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102 Years -- Memories of a Jewish Mother-In-Law

07/11/2011 02:37 pm 14:37:29 | Updated Sep 10, 2011

Our family is saying farewell to Virginia, a gentle giant.

The lioness of the Saban clan and mother-in-law to me has died at the age of 102 in Israel.

What a life this woman had -- what extraordinary global events she witnessed in the past century. Virginia was just a toddler when the world experienced the first Chinese Revolution and World War I. Sliced bread hadn't yet been introduced into common culture, but Henry Ford had sold 10,000 of his automobiles in the United States.

As with each of us, World History is part of the context of our lives -- woven intricately into our life journeys. What we cling to, of course, are our personal memories of how history impacts us. As individuals, families, and even as cultures, our memories are the moments we collect and cherish. In times of sadness, they sustain us. And when we pass them down from generation to generation, a legacy becomes timeless.

As Virginia's daughter-in-law of nearly 25 years, I now have a treasure trove of memories from a woman who was 42 years my senior, with whom I didn't share a common language, culture, or religion. I did, however, share her son, and that gained me entrance to a world that was wonderful and strange to me at the same time. Hers is a heritage that was deeply connected to an ancient tradition. Much of what she taught me about life had to do with food, laughter, weekly family gatherings, an abundance of friends, and various spicy combinations of the above. What has impacted me the most about Jenny are the admirable characteristics she demonstrated with grace throughout her long life: enduring personal strength, patience, humor, wit, and unconditional love.

Jenny was a woman who always saw the good in people, who inevitably took the positive side, never complained, and very important, she never passed on dessert. Her version of the Mediterranean Diet, I suppose. Based on her longevity and general good health over more than 100 years, I'd say her diet worked. I'll have whatever she had.

Jenny, or Ima -- which means mother, as I was honored to eventually call her, was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1909, the second oldest of six siblings. I don't know much about her father, but her mother had been born in Jerusalem, and spoke only Ladino and Arabic. Ladino is a hybrid tongue developed by the Jews who fled Spain during the inquisition in the Middle Ages. The Spanish influence showed up in Jenny in the Ladino parables she told, and in many foods she prepared, such as Pasta al Forno and Fidellos. Food, I would discover, was a big part of any gathering, and the flavors and spices are unusual and exotic -- like the Middle East. Another favorite was Molokhia, a traditional Sephardic Egyptian soup, which Jenny served with rice and Cheese Bourekas. And no meal would be complete without humus, pita, and Baba Ganoush. These items were served with Israeli salad, a simple but delicious combination of freshly chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, cilantro, a little onion, a squeeze of lemon juice, olive oil, and a dash of salt. Add some Malabi and Halvah for dessert, and life was good. These tasty dishes regularly found their way to Jenny's table, later served by my sister-in-law, Varda, and are now, gratefully, part of our family cookbook. Lucky us.

Jenny fell in love with Nissim Saban when she was 19. But when they met, he still had an unmarried sister, and the custom and culture of the day prevented them from marrying until he saw his sister married off first. He had promised his mother that he would postpone his own marriage until he landed a husband for his sister. It was his duty, and he took it seriously.

Unfortunately, family folklore and the few remaining family photographs suggest that neither beauty, nor a sunny disposition were among Nissim's sister's positive traits. Consequently, he had to search long and hard to find a man to marry his grumpy sister, and Virginia had to wait 15 years to marry Nissim. Theirs was a true love story.

In those days, Alexandria was a bustling, metropolitan city, welcoming tourists from all over Europe. English, French, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, Christians, secular and religious -- people managed to co-exist somehow. Virginia was a seamstress, and worked in a shop that sold fine dresses to a wealthy clientele. Nissim Saban worked as a salesman in a shop selling toys. Though he went to school in Turkey before he left at 18 years of age, he was mostly self-educated, and spoke and wrote seven languages fluently.

The woman who would one day become my mother-in-law spoke several languages, though not, unfortunately for me, English. Growing up in Alexandria as part of the Jewish community, her native tongue was French. The Jewish community in Egypt all spoke French and Arabic, with other languages mixed in depending upon extended family. Jewish boys studied the Torah, and the Koran. Virginia also spoke Italian, Spanish, a little Greek, and of course, Ladino.

