The brothers were both of medium height with “wheat-coloured” faces and grey-blue eyes. They hailed from Kalkandelen (as the town was known in the Ottoman Empire) and came to Jerusalem to create flour mills and bakeries—and families.
Two unexpected snapshots of sorts, taken in 1905-1906, have added colour and detail to the picture I’ve been building over the years about these two brothers and their families. The younger brother was my great-great-grandfather George Schtakleff; the other, his brother Zacharia.
Before succumbing to the juggernaut of consumerism, the Christmas season was filled with the smells of baked goods wafting from home ovens. None evokes Christmas more vividly in my mind than the spicy, rich aroma of Yiayia Vitsa’s German Biscuits. (Biscuits in Brit speak, cookies in American lingo.)
A few weeks ago Dorit Naaman and myself were interviewed on the Jerusalem Unpluggedpodcast, “the only podcast dedicated to Jerusalem, its history and its people.” It kicked off in late January and is hosted by Dr Roberto Mazza, an academic whose focus is the history of Ottoman Palestine. He is also the new editor of the Jerusalem Quarterly (which, however, is not related to the podcast).
This post is dedicated to the memory of my uncle Yiannaki (John/Jean) Schtakleff who left this earth too early – in March 2018, aged 74.
Each family has its story, what they tell each other and their children about the past, about their ancestors and their experiences: the whences and thences, wherefores and hences. Most family stories are in essence legends and lores which almost always diverge, to a lesser or greater extent, from reality, from history, from what actually really happened.
My own family story, particularly that of the Palestinian side, ie my mother’s, captivated me from a very young age. At some point, the standard tales, which we all repeated in the family, no longer satisfied me: I wanted to know more. It’s then that I realised that your family story which seems to run like a simple, straight line is in fact a web – with you caught in the middle! You look at what’s on this line and at some point you start tossing things around in your brain and suddenly the brain is inundated with a bunch of question marks that seem to dart off in different directions. But, but… why did he do that? Where did he come from? When? Why? But how come he… and she… and yet…. ??? You start chasing these question marks and they lead to more and more, and before you know it, you find yourself far from the original story which by now doesn’t hold water entirely and appears to be much more complex, with an increasing number of unknowns. When you add some historical information to the mix, the story begins to acquire texture and dimension even if it loses a bit of its lustre. It becomes more real and yet every now and then you still discover some moments of magic.
Such has been my experience over the years. Let’s take for example the story of what happened to two of my grandmother’s siblings in the Nakba, the 1948 catastrophe, when the creation of the Jewish state caused Palestinians to flee Jerusalem.
Two heads, one bald, one full-hair, are peeking out from above the red velvet chairs. Their owners, Anwar Ben Badis and Mona Hajjar Halaby, who conduct the Arabic and English tours, respectively, of the Jerusalem, We Are Here (JWRH) interactive documentary, are exchanging family memories of the place. Dorit Naaman, the creator and director, joins them as up on the big screen fragments of an old reel start rolling.
It’s July 2015 and we are filming the opening shots of JWRH at the Regent, the longest-running cinema in Jerusalem. Today it has a different name, but to us, as we go about remapping this area and bringing back, albeit digitally, the people and the life that existed here till 1948, it is and always will be the Regent.