Freema Gottlieb

Gut Renovation


The only time my husband, David, was able to visit the apartment, his glance fell on a scrawl on the wall opposite in black marker: Allahu Akbar! What was going on!

David admits to no political argument: “Left wing, right wing, I don’t care how suffering they feel, you just don’t write on other people’s walls. It’s not a subject for discussion. All these bleeding hearts sympathizing with the underdog while he stomps right over us. Doesn’t it say in the Torah ‘You must not be biased in justice, even in favor of the poor’? How would they like it if I came and wrote Am Yisrael Chai on their walls?”

I present Doron with the duty of adjudicating fairly, but he hedges: “But isn’t God great? Really, is not Allahu Akbar a good thing?”

Depends on the context. If it’s written in English and aimed at me . . . then it’s telling me something else. A threat?”

“If it was written in English, then it wasn’t any of my workers. My workers don’t know English.”

Could he be serious!

Doron invites me to have dinner on my mirpeset with his men. He brings the food, always healthful and fresh. I wash my hands in water from the newly installed faucet, say the blessing over bread, and we dip pita into hummus, tahini, and various spicy vegetables. The workers love nothing better than to chirp and make animal noises, singing love songs and imitating ladies with rolling hips doing belly dances, while the breezes ripple through the green of the untended haredi garden. Washing themselves frequently in water and playing with water during Ramadan. My almost physical joy in their paintwork makes them very happy, and I am very well liked, and not only for paying for the job.

Prayer is inaugurated in this renewed place by Rajwit, Doron’s skinniest worker, unrolling his prayer mat and casting himself upon it. Such achingly narrow trousers, as of a hungry and poor person. Doron assures me that six months ago Rajwit was very plump, but has put himself on a health diet. I was relieved to see him drink sweet Turkish coffee, even though it was the fast of Ramadan. He is wandering around my apartment, polishing and painting with great tenderness, stopping to marvel at the lights and the mocha rosette ironwork. “Have you owned this place a long time?” he asks.

“My father left it to me.”

“And where is he now?”

“No longer alive.”

“Ah. May God protect his soul!”

“You must pray for her to come and live and be happy here,” Doron says, laughing, both with the men and me.

“We wish you to be very happy here,” says Rajwit, with a ring of sincerity.

“And I will pray for your prosperity also,” I replied. As I leave, Doron waves good-bye, with an “Allahu Akbar.” (Excerpted from Gut Renovation, in Welcome to the Cavalcade, Kulmis, 2013.)

The Visitor

Freema Gottlieb’s Visitor achieves redemptive grace in beautifully written passages of mystical wisdom. “With every intense human feeling,” the author writes, “one should try to remember that its real cause has fleeting visitation rights in this world.”
—Robert Wake, notes on the X.J. Kennedy Award Winners, Rosebud magazine, August, 2007

At a wedding in my father's synagogue in Glasgow, a woman leaned toward me, a girl of about 13 at the time and hissed: "You and your family should go to Israel...."

I stared at her questioningly. Going to live in Israel had always been a dream of our family, but somehow from her tone of voice I did not feel our happiness was her first consideration.

"Why's that?" I asked her innocently.

"You've suffered too much, and we just don't want to know.... After the Holocaust, Israel is obviously the place for you!”

My father was lucky enough to receive the entry papers of three countries where I might have been born America, Palestine, and Britain. The former two were not in his name; the last was. Although he had always dreamed of living in Palestine, and also had spent his youth camping and learning Hebrew, he took British citizenship so as to save other lives.... And so I was born in England, raised in Scotland....

Saying good-bye to the plum tree in Cheviot Gardens in Golders Green London and hello to the heather and golden gorse as we chuffed by on the Royal Scot en route for the North.

My first sight of Scotland was at age three. To be that exotic creature a religious Jew in Scotland was lonely indeed .Most of our close family had died in the camps. In the mainly non-Jewish primary school I attended, I bore the brunt of antisemitic attack in physical form for standing out as other Jewish children did not. The combination of my being a rabbi's daughter, "teacher's pet," and a self-confessed relative of their Lord, Jesus Christ, proved too difficult to take! In the summer they hounded their victim with dogs, in winter they used covered stones with snow, and pelted me with these, frequently drawing blood.

