I will always remember my grandmother sitting at the piano. She would be studying the sheet music, hands fluttering on the keyboard, her ears busy listening to other times. With her playing, she stopped the street from marching on, and, for us, opened a window to a different world in which music was a part of the foundations of life.
When I was a child, Grandmother told me that when she had immigrated to Israel on board a large ship, there had been a grand piano on the deck. I still picture her sitting there for long hours, the ribbons of her elegant hat flapping in the wind as she musically slid her way across the sea and into the Mediterranean basin, adorning the promise of a new life with Beethoven sonatas, Bach fugues and Mozart minuets. As a teenager, I had often sat and listened to her, astonished by the nimble speed of her fingers and her ability to play anything just by sight reading. She always declared she was ‘merely practicing’ and was never content with her own performance, yet, unhesitatingly, was willing to play one last waltz. I envied the talent that had not passed on from her genes to mine, I inherited only her German look with its the deep colors and hazel eyes.
I took countless lessons with a variety of teachers and instruments, but eventually gave up on the classical melodies and ultimately drifted in a different direction, under the passionate encouragement of my cousins, to the realms of jazz. Unfortunately, I found no comfortable nesting place in jazz. I did not possess my cousins’ lightning quick perceptions and, to be honest, I am still unable to improvise on simple chord to this very day.
My mother told me a freight ship had carried my grandmother to the port city of Haifa. The green views that welcomed her were different from those of the small village next to Memel in Lithuania, where she had spent her childhood. Those were the last days of the thirties – the era of the great waves of immigration from Europe, a time when anyone with any sense of understanding fled to whatever country would have him. Grandma was no Zionist, but embarked on a journey to follow the love of her life. I still ask myself to this very day how she had so easily renounced the piano and abandoned her parents’ house. From a tender age, she had spent hours in front of the keyboard and, during her cold childhood days, had moved her bed away from its warm space against an inner wall so the piano could be placed there instead. She would sit beneath the window, wrapped in endless layers of sweaters, teeth chattering, while the piano rested in warmth and coziness beside the inner wall.
As a teenager, she became a star athlete and enjoyed a long line of suitors, all admiring her tall, slender figure and resolute nature. One day, a group of German Jews arrived in town. They were on their way to Palestine and were required to undergo a seminar before they could receive the coveted ‘immigration certificate’. My grandmother, Naftal, who was celebrating her sixteenth birthday, was planning a large party and, on the advice of her boyfriend at the time, invited the group. But alas, while her boyfriend was getting comfortably drunk, my grandfather stole her heart from right under his red nose and never returned it.
My grandfather told her of the virginal country that would replace the European aristocracy. He convinced her that the future of the Jews lay in Palestine where they would be able to establish a genuine home for themselves. Naftal’s parents were angry with her for exchanging a promising suitor for a German youth who didn’t have a dime in his pocket, but they knew the stubborn nature of their eldest daughter, a stubborn nature that stood behind each of her decisions. Finally, they accepted the inevitable and agreed to her choice with the condition that she finished her pharmaceutical studies before leaving for Palestine.
My grandfather had immigrated to Israel the year before, as an advance party, and Grandma joined him a year later. From the freighter that had carried her there, she and my grandfather hurried to city hall. There they were married in a modest ceremony, and she adopted the name Shturman for the rest of her life. Then they set out for Jerusalem. Grandma was entranced by the smell of citrus blossoms hovering over the roads. She swore to toss out all the pullover sweaters she had brought from home, and basked in the sun, whose radiant light was free for all.
Arriving in Jerusalem, she was dismayed to discover her new house was nothing but an exposed rooftop where five families huddled together. The girl, Naftal, who had grown up in an eleven-room house, not only had to lead a huddled and crowded existence in the chilly Jerusalem air, but also had to tolerate the thick smoke that billowed up from the garden in the middle of that first night. It seemed that her amicable neighbors had been delighted to discover the carved wooden trunk that contained Naftal’s dowry, and had unhesitatingly started a fire with it to warm their bones.
