So Far, So Good
Ziva Kunda

3. Middle Childhood: Kids Rule

I was five and a half years old when we returned to Israel in February 1961. The South African school year starts in January, so I had already attended grade one in Oudtshoorn for just over a month. But the Israeli school year doesn't start till September, and so, much to my humiliation, I was demoted to kindergarten. This was especially insulting to me, because I had already shown my Oudtshoorn teachers that I could read at Grade 6 level, and was given special, advanced work. But kindergarten was probably a good idea--I didn't know a word of Hebrew, and that was a good place to learn. The learning began immediately. On my first day, the kids built a house out of giant wooden bricks. One little boy, Azi, crawled inside, and the children added some bricks to seal him in. They then began dancing around the structure singing "Azi met, Azi met" which means "Azi is dead." When I came home that day, I started dancing around our apartment singing "Abba met, Imma met," not exactly what my parents had hoped I would pick up… Still, by the time I started school the following fall, I was completely fluent in Hebrew. This was accomplished without any formal instruction, just from playing with the other kids. I did have a ridiculous South African accent in Hebrew, though, and still do. My Rs are the most affected--I just can't make them throaty enough.

Because of my accent, strangers would often assume that my Hebrew was minimal, and some would switch to English as soon as I opened my mouth. But in fact, all of my formal education until I entered graduate school was conducted in Hebrew, and I took great pride in my mastery of the language. In Hebrew, I could write in any voice I chose to--biblical prophets, rebellious teenagers, fruit-market vendors, and so on. And I have not made a spelling mistake since grade two. I was never able to achieve comparable mastery in English. I couldn't do a Shakespearean voice or one from down South, for example, and I my spell-checking program is in constant use. Still, I can get my ideas across.

When we returned to Israel, we moved back into the apartment that my parents had bought before we left, when my dad was still in the army. The apartment was part of a complex built for military personnel, and the whole development was, and still is, named Permanent Forces Complex. But it had no military character; like my dad, many of the fathers were no longer in the army. The complex was made up of seven identical buildings lined up in a row. They were so identical that once, coming back from school, I entered to the building next to ours by mistake, and walked right into the apartment that was where ours should be, producing a moment of complete disorientation. Each building was long and rectangular and had three entrances, one in the narrow front, one in the back, and one in the middle of the long side, and each of these entrances led to four floors of apartments. There were two apartments on each floor, a large two-bedroom apartment and a smaller one-bedroom one. We had a big one, so my parents lived in one bedroom and Gideon and I shared the other. When our younger brother, Eytan, arrived about a year later, he too, joined us in that room. In most families living in the smaller apartment, the children slept in the bedroom and the parents slept on a sofa bed in the living room, opening it every night and folding it back up every morning. We lived in the second building, in a second-floor apartment off the front entrance. Our address was 107 Peace Way. Peace Way was a dirt road at that time, but my mother predicted that it would one day become a busy thoroughfare, and that is what it is today.

Between every two buildings in our complex lay a large yard, with a scrubby, patchy lawn and a few randomly placed tress. This was our kingdom. There was no TV in Israel at the time, and of course no video games or computers. There were also no organized sports teams, and no play dates arranged by parents. We children played with together without any adult supervision or interference. We would tell our mothers, “I’m going downstairs,” and off we would go to join the action in the yard. Usually there were a bunch of neighborhood kids at play, but if there weren't any we would go looking for our friends at their apartments. Around dusk, the mothers would stand on their balconies and call their kids home for dinner, and the kids gradually dispersed to their homes.

We played a lot of pick-up soccer, but most of our games required no store-bought equipment. One favorite game was doodess. One kid would place a large stick on the edge of a pavement so that half of it extended into space, and would then place a smaller stick on the half that hugged the pavement. Using another large, bat-like stick, the kid would then slam the extended half, shooting the little stick up into the air, and try to hit it as far as possible with the bat. If the kid managed to hit the flying stick, all the other players would scatter around while another kid had to collect the little stick before trying to catch them. Gideon told me today that I could never perform this stick-hitting feat, but that’s not how I remember things.
We also liked to play with apricot pits, which we collected and called gogos. We played on sewer covers, which were round cement discs that had a smaller round cavity in the middle crossed on top by a metal rod, the sewer cover's handle. You would toss two gogos at the same time into the cavity, trying to get one to stay inside and the other to bounce out. If you failed, you had to leave both gogos in the cavity and the next kid tried. The kid who finally succeeded would get to keep all of the gogos that had accumulated in the cavity. We would play this for hours. You might wonder why anyone would want to collect apricot pits. One year, I wondered too. The apricot season was almost over and I was getting tired of gogos. So I stood on our balcony with a bag full, shouting “Free gogos! Free gogos!” I threw down a few at a time, enjoying the sight of the eager kids below scrambling to catch each falling gogo.