An encounter between my assailants (the children of working-class parents) and me might go like this: on my way home from school I would be surrounded by a gang. One sunk his nails deep in my hand till it bled while his friends cried: "You dirty Jew. You killed Jesus Christ!"

"What are you talking about? I am related to Jesus Christ. And it is you who are hurting me."

At first they did not believe me. "You related to Jesus. But you don't even believe in Him. You're Jewish."

"So was he."

Finally they decided to test me. "Well, if you are related to Jesus, that means you can perform miracles. Let's see you turn these sandpies here into angels. Listen, everybody, she says she can turn sandpies into angels...." I never heard the end of it!

Once my classics teacher kept the class standing until they could answer a sufficient number of difficult verb declensions correctly; those who succeeded in being allowed to sit (I was among the first) were supposed to help the teacher come out with difficult questions. Finally only one boy was left standing; he seemed unable to get out of the habit of making mistakes. My turn came to grill this unfortunate soul. I stood and announced: "Amo!"

"What was that?" cried my teacher. "What are you saying there?"

I looked direct into the the victim's eyes who was failing lamentably again and again and repeated my declaration: "Amo!"

"What's that supposed to be?" asked my teacher. "Are you making a declaration or something? As "top of the class" you're supposed to help me come out with something hard. Hurry up!"

"That's the question," I replied. "I just want the translation of this: "Amo."

'"I love,"' said the worn-out victim, '"Present tense, first-person singular of the verb 'to love.'" And sat down.

The teacher was quiet and then said: "You know, I have never much cared for you people. You’re much too sharp for your own good. But after this I can forgive a lot... "
—Excerpted from The Visitor, X.J.Kennedy Award runner-up, Rosebud magazine, August 2007

Selected Works

“Why the Figure of Honi the Circle Drawer Resembles That of Moshe Our Teacher.” European Judaism 15, no. 1 (Summer 1981).
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR French antisemitism
“The French Record,” Letters, the French Embassy and Gottlieb, about Vichy, France, Mitterand, etc. Washington Post Book World, September 12, 1993.
“A masterful work, and so timely; there is a spiritual yearning in the country, which The Lamp of God will help to satisfy.” —Bill Moyers, Public Affairs Television, Inc. “Freema Gottlieb’s beautiful book The Lamp of God is written in black fire on white fire; it is the kind of book that had to be written, that comes from the deep sources of both the author and the Jewish tradition, and whose brilliance blazes off its rough edges.” “Both a very conservative book, in love with roots, with nuances of orthodox tradition, immersed in sources, and an entirely radical, free-thinking one, that gives one a sense of understanding stories in the Bible, and mitzvoth, in a way that they have never been understood before. —Francis Landy, professor of Religious Studies, University of Alberta, Midstream,. “Of deep interest to all who want to know more about the extraordinary achievements of those who, through so many ages, have given their poetic and imaginative power to the enrichment of an ancient tradition. A dedicated performance and an admirable book.” —Frank Kermode, Fellow of the British Academy, professor emeritus of English Literature at Cambridge, member of the working party on interpretation, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, coauthor The Literary Guide to the Bible, and author of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature and many other works “Freema Gottlieb weighs into history, the history of our beginnings, like a true poet. Light in her hands is tangible; it can be felt, it can be held. Her art is truly transformational in the best sense: it treats its subject as though for the first time, and will certainly cause a stir.” —James Ellison, former executive editor, Book-of-the-Month Club, and book editor of Psychology Today “Freema Gottlieb is a truly talented storyteller gifted with a luminous and original imagination.” —Judith Rossner, novelist, author August, Looking for Mr. Goodbar and other novels. “The writing is not linear and expository, but associative and reflective. Some passages appear to have been written in a meditative consciousness and might serve as the objects of spiritual contemplation.” —Nehemia Polen, associate assistant professor of Jewish Thought, Boston Hebrew College ,and author of Esh Kodesh, the Warsaw Ghetto writings of Rabbi Kalonymos Shapiro.
Visionary Nonfiction
A meditation on 3,000 years of Jewish sources to which the light metaphor is key. Newly available internationally and affordably in a Kindle edition.
Creative or visionary midrashic nonfiction, newspaper column
Jewish Week, March 13, 2017

Example(s) of occasional column(s) in Jewish Week’s Sabbath Week.
Gut Renovation is a memoir-in-progress about the transformation of an apartment that originally was a Jerusalem water well.

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