Amos Biderman
Photo by Amos Biderman
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We had no choice, we had to have a housemaid. I was again immersed in a sea of work, and my wife, the social worker, had declared a strike. At first I managed to overcome the piles of laundry, keep the dishes under control, drive the children to school and to enrichment groups, order pizza or stop on the way home to buy something in a pita so the children wouldn't be considered hardship cases - at least not now, with the social welfare bureaus on strike.

Occasionally I gave the children a shower; once in a while I vacuumed. But in the past few weeks, what with franchisees, schedules and nervous producers breathing down my neck, even the little housework I did became a huge burden. "You have to get a maid," said almost every friend who had risked a visit to our place recently.

It took more than two months after making the decision until we managed to find a maid who was both legal and available. An affluent Jewish friend who's always complaining about lack of money recommended his own maid. "Tikva is absolutely amazing," he said, "and I persuaded her to make an effort and save a good friend who's in distress."

"Thanks a lot," I replied. "You have no idea how hard it is to find someone with references."

"Yes," the friend said, "I know, and it's not easy for me to share her, either. But you have to pick her up from her home and take her back afterward."

"No problem," I said, ready to fulfill almost any condition.

"She's also a bit expensive," the friend added.

"Money is no longer a problem," came the reply.

"She doesn't know that you're Arabs."

"What?"

"Listen, Sayed," the friend said, placing a hand on my right shoulder, "I want to tell you that I've known Tikva for more than 20 years already. There's no way she would have agreed to work in the home of Arabs."

"I don't understand," I stammered a little, "so how exactly ..."

"She doesn't have to know," the friend replied firmly. "Listen to what I'm telling you: for her to work in an Arab's house is almost like denying God."

"She also believes in God?"

"Let's put it like this," he sighed. "She spends everything she earns on flights to Uman."

"I don't want to hear about it," was my wife's initial reaction. "Have you lost your mind?"

"You know what?" I shouted, losing my patience. "Then you clean the house. I don't care anymore. I have no time, I'm soon going to get fired from my job because of all this housework. It's not my problem. You don't want Tikva? Then clean the place yourself, and you know what? Start cooking, too. It's about time."

"Fine, fine," she said after a moment's thought. "Okay, the children are in school during those hours." I understood that she had agreed to an act of deceit.

"Shalom, Tikva," I said on the phone after taking a deep breath. "Shalom, I am the friend of - "

"Shalom," she replied jovially. "Yes, you're Israel?"

Israel? That's the name he gave her, the nut case. "Yes," I replied. "I wanted to know where I pick you up tomorrow and - "

This is it. It's happening. Our first housemaid will arrive on International Women's Day. Our first Jewish housemaid, our first Jewish employee. When all is said and done, I wonder how many Arabs have been in a position to pay a Jew for work.

I arranged to pick her up at 8. At 7:30 I will send the kids off to school, take my wife to a friend's house and then get Tikva. It doesn't have to be complicated, there's no sign with our name at the entrance to the building. Afterward I will leave her on her own - my friend said she's very reliable - and when she's done I will return to drive her home. At which time I will also pay her. I will actually take money out of my wallet and pay the Jewish woman. Okay, my wife really let me have it, but I still think it's a type of revolution.

Now I have to hide every telltale Arab sign in the house. First I disconnected the telephone, in case my mother should phone, heaven forbid, and frighten our Tikva. Then I started to take the family photos off the walls.

"What are you doing?" my wife shouted.

"With all due respect, and you are very beautiful," I told her as I went on taking down the photos, "but still, it's sometimes pretty obvious that you are an Arab."

I hid the family photos together with a stack of children's books and a few books of poetry in the storeroom. I made a final tour of the house to ensure that no scrap of paper, workbook or other sign of Arabic remained visible. A few paintings we had received as gifts and which I was afraid suffered from "Arab taste" were also thrown into the storeroom, which I then locked. To be on the safe side, I threw out a bag of squash and a package of pitas which announced in Arabic, "Beit Safafa Bakery." "That's that," I asserted when my labors were done, my gaze scanning the empty walls. "This is what a Jewish home looks like."

Everything went according to plan. I sweated a little in the car, but that didn't bother Tikva. When we got to the apartment, she immediately turned on the Hebrew-music channel at high volume. She took a quick look at the apartment, turned her head left and right and said she worked seven hours a day, tops, and in her opinion would not manage to do half the work our place needed. I nodded in agreement, said I would collect her at 3 and then pay her, and left for work.

I wasn't able to write a word. I stared at the blank computer screen, consumed with worry, upset, wondering whether I had, after all, left something that might give away the secret. A huge surprise awaited me when I got home at 3. I didn't believe the apartment could look like this. It was so clean I almost slipped on the floor. "What, it's glass?" I asked in amazement when I looked at the door of the oven and discovered that it was transparent. "All I can say is thank you," I said, almost in tears as I saw that the window could let light into the apartment. As I took out my wallet my emotion reached a peak, like at a historic moment, and I was sorry I had no camera to capture the event.

"Listen, Israel," Tikva said, curbing my excitement, "if that's really your name."

"Did something happen?" I started to shake.

"I found textbooks in a cupboard and I saw that you tried to hide them."

"What textbooks?"

"Honey," she said with a malicious smile, "I am half Iraqi, you know, and letters in Arabic, believe me, are something I can recognize."

"I apologize deeply," I said, starting to stutter. "I really don't know what to say, but I just couldn't tell you, I couldn't expose myself."

"Sweetie," she said with a smile, "you have nothing to worry about, my soul."

"I don't understand."

"Listen to me, you people are doing holy work," she said, leaving me with my mouth agape, not least because I had never told her my occupation. "It's a great honor to work for someone like you," she said, as she at last took the money I was holding in my hand and whispered to me with a wink, "My father was in the Shin Bet, too."