Spirit of the Maccabees
By Raquelle Azran
My literary colleagues at the Tel Aviv Testament parse famous lines like “The fog comes on little cat feet” and “March comes in like a lion,” but me, I do Decembers. December is Maccabee Month, when Jews everywhere celebrate Hanukkah by spinning dreidels and lighting menorahs, but here in The Big Orange, we pay tribute to the little jug of oil which lasted for eight days by devouring donuts for four weeks. So December plods in on unctuous armies of jelly donuts, and as Testament food editor I have to sample them all, from the gorgeous sugarcoated round bellies of upmarket bakeries on Ibn Gvirol Street to the wrinkled greasy hardballs stacked next to supermarket checkout counters. If you have never eaten a dozen sufganiyot [jelly donuts] daily, every day for a month, one month every year, you don't have the faintest idea what I'm talking about. I'm talking Jewish oil torture. I'm talking arteries clogged with cholesterol, facial oil glands working overtime, pants zippers refusing to close, one month of indigestion.
In November our salaries were cut by 15%. The managing editor called an emergency meeting and invoked the spirit of the Maccabees, reminding us that we were just a small newspaper, and that to survive, we'd have to work harder and write more than our big-time competitors at the New Testament . We were asked to increase our output significantly. What does that mean, I whispered to my colleagues. The editor heard me and beamed. That means that our literary editor will read and review more books, our political editor will attend and report on more press conferences, and you, dear food editor, will sample double the number of jelly donuts this Hanukkah. My pancreas skipped a beat. I smiled weakly. My stomach growled at the thought of 24 jelly donuts a day.
Desperate times demand desperate measures. I went home and scanned the Jewish computer dating sites, leaving toothsome messages for all Judahs and Yehudas. I placed an ad in the personals for a man with a big appetite. And I dropped in on my ex-mother-in-law.
Ruta, I said, I have a really dirty job that needs doing. It's greasy, sticky, and high cholesterol. The pay is lousy, the work is short term with no perks and it's all manual labor. I need a Big Maccabee.
Ex-mother-in-law eyed me as disdainfully as always. Maybe you went to university, she said, but you still haven't figured it out. Nice Jewish boys don't dirty their hands with physical labor. What you need is foreign workers. They're always hungry, always ready to work, and, best of all, they can't complain if you decide in the end not to pay.
I hadn't really thought about not paying. That's too terrible. That's even worse than asking Israeli restaurants to add the tip to the credit slip, but her arguments were persuasive. And as none of my computer Judahs and Yuhudas responded, and all the guys who answered my personals ad left messages filled with four letter words, I was out of options. It was either me or foreign workers. Im en ani li, mi li? [If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? (Rabbi Hillel, Pirkei Avot)]
I found Li Feng near the Carmel Market, teetering on a bicycle unbalanced by heavy crates of oranges. His legs pedaled furiously as he swerved between the fruit and vegetable stalls, before crashing into a pyramid of empty cartons. I waited patiently for his flip-flops to emerge from under the wreckage, and then approached. Niha, I greeted him. How would you like a job with a lot of starch? Laundry, he grinned. No, donuts, I said, and gave him a note with my address and phone number.
Nicolai, lounging on the sidewalk near the old central bus station, was waiting for a construction job. His massive chest bulged under a faded red shirt as he dealt the cards to his buddies. They whistled appreciatively as I approached. I need a strong man, I mumbled. I will sweat for you, lady, Nicolai said, flexing his hairy biceps. No sweat, just oil, I said, and gave him my card.
As an affirmation of gender equality, I recruited Maria, the Filipina who takes care of the nasty old lady next door. Eating donuts on Hanukkah is a mitzvah [a commandment or act of kindness], I said. And your employer will be ecstatic if you eat less at her expense. A devout Catholic, Maria assured me that she could outeat a man any day, especially mitzvah food.
Two days later, we met at my place, under cover of darkness. This is the plan, I said. Every day, I collect 24 jelly donuts. We meet here at 9 p.m. Make sure you're not followed. You eat the donuts, no cheating or stuffing your pockets. You tell me good or not good, I write down what you say, and you go home. I pay at the end of Hanukkah, one donut one shekel. OK?
“Twenty-four donuts and three of us,” calculated Maria. “I eat ten and each man eat seven, OK?”
The first tasting session began smoothly. I passed out the donuts, which I had carefully tagged, took out my notebook, and waited for the signals--thumbs up for the good donuts, thumbs down for the bad. Only when I sat down in my office the following morning to write up the Daily Donut Review did I realize my mistake. My DDR lacked description, lacked color. It was too cut and dry. That evening, I presented my Maccabees with an ultimatum. You have to tell me something about each donut, I said. I don't care what, as long as it's fit to print.
Li Feng squatted on the kitchen floor and bit into a donut. The sticky red jelly spurted out, smearing his chin.
“Good,” he smiled. “Inside is fruity.”
“You look like red peril,” giggled Maria. Ignoring her, he chewed on.
“Sweetsour,” he added, “like eggroll dipping sauce.”
Nicolai eyed the donuts.
“I think mamaliga [polenta] more healthy,” he said, and bit into a donut. His strong yellow teeth ground the dough into dust. “Heavy,” he said sadly, “like cement. Can use to build statues of heroes.”
Maria sat down on an armchair, extended a scarlet-tipped hand to a donut and delicately nibbled.
“Tfoo,” she spat, “nakakadiri [awful]. Oil from sardines. Do mitzvahs always taste so bad?”
I took careful notes.
A week went by, two weeks. Maria's pants zipper no longer closed. Nicolai had developed a frightful belch, and Li Feng's face was covered with pustulent pimples. My prose soared.
“Come into my office,” invited the managing editor as we rode up the elevator together. His eyes probed, searching for the 24-a-day bulges and zits. “I really like what you're doing with the donuts this year. Such colorful descriptions, such original metaphors. I'd love to use you as an example of increased productivity in next week's board of directors meeting. To what do you attribute your success?”
To my ex-mother-in-law, to Li Feng, to Nicolai and Maria, I thought.
“Dear editor,” I said, “it's all in the spirit of the Maccabees.”
A native New Yorker, Raquelle Azran has been living the expatriate life since the Sixties. She divides her time between Hanoi, Vietnam, where she specializes in Vietnamese contemporary fine art and Tel Aviv, Israel, where she writes in her inner city aerie overlooking the Mediterranean.
Azran's short story "By the Roadblock of Bethlehem" was awarded honorable mention and published in the International Herald Tribune literary supplement of the Middle East edition (2002). "Hanoi and Counting," an essay, was published in Vietnow and is being reprinted in Heritage (January 2006). Her essay "Giving Good Group" appears in The Writing Group Book (Chicago Review Press, 2003) and her short story "Subtle Choices" appears in Aunties:Thirty Five Writers Celebrate Their Other Mother (Ballantine Books, 2004). "Love" was included in the University of Maine's 2004 anthology of short shorts. "Jumping to Conclusions" appeared in the e-zine of the NY Writers' Coalition in March 2005 and "Edith's Husband," a feminist rewriting of the Biblical story of Lot's wife, appeared in February 2005, in the Culture supplement of the Haaretz/International Herald Tribune.
Raquelle's previous contribution to VerbSap was A Sampler of Vietnamese Art.
Photo "Doughnut" courtesy of Michal Bezowy, Wysokie Mazowieckie, Poland.
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