At the beginning of Notes from the Municipal Archive, the young Yoni Raz Portugali’s father expresses his desire to write a “major book about the history of the Portugali family,” a Zionist epic that would be “the Israeli One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Instead of this magisterial generational saga, what his son ends up writing is the story of an Israeli family in the 1980’s and 1990’s, refracted through the lens of an enduring neighborly dispute documented in letters found in the Tel Aviv Municipal Archive. Mother and child, left behind in Jaffa as Portugali père goes off to write his never-quite-finished tome, become embroiled in a years-long back and forth with the neighboring S. family, whose shifting fortunes and increasing turn to the political right ingeniously encapsulate the larger sociopolitical changes the country is undergoing. If realism as genre is marked by a twofold concentration on interior psychology and exterior detail, then the quasi-legalistic pettiness explored in Portugali’s story becomes the ideal key to capture them both. It’s a narrative of small gestures and reduced horizons, pitch-perfect in its tragicomic exactitude.
Translated by: Leanne Raday
In 1999, my father moved into a studio apartment with sea views in the Colony Beach Apartment Motel, Bat Yam promenade. He did this to get away from the distractions in his Ramat Aviv neighbourhood and dedicate himself to the writing of his great novel about the history of the Portugali family. It would begin with his grandfather Mendel Portugali – among the founders of the Schomer and Bar Giora movements – and end with him, the grandchild who became a writer. After a few months in the motel he gave up on the whole thing and went back to his old apartment on Brodetsky Street.
One of my only memories from the short time he spent living on the Promenade was a conversation my parents had on the balcony of that small room in the Colony. They talked about what each of them would leave behind after they died. My father mentioned the book he was writing, which he was then planning to name Gum, and that he believed would become the One Hundred Years of Solitude of Israeli literature. My mother said that her name would also live on thanks to the professional magazines she had designed and published. Poultry Today was probably bound and catalogued in Beit Ariela Liberary, she said, and maybe also Artillery Monthly. She should really check.
I recalled that conversation as I was looking through the new website of the Tel Aviv Municipal Archives, a digital treasure-trove that included scans of all the city’s building records. The archive, it turned out as I dug deeper into the findings, was in fact a grand monument to almost one hundred years of neighbour disputes, a large-scale commemoration project of many decades’ worth of outraged outpourings from Tel Aviv’s inhabitants. In the building record of the house where I grew up, on 3057 Street in the Ajami neighbourhood in Jaffa, I found, among the blueprints and photographs, a lengthy exchange of letters between my mother and two generations of the S. family, our neightbors. The exchange was conducted between 1986 and 2004, and documented the dispute that ultimately led to us fleeing Jaffa in 2004.
I’d always assumed that the feud between my mother and the S. family began on the Friday evening in ’92 or ’93 in which I was standing on the balcony and shooting, out of boredom, rolled paper darts at the treetops of the abandoned garden opposite our house. Tzipi S., the daughter of our neighbours Dora and Albert S., was just getting out of her car when the paper arrow I’d just launched started losing altitude and diving down towards the street. It hit her left eye with great precision. Tzipi was thrust back at the car, her hand shielding the wounded area; as it later emerged, she would have to wear an eye-patch for the following three weeks. Alarmed, I retreated into the hallway leading to the balcony and hid behind the door, hoping, of course, that the blame would fall on one of the other children on the street who did not go to a private school like myself and so were more prone to these sorts of exploits. If I had no other choice, I resolved after mulling it over, I would immediately shift the blame on to one of them. But while I was peeping from behind the balcony door at the wounded Tzipi, and before I could retreat even further to the interior of the house, the round inner window high-up in the wall shared by us and the S. family opened and the white-haired head of Albert S., Tzipi’s father, materialized. He saw me holding the pipe-shaped catapult and started swearing at the top of his voice: “You ass! You bastard!” I was caught. And it was that hit, I believed, that the S. family could not forgive.
