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The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

October 26, 2016 by

Surviving in “The Waiting Room”

Screen Shot 2016-10-27 at 11.29.42 AMThe Waiting Room, shortlisted for the Voss Literary Prize, unfolds over the course of a single, life-changing day, but the story it tells spans five decades, and three continents. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Dina’s present has always been haunted by her parents’ pasts. She becomes a doctor, emigrates from Australia to Israel, and builds a family of her own, yet no matter how hard she tries to move on, their ghosts keep pulling her back. A dark, wry sense of humor helps Dina maintain her sanity amid the constant challenges of motherhood and medicine, but when a terror alert is issued in her adopted city, her usual coping skills begin to fray.

Interlacing the present and the past over a span of 24 hours, The Waiting Room explores just what it means to endure a day-to-day existence in a country defined by perpetual conflict and trauma. Author Leah Kaminsky e-chats with Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough and describes her own complicated journey across continents—and back.

YZM: You’ve created a very convincing portrait of Israel; have you spent much time there? 

LK: I met my partner at the inaugural conference for children of Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem, back in 1989 – I was sent there as a journalist from Australia. I ended up moving to Israel in 1991 to be with him and worked as a family physician in Haifa for 10 years, caring for a diverse range of patients, including Baha’is, Muslims, Christians and Druze. Readers ask me how much of The Waiting Room is autobiographical, and I always say the setting is very much drawn from my own experiences – the smell of freshly baked donuts in the shuk, stray cats hiding behind trash cans and the uncertainty of where the next terror attack may take place. 

YZM: Early on, a conflict is set up between the sabras and the “galutniks”—those born outside the country. Do you think this tension still exists today? 

LK: I moved back to Australia in 2002, and the cultural landscape [in Israel] has changed dramatically since I lived there. At first I had some dewy-eyed notion that I would be accepted into the fold with open arms. As an immigrant with no knowledge of Hebrew, and (at the time) no recognition of my medical degree, my fantasies of instantaneous ‘belonging’ soon dissipated. The idea of Israel as a place where all Jews live harmoniously was a fallacy – there are deep internal divides and differences. Although I learned the language and worked there as a doctor, I still felt the universal struggle immigrants have anywhere. I have used my character Dina to explore this divide between striving for a sense of belonging and feeling alienated.

YZM: How do the histories of Dina’s Holocaust survivor parents weigh on her? 

LK: The transfer of trauma down through generations is well documented in psychological terms. Recently, there have been interesting studies in the field of epigenetics that open up the concept of trauma being a bit like an environmental insult that alters part of our DNA. Although these studies are small, it is fascinating to think how parents’ experiences can be passed on biologically to their offspring. Dina is second generation, growing up surrounded by the palpable presence of the dead through the stories, as well as the palpable silence, of her parents. In the novel I wanted to explore the impact of both spoken and unspoken horrors on children born in the shadow of war. It has been humbling to hear from readers of diverse backgrounds and experiences—from the children of Somali refugees, to the kriegskinder (war children) of German descent—who identify strongly with my protagonist, and the burden of her cursed imagination. It is important to highlight that the histories of survivor parents are not simply a weight on their children, but also serve to galvanize them towards deep empathy and a deep desire to make a difference in the world. 

YZM: Do you see an irony in the fact that Dina is a doctor but cannot heal herself? 

LK: I intentionally chose a doctor as my protagonist not just because I am one myself, but because of the moral obligations of my profession and how things can go so dreadfully wrong. Physicians played a key role in the workings of the Third Reich—we are all familiar with the likes of Josef Mengele—but there were thousands of others who went along with the horrific practices of forced sterilization, euthanasia, human experimentation and the development of more efficient methods for mass killing. Many doctors have become infamous for the part they have played in the theatre of war—Radovan Karadzic, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Bashar al-Assad, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Che Guevara all trained as medicos. It is crucial for a physician to be able to check their own emotional temperature and to engage with difficult ethical and moral conundrums in their dealings with all patients. My character Dina is trying to heal the world in her own small way, to make up for the physician who stood at the head of the selection line on the platform at Auschwitz, casually pointing her grandmother to the left (death in the gas chamber) and her mother to the right (survival). 

YZM: Dina’s mother is a very palpable ghost who, though dead, can be seen and heard scolding her daughter and dropping cigarette ash on the floor.  Why did you choose to present her this way? 

