In praise of one extraordinary woman who refuses to point a finger

By Robert Sarner, Detroit Jewish News, Dec. 26, 2003

JERUSALEM - She's short but stands tall. She speaks softly but people listen. Her Hebrew is good but her Arabic is better. She is a passionate Jerusalemite but nostalgic about her native land. She's modest but her saga is not.

With a sparkle in her eyes and a smile to match, she exudes warmth, wisdom and dignity. To me, she is one of the greats I've met in Israel, emblematic of the fortitude that has built and helped sustain this country. Best of all, she's my wife's safta (Israeli-style grandmother).

Growing up in Canada, I never had a safta. When I was born, three of my four grandparents had already died. My father's Russian-born mother, my only surviving grandparent, was a distant figure I knew as Bubbie.

In my wife's extended family in Israel, Marcelle Ballas is affectionately known to her 29 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren as "Safta Marcelle" or, more commonly, just "Safta." They love her madly. To Safta's eight children and their spouses, she's Ima (mother). To me, ever since I met her in 1985, she's Safta and so much more, including my children's great-grandmother.

Safta was born in Iraq in the early 1920s. She's not sure exactly when because she never got a birth certificate. She is sure that in 1950, she left Baghdad with her husband and four children as part of a major airlift of Iraqi Jews to Israel.

Despite her large family, Safta was allowed to take only a few small suitcases. She spoke only Arabic and was pregnant with her fifth child. Like most of the 130,000 Iraqi Jews brought to Israel between 1949 and 1952, Safta arrived bewildered and unsure of the future.

It's hard today to picture the terrible adversity new immigrants faced in the early years of the state. For their first four months, Safta and her family lived in a tent in an immigrant transit camp in Pardess Hanna. The conditions were deplorable. Many nights, Safta broke down in tears and longed to be back in Baghdad. Finally, her younger sister and husband brought Safta's family to Jerusalem where the two families lived for the next half-year in a one-room apartment.

With next to no money, a few dozen words of Hebrew and a largely absent husband, Safta then moved her family into an abandoned, decrepit apartment across town. It consisted of two tiny, windowless rooms. That was home for more than a decade during which Safta single-handedly raised five daughters and three sons. Her husband was no longer in the picture. What Safta could not provide for her children in material comfort, she compensated with boundless love and devotion.

Today, Safta has reason to be proud. Her eight children - Sima, Nissim, Sarah, Shoshana, Herzl, Dalia, Ruthie and Nachum - have all made a success of their lives. One is a lawyer, two are building developers, one's a real estate agent, another is a senior Treasury official and another a school principal. One of her daughters, Dalia Itzik, is a former cabinet minister and deputy mayor of Jerusalem and currently a Knesset member. Many tout her as a possible future prime ministerial candidate.

Ranging in age from 48 to 62, all eight are married, have beautiful families, live in Jerusalem and remain tightly attached to each other and to Safta. On most Saturday afternoons, they congregate in her apartment.

"I'm thankful to Israel because of how my children developed here and the life they have now," says Safta. "In the early years, life here was extremely difficult. It was not what they promised it would be before we left Iraq."

Always compassionate, Safta never seems to sit in judgment. That applies to Israeli-Arab relations, too.

"I don't know if there will be peace here, but I pray for it," Safta says. "I hope things will work out for Israel, that Jews and Arabs will be able to live together, even to like each other. Just as it was in Iraq. Most of the Arabs there were good to the Jews."

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Safta refuses to point a finger. "I don't know who's more responsible for the problem, us or them. It's hard for me to judge their grievances. I know many Israelis are bitter about them. I'm not. I'm only bitter about those, whether they be Arab or Jew, who do bad unto others. Both sides have to sit together, quietly, and deal with this dispute."

If only Safta Marcelle could preside over such talks.

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