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The Promised Land | Maya Avida | Short Story

In "The Promised Land," Maya Avida unravels Estera's prospective journey through Jerusalem by delving into her keen observations, expectations.

A girl in wrap over her head

Photo Credit: Pexel

In "The Promised Land," Maya Avida brilliantly unravels Estera's prospective journey through Jerusalem by delving into her keen observations, expectations, and life experiences. The story adeptly explores the lingering effects of inter-ethnic and inter-state tensions, depicting them as "layers of history stacked on top of each other like flaking coats of paint", perpetuating stigmas across generations. 

Avida's writing is nothing short of splendid, capturing the essence of an outcast with regal precision.


Promised Land

August 29, 1939

Estera’s third observation about the promised land: it is hot in Jerusalem in late August,
hotter than Warsaw. It was more humid passing through Tel Aviv, the stickiness clinging to her
skin like leeches. But the sun in Jerusalem is stronger, the dry heat conjuring memories of laying in her backyard next to Jonatan, her older brother, one of his arms over his eyes and the other behind her head. The sun envelops her completely in its embrace; weeks of staying in the ship’s hold has made her pale, and the air she breathes feels clean for the first time since boarding the boat in Italy.

The grooves in her suitcase dig into the backs of her thighs, even through the fabric of her dress. Her mother and Jonatan sent their suitcases ahead with her and the Zlotnicks, the family she traveled with, since nobody else in her family had papers. There’s too much luggage for an
eleven year-old girl to carry on her own, so now that the Zlotnicks are gone, she has nothing to
do but sit on the pile of suitcases at the train station, and wait.

Her mother has told her of the promised land; a place of safety, a place that will be a homeland for her people, free of persecution. She imagines raising children in the new, peaceful, Jewish state. She imagines generations, all living within the land promised to Abraham. She imagines a large, spacious house, with her parents and her brother, and all of their children.

Are you okay, little girl?” a man asks her in Hebrew, but he repeats the question in Yiddish when she doesn’t respond.

Yes, I’m okay. My mom will come on the next train with my brother. My father should be coming in a few months or so.” But she understands the risks. The Zlotnicks left her with their new address on a piece of paper, and she has a map of Jerusalem neatly folded and tucked into the front pocket of her dress.

She needs her blanket. The feeling strikes her all at once. Speaking rapidly to herself in Yiddish, she pushes herself off of her perch with both hands and tears through her suitcase, casting aside jewelry and an old book of prayers that hadn’t been read from in generations, more a family heirloom than a religious artifact. Sweat builds in her scalp and the back of her neck, her
hair matted and sticky. In the heart of the good and spacious land, she begins to feel the world
close in on her.

There: at the bottom, her pink and white quilt. It was the first quilt her mother ever embroidered for baby Jonatan, so there’s a tiny bloodstain in the corner where she had pricked herself with the needle, a tiny spot of violence amongst clumsily embroidered kittens and baby birds.

Aren’t you going to want it back?” she’d asked Jonatan as he carefully tucked the blanket around her pudgy three-year-old arms.

I will,” he’d said, kissing her forehead. “But I want you to have it more.”

She wraps it tightly around herself despite the heat, a tiny spot of embroidered kittens in a
sea of commotion.

Estera’s second observation about the promised land: she misses home. A month from now, she will sit on the floor of the cramped apartment and complain that she misses their house in Poland, and can they go back to visit? And when is her father coming, anyway? Her mother will tell her that they have no home to go back to; she does not answer the second question.

Estera won’t bring it up again. She will return to Poland once, seventy years from now. The
American woman next to her on the tour bus will eat reduced-guilt potato chips too loudly and
inform Estera that her great-great-grandfather was Jewish, and lived somewhere around here, so she totally understands what Estera is going through. Or maybe he was from Czechoslovakia;
she’s not sure. His last name was Lefkowitz, the woman said, but they changed it to Landis at
Ellis island. Maybe he was her great-great-great-grandfather.

