Prose | Inside the Bubble

First Edition features new original works by Northern California Jewish writers. Appearing the first issue of each month, it includes a poem and an excerpt from a novel or short story.

by noga niv

Mika opened the door, her brown eyes brilliant, her pale features chiseled like those of a Greek goddess, and her short hair like ripples of honey. Regal in a black velvet dress, she gave me a warm hug and showed me into a huge salon pleasantly warmed by a fireplace in the center. A white Steinway stood in a corner of the room, just like in her house in the city and in all the houses where she’d ever lived. Mika was a talented pianist.

On the coffee table, there sat a plate overflowing with fruit and cakes. I hugged each woman in turn and handed Mika the gift I had brought: a shallow Japanese vase filled with pebbles, which I was pleased to note complemented her cream-colored carpet. Two purple velvet couches and three black armchairs adorned this elegant living room, in which sat three lovely nymphs, their legs wrapped in wool blankets that resembled mermaids’ tails. My girlfriends.

Gabi had invited all of us to the painting workshop. Nira was the only one who hadn’t turned up. Nira, the wife of Yoel’s business partner Rami, was a serious runner who wouldn’t miss a marathon, this time in Boston. Not even for the unique occasion of this sorority gathering. Nira never, ever broke her ironclad rules.

Generally, neither did I, which is why I hadn’t joined the others when they set out for the cabin early that morning. I felt that despite the warmth of my girlfriends, something was missing. It was a naked feeling. Yoel and the children, who usually clung to me like the clothing on my body, were back at home.

I looked at the women. Gabi was my best friend, but the others were also dear to me, each in her own way. I loved Mika’s noble spirit, her generosity, modesty, and talent. Her empress persona reflected her inner beauty. Mika was wise and experienced. She was the “older sister” in our small crowd; I often consulted with her regarding my children because I knew she had been there, in my shoes, years before.

Gila was a woman of the world. From her fashionable looks, you could easily learn about the trendiest designers in town. In fact, from Gila you could learn about almost any trend that mattered. She was witty and charismatic, sweet and warm. She always had something astonishing to share, which meant that in her company there was never a dull moment. To me, she represented a glamorous world like Alice’s Wonderland.

And then there was beautiful Anita, who, with all due respect, had forgotten that not long ago we had all waded in the same swamp from which her husband, Ido, had emerged as the prince of high tech, kissed by Lady Luck. Anita had also placed a crown on her flowing hair, spread her wings, and flown high. While I remained in that old swamp surrounded by the croaking of frogs, Anita, like Eliza Doolittle, had transformed her voice. Since the moment she’d taken flight, I had been relegated to the outskirts of her social network. My former spot was now occupied by far more influential, glamorous folks.

Mika served me mushroom quiche with cheese and salad. I devoured it. I recalled that I hadn’t had a bite since morning.

“Mmm, could I get your recipe?” I asked—in Hebrew, of course; we spoke Hebrew among ourselves.

“No problem,” she answered. “I’ll send it to you.”

Nothing was a problem for Mika. She was a woman for whom everything was easy, who browsed through life with no particular effort. She was a successful musician, a piano teacher at a conservatory in Palo Alto, and occasionally she made an elegant appearance as a concert performer. On top of all that, she was the beloved mother of four and the wife of a glowing husband, and that she would excel in those roles was taken for granted. Apparently, taking it easy was a mark of her childhood.

I, on the other hand, did not take anything easily; cooking, in particular, was a special challenge. I’d grown up in a home where food carried no importance. My mother was the sort who hoped that someday pills would be invented that would serve as a replacement for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was not only that my mother hadn’t cared much about her family members’ taste buds, it was my own nonexistent appetite that limited my interest. As a child, I was called the fisherman, as I fished out the onion from the salad, the cabbage from the soup, and the olives from anything set before me. I grew up mainly on dinner rolls with chocolate spread and toffees. No wonder I entered my adult life with scant culinary knowledge and skills. This lack was only one among many aspects of myself that seemed undeveloped. I always felt that I was missing out on the latest architects and designers, the trendiest music and places to visit, the finest gourmet food and wine. I never knew if I should blame the small, provincial town where I’d grown up, or if it was just something inherent in me, that I missed out on the general wisdom and lacked polished manners. All I remembered of myself as a child and young adult was that I’d been very studious. “A good girl from a good home” — that was me, a description carrying the most boring connotations. However, in my adult life, my friends helped me change. They were my sources of information, my agents of transformation, even my agents of socialization into the unknown public social arena. Although I had the credentials and the formal education, they were my informal educators. And I was a willing and dutiful pupil. I looked around with open eyes and an open mind, observing as much as I could.