To my surprise, however, the first mention of the neighbourly dispute between my mother and the S. family dates back to a letter from October 1987, which is included in the building record. That is, six years before I accidently launched the paper arrow that impaired Tzipi S.’s eye. The abovementioned is a succinct letter of complaint written in the flowery handwriting of Dora S., Tzipi’s mother and Albert’s wife, addressed to my mother and the Department of Public Inquiries. In it Dora declares she “would like to report that walls are being broken down in the apartment of S. Raz, altering the unique character of the building, which dates back to the 1930s… I would like to state my objection to these changes and demand an investigation into their legality… As a tenant who has lived in this building for almost thirty years, I would like to ensure that it retains its unique character…”
In response, my mother writes that “As far as I can tell, the inner walls of the house I purchased with my own means are no concern of the distinguished Mrs. S.” When I asked her why Dora S. objected to us breaking down the walls, which, in fact, restored the house to its original state before it was separated into small apartments, my mother revealed the true origins of the dispute (she did not recall the arrow shooting incident). It started, she explained, after we bought Esther Avnun’s room behind Dora’s back. “Don’t you remember Esther Avnun?” she asked, surprised, after correctly suspecting that I was not following. You know, she added, the old woman who lived in the living room until you were about seven years old? Had my mother begun hallucinating, imagining things, I asked myself as I looked into her eyes, searching for the first signs of dementia. What old woman was she talking about, who’d resided in our living room? And if an old woman had indeed resided in our living room when I was a child, wouldn’t I have remembered her? Ludicrous, I determined. But oh. Just a second. Right. There actually had been an old woman.
The house on 3057 Street was an expansive Arab house with more than fifteen rooms and five inner courtyards. From 1948 to the late fifties the house stood empty. Then, its two floors were separated and each room in the structure was converted into a tiny apartment for an entire family of new immigrants. When my mother bought our apartment, which sprawled across half of the second floor (the other half occupied by the S. Family) she had to negotiate the buying of four rooms with four different families. Only Esther Avnun, who resided in the living room, refused to sell her quarters, so she ended up being sold to us herself, in effect, together with the apartment, like the small bell pepper a lucky individual can occasionally find inside a large bell pepper. Until I was seven, every time I wanted to pass from the bedroom area to the kitchen or shower, I had to walk out of our house in a robe into the exterior corridor that separated our apartment from the S. family’s, circumvent the living room, where Esther Avnun was living, and then walk back into my house through a door that was opened especially for this purpose and led to our kitchen and bathroom.
In retrospect, I believe that having to adapt to the fact that an old woman I didn’t know occupied a sealed room in the middle of my house for the first seven years of my life greatly influenced my character as an adult. I turned into a person who adapts quickly. Nothing diverts me from my routine, nothing can surprise me. This has its advantages and disadvantages, of course. On the one hand, I easily grow accustomed to any new situation and accept it with absolute indifference, immediately forgetting that there ever was a different order of things. On the other hand, this does not necessarily lead to a better quality of life. When the light bulb burns out in my study, for example, my natural inclination is not to change it but rather to quickly adapt to reading and writing in the dark.
Esther Avnun passed away, my mother told me, in the middle of 1987. A few days after the funeral, my mother and Dora S. met on the stairs. Dora, a neat, respectable fifty year old woman who spoke Arabic, French and Hebrew and made her living as a seamstress, explained to my mother that since her family arrived at the building thirty years before ours, it was only natural that she would have the right of first option to buy Esther’s one room apartment. And if my mother had no objections, added Dora, the S. Family would indeed like to realize their right and buy our living room. They would like to let their daughter Tzipi, who had recently married Herzel Z. and was expecting her first child, live there. Why should they go and live in Holon or Rishon and waste good money on rent when they could live in this very building next to her parents, who could also help with the baby? “Very true,” replied my mother and looked Dora straight in the eye. “Why should they indeed.” The thing is, added Dora, that they don’t have the full sum right now. They would have to wait until their bank loan came through; that would take at least a few more weeks. When they did buy the house, Dora concluded with a smile, her husband Albert – a builder by profession and a keen supporter of the mainstream right wing Machal Party – would renovate the room and was also willing to renovate our house for free, as a gesture of good will. My mother reassured Dora S. and said that there was no problem and no need. As far as she was concerned the matter was settled.
