The Eight Yael Levys

They live in different places in Israel, pursue different occupations, come from different family backgrounds and are at different stages of their lives. Yotam Feldman's portrait of eight women - all named Yael Levy.

Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman
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Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman

Yael Levy, 6, Rishon Letzion

Scene I: Fish

Yael's first memory is from age 2, when she visited the aquarium at the underwater observatory in Eilat. "I went with the whole family to see goldfish in the big aquarium. We saw a lot of goldfish and a lot of all kinds of fish, and the diver - he was blue. Today I can dive by myself, all the way down to the bottom of the pool. And in the sea there are all kinds of shells: with spots on the back, colored ones, ones with holes and also regular shells. My mother can't dive, so she can't see the shells and she can't see the legs of the people in the pool."

Scene II: First day of school

"All the teachers came in and they were all shouting. I got scared, because it was a noise I never heard before in my life, the noise of all the children, and especially of the parents. But after that I got used to it. We got to know the teachers and they got to know us, and they did a puppet theater for us about a lion who shaved off all his hair."

Yael is in a kindergarten class in which there is not a lot of play, but they do make up stories and paint. "What we paint and what there is in the world is not the same," she says. "If I paint grass, for example, then there is also grass in the world, but there it's green, but in the painting I don't color inside, so it's white on the inside. I give the sun horns, but you don't see horns on the sun in the world. You can also paint things you don't see at all - my girlfriend likes to paint hearts and angels."

Yael explains that you can make real pictures or imaginary ones. "If I paint something real, I copy it from the world, and if I paint something imaginary, then I copy it from my head. But copying from your head doesn't count."

Can you copy from someone else's head?

"I don't feel like copying from someone else's head."

Scene III: Letters

"When I want to read a word, I first look at the picture, the letters, or at the dots underneath, and then I start to read. I always divide it into sounds - if it says parpar [butterfly], I divide into 'par' and 'par' and read them both one after the other. Sometimes I identify the picture right away and I can go over it fast. I think that one day I will be able to identify a lot of words right away, but not all the words ... I don't think there is a connection between the painting and what it says. 'Parpar' doesn't look like a parpar."

Yael Levy, 17, Holon

Scene I: Comfortable clothes

On the first day of first grade, her mother, Shira, dressed her in a denim skirt. Yael, who rarely wore skirts, protested. "I am an only daughter after two sons, and I was quite a tomboy; I got used to wearing pants in the summer." A skirt was not entirely suited to Yael's activities. She and her three closest girlfriends played on the school?s basketball team. They regularly defeated the boys' team and represented the school in national competitions.

These days, Yael and all her girlfriends put on makeup for school. "I put on rouge and mascara, it takes two minutes, and a lot of times I regret it on the way, if we have a gym class. Some of the girls put on heavier makeup, but they're not part of my group - I think that's a little overdone for the morning.

"I like comfortable clothes. I have a slogan: Less is more. Even a T-shirt and jeans with heels is better than sparklers and things like that. For parties we invest in dresses and tunics, but usually you don't have to dress up too much on Fridays, because we go to somebody?s house, sit in the yard and play Taki and Monopoly."

Scene II: One fish, two fish

Yael, her father and her two older brothers are sitting on the quay of Jaffa port around midday, holding fishing rods and waiting. When one of them feels the pull of a fish, he waits for the fish to swallow the bait and then reels it in, but instead of throwing it into a basket and taking it home, he unhooks the fish and throws it back into the sea. "We are the only ones who don?t kill the fish," Yael says. "Everyone takes buckets of fish home, but we throw them back into the water."

Scene III: Illness

Yael and four of her friends in the communications track are in the Bat Yam home of David Primo, a former member of the Israel national soccer team. Primo has cancer of the throat, and the students, who are making a documentary film about him, are going over photographs of former players, games and trophies with him. "The boys went into shock when they saw the hole in his throat, and the girls stayed to interview him," Yael says. "You don't actually see a hole - it's covered by a dressing - but every so often he changes it, and then you see there is something underneath.

