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Tag : book review

The Lilith Blog

May 20, 2020 by

Embracing “Quasi-Motherhood” With Humor and Empathy

Dani Alpert is one funny lady, and like many comics, she uses her life as a prime source for her material.  After falling for a divorced dad of two, she struggles to find a way to embrace the offspring she claims never to have wanted.  Fast forward to the break-up with said boyfriend, which comes with an unseen punch—by this time, she loves the kids and wants to keep them in her life. 

Alpert talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her new memoir, The Girlfriend Mom, in which she gives us the skinny on how she does just that—and what she learns along the way. 

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The Lilith Blog

April 25, 2020 by

Beyond the Ghetto Gates: The Liberation of Jews in Italy

In the late 18 century, French troops invaded the Italian port city of Ancona, liberating the Jews from the ghetto where they’d been forced to live. This new freedom had consequences both cultural and personal. Novelist Michelle Cameron’s Beyond the Ghetto Gates (She Writes Press, $16.95) is set in this bracing moment and she talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about why she chose this particular time and what she hopes her readers will learn from it. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough: You selected an atypical chapter in Jewish history on which to focus; what drew you to it? 

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April 20, 2020 by

Writing Outside the Frame

What was it like to be a politically engaged young Jewish woman in 1930s Germany?
In her ambitious historical novel, The Girl with the Leica (Europa, $18), Italian novelist Helena Janeczek explores in fiction the life of Gerda Taro, a real-life photographer and an anti-Fascist activist who died at the age of 27 while covering the Spanish Civil War. Janeczek creates a complex portrait of Taro and her friends—a group of German and East European Jews who came of age in the years leading up to World War II.

At the center of the novel is Taro (born Greta Pohorylle) whose specter haunts the three friends and lovers narrating her life. While still a teenager Taro was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets in Leipzig. Defying convention, she had several love affairs and worked as a typist. By the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Taro had become an accomplished
photographer. Along with her partner André Friedmann, known as Robert Capa, she documented the war with an unflinching eye, supplying the world with jarring images of modern warfare.

And yet after her death Taro was remembered only as Capa’s partner, her work largely forgotten. The first exhibition of her photographs was organized in 2007, 70 years after her death. The novel opens with a captivating prologue featuring photographs of Spanish militiamen in moments of leisure. In the first two, a man and a woman smile flirtatiously at one another, a rifle propped in the man’s arm and his military cap. Capa and Taro, we are told, saw something of themselves in this couple when they photographed them.

These photographs can serve as a metaphor to Janeczek’s indirect approach to her subject. Instead of following the prologue with a more intimate portrait of Taro, the novel takes the reader to Buffalo, New York, several decades after the war. Buffalo is home to Dr. Willy Chardack, who’d been known in Gerda’s set as the Dachshund. Though Willy was briefly Gerda’s lover, his love for her was mostly unrequited. Now a respected researcher and family man, Chardack remembers Gerda as a fearless activist and a consummate “modern” woman, possessing “unreal, cinematic elegance”— but, surprisingly, not a photographer.

The next chapter, told from the perspective of Gerda’s friend Ruth Cerf, paints a fuller portrait of the protagonist. Here Gerda is still a glamorous socialite, but Ruth sees the ambition underneath that exterior. Remembering Gerda’s remark about a new job at the Photo Alliance, Ruth reflects: “[T]hat small woman who attracts every gaze, that incarnation of elegance, femininity, coquetterie, and no one would ever suspect that she reasons, feels, and acts like a man.”

Not long after, with Friedmann’s support, Gerda takes up photography in earnest. The recent invention of the first portable camera, the Leica, allows photographers to capture events as they happen. The young couple excels in this new type of photography, which is as thrilling as it is remunerative.

Shortly before the beginning of the Spanish Civil War the couple decides to change their names. Friedmann becomes Capa and Pohorylle becomes Taro. In Janeczek’s reimagining, the idea is entirely Gerda’s. It’s obvious that the names mask the couple’s Jewishness; but, thinking like a publicist, Gerda also chooses names that sound American and are reminiscent of contemporary celebrities.