That same week, of course, my mother bought Esther Avnun’s room behind Dora S.’s back. And for that scheme, the S. Family never forgave her. Since then, my mother surmised, they decided to lead a persistent battle to retrieve the living room that had been stolen from them. Only in this context is it possible to understand the nature of Dora S.’s first letter of complaint. It was written after my mother’s act of deception and, no less significantly, after my mother had closed off the door that connected the joint corridor to the kitchen and shower. If Dora’s crafty complaint had been accepted and the municipality had forbidden the opening of any other doors in the apartment, our house would have been severed in two again, but this time without the ability to access the kitchen and shower from the living room and vice versa. We would have had to choose one half of the apartment and live in that area only. None would leave and none would enter.
I must admit that there is a beauty and wit to Dora’s complaint. The attempt to seal off our house by bureaucratic means still charms me today; in a sense I’m almost sorry her attempt failed, as demonstrated by the following letter Dora S. received from the Amidar Housing Company. “In response to your attached letter, we would like to inform you that we have no objections to the opening of the aforementioned doors. Respectfully yours, R.T. Copy to: The Maintenance Department.” Esther Avnun’s room was in our possession and the path from the living room to the kitchen and shower had been broken through for good. In response to the denial of her petition, Dora erected a huge gallery that completely distorted the original proportions of the S. family’s apartment, lowered the original ceiling and added a new window to the building’s façade. A small sewing workshop was opened in the new space. This construction is what allowed her husband, Albert, to climb three meters up ten years later, peek through the window overlooking our apartment and catch me red handed a few minutes after the shooting, with the weapon still in my hand.
“To Mrs Dora S.,” wrote my mother on the 30th of August 1995, eight years after the Esther Avnun incident, thereby starting the longest chapter in the exchange of letters between the two families, this time focusing on the air conditioner installation affair:
“Following your phone call, today at lunch I was surprised to discover that you had installed an air conditioner on my balcony. I called to let you know that I did not give my consent to the installation of such an object and that this was, in fact, trespassing. I think it is quite clear that having an air conditioner working right above my head and dripping would stop me from being able to use the balcony and enjoy the view. This is unlawful and I intend to act next Sunday to remove the air conditioner permanently. Furthermore, installing an air conditioner on the front of a unique building dating back to the 1930’s, which is intended for preservation, is unlawful and I will make inquiries to see whether you can be forced to find a less conspicuous location away from the building’s façade. I suggest that you remove the air conditioner immediately, before the work is done, and thus save yourselves unnecessary expense. Respectfully, S. Raz.”
Dora’s letter of response is not in the archives. But I did find a cryptic statement from October of that year, whose meaning is not quite clear. On one clean page it says: “I, Dora S., from 3075 Street bloc 7024 plot 101 declare that the abovementioned small structure does not belong to me. Sincerely, Dora S.” Under that statement is a handwritten scribble: “I H. Ezoz, Attorney at Law, confirm that on Monday 2.10.96, I identified Mrs. Dora S., whom I know personally, and after warning her that she must tell the truth and would be subject to the punishments determined by law if she failed to do so, she affirmed the accuracy of the above statement and signed it.” A few days later, on the 15th of October, my mother wrote another letter, this time to Mrs Alona Giron from the Building Preservation Department of the Tel Aviv Municipality.