"We started to talk to him about the past and about sports and then we stopped shooting and asked if we could ask him about the disease, and he said it was all right and answered all the questions. He told us that the cancer was discovered four years ago and they said he might die."

Yael relates that since then he crosses her mind every now and again. "It made me think about old age and death," she says. "Every so often I ask my grandmother about death. I thought about it after I dreamed that something happened to her and she was hospitalized. I asked her if she isn't afraid to die and she doubled over with laughter and asked me what kind of questions I was asking. As she was saying that there is nothing to be afraid of, tears started to roll down her face."

Yael Levy, 27, Kiryat Ono

Scene I: Staring

Every day, Yael sits in the currency-exchange booth at Ben-Gurion Airport and stares for 10 hours at the passing parade in the passengers' hall. Her work doesn't usually require her to think, but she is forbidden to leave the booth or read a book on her shift. "When you stare for so many hours every day you can get to crazy places," she says. "I start to analyze the people who go by and imagine where they are going, and if someone approaches I try to guess which currency he will want to exchange."

Staring takes practice, Yael explains. "When you stare you can be cut off from everything and start to think." Thus, on her most recent shift she started to think about the final paper in business administration that she has to complete, about strategies for upgrading the value of the Bonzo company. "From there I move to thinking about my dog, whom I will have to take out when I get home, and if I want to sleep or first go to the gym, and what I want for supper, which brings me to the sushi I ate this week in Tel Aviv, after which I threw up all night."

Scene II: Entertainer

After work, Yael drives home in her car, a red Mazda. She has installed flickering heart-shaped red lights on the mirrors. She returns to her parents' place in Kiryat Ono. "I never rebelled against my parents, because I was in the scouts. Rebellion comes from all kinds of thoughts children have, but I never had thoughts like that - about what to wear and how to pull back my hair. I was busy with other things. It's not unusual: where I grew up, none of my girlfriends rebelled. We were geeks, we were inside ourselves. The craziest things we did were evenings in the scouts."

At family events she likes to sing, together with her father. Their repertoire includes Yehoram Gaon, Zohar Argov and Shabbat songs. ?My dad really likes singing,? Yael says. ?We are people who need attention; we want the neighbors to hear us, too. Sometimes we overdo it and they complain.?

Scene III: Summer camp

After completing her army service, Yael worked as a counselor in a summer camp run by the Reform movement at Crane Lake, Massachusetts. "I tell them that in the army I was a tour guide," Yael explains, "so it's not just wars, and that Tel Aviv is a mini-New York. There?s a desert in Israel and also snow and also the lowest place in the world. Mostly, I tell stories about the army, because that?s easiest, they buy into that the most."

Campers aged 12-13 go through "combat fitness" activities, running through tires or crawling under ropes, smearing camouflage paint on their faces, standing in threes and receiving the counselor at attention. "Everything is done militarily camouflage, ambushes, weapons and that excites children. There, they can't go to the army. Being a soldier is something incomprehensible for them."

The children, she says, ask a great many questions. "What it's like to shoot a gun, what it?s like to be in an Arab village. Some counselors like to tell about that. And they always ask if you ever killed anyone. The counselors never answer that question."

Scene IV: Single

Levy had her first date and her first kiss five years ago, when she was 22. A young man her age started to chat her up on the beach, where she was hanging out with a girlfriend, and the next day she went out with him. "He was terribly excited about me, and that changed something in me. In the years since then I have experienced what my girlfriends did when they were 17. It's not that there were no guys in the area before that, but it didn?t interest me. I had the scouts and festivals to produce and outings. I didn't think about it."

She?s still single and says that not a day goes by without her thinking about it. "What's sad for me is that now is supposedly the most beautiful period of my life, and I want to experience it with someone. To experience the things that happen to me and the grades I get, the crappy job and my car. It's irreversible, because I will never be able to experience these things again."

Yael Levy, 32, Herzliya

Scene I: Queen of the class

?We were the three queens of the class,? Yael relates, ?and of the three, I was the leader.? She adds: ?Being accepted is a matter of looks, of dominant behavior, of self-confidence, which I don?t lack. It was obvious from my first minute in kindergarten and it?s accompanied me ever since.? In the fifth grade, Yael organized a boycott of one of the girls in the class. ?She was an irritating girl. There are kids like that, unpleasant. Her mother was a lawyer, she was a good student and her behavior was pompous. I had the feeling that the teacher preferred her she wasn?t smart about her behavior if she?d been smart her situation would have been different.?

