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This Rubble Was My Childhood Home

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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הריסת בניין מגן דוד אדום במתחם באזל בתל אביב, לפני שנה
A building being demolished in Tel Aviv.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

It could have been in Rafah, Aleppo or Mariupol, but it happened this week in Tel Aviv. The home in which I grew up, which was my entire world for the first 20 years of my life and held all my childhood memories, became a heap of rubble. My heart was pounding even before I entered the street. I knew what was waiting for me, yet nothing prepared me for the sight. Crash, and boom as well. Hole, wound, space. No building.

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A Caterpillar 330F excavator stood on the mound of rubble, its digging bucket aloft as in a particularly arrogant image of victory. Palestinian laborers sprayed water at the base of the pile of dirt, which when the week began was still a residence. The site manager said that 20 truckloads of rubble had already been removed, yet the mound still towered. I wanted to tell him that not even 2,000 trucks could take away all that had once been here.

This was the last goodbye. No signs of life remain in the pile of rubble, just a once-green door, holey as a sieve. Was it Miriam Felner’s, our next-door neighbor? She was a haunted, childless Holocaust survivor from Hungary. She spent hours at her door, checking over and over to make sure it was locked. She’d open it, close it, push it, go downstairs and come up again. I never had the courage to ask her, “What’s wrong with you, Mrs. Felner?” Her door was full of holes due to her constant checks of the lock, but it’s unlikely to be the one now in the pile of debris.

The milkman’s tiny hut in the depths of the backyard, where he parked his delivery tricycle at night, had also been wiped off the face of the earth. As had the backyard faucet that we used to wash our first car, purchased with reparations money from Germany. And with it, the secret faucet key, which the building’s owner, Mr. Sarna, hid in his small storeroom.

I wasn’t able to spot the first air conditioner my parents bought, which they used only for company, amid all the scrap iron. Until recently, that air conditioner was still on the living room wall, maybe as a memorial. The chinaberry tree, whose fruits we would throw at passersby, had also been felled. Only its stump still peeked out.

Mrs. Zaroni, who had survived the 1954 Ma’agan disaster and was a leg amputee, no longer sits on her balcony. Nor does Meir sits in his grocery, which was next to the Zaronis, making calculations in Yiddish with the help of the pencil that was always behind his ear.

Mrs. Larich no longer calls for Yakob (yes, with a “b”) to return from his metalworking at 5 Shtand St., two doors down, for lunch. Lady, the Segals’ dog, no longer barks like a lunatic; the cantor’s wife from No. 7 no longer serves him dinner on their balcony, one floor below the Gluzers, with whose daughter Michal I liked to eat Shalva, sweetened puffed rice.

The yellowish light from the streetlights no longer illuminates the taxi driver who, on every winter evening, would wrap his car’s engine in a wool blanket so it wouldn’t get cold. Nobody will ever again send me to Kali on the square to bring my parents “100 grams, finely ground, for one lira 10,” or for my slightly wealthier grandparents, “100 grams, medium ground, for one lira 40.”

Cries of “pepene dulce” no longer ring out from the watermelon cart; cries of “cold sabras” no longer wail from the sabra cart; the hunchbacked bottle collector no longer shouts “bakim, bakim,” his sack on his back. And the Haredi knife grinder in his long robe, who pushed his tools on a cart, no longer calls in Yiddish, “Allo, scheran schleifen.”

My mother no longer rations herself to half a cigarette before her daily phone call with one of her friends; my father no longer wraps a hairnet around his head after his shower and before watching television on the balcony. The Eritrean street sweeper, who wasn’t even born when all that happened here, is now cleaning the dust of the rubble from the street. “Two more days and it’ll all be over,” the site manager said. “We’ll start by digging down four stories belowground.” The new apartments built here will cost 70,000 shekels ($21,500) per square meter.

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