see a doctor. She didn’t trust them and knew it was just her murmur. Diagnosed when she was a child, there was nothing to be done. Now and again, her heart thundered.

Dina stroked Erna’s arm. When she looked down and saw Dina’s inquisitive face covered almost entirely by the sunglasses, she laughed out loud and placed her hands protectively over her heart, as if to ease the pressure.

Komme.” She stood straighter. “Let me have the glasses.”

Nomi, her daughter-in-law, noticed Erna’s paleness but didn’t probe. She knew better than to try to convince Erna to see a doctor. Like talking into the wind, she said to Peter. Erna hugged Dina and waved a quick goodbye to Nomi.

She walked home slowly, even though she was anxious to be on her porch while the sun set into the sea. In the dining room, Shaya rustled the newspapers. The pressure in her chest made her feel heavy but did not frighten her.

The sea would help. She believed in it, and in exercise, as others believed in medicine, prayers, or doctors. The sea cleared infection. The sea took out fevers. The sea healed. Crossing Dizengoff again, heading west this time, Erna stopped at a cactus fruit cart. She chose half a dozen and watched the man split the thick skin open with a long knife. With rubber-gloved hands, he folded back the peel and waited for her to lift out the fruit. Erna loved the sticky sweet pulp and ate two on her way home and did not think at all about Germany.

The next morning, she heard Shaya leave the apartment. He swam too, but only a little, soon after his sunrise prayers. He would come home just as she prepared to leave. She would swim for about three hours and then return to prepare lunch. She felt well again, with no trace of yesterday’s heaviness.

Erna lay in bed and thought of Hannah. They had not corresponded since the Berlin Wall went up. She had tried to phone a number of times from the pharmacy on Ben Yehuda, but the line was always busy. During Erna’s visit in 1946, Hannah had welcomed her, relieved that she was alive when so many had been killed. At the same time, Hannah condemned Erna for living in Tel Aviv. She was a thoroughly committed internationalist who thought Jews returning to reclaim a historical ancestral homeland rubbish. She did not want to hear about Erna’s sons growing up strong and dark. She did not want to hear about the beautiful blue sea right across the street from Erna’s house. She did not want to hear about the cactus fruit, the sugar cane, the strawberries and fresh cream. Nor about the poet Leah Goldberg, who lived in a ground-floor apartment of their building. So, Erna stopped trying to explain that she wasn’t reclaiming anything but had come to these shores to survive. She left Hannah after a couple of weeks to travel around a broken Germany, assessing the damage and saying a final farewell on her terms.

Erna watched the early morning sun strike the wall of her bedroom and wondered if Hannah and her children and her grandchildren had enough sun and fresh produce behind the Wall in their beloved GDR.

Shaya returned, and Erna left. After so many years, they did not speak much. They knew each other’s needs and allowed for their differences. Quickly but carefully, she walked down the steep set of stairs to the sand, anticipating the water with its softness that held her close once she swam far enough. It was clear and blue, and small waves lulled her as Dina’s voice lulled her, as she had once lulled Anya in her cradle after their mother died.

Erna dropped the towel on the sand and waded in far from the lifeguard’s station and cluster of people. When she was in waist-deep, the shortness of breath suddenly returned. She lay flat, waiting for the pressure to pass. The waves rocked her gently; the water lapped at her face. She closed her eyes, feeling the sun on her eyelids, and tucked her arms close to her body. She was comforted and felt a warmth she thought was the sun’s pass over her.

Nomi picked Dina up at school. Peter was already with Shaya on the small porch, staring at the sea, at the sun still high in the sky. Shaya cried. He spoke to the elements.

“I am twelve years older. She had no right to go before me.”

Dina, holding Erna’s sunglasses in her hand, approached him.

“These are Savta’s.”

Shaya looked at her blankly, as if he could not place the child in the same frame as his wife’s death.

“Can I have them?”

“Not now, Dina.” Peter began to herd her away.

She resisted. “Saba, can I?”

Shaya nodded yes and pulled Dina into his lap. They sat together, looking out at the water and light, the sunglasses resting in both their palms.


☙ ☙

There is no one story to a life. Every day is a kaleidoscope of major and minor impressions and impulses. This is also true here. How can I describe to myself what I can’t really know? So much of this story is made up . . . Flesh on the bare bones of fact. Yes, Savta Pila died in the sea that she loved. Yes, my grandfather felt abandoned by her. Yes, her children and grandchildren mourned and couldn’t believe this happened to such a healthy, athletic woman. But we were in New York when it happened. She was a summer grandmother. I did not have the privilege of seeing her as much as my fictional Dina saw her Erna.

As a child, I would go down to Gordon Beach and scan the horizon for the farthest bathing cap. And once I located it, I’d swell with pride. That special person, that incredible swimmer all the way out there, was always Savta Pila. A woman who swam with dolphins. A woman whose pagan-like belief in the sea troubled her family.

Today, I live only a few streets away from where she lived—near the sea, near the market, near my father’s elementary school, near my mother’s as well. I moved into the “old neighborhood” and once again experience myself within the borders of my Israeli childhood world. The light of the sky, the streets, the smell of the braided ficus trees, the white buildings, Bauhaus and copycats, the kiosks in the boulevard gardens, the crunch of cool cucumber, all carry the imprint of summer. I walk and walk, shpatzirin like Saba Herman, and feel rooted, feel home, feel comfort, know why I left the bounty of America for this country’s more modest offerings. And every time I go down to the beach, I marvel at the beauty of the water, and I think of Savta Pila, her white bathing cap, and her death.

I have a recurring dream of hidden rooms, the wings of an apartment or house that is familiar to me but which I come upon by accident. The rooms are filled with light and space and beauty. Savta Pila’s life is like those rooms, present and waiting for me to stumble upon them, and while I really do want to imagine her better, in the end I can’t. It’s like waking up from the dream feeling this alternate dimension but not being able to inhabit it. My life is too different from hers. And even though I try to think back through her, a huge yawning abyss remains.

I have only partial stories, family myths, and sensory memories that leave out as much as they fill in, and I will learn to be content with them.

When I was little, Savta Pila would take me out into the water. We swam far from the shore, no wave breakers then, and when I got tired, I held on to her shoulders. Her powerful legs and arms continued their breaststrokes. Out and over. Out and over. I floated above her, light, loose, yet firmly anchored to her sun-thickened back. In the depths, I was safe. She and I an island in the vast blue, and I learned not to fear but to respect forces larger than us: like the sea, like history.


Miryam Sivan

Miryam is a former New Yorker who has lived in Israel for nearly thirty years. Her collection of short stories, SNAFU & Other Stories, was published in 2014, and a novel, Make it Concrete, came out in 2019. Make it Concrete was a Finalist in the First Novel category of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, 2020. An early unpublished novel, The Heights, was nominated for the Pushcart Press's Editor's Book Award. Sivan has published short fiction in numerous journals in the US and UK, and two of her stories were dramatized in NY and London. She teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa in the Galilee.

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