“Dear Mrs. Giron, For the past two weeks I have been trying to alert the relevant departments at the Tel Aviv Municipality about damage made to a unique house intended for preservation on 3057 Street. The tenants living in the building have installed a large air conditioner on the front of the building, despite the fact that I had alerted them that it would prevent me from enjoying the use of my balcony. To date, and despite informing the Municipal Service Centre and other departments at the municipality, no one has asked the tenants to restore the building to its previous state. I would ask you to address the problem and will be glad to be at your service. I am attaching the copy of a letter I handed the neighbours the day the air conditioner was installed. They didn’t seem to give a damn and apparently, they had every reason not to. It is unfortunate to discover that the great Municipality of Tel Aviv does nothing to protect unique buildings in order to preserve the city’s heritage”
In the context of this correspondence, it’s important to mention one thing. In all our years in Jaffa, my mother and I never used the balcony for anything besides hanging the laundry. Its green metal railing became rusty after we moved in and was never repainted. The vegetation my mother planted in a burst of goodwill became, after long years of neglect, no more than a stubble of straw. The floor was dotted with pigeon droppings. The balcony did not interest my mother in the least. However, another piece of information, which my mother left out in her letters to Mrs. Alona Giron, dramatically changes the way in which this sequence of urgent correspondences should be read. That piece of information is my father. When he and my mother came to see my childhood home on 3057 Street for the first time, one of the first things they did was sit down together on the balcony and have lunch. My father said that this sort of Jaffa balcony, with the sea view and surrounding mosques, is perfect for writing books. Here is where he wanted to write his great book about the Portugali family. Every morning – he fantasied – he would go out to the balcony and write for a while. Then they would have lunch together – around one o’clock – and, after lunching, they would each go back to their own business; she to her publishing and he to his balcony, to continue writing till sunset. That potential occurrence is what my mother was trying to preserve, I believe, not the actual use of the balcony. If an air conditioner were to rattle above his head, and if he had to avoid cold drops of water while writing, my father could not write there, and so, the best chance we had of his coming back to live with us would melt away.
“Dear Mrs. Raz. First, we would like to apologise for the delay in our response. Here is our answer,” writes Mrs. Alona Giron to my mother a few months later. “On the 21st of December, engineers from the Department of Construction Oversight visited your building and found no new structures on location. The lawfulness of air conditioner installation in buildings intended for preservation is not handled by the Tel Aviv Municipality. We would like to apologize once again for the delayed reply and are glad to be of service.” The letter written by Mrs. Giron, which brought the air conditioner affair to an end, included a handwritten comment by a municipality employee: “After conferring with the Department of Building Preservation at the Tel Aviv Municipality, we have found that despite the claims of Mrs. Raz and Mrs. Dora S., the building on 3057 Street is not intended for preservation. After examining these findings, the legal advisor to the T.A. Municipality, Attorney Vania Shtechtman, has concluded that there is no need to press charges. Arcady.”
The air conditioner remained in place and a few years later my father moved to the balcony on the Bat Yam Promenade.
One of the truly beautiful things about the dispute between my mother and the first generation of the S. Family was its diplomatic nature. Between attacks, the relationship remained as friendly and as warm as ever. This fact, which surprised me at first, taught me that rivalry was essentially a form of friendship, or at least a true relationship that one must respect and nurture. When my mother spent her days in the publishing house she had started, Dora would not let me live on defrosted veggie burgers – even if at the time she was not on speaking terms with my mother and badmouthed her at the local grocer’s – and often sent me homemade Moroccan food from her kitchen. On my thirteenth birthday, exactly six years after the Avnun incident and four years before the air conditioner affair, she made sure I would get a set of phylacteries, which I have since lost. However, the courteous nature of this neighbour dispute between two mutually-respecting rivals came to an end three years later, when the next generation of the S. family took control. This is documented by the following odd letter written by the municipality’s representative L. Pytrovsky, following his visit to our building after receiving an anonymous letter of complaint written by my mother in 2001. “In the visit I conducted at the building,” he writes, “I found that the top floor balcony had been closed off again. I rang the door of the S. family house, but no one answered. When I looked up, I could see a man looking at me from the closed-off balcony. I called out a number of times but only after I had shouted that I had seen someone in the apartment, the shutters opened. The person, a man by the name of Herzel Z., claimed to be the husband of the house owner’s daughter. Let it be mentioned that there is no record of him in the resident’s listing. I tried calling the number he gave me numerous times, but there has been no answer.”
