When I Lived in Modern Times

BOOK: When I Lived in Modern Times
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Praise for Linda Grant’s
When I Lived in Modern Times

“Informed, intelligent…Tel Aviv inspires Grant’s most vital,

original writing.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Witty and intelligent…Ms. Grant’s fast-paced novel succeeds on many levels. It re-creates the historical era accurately with sophisticated prose and lively jests about the human condition.”

The Dallas Morning News

“An unsentimental, iconoclastic coming-of-age story of both a country—Israel—and a young immigrant, Grant’s novel both introduces an unusually appealing heroine and provides an unforgettable glimpse of a time and place rarely observed from an unsparing point of view.”

Publishers Weekly
(starred review)

“Grant’s prose is simple and moving, clearly expressing the intensity of a young girl’s quest for herself, and of a young nation seeking to establish its boundaries.”


“Written with uncluttered economy, high in quietly astute observation, and underpinned by a rigorously searching investigation of its themes, this is a novel that both stimulates the mind and satisfies the heart.”

Scotland on Sunday

“Full of sharp humor, complex ironies, and an acute eye for cultural clashes, this is a superb coming-of-age novel.”

Independent on Sunday

is the author of three previous books, including
The Cast Iron Shore
(winner of the David Higham Prize for best first novel) and
Remind Me Who I Am, Again
, her acclaimed account of her mother’s dementia. She lives in London. Visit her website at

Also by Linda Grant


The Cast Iron Shore


Sexing the Millennium
Remind Me Who I Am, Again

When I Lived
Modern Times

Linda Grant



Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.

Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL England

Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia

Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

Published by Plume, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.

Previously published in a Dutton edition. Originally published in

Great Britain by Granta Books.

5   7   9   10   8   6   4

Copyright © Linda Grant, 2000

All rights reserved


The Library of Congress has catalogued the Dutton edition as follows:

Grant, Linda.

When I lived in modern times / Linda Grant.

p. cm.

ISBN: 978-1-101-56339-7

1. Jewish women—Fiction. 2. Tel Aviv (Israel)—Fiction.

3. Palestine—History—1917–1948—Fiction. I. Title.

PR6057.R316 W47 2001

823′.914—dc21         00-059623

Original hardcover design by Julian Hamer

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


For Michele and John


I am greatly indebted to A. J. Sherman for his invaluable research on this period. Some of the dialogue given to my colonial characters has come directly from letters, memoirs and diaries from which he quotes in his book
Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918–1948
(Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1997).

For the portrait of the early years of the kibbutz, I drew on a vivid series of articles by Assaf Inbari published in the Israeli newspaper
, on the establishment of Kibbutz Afikim.

Very late in the day in terms of the writing of this novel, Joachim Schlor’s
Tel Aviv: From Dream to City
(Reaktion Books, 1999) was published. If you want to know more about the history of the city, this is the book.

My deepest thanks to: in Israel, Yasaf Nachmayas, Lotte Geiger, Jonathan Spyer and Dr. Michael Levin; and in London, to Judah Passow; my editor, Frances Coady; and my agent, Derek Johns.

They are a people, and they lack the props of a people. They are a disembodied ghost…We ask today: “What are the Poles? What are the French? What are the Swiss?” When that is asked, everyone points to a country, to certain institutions, to parliamentary institutions, and the man in the street will know exactly what it is. He has a passport. If you ask what a Jew is—well, he is a man who has to offer a long explanation for his existence, and any person who has to offer an explanation as to what he is, is always suspect…

Evidence from Chaim Weizmann

to the United Nations Special Committee

on Palestine, July 8, 1947

When I Lived
Modern Times
Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

I look back I see myself at twenty. I was at an age when anything seemed possible, at the beginning of times when anything
possible. I was standing on the deck dreaming; across the Mediterranean we sailed, from one end to the other, past Crete and Cyprus to where the East begins.
Mare nostrum
. Our sea. But I was not in search of antiquity. I was looking for a place without artifice or sentiment, where life was stripped back to its basics, where things were fundamental and serious and above all modern.