Levy asked all her classmates not to talk to the girl in class, at recess, even after school. Everyone did as she said and the girl?s isolation was absolute. ?There was a kind of imperative that it was forbidden to talk to her. You don?t approach her, don?t invite her to parties, she sits by herself during recess.?

Nor did Levy lift the boycott even after the teacher asked her mother to come in for a talk in which she reprimanded her. She didn?t call off the boycott until a week later, at her own initiative. Looking back, she doesn?t think she was a cruel girl. ?I was actually merciful, with a highly developed sense of justice, but because of the way that girl behaved I didn?t think there was room for compassion. I haven?t seen her since school, but I suppose she is still irritating. There are things that stay with people their whole lives, like the way people look at me and want to be like me.?

Scene II: JDate

Since she was 29, Levy - who studied physical education after her army service and now teaches dancing to elderly people has gone out with about 300 men whom she met via JDate, an Internet site. Her on-site profile states that she is looking for "marriage and children" and that she is an "energetic type who engages in sports." Also that she is "a feminist with a chauvinist background" and that she "believes in equality but not absolute." Levy explains: "I believe that the woman should raise the children and the man should provide. That said, the woman has to be independent, not dependent on her man." She gets about 700 messages a month from men, but dates few of them.

"The first filter is if there is a photograph," she explains. "Anyone who doesn?t send a photo immediately goes in the trash, and also if the photos are not clear. It?s not my problem that they are shy; I expect that just as I posted current photos from a maximum number of angles, the men will do likewise." The second filter is smoker / nonsmoker. Smokers have no chance. Afterward, Yael checks the prospects? preferred leisure-time activities and political views. "I am moderate right, but I don't think it would work out with men who are true left, because it seems to me that the basic outlook is different; it?s a personality thing." Age, though, is a less critical criterion. "As far as I?m concerned, he can be up to 100. The older he is, the more points he has in his favor. Most of the men I've been with are 15-20 years older than I am. I believe that older people know about life and are more interesting."

Sometimes, to save time, she and the man agree in advance that if one of the sides is not interested, he/she will say so immediately, so they won?t waste each other's time. Levy has forgone many men like that, but only one has forgone her.

Many other times she has been compelled to spend time with men whom she knew immediately were of no interest to her. "There is no need to sit for half an hour with someone you don?t want to be with. Sometimes I know that I have to spend 10 minutes with him before leaving, so I find a way to pass that time. Either I interview him about his life or we just tell stories, and sometimes I make up all kinds of things about myself." She has raised the art of conversation to such a high level, she says, that many times men she is not interested in think there will be a follow-up meeting. "They call me later," she says, "and are surprised to discover that I don't want to see them again."

Yael Levy, 44, Tel Aviv

Scene I: Tattoo Five years ago, Yael gave her firstborn daughter from her first marriage, Noor, a birthday present: a tattoo of a black winged mermaid on her lower back. At first she objected to the tattoo idea and even tried to bribe Noor, then 16, with money to buy clothes. But she couldn?t persuade her, and in the end paid for everything. For two hours she sat next to two young motorcyclists who were waiting their turn in the reception room of the tattoo parlor in Dizengoff Center and listened to the whirring of the tattoo machine as it worked on her daughter?s back.

?I didn?t go in with her,? she relates, ?because I can make faces that are downers and if she already decided, there was no reason to make her feel down.? Noor?s girlfriend was with her inside and occasionally came out to tell her that Noor was enjoying every minute. ?I sat there, thinking the whole time about the way my daughter had grown up,? Yael says. ?She came out pleased, smiling, and showed it to me. It came out nice. It?s still nice, even though today she says she would do something different.?

Since then, Noor has had five more tattoos and piercing all over her body. Yael thought that the last tattoo, three stars on her wrist, was excessive and punished Noor by delaying her driving license by a year. To this day her daughter doesn?t have a license.