This was Grandmother’s first lesson in the harsh country that did not bow its head before moneyed people, nor was it impressed by upper class mannerisms. She learned, harshly and repeatedly, to hide her aristocratic origins. These were days of poverty and austerity and an uncertain political future hovered uncomfortably over everyone’s heads. Despite her pampered childhood, my grandmother was a woman of action. Instead of going to the Ulpan to study Hebrew in an orderly way, she chose to go and stand in the improvised ‘employment office’, which was a simple booth with a bench on which she spent many long days. Eventually, when she had demonstrated a reasonable amount of persistence, one of the women, in a gesture of goodwill, explained to the young lady that chinchilla furs and diamond rings would make it extremely difficult for her to find a job.
The young lady went home, hid the rings inside the mattress, stuffed the furs into the closet, and rearranged her attire. As a result, she was able to secure a job as a cook and for two days she attempted to feed a local company, using the cookbook her mother had written for her just before she left. But her mother had never spent too many hours toiling in the kitchen so, from dish to dish, Naftal tried to recall details of what the cooks back home had done. To no avail, the menu was terrible, even for those days of austerity and Grannie found herself back in the employment line.
She drifted on to more failed waitressing jobs until finally, someone heard about a pharmacy on Jaffa Street that desperately needed a dedicated employee and she was pulled out of that damned line. She quickly fitted in, working long shifts on elegant high-heel shoes, with a vocabulary that grew by the day. Grandma knew how to concoct medicines and give recommendations that complimented the doctors’ failures. In those days, pharmacists did much more than match boxes to prescriptions – they ground, stirred, advised and meticulously checked the written instructions of the doctors, whose credentials were not always too obvious.
In the meantime, my grandfather, who had come up with the idea of that insane journey in the first place, wasn’t as successful. He was an attorney by training, but was more familiar with the German judicial system and was forced to find a new occupation for himself. He attempted to establish a delivery company, but was quickly stopped by the British, who had a monopoly over all postal services and nearly incarcerated him. Finally, he found a job as an insurance agent. Most of his income was given to him in chocolates, ostensibly for him to tempt potential clients with. However, in the privacy of the night, the two young lovers would fantasise about the treasure in the closet. They would sway and shift, holding discussions that lasted until the first light of dawn. Of course, by that time, not a single bar of chocolate for business survived. This was one of Grandma’s sweetest memories of those times, one she repeatedly told us. She never said much, never spoke of the house that was no more, of their misadventures during those times of austerity, but she enjoyed reliving and retelling the ‘chocolate’ plots.
As a child, I used to joke with my brother about the whole thing. We knew there were ‘treasures’ hidden in Grandma’s house, but to get a taste of that abundance, we had to open the cabinet door, shift aside the ordered rows of glasses, and rummage through the straight line of piled boxes. And we had to do all that in complete silence because sweets were to be had only after dinner. If we were lucky enough (and Grandpa was in a good mood), he would open the cabinet door at the end of the meal and give a single bar to each of us and that was it.
The German mentality was vastly different from the one that reigned in the house I grew up in. We had relocated from Jerusalem to Haifa and settled in the Carmel Forests. My father, whose origins were Russian-Jerusalemite, established a culture of plenitude in the house. The house mentality revolved around invented stories, with tall tales, filled with cynicism and humour, rewarded by general applause. But in the Shturman family, the atmosphere was much more serious and order reigned supreme; regular times for meals, a meticulously observed schedule and modest communication in broken Hebrew. I never understood why I ended up inheriting the traits of the German side of my family. My brothers were of fair complexion and funny like my father, while I inherited my great-grandmother’s face with thick brown hair and an inexplicable inclination for the hobbies liked by ‘the other side’ of the family.
God knows I tried to rebel. I invested little time in my music studies and made sure my appearance was constantly disheveled. I skipped art classes and in fact, mostly did not show up at all. As the years passed, my estrangement from the Russian blood in the family grew. I was different from them in everything and with every personal crisis, I added another hobby to my skills, which always emphasised how close I was to my German lineage.