LK: Jewish mothers never die! She actually started off as a very minor character who only spoke when her daughter finally visited her grave, but as the writing of the novel progressed, her voice grew louder, demanding to be heard. She was inspired in part by my childhood years spent in front of the TV, watching popular American sitcoms. My favorite was “Bewitched,” in which the mother, Endora, would pop up at the worst possible time and irritate her daughter. Dina’s mother’s ghost does this too, appearing when Dina is in a state of extreme anxiety, kibitzing and cajoling. What she is really doing, though, is imploring Dina to bear witness to the story of her wartime experiences—to honor the narratives of the dead that we all carry with us.

YZM: How do you think readers will respond to the political content of your novel? 

LK: I didn’t set out to write a political novel, but it seems inevitable that any writing about the Middle East will elicit strong responses from people. People who are way smarter than me have not been able to resolve this conflict over the many years of bloodshed. I hope readers will grasp the impact of all this at a very human, grassroots level. I have tried to represent individuals behind the headlines, in all their diversity, who are simply trying to go about their daily lives against the backdrop of war and terror. I have been very mindful not to appropriate stories that aren’t mine to tell, but neither did I want to ignore their importance in the overall narrative. I have used the literary device of metaphor —in this instance a broken tile in the middle of the waiting room, inside an old Arab building abandoned by its owners with the establishment of the State of Israel—to represent the importance of the Palestinian narrative in any story about the Middle East. Others are far better placed to write from this perspective. As a novelist, I am trying to focus on things we have in common as human beings, rather than what divides us. In that way, although this book is very much about how trauma trickles down through generations, it is my hope that love is passed on in the same way. Without love and hope, we are all dust. 




And now, an excerpt of this novel: 

She was doing laps on the left side of the lane and didn’t see the guy who was coming from the other end, powering straight towards her like a battleship. They collided head on, right in the middle of the pool. As they both treaded water, he pointed to a sign hanging from a rope suspended above them and said something she didn’t understand. She read out loud, slowly sounding each letter in turn, remembering her rudimentary Sunday-school Hebrew.

“I-t-t-i,” she said. “What does that mean?”

“Slow!” he said in English, with a thick Israeli accent. “You need to slow down.” He lifted his goggles, resting them on his forehead.

She stared at his sea-green eyes.

“You were swimming too fast,” he said. “And on the wrong side as well.”

His face started to blur as tiny flickering lights buzzed around her field of vision.

“Are you okay?” the swimmer asked. It sounded like he was calling to her from somewhere far away.

“I’m feeling a bit light-headed.” 

“Come,” he said, putting a strong arm around her waist, guiding her over to the side of the pool. He hoisted his tanned body up over the edge in a flash. Droplets of water clung to dark hairs on his forearms as he reached down and lifted her out with the ease of a father lifting a baby from a bath. Her head pounded, the loud music blaring from speakers positioned around the pool sounding distorted.

“Lie down,” he said, kneeling beside her.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl as she listened to the lifeguard yelling through his megaphone from the other side of the pool. His voice echoed like a simple song, an uncomplicated hymn asking her to reach up and touch this man she had crashed into.

“David,” he introduced himself, holding out his hand. He had long fingers and trimmed nails.

“Dina,” she said, looking away, the floor tilting under her.

“Shalom, Dina. Where are you from?”

“Melbourne.”

“You know something, Dina from Melbourne?” he said, smiling broadly, “I have been swimming a hundred laps of this pool every morning for years and I’ve never had the pleasure before of crashing head-first into someone; let alone a beautiful woman from the ends of the earth.”

They began to swim together every day. Most afternoons they drove to Dado Beach, diving into the dappled light under the waves. Dina heard the gurgling of bubbles, the rhythmic in-out of her breath as she came up for air. They lay beside each other on the sand.

“People have always found love in this ancient sea,” he said as he traced his finger over her belly.

And war, she wanted to say, but bit her tongue. She looked down at her feet, her toes covered in globs of tar, detritus from boats on the horizon.

They surfaced like two lost shipwrecks, creaking back to life, hauling in rusty anchors, casting off forests of tangled seaweed. And in his eyes she gazed upon the memory of exile, of stones and cities and prophets she had scorned. She smelled the scent of fruit ripening, remembered desert winds and spilled blood. And soon he was grafted onto her, knowing full well that she was bound intricately to her mother’s roots.

Loving each other began with longing, weaving her loneliness with his. Sweet pain drove her down into him. Not gradual descents, but plummeting, not knowing when she would stop. Bathing naked in the dark, Dina drifted in and out of the sea, with the current of David’s warm breath on her skin. He was the first man who didn’t seem frightened by a past she carried along with her everywhere she went; a heavy sack filled with the dead, permanently hoisted over her shoulder.