Sweet Pastry and Coffee
by Nitza Agam
I have returned home. It is my mother’s birthday.
It feels right to be in her native country in her hometown in Israel in my favorite bakery café on a Tel Aviv street. I am three blocks from the ocean and the heat of the day has not hit yet. A cool breeze envelops the city before the oppressive humidity makes it impossible to be out for long. The city is alive: buses run, people rush to work, mothers hold their children tightly by the hand taking them to day camps, a large truck with a Coca-Cola sign passes by, and two teenagers showing off their stomachs in fashionable jeans cross the street.
In contrast to the city’s movement, this café is an oasis.
This café has been here forever, at least since I lived in Israel, and that was over thirty years ago. My mother and I sat here often eating pastries and drinking strong coffee. The same elderly woman (could it be the same?) is in charge: a heavy-set Russian Polish woman who speaks Russian to her employee. Her daughter seems to be her sole worker. The pastries sit on shelves on display: the cheese borekas (knish), spinach, the potato ones with some sesame on the shell, the ones filled with chocolate or meat, and ones filled with poppy seed. I can’t find those pastries in the States; they just don’t exist. It is like being in a time machine; nothing has changed.
I have lived outside this country, my mother’s homeland, in chosen exile in San Francisco for the last thirty years. Here in this café, time stands still. French music plays in the background, a woman lights her cigarette as she sips her espresso. I continue to watch the landscape of people and realize it is a very different reality than the one I remember: an Ethiopian female soldier passes, striking in her exotic good looks and sharp army uniform, and seems as at home here as any soldier: this is a new face of Israel. The Ethiopian Jews did not live here thirty years ago and have experienced many ups and downs in their immigration here. A religious soldier with a yarmulke on his head waits for a bus. I see more and more religious soldiers and more people who identify as religious. A young father with a baby bottle in his pocket pushes his baby in the stroller. Fathers are taking more control of being caregivers here, too.
The elderly Russian mother barks orders to her daughter who is at the cash register. More people come in to buy coffee and cake. They sit at tables outside or in the café with a newspaper or a cigarette. Some speak on cell phones. It is Israel in a different time; the owner has passed the legacy to her daughter, new waves of immigrants move into the country changing the texture and flavor and forcing the mainstream to take notice of other races and faces, the religious become more of a majority than a minority, and family roles change where it is no longer just the mother taking care of the children. French music plays in the background and the sound of Russian and Hebrew being spoken mix with the music and the sounds of the traffic. I savor my strong, sweet coffee and the variety of small pastries on my blue china plate.
Happy Birthday, Mom.
I love you.
* * * * *
Nitza Agam writes mostly memoir and poetry based on her life experiences. She lives in San Francisco and her work has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Momentum Magazine, Poetica, and Independent Teacher. She has published two memoirs titled Scent of Jasmine (2011) and Love Letters to my Mother (2016). An essay will appear in Adanna Literary Journal. She believes in the importance of documenting her life, the past and present, and her hopes and fears for the future.