Our building had a sheltered inside porch at ground level, and that’s where we played on rainy days. With the girls, I played games that involved hopping on one foot and kicking a stone around squares that we had chalked on the floor. With the boys I played different games, such as kicking bottle caps from one side of the porch with the aim of getting them as close as possible to the wall on the other side. I still enjoyed being one of the guys, and tried to do everything that they did. One especially hot and steamy summer afternoon, the boys all took their shirts off. I was about eight, flat-chested and naïve, and happily took my shorts off as well. But the boys started laughing and pointing at me, and I hid, embarrassed, behind a tree to put my shirt on again. I discovered that I wasn't really one of the boys after all.

We weren’t supposed to make any noise between two and four—that was siesta time—and if we did, there was a nasty woman in building three that would yell at us from her window. But at other times of the day, we thought we weren’t monitored by any adults, and for the most part that was true. But I was once in for a rude surprise. There was one little girl, Rochale, that I didn’t like, and one afternoon, in the course of a game, I gave her a hearty shove that knocked her to the ground. Before I knew what was happening, her outraged mother, who happened to be watching the scene from her fourth-floor window, swooped on me from behind, grabbed me by the hand, and dragged me to my apartment to report my crime to my mother, yelling at me all the way. I was so scared standing outside our apartment door, waiting for my mother to open it, that I wet my pants. Luckily, my mother didn’t make too much of the incident, thinking that Rochale’s furious mother had over-reacted. Still, I was careful to stay away from Rochale from then on.

When we thought another kid had insulted us, we would declare a brogez--a formal feud, during which the feuding parties would not talk to one another. A brogez would often be declared by chanting a little song, loosely translated as: "Brogez, Brogez, on for ever/ Peace, peace, will come never." If the brogez was especially acrimonious, we would refer to the person we were brogez with as our Chilba (a word I have not heard in any other context), and when we came across this person we would chant "Chilba, Chilba, sucking up Chilba." Eventually, as time passed, both sides started missing each other, and their friends, who could no longer play with both of them together, became more and more eager to put an end to the conflict. So emissaries would be sent back and forth to negotiate a peace treaty. When peace was finally reached, it too would be declared in a formal ceremony. The feuding parties would each stick out the little finger of one hand. They would then lock these little fingers together and declare "Little finger, little finger for peace/ the whole fight was but a dream" (in Hebrew, this rhymes). To negotiate your social world, you had to know who was brogez with whom at any time.

We spent most of our time playing in the two yards that flanked our building, but sometimes we would venture further. Beyond Peace Way lay a large hill, The Hill, we called it. The Hill was about the size of a city block, sandy, wild, and unkempt, covered with weeds, bushes, cactuses, and trees. No one took care of it--if a tree was hit by lightning, its remains would just stay where they fell. This hill, of course, was a paradise for kids. We would dig holes there, play hiding games, pick and eat sabras in season. That’s where we observed the holiday Lag BaOmer, on which it is traditional to light fires. The kids from our neighborhood would gather at the foot of The Hill and build a giant bonfire. The older boys did most of the planning, organizing, and building, while us younger kids did things like gathering wood and newspapers on The Hill. When night fell and all the children had gathered around, someone would set fire to the wooden structure, and flames would leap into the air. All along the hill’s slope, other groups of children were lighting their own fires, and the atmosphere was magical. We all brought potatoes with us, and when the leaping flames subsided a little we would throw them into its center of the fire. We retrieved these potatoes when the fire began dying down. Their skins were charred black and thick, and their smoke-flavored insides dissolved in the mouth. No other potato has ever tasted as good.