?She rebelled to the high heavens, but there was no one to rebel against. Before the army, she would leave home every month or two. It?s amazing how they escape these days, with all their stuff in designer bags.?

Scene II: Crazy Fortis

The Second City Club in Haifa, early 1980s. Young fans are milling around outside, ear-splitting music is being played inside. Levy, who had recently completed her army service,wore Levis, sandals and a throwaway T-shirt. In the years that followed, she also frequented Penguin and Roxanne, Tel Aviv clubs. ?I was a [Rami] Fortis groupie,? she says. ?I have been to almost every one of his shows for nearly 20 years. It started with records I listened to after the army. It was cool, because it was rock and it was heavy and it was always in the wee hours. You drank outside, smoked, went in for the show, shouted ?Crazy Fortis? and waited for him to come out from backstage. Then you would go to drink a little more and get through the night.?

Levy went on frequenting Tel Aviv bars and clubs even after she became a mother, and in recent years has been going out with Noor, now 21. At first they went to Freeland, a rock bar on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, where Noor was admitted even though she was only 17 below the legal age. These days they go to Shesek, a bar on Lilienblum Street. "There is a serious age gap," Levy says, "and I feel that I?m everyone?s mother. It?s a shame there are no places where people my age can hang out. But never mind give me a beer and music at full volume and I?m content."

Scene III: Chocolate balls

Cocoa, brandy, sugar, vanilla extract and margarine those are the ingredients of the chocolate balls Yael Levy makes. The recipe is based on the same candy Levy used to make with her father when she was a girl. Every morning at 6, Levy and her husband, Tzahi, start rolling the balls. By 7:30, when she wakes her two sons and Tzahi leaves for work, the two will have created 40 to 50 packages, each containing a dozen chocolate balls. At 8:30, the boys, 7 and 11 years old, leave for the democratic school on Brenner Street, adjacent to trendy Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv. Yael then starts to hand-paint the stickers for the packages. When she?s finished, she packs them in baskets for distribution to grocery stores in the city. Six years ago, when Yael and Tzahi started to make chocolate balls, they had the market to themselves, but since then competitors have sprung up, some of them aggressive, selling at lower prices.

At lunchtime she has coffee on Sheinkin with Sheli, who makes ?Sheli?s Couscous.? The two met at a neighborhood pediatrician?s clinic when they were young mothers with infants and became close friends. On the way to the cafe Levy chats with friends in the neighborhood, among them Futna Jaber, from the "Big Brother" reality show, and Army Radio broadcaster Eran Sabag. "I would say that I am a well-known figure in the neighborhood," Levy says. "When I walk down the street with Tzahi, he is amazed at how I know everyone, how I talk to everyone on the street."

Scene IV: The one that got away

Yael grew up in Kiryat Yam, did her army service in the Nahal paramilitary brigade in the Jordan Rift Valley, moved to Tel Aviv and studied photography at the Camera Obscura school. "The photograph I like the most is the one I missed," Levy says. "I was driving on Sheinkin and I saw an elderly man dressed like a clown go over to his car, which was parked along the curb with the hood raised. I didn?t manage to get the picture, but I won?t stage it. I could have photographed punkists in the square, or drag queens, or groups that come to Tel Aviv at night from all kinds of places. But I didn't do it, because I'm a person who just sits and thinks about what she would do. I don't do most of what I want. I would like to learn to dance, and go to India and live there for a long time."

She hasn?t fulfilled even more modest ambitions, she says. "Once I dreamt of going every Friday to a different place in the country where I have family, knocking on the door and saying: 'Shalom, I'm from your family,' and then sit with them and look at photo albums. But every Friday something else comes up, and I don?t do that, either."

Yael Levy, 57, Givat Ze'ev

Scene I: Better days

Yael Levy, the ninth of 10 siblings, was born in Bikur Holim hospital in the center of Jerusalem and grew up in the house in the picture, in what was known as the ?tin shacks? section of the city?s Nahlaot neighborhood. Her mother was a housewife and her father a messenger in the water department of the Jerusalem municipality. Her parents, who are of Syrian extraction, are distant relatives and were married when her mother was 14 and her father 30.

