Cover image for Four mothers
Four mothers
Horn, Shifra.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Arbaʻ imahot. English
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Physical Description:
276 pages ; 25 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A magical debut in the tradition of Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits" and Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club, " about the women of a Jewish family living in Jerusalem.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

When Amal gives birth to a healthy baby boy, her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother are overjoyed, despite Amal's husband's having deserted her shortly thereafter. In discovering the reason for their happiness, Amal learns the stories of her foremothers. Orphan Mazal's unfortunate marriage set the stage for the next four generations of women: her daughter, Sara, whose beauty and talent for healing brought her sorrow and joy; Sara's daughter, Pnina-Mazal, whose talent for languages allowed her to understand her emotionally and mentally retarded brother but did not lead to self-knowledge; Pnina-Mazal's daughter, Geula, whose ideals brought her into conflict with the government; and Amal, Geula's daughter, born in 1948, who, by giving birth to a son, brings about an end to the suffering of the family's women. Owing to an awkward translation, the various women in the novel remain undifferentiated. However, the story Horn tells of the changing roles of women in the past 100 years of Israeli history is an interesting one. --Nancy Pearl

Publisher's Weekly Review

Five generations of Jewish women suffer through personal and political turmoil in this Jerusalem-set novel, a bestseller in Israel. When relatives correctly predict that her husband will leave her after their son's birth, Amal inquires into the origins of her matriarchal family's curse of the disappearing husband. Her research takes her back a century, to the day matchmakers marry her great-great-grandmother Mazal to a young shopkeeper who abandons her after the birth of their baby girl. Mazal shares bed and board with a girlfriend who helps to raise Mazal's daughter, Sara, as she grows into a legendary beauty. Sara's ill-fated marriage produces a linguistically gifted daughter, Pnina-Mazal, who studies in the English-speaking quarter and travels abroad. Pnina-Mazal's husband goes off to war, leaving her to a career translating for the international factions inhabiting the city, which necessitates having out their daughter, Geula, nursed by an Arab woman. By the time Amal, Geula's daughter, marries, the novel has explored just about every family drama imaginable, including incest, rape, single motherhood, disease and death. Bilu's translation captures the language of folkloreÄfull of symbolic objects, superstition and Israeli customs. Horn, making her American debut, vividly brings to life Jerusalem's residential neighborhoods, but her characters are epic heroines as frequently overwrought with calamity as they are stoic, impenetrable ancestors. That the tale is dense, ponderous and sincere is part of its charm as a novelized Israeli genealogy, while Horn's unique visualization of 100 years of one family's women in Jerusalem gives a personal perspective to that city more often defined by its historic and political headlines. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One I was born in my great-grandmother Sara's brass bed in the summer of 1948. Salvos from the Jordanian cannons saluted the dramatic event with suitable noises in the background. Shells cleaved the whitening sky of the city of Jerusalem, seeking the addresses of those with whom destiny had made a bloody appointment. On that day I joined my voice to theirs and screamed my first scream. I was told this by the three women who greeted me in the outside world. We'll begin with my mother, Geula, whose expression of horror at the sight of the red creature emerging from her womb was the first image imprinted on the cells of my brain. To this day, even as I write these lines, she has not succeeded in recovering from what she calls the "humiliating" experience of giving birth to me. My grandmother, Pnina-Mazal, was the one who bent over the bed, smiled at me, and cooed the first words that shook the delicate membrane of my eardrums: "It's a girl, it's a girl...." My great-grandmother, Sara, whose fresh scent of roses filled my nose, was the midwife, and when I grew up she told me that my birth had been a particularly easy one. No man was on hand to receive the news of my birth joyfully, and on my birth certificate, under "Father's Name," is written in round letters: "Unknown."     