In the ensuing dialogue the characters reflect on identity, but say little about the
Jewish identity that they leave behind. Despite being one generation away from
the shtetl, Gerda apparently doesn’t view Jewishness as central to her identity. Like
her comrade and lover Georg Kuritzkes, Gerda resists Fascism not, primarily,
because of its consequences for the Jews, but out of a universalist socialist ethos.
Such ideals captivate Gerda much more than her parents’ religion.

In the last chapter, which gives us Georg’s view, Gerda’s portrait coheres. Troubled by Gerda’s wartime photography, both Georg and Ruth try to imagine their friend on the battlefield. “I don’t understand what she felt. Hardly any fear, O.K. And then?” Ruth asks years later. And Georg reflects that “The war … changed Gerda, just as it changed everyone, civilians and, much more, the men at the front. And why shouldn’t a woman who went to the front almost every day resemble a soldier?” For Ruth, Gerda’s work represents political commitment and an ability to remain “ein Mensch.” Georg, on the other hand, affirms that Gerda “had become a photojournalist,” determined to document “the things that needed to be shown.”

While I wish that Janeczek had focused more on the historical aspects of Gerda’s life—her Jewish identity, her proto-feminism—this portrayal of reminds us that before the concentration camps forced a monolithic, tragic fate on millions of Jews, Europe’s Jews forged identities apart from ethnicity or religion, just as many do today.

Polina Kroik is the author of Cultural Production and the Politics of Women’s Work. She teaches at Baruch College, CUNY.

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April 20, 2020 by

A Journey of Mourning, and Exploration

All My Mother’s Lovers (Dutton, $27), the debut novel from Ilana Masad comes with a disclaimer in the dedication: “To Ima/Andi, who is not the mother in this book,” as well as a dedication to her father, in Hebrew.

The book opens with Maggie, having sex with her girlfriend, getting the call that her mother  Iris has died.

After Iris dies, Maggie returns to her parents’ house, where her brother still lives. Cleaning out her mother’s documents, she finds five sealed envelopes, addressed to men Maggie has never heard of. In her will, Iris directs that the letters be sent out in the event of her untimely death. Maggie decides to deliver the envelopes herself.

Maggie feels Iris never really understood her or approved of her sexuality, and had a very specific picture of who her mother was: dedicated to work and family, straitlaced, faithful. But during shiva, Maggie finds out that Iris was previously married to a man who abused her; only part of what Maggie doesn’t know about her mother.

Delivering the letters and talking with the men receiving them, Maggie begins
to get a bigger, more layered picture of Iris. What appears, shockingly, as a series
of extramarital affairs and relationships slowly unfolds into a more nuanced explanation of Iris and her choices. “Maggie can half recognize her, but not fully.”

How often do children, even grown children, really know their parents? This is a book that takes an unflinching look at sexuality and its role in our lives: how it builds bridges, burns them, and changes how others view us and how we relate to others. For some, it even changes the trajectory of their lives.

Jaime Herndon is a writer and editor, and is working on an essay collection.

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April 20, 2020 by

Israel’s Women on the Margins

With Israel’s political woes blanketing the news these days, it’s hard to remember
how multi-layered and complex a country it is. Its modern society was created by socialist pioneers, who struggled, somewhat successfully, to create economic and gender-egalitarian new communities. After statehood, Israel took in Jews from Arab lands and tried to integrate them, less successfully, into that developing society. More recently, Israel’s latest challenge has been absorbing hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants with minimal, if any ties to Judaism or Jewish life. Three new academic books written and compiled by feminist Israeli academics address these particular facets of the challenges and shortcomings of the Jewish state.

When the State Winks: The Performance of Jewish Conversion in Israel, by Michal Kravel-Tovi. (Columbia University Press, $65) is a detailed ethnography. Anthropologist Michal Kravel-Tovi focuses on how and why Israel’s state bureaucracy is involved in managing the religious conversion of immigrants (mostly young women) from the former Soviet Union (FSU), mostly women because under traditional Jewish law the religion of the mother determines her child’s religion.