Levy waxes nostalgic when she recalls her childhood. ?You can?t be completely in the past,? she says, ?but I try to be there a few hours every week. I really like nostalgia and old songs, whatever has to do with earlier periods. Maybe once, things were better for me, so it?s worth going back.? In her spare time she visits the Jerusalem neighborhood in which she grew up, and reminisces. ?I had a girlfriend who lived here, and this is where we hung out, and there?s where we walked.? Two years ago, she went to the Alliance school she had attended and stood for half an hour in front of the gate, trying to jog her memory with the aid of the building?s exterior, but didn?t dare enter.

Scene II: Reparations line

When she was 18, Levy got a job at the King George Street branch of Bank Leumi in Jerusalem, and she has worked there ever since. At first she was in the foreign currency section. Every month she faced a line of Holocaust survivors who came to collect their reparations from Germany. The survivors were happy to have the opportunity for a chat with the bank clerk. ?I think that was the first time I met Holocaust survivors,? Levy says. ?They were generally embittered you could see their grief. But their distress was different from that of my parents. They didn?t have financial problems they were lonely.? Levy tried to amuse the people in the line, engaging them in conversation. ?It was refreshing for them to talk to a young girl. Most of the survivors had no one, and talking with me was an opportunity to pour out their hearts.?

Scene III: A torn seam

?What I lack most is self-confidence. That?s what?s ruining my whole life, and I don?t know where it comes from,? Levy says. ?For example, my son bought a coat and two months later there was a rip in the seam. A friend said: ?Go to the store and tell them.? I told her I wasn?t capable of doing that. What would I tell them, that the coat isn?t good? A few days ago I was in a restaurant with my husband. We ordered salad and it was no good. I said I won?t tell them that I don?t like the salad, because there is no way I can say something like that. If people want to visit me and it?s not convenient for me, I can?t tell them it?s not a good time. My daughter is exactly the opposite: she has a surplus of self-confidence. She says I am not developed, that I don?t see things right.? Yael?s husband, Yossi, who retired this year, was a police superintendent, an investigator at the police station in Jerusalem?s Russian Compound. An archivist who worked with Yael at the bank introduced them when she was 26. They made a date to meet at the circumcision ceremony of a mutual friend?s son, and then started going out. Her previous boyfriend decided to move to the United States after Levy broke up with him. ?I didn?t think Yossi was serious, so I told him that maybe I would follow the guy who was about to go abroad,? she relates. ?He proposed on the spot.?

Scene IV: Separation wall

The wall that separates Givat Ze?ev from the villages around Ramallah is visible from Levy?s window. Even though she lives across the Green Line, she does not consider herself a settler. She and Yossi bought the apartment in 1988, after living in Jerusalem and looking for a bigger place they could afford. ?This is not a settlement,? she insists. ?It?s not like living in Yitzhar or Eli. I wouldn?t be able to live in an isolated place that is protected by soldiers.?

Her parents and family were all ardent supporters of Herut, the forerunner of Likud. They were members of the movement?s Kupat Holim Leumit health maintenance organization; her father got the party paper every day and read it to the members of the household, and she remembers vividly Menachem Begin?s speeches on the streets of Jerusalem. ?There wasn?t a speech my parents missed. We always went to see and hear him, we absolutely worshiped the man. When he spoke in Menorah Square, all of Bezalel Street was filled from top to bottom with people who were there just to hear him speak. Everyone stood for hours and never got tired. We loved the sound, the melody of his speech. He said exactly what we wanted him to say.

To this day I remember the speech in which [the late entertainer] Dudu Topaz mentioned the tshachtshakim he used the wrong word [to describe Likud supporters]. Tshachtshakim are lowlifes, inferior types, and that was a direct continuation of Ben-Gurion?s patronizing. Mapai [forerunner of Labor] is a patronizing movement, and we were looking for something more modest."