The guided tour of Warsaw will pass by Estera’s childhood home, or to be precise, the bank where Estera’s childhood home once stood. Estera will remember the portrait of her grandfather that faced the staircase, with a scratch on its frame that was struck by the ball when she was playing catch with Jonatan. She will decide it’s probably in some museum in Germany, or maybe in the storage unit of a family in Argentina. They probably replaced the frame, too.

Estera’s first observation about the promised land is the colors. The cobalt of the ocean in
Tel Aviv, the dark green of the Za’atar and the candy-colored saffron in the open-air market, the
turquoise robes of the merchants, and of course, the cream color of the stones, the same stones
that Estera’s ancestors walked on two thousand years before, layers of history stacked on top of
each other like flaking coats of paint.

At eighteen, Estera will go to college (she will turn eighteen before the declaration of Israel as a state, and therefore will not serve in the military). Her mother, who by then will have
remarried, won’t permit her to study anything but teaching, so Estera will become an elementary school teacher. In college, Estera will meet a man. He will be Ashkenazi, but born in Palestine; he will have no memory of the old country. By then, Estera’s memory of the old country will have faded, and whatever she remembers will be gone. On May 14, 1948, they will sit on the floor of his Tel Aviv apartment, on the carpet pockmarked by cigarette stains, her head on his shoulder, and listen to the radio recording of David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of Israel’s creation. They will get married a year later, but will struggle to conceive for eighteen years; she will give birth to their only daughter on June 4, 1967, and she will cradle the newborn baby for six days inside a bomb shelter, the baby’s screams covering the roar of war outside.
When he returns from the battle, Estera’s husband will carry their daughter into the Old
City of Jerusalem, where Estera has not been for nineteen years. Estera will stare at the cream-colored stones, which now have one more coat of history painted on top of them. Estera and her husband will not discuss what will happen to the current inhabitants of the Old City; the thought will pass through their mind only briefly, while Estera’s husband holds their newborn daughter’s tiny hand to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.

Estera’s daughter will serve in the military. She will be tasked with “protecting the border
with the Gaza strip.” She will never shoot anyone, but for the rest of her life, she will remember how to disassemble and reassemble a semi-automatic rifle in minutes, the muscle memory fresh in her mind, as ingrained as holding a pencil or driving a car.

Immediately after the military, Estera’s daughter will emigrate to New York for college. She will marry a man there; Jewish, but American Jewish, the kind of Jewish that eats bagels and lox and gets gifts for Passover and pronounces “Hanukkah” with an “H.” She will get married
young, but will have children late, by choice, to prioritize her career. She will have one daughter,
at thirty-seven.

Estera’s granddaughter will be raised Israeli. She will learn Hebrew before she learns English and she will go to Hebrew daycare. As a child, she will call herself Israeli before she calls herself American. She will casually call the inhabitants of the countries surrounding Israel “the bad guys,” as she would comic-book villains or the boss in a video game. She will be pretentious about the hummus she eats — and she will always refer to it with the throaty “Ch” sound— and she will drag her mother to synagogue and to falafel restaurants, and she will refuse to drink ice in her water.

She will first encounter the pro-Palestine movement in sixth grade— her first encounter
with the idea that the Israeli government is not the innocent underdog to the rest of the Middle
East— in the comments of a Buzzfeed Tasty video, which includes a recipe for Israeli salad. She will come to learn that the word “Israel” is always enough to spark a heated debate in any
context, but for now, she will leave behind an inflammatory one-sentence comment about the
Holocaust and forget about it.

For a few months, at least. Soon enough, she will discover that the “extremist opinions”, which she will have believed only appear in YouTube comment sections, are much more common than she thought. During her sixth-grade book club, amid discussion of Romeo and Juliet, it will somehow come up (she will come to learn that it will always find a way to come up). She will stare up at the kids in her book club, who now seem imposingly tall, who seem to be constantly moving closer, and she will run out of the room with her hands over her ears, heaving the remains of her labneh and kalamata olive sandwich onto the blacktop.

It will take her years to educate herself. Perspective shifts don’t happen in a day. There
will be a kid in her book club who does debate and reads Dante and Kissinger and thinks he
understands international politics. She will argue with him for years. Their arguments, which will
sound like broken records by the end of the first month, will rise over the lunchtime clamor, will
be ubiquitous in homeroom, will be fought with mouths full of chocolate ice cream cake at
acquaintances’ birthday parties.