Kravel-Tovi engaged in three years of research from 2004–2007, during which she sat in on conversion classes, rabbinic conversion court proceedings, and ritual immersions in a mikveh. She interviewed teachers, rabbis, judges, and women who were in the process of converting through Israel’s state-sponsored Orthodox system.

Kravel-Tovi begins by describing how and why Jewish conversion has become part of what she terms “Zionist biopolitical policy” in Israel—using conversion of former FSU women to increase Israel’s Jewish population. Her focus is how the conversion candidates and the state agents—the conversion educators rabbinic court judge—handle the contradictory forces of Israel’s conversion policy. All parties, she argues, are concerned with issues of role-play, sincerity, and suspicion, demonstrating how all parties collaborate to put on believable conversion “performances.” The final chapter features the personal narratives of the conversion candidates, who must present personal statements to the rabbinic court that lend sincerity to their conversion process.

Many of the female potential converts have paradoxical Israeli-Jewish identities. While not considered Jewish according to Orthodox halacha, many grew up in Israel believing they were Jewish (and came to Israel under the Law of Return because of Jewish family connections). Invited to immigrate by the State of Israel, but then excluded from full membership in Israeli Jewish civic and religious life, most of the former FSU women find themselves in a painful no-woman’s-land labeled the harsh exclusionary Hebrew term goya (non-Jew/gentile) in Israeli society until they convert. One senior rabbi in the rabbinic conversion court compared these non-Jewish women in Israel to landmines: “…The foreign women will marry and have children, loyal citizens of Israel. It is a commandment to clear away such mines.”

In Concrete Boxes: Mizrahi Women on Israel’s Periphery (Wayne State University Press, $36) feminist anthropologist Pnina Motzafi-Haller of Ben Gurion University documents the lives of five Mizrahi women from the economically struggling development town of Yerucham, in Israel’s Negev. An activist who lived in the U.S. for almost two decades before returning to Israel, Motzafi-Haller published the Hebrew version of this book in 2012, as she wanted it to be read and discussed within Israel. The book was adapted into a play produced by the Dimona Theater, which traveled with the production around Israel for two years, dramatizing for an even wider audience the issues in Mizrahi women’s lives.

The five women featured in the book all have different approaches for dealing with the “concrete boxes” that have trapped them in Yerucham. Nurit is a single mother on welfare whose former husband was addicted to drugs; she worked many jobs to support her family. Nurit maintains dignity and finds meaning in her life through family events such as her son’s bar mitzvah. Efrat, another mother, becomes increasingly religiously observant as a way to deal with her life’s challenges. Her increased religiosity opens up opportunities for economic mobility and respectability, including a better job in a middle-class community, more than a secular education provides.

Rachel is considered a successful Yerucham resident despite her challenging background—coming from a poor family, married as a teen before finishing high school, having four children and then divorcing her abusive husband. She moves between middle-class and working-class settings, often as a representative of her community, but she is limited in her ability to juggle the different cultural nuances each group demands. Esti, “the rebel,” goes against communal norms by refusing to marry, have children or keep a job. While choosing a non-traditional path for a Mizrahi woman is freeing for her, it also leads to isolation and economic hardship. Gila, the author’s neighbor in Sde Boker grew up in Yerucham, but was able to leave her birthplace and create a middle-class, educated, professional life after leaving.

Sylvie Fogiel-Bijaoui and Rachel Sharaby have edited Dynamics of Gender Borders: Women in Israel’s Cooperative Settlements (Walter de Gruyter GmbH, & Hebrew University Magnes Press, $115)

Israel’s signature collective settlements, kibbutzim and moshavim, were based on ideals of gender equality and that of a new, egalitarian, socialist society in a new land. Kibbutzim were characterized by the communal features of formerly private domestic spaces—children’s houses, and communal kitchens, dining rooms and laundry. Moshavim were socialist agricultural communities that combined elements of individual and collective living, based on family farms. Yet, as the studies in this edited collection, show despite innovations in child-rearing practices, religious life, and labor, for women in these utopian communities, gender equality was still elusive.

