For One Israeli Mother, Hard Times Mean That Even Desperation Is a Luxury

Taking part in the social protest marches is a luxury Limor Tzuk, a single mother of five who lives in south Tel Aviv, can't afford.

Limor Tzuk will never set herself on fire. She doesn't have time for that. She's a single mother of five children with a monthly income from the National Insurance Institute of NIS 4,514 - on condition that she doesn't work, God forbid - and a monthly rent of NIS 3,500.

She has no time for desperate moves. Nor does she have time for social protest. Smiling and full of optimism, she is determined to raise her children properly. She is also protected, to some extent, by a social welfare security net of donations and gifts from nonprofit organizations and, mainly, from her family. Tzuk has never considered extreme measures.

South Tel Aviv. Limor opens her door wide, a broad smile on her face. First she asked that we wait a bit, to give her time to straighten up her apartment a little. A tiny living room, two baby cribs, a sofa and almost-bare walls. An old TV set flickers with the Children's Channel. A wall fan is trying to relieve the heat in a living room that is crowded with her children and some cousins, who live one flight up. The fan was bought for her recently by her ex-husband, Michael, a migrant worker from Romania.

The kitchen is small. We cross through the bathroom to part of a balcony that has been closed in and turned into a tiny room for one daughter. A pink pillow with the words "My Princess."

Limor shares a bedroom with three of her daughters. One sleeps with her in a sofa bed. Sometimes they sleep in the living room, because the fan's there. Another cubicle serves as the room of the eldest, Johann, who studies in a special education framework. Barely 70 square meters in total.

Johann is 13, Natalie 11, Lital 4, and Liam and Agam are 10-month-old identical twins. Their mother can distinguish between them by the gold earrings in their earlobes: Liam's is heart-shaped. The two older children were born to Limor and Michael; the other three were born to her and her second, Israeli-born partner, from whom she also separated.

She is 39, a native of Ramat Gan. Her father, a taxi driver, hasn't been speaking to her in recent years. She says it's because he was angry she got pregnant with the twins. Her mother works in a supermarket and is very supportive. The family name, Tzuk, was Hebraized from Michael's Romanian name, Tzukash.

She met Michael at Rosemarie, a nightclub for Romanian workers near Bloomfield Stadium, when she was 24. She had been thinking of going to study in London. Her brother was already there and told her London was "great fun." But instead Limor found herself getting married in a remote village in Romania and returning to Israel.

After a few years she separated from Michael but they have remained on friendly terms. Her aunt advised her to move: "Why are you staying in Ramat Gan? Come live where you can afford to. Come to live in a poor neighborhood."

Over the years, Limor and her children have lived in numerous rented apartments. Now her aunt lives in the floor above her, in the southern Tel Aviv neighborhood that borders Begin Park and the Hatikva quarter. Now, on Biranit Street, she is living in her seventh apartment, not including the years she was forced to live with her parents in a two-and-half-room apartment in Ramat Gan.

Limor knows the history of every shekel that goes into her pocket. She receives NIS 3,164 in alimony from NII and a child allowance of NIS 1,350. And that's it. If she goes out to work at a salary higher than NIS 500 a month, she won't get alimony.

Tzuk studied to be a legal secretary. Afterward she worked at occasional jobs, but she stopped working when her family grew and she had to take care of them by herself: "A child in kindergarten, ears, teeth - and it's impossible to go out to work."

Last Shabbat they went to the swimming pool for the first time this year. Limor bought a special pass for single parents for the pool in Beit Barbour, NIS 190 for 10 visits. Half are already used up and that will be the end of her "summer camp" with her children. Now every day they wait for the cool evening hours to come, spending them at nearby Begin Park eating cotton candy.

On her cell phone Limor uses a pay-as-you-go card, and also pays for electricity with a card that she refills each time. She gets Materna formula for the twins once every three months from the Social Affairs Ministry via an NPO called Efrat that fights against abortions, but it's only enough for one month. Efrat equipped her with beds for the twins, a baby carriage and two years' worth of disposable diapers after she decided against having an abortion.

The carriage was since damaged and Limor has bought a new one - the cheapest there is, NIS 880 - with some help from the Social Affairs Ministry. Her brother promised to cover the expenses for the children's day-care centers for the coming year. Her mother usually pays for her supermarket purchases.

Limor's unfulfilled dream: a public housing apartment. Her request was rejected because she does not receive supplemental income. Limor went to the NII and requested it, and this was the reply: "Dear Sir/Madam, we regret to inform you that your above request has been denied for the following reasons: According to Paragraph 5b of the 1982 Income Support Law, the relevant income for you for May 2012 is a total of NIS 3,264. This sum is higher than the allowance per month, which is NIS 3,264. Therefore there is no need for documents and the conditions of eligibility have not been examined."

Tzuk (like us ) didn't understand a thing. She turned to the Yedid - a nonprofit community-empowerment association - and asked it to appeal on her behalf.

"I'll explain it to you," she says now. "Because I receive alimony, that's the maximum that National Insurance is willing to pay. The Housing Ministry is not willing to give me public housing because there's no supplemental income."

When did you last go to the movies?

"I don't remember. Oy, oy, it's been years. Maybe six. It was something amazing with John Travolta in 3D. I remember I fell asleep."

A restaurant?

"My brother takes us sometimes for ice cream. About once a month." (Natalie reminds her that Grandpa once took them to eat falafel. )

A vacation?

"I can't answer that. Five years ago I was in Eilat once."

Going abroad?

"Twice in Romania. An uncle invited me to visit him in Switzerland, if I find an arrangement for the children. But how will I find one? I'm in a war of survival."

What do they eat? Tzuk says she makes sure that the little ones eat chicken soup every day. Her cousin Anat brings fruit and vegetables. The aunt upstairs helps with the pastas. Her mother buys the "luxuries" - pastelim (meat pies ) and cigarim (a meat-filled pastry ). Her brother Erez gives her his credit card for regular purchases. Michael brings bourekas and challah.

"Thank God, I manage," she says. "Sometimes my son wants a dairy treat and I say there isn't any [money]. It's annoying, but there isn't. They also want to go to an amusement park, but they understand that we can't."

A few months ago they celebrated Johann's bar mitzvah at an events hall in Rishon Letzion with about 100 guests. The photos are on the refrigerator. Michael, the ex, enters the house. A handsome, muscular man, he comes often to fix and arrange things, and be with the children. He speaks fluent Hebrew but his legal status in Israel is still not formalized, even after 15 years and two children here.

Most days Limor is stuck in her apartment: "If I want to go to the HMO to bring ointment for the twins, I ask my aunt to watch the children. I hardly ever go out." She has no credit card, and there are also bank debts from her years with her second partner. She is not on good terms with him.

Limor has two enchanting dimples and doesn't stop smiling even when she admits, "I'm living and not living. There are tough situations. Here's a classic example: My father takes the older children for a barbecue and I stay with the twins. And suddenly both of them start to cry. I try to calm one and the other one continues to cry. I hug both of them and suddenly I find myself crying, crying. So I phone my mother and ask: 'When are you finished in the supermarket?' She tells me: 'Calm down, calm down.' And I calm down. I work all the time. The twins have started to crawl and I have to clean the floor every two hours. I don't have an option of breaking down. Who will raise the kids? Who will take care of them?

"And maybe one day I'll find a great guy on Facebook who's looking for a divorcee with five children," Limor fantasizes, and once again her lovely, captivating smile returns.