In those days, German/Jewish culture was ridiculed on the Israeli streets. They were mocked for their orderly ways, their unyielding nature and pomposity, while Sabra individualism and rough nature were praised. My grandmother was a perfect stereotype of central European immigrants; her slender appearance, fair skin and snapping heels were a part of a cultural show completely alien to that of the newly forming Israeli culture. She had a wardrobe befitting a duchess and never left home without a matching set of gloves, scarf and elegant hat. In the good old days, the show was complemented by a scooter with a sidecar and my mother tells me, to this very day, how her face would flush with shame every time the sound of the scooter engine rattled the school gates.
But wherever difficulties lay, potential could be found as well. My grandma may have been an alien seed in the then contemporary Israeli mentality, but in the days preceding the declaration of independence, she was liked by the British. They invited her to their concerts at the King David Hotel, introduced their wives to her and smiled to see her sipping coffee and timidly nibbling cake. (This was a treacherous act in itself during those days of austerity. She only dared confess it to me at the ripe age of 100, a guilty smile on her lips).
But outside the luxurious hotel, a tumultuous atmosphere reigned. The Haganah organisation was drafting anyone willing to join its ranks, even as they prepared for the bloodshed that was sure to come with the declaration of independence. They realised the division of Jerusalem would not last long, and even as Ben Gurion was using diplomacy, they were stockpiling weapons, burying stashes in gardens and planting ammunition in yards. They had not remained blind to my grandmother’s potential either. They recognised her as a diligent noblewoman who concocted drugs in the mornings and mingled with the representatives of the British mandate in the evenings. She was the perfect courier; a young immigrant who barely spoke Hebrew, but was perfectly comfortable speaking English, meticulously dressed and engaged in a distinguished profession. All were traits that left her beyond suspicion.
Twice a day she passed through roadblocks in the city on her way to the pharmacy on Jaffa Street. No one suspected the devoted pharmacist that recommended heartburn medicine and knew how to bring a baby’s fever down, had bullets hidden in her pockets. No one imagined that explosives were sewn into the hem of her coat and that the tender pianist’s hands constructed bombs in the back room of the pharmacy. When the sun set, she would conceal everything in a small hideout dug into her garden. She would place a round stone back on top of it all and then go inside to prepare dinner. After all, she had a little daughter to feed. Undoubtedly, she would have cautioned the Haganah warriors who snuck in during the night to retrieve the weapons stash, to go about their work in utter silence.
Eventually, someone informed on her. My aunt still remembers how the British arrived one day to search the house. Luckily, they did not discover the weapons hideout concealed beneath the round stone. They searched inside the apartment, leaving no corner of the two rooms unturned. They opened the closets and cut the mattresses but found nothing. At some point, my infant aunt broke down and pointed to the kitchen. The soldiers followed the little girl who resolutely led them to the pantry. There she pointed at a tin can. The soldiers blocked the doors. They opened the simple tin can and found a bundle of Israeli bills in it. The soldiers laughed and apologised for the mess and before long, left the place.
We’ve had a constant family argument as to whether or not Grandma continued her covert operations after the British came knocking at her door. As she divulged not a shred of information, we were left with mere hypotheses. In the War of Independence, her workplace was turned into an emergency pharmacy and her shifts became longer than ever. A steady stream of wounded kept coming, even as the locals waited in line for Grandma to serve them all, her back a little bent and speaking an exceedingly Kafkaesque Hebrew. She never spoke of her exploits during those days, never told tall tales, nor did she take pride in her actions. Even after the British mandate had folded, she maintained her silence. As a child, I couldn’t understand it. Why hadn’t she boasted like everyone else? After all, she had risked both herself and her family. But not a word. Even when I asked her, after I had become an adult, she politely evaded all my questions.
Every day, when her shift at the pharmacy was over, it was time for music. The grand piano was a feature in the house long before the refrigerator. For seven years, the family had to stand in line and carry ice cubes to compensate for grandmother’s priorities. To add insult to injury, a piano quintet would gather punctually in the apartment every week. It included four males, one elegant female pianist and a distinctly panicky husband drinking a hundred glasses of tea in the kitchen, incessantly peeking to make sure nothing but music was involved.
Grandmother knew how to sight read all the great composers, possessed a superior sense of rhythm and never disappointed her listeners. They played for themselves, and that weekly gathering sufficed for them to conjure the sounds of their extinct world.