But arguing works; at that age, at least. Because her perspective will shift, slowly. Painfully. She will learn to be disgusted with the actions of the government she was once so proud of. She will sometimes even question the promise of the promised land itself.

Now, in the distance, Estera hears the roar of a train, muffled only by the sound of her
own heartbeat. Finally, her mother, a woman in her forties with harsh frown lines and a shawl
around her shoulders exits. Estera looks for her brother, but her mother is alone.
Forgetting the suitcases momentarily, Estera leaps up and sprints to her mother, wrapping
her arms tightly around her mother’s waist.

You’re going to choke me to death, Esta,” her mother says in Yiddish.

“I missed you,” she says, squeezing tighter. She looks up. “Where’s Jonatan?”

Her mother’s face changes, a nearly imperceptible shift to her mother’s typically
immovable features. “I’m not sure.

(Really, when you think back on it, it was Jonatan’s fault for coming into Palestine without papers, for choosing the wrong boat, for being in the British army’s line of fire. Probably his fault for being born to ethnically Jewish parents in Poland in 1922, too.)

In 1939, Estera cannot call herself Israeli; Israel is not even a country that exists. Her father and brother will never live long enough to call themselves Israeli; they will never even see the Temple Mount or the white sand beaches of Tel Aviv, never push their way through the crowds at an outdoor market through the cacophony of shouting vendors and the smell of rotting fis.

Her granddaughter will not call herself Israeli, out of shame.

When Estera’s granddaughter is twenty, Estera will suffer a stroke. The borders will be closed to visitors without Israeli passports due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but when her parents ask if she wants one, Estera’s granddaughter will tell them she doesn’t.

I can’t, Ima, I just can’t. I can’t explain why.” She will bury her face in her mother’s shoulder, seawater tears soaking through her mother’s cobalt T-shirt.

Estera’s daughter will be a stoic woman; it skips generations, like a child playing hopscotch. Until that moment, Estera’s granddaughter will have only seen her mother cry one other time in her life; when Estera’s granddaughter is four years old, she will sneak into her mother’s room to play with a conch shell her grandfather gave to her mother a week before his death. It will fall and shatter. Estera’s daughter will cry then, as she frantically attempts to reconstruct the shards of jagged calcium, each one a broken memory.
And she will cry now too, as she runs long fingers through her only daughter's curly black hair.

“I’ll go when the borders reopen,” Estera’s granddaughter will promise.

In fact, Estera’s granddaughter won’t make it back to the promised land from the time she’s sixteen to the time she’s forty, almost one hundred years from now. She will go at her
gentile husband’s insistence, and she will speak broken Hebrew to waiters at nouvelle-Israeli
restaurants that serve pink tahini and fish shawarma. They will spend the day in Jerusalem, in the heart of the good and spacious land; she, like her grandmother, will notice the heat and the colors. She will not miss New York. Despite everything, Israel will always feel a little bit like
home. She, too, will put her hand on the Western wall, but she will think for longer about the people who used to live there, who were displaced by the Six-Day War. She will stand on the cream-colored stones that now have a few more coats of history.

When Estera’s granddaughter is fourteen years old, her friend will ask her if she is a Zionist. She will shake her head, because she knows what he means. But she will think of what her great-grandmother would meant by “Zionist” in 1939, traveling to the promised land with a seventeen year old son who would never step foot on the shore of Haifa, and she will think of her grandmother, eleven years old, sitting on a pile of suitcases at a train station in Jerusalem, observing the color of the stones.

About The Writer

Maya Avida

Maya Avida is a rising sophomore studying physics at Princeton University, with minors in machine learning and sustainable energy. She is passionate about climate change, and hope to work in the renewable energy industry after she graduates. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, thrifting, and spending time with friends.

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Pawners Paper: The Promised Land | Maya Avida | Short Story
The Promised Land | Maya Avida | Short Story
In "The Promised Land," Maya Avida unravels Estera's prospective journey through Jerusalem by delving into her keen observations, expectations.
Pawners Paper
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