Nurit Zarchi, “Girl Inside Girl Inside Girl”


Translated by Lisa Katz

Jubilat 2001/reprinted World Literature Today 2004

At the shoemakers’, I’m standing next to a barrel. I’ve been sent here because I lost my shoes. A scandal whirls around me. How is it possible to lose shoes? Last night, as soon as the loss was discovered, I was sent to the soccer field to look for them. I walked on the wet grass, walked until it hurt on ground seashells, the kind chickens love to eat and which are strewn on the path to prevent erosion. I extract joy from the cruelty of injustice. With every step, those who sent me to the field become even crueler.


It is clear to everyone that I did it on purpose, like the time when I was a little older and the barber from Afula trimmed my hair down to the skull. When I stood at the entrance to the dining hall, the people sitting down froze in astonishment; their eyes followed me as I sat at an empty place at table, while I tried to pile food on my plate from a serving platter, and to shove it into my mouth.

Nearly wanting to die because my ears stick out, I am considered a rebel in the classic spirit of the kibbutz. I am like Madame de Pompadour, at the court of Louis the 15th, in reverse.

I am compelled to become the other. I think of myself as absent islands swept away into an absent sea, while the other, in contrast to me, is a continuous presence. In order to revive and be saved from nonexistence, I pass a hand over the flame of the Sabbath candle, lingering longer than is feasible. I bite my hand in secret to see whether I feel alive. Meanwhile I observe the faces of the others in order to mimic good behavior. I am the one always making an effort to act according to the rules, while time after time a dark and mysterious factor raises its head and ruins my plans. Even the shoes guessed my weakness and acted against me. Perhaps, and this makes me even more afraid, perhaps they staged their rebellion out of my own hidden desires?

I’m frightened until I can’t feel anything anymore. And then relieved. Outside, a light mist hangs in the air. The sidewalks are muddied with winter, heavy black dirt tracks, the reason for the straw spread on the dining room floor, so the dirt won’t cling to the diners’ shoes.


“Have you gone mad? Where can we get shoes now?” On the kibbutz, distribution of new shoes is made at Passover and Rosh Hashanah, one result of the desire to link popular culture to the land, to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage. Perhaps, nonetheless, a pair can be found outside this framework?

In order to reach the shoemakers, you descend a step, pass under the sloping ceiling in the hallway — low, like the apartment of a mole– and enter. It’s warm and dark inside, the smell of leather mixed with glue and the scent of dusk. The two shoemakers, like a pair of trolls, sit bending over their lasts.

The shoemaker holding a nail between his lips mumbles something. I guess that he is telling me to stand quietly next to the barrel of “reserve” shoes until he is ready for me.

“Reserve” means something that doesn’t belong to anyone and that may then belong to someone who happens to need it, although its essentially transient nature will not change when it belongs to someone else.

It’s no accident that one needs to use a word in a foreign language, the language of those who forgot to take their shoes from the repair shop when they left. Perhaps the shoes belonged to someone in the American Habonim group, like the other things we find after they leave, when we pick through the garbage cans in the abandoned camp: shampoo bottles, soap, half-empty jars of cream, remnants of a lost civilization, like the Pharaonic magicians, or the Maya, giving notice that some place, some where, a rich, aromatic world exists. America.

Who knows how far the present world of rules stretches, like ripples drawn on water by a skipping stone.

I already knew; I’d heard about the draconian laws written in blood. Of course, they weren’t called that by ancient peoples. Only we, with the cheerfulness of succeeding generations, enjoy taking a determined stand against them.

The infants, those with defects, were thrown against the rocks. Secretly I thought that what saved me was being born on Mt. Scopus and not in Sparta. Because this test isn’t conducted at Hadassah Hospital. Sometimes a mistake saves your life. Place, too: Greece, the Jezreel Valley, Jerusalem.


Outside, the rain intensifies, beating with tiny fists on the shoemakers’ window, and on the wild heart of the palm tree, so close to the window that with its every nervous twitch you can make out a dove trying to hide its entire body, tail included, in the heart of the tree.

One of the shoemakers, whose heel is raised to match the height of the other, longer leg, gets up to turn on the light and returns to his seat. His face, like that of his companion, contracts into itself.

In spite of what’s happened, I’m not really afraid of them. I know they’re not from the central ideological stream of the kibbutz.

Of course, I didn’t know then something that I have difficulty understanding even now: no place is too small for an “I” to evolve.

They certainly aren’t centrists. If they identified a bit more with the place, the shoemakers might have provided refuge. But they are locked inside themselves, existing without any commitment to place. Perhaps they are trying to avoid the stigma that even I impose on them, as outsiders who came inside.

A miracle that takes place right before my eyes distracts me from these Cinderella musings.

I notice that drawn on the barrel is a girl holding a dove holding a girl holding a dove, infinitely, I think to myself, until the end of air and the end of time.

Is a sign being revealed to me? A girl inside a girl inside a girl, like a Chinese puzzle — a box inside a box inside a box; what you see does not explain everything either, only what’s inside, and so forth.

What was revealed to me at that moment, without my being able to understand, was that the last girl will always be the first girl, and vice versa, and that you’ll always be more than yourself and less than yourself, know and not know.

“Take,” says the shoemaker, who has gotten up meanwhile, and then bends to less than half his height, holding out a pair of purple shoes. “One of those crazy Americans,” he says and gives them to me, demanding neither punishment nor character analysis.