My story begins because of my father. I never met him and his name was never mentioned at home. I began my investigation into the question of my paternity after discovering the facts of life in a book that we would read furtively under the stairs leading to the grade three classroom in the Lady Meyuhas School for Girls. Since I was brought up by three women, I was sure that the role of the men I met in the homes of my friends was confined to earning a living for the members of their households and mumbling the Kiddush on Friday nights. In my family there was no man, I thought, because my mother and my two grandmothers did not need a breadwinner, and when they felt like having Kiddush, they knew how to do it themselves. The book that came into my hands threw my mind into a turmoil and shattered all my previous beliefs. My friends, who had read it before me, repeatedly assured me that it was impossible for a baby to be born without the participation of a man in the act of creation. This fact was written there in explicit, vowel-pointed words, accompanied by graphic illustrations that gave me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach when I looked at them, and led me to the gloomy conclusion that in my family too there were men who had participated in bringing the women of the family, including me, into the world.     From then until the writing of these lines I have known no peace. Without beating about the bush I immediately commenced my investigations and inquiries into my mother's partner in the act of conception, the man called "my father." In reply to my questions my mother would shrug her shoulders and turn her back to me, revealing the nape of her stiff and wrinkled neck, from which hard, wiry red hairs sprouted together with soft, curly white ones, as if the years had softened her wayward hair as they turned it white. To this movement was usually added the word "pest" and the sentence "Who the hell cares!" which was repeated whenever I asked the question. These words were hissed at me between clenched and pointed teeth, which according to my grandmother had been like that ever since my mother was born.     I received no cooperation either from my grandmother Pnina-Mazal, who wandered round the town with her battalions of cats like a queen walking among her humble subjects. She had entered into a conspiracy of silence with my mother and adamantly refused to tell me anything about the fathers of our family in general and my father in particular, even during those hours of grace when she agreed to receive me in her house, which was steeped in the strong smells of tomcats in heat. Then she would dish up my lunch on a battered tin plate, exactly like the ones scattered throughout her large, spacious house and containing delicacies reserved for cats: chicken heads and the quivering intestines of creatures into whose identity I had no wish to inquire more closely. When I put my list of questions to her and tried to coax her to talk to me about my father, she would clear her throat, sum up her childhood in two sentences, and launch into detailed stories about the ones really close to her, her cats. And again I would try to turn things round and catch her out in a slip of the tongue, but she would extricate herself like a cat with nine lives, elegantly evading any pitfalls in its path.     Of her brother Yitzhak, who lived with her under the same roof, I had long despaired. Like a tree that had taken root he would sit all day long in an ancient armchair with bits of straw sticking out all over its shabby red upholstery. His flabby stomach descended in degrees from his many double chins to his always wet groin, and his bald head festooned with residual yellow moss gleamed at me.     Today I think that Pnina-Mazal agreed to keep him in her house because he served as a private playground for her cats. They would climb up his paunch with their curved claws hidden in their velvety paws, reach his ears, which were blocked with yellow wax, and cautiously taste with their jagged tongues. Then they would tickle the caves of his nose with their whiskers, elicit a sneeze, lightly bite his swollen cheeks, climb onto his head, and stand erect on its polished dome. When they tired they would leap straight into his capacious lap, where they would snuggle up like kittens and purr contentedly. Others would butt his calves, polish their nails on the thick material of his trousers, rub themselves against his thighs, sprinkle them with the marks of a strong male smell, and annex the pillars of his legs to their own private domain. During the afternoon nap Yitzhak's "regulars" would snooze cradled in his plump lap, their ears pricked, keeping a wary eye out for intruders.     