When Virginia and Nissim were finally able to say their marriage vows, she was 34 years old. They immediately wanted to start a family of their own, and within a few years, had two sons. Their first-born, named after Nissim's father Haim, is my husband. Their second son, named Leo and later nicknamed Arieh, is my brother-in-law. Virginia's blind mom also lived with them, as did the occasional out-of-work friend or relative. Lack of space was never an issue. Kindness and generosity seems to be ingrained in the middle-eastern culture, and part of everyday life in the Saban family.

By all accounts, their life in Alexandria had been pleasant. They didn't have much -- they lived in a flat on the third floor, in a modest building, in a Jewish neighborhood. But they didn't count their blessings in monetary terms. Their wealth was defined in other ways -- they had friends, and they had their family, which was the biggest blessing. They took walks along the seashore on weekends, and gathered with friends for tea and coffee. The men played Shesh Besh, and the women talked, laughed, and cooked.

When Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956, life for the Saban family changed swiftly. That fateful decision precipitated the war that began in 1956 between France, the United Kingdom, and Israel, against Egypt, which made it difficult for the Jewish population to remain in Egypt without reprisals. This was especially true for known Zionists like Nissim Saban. Within a year, he was warned to flee the country.

With no more than one suitcase apiece and the equivalent of $50.00, Virginia and Nissim locked their flat -- a futile gesture, really, but there was nothing else they could do -- and thus, they left behind all their belongings to be claimed later by thieves.

The Middle East is full of contradictions and conflicts. Considering the war and the concurrent high level of tension of that time, it's clear that many Arab neighbors heckled and threatened the Jews in Alexandria, particularly the Zionists like Nissim and his family, and it was frightening for them. But the Sabans also had some Arab friends; Alexandria had been their home. The old Arab fellow who worked in their building, for example, was among those who warned them of ensuing danger and told them to flee. Suffice it to say, the Middle East is complex.

It's bad enough to have to leave all your possessions behind -- to literally be forced to abandon a life. And perhaps it seems trivial to mention this next part -- but in the fabric of life, all threads are necessary to weave the cloth. And so, just prior to the family's Exodus from Egypt, Jenny had purchased new items for their flat, and had made preparations for a special party in honor of 13-year-old Haim's Bar Mitzvah. It was to have been a happy occasion to mark a special time in his life -- the transition to manhood. Now, sadly, this was a party he would never experience. Oh, he would become a man, to be sure -- a strong and powerful man, at that, but it would happen without this ritual. Instead, Virginia and Nissim Saban gathered their two sons, and without passports, or identity papers, and with no right to return to the country where Jenny and her sons were born, they would leave Egypt forever.

The family had distant cousins in Israel, and Virginia's mother had been born in Jerusalem, so there were ties to the land of Israel that went back generations. However, those facts didn't help to unwind the red tape that was tangled around them now, complicating their entrance to the Promised Land. They sought refuge first in Greece, where for a month the family waited for the necessary paperwork to be arranged. Though many families fled to France, Italy, and other destinations, Nissim had only one country in mind. Their final destination -- their adopted home was to be Israel. And finally, in 1957, the Saban family set foot in Tel Aviv, and became Israeli citizens.

When I described Virginia Saban as a gentle giant and a Lioness -- I meant it. She earned those titles through sheer grit, and the will to survive amidst forbidding obstacles.

After finally arriving in Israel after a grueling month-long wait, life was about to get extremely difficult. None of the four Sabans spoke Hebrew, and since Hebrew is the national language of Israel, that issue became a significant barrier. Another daunting problem was lodging. Though the Sabans eventually connected with their cousins, private living space was impossible to find. At that time, thousands of Jews were fleeing Egypt and other countries, and Israel was struggling to find room to accommodate the influx of refugees.