Most of all I admired friends who were socially at ease, and who could whip up delicious, exotic dishes. I envied Gabi, who deserved a culinary medal of honor. Everyone in the Israeli community of the Palo Alto diaspora knew that Gabi’s dining table was always loaded with quiches, salads, stuffed vegetables, omelets, roast beef, fish, and irresistible desserts. Everyone knew that diets and resolutions were useless in the face of Gabi’s delicacies. Her guests feasted on the cornucopia and licked their fingers as Gabi melted with pleasure at the sound of chewing and compliments and completely forgot the three days’ work she had put into preparing the heaps of food.

With my quiche on elegant china, I joined the group, which was in heated discourse over the obvious topic of conversation for any group of women of our age: status updates on our children. Gabi, whose five children were born over the course of ten years, served as the glue for our little group. Every one of us had at least one child whose age matched one of Gabi’s.

There was nothing as efficient as motherhood for forming deep ties among women in the Valley. Everyone participated in driving the children to school, extracurricular activities, and play dates. We made plans for the school holidays, exchanged educational advice and babysitters, and put out one another’s little fires when necessary. Back home, we had enjoyed the help of mothers, sisters, and sisters-in-law, but as foreigners in America, we sought out ethnic warmth and came to regard one another as family: blood sisters.

“They expect children to act like little trained sheep! Do you have any idea what the kids will do to Yaniv in Israel if he shows up acting like a polite little American boy? The kids will eat him up alive. How do these Americans expect such discipline from them? They’re only children,” Gabi lamented. Yaniv’s natural chutzpah had been drawing fire from his fourth-grade teacher. Gabi shifted her plump body, her black curls in disarray on her forehead. From behind her thick glasses, she focused her blue eyes on us like a belligerent lioness. “Whenever a little problem arises, the teachers send the kids to the school psychologist and call the parents without making the least effort to handle the situation themselves.”

Anita, in her expensive jeans and stylish jacket, rose from the couch and sat on the floor, crossing her legs. On her left hand, she wore a glistening rose diamond ring worth more than the Jaguar she had parked outside.

Recently elected to the board of the Albert Einstein School for Gifted Children, Anita now rose to the defense of the establishment. “Albert Einstein is a small, private, high-quality school. The teachers are carefully chosen to foster excellence, and they are not there to handle problematic behavior,” she said with a rigid glance at Gabi. “Anyway, since when do parents come with complaints against the school? In Israel, did we even think of interfering or going to see a teacher?”

“You’d be surprised,” Gila flung back at her. “Things are changing everywhere. Nowadays, parents are involved in the curriculum and have influence. After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune, here and in Israel, too.”

The jab was directed at Anita. Ever since a few — some say a few hundred — million dollars had come her way out of a clear blue sky two years earlier, with the sale of Ido’s company to Oracle, her life had been transformed. She had been appointed chairperson of all sorts of things, including the West Coast chapter of the Women’s International Zionist Organization and TechnoKid, a nonprofit organization that sought to provide a computer for every child in the Middle East in order to create amity and hasten the peace process. Recently, when a huge amount of money from Ido and Anita Eitan flowed into the building of a new swimming pool in the local community center, she had become a member of the executive board in charge of planning future programs for the center. From the platform at the “crowning” ceremony, she had declared that her itinerary was packed and her plate was full. Her friends would testify to the fact that it was high time she learned to refuse invitations to head this or that organization, she said. However, she confessed with a million-dollar smile, she still had not learned to do so. Since then, Anita walked shrouded in mystery, looking important, networking, known and in the know, presenting and representing, but mainly meddling in politics, both local and within the Israeli community. Nothing escaped her, and she devoted herself wholeheartedly and dynamically to every task.

