Savta Levana Cooks a Cat — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

“For what is the cat?” Savta Levana asked as Tamar smoothed the creases out of the apron she had just fastened at her grandmother’s back.

illustration by Avi Katz</eillustration by Avi Katz

“Just something I made. Now stand over by the sink so I can check the light.” Tamar had positioned her video camera at the entrance to the tiny kitchen. The good part was that she could leave the camera largely unattended. Savta Levana wouldn’t move much because there was practically no counter space left for her to work on now that she had all the modern conveniences. A mini-dishwasher grabbed most of the corner on the left side of the sink, between it and the refrigerator, and a microwave oven took up the bulk of the small stretch of counter between the sink and the window on the right. Tamar had already given instructions not to move the chicken over to the small table opposite, on which the cat sat. Even though that’s where Savta Levana really did most of her prep for the stove and oven, the camera would not see her there.

“What is just something you made? You just made it like that? A busy girl like you? You have time to make cat dolls?”

“Savta, we’re making tbit,” Tamar reprimanded her.

“I’ve made tbit every Friday for more than fifty years and I never had someone watch me,” the grandmother complained, eyeing the big-headed blue cat with the heart in its paw with more than a pinch of suspicion.

“I’m going to make you famous. Savta Levana’s Iraqi recipes on YouTube. People all over the world will make your tbit. They’ll make pilgrimages to Holon to worship at your kitchen. I’ll even add English subtitles.”

“Who needs it?” Savta grumbled.

She needs it, Tamar thought. Sits at home all day, refuses to go to the senior center. Here her granddaughter comes to put some variety into her life and all she can do is complain.

“Ok, ready? I’ll say ‘roll’ when I turn on the camera and then you start talking, just like we rehearsed it.”

“Why are you studying film? Couldn’t you do law? Then you could sue Yakobian for me.” Yakobian was the widower who lived upstairs. He walked in circles in his bedroom every night, his cane pounding out each stride, just as Savta Levana was trying to fall asleep.

“Roll!”

“Today we’re making tbit, that’s what the Iraqis eat every Shabbat for lunch,” Savta Levana explained to the refrigerator.

“Look at the camera!” Tamar mouthed.

“Tbit is chicken cooked with rice and you leave it on the hotplate all night and all morning,” Savta Levana told the cat on the table. Tamar mouthed again as Savta turned to the counter.

“We make it with hashwa, which is chicken skin stuffed with rice. First I take the leg and take off the skin, like this, to make the hashwa. Can you turn the cat around, it’s staring at me and I don’t like it.”

“Savta!” Tamar protested, almost yelled, switching off the camera.

“Why is the cat here? It needs to go into the tbit?”

Tamar put her hands over her face. “Don’t worry, someone’s coming to take it.”

“Someone who needs a stuffed cat with big eyes?”

“It’s this guy.”

“A boy?” Savta Levana’s face brightened. Then, looking her granddaughter over: “You should lose some weight. And wear nicer clothes. No wonder no one looks at you, with those pants. And your hair. Why do you cut it so short?”

“I don’t know him.”

“Why not?”

“Savta!” She reminded her grandmother that she made some spending money by producing custom-made dolls and toys for children. And last week a guy had called and asked her if she could make a cat with a heart for his girlfriend, or actually his former girlfriend, who had thrown him out because, he admitted, he’d treated her like a doormat. Tamar was busy with her final film project and had tried to get rid of him by quoting a super-high price, to which he immediately agreed. No sum was too large to get this woman back because he realized now that he’d never again meet anyone anywhere near like her. He’d messed up but now he was going to show her that he really cared and was going to change his ways and give her all the attention and respect she deserved. Spending a bundle on a cat doll, he was convinced, was just the gesture to mollify her anger and melt her heart.

“A gold necklace would be better,” Savta Levana advised.

Tamar looked at her watch. “Savta, we have to get back to the tbit.” But just as she was about to turn the camera on, the ceiling started reverberating with the drumbeat of Yakobian’s cane. Savta Levana’s face went red and she rushed to the window and shouted.

“Yakobian! I’ll call the police! I can’t think straight!”

“Savta, calm down! He’s just an old man.”

“Let him get a wheelchair. Move to a nursing home. Allah ahdo. May God take him.”

“Damla behalkak!” came Yakobian’s voice from upstairs. “May you get a pimple on your tongue!” An exchange of Arabic curses got underway. There was a knock at the door.

“Is that him?” Savta asked, waving her hand in the direction of the window as if to tell Yakobian that she had something more important to do. Her voice, rather than angry, now evinced eager anticipation.