The Hill has since been turned into a well-groomed park. The wild sabra plants and sandy slopes have been replaced by manicured, regularly watered lawns, slides, swings, and the likes. Great for toddlers, I am sure, but no longer a ten-year old’s paradise.

The first building in our complex had a row of stores at ground level: a grocery store, a vegetable store, a butcher, a book and toy store, a kiosk, and a few others, and that’s where we did most of our shopping; there were no supermarkets at the time, and our mothers would walk over to the neighborhood store every day to pick up fresh milk and bread and whatever else they planned to cook that day. When I first arrived in the US, I couldn’t believe that people bought bread that came in plastic bags and was pre-sliced, with soggy crusts, and often a day or two old. This you call bread?

When I was little, I got about ten cents worth of pocket money every week. would then go down to the kiosk, show the coin to the store owner, and asked what I could buy with it. I would emerge happy, with three balls of gum, a lollipop, or a piece of candy. When I was a little older, my mother would sometimes send me to buy something at one of these stores. One day, she asked me to go buy a container of cottage cheese. I did, but when I brought it home, she said it was the wrong kind, and asked me to go back and replace it with the correct one. This seemed to me like too much of an imposition. I insisted that it was her fault for not giving me clear instructions the first time, and I refused to go again. After several minutes of unproductive argument, my mother resorted to threats. We were all due to go to the theater the following week, and the tickets had already been purchased. My family hardly ever went on such outings, and my mother knew how much I was looking forward to this one. So she threatened that if I didn’t go back for the cottage cheese, I would not be allowed to go. I didn’t believe her—we never got such harsh punishments—and, full of chutzpah, didn’t hesitate to say so. I told her that I knew that she would eventually give in and let me go, just like she always did after making unreasonable threats. I would have probably been right, too, but I didn’t take one important factor into account. The entire scene was a witnessed by our upstairs neighbor, a much stricter disciplinarian than my mother. My mother must have felt that she could not lose face. And so she determined to follow through. Within a couple of days Gideon managed somehow to get himself the same punishment, so my parents booked a babysitter and got ready to go without us. I begged and cried until they actually left, even though Gideon had told me to take it like a man, which is what he did.

We had our revenge, though. The babysitter was the elderly mother of the neighbor across the hall, and we were ready for her when she arrived. I don’t remember exactly what we did; I think it involved Gideon sending me to perform all sorts of weird behaviors, including kissing her shoes in mock apology when she got mad. The poor woman was never the same. She swore she would never baby sit again for anyone, and certainly didn’t for us.

I read about a book a day at this time, and couldn’t get enough to read. So I made an arrangement with the owner of the bookstore in the building adjacent to ours that I would borrow new books from his store, and return them looking new. I did this almost every day, until I started running out of children books. Then I discovered a bin of colorful paperbacks, and started borrowing those. The first few I read were mysteries, Agatha Christie and the like, but then I came across the Stalags. These were almost pornographic books set in concentration camps, with Nazis torturing and abusing young Jewish women. I was fascinated, and kept on borrowing these books, but I realized that they were probably illicit. So I hid them on the roof of our building, and would read them there. This went on for a while until Gideon discovered my reading a Stalag one day, grabbed it from my hands, and gleefully ran to show my parents what their nine-year old daughter was reading. That was the end of the Stalags.

But I did continue to have some illicit fun. My mother’s youngest sister was living in a rented apartment in the first floor of our building. There was a tree just outside her living room window, and we discovered that if you sat on the right branch you could peek inside. This became especially fun after she met her future husband—we would spy on them kissing on the sofa whenever we could, trying to suppress our giggles.

I am practically tone deaf but someone, I don’t remember if it was me or my parents, decided that I should learn to play the piano, and I began taking painful lessons with a teacher who lived in our building. We didn’t own a piano ourselves, so I practiced at the home of my aunt who had by then married and moved to a nearby apartment. I had to cross the busy Pilots’ Road to get there, and one day I ran into the road carelessly and was knocked over by a motorbike. I wasn’t seriously injured, but my knees were covered with huge sores that took for ever to heal, and, until then, the other kids called me petza, which means sore. But at least my piano career was over.