Many years later, when she came to visit us in Haifa, Grandma would peck at the keys of the old Russian piano in my room. The miserable model, bequeathed to me by my late Grandmother Herzliya, would suddenly produce the most wonderful sounds. Neighbours that chanced to pass by would stop and sit on the fence beneath my window to listen to the miracle. “It didn’t come out right,” she would bicker when we showered her with compliments about her playing.
Her modesty convinced me I would never play well. It took many long years before I returned to the world of music in the aftermath of my failed childhood attempts. I was already in my twenties when I rediscovered music, and it all came from a completely unexpected source. After finishing my literature diploma, I had a hard time finding a job and spent a few months with my parents trying to find my way in life. The piano still stood, abandoned, gathering dust in the corridor. One day I accidentally sat at it and discovered I had learned something at university after all. My student job as a typist had proven more useful than I imagined, and I discovered I could now play Mozart by sight reading. I fell in love with the keyboard all over again and instead of seeking a professional direction for my life, returned to playing.
Before long, a summons from the capital arrived, urging me to come and play with four hands. The thought that we would play together motivated me to start anew: “Eins, zwei, drei. Eins, zwei, drei.” Grandmother would count aloud, scolding me for disrupting the sanctity of rhythm and neglecting the pedal. I didn’t understand why I should have to count when I had an excellent metronome beating by my side and I did my best to simply read the notes. “Don’t take count with your foot,” she teased. “The rhythm should be in your head. Listen to the beat.”
I didn’t understand what she was talking about. The rhythm had become an enemy, an endless nuisance threatening to destroy my art. But Grandmother was relentless. She listened, made remarks and offered me a place at the piano the likes of which I had never had and never will again. We played until my fingers hurt, while she, a ninety-year old Phoenix, never grew tired. She was always disappointed when I refused her offer to play just one last waltz after a mere hour of constant playing.
A few months later, I decided I wanted to write for my living and set out in search of a job in the big city of Tel Aviv. The old Russian piano migrated with me for the adventure and I was delighted to find an improvised place in the southern part of the city in the neighbourhood of Neve Tzedek. It did not possess a real ceiling, but the concrete walls of the ancient construction absorbed any noise and I could play at all hours of the day. For me, that alone was worth all the rest. I devoted my nights to playing and found, at the piano, a place of peace; a place of unburdened and boundless freedom.
Meanwhile, I established myself as a critic for a local newspaper, bouncing from job to job. I learned how hard it is to make your living from stringing words together, but found comfort in the musical wealth that was my lot in my evenings. After so many years of frustration, I appreciated the ease with which the music flowed and did not care if the notes fell within the constricts of rhythm, or of how things were supposed to be played. From time to time I still visited my grandmother in Jerusalem and, with the passing years, discovered the tables had turned – now I was the one who asked her to play while she found various excuses. I dreaded seeing how her right hand had grown heavy and her hearing had faded. The final chord came after the funeral of violinist, Mordechai, the last surviving member of the mythological quintet, who had passed. Grandmother closed the piano and announced that, “Mordechai was wise to leave before the final act.” After that, instead of playing the piano, she began to tap on the table. Always with a metronomic precision, her eyes drifting to inner sights of another century. I took comfort in the thought that, in her own way, she continued to make music. Still, I always offered to play with her.
After having spent long years in my studio apartment, I decided to finally broaden my kingdom. At the height of the Israeli real estate crisis I looked for an apartment to buy. I planned on taking an insane mortgage and settle in the developing side of the city. After two years of searching, I found a reasonably priced apartment in the southern part of the city. Timidly, I brought my parents to see the apartment.
“There are countless buildings scheduled to be renovated here. Pretty soon we won’t be able to afford to even dream of buying an apartment in this area,” I said. “This is an excellent investment.” What played to my advantage was the fact that the building was relatively new, had double windows, electric shutters, a spacious parking area, and a high-security steel door. My parents reluctantly conceded and as the purchase was agreed, the owner allowed me to move into the property immediately with the intention of completing the purchase process that same year.
The new apartment was small and compact. It had no room for the diverse library of books I had accumulated working as a literary critic so I installed shelves in every possible corner. The books ended up being stuffed under the bed, inside closets, above and beside the piano, but they still popped up in every corner. I sewed curtains, printed posters and set about designing my apartment with the thought of spending long years in it.