“What do you expect, when Israeli kids are thrown into the American school system?” asked Mika, whose children had passed through elementary school and were now trudging through high school. “We Israelis aren’t suited to the American mentality. Their ways are foreign to us. They worship academic degrees from the right universities,” she said with a consoling smile in Gabi’s direction. “They live in circles that exclude those who did not have a bourgeois American upbringing; it’s hard for us to make any real contact with them.”

“And some families can be suspicious of outsiders,” Gila added. “You can’t imagine the interrogation I had to endure when Netta invited a friend to sleep over. And Netta’s almost seventeen! ‘Full of shit’! I believe that’s what they call it.”

“What does that mean?” Gabi stared at her, taken aback.

“Pretentious, condescending behavior. Something smelly.” We laughed.

“Still, we have a lot to learn from the Americans,” said Anita, who, thanks to her financial circumstances, was now in the midst of a hot romance with American high society. She was Cinderella at the ball, dancing with San Francisco’s aristocracy, who had no idea that the ball gowns in her closet had been acquired only recently, when her husband became a rich man. “Last week I was a guest at the home of Sylvia and Gary Goldin. Do you know them? They own that jeans brand that’s gotten so popular. Believe me, I’ve never seen anything like Sylvia’s hospitality in any Israeli home. Amazing.” She dropped a few more big names to prove that she rubbed shoulders with the right people.

Anita ignored the fact that for the second time that evening, she was hurting Gabi, our very own hospitality queen, and the main reason for our get together this weekend at Mika’s.

“I hope that there’s actually something to eat at the Goldins’,” said Gabi ironically, “but you have to search for the food when you’re sitting around the table of an average American family.”

We laughed. We roared with laughter, remembering our own embarrassing encounters with the local culture.

“I realized long ago that American Jewish culture is very different from our Israeli culture. We don’t fit in at the synagogues. We can understand the language they read but we don’t connect,” Gila said, plucking a juicy red grape and sucking on it as if it were a lollipop. “Also, we were raised on theater, music, and a unique sense of humor. And I miss it so much! When I watch entertainment shows on television, I don’t get the point. I can’t believe they call that garbage entertainment. Not that there’s any shortage of garbage in Israel,” she amended, “but somehow it’s a different sort of garbage. And the real dilemma is how to educate our children while we’re here. In terms of which culture? Which identity are we shaping for them? And in a much more concrete sense, which youth groups should we send them to? The Israeli Scouts, or the American Jewish organizations?”

“Sorry! My kids won’t go to Israeli Scouts,” Anita declared. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do. You can’t raise a child with a split personality. We don’t live in Israel and there’s no point in insisting on preserving a culture that separates us from our environment.” I couldn’t help thinking that Anita was an Israeli in personality and an American when it was convenient.

Gabi stretched in the armchair and pulled her dark curls back from her face. Her beautiful face became serious as she fixed her blue gaze on a hidden point in the distance. “That’s the main reason why I’ve decided to go back to Israel,” she said quietly. “Roni’s about to be called up for her army service and, afterward, she’ll go to university. Eventually she’ll get married and I’d prefer that it be to an Israeli, who speaks our language and likes our food.” She looked at us for reassurance. We all laughed. Who wouldn’t love Gabi’s food? “The rest of my children are standing in line. Now,” she stressed, “we have to go back. We can’t delay it. Danny’s always been full of excuses and good reasons to go on living here. This thing’s dragged on for fifteen years. But I’ve decided that we’ve run out of excuses. It’s now or never.”

Noga Niv is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Palo Alto. This is her first novel, about Israeli Americans in Silicon Valley after the collapse of the dot-com bubble.


Works may be submitted to fiction editor Ilana DeBare at [email protected] or poetry editor Joan Gelfand at [email protected] Fiction excerpts may run up to 2,500 words, but only 800 words will appear in the print edition, with the rest appearing online. All prose and poetry published to date can be viewed at