The first section of the book collects women’s experiences in the pre-State period, including unique research on kibbutz mothers who wrote in secret diaries of their pain at being separated from their children raised collectively in children’s houses, pain they had to hide for fear of being seen as opposed to gender equality and the new society they were building. Another chapter explores mothers on moshavim who felt compelled to break gender constraints and fight against fascism by enlisting in British forces in the Middle East during World War II. They write of their pride in serving, but also of the sacrifice to their families and communities. On religious kibbutzim, women grew frustrated as rabbis debated whether they were allowed to wear shorts or pants while doing agricultural work, exemplifying the conflict between traditional constraints and the new, collectivist kibbutz.

In the book’s second section, we get a closer view of the period after the founding of the State. Various factors—the declining status of the labor settlement movement; the waves of immigrants from Asia, North Africa and Europe that presented many absorption challenges to Israel and the collective settlements; and Israel’s integration into the global neo-liberal economy and the processes of privatization—led to valuing individualism in the kibbutzim and moshavim. Changes arrived, but not gender equality. Articles describe how Mizrahi women immigrants integrated into moshavim, how economic and labor changes to kibbutzim and moshavim in modern times affected women, and how second-generation kibbutz mothers, rebelling against their experiences as children, pushed to make kibbutzim more family-oriented, by pressing for such “radical” changes as family meals and family sleeping arrangements.

All these books deal with people who have been on the margins of Israeli society. Together, they paint a devastating but important picture of the ways reality in Israel has failed to live up to ideals.

Susan Sapiro is a researcher and writer for nonprofits, and a book critic.

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April 20, 2020 by

A Trans Boy and His Remarkable Parents

What We Will Become: A Mother, A Son, and A Journey of Transformation
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27) tells two riveting stories of transformation, in alternating chapters of sublime prose. The first is that of the author, Mimi LeMay. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in Israel and the U.S., she studied for years at Gateshead Seminary, the prestigious girls’ yeshiva in England, attended college in Boston and ultimately leaves behind her religious tradition, which she found stultifying, and demeaning to women. Though we may have read narratives of this sort before, the complicated details of Lemay’s own mystery-filled childhood feel very fresh.

The second story is the journey Mimi takes with Em, the pseudonym Lemay uses when referring to her child as female. Em was born a girl, but identifies strongly as a boy from the age of two. We join the loving and hyper-alert Mimi, her husband and her two other young daughters on the difficult journey they travel to help Em become Jacob a few months before his fifth birthday.

We understand that Mimi’s ability to see her child’s pain clearly and embrace the necessity for him to be himself, despite some social opprobrium, comes from her own journey away from Orthodoxy’s religious and social constraints. “Jacob my love, it is you that have transitioned us to a life less ordinary and so much more meaningful than it ever would have been. Thank you deeply for your sacred trust.” Mimi’s intent in making public this letter she wrote to her five-year-old son (and her expansion of it into this book) is to “provide comfort and strength to another mother or father with an aching heart. To provide this message. It doesn’t get better. It gets awesome.”

But do not imagine that this is a sickly-sweet portrait where everything goes smoothly. We are allowed to witness the internal confusion and despair that Mimi experiences in both of the transition stories she tells.

For Mimi, in her religious life, it is her mother, an Orthodox woman, who feels betrayed by her daughter’s choices. Their relationship, with some unexpected twists and turns shapes Mimi’s own responses as a mother. But I was most taken by Mimi’s words about her mother in the prologue:

“I am grateful for my mother, Judith. Ours is a complex love built on a complicated past, but I have no doubt that every choice she has made for her children has been true to her strong
moral compass and deep, abiding faith… I admire her. I remain wounded by her. She is a mystery I may never solve.” This description deserves its own book.

We also meet the naysayers who disagree with Mimi’s decisions about her child. Em’s loving older sister, Ella, worries about the kids who are not nice to Em, because Em is different and gender non-conforming. There is the child at a party who says “What is THAT?” pointing to Em. As Mimi explains to her daughter and to anyone who will listen, “What you are in your heart and your mind is far more important that what you are in your body.”

