I was ten before I found out that people don’t like Jews. Unreal, strange, impossible. And true: my childhood in Kenya was sheltered. It happened one regular Sunday morning when I crept down the cold stone stairs. There was Daddy, in the green armchair, a brown earthenware mug in one hand, the newspaper in the other. The strong smell of coffee tickled my nose, like clouds of dust in the game park.

I snuggled into the corner of the couch. The sun shone brightly through the open curtains, bouncing off the polished brass window handles. Minute specks of dust whirled in a sunray, glittering stars moving up and down to some soundless rhythm. I waited for Daddy to notice me. It didn’t take long. It never did.

“People don’t like the Jews, my darling”“Good morning,” he said, putting down his newspaper. “How did you sleep?”


Then Daddy was silent. He sipped at his coffee. I waited for him to continue our Sunday morning ritual. How I treasured this quiet time together. Today the houseboy was off; he wouldn’t come in asking for the car keys to go and wash down the car. The gardener wouldn’t come in for instructions on his day’s work. Mummy was still asleep, and so was my younger brother.

Daddy remained silent. I suddenly wondered if I was interrupting him. Maybe he enjoyed his coffee and paper more than my company. It was a fear that teased the back of my mind every Sunday when I crept down the stairs to talk to him.

“Anti-Semitism,” he said, and closed his eyes for too long.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“People don’t like the Jews, my darling.”

“Who doesn’t like us? Why?”

“They’re talking about us again.”

“Who is?”

“The world’s complaining.” A vague gesture to the newspaper.

I kept quiet, cross with the people who didn’t like us and who were upsetting my time with Daddy. Then I remembered something I had heard whispered around me. A formless discomfort that sometimes hovered round the older people at the shul. “But all the Nazis are gone, Daddy. The war finished ages ago.”

“There are still Nazis today.”

I moved onto the woven rug at Daddy’s feet and laid my head on the edge of his armchair. Daddy liked to play with my thick, bouncy hair. Often, after my bath, I would sit at his feet and he would rub it dry with a towel. Now he ran his fingers through the uncombed waves.

“Don’t you know that?” Daddy asked.

I shook my head. I didn’t know that. How could I? At school we all played together. The local white children, scions of colonial times; children of Italian and Swedish expatriates; the Asians, a mixture of Hindus who wouldn’t eat meat, and Sikhs whose long hair was wound up tightly into a knot on the top of their heads and hidden under a turban; the tall Nigerian girl who always scored a hundred in tests; Tariq, the Egyptian boy with black eyes. And the handful of Jews. We all blended smoothly into a seamless mixture of cultures and languages.

I watched the sparkling dust dancing in the beam of sunlight. The sun was stronger now, shooting arrows onto the brass handles of the window, shattering splinters of light into my eyes.

Mummy came down the stairs. “What are you two talking about?” she asked, a lilt in her voice, moving towards the kitchen.

Daddy didn’t answer Mummy. He had closed his eyes once again. I nudged my head against his knees. I wanted him to nurse the shards of my innocence. When he opened his eyes and smiled, I stuffed the horrible truth into a dark crevice at the back of my mind and tried to pretend that it had disappeared.

Throughout my teens, except for twice, the horrible truth hibernated deep in its hole. One day, after a biology lesson, Riaz, brandishing the jelly of the calf’s eye, chased the girls across the field that faced our classroom. We ran fast, screaming and screeching in feminine disgust. As Riaz drew level with me, he yelled, “You’re a Jew.” He rolled the words rolled about on his tongue, as if he was tasting them for the first time, testing the truth of the statement.

I didn’t know what he wanted. Confused, I didn’t answer. In its niche at the back of my mind, the horrible truth wriggled and stretched. People don’t like Jews, my darling.

Throughout my teens, except for twice, the horrible truth hibernated deep in its holeMy best friend, Colleen, was from a mixed marriage: her father was an Irish Catholic, her mother a British Protestant. Differences didn’t worry them and they didn’t worry me. In fact, her father, an ex-police officer, liked me. He always told me that Jews were smart. And beautiful.

I spent long days at Colleen’s house. Sometimes we would go riding together: she would lead me through the fields behind her house, patiently walking ahead, never letting go of the reins and never sighing because I couldn’t ride. And I would go and watch her at shows, cheering when she cleared the jumps and won rosettes.

One of their friends didn’t like Jews. Once, he let it slip in front of me. There was a drought in Kenya and there was no hay for the horses. The friend complained, “That Jew boy. He’s hoarding hay.” His wrinkled face wrinkled deeper with disgust. I knew the Jew boy he was complaining about. He was a rich man, not a boy. I didn’t answer. And I kept my distance from the wrinkled man every time he came to my best friend’s house.

Years later, all grown up, I left Kenya with the shards of my innocence in my suitcase. I left the mindset I loved so much, for a life that belongs to my people. Here, I’ve learnt that people really don’t like Jews.

Yesterday, the children and I baked rolls and brownies for supper. It was late when we had finally put the little children to bed and finished cleaning up the kitchen. I sat mending a rip in my husband’s pants, and when my fourteen-year-old daughter, Gila, finished showering, she came to keep me company. The wind had come up that day and was now howling through the gap in the window. I tried to ignore it. I inhaled the smell of warm, crusty bread mingled with fresh memories.

“I don’t like the wind,” Gila said.

“Neither do I,” I agreed. “We never heard the wind howling in Kenya.”

“At school today, the wind made a noise through a crack in our windows. All the girls jumped. The teacher did too. We got such a fright. We thought it was a siren,” she said, as she used my sewing scissors to snip at a piece of paper.

“You’ll ruin my scissors doing that,” I said too sharply.

“My teacher said that if that would have happened in America, no one would have jumped.”

“Your teacher’s right.”


“Because in America, they don’t have sirens,” I said, ripping off the stray threads and throwing them onto the floor. “When I was your age, I didn’t have to worry about sirens.”

My fourteen-year old daughter may be wiser than meTime contracts and I am ten years old again. I poke at the memory of a Sunday morning, prodding it gently as if I am testing an aching tooth with a toothpick to find the sore spot. Across the years, I sense the cozy familiarity of my father’s love and attention. Then the memory darkens and twitches. People don’t like Jews, my darling.

“Did you enjoy the rolls we had for supper?” I asked loudly, desperate to retain the warmth of the evening.

“Delicious. Yummy.” Gila licked her lips.

I noticed that her hair was wet. “Bring a towel and I’ll rub your hair dry,” I said. I felt cross and cheated. Cross that she never had a chance to shelter in the innocence of my childhood. Cheated that I couldn’t protect her.

“Even though we have the sirens, it’s okay,” Gila said, sweeping up the threads I had cast onto the floor. “We have the Kotel.”

“Right. We have the Kotel, the Western Wall.”

My fourteen-year old daughter may be wiser than me. Twitching memories don’t stand up to holiness.