Kiss the Hand You Can’t Bite, a memoir by Rivka Biton
For my children, who someday will add their own chapters to this tale.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This insight of philosopher George Santayana was made famous by Winston Churchill, who slightly altered it in a 1948 speech in the House of Commons: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” No matter who coined it, the fact that history repeats itself unless we do something to change the forces at work, applies not only to the grand history of the world, it also manifests itself in our very own personal and petty lives.
And that is what Rivka Biton sets out to do in this remarkable book. Round and round she goes, trying desperately not to be like her parents, and finding, to her dismay, that she might be very much like them. Which forces are at work, she asks herself, that this should be so?
Making sense of our family’s history is not just about who did what when and where, and who married whom, and who had which children. Whatever our ancestors experienced, what they wished for and felt, what they were pained by and disappointed in—all that affects us simply because whatever shaped them, shaped us. Their experiences made them who they were, and they, our parents and grandparents, made us who we are. Whether we like it or not, whatever happened in the past affects us living in the present. The more we understand the past, the more we will understand ourselves, and the more likely we will be to shape a future that perhaps is not destined to go around in the same old circles.
Some of what affects us might reach way back, as it does in Rivka’s case, to the dusty mountain ranges of Morocco, where a great-grandfather was murdered by duplicitous and jealous employees. A trauma like that inevitably has a tremendous impact on the surviving family, setting in stone, so to speak, how they will go about their lives. A great-aunt’s ignored plea for spiritual help, resulting in her suicide, reverberates through the generations. Who down the line will pick up on it and heal that wound?
If this sounds mystical, it is. While this is not a mystical book, Rivka Biton nevertheless has a knack for taking her readers along on a ride that sooner or later will require them to suspend disbelief. It asks us to humor her unusual way of looking at the world and discovering its patterns. Thankfully, her entertaining prose facilitates that, and I wager to say that every reader will be rewarded with a new perspective on some angle of life that he or she never saw before.
Any book that gives the reader a new understanding of life is a great accomplishment and for sure worth our reading time.
–Annette Gendler, Chicago, December 2019
Author of the memoir Jumping Over Shadows and How to Write Compelling Stories from Family History
People thought it was some sort of curse, and it was hard to say they were wrong. Both my grandparents had lost a parent at a young age. My grandfather died aged 45, when he was murdered in Morocco by his Arab workers, who made his death look like a car accident. Around the same time, one of my grandfather’s brothers was fatally bitten by a poisonous snake that dropped on him from out of a tree, and another one died when the truck he was driving overturned and killed him.
There were other things, too, like the family’s inability to put down solid roots and live in the same house, the same place, the same country, even, for more than a few years’ time. And the way that so few of us could hold down a job, even though we were known for our brains and abilities.
And then, there were the relationships, or to be more precise, the lack of relationships, the lack of people. My parents had no friends, to speak of. We had no close family within 400 miles. I grew up in a family where no one spoke about the cousins, the aunts and uncles, the grandparents, the past. It was as though they didn’t exist.
Growing up in that strange house, I made a solemn promise to myself: I was going to do things different. I was going to do things better. I was going to fix things.
I was going to break the curse – before it broke me.
When I was little, I simply couldn’t understand why my parents had so many children. All the other families around us had two kids, and that seemed to be the way things were done in families that appeared to be what mine was not.
Settled. Financially-secure. Normal. Sociable. A seamless part of the surrounding (non-Jewish) society.
Why did my parents have five children? I used to ponder that all the time. I had other questions, too, like, why am I the only teenager I know that spends Saturday mornings trying to push my dad’s latest old banger up the road, waiting for the starter motor to ignite?
Everyone else was driving Fords or Volkswagens, that could start by themselves, without someone pushing it for half a mile. The older I got, the more questions I had about my family.
Why does my dad spend so much time alone in his room, listening to the tinny voice of Kol Israel on his tiny AM radio? Why don’t I have any cousins close by? Why is it my parents have no friends? Why does no-one ever come to our house?
Sometimes, I’d search through the photo albums looking for clues. I’d pore over the pictures of my parents’ wedding and wonder why it had been so small: Just six people, including them, at the local registry office in Leeds. My mother’s parents were there, my Grandpa wearing his permanent grin, and my Grandma with her permanent scowl, together with my mother’s sister and husband. There was no one from my dad’s side, and as a child, I never thought to ask why.
I didn’t see my dad so much the first six years, as he was working very hard at the bank. By the time I saw him more, I’d learned that talking about family was discouraged; even dangerous. It could set off a storm, a nuclear bomb, a tsunami. So I kept my mouth shut, and tried to keep my distance from the hurricane that was my father’s inner world.
When I was six, I was taken on a plane to Israel for a week, and I was amazed to discover that my dad had a mother, and many brothers and sisters, some of whom were still living in the slummy, two-bedroom apartment building in Ashdod. The kitchen was tiny, barely two square meters, with one cupboard and a few shelves to hold everything the cook might require. The bathroom was worse. The shower was a trickle of water that came out of a pipe crudely plastered into the ceiling.