Yael Levy, 63, Pardesiya

Scene I: Work

Every summer, Yael Levy?s mother worked at grafting citrus trees in Pardesiya, a village south of Netanya. She and Yael?s father immigrated to Palestine from Yemen in 1945, when she was 19 and he was 25. Their first home was a shack from which the authorities evicted a mule in order to house the newcomers. ?She didn?t like it,? Yael says. ?It?s hard work, requiring you to kneel all day in the sun.? When Levy was 11, her mother began to work as a housecleaner for veteran immigrants from Germany in the Hefer Valley area north of Netanya. ?They didn?t have a choice about whether to work or not, and pride was not an issue then, either,? Levy says. ?As compensation, she was given all kinds of gifts at Pesach she got eggs, poultry or wine.?

Yael, in contrast, leased land when she was 16, plowed it with a tractor and employed women older than she in farm work. ?I would borrow money and rolled it along with investments in land and workers. Everyone was looking for work then; I employed women who were older than me, mothers, and I said: ?Here we will do beets and here we will do tomatoes.??

Scene II: The clinic

Levy?s parents had seven children. She says that when her mother visited the health clinic during her pregnancies, the Ashkenazi nurses were flagrantly condescending to her. ?Many times I understood that my mother was angry at the nurses for saying: ?Are you pregnant again?? They were disrespectful to religious people, who have an obligation to bear children. They didn?t consider the religious aspect in the least. They only asked: ?Why did you have more children?? It wasn?t right for them to dictate to her what to do on that subject.?

Yael also felt there was a disparaging attitude toward Yemenites in her school, which was located in the transit camp next to the village in two long, badly neglected, concrete structures. ?We weren?t considered children in whom an investment should be made,? she says. She remembers that the teachers had no training and that studies consisted largely of Gemara, Bible, crafts, geography and arithmetic. ?I liked Bible and I liked nature lessons, but that?s not what was taught. They would take us to the fields to look at flowers.?

The school?s main goal was not educational, Levy believes. ?They wanted mainly to keep the children in a framework during the day,? she says. ?Not one of us came out of there smart; maybe those who went on to high school, but no one went on to university.?

Scene III: Empty rooms

Twice a week Levy goes up to the second floor of her home, opens the doors of her three children?s empty rooms, does a little cleaning and then closes the doors again. ?When we moved to the house and saw that we were a large family and that privacy was important, we made a room for each child. Now I have five rooms, three of which are empty. Now I am just a servant to the empty house. When you make a house, you don?t think about the children growing up, you want things to be good and spacious for everyone. When the first one leaves, you feel that now there is space. When the second one leaves, it?s too much space, and with the third one it?s empty.?

On the other hand, she gained privacy she did not have before. ?You can pamper yourself with fantasies, dream dreams, be with yourself in the deepest thoughts, make meaningful decisions.? Since the children left she has taken up various hobbies. She has played petanque for more than 20 years and with her bowling partner, Margalit Ossi, was Israeli champion in 1992-93. Twice a week she plays bridge in Even Yehuda and does woodworking.

Scene IV: Hospital

Once a week, Levy takes her husband to the hospital, where he meets with doctors and receives regular treatments. She drops him off and comes back five hours later to pick him up. ?I don?t like being in a hospital,? she says, ?it makes me feel bad. ? Her husband suffers from various ailments, and since his condition deteriorated two years ago, most of Levy?s time is spent looking after him. ?You have to be in his company, give support and encouragement, see to it that he has three meals a day, drive him to hospitals and clinics, and if he is hospitalized you have to be there, and there?s no way of knowing what will happen.?

Before her husband fell ill, Levy had planned to use their pension funds to go abroad for a lengthy period, but now it?s not easy for her to get away. ?I can?t go away for three weeks, at most two or three days, and even that takes complicated coordination. But I live with him and it happened to me. You can?t just take the good things and say: ?Go find someone to look after you.? It?s impossible to know what the future will bring. I told him that if I outlive him, I might start to travel. I don?t intend to sit around mourning and not show my face. I?ve done my share in the world and I am realistic, open to what might happen.

?I would like to go to India, people say you go back to childhood there. I miss childhood, the games, the open spaces, the surroundings I had. That?s the beauty of childhood.?



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