Esther’s Unbiteable Tongue

Allison Ofanansky

On the five-year anniversary of her aliyah Esther broke her jaw. Had she been back in LA, where she spent the first 25 years of her life, she would have been able—expected, even—to sue the store with the broken steps, or the city, or both. Here in Tzfat, however, with her jaw wired shut, and her broken Hebrew, such a project was unthinkable.
        Two weeks had passed since the tip of her flip flop had caught in a crack in the concrete steps, the plastic thong pulled out of the thin foam sole. She should have known better, she told herself as she pitched forward, than to try to negotiate Tzfat’s cobblestone alleys with her ten shekel made-in-China sandals. Her hands swung forward, helplessly encumbered with plastic bags heavy with unruly grapes, almonds, olives, figs, pita bread, goat cheese. Her chin hit the pavement hard, and she knew right away that her jaw was broken.
        Now she craved those almonds. She imagined grinding them to a paste with her back teeth. She longed for the tangy crunch of raw onion on a cheese sandwich. Working the pit out of a garlicky green olive with her tongue. Breaking the thin skin of a grape with her front teeth.
        Sighing though her nose, Esther reached for her can of chocolate-flavored Ensure and set the flexible straw between her lips, against her teeth. Her friend Tifferet had brought her a box of multi-colored bendy straws when she came to visit the day after Esther left the hospital. Esther had been surprised it was even possible to find multi-colored bendy straws in Tzfat.
        She had just switched back to Julie and Julia, the movie she’d been watching on her computer, when someone banged on her front door. She heaved herself off the worn plaid couch and down the short, arched entranceway of her studio apartment in the Artists’ Quarter. The room was actually a refinished cistern, damp in the winter but nice and cool in the summer. Before she got to the door, it opened and a thick Bronx accent called out, “Esther, are you there?”
        “Hi, Shoshana.”
        She found herself wrapped in a one-armed hug. An embrace encased in such wildly weather-inappropriate clothing, Esther thought, results in a somewhat too-warm greeting. In her other arm Shoshana held a large thermos. “I brought you some more chicken soup. I pureed some rice and put it in too. It will give you strength, mama-leh.”
        You’re old enough to be my mother. Why are you calling me mama?
        Shoshana shook her head. “You look thin. I’ve been on a diet for fifteen years and you’re losing weight.”
        A terrorist-in-training could probably arrange a similar diet regimen. “Thank you.”
        “Tomorrow I’ll bring you my special soup, made with calf’s liver, strained through a sieve. Full of iron and vitamins.”
        I can’t stand liver. Not my grandmother’s famous chopped-with-gribenes, not grilled with onions, and not, I’m sure, boiled and strained.
        “I always made it for my kids when they were sick.”
        My sympathy to all ten of them. She accepted the thermos with a smile, thankful for her hard-wired excuse to not answer. The chicken soup with rice she would sip with pleasure. Tomorrow’s liver soup will be enjoyed by the cats in the dumpster out back.
        Rather than taking the chair Esther offered, Shoshana went to the sink and re-washed all the dishes in the drainer, letting the hot water run until it steamed. “The last thing in the world you want is to get an infection.”
        Esther imagined her mouth burning with vicious bacteria bred in her unsterilized glasses. Great, another addition to the list of things to worry about, along with my jaw not healing straight, and my molars rotting because I can’t brush them.
        “I brought you something else,” Shoshana reached into the plastic shopping bag on wheels that she always dragged around and pulled out a scarf. “It’s very important you keep your neck and jaw warm.” She wrapped a crocheted blue-and-green-striped scarf around Esther’s throat and tucked the ends into her collar. “If the muscles get chilled they spasm, and if the muscles spasm your jaw won’t heal straight. Make sure you don’t drink anything cold.”
        Esther pulled the scarf looser. Even this cave-like apartment is a far cry from chilly in an Israeli August, and my doctor told me to drink milkshakes. “Thanks for everything, Shoshana. I think I need to rest a bit.”
        “Of course you do. Keep that scarf on, don’t pull it loose. I can tell by the way you’re holding your head that your neck muscles are cramping. I have a special pillow, stuffed with buckwheat hulls. I got it for my yoga class. It was very expensive, don’t even ask. I’ll bring it over tomorrow, b’li neder, with the liver soup.”
        Alone again, Esther threw the scarf over the back of a chair and collapsed on the sofa. She drank Shoshana’s chicken and pureed rice soup. It was delicious, and she felt guilty for not being more grateful and gracious to her neighbor. Being comforted was exhausting. Esther watched Julia Child’s hollandaise sauce thicken, fantasizing about dragging her teeth across buttery steamed artichoke leaves, when the doorbell rang. She opened the door with difficulty—it swelled and stuck in the summer—and saw Tifferet.
         “Hi! Oh you poor thing! Look at you, Hashem yishmor.”
        Even with the religious lingo, you still sound like the cheerleader you were in high school. They kissed one another on each cheek. Esther felt the metal press against her own lips. And I’m still a geek in braces. She and Tifferet wouldn’t have been friends, had they gone to school together. Esther had floated awkwardly around the social periphery, where she was known mainly for her biting critiques of those securely in its center, of whom she was simultaneously jealous and scornful. Here they were drawn together by their common roots in “the old country”.
        “Come in,” Esther said between her clenched teeth.
        “How did you do that?”
        “I fell.”
        “Wow, I thought you’d been attacked or something. You just fell down and broke your jaw? Where?”
        Esther snorted another sigh. Yes, well I guess a former cheerleader wouldn’t be so clumsy as to fall flat on her face.
