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To the Son of a Whore

Mati Shemoelof (2020)

How do I write about Mr. Job M. who tells me that when he was six he found out his mother was working in prostitution? Should I write it from a Mizrahi to Mizrahi point of view? A message from one Arab-Jew, me, to another Arab-Jew, Job? But what is the connection between me, as a descendant from a Baghdadi Jewish family, and his Tunisian North African Jewish roots? I could start with Friday night, the first of February in 2013. I enter the Japanese restaurant on Karl Marx Straße 66 with the tiny corridor and pictures portraying “Fine Wind, Clear Morning” by the famous artist Hokusai, awful green and white fantasies of a world of order hanging on dimly lit German cellar walls. I could continue with how I sat at his table, how Ofra and Benny M. joined in, fueling Job—maybe because Job was himself fueling the others with his extra drinks and sharp tongue locating our faults and taking advantage of them. Then again, we also knew one of Job’s weak points—well, he hates politics of identity, so we talked about it more and more until he erupted like a volcano. Better I start with how Job ultimately blurted out the fact that left me with my jaw dropped and smashed, sitting on the toilet, waiting for a cleaning man who will never come?

Maybe I should tell the story from a subjective point of view of Job as the restaurant’s assistant manager. Job, a bald man with small gray eyes and a French beard hiding a baby face. I should use the story as a frame to express how I view Job’s mother. A Jerba City, Jewish-Tunisian immigrant to the new Israel of the fifties who tried to survive in the Northern periphery of a country with Ashkenazi hegemony, meaning Jews from European descent that left her an outcast and helpless, doing anything to feed her child. But when Job found out what she did while not at home he was filled with shame: ashamed of his mother, of himself, the city, the country, life, society. And even decades later, a concentration of pure rage releases whenever he drinks, and then rides his bicycle in the snow and ice, drunkenly falling hard on his face.

I don’t know. You should be aware, I usually know the point of view of a story I’m going to write. But this particular story has defeated me. First of all, I’ve already written a short story about a mother working in the porn industry and her attempt to get her son back after he ran away when he found out about it. Then suddenly, bam! You meet that story’s hero in real life. And it’s not an LSD hallucination, and it doesn’t happen because you’re in a dream. The made-up worlds you write about appear before you and simultaneously destroy you.

That Friday night, after our friend, Job, told us that when he was six he found out his mother was a prostitute, everyone, Ofra, Benny M. and I, kept talking as if nothing had happened. No one asked questions. And certainly no one hugged him or pitied him. They just went on arguing about race issues, Ashkenazi bias, Mizrahi cultural assimilation, and other petty issues compared to the A-bomb that dropped in the restaurant’s back room. I’m not kidding. But when a guy sits there and tells you that kind of story, you can’t rationalize it by claiming racism in Israel. Dammit, the guy, Job, burned all the walls we put between our secrets and ourselves. He remains exposed. I want to talk to him. I want to say, I’m sorry, but realize, this would make him feel even worse. I want to say, it’s not so bad. But it is really bad. Job repeats the scolding line: “I know my mother was a prostitute.” And I don’t know what to do with the anger, the rage, the hate, the frustration that I imagine growing within him through the years.

Now, believe it or not, that day we were celebrating the birth of Job’s fourth child. The Saki flowed between us like water. Ofra, Benny M. and I drank and smoked so much we didn’t notice Pandora’s box opening. What immense power alcohol has! It can melt any steel door, metal and hard cement, and resurrect deeply suppressed memories. On one hand a new child is born into the world and the father takes care of him. On the other, memory suddenly grows like frazzled hair, pointing in all directions after a night filled with nightmares—with only saliva stains to cover the devious paths language and speech sleep-walked through them. Will Job tell his son? Or will the son find out about it while maybe Job argues with his wife? How will things come out? Wait. I’ll choose for you. Let’s say the kid finds out. Will Job be filled with the same frustration and throw Saki glasses on the wooden floor without looking back to see if he hit the waiter walking by? Will the madness pass on from generation to generation? Can such a temper be treated?