Early on in the journey, Mimi learns about the extremely high rate of suicide and attempted suicide in transgender youth; a recent study found that 51% of female-to-male transgender
adolescents report having attempted suicide. This fact is always with Mimi as she navigates a largely unmapped path, along with the indicators that a child’s gender transitioning is not some mere whim; the clue is that the expression of desire to be a different gender from that assigned at birth must be “insistent, persistent, and consistent.”

And then there are moments when the path is illuminated. On a family trip to Disney World, Jacob’s sisters dress as princesses, while he dresses as Prince Charming. All the Disney characters in the park see and accept him as a boy. He is elated, and for once seems comfortable in his own skin. When he is treated as a boy, his anger, his sadness, his twitchy gestures fade away. This trip, where nobody knows their child as a girl, reinforces for Mimi and her husband that the time has come to offer Em the choice to transition socially. Em becomes Jacob, starts to present as a boy outside his home, and switches to a new, supportive school. Not every child is so fortunate.

This book could not come at a more crucial time. In January 2020, the South Dakota House passed a bill that would fine or imprison pediatricians who offer gender-affirming care for trans children under the age of 16. Since then, conservative legislators in Florida, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Kentucky have followed suit. Gender-affirming care, which is endorsed by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy of Pediatrics, supports children and their families in social transitioning (changing names, style of dress and pronouns) and offering puberty blocker medications at puberty. These medications are a reversible intervention, one that allows teens more time to confirm their identity and not experience the anguish resulting from developing secondary sex characteristics which feel alien to them. It appears the politicians in South Dakota haven’t yet read the medical literature, which shows that these interventions save lives. Children who are affirmed are much less likely to be depressed or attempt suicide. South Dakota is ground zero for this culture war, as it was the first state to pass legislation restricting transgender students’ bathroom rights. Fortunately, that bill was vetoed by the governor, but became the model for several other states where it became law.

I predict that What We Will Become will become a classic, one of those books that changes the way we, as a society, view the transgender experience, particularly the lived experience of
very young children and their families.

Nechama Liss-Levinson, PhD., is a psychologist in private practice and the author of several articles and children’s books about developmental milestones in the Jewish family, including
When a Grandparent Dies and When the Hurricane Came. This review is dedicated to the memory of Jayme Schlenker.

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April 20, 2020 by

Big Mouth, Big Ideas

Battling Bella: The Protest Politics of Bella Abzug by Leandra Ruth Zarnow (Harvard University Press, $35) is a comprehensive, sympathetic—but never hagiographic—biography of the first woman to serve as a whip in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she represented New Yorkers from 1971–1977. While the book does not shy away from highlighting Abzug’s harsh treatment of her staff, it also notes her unflinching demand for gender parity in hiring practices of political campaigns.

In addition to noting her contributions to feminist politics and movements, Zarnow also vividly describes Bella’s formidable persona (including her iconic hats and use of the phrase “Abzuglutely.”) We glimpse Abzug’s personal life through her decision to cross gender boundaries and say kaddish for her father—in 1934, when she was still a teenager—and her devastation later in life over her husband’s death.

The book deliberately situates Abzug as “a participant in the American Left,” and frequently refers to her push for social democratic policies both as an activist and as an elected congresswoman. Abzug won office in New York City as part of a wave of New Politics Democrats who were seeking to realign the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction.
The successes and failures of New Politics Democrats have defined the political landscape in the intervening years, and it is impossible when reading this biography not to hear echoes of our current political moment through its pages.

Zarnow makes this most explicit when she notes the Democratic Party’s introduction of “unelected superdelegates with voting powers in 1984 to keep insolent challenges… in check.” In effect, these unelected superdelegates were meant to curtail the more radical candidates and policies the New Politics coalition might bring up for a vote on the convention floor (e.g. their passage of a platform plank in 1980 which called for Medicaid funding of abortion). As the author mentions, the role of unelected superdelegates again caused controversy amongst a new crop of reformers in the 2016 election and was only partially reformed as a result in 2018. As the 2020 Democratic Party convention approaches, the structural impediment used to stop Abzug and others from pushing feminist politics still partially remains in place.