My dentist lived in the same building as my aunt, and I seemed to be going there all the time. He wasn’t a full-fledged dentist. He was an immigrant from Romania, and his credentials were not recognized in Israel, so he wasn’t allowed to call himself a tooth doctor, which is what dentists are called in Israel, and had to advertise himself as a tooth healer instead. Why did my mother send us to a Romanian tooth healer? Gideon thinks it’s because he looked like her old Oudtshoorn dentist. Anyway, every time I went for a check-up he discovered new and bigger cavities. I was cooperative and uncomplaining as he drilled through my teeth, so he hardly used any freezing. Imagine the fun! By the time I was a teenager I even had several crowns. When I finally saw a real dentist in the US, he took one horrified look at those crowns and, delivering an embarrassing blow to my proud Israeli identity, wanted to know what third-world country I had come from. Years after I had stopped seeing him, my old tooth healer was caught on a TV show as he was drilling holes into the healthy teeth of several patients. My mother insists that he was her friend and would never have done something like that to any of us, but I have a mouth full if fillings that suggests otherwise.

Our school was just beyond the last building in our complex, and we walked there six days a week—Sunday was a regular school day. In class, our small wooden desks were arranged in parallel rows, with two children sitting at each. We wore uniforms—light blue cotton shirts carrying the school’s symbol on the front pocket and navy skirts for the girls or pants for the boys. For gym, the girls wore floppy shorts with elastic bands sewn into the waist and the bottom of each leg. We often wore these under our skirts during the school day to protect ourselves from boys trying to raise our skirts with sticks or to peek under them with mirrors.

Our curriculum included a variety of academic topics such as reading, writing, math, and, even though this was a secular school, a heavy dose of bible studies, but our teachers also saw it as their duty to look after our social and moral well-being. Every Friday, there was a special period devoted to such issues, devoted mostly to discussing social problems that had erupted in the class. We were encouraged to visit sick classmates; Visiting the Sick is an important Jewish mitzvah. So if you missed a day of school, several kids would show up at your home, bring you the homework that you had missed, and entertain you if you were up to it. We were also expected to invite the entire class to our birthday parties, and most of us did. I remember one game we played at such parties. All the children would stand in a big circle on the lawn, singing, “A boy takes a girl and a girl takes a boy. The rabbi said you shouldn’t be embarrassed.” A boy would then pick one of the girls, and the two would link elbows and twirl around in the middle of the circle for a while. The boy would then fall back into the circle, and the girl would keep dancing around it until she reached the next boy that she wanted to twirl with. And so it went. This was a public and potentially humiliating test of popularity, and I would stand there nervously, hoping to be picked, even by boys that I considered pitiful. I usually did ok—not one of the most popular girls, but not one of the least popular either.
I was always an excellent student. The teachers always selected me for the lead roles in class plays because they knew they could count on me to remember the lines; I remember proudly starring in my Grade 1 production of the ant and the grasshopper, playing the happy go lucky grasshopper. Socially, my standing tended to be more mixed. The kids respected me, and always elected me to be the head of the class committee, a position that I know was very important, but whose responsibilities I cannot recall. But the kids didn’t necessarily like me. One insightful Grade one or two teacher called me up after school one day and told me that she had noticed that I didn’t have a best friend in the class. This was true; I did have a couple of good friends in my neighborhood, but they were in different classes. So the teacher mentioned another girl who also had no best friend, and suggested that I try to make friends with her. I did, and we remained best friends for years, until I moved away.

I had one extracurricular activity at school—a group course on learning to play the recorder. I practiced regularly, and could keep up with the class, but Gideon, who was also taking the course, just zoomed ahead and, within a couple of weeks, was able to play any tune he wanted to without notes. The teacher was so impressed that he informed my parents that this extraordinary talent had to be nourished, and so they signed him up for violin lessons. These turned out to be the bane of his existence, but he had to continue with them until his teacher, an elderly, grumpy holocaust survivor, died.