Thirteen years after the Avnun affair exploded and a few months after the unfortunate collapse of the chain of children’s clothing stores owned by Herzel and Tzipi Z. (which had locations in Lod, Ramleh, Rishon LeTziyon and Holon), the couple was forced to leave their rented house of exile in Rishon. Now they were hiding from their many creditors in the gallery that, until then, served as Dora’s sewing workshop. Most of the debts were in Herzel Z.’s name, so he left the house very rarely for fear of being caught. And since he spent most of the day closed up in his new restricted home, he focused his attention on one thing only – expanding his family’s living space by any available means. Since his financial situation would not allow him to buy an entire apartment, he decided, apparently, to settle for a room in ours.
The moment Herzl took charge of the dispute the gloves were off and all efforts of the Z. couple were directed at wearing my mother down. The dispute’s fall from glory also exhibited itself in the deep political differences between the two generations of the S. family. While Albert was a dedicated Machal man, an activist in the party’s Jerusalem Blvd. branch, Herzl was a fierce supporter of the extreme right-wing Kach movement. At the first stage, Tzipi and her two daughters – who now wore only the sweat-suits which their parents had once bought in bulk but would never sell – began walking aimlessly up and down the joint corridor, stomping their high-heeled shoes. They knew such noises drove my mother crazy, and worse, broke the status quo that had been kept from the day my mother bought the house – the joint corridor was at our disposal, the inner courtyard at theirs. In response to this act of provocation, my mother ordered that I start using the inner courtyard. I carried out the act of retaliation with great dedication, three or four times that week, sitting there for fifteen or twenty minutes straight, but I believe no one noticed.
When my mother turned to Dora S. and told her that the banging in the corridor could be clearly heard in our living room and bedrooms, and that if this were to continue she would have no choice but to turn to the police, Dora replied, with some despair, that my mother would have to discuss the matter with Tzipi. She, Dora, could say nothing to her these days – she simply wouldn’t listen.
When Tzipi heard that my mother had threatened to turn to the police, she understood it as a suggestion that my mother had intentions to turn in Herzl and herself to their creditors, and consequently decided to increase the pressure. A few days later, various storage items were thrown into the joint corridor; first a box or worn out blanket, and later toys, cheap furniture and work tools. From that point on, there was a swift deterioration. It continued with sabotage to our electric cupboard, a changing of locks and, ultimately, an alleged attempt to bring about the disappearance of my blind cat, Lachie.
Reading all the certificates included in the building record, I found out that the elaborate and crammed records contained only one reference to my existence: an eight digit identification number in the document listing the building’s residents. Not even my full name. I think that it was through these events that I probably chose the role of reader. A few days after the first storage items were hauled to the entrance of our house, I grew used to the matter and almost took no notice of the inconvenience it caused us. I was, to a degree, even curious to discover what new items Herzl and Tzipi would add to the display each day, revealing to me yet another breadth of their private world. I also accepted the engineered power cuts with relative equanimity and was pleased to discover the merits of reading by candlelight. My mother, of course, saw things in a different light, and after a tense year full of harassments, made a hasty sale of the apartment to a Mr. N. Jaefer, an Arab attorney and notary who had numerous children. He still lives in the apartment today, making the lives of the S. family members a misery with claims, complaints and evidence photographs. For example, this letter from the 15th of June 2008, where he writes: “This morning my neighbour Mrs. Dora S. began construction work in the house situated in the aforementioned address. Using a number of workers, she removed exterior walls, added openings and caused damage to the roof. Let me emphasize that this is a building intended for preservation with a long heritage, and despite complaints recorded in the past, nothing has been done thus far…”
But I feel that here I am entering a new chapter in this story, which is still being written. When it comes to an end, it will wait on the website of the municipal archive until the right reader comes along.
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