Six months later everything went south. There was a gas leak in my apartment while I was sleeping and urgent calls from my neighbours to the fire and gas company were ignored. The firemen that eventually came during the night neglected to check the neighbouring apartments and the dispatcher refused to send a technician. As a result, I spent nine hours in a sauna of gas fumes, waking in a panic. That morning I was supposed to interview an economist about the real estate crisis in Israel and was atypically late. I hurriedly dressed and looked for his phone number in my computer, then in my cellphone.
And then the world turned black.
My last thought was that I had to call for help and open the door. When I awoke, five weeks later, they told me how incredibly ‘lucky’ I had been. A young man doing some construction work in a neighbouring street heard me screaming in the apartment. Like Superman, he had rushed into the burning building and climbed all the way up to me. When he entered the hall, all he could see was this great darkness. Smoke enveloped everything and the escaping neighbours were unable to point to where the screaming was coming from. Then he suddenly noticed a thin sliver of light and decided to move toward it. This was the front door I had managed to open a crack and the light was seeping through. Amal Mahamid found me behind the door and all I can remember is his voice asking whether there was anyone else in the apartment. The last word I heard was, ‘Yalla’.
At the hospital, I couldn’t understand why everyone was so happy I had been saved. Day by day, I internalised the utter devastation my body had gone through. My left hand had ballooned to a mammoth size while the right one refused to move. My face was disfigured and my entire body ached. I remembered how I had played Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ that evening and had been displeased with my own performance, just like my grandmother. Now I wasn’t sure if I would ever play again. Utter silence prevailed in my sterile hospital room. Soon enough, Grandma, shuffling with all one hundred of her years, marched up and down the hospital corridors. As I took my first steps outside the room, she was there to explain to me: “Things simply happen,” she said. “And it could have been much worse.”
Though I feared she would be alarmed by the scarlet burns that covered my face, she was far more preoccupied with my hands. The people at the cafeteria were confused by the sight of the elderly woman constantly wringing my fingers while wearing an anxious expression. I wanted to ask her how one deals with a world that has vanished. How do you move on? Will I ever be able to walk down the street? But she wasn’t very interested in those subjects and said that burns take their time to heal. But the hands? That was another matter.
Those were difficult days in which I had to learn to survive. Day in, day out, the nurses guided me while I stopped making plans for the future and learned to focus on the present. How do I survive the morning? What do I do at noon? And how do I cope with the fitful, sleepless nights during which the burns were on fire and I couldn’t sleep a wink?
“Plenty of spare time,” was my stock answer to anyone who asked me how I whiled away my days, but my condition was so bad that no one really had any expectations.
“Just do what you feel like.” “Just focus on getting through one day at a time.” were sentences repeated in my ear from dawn till dusk, but even after my nightmarish treatment routine at the hospital, my journey of survival continued. The first time I had a few hours of freedom, I hurried with my dad to a piano store. Even though I was unable to bend my hands because of the fresh transplants, it was obvious to me that a piano had to be waiting for me when I was discharged. My gaunt figure must have touched the store owner, who had forgotten to place a price tag on his finest piano, thus allowing me to purchase a true prince for a bargain price. And it was the first thing I did upon being discharged from the hospital. Among the pressure suits, the pains and the never-ending scratching, there was only one thing that allowed me to forget the suffering – the piano. Sitting at it, I went back to being the Sharon of old, the one who could do anything. The music gushed inside me. All the terror was gone, the tears dried out, the sobs turned to silence. There was enough motion in my fingers to allow me to play simple tunes. My aunt brought me a copy of Bach’s ‘Notebook for Anna Magdalena’, and I went right to it. My dad reminded me of how he had pleaded with the surgeon not to shorten my pinky. “Sharon would never be able to rehabilitate without playing Bach,” he had cautioned. And the operation had been postponed.