In the course of one of my interrogations about the men in the family, Pnina-Mazal told me irrelevantly about how, a few years before, the tabby cat, the strongest and boldest of the tribe, hissing like a snake, had chased the "regulars" from Yitzhak's lap. Pushing down with her paws, the tabby leveled out a protected area, waited until she was alone, and then gave birth effortlessly to four multicolored kittens, over which she then kept guard fiercely, forbidding anyone to approach him, her, or them. When Yitzhak uttered his traditional cry of "Food," the women watered him through the long copper pipe normally used by Sara, my great-grandmother, to distill rose water, inserting one end in his mouth and plunging the other into the clay jar of cold water in the kitchen. When his hunger grew they borrowed the long, charred wooden baker's peel from Abu Yussuf's pita bakery and served him his meals from a safe distance, for fear of the spitting and scratching of the new mother. Only twenty-four hours later, and after much coaxing, lip-smacking, promises, and soft, wheedling words showered on her by Pnina-Mazal, did the cat agree to move, leaving a souvenir on Yitzhak's fly in the form of a moist, red-rimmed stain festooned with the remains of four afterbirths, soft and quivering as purple jellies.     Such were the stories I succeeded in eliciting from Pnina-Mazal in reply to my questions about my family and my father. And if she preferred to talk about her cats, whose number was beyond my reckoning, it must have meant that in the course of time they had acquired the status of family relations, which the men had not. * * * The only one who agreed to cooperate and offer cautious replies to a few of my questions was my great-grandmother Sara. To this day, whenever I mention her name, I can smell the fresh scent of plucked roses that wafted from her and clung to her clothes, to her dishes, to the air in her stuffy room, and to me whenever I came to visit her. When I took the number 15 bus from her house to my mother's house in Talbiyeh, the sweet smell of roses would mount the steps with me, sit down on the hard wooden bench with me, and accompany me to school the next day.     Everyone agreed that my great-grandmother Sara was the most beautiful old woman they had ever seen. It was said that in her youth she had been the most beautiful woman in the world. From the day she was born, her admirers claimed, her beauty had been unrivaled. And if there had been competitions for beauty queens then, they added, Sara undoubtedly would have walked off with all the prizes year after year.     It was no easy matter to gain an interview with my great-grandmother Sara. In order to see her I had to wait my turn in the long line of grave, expressionless women huddled outside her door under the faded khaki canvas awning. This shelter had been put up for their benefit and tied to the top of the great mulberry tree, whose roots cracked the courtyard tiles, in order to protect them from the furious rains of the Jerusalem winter and the blazing sun of the dry hamseen days that hung over the town in the summer. For hours they would stand under the awning, determined, patient, and silent, until crazy Dvora, who took care of my great-grandmother devotedly, parted on the doorstep from the happy supplicant who had emerged from her audience beaming with the grace bestowed on her and smelling sweetly of roses. Only then would Dvora invite the next woman to enter. Sometimes she would come out to the mute crowd and announce that Sara was tired and tell them to come again tomorrow. And they would disperse, quiet and obedient, and come back the next day to take their places in a new group of dull-eyed women. Thus I would stand there for hours in the line, until Dvora came out and ushered me in.     My great-grandmother Sara would receive me in her brass bed, leaning against starched pillows that sprouted flowers of broderie anglaise , and her white hair would surround her head in a ring of pure radiance and illuminate the faces of those sitting opposite her. The color of her hair was the whitest I had ever seen in my life. Perhaps it could be compared to the gleaming white of the highest mountaintops in the world, covered with a snow that no human foot has dirtied, no speck of dust has touched, and no human eye has beheld. For if that white penetrated your eyes they would be blinded and black spots would dance before them.     Her long white hair and her eyes glowing with the sweetness of honey would illuminate the dimness of the room for me. After asking me how I was getting on at school and work, she would respond to my inquiries and tell me about her childhood, her mother, her children and grandchildren. But when she came to her granddaughter, my mother, she would stop talking, close her eyes wearily, and ask me to come again tomorrow for the end of the story. The next day, after a long wait, she would tell me new stories about rose water, about horses whose manure was fragrant, and about a comet that cleaved the sky, but when the conversation turned to my father, she would tire and ask me to leave. This went on for years.     