I’m standing in front of an entire aisle of bouillon cubes. Dark green boxes covered with the drawing of a lady in a Fifties’ bob and puffy sleeves rolled up over her apron. The ingredients listed on the small, rectangular boxes are all in Hebrew.
My two-year-old daughter is teething. I’m not sleeping. My husband (a foodie and an Italian) insists that pasta in warm broth (preferably both homemade) will soothe our daughter’s gums.
I grew up on Spaghettios in New York. My husband grew up on homemade gnocchi in Rome. When you marry an Italian, you’re not allowed to serve pasta in a can, not even to your kids. Today, all I want is a personal chef and a UN interpreter.
I hear English spoken near neighboring noodle boxes. An elderly woman who smells like talcum powder and hairspray with thick Jackie-O tortoise shell glasses perched on the end of her beak of a nose is hunched over a pack of Ramen.
“Um, excuse me, sliha,” I say, spitting out one of the five words I know in Hebrew. I inch towards her, securing the brake of my two-year-old’s stroller. “Do you speak English?”
“Do I speak English?!” she answers, leaning into my face, so close that I can smell her garlicky breath. “Where do ya’ think we are, Bejing? It’s Shabbat, honey, and the store’s closing soon. Whaddya want?”
My daughter burps. Pleased with herself, she shrieks.
“Atta girl,” the Grannie says. “Just listen to her complaining. She’s starving.”
“Bevakashaw, sliha,” I say, “I can’t read Hebrew. Last night, I made chicken cutlets coated in couscous. Couldn’t read the box.”
“Well, that was stupid of you,” says Grannie. “You could have asked someone.”
I pause and inhale.
“Can you tell me, please, if these bouillon cubes turn into chicken, vegetable or beef broth?” I ask, thrusting a green box at the Star of David hanging around her neck.
“Who ya’ givin’ that to?” she asks, her marble-green eyes glaring over her glasses at my toddler. “Her?”
I nod, avoiding eye contact, biting my lip.
“What are you trying to do, KILL HER?” she says. “YOU need help. And not just with your Hebrew. Follow. Me.”
She yanks my sleeve, and we speed past aisles of hummus, kosher meats, encrypted cereal that looks like Frosted Flakes or Cheerios. I’ve been living in Israel for the past year and I’m still not used to the security guards in front of supermarkets, movie theaters and opera houses who rummage through my purse and ask me if I’m armed.
We slide into first base: the butcher. He glances at Grannie, wipes his bloody hands on his soiled apron as if this isn’t the first time he’s seen her today. He pushes up his sleeves and his forearm reveals a tatoo of a heart with “Ima” etched in blue.
“Shlomi!!” she snaps her fingers and tightens her grip on my jean jacket. “Get this girl a chicken!”
She shakes her head back and forth, and looks heavenward.
“You should have married an Israeli,” she sighs. “Come.”
We start heading to second base: the produce section. My daughter gurgles between shrill shrieks as she senses we’re in for a ride. We sail past the Challah bread and the warm Purim donuts that justify my new pants with an elastic waistband.
“Moishe!!” she screams at the man stacking potatoes, and he cowers as she amplifies her outdoor voice indoors. “Get this Ima, a carrot, a stalk of celery and an onion!”
Moishe throws me all three ingredients and we both blush. Grannie beckons me with a curling index finger, her wedding band hanging loosely on her ring finger. I lean in for my next clue.
“Mami, listen to me,” she whispers, looking over each of her shoulders as if the Mossad might be recording us. “Boil that chicken in water with an onion, a carrot and a stalk of celery for about an hour, and serve THAT homemade broth with pasta in it to your little tinok. Nothin’ good comes outta’ a box, ya’ hear me? Watch how you’ll both get some sleep.”
She picks some lint off my jacket, smoothes down my sleeves, and cups my cheek with her pillowy palm.
“There,” she exhales. “My mitzvah is done for the day. But, one more thing: remember, you need more kids. So don’t forget to do your mitzvah today for your husband. Shabbat Shalom, sweetheart.”