I, on the other hand, had so little musical talent that at first I didn’t even realize that I lacked it. When we were taught a new song at school, I often couldn’t understand why the teacher said we had gotten it wrong—after all, we had gotten the words and the rhythm just right… But by the time I encountered a music teacher with the echoic name Nisim Nisimov, I already knew that I was tone deaf. Unfortunately, Mr. Nisimov recognized my last name. “Are you Gideon’s sister?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered nervously. “So are you as talented as him at music?” he continued. “No,” I replied honestly, “I am not talented at all.” “I don’t believe this!” he insisted, “come up in front of the class and we’ll see.” So I headed for his desk, with trepidation. “Sing after me.” He commanded. He proceeded to sing several notes, one at a time, and asked me to reproduce each. After several attempts, he said with disgust, “you’re right. Sit down.” I slunk back to my chair, my face burning with humiliation. I still consider his conduct unforgivable.

I did have other talents, though. I used to write poems that were so good that they impressed all of the adults around me. My grandmother had a printer friend, and he liked my poems so much that he printed out several copies. I still have one set of these prints, and reading them four decades later with what my grandmother would call “a stranger’s eye,” they still look impressive to me. But there was a cost to being a talented poet. I was paraded in front of every visitor to my parents' or grandmothers' home, and expected to show my stuff. My grandmother even made me recite my poems to the man who came to collect a few coins for charity. And I felt strong pressure to keep on producing original poems. Writing poems stopped being fun. Then, one day at school I got a brilliant idea. We were taught a new song each week, and that week’s song struck me as especially attractive. I still remember it. Loosely translated, it began with: “On a road of cloud/ dashed a donkey cloud / and on him a man cloud/ with a violin in his hand.” The imaginative style reminded me of one of my landmark poems, which described the sun and moon as royal characters living by the water palace in the sky. And then it hit me: I could present this poem to my parents as my own! And I could do this every week! I wouldn’t have to write new ones any more if I didn’t want to! So I copied the poem into my poetry notebook, and showed it proudly to my parents when I got home. I received the usual praise and admiration—it was a good poem—and was quite pleased with myself until Gideon got home. He, of course, recognized the song from school, and promptly informed my parents. My parents were scandalized, and started questioning whether I had actually written any of my previous poems. I finally managed to convince them that all of my earlier poems were really mine, which was true. But I don’t think I wrote any poems after that day.

According to family lore, Gideon and I fought constantly during that period. And we were, indeed, capable of fighting about just about anything—who gets to sit behind the driver in our car, who gets the first turn at pushing our baby brother’s stroller on a walk, and so on. But we also spent hours having fun together. One favorite game was “around the world,” in which we had to get all around our bedroom without touching the floor. The trickiest part was getting across the door opening. To do that, we had to climb on the edge of our baby brother’s crib, which stood by the door, until we could grab the door, grab the door, pull it toward us, place each of feet on one of the handles, and swing across to the shelf on the other side. This was not a game we played when my parents were watching… In calmer moods, we liked to dramatize humorous pieces written by Efraim Kishon, whose writing during that period is among the funniest I know, and listening together to our favorite radio show. And we played endless rounds of chess, card games, and board games. Once, during a game of Monopoly, I needed to take a bathroom break. Gideon persuaded me to hang on until the game ended, because it was almost over. So I did, getting more and more desperate, pressing my thighs together and rocking in my place, but Gideon was pretty persuasive, so I hung in there. Finally the game ended. Gideon leapt to his feet and ran into the bathroom (we had only one), locked the door behind him, and climbed out trough the small window to the balcony. Retracing his steps, backward, in my desperate condition was no mean feat, but I think I made it.

Dinners at our home were usually light and eaten in the kitchen—the big meal of the day was at lunchtime—but Friday night was different. My mom would place a clean table clothe on the dining room table, and set it with our best dishes. She would place two sets of candles sticks on the table, large silver one for and small blue ones for me. The family would gather around and my mom and I would recite the candle-lighting prayer, and we would each light our candles. My dad would then kiss us all, wish us a good Saturday, and head for synagogue (I continued this candle-lighting ritual until the year I turned sixteen, at which point, burning with feminist passion, I announced that I refused to play the role of the Jewish woman). When my father returned, we all sat down to a festive meal, always roast chicken and potatoes. My dad would stand up, recite the blessings for wine and bread, and we would eat. A little later, we would arrive at what was the highlight for us kids—the quiz. My dad would ask us questions each in turn, on wide ranging topics—history, bible, politics, literature. This was so much fun that the little boy from upstairs, who was Gideon’s age, would often join us, just so that he could take part in the quiz. Whenever the opportunity arose during the meal he would recite whole paragraphs from the bible, which I committed to memory without even trying. This greatly pleased my father, but, more importantly, drove Gideon crazy. I also enjoyed driving my mother crazy during dinner, by wagging the little finger of my right hand at her. I have no idea why this drove her crazy, but it never failed to work.