How old was she? No one spoke of this for fear of the evil eye. To me she revealed in a whisper that she was "a day and a night old" without explaining what she meant. It often seemed to me--and my grandmother Pnina-Mazal and my mother Geula hinted this too--that Sara was waiting to receive the sign to close her eyes forever from me, of all people. Something special was supposed to happen to me in order for her to yield her body to death, and this premonition prevented me from doing anything out of the ordinary. I was careful to keep to as regular a daily schedule as possible and I imposed a tedious routine on myself, from which I never strayed to the left or the right. I tried not to move the furniture in my room unnecessarily, refrained from stepping on the lines dividing the floor tiles from each other, and followed exactly the same path to school every day. I even refrained from abandoning the neighborhood grocery store, where Haim the grocer cheated on the weight of the sliced yellow cheese, and taking my custom to the gleaming new supermarket that had opened near our house, in case this move should prove to be the act in which Sara would find a pretext for responding to death's invitation.     I imagined death as a man dressed in a tailcoat and top hat, just like the figure I had seen in the picture on display in the dusty window of "Rahamim & Sons, Photographers." This elegantly dressed gentleman had passed over Sara all this time, as if he was stricken by her beauty and dazzled by the radiance of her hair whenever he tried to visit her and take her away with him. * * * This terrifying responsibility for the longevity of my great-grandmother, which was irrevocably tied to my future actions, was conveyed to me by the women of my family indirectly and without words. Perhaps this explains my late marriage. When I decided to get married, in willful opposition to my mother, who did not believe in the institution, I prepared to announce my intention to Sara in fear and trembling, lest it provide her with the excuse to die at last.     To my surprise, on the day I had chosen to make my announcement I was not obliged to wait with the other women. As soon as I joined the end of the line under the mulberry tree, crazy Dvora came running up to me as if she didn't have a moment to lose and told me that Sara was waiting for me and that I was to go in to her immediately.     Weak at the knees I entered the room, afraid of her reaction to this significant change in my life, a change that was liable to shorten her own life. Contrary to my expectations, she greeted me with a smile. After congratulating me, she asked me for a picture of my husband-to-be and laid down its measurements: forty centimeters by thirty. When I returned with the picture she gave it to Dvora and magisterially instructed her to take it to David the framer in the nearby neighborhood of Zichron Moshe: "He'll know what to do with it." And when Dvora returned with the picture in a heavy frame surrounded by gray passe-partout, Sara asked her to hang the new male addition to the family at the end of the ruler-straight row, where the faces of three men trapped in identical frames hung side by side at regular intervals, like beads lined up on an abacus. The picture of my future husband Sara ordered to be hung exactly over the dark rectangular stain on the wall, and the nail that had once held the portrait banished from its place in the distant past easily bore the weight of the new picture. As I contemplated the exhibition on the wall, the four men surveying me mercilessly with their mocking eyes looked like a collection of trophies gathered by headhunters.     At this moment of grace, with the picture of my husband-to-be hanging over her head, I asked her to tell me about the fathers of the family. She began with Yitzhak, the husband of her mother Mazal, continued with her own Avraham, and concluded with my grandfather David. There she stopped, because when she reached my father her lids drooped and she intimated that she wanted to rest. When crazy Dvora accompanied me to the door she muttered, as if to herself, that now that my husband's picture was hanging there on the wall with all the rest, the minute I gave birth to our first offspring he would leave me. She added that it was the curse with which the women of my family were blessed.     At the time I failed to understand how a curse could bless, and since Dvora had lost her wits a long time before, I didn't attach any importance to her words. I remembered them ten months later, the day after my son was born, when my husband slammed the door behind him, never to return. * * * My great-grandmother Sara did not depart this world immediately after my marriage. On the contrary, it seemed to me that she was waiting, with renewed strength, for the next change in me before she could close her eyes in peace. Dvora, who knew her better than any of us, would say, "So that she can be reincarnated in a new baby, which will never be as beautiful as her, because Sara in her present life has used up all the beauty due to her in all her incarnations, past and future." Even after the wedding, which was certainly a dramatic and unusual event in my life, the elegant gentleman in the top hat and tails did not succeed in visiting Sara and taking her away from me.     