This time, too, music was there to save me at the most unexpected moment. I played like I never knew was possible. I was amazed to discover I could read a few measures forward. I learned to constantly project tone, and kept manoeuvring with my right and left hand fingers, seeking new ways to compensate for the restrictions in my hands. The mind can conjure wonderful wizardry in such situations. Because of my transplants, my technique had utterly changed. I began to produce tone from shoulder level instead of my finger joints. Although my hearing had been damaged by the blast, I could actually now hear the beat. Who would have thought? At last, meter and rhythm were under my control, and I enjoyed finding the balance inside the measures.
When I grew stronger, I travelled to Jerusalem to visit Grandma. My fingers were wrapped in metal gloves and I was required to wear a pressure suit that covered every inch of my body – with a face mask as a bonus. This is how burns are treated. There is no drug to treat damaged skin, but further damage can be avoided by wearing suits that prevent the burns from over-inflating and scarring. My family and friends hugged me, but strangers passing me on the street stared, sheer terror in their eyes. It got so bad that I actually stopped going out. Unlike the general public, my Grandmother wasn’t very interested in my mask, and the burns swelling on my neck made as great an impression on her as last year’s snow. But if, God forbid, I took off a glove and exposed the burns on my hands, well, that instantly turned her reaction into something else altogether. “What happened to your hands? Gas can do that to you?” She would panic and I would hurriedly squeeze my swollen fingers back into the pressure gloves. It was a good thing the mask was there to hide my tears.
Grandma knew what she was talking about: as a pharmacist, a mother, and a pianist, her life revolved around the rhythm of her hands. We talk with our hands; we survive through our fingers. It is our power – a magic wand allowing us to get through the inconceivable. During the years in which the motor capabilities of my hands were slight, I realised just how right she had been. At first, I had pestered the doctors about providing me with a detailed schedule for face reconstruction surgeries. I demanded to know how we would reconstruct my ears, and what could be done above the lips. However, over the years, I came to realise my struggle really focused on my hands alone.
Gradually, things improved. As part of my rehabilitation, I worked on returning the motion range in my shoulder. I learned to raise my neck and bend the back of my hand. It had taken me a full year to close my right hand and another six months to clench the left. Then it was back to the operations routine; left, right, left, left, left.
Over time, I grew accustomed to my look which had significantly improved. The burns stopped swelling, their scarlet colour began to fade and my face slowly regained human features. But as my body grew stronger my soul diminished. The career I had built with so much effort came crashing down when I sought return to routine. I struggled to find my place. Anger filled my entire being. I had questions that had no answers. Why had it happened to me? Why had I been abandoned? And how come no one was being held accountable? After three and a half years, an indictment was finally filed against the gas company that hadn’t sent a technician. The fire department was let off the hook completely.
After such a long silence, I yearned for the opportunity to regain my voice as a journalist and turned to my associates in the media. I was surprised by their lack of interest in covering the case. Some of the investigative reporters did show a little interest in the sad story my life had turned into, but they didn’t think there was anything new to write about the gas oversights in Israel. Sentences such as, ‘These gas leak blasts have been written about to death,’ or, ‘Too much time has passed for it to be news,’ turned into a painful chorus that made me feel more transparent than ever, but I refused to give up. Against the advice of my family and friends who wanted me to concentrate on my future, I contacted some of the primetime investigative journalism shows. I provided some rough recordings of the dispatch reps and, once they realised how determined and desperate I was, they decided to draft me as their ‘mole’.
At the time, the Israeli parliament had begun discussing emergency regulations for household gas, some of which derived from my own disaster. As a gas accident victim, I was allowed to take part in the discussions and I found myself opposite a long line of lawyers who represented the large companies who did their best not to make eye contact with me. I recorded every word. I contacted other victims in the waiting halls and coaxed embittered officials into coming forward to admit just how deep the murky waters were. My ‘dynamite’ was the recording device and my scarred face offered me the perfect disguise. I had turned into the face no one wanted to see. But a few good Samaritans did talk and I planted the recordings in my digital hideout and passed them over to the editorial board.
Gradually, I began to understand the way the system worked and I stopped talking about the subject. Like my grandmother before me, I too realized that successes should also be credited to men of conscience who end up paying a price for their help. I never got a chance to confront the real people in power. Those are the ones always surrounded by lawyers and corrupt parliamentary member. They unashamedly brushed me off, refusing to speak to me. Instead, they wriggled their twisted tongues talking a lot, saying nothing and committing to nothing.
