Before my husband Sid and I got married almost a dozen years ago, one of the household items I insisted on buying was a proper dining room table. I wanted something nice and strong. Something with presence. A table that said ‘this is a home’ to all our visitors.
I found the perfect handmade teak table in a boutique furniture store in Jerusalem, where we live, and quickly went home that evening to get Sid’s seal of approval. But by the time I got back to the store, the table had been sold.
The owner noticed my distress but he couldn’t understand that this was no mere shopper’s disappointment.
You see, some months earlier, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, my Jerusalem rental apartment caught fire. Sid — my then-fiancé — and I were at a friend’s house for dinner when the fire started and had no idea what was happening. We were heading out to a late-night lecture when we noticed four fire trucks rushing toward my neighborhood.
We watched them race down the road and wondered who the poor people were whose apartment was on fire. It never occurred to us that it was my apartment.
When we returned to my building at 1:30 a.m. the hall light was out. We started making our way up to the top floor in the dark, when my dear friend and neighbor, Tehilla, opened the door. Her little girls clung to her side.
“There was a fire in your apartment and there’s nothing left,” Tehilla told me. “Come, sleep on my sofa and we’ll tackle things in the morning.”
Sid headed upstairs to take a look at my apartment. The door was destroyed and the apartment was filled with twisted metal and ash. The fire had clearly started in the living room, near the entrance (we later learned that faulty wiring was the cause), and snaked its way to the other rooms via illegally placed phone lines.
Windows were blown out. The appliances were ruined and plastics melted. My clothes were history, and the computer in my bedroom looked like something out of a Dali nightmare.
Three inches of ash covered the living room, courtesy of my extensive library. The sofa, the rugs I had just purchased in Turkey, and the wooden dining table and chairs were carbonized. My jewelry, stored on the bamboo bookshelves in the living room, simply melted.
I was homeless. Half-written articles stored in my computer were never completed as I struggled with insurance companies and the landlord who was responsible for the wiring.
I couldn’t stop imagining what would have happened had we been caught on the top floor with no way out. “Not being home saved your life,” the fire inspector told me.
After staying with a friend I found another apartment to rent. Sid and I married four months later. A new immigrant, he had few possessions to bring to our marriage.
The insurance I had enabled me to buy the basics: clothes, including a pretty $75 off-the-rack dress from Italy that served as my wedding dress; some appliances; a bed, chairs and a table.
That’s what losing this table meant to me.
The furniture store owner kindly handed me the phone number of Yonatan, the man who made the table. That Friday, Sid and I drove to Tel Aviv and met Yonatan, who lovingly creates tables from Teak purchased in Indonesia. He was just completing a table that I knew was meant for me.
Yonatan delivered the table just in time for us to host a huge Passover seder which 14 dear friends attended.
Our teak table accompanied us to the tiny but sweet apartment we purchased a year later. It got covered in mashed bananas after our twin boys were born in 2002 and was the center of our lives for many years afterward.
But as the boys grew, our living room/dining room seemed impossibly small, so we reluctantly put the table in storage. We’d intended to bring it with us when we bought a larger place. Unfortunately, even when we did find a larger place, the new apartment’s dining area was too small. Our table had to stay in storage a little longer.
I dreamed of putting the table, still strong but a bit time-worn, into our new building’s open, shaded garden in the back, entertaining visions of dinner parties and holiday get-togethers. We finally set up the table on a Tuesday morning in April.
At 4 PM that day, we checked on the table, just before taking the kids for a doctor’s appointment. When we returned at 7 PM it was gone.
“Maybe some kids took it for firewood,” Sid said, half jokingly, noting that the holiday of Lag B’Omer was coming up in a few days. To celebrate the holiday people light bonfires and tell stories.
“What kids would steal a gorgeous table that weighs almost 100 pounds?” I asked incredulously.
The little old couple next door came out onto their porch. They nodded sadly and said many things from their fenced-in garden had been stolen over the years.
“Arabs,” they said, shaking their head. “They come from East Jerusalem.”
Sid and I teach our children to believe in the goodness of others, whether they’re Jewish or Arab. That someone would choose to steal the table hurt as much as the loss of the table itself. Did it really matter who stole the table?
No. Not to me.
The next afternoon, Sid, who was going through some boxes in the garden shed, shouted for me to come downstairs.
There was my teak table, scratched but still beautiful.
“I saw some kids collecting firewood and I followed them,” Sid said with a grin, pointing to a neighboring garden.
After giving the young thieves the scolding of their lives, we examined the damage. We could have had the table repaired but chose not to. Like deep smile lines, the scratches remind us that life is about living, not fretting. We were spared a dozen year ago, on Shavuot, and that’s worth celebrating.