The Sabans ended up sharing a one room flat with their cousins, in a ramshackle building where the lights were on timing devices, and the only bathroom was at the end of the hall, used by all the other tenants, including a prostitute. They were grateful to have a roof over their heads. But there was little food. Virginia tried to take in sewing projects that she could do by hand, and Nissim attempted to sell pencils door to door. But for all of the Sabans, the language barrier precluded them, at first, from doing much of anything. Haim was the eldest son, so Jenny and Nissim sent him to a farming Kibbutz -- it was the best way to be sure he would get regular meals, and at the same time, learn Hebrew.

The one time Jenny shared her sadness with me, was when she lamented about her inability to bake a cake for Haim's Bar Mitzvah. This is when she told me about preparing the flat in Alexandria, and having to leave it all behind. It was a rare glimpse into a collection of memories she kept well hidden, because she never spoke of difficult times with tears. But on this particular occasion, tears filled her eyes when she described arriving in Israel without cake pans or utensils -- she couldn't bring them with her from Egypt, and she couldn't find anyone from whom to borrow them, either. Of all the many difficult trials she went through, this was the only really unhappy thing she ever shared with me; it had affected her profoundly. Clearly she had so dearly wanted to celebrate this special Jewish transition-to-manhood with her son. Such rituals connected her to her culture, to her parents, to her heritage. Virginia Saban rarely allowed herself to be blue -- but this was one moment that she did, and I appreciated the magnitude of it.

Just to let you know, Jenny eventually danced at all of her grandson's Bar Mitzvahs and at her granddaughter's Bat Mitzvah as well, and she was 95 years old when she danced at that one. She had spunk even then.

In time, Jenny and Nissim learned to speak Hebrew, but life was hard, and it would be many years before a sense of equilibrium was regained. As much as he loved the land, life for Nissim was never the same in Israel -- finding work was difficult, and his health began to deteriorate. Fortunately, Haim and Arieh were resilient. They worked and became successful. They took care of their parents -- eventually moving them into a nice apartment, and saw to it that the traditions they held dear weren't lost. Jenny and Nissim cared about family and their culture -- their Judaism and their traditions were as much a part of them as their smiles. Both sons feel the same.

Virginia's dear Nissim died in 1977. She carried on alone; her quiet strength, love of family, and unbridled gift of laughter continued, undaunted. Her sons grew up, fiercely protective of her and the family values she and Nissim had instilled in them. Arieh married and stayed in Israel. Haim moved to Paris, and eventually to Los Angeles.

Skip to 1986 when I entered the picture. At that time, I was a 36-year-old divorcee with two young daughters. I was a woman who didn't speak Virginia's language, didn't share her religion, and didn't understand her culture, but I wanted to marry her first-born son -- the son named after her husband's father. Tricky situation.

Jenny could have snubbed me completely. Yet, that wasn't her style. What she did instead was welcome me, my daughters, and my parents, with open arms. She and my parents, who would never share a conversation in the same tongue, became very good at body language, handholding, smiling, and hugging. She spoke my name in a twinkling French, calling me "Cherie-Chereel." Jenny's double pronunciation of my name charmed me. I became fond of Ima very quickly, and indebted to her always.

I learned French so that I could communicate with her and understand the conversations that swirled around me. If I hadn't taken this initiative, I would have missed out on all the fun, and despite the hardships that befell them, this family knew how to have fun. Laughter was rarely missing from Saban gatherings. It's probably one of the things that kept Jenny healthy and alive for so long.

I never got to meet Nissim Saban, I've only heard the stories about him. But his two sons revered him, and his wife adored him. And now, Nissim's dear Virginia has died in 2011. Their lives have gone full circle.

Burials in Israel are different from those I've attended here in the United States. To put it gently, I'd say they are organic. There are no layers of separation. Perhaps it's the simplicity -- there is no coffin, there are no frills. One feels viscerally connected to the mourning process -- the fact of death is inescapably real.

When we buried Virginia, there was a throng of people who showed up to take that last 15-minute walk to the burial ground with us. Support for the two brothers, and the respect for the dead is profound. I've never witnessed anything like it. The Rabbi chanted ritual prayers the entire way. We all shuffled along in silence, occasionally uttering "Amen." In the end, Virginia Saban entered her grave beside the love of her lifetime.

Ima, you waited 15 years to marry Nissim. Now, he has waited 34 years for you.