I had always planned on visiting Grandma after the discussions; her house overlooked the parliament building and was a mere kilometre away, but I never actually went to see her. I did not want to taint her with my actions. She barely left the house during those years and on my weekend visits I was no longer welcomed by a nurtured garden, but by a dry, cracked patch of earth. In a moment of lucidity, Grandma had decided to let the gardener go and hurried her Philippine caregiver into executing her instructions. My mother had fought her for weeks, reminding her of just how uplifting it was to see flowers from her window. But Grandma insisted. “If I can’t get out anymore – what do I need a gardener for?” I could no longer ask her all the questions I wanted to ask so we simply sat, silent, facing each other, her fingers tapping on the table to the rhythm of some inner music. I understood her silence and just how complicated reality is. It’s never black and white, good guys or bad guys … the banality of injustice.
The discussions were about to draw to a close and as the end neared, so did the sense that the committee was deliberately shuffling its collective feet. One week, we confronted the committee chairman. Seeing a famous television reporter standing next to the ‘human burn’, the chairman panicked. He hurried to schedule an appointment with me, as well as a date for the final discussion. It was the deciding debate over the only regulation that remained open – in how much time would the gas companies be required to arrive at the scene? In twenty-four hours, which was the current norm, or in the thirty minutes we were demanding? The gas companies naturally preferred the vague definition of ‘without delay’. At the last moment, the day before that crucial meeting, I put my foot down. I stopped answering the phone and claimed I hadn’t dedicated an entire year of my life to just another television item documenting failed regulations without actually achieving anything.
“We need to clearly show how it was before the discussions. We need to go in for the kill if we want to bring some change,” I shouted at the reporter, who suddenly seemed to be standing on the other side of the fence. He changed direction, gave up on the idea of doing an in-depth article and squeezed the item into the Saturday evening news edition, two days before the deciding discussion.
This time I arrived at the parliament building on my own. The table was crowded with dozens of attorneys representing the gas companies, but then some other parliament members began to arrive. They had heard of my mole strategy. This time, they rooted loudly for the gas accidents victims and waved printed copies of the article. I was allotted the final five minutes. I spoke fervently for the seventeen victims and their families. All from the last decade. In an unprecedented move, the committee chairman decided to put to to a vote that gas companies must arrive to any emergency scene within sixty minutes. The energy director voted for ‘without delay’. So did the gas companies representatives. But all parliament members unanimously voted to enforce the new sixty minutes regulation – a historical precedent in Israel.
A week later, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu dismantled the government and called for a general election. The committee chairman moved on to secure his political future and the newly approved regulations remained laying in wait in the Ministry of Energy’s offices. Waiting for their next fifteen minutes in the public spotlight.
When the discussions had ended, I decided it was time to stop and finally devote my energies to reconstructing myself. But instead of reconstructing my face, I decided to rehabilitate the second life I had been given. The journey I have made has taught me that a face is no more than an expression of thought and the surface of things – never what it appears to be at first glance. It had taken me months to open the blue notebook, the one Grandma had given me before the fire. The edges were somewhat sooty, but the notes had remained crisp and clear. I turned to Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’ and played it better than ever. Each time I played it, it sounded different, more correct, exact and mine forever.
In July 2018, in the week of her 104th birthday, my grandma passed. I was the last to see her the day before. She could no longer recognise anyone, but the moment she realised that ‘pesky girl’ was there to stay, she gave a perfect performance: putting on her sunglasses, opening the Jerusalem Post and pretending to be immersed in her reading – a genuine lady until the very last chord of her sonata.
Today, I thank her for having opened a window on the world of music for me. She introduced me to all the great composers, passed on to me her great love of musicality and taught me to play with a single continuous breath, the kind that begins and ends with a steady beat. And, while she was at it, she also helped build a country that lacked any proper sense of rhythm. At least my generation is already openly discussing the dissonant chords heard in the background.
May she rest in peace.
(Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev)
(Click here: https://wp.me/paqgoy-3U – to hear Sharon play the piano as part of her reconstructive process)