Saturday. The second of February. A day passed, one of the coldest in months, between this paragraph and the previous one. Maybe somebody in the sky above pitied us and gave the boiling memories a chance to freeze. Richard Pryor, the great black comedian from a similar background, even joked about his mother being a whore. In a rare stand-up performance from the early 70s you can see him quickly turn from laughter to rage. There is no other way to deal with it. But I want to tell you that it’s not a coincidence that Pryor came up in the middle of conversation. The true story is that Benny M. joined our party that night after finishing a kitchen shift that ended around 8:00 PM. The rather short Israeli Jew, still with his napkin on from cleaning the dishes, has green shiny eyes but a face that never looks you in the eye; he came from an ultra-religious-Jewish- Lithuanian background and lost his faith. In Israel, Benny M. was one of the most radical activists in the occupied territories. He attended protests in the Palestinian village Bil’in in the West Bank, all the while standing and shouting with the Palestinians against Soldiers, Settlers and their continual dispossession. So, Benny M. finished his six-Euro-an-hour shift and joined our celebration of Job’s newborn with his Japanese wife. We sat together on the first table on the left in the smoking room—Benny M., Ofra, Job and me, and sometimes the waiters joined whose names I can’t remember. Benny M. mentioned Pryor. But our conversation quickly turned into a shouting match. Job, the assistant restaurant manager, tried to fend off allegations that he’s an erased Mizrahi by berating his worker. Because Job told Benny M. he’s inept and won’t get anywhere, and we all ignored the signs of an erupting volcano. I tried to stop them, but was too drunk. I kept going back and forth to the restroom, trying to throw up, to take a piss or wash my face. Only when the lava hit my feet did I wake up. One time I got back, and Job disclosed his secret that his mom worked as a whore. And they just went on. They did not understand how their political talk triggered Job to the harder and increasingly merciless curses of Benny M. I think this is why I left. I ran as far from there as I could, as far as possible—from my own helplessness.

I’m trying to write, while the icicles at the window immerse the gray light of the afternoon. In Germany, far away from Israel, the trauma can no longer be repressed. It’s no coincidence that prostitution comes up in connection with the Mizrahi subject because the whores, before the newer Russian Jews’ immigration to Israel, originally came from North African descent. And the Mizrahi story is intertwined with that of prostitution. We were the Ashkenazi’s prostitutes, and their sons of whores. I’m not just telling a story here. The opposite is true. This story is telling me, us, you. You are Job— the assistant restaurant manager, you are his kid, and you are the Japanese mother—a Mizrahi in Europe, as Mizrahi in Hebrew simply means ‘Eastern’. You are the shitty words trying to spew a thought so close yet so far away within me.

On Sunday, the third of February, I wake up, the tale so fresh in my mind. It’s much more than a memory; it’s a new story on the horizon of my keyboard. I called Ofra, the brown-eyed artist, who was with me at the restaurant to find out what had happened after I went off, and the answer—things got worse. And then Benny M. called me. He asked why I didn’t stand by his side and defend him against Job’s humiliations. Job was apparently saying that he will never reach nothing in life, he even said that he has a “dumb face” and without his, Job’s mercy, he wouldn’t even get a job to survive in Berlin. Benny M. was right. Because when I first moved here I kept courting Benny M. for connections in Berlin. And even though he turned me down, now I was in a position of strength. Job, his boss, trusts me mainly due to Mizrahi solidarity. And in this trusted position, I found myself trampling Benny M. with my silence. I apologized and told him he mustn’t let drunk people be his mirror. But he was severely depressed and god knows where he ended up that day, which was also his birthday.

I look for the icicles behind the window, but memories of last night flash into my imagination. It’s quiet now in the Japanese restaurant, despite the authentic music in the background, despite the arguments and the usual weekend shenanigans. I look at Job. He looks defeated, a man whose shoes I wouldn’t want to be in. What of me is inside him? What of him is inside me? What do our kids share in the sandbox? Why am I fixed only on him? Did we have a chance to survive this night? Job is married, he has half-Japanese children and a job, whereas I am still without wife or kids and with a job that could end tomorrow.