While it can be ahistorical to draw oo many one-to-one parallels from the past to the present, I think it is worth highlighting a few further similarities. The cadre of New Politics Democrats who were elected to Congress in the late 60s and early 70s is evocative of the “Squad” of insurgent Democratic congresswomen who won office in 2018, as is the sense of crisis motivating them. New Politics Democrats urgently sought to end the Vietnam War and avoid nuclear Armageddon with a similar fervor to how current organizers are seeking to stave off a coming climate apocalypse. The campaign calling for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY–14) to have a committee seat on Ways and Means mirrors both Abzug’s campaign to be on the Armed Services Committee in 1971 and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s campaign to change her appointment away from the Agriculture Committee in 1969. Likewise, many of the same smears thrown at Abzug are similar to attacks currently leveled by the right. Particularly startling to me were the eerie parallels to the way in which attacks questioning the legitimacy of Abzug’s Jewishness parallel the smears leveled against many millennial leftwing Jewish activists, despite the divergent positions on Zionism between Abzug and many of the activists of my generation who are similarly attacked.

The 1960s and 1970s are not the 2010s and 2020s, and Zarnow effectively relays the climate and various political currents to her readership. The author advocates for re-evaluating the 1970s “not as an era of limits but as an imaginative, expansive” period. While there may be elements to this appeal worth considering, it is nevertheless inescapable that the ultimate inability of the New Politics Democrats to win a governing majority in the 1970s led away from social democracy to the consolidation of power in a neoliberal order. After losing her Senate bid in 1976, Abzug would never again return to elected office, though she had served as a Congresswoman for three terms.

The question facing those of us who share a similar vision of the world is whether our movement can avoid the same end. While Battling Bella does not provide clear answers to this question, it does provide a thorough depiction of one of the most iconic figures of the New Politics Democrats. By studying the past upon which our present is built, we can hopefully steer the course to a better future.

Amelia Dornbush works for a union in Michigan. She has previously written for Lilith and Democratic Left.

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April 15, 2020 by

An Imaginary Quarter of a Food-Obsessed City

Consider the Feast (Open Books, $19.95) offers a wild ride through an imaginary quarter of a food-obsessed city.  Debut novelist Carmit Delman talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how food becomes both marker and symbol for the haves and the have nots.

Yona Zeldis McDonough: Like your protagonist,Talia, you have a background that’s both Indian and Israeli. Can you describe growing up within those two cultures? 

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April 13, 2020 by

Making Jewish Life in 15th Century Spain Come Alive for Kids

Loma—short for Paloma—is a Jewish girl living in 15th century Spain and the clear hero of this middle-grade historical novel, (A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, HarperCollins, $17.99).  Clever with words and even more clever with numbers, Loma captures the attention of Belo, her stern and commanding grandfather.  To her surprise, he decides that she will accompany him on his travels and she discovers she has an important role to play in determining the future of her people. Newberry award-winning author Gail Carson Levine talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about bringing significant episodes in Jewish history to life again. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough: What sparked your interest in this period in Jewish history and what kind of research did you do?

Gail Carson Levine: My father is the culprit! Soon after his death, because I missed him so much, I wrote my first and only other historical novel (so far), Dave at Night, which is loosely based on his childhood in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in New York City. A Ceiling Made of Eggshells comes indirectly from that orphanage experience, too, because it separated him from his Sephardic roots.

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July 9, 2019 by

Turmeric & Nicotine

The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari (Random House, $26) is a memoir seasoned by turmeric and nicotine, chronicling Tsabari’s coming-of-age in a large Yemeni family in Israel and her travels around the world until ultimately she creates, for herself, her own definition of home.

The first third of Tsabari’s memoir focuses on the death of her beloved father just before her tenth birthday, leaving her young mother alone with six children to raise. Tsabari vividly depicts the devastating impact of this loss: “That moment, crystallized in my memory through the fog of grief, will be the fork in the road where my future splits in two: what could have happened had he lived and what happened because he didn’t. And as I grow up, I will try to live as wildly and loudly as I can to outdo the enormity of this moment, to diminish it.”