One of my uncles, a massive, tall tanned Adonis of a man, pinched my cheeks so hard they hurt; the aunt with big hair and even bigger flares scared the pants off me, even though she made sure to permanently wear her widest smile, and my flame-haired grandmother – or my ‘Savta’, as I was told to call her – was the biggest enigma of all. She bought me bags of yucky tasting sour chocolate milk in the morning, and tried to feed me spicy food I didn’t like, but otherwise, she ignored me.
Where’s my grandpa? I wanted to know. But no-one wanted to tell me, and from the little I could understand, no-one wanted to talk about him.
It was hot in Israel, and I fainted on the cramped, crowded bus coming back from the Dead Sea. I didn’t like Israel much, that land of sour milk and boiling sun, and felt a strange relief when we returned to London. The only reminders of that brief meeting with my family were a few sand-hued pictures taken in Masada, and by the Dead Sea, and a pair of pretty black shoes with bows on that one of my aunts had bought for me. I tried to squeeze my feet into those shoes for months after I’d outgrown them, like the proverbial ugly sister.
We went back to Israel again two more times before I left home. The time when I was 10, I fainted on the bus, again on the way to the Dead Sea, and a kind man dripped orange Tango into my mouth to revive me. I’d refused to drink the tap water, and my dad had refused to buy me the super-expensive can of coke. The rest of the time, I was caged up in Savta’s grey concrete flat in Ashdod, a modern gulag amongst the yellow sand dunes and blue skies, or down on the beach, next to the port, spending hours jumping the waves with my brothers.
Back on the sand, my father gestured over to where the cranes overshadowed the port.
I worked there for three years, to help my family after my dad died, he said, in a bitter tone. I wanted us to get a flat in Jerusalem – the government would have given us a big apartment in Jerusalem, then! But my sisters said no. They wanted to stay in Ashdod, with their friends. So my mum told me: ‘We are staying here!!’
As my dad spoke, his face contorted into a snarl, and he stabbed his finger into the sand next to him.
Instead of going to school, I worked there, on the docks. They treated us like we were monkeys, in Israel. My poor mum, she had no husband. I had to leave.
He didn’t say any more, but I started to understand that life had not been easy for my father in Israel. I also started to get an inkling of why my dad didn’t like some of his siblings. And most of all, I started to understand that ‘strange’ as my own family was, Savta was even stranger. One time, the phone rang in the tiny flat when she was the only grown-up around. My parents had gone out, it was the middle of the day so everyone else was working, and it was just her, bustling in the kitchen, and us kids, watching Michael Jackson moondancing across the TV screen.
Savta came out of the kitchen, dried her hands, then just stood there, looking at the phone. It took me a full minute to realize Savta had no intention of picking it up. I stood up to try to catch the call before the other person rang off, but she wouldn’t let me answer it, either. With an agility I didn’t expect from a grandmother, she ran over to stand between me and the phone, and told me:
Non, dahling, non.
She spoke French, and I spoke English, so I couldn’t ask her why. Later on, I asked my mother and she told me evasively: Savta never answers the phone. She doesn’t like to talk on it.
Why not? I wanted to know. But the answer was hidden in the tempest, and I didn’t want to know that badly.
Since our first trip out four years ago, Savta had been burgled – twice – so the windows overlooking the street were now caged in strips of white metal, and Savta had begun the practice of not opening her door to strangers.
What happens if there’s a fire? I thought to myself.
In my family, we were always worrying about the worst-case scenario, and warning each other to be careful. When we made the two-mile trek down to the beach through the big central park, my father would scream at us:
Don’t walk under the trees! Snakes can drop out of them and kill you!
And he meant it. I never heard anyone else tell their kids that. And I also didn’t hear other parents warning their children in such graphic terms about getting run over, assaulted by strangers, poisoned with bleach, or falling off chairs and knocking themselves unconscious. The world was always a very dangerous place to my dad, and his family.
And then there was the food. Savta cooked Moroccan-style, which meant highly-spiced and full of vegetables. I was used to the British diet of neutral brown stodge, so I found the food to be an all-out assault on my taste buds. But I still would have eaten it, or tried to, except at the first meal in her house, I watched as Savta collected all the dishes in to scrape them off. Then she handed them back around to the family, without washing them.
A plate still sticky with the sauce from someone else’s fish landed in front of me, and I couldn’t bring myself to touch it, nor the new food Savta had ladled on to it. Savta kept telling me,
Eat, dahling, eat – but I couldn’t, and eventually she dropped it. After that, I policed the plates, cups and cutlery like an undercover Health and Safety Inspector. If it wasn’t spotlessly clean, I refused to touch the food, and just ate bread.
That week in Ashdod was stifling in so many ways, crammed into a tiny, hot dump of a flat like so many sardines, in a place full of sand and almost empty of trees and shops. It was so different from the UK.
Maybe, they don’t have a lot of trees here so that snakes can’t fall out of them, I thought to myself.