This is my story. Scratch a Jew and you’ve got a story. If you don’t like elaborate picaresques full of unlikely events and tortuous explanations, steer clear of the Jews. If you want things to be straightforward, find someone else to listen to. You might even get to say something yourself. How do we begin a sentence?


A sailor pointed out to me a little ship on the horizon, one whose role as a ship was supposed to be finished, which had reached the end of its life but had fallen into the hands of those who wanted it to sail one last time. “Do you know what that is?” he asked me.

I knew but I didn’t tell him.

“It isn’t going to land,” he said. “The authorities will catch them.”

“Are you in sympathy with those people?”

“Yes, I’m sympathetic. Who wouldn’t be? But they can’t go where they want to go. It’s just not on. They’ll have to find somewhere else.”


“No idea. That’s not our problem, is it?”

“So you don’t think the Zionist state is inevitable?”

“Oh, they’ll manage somewhere or other. They always have done in the past.”

This time it’s different, I thought, but I kept my mouth shut. Like the people on the horizon, I was determined that I was going home, though in my case it was not out of necessity but conviction.

Then I saw it, the coast of Palestine. The harbor of Haifa assumed its shape, the cypress and olive and pine-clad slopes of Mount Carmel ascended from the port. I didn’t know then that they were cypresses and olives and pines. I didn’t recognize a single thing. I had no idea at all what I was looking at. I had come from a city where a few unnamed trees grew out of asphalt pavements, ignored, unseen. I could identify dandelions and daisies and florists’ roses but that was all, that was the extent of my excursions into the kingdom of the natural world. And what kind of English girl doesn’t look at a tree and know what type it is, by its bark or its leaves? How could I be English, despite what was written on my papers?

On deck, beside me, some passengers were crossing themselves and murmuring, “The Holy Land,” and I copied them but we were each of us seeing something entirely different.

I know that people regarded me in those days as many things: a bare-faced liar; an enigma; or a kind of Displaced Person like the ones in the camps. But what I felt like was a chrysalis, neither bug nor butterfly, something in between, closed, secretive, and inside some great transformation under way as the world itself—in that strangest of eras just after the war was over—was metamorphosing into something else, which was neither the war nor a return to what had gone before.

It was April 1946. The Mediterranean was packed with traffic. Victory hung like a veil in the air, disguising where we might be headed next. Fifty years later it’s so easy, with hindsight, to understand what was happening but you were
of it then. History was no theme park. It was what you lived. You were affected, whether you liked it or not.

We didn’t know that a bitter winter was coming, the coldest in living memory in the closing months of 1946 and the new year of 1947. America would be frozen. Northern Europe would freeze. You could watch on the Pathé newsreel women scavenging for coal in the streets of the East End of London. I had already seen in the pages of
magazine what was left of Berlin—a combination of grandeur and devastation, fragments of what looked like an old, dead civilization, the wreckage that was left in the degradation of defeat. I had seen people selling crumbs of what had once been part of a civilized life. A starving woman held out a single red, high-heeled shoe. A man tried to exchange a small bell for a piece of bread. A boy offered a soldier of the Red Army his sister’s doll.

All across the northern hemisphere would be the same bitter winter. The cold that killed them in Germany would kill us everywhere. But winter was months away and I was on deck in balmy spring weather, holding the green-painted rail of the ship, watching the coast of Palestine
assemble itself out of the fragrant morning air and assume a definite shape and dimension.

In the Book of Lamentations I had once read these words:
Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens. Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine. The ways of Zion do mourn, because none come to the solemn feast: all her gates are desolate: her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness

But all that was about to change. We were going to force an alteration in our own future. We were going to drive the strangers out, bury the blackened dead, destroy the immigration posts and forget our bitterness. There would be no more books of lamenting. Nothing like that was going to happen to us again. We had
now, and underground armies, guerrilla fighters, hand grenades, nail bombs, a comprehensive knowledge of dynamite and TNT. We had spies in the enemies’ ranks and we knew what to do with collaborators.

I was a daughter of the new Zion and I felt the ship shudder as the gangplank crashed on to the dock. I put on my hat and white cotton gloves and, preparing my face, waited to go ashore at the beginning of the decline and fall of the British Empire.

BOOK: When I Lived in Modern Times
5.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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