The glasses continue to get thrown back. I look deep into Job’s tiny gray and drunk eyes. Why is rage growing inside me? Why am I holding on to his story so much when I didn’t grow up in the same area Job grew up in, and my mother stayed at home with me? Maybe it’s because my mother didn’t work despite her great talents. Maybe it’s because the Ashkenazi Zionist establishment didn’t give her the right tools to do so. Maybe it’s because I was too late to recognize the system that turned us into servants and prostitutes of the Jewish society.

Ofra, with her brownish eyes, holds my knee this time when I imagine a return to Job’s Japanese restaurant. But this time this scene will be a silent movie. It will be as if we’re on the same LSD trip, thrown on memory’s hard sidewalk, ignoring the people walking by looking at us like we’re crazy. I’m soothed by her sensual touch. Ofra gives me comfort, and I notice something that was always in front of me but I couldn’t name. There’s no father in my friend Job’s story. His early awakening is my late awakening. I took much longer than he to realize I won’t be able to fix the character of my parents who divorced so many times. Both they and I stopped believing the fairytale about relationships and love. But that’s a lie too. Dammit! I’m forty-one-years old, not a child. I can’t keep blaming others. The responsibility is all mine. So here you go: I’m the one throwing back the glasses and hitting people in the Japanese restaurant . . . the broken glass, the bleeding feet, the ambulances, the hospital, where you can smell death—it was all on me.

From here to the end, ideas and logic are not coming together. What do these concluding paragraphs want to say, to achieve? I don’t know. I’m here, the writer, in the uncharted land of words, with the possibility of leaving Job’s celebration of his newborn child behind. But I stick to the misery of Job’s newborn or maybe my own. I stick to the adult in Job as well as me, who surrenders to his rage. I also should stick to my craving for a kid. What is the story we will tell our kids? I have to find a special place for Job’s Arab-Jewish and Japanese child, for himself and his mother, and also for me and my story. There is some kind of hope. Our whole life they teach us that being a son of a whore is a curse. But it’s not. I mean, it is a curse for the violence or the humiliation that prostitute women experience. But the words ‘son of a whore’ talk about loss and repression. They talk about people with desperate parents. God gave us love and we turned it into sex.

Carlos, our German teacher who originally came to Berlin from Bochum with his Spanish mother, explains to us how to say ‘Golden Wedding Anniversary’ in the new German language. But I joke with the other immigrants—there’s no golden wedding anniversary these days. So what good is hope? To think that here in Berlin, of all places, despite our cultural differences, we will overcome our ethnic identity. How can I forget my disgraces, have a relationship until golden age, and write a story that will turn our Arab-Jewish rage about the loss of our humanity into a new pride, no matter if we are in Israel or Germany.

Job, the assistant manager, never got over his ordeal. He woke up with a hangover but helped his wife in childbed. But later, he lost his restaurant for drinking too much. Benny M. left his job as a dishwasher and married an Italian immigrant and thus got his passport in the EU. Ofra went back to Israel and made an amazing film about her grandmother who immigrated to Israel from Beirut. And only I remained a bachelor unable to break the curse. It’s not that I didn’t have love or relationships, sometimes both. But the fear of losing my control again, of throwing bottles or drunkenly falling hard on ice as soon as memories come up, was too great. Only the words were delighted by the excellent material I kept providing for documentation. They won literary awards, progressed and graduated from unfinished drafts to published works.

The Japanese restaurant is noisy again. I never really leave the conversation, I throw up on the table, everyone laughs at me, problem solved. Ofra takes me to the restroom. I go back to the table without Ofra. She goes home. Job, the assistant manager, yells at his waiters. Benny M., the activist, leaves. We are left by ourselves, Job and I. And I apologize and tell him that I’m going to write a short story about what happened, and he says: there’s no story here.

 

Translated from the Hebrew by Maya Klein and Chaim Rubenstein

 

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