Now full of hope that my great-grandmother would live forever, I would go to her house once a week and wait my turn among the silent women. When I sat down next to her I could feel her eyes gazing intently and expectantly at my still-flat stomach. At the end of each visit I would leave with a pain in my gut, as if her eyes had succeeded in penetrating my stomach, delving into my intestines, invading my womb, and making as free with my body as if it were her own.     Three weeks after the wedding the thing happened that we had been trying as hard as we could to prevent. In spite of all the precautions we had taken, and against all odds, the sperm hit the egg.     From that moment I remember nights of weeping and desperate attempts on my part to explain to my new husband that it wasn't my fault I had become pregnant. I tried to explain to him that Sara had done it to me, just as she had done it to all the women who waited for her in the cold and the heat under the canvas awning. My husband would wound me with a disbelieving look and mutter something about the hereditary insanity of the women in my family that had now clearly affected me too.     Now I would wait patiently in the line with the flat-bellied women for an audience with my great-grandmother, painfully aware of their sidelong looks piercing my rounding stomach like daggers. I would enter her presence stabbed by looks that tore the sides of my stomach, wounded my heart, and roamed enviously and yearningly in the darkness of my expanding womb.     Sara would receive me with her honey eyes glowing, slide her sweet look over my belly, and murmur as if to herself, "Blessed be the Lord, a son, a male child."     "How do you know I'm going to have a boy?" I would ask her repeatedly, and receive the reply, "Because of your stomach, which comes to a point in the front."     Later on I dared to ask her about the curse hinted at by crazy Dvora and about my husband who would leave me after the birth; Sara would shrink at the question, pretend to be deaf, survey my belly with eager eyes, and ask me to leave the room because she was tired.     I became afraid of her, as if my beloved great-grandmother had turned into the Lilith who kills fetuses in the womb and steals babies from their cradles, and I would try to hold my swollen belly in and make it smaller whenever I visited her.     The day I left the hospital with my son in my arms I went straight to Sara. She looked at my sleeping baby, whose pursed lips were busy reconstructing the taste of my milk, whose mind was busy dreaming about the protective walls of my womb, and whose ears were full of the sounds of the warm, soothing waters in which he had been swimming for nine long months, and asked me to give her the diapered bundle.     With weak, gnarled hands whose taut skin revealed a network of pulsing blue veins she received her great-great-grandson, and immediately dropped him again. The baby fell softly onto the starched bedcovers.     "Is it a boy or a girl?" she asked, as if she needed to hear the answer from my own lips, even though she had already heard the news from her daughter and granddaughter.     "A boy," I replied.     "Undo the swaddling clothes!" she commanded in her flowery Hebrew. "I want to behold him with my own eyes."     With the clumsy fingers of a new mother I undid the urine-soaked diaper and waved the lower half of the baby's body in front of her.     Her myopic eyes armed with spectacles whose thick lenses looked like the bottoms of transparent wine bottles focused on the foreskin-covered little protuberance sticking up before her.     "A son," she said as if to herself. "The curse is over." And she closed her eyes and asked me to leave the room, as she was tired.     If I had expected to be asked to call the child after his grandfather or great-grandfather, I was wrong. Sara made no such request.     I left her on her smooth, spotless white bed with her eyes closed and her hair shining radiantly around her head. * * * Dvora accompanied me to the door and told me that my grandmother was very happy now. "A son has been born and the chain has been broken."      When I asked her what she meant, she said that if I investigated my family history I would understand, and the first fact I should take into account was that my husband had left me the day after I gave birth, never to return.     When I looked deeply into her demented eyes she suddenly seemed completely sane, and the seriousness of her words made my skin prickle in fear.     "You're lucky, a son at the first birth, and you have no husband now to force you to give birth to a daughter who will bear the curse," she said.     The next day she called me and told me in tears that when she got up in the morning and went into the old lady's room to make her bed and wake her up for her morning coffee, she found that she had died in her sleep. "But she had the same smile on her face as when she saw your baby," she added as if to console me. (Continues...) Excerpted from Four Mothers by Shifra Horn. Copyright (c) 1996 by Shifra Horn. Translation copyright (c) 1997 Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.