“Purple.” I don’t say aloud what I’m thinking, that these shoes are more wondrous in my eyes than any other pair, and never would have been given to me on Passover or Rosh Hashanah. Someone’s given me a prize, for what? The world is stranger than I imagine.

I go out looking humiliated, as befits someone being punished. This is how I return to the children’s house, with a hapless expression masking loneliness. I haven’t the courage to disclose my victory, afraid that someone will discover what I feel and take the purple shoes away.

At the same time I perceive and adopt the formula of a fall into my personal mythology.


Where I live, or perhaps it may be said, in the tribe I belong to, there is a ritual at bedtime. Parents, whose children spend all day in educational institutions, entertain them at home in the evening. When it comes time for sleep, parents escort the children to beds in the children’s houses, draw up the covers, read stories, kiss, and part from them with a big fuss, at which point the children are supposed to drift directly into sleep.

“But look, Kalya always goes to sleep by herself, and doesn’t make a big deal out of it,” I hear a mother, sitting on the bed next to mine, say to her son.

This is the first time I watch myself from the sidelines. I’m amazed. And to my amazement, the tactic of nonchalance is unsuccessful. The attempt to camouflage the beast of loneliness with tiger spots of independence does not work. I’m used to putting myself to bed without protest while my sister follows my mother to all her evening lessons and groups. Yet, just because I suppress the fear of loneliness, jealousy and sadness, I do not become one of the others. It is not enough to do what others do, you must enlist the members of your family too. Heredity, destiny. Perhaps I can change myself, but I can’t be my own mother. It is urgent to find out the difference between myself and the other, in order to obscure it. How can I be the other?

Who is the other? He’s in charge here, he fills the air, from the hills of Gilboa to the crest of Mt. Tabor. His honor fills a world. He is Caesar. The Golem of Prague. He is all existence.

I wander by myself along the pathways of the kibbutz while the others go to the rooms of their parents. I cannot join mother. I’m sure she’s going to leave me; I know in my heart that I’m leaving her.


One day, I enter the room, and a new crystal vase stands on the table with a white flower, a gladiola, standing tall inside. Message: something’s going on.

But the vase quickly disappears. And the music teacher, like a version of the statues on the piano, long tufts of hair growing out of the sides of his head, and pale in contrast to the tan, muscular people who work in the fields — the one who moved from Ein Harod to Geva to be with my mother — takes me, during one of my piano lessons, to water the young cypress he and mother planted near one of the chicken coops on the tree-planting holiday.

The tree, symbol of the holiday, now marks the month of Tammuz, the heat of summer. The piano teacher bemoans his lost relationship with my mother, trying to find out if a flickering coal remains, which might be rekindled.


Starting with the second man, I give mother a warning. “I dreamt,” I tell her, “that uncle is a thief.” Mother looks at me in fury, as though I doubt the propriety of others in order to gain an unfair advantage. She herself knows that dreams are not always false.

In punishment for my refusal to eat, I remain in the darkened children’s house from the afternoon to the next morning. I hear mother in the next room preparing schoolchildren for the holiday ceremony. A daughter of her time, mother didn’t dare to become an artist, but she has the temperament of one, a need for expression.

“Darken, darken, sky,” they sing, and I cry for the death of Trumpeldor on the hills of Ephraim, receiving a new victim, a young one.

These productions cost me dearly, mostly because as a girl I discovered that they were an unwitting joyride for her ego. Her strong musical voice would overcome the voices of the children singing their different parts, the bee, the lion, the fox, and her whisper, too, erupted from backstage, to supply the missing lines forgotten by frightened actors.

Unlike my sister, who follows her to all the rehearsals, including of course the holiday productions, I would leave as soon as I could, to her dismay. When I was forced to take part, as a bird or a silver rabbit, or in the audience, every cough or scrape of a chair practically gave me a heart attack. I identified completely with my mother the director.

Looking back, it’s obvious that the rabbits and hares, the kings and queens, in those days wearing silly hats and making the desert bloom, became part of my mentality.

I dedicated my first children’s book to my mother. The written dedication always makes me tremble. “To my mother, who knew how to teach many children, and me, about beauty and joy.” The words are both true and a lie at the same time. It is written in the language of my childhood, in which the waters of life and poison amount to the same thing.


One of the childcare workers hit me for the same reasons, intense, hard blows, until once, when the water supply was disconnected and we went to eat in the teenagers’ dining room, another worker who witnessed an incident stopped her by threatening to expose her at a kibbutz meeting.


…I can…hold up my head and say to myself, [Colette writes]: “I am the daughter of the woman…[who] at the age of seventy-six…was planning journeys and undertaking them, but that waiting for the possible bursting into bloom of a tropical flower held everything up and silenced even her heart, made for love. I am the daughter of a woman who, in a mean, close-fisted, confined little place, opened her village home to stray cats, tramps, and pregnant servant girls…Let me not forget that I am the daughter of a woman who bent her head… trembling between the blades of a cactus, her wrinkled face full of ecstasy over the promise of a flower, a woman who herself never ceased to flower, untiringly, during three-quarters of a century.”

I can say this, too, but in the knowledge that it is only part of the truth.


IMAGE: By ברל שמעוני Berl Shimony [CC BY 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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