Mr. Ibrahim, my neighbor to the right, is a real gentleman. Born in Istanbul of an Ashkenazic family, he is a lean, distinguished gentleman perhaps in his early 80s. He went to French schools during Istanbul’s golden age and speaks Ladino (fifteenth century Judeo-Spanish), native-level Turkish, perfect English, beautiful French, and not one word — not one — of Hebrew. They moved him next to me so I could translate for him. He never loses his cool or dignity. He tells me his life story. His father had a good, American appliance franchise which he inherited. He loves Turkey — but with no illusions about its current rulers — and he has many Turkish friends. But one day he realized his family had no future there, so they came to the land of Israel.
His two happily married, beautiful daughters obviously dote on him. He had fallen in his garden, but his doctor releases him after a few days. We find we know people and events in common, since I wrote a book about Istanbul. One night I read him to sleep with passages about the labor battalions where Turkish Jews, Armenians, and Greeks were looted and forcibly sent during World War II into virtual concentration camps, first-person accounts his own father had never told him. I also tell him about the secret Jewish museum in Istanbul, built since he left, created by a community so insecure — while boasting of how well it is treated and how loyal it is — it dare not even publicize the location even though it boasts of how integrated and well-treated the community has been. Soon he is released.
My other neighbor is Mr. Meir, another fine gentlemen — these men only a decade older than me have such wonderful manners. How much we have lost! He was born in Casabalanca and he speaks Arabic, French, and Hebrew with equal facility. He offers me a cup of tea which I find touching, but I fear the hot drink. He, too, is surrounded by his loving family. He tells me a story that makes me sob a moment. I ask when he arrived in Israel. As a refugee, he responds, in the week of his Bar Mitzvah. And the first thing he did was to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah here. My son will soon celebrate his Bar Mitzvah this week, and I fear I will not be there. Yet I find something comforting in the coincidental symbolism.
He too is released.
Then comes the ordeal. A very elderly man is brought into my left side. He is tall and spare, wearing a narrow black silk skullcap, looking every inch like a Biblical portrait of Abraham, so straight and stiff as to resemble a human log. All night long he moans, piteously, he recounts the story of his life, a few words at a time, his daughters and perhaps sons-in-law or sons gather around, they respond back, praising him for an incident, expressing their love, begging his pardon.