At the time, my dad was building his law practice, and we didn’t see much of him during the week. He would come home around seven in the evening, and spend much of the rest of the evening talking to clients on the phone. But on Saturdays he didn’t work, and would spend more time to us. One favorite game was “Touch daddy and run.” I had to sneak up to him, touch his knee, and run away before he could tap me back. If I got caught, I would be tossed in the air. Dad also read to us a lot. Every summer, he took a long trip to South Africa, at least a month, to check out the family farm, which was being managed by a partner. International calls were very expensive then, and he would call us perhaps once a trip, an incredibly exciting moment for the whole family. But mostly he would send telegrams, which were paid for by the word, and these read something like: “Arrived Johannesburg safely, Oudtshoorn on 23rd, love, M.” And he would send letters to my mom and postcards with pictures of ostriches to us kids. Before he left, he would always ask each of us what we wanted him to bring us, and he would carry little lists in his notepad. He would return laden with gifts—wonderful toys, games, clothes, and candy bars that were not available in Israel at the time. Once, when I was already a teenager, I asked him if he had ever had affairs on these trips. Armed with the knowledge from an authoritative article in a women’s magazine, I added that most men cheated on their wives. “Yes” her answered with a grin, “but most don’t tell their daughters about it….” So I still don’t know.

I had often fun with my mom, too. She used to make up imaginative, exciting stories, and tell them to us at lunch, a chapter at a day. She had a special trick of squeezing water out of a knife which I still haven’t managed to figure out. And she and I used to laugh together a lot. One day, I came home from school with a note saying that I had lice, which was considered pretty shameful at the time; only dirty, poor people were supposed to have lice. We decided that we should first of all cut my hair, which was quite long at the time. So, we went to our neighborhood hairdresser, and asked her to do the job. But she kept gushing about the beauty of my hair, collected it all on a newspaper, and asked if she could pass it on to a wig maker. My mother and I were too ashamed to tell her that I had lice, and so we agreed. And we laughed all the way home, imagining the wig maker opening a package crawling with lice…

We didn’t go out much as a family, and never went to restaurants, but every now and again we would all pile up in the car and go to a movie. After the movie, we would go to the falafel market, and my father would head out and get us each a helping, which we ate in the car. These were great expeditions, but, to our frustration, pretty much our only ones. Our friends all went on fun places with their families on Saturdays. They would usually go to the beach in the summer, and on trips to explore various geographic locations in the winter—canyons, river beds, caves, and so on; getting to know the country was a prized value. But my father didn’t drive on Saturdays, so we never went anywhere. Gideon and I complained more and more about this as we got older. We did belong to a fancy country club in Savyon, an affluent little town near by. It had several swimming pools, tennis courts, and bowling greens, and we loved going there; my mom would takes us there on weekday afternoons whenever she could. It occurred to my parents that if we moved to Savyon, and lived in waling distance from the club, we could all go there together on Saturdays as well. There were other reasons to move as well. The road in front of our apartment, Peace Way, had been paved, and the traffic was becoming intolerably noisy. And we were living in very tight quarters. My father’s law practice was doing well, and we were able to afford upgrading our housing, and so we bought a house in Savyon. And then we had to sell our apartment.

And now comes what I consider one of the most shameful episodes in my family history. Many people came to view the apartment, and one family of Persian Jews was especially impressed. The father came a second time with his brother, and the commented on how nice it was to have such big rooms. And then they made a generous offer. But my parents felt they couldn’t sell to them. “The liked the big rooms because they want to put a whole family in each,” said my mother, “And how can we do this to our neighbors? What will they think of us? They’ll say, the Kundas moved to Savyon, and look at what they left us with!” And so my parents accepted a considerably lower offer from a seemingly more respectable, Ashkenazi family, and, full of self-righteousness (it cost us, but we did the right thing), moved to Savyon.

Back to chapter 2.

Back to autobiography.

Back to memorial.

This page updated March 3, 2004.