        “I’m sorry,” Tifferet said, after a pause just past too long.
        Did I sneer? Esther worried her sarcasm leaked out even now that she wasn’t spewing it as freely as she once did.
         “You poor thing! It probably hurts you to talk. Don’t say a word.” She gaped for a moment at Esther’s jaw. “Wow! You’re, like, doing a word fast—ta’anit dibbur. That’s so high. Isn’t Hashem incredible? You’re doing a tikkun, repairing the realm of speech. You’re avoiding all the sins associated with talking. That is the deepest thing possible.”
        So I’m not only clumsy, but so prone to sins of the tongue that God had to protect me from them by smashing my jaw.
        “And you can’t eat either, so you’re doing another huge tikkun. We’ve been trying to fix up that one since Adam and Eve.”
        God broke my jaw to atone for original sin?
        Tifferet, swept up in her own insights, expounded on the blessed opportunity Esther had received when she hit the pavement. Well, I’ve also been taken by the local penchant for seeing everything that happens through the lens of mystical morality. And, Esther admitted to herself, there is something meditative about not talking. She let Tifferet run on, and made a pitcher of strawberry smoothies. The blender whirred pleasantly over Tifferet’s sermon.
        “Oh, you are such a holy tzadekis,” Tifferet said as she took a glass of pink slush from Esther. “Do I still get credit for the mitzvah of visiting the sick while you’re doing the mitzvah of honoring me as a guest?”
Esther shrugged and took a sip of her shake. That’s a truly weird idea. Her tongue sought small bits of unblended fruit. It tasted good, but she longed to bite into a whole strawberry.
        After Tifferet left Esther went back to the movie, wishing for hot buttered popcorn. She soon dozed off, but was jolted awake, her jaw aching and her neck stiff, when the doorbell rang again.
        She called out for whoever it was to come in. Another buzz. She dragged herself down the hall once again, annoyed, and flung open the door to see, of all people, Menachem, who owned the store with the broken steps.
        If we were in L.A, buddy, I’d be seeing you across a courtroom. She wondered idly how to say “courtroom” in Hebrew, and what would be the comparable term for “buddy”, with just that hint of condescension.
        Menachem held a cardboard box full of bottles of juice: carrot-apple, mint- lemonade, pomegranate. She was glad, suddenly, that her tongue was encaged. Effectively preventing me from having to bite it.
        “Oy, mama-leh, what a thing to happen.” He spoke Hebrew with a thick Tunisian accent. “It should be a capara.” An atonement, a minor tragedy endured to offset a major one.
        Why must everyone find meaning in my injury? “Thank you.”
        Menachem came in and set the box of juices on the counter. She motioned him into a chair, opened a bottle of pomegranate juice and poured them each a glassful. Menachem pulled a tiny orange knitted kipa out of his back pocket, slapped it over his bald spot and said a blessing over the juice.
        “Amen,” Esther said, as he shoved the kipa back in his pocket. “How did you find where I live?”
        “What?”
        She had to repeat the question twice. Her Hebrew, minimally comprehensible and heavily accented under the best of circumstances, suffered with her limited enunciation.
        “From my cousin. The woman who picked up your food.”
        She looked at him blankly.
        “Don’t you remember?”
        An image came to her, through the panic and pain that blurred the memory of her accident, of another customer, a short big-busted Tunisian grandmother in a paisley housecoat, freeing Esther’s hands from the twisted bag handles. She remembered, fuzzily, the woman asking for her address so she could deliver the spilled food to her. Esther couldn’t move her mouth to answer. I won’t be able to eat it anyway, she had thought. The woman had looked at her a moment and said, “No sense in letting it go to waste, then. I can take it?” Esther had nodded. She felt the bones in her jaw rattle, and passed out.
        “I hope she enjoyed it.” Esther regretted the tinge of bitterness she couldn’t keep out of her voice at the memory of the lost almonds and figs.
        “Oh, she didn’t eat it herself, of course not. She gave it to a family. The Rubens. They live here on your same alley. You must know them.”
        “I don’t think so.”
        “How can that be? Everyone knows them. The father died last year. Hit by a car, crossing the street. Terrible. Left two little boys, neither had his hair cut yet. I send them all my day-old bread.”
        “Oh.” Esther had lived on this short alley for over a year but knew few of the native Israelis, cut off as she was by the chronic speech impediment posed by her limited Hebrew, and by her scorn, tinged with jealousy, for those at the center of yet another society in whose fringes she was nonetheless entangled. She opened the cupboard where she’d been stockpiling for her celebration feast when she got her wires off. Spaghetti. Pickles. Halva. A kilo bag of pistachio nuts. She took it all out, replaced it with the jars of juice Menachem brought, and filled the box with her groceries.
         “The boys will like the pistachios,” Menachem said with a nod. “T’ezki l’mitzvot.” You should merit doing good deeds, the traditional substitute for thank you. He took the box, wished her a refu’ah shlema, and went out.
        Esther ran to her bedroom and watched through the deep-set arched window as Menachem handed the box to a young woman in a plain headscarf, a woman she’d seen dozens of times but scarcely noticed. A little boy’s hand shot up and grabbed a bar of halva. As Esther watched him tear open the wrapper and sink his teeth into the creamy, gritty sesame, she could taste the sweetness on her own tongue.

Allison Ofanansky made aliyah in 1996. Her first two children's books,Harvest of Light and Sukkot Treasure Hunt, were both listed as Notable Books by the Sydney Taylor award committee. A third book in the series, What's the Buzz: Honey for a Sweet New Year was just released . She has written articles for the Jerusalem Post, Cricket Magazine, and various environmental publications.


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