When Daniella and I arrived at Maya’s, we were not alone. A middle aged couple was standing in line ahead of us, one girl was finished and changing into her clothes in the dressing room, and another was gazing at herself in the full-length mirror as if she were a princess getting ready for a ball. Her army uniform was on inside out, and Maya was assessing the situation.
“Shalom. Ani od meat itchem,” Maya said quickly, telling us she would be with us shortly. Even though I had only been in the store once, she greeted us warmly, as if we were good friends. I looked at her closely and guessed her to be my age. A typical Israeli, she has very chemically treated shoulder length hair and was dressed down in jeans, low black boots and an untucked long-sleeve shirt. Her only fashion statement was a large gold-and-silver pendant hanging around her neck.
It was Friday, 12:30pm, a half hour before closing time for most retail stores on the eve of the Sabbath. I mistakenly thought the seamstress’ little shop, tucked away in the far edge of a plaza in the center of town, might be quiet since it was lunchtime.
The young female soldier couldn’t stop smiling and eyeing herself in the mirror. Her long wavy hair was casually clipped so that the collar was easily accessible. Her uniform was like a potato sack, form-less, with extra material on all sides and seams. Maya crouched on the floor pinning the outer edge of the legs, inner thighs and waist, tailoring it to fit like a GAP skinny pant. I could see Daniella watching the girl but trying hard not to stare.
The couple in front of us hugged the soon-to-be soldier. “At smecha?” the woman asked her if she was happy. The girl nodded her head vigorously. “Ma at taeseh?” she asked her job. Either they knew one another and met by chance in the store or strangers spontaneously hug soldiers; anything is possible in this country.
“Modiin.” Intelligence: one simple word that stops all conversations As soon as you say it, there is a silent understanding that no more questions will be asked; soldiers are under strict orders not to divulge any information, even to their parents.
The other girl came out of the dressing room and handed her uniform to Maya’s assistant. The man in front of us slipped in behind the curtain to change. I put my hat and shopping bags down and took out my phone. Daniella knew what I was up to and begged me to stop.
“Efshar letsalam autoach?” I asked the girl if I could take her picture. Her smile was stuck on her face and she nodded yes. Quickly, I snapped my cell first of her in uniform then of the old-world store, the laundry basket on the floor, the outdated Juki sewing machine, the haphazard array of fabric and ribbons and thread strewn throughout the room.
After Maya finished pinning the shirt and pants, she told the soldier to try on the next one. The man was now standing nearby in his Dockers pants to be fitted and within seconds, Maya measured his hem and dismissed him. He and the soldier girl changed places. Daniella and I stood patiently, waiting our turn. “That’ll be you kind of soon,” I said to my daughter. She nodded her head, fully aware that the next two years will pass quickly enough. That after high school exams were over, entering the army was the next rite of passage in our newly adopted lives.
We went to the seamstress for Daniella. A year ago, while in San Francisco, she bought a black dress on a whim at Urban Outfitters for her upcoming 16th birthday. I’m not sure if it was the dress or the idea that came to her first, but she decided to celebrate with a fancy evening tea party.
“I remember when we first arrived last year, hearing someone say that girls get their uniforms completely taken in so they’re tight and tailored and feminine. Have you heard that too?” I asked her as we stood around the shop. She had. Another two female soldiers came in to claim their freshly pressed and altered greens.
Just outside the dressing room, Maya’s helper ironed one of the army green shirts then pants, one after the other. He also ironed on patches on sleeves and above the chest.
The clock ticked. 12:45. I asked Maya when the shop closed and she said usually 1pm, but since she had to finish for the soldiers beforehand it would probably be later. The smiley soldier threw the curtain open and waltzed out in her next uniform, again inside out. Maya sat on the floor and started pinning from the ground up. “Ze kol cach shonei ma ha rishon,” she said, explaining to the girl how differently the one fit from the other, and, therefore, each one had to be tried on and measured. Maya indicated that Daniella could go into the dressing room to change.
When she came out with her sleeveless black dress that fell just above the knee with its fake feathers adorning the bottom half (and her bright pink Nikes on her feet), Maya exclaimed: “Eze simla yafa!” What a beautiful dress! I clicked on my camera to get Daniella and the soldier, back to back.
Before Maya could concentrate on my daughter, she had to finish pinning one last uniform for the soldier. Finally, a few minutes before closing time, the harried seamstress was ready to help us. She explained that since the dress was too big on top, she could either do a quick fix and just pull it up from the shoulder straps and belt it, or take it apart completely. We opted for the first. At 1pm precisely, Daniella and I left, waving goodbye to Maya. The smiling soldier was still there.