A Stitch in Time

You can tell Mizrahim by a sign, the nurse says, a blue mark on the back.

1. "Do you have Mizrahim* in your family?"

Taken by surprise, I don't hear properly: "Ezrahim? Civilians?"

"Not ezrahim. Mizrahim." The nurse in the well baby clinic on Balfour Street in Tel Aviv turns the naked baby onto her stomach.

"No. yes. Actually, no." The question throws me for a loop. Yes, we have Mizrahim in the family, I think. Rachelle, Raina, Simcha, Rivka, Rosa, Izak, David and Shaul - the children of Papo and Nona, who is a PS, a Pure Sephardi and sixth-generation Israeli. They are the Mizrahim.

Not far from the clinic, on Melchett Street, in a building whose second floor was never finished, the blue-eyed sisters Simcha and Rivka lived into their nineties. My mother used to take me and my sisters to visit them regularly, less because she wanted to show us the aunts than because she wanted to be their guest, to be given a kiss and a glass of cold water and in so doing to be close to her mother, Rosa, who was not long-lived.

Rivka never married, despite her many suitors, because she was too smart to marry, and of course she had no children. Simcha, who was tall, married her first cousin. They didn't have children, either. Raina and Rachelle were married to Ashkenzim, and they, too, had no children. Shaul had no children. Only Rosa and Izak did.

On one of those visits, Rivka told me:

Bialik once patted Rosa's braids and said, what a beautiful girl.

I asked why they remembered that he had patted her braids.

Simcha replied, Because we are Frenks**.

The nurse turns the baby over. You can tell Mizrahim by a sign, she says, a blue mark on the back.

2. My mother loved Aunt Raina. Like the other women in her family, she was tall and blue-eyed. She cooked a lot, my mother told me, wore lovely dresses that she made herself, was married to an Ashkenazi and had no children. Aunt Raina died of cancer when my mother was five. The other sisters did not want to tell the child what her aunt had died of, so Rivka, the unmarried one, said: Raina sat on a needle by mistake and died.

My mother, all of five, knew it wasn't true. Odd, she thought, Raina was always sewing, how could she get confused and be pricked by a needle?

3. I met Menachem Perry. We've known each other for years. I told him my mother's aunt had died from a needle prick, like Sleeping Beauty. Perry, a literary critic and publisher, said: That may have happened, but I know that in Brenner's "Breakdown and Bereavement" there is a character who is pricked by a needle and dies. Not long ago we reprinted the book, and you will find the episode in the third chapter without any problem. He praised the reprint edition some more and had a copy sent to me.

When it arrived, I read it, and saw that Brenner's Miriam Bat Yosef is not pricked; rather, she deliberately stabs herself with a rusty needle and dies in the throes of agony.