Tamar opened the door. “Hi, I’m Yonatan,” said the guy at the door. Savta Levana wiped her hands on her apron, placed herself in the kitchen doorway, and looked him over intently. He had mussed light brown hair and was wearing skinny jeans, an aqua-colored long-sleeved t-shirt, and Teva sandals. A banging sound like the knell of a bell-clapper against a stone sounded from the stairwell, regular and determined.

“Hi, I’m Tamar. And this is Savta Levana.”

“Perhaps you are in law school?” Savta Levana asked as Yakobian teetered on the bottom step just before the landing. Yontatan yelped as the old man brought his cane down firmly on the young man’s left foot.

Yakobian considered Yonatan’s foot for a moment before slowly lifting his cane. Tamar already had the cat in hand. “Here,” she said to Yonatan. “Do you have the money? We’re in the middle of filming …”

“Excuse my granddaughter,” Savta Levana said to Yonatan, taking him by the arm and drawing him toward the kitchen. “She doesn’t know how to talk to young men. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t have a boyfriend.”

“Savta!”

Savta ignored her. “What’s this ‘Do you have the money?’ You have to invite the boy in, give him a cup of tea, some reibeh cookies. NOT YOU!” The last two words were shouted at Yakobian, who had followed Yonatan in.

“Savta, we’re in the middle of the tbit.”

“We take the skin that we’ve taken off the leg of the chicken and put some rice in it.” Savta Levana held the floppy goose-bumped skin up before the blind camera with her left hand and a large trussing needle with thread in her right. Then she turned to the counter and put a spoonful of rice into the skin and began sewing it up. “We sew loosely so that the liquids from the pot will get in and cook the rice and give it a nice flavor.”

Yakobian’s cane pounded out several swift steps. “You forgot the baharat. What kind of taste will the rice have with no spices?”

“Savta, I haven’t turned on the camera!” Tamar lamented.

“Last week the baharat was not fresh and the rice was bland,” Yakobian said, banging his cane for emphasis. “I hope you bought fresh. From Gaon at the shuk, not from the supermarket, the supermarket stuff is stale.”

“What do you know?” snapped Savta Levana. “It was fresh last week.”

“Then you didn’t use enough.”

Yonatan held out five bills to Tamar. Tamar took the money without even looking at him. “How do you know?” she asked Yakobian.

“He stops by after synagogue on Shabbat to eat,” Savta Levana informed him.

“I thought you hate him.”

“Yes, but he still has to eat, doesn’t he?”

“We’ll have to go back. Take the rice out of the hashwa and we’ll do it again. I’ll turn on the camera as soon as everyone’s out of here.”

“Who’s the girl?” Savta asked Yonatan. “Why do you think she wants a cat?”

Yontatan handed the cat to Yakobian. Yakobian leaned his cane against the camera tripod and held the cat out to Savta Levana.

Savta, who was skinning another chicken leg, glanced at the proffered doll.

“Why do you think I want a cat?” But she took it and placed it on top of the microwave.

“It is a token of my appreciation,” said Yakobian. “For the tbit on Shabbat.”

“To appreciate would be to stop banging your cane on my head.”

“He’s my grandfather,” Yonatan explained to Tamar.

“I had this idea,” Yakobian explained. “If I make too much noise, you put the cat out on the windowsill. Instead of yelling. I see and I stop.”

“By the time you get over to the window to look I’ll be in an insane asylum,” Savta Levana pointed out. “A gold necklace would be better.”

Yakobian rolled his eyes at his grandson.

“Yakel min mali wayishak ala hali,” Savta grimaced, and translated for the young people: “Eats off my plate and laughs at me.”

Yonatan pulled out one of the chairs by the kitchen table and helped his grandfather sit. “You start the movie again. I’ll just watch,” Yakobian said. Yonatan took the other chair for himself.

“What’s your grandson do?” Savta asked as she spooned spiced rice into her tbit pot.

“He’s in law school.”

“They should get married,” Savta suggested.

“Savta,” Tamar pleaded. “Let’s get back to the tbit.”

Savta poured more baharat onto the rice.

“He wants it spicier,” she explained.

“He always does,” Yonatan said, smiling at Tamar. But Tamar had her eye in the viewfinder.

Savta looked up from the rice. “He’s smiling at you. Smile back,” she ordered. Tamar ignored her. Savta glanced at the microwave and then gave Yonatan an exasperated look.

“Maybe you should get her a cat doll. Sometimes it works.”

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More Necessary Stories!

Haim Watzman will publish his 100th Necessary Story next month. To celebrate, come see a staged reading of some of his favorites at Kehilat Yedidya in Baka, 12 Nahum Lifshitz Street in Jerusalem, on Thursday February 11 at 7:30 p.m. For details, and to book performances in other locations, contact Haim at hwatzman@gmail.com.

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