Not long before her father’s heart attack, Tsabari had shared with him some of her writing, and her father had promised her that he would publish it in a book. Three decades later, Tsabari finally became a published writer on her own, and this memoir is on one level the story of how she found a way to make good on her father’s promise—and on her own. As a girl growing up in Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli culture of the 1970s and 1980s, Tsabari struggles with her identity as the granddaughter of Yemeni immigrants. She refuses to eat her mother’s Yemeni soup with its wilted cilantro and fenugreek paste and buys herself burgers instead. And though she is proud when her childhood idol, the Yemeni singer Ofra Haza, becomes one of the first Mizrahi artists to make it into the Israeli canon, Tsabari does not want to be mistaken for a freha, the subject of one of Haza’s most famous songs and a popular stereotype of Mizrahi women—intellectually shallow, heavily made-up and accessorized, marked by poverty and promiscuity. In search of her own identity, she becomes a hippie, gets hired to write for a popular teen magazine, and tries to pass as an Ashkenazi. Only when she gets a job, decades later, at a Lebanese restaurant in Vancouver does she finally feel free to embrace her ethnic identity halfway around the world.

Tsabari finds herself only by traveling far from her family to India, Thailand, Vancouver, Toronto, and New York. Once, while calling her family back home from Manhattan, she reflects, “It’s strange how much I miss them and how badly I need to be away from them right now… Maybe I need to do my growing up away from them. Or maybe I love them so much, it feels safer to walk away. Because you never know what might happen to the people you love.” It is not just the loss of her father that haunts her; in an era of suicide bombings, she writes that a bus in Israel is an “instrument of death”; in a later chapter about Vancouver, she describes the bus as a “traveling circus” where you never know whom you will meet. And so following her unhappy and inglorious army service, she spends most of her twenties and thirties rolling joints, bargaining in bazaars, waitressing for enough money to pay for her next plane ticket out. As a boyfriend once tells her, “You play backgammon like you live your life. You play aggressively, you constantly take risks, you don’t want to build houses. You leave yourself open all over the place, and when things get dicey, you run away.”

The most compelling parts of Tsabari’s memoir are not about her longing to leave, but about her struggle to stay. (But then again, perhaps that’s just my own bias. I have always been far more captivated, for instance, by the memoirs of those who struggle to come to terms with their religious identity than by the many accounts of those who leave Judaism, or Hasidism, or the Modern Orthodox community. I prefer memoirs about decades-long marriages to sordid sagas about devastating divorces. Is it not always harder to stay?)

For Tsabari, the struggle to stay takes many different forms. It is about learning how to fry her mother’s chicken livers and bake her chocolate yeast cake—which is first and foremost about seeing her mother’s strengths after years of being blinded by grief. It is about bringing her Canadian Christian husband home to Petah Tikva to clean out her childhood home. It is about discovering her father’s poetry and realizing that he, too, fought long and hard to master a literary language not his own. It is about researching the story of her Yemenite great-grandmother, who abandoned her toddler twin daughters and followed her husband to a strange land: “I see her walking away, shoulder trembling, tears streaming. I imagine the mountains and the spirits who lived in them looking on as the family began their journey toward a new life. The mountains had witnessed the lives of the people for centuries. They watched patterns evolving through generations, old roles taken over by new faces, new husbands replacing the dead, girls becoming mothers and mothers becoming grandmothers. Nothing ever changed, but rather shifted ever so slightly, like an ancient folk song played in a new key.”

Most poignantly, for Tsabari, learning to stay is about becoming a mother herself and recognizing that in order to stay, we cannot help but leave: “Perhaps motherhood is a series of small abandonments, in the same way that life is a series of goodbyes. We are raising our children to survive without us in the world. We are raising them to leave us, raising them to endure our own departure.” Perhaps the art of leaving is not all that different from the art of losing. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, a poet born in Massachusetts who circumnavigated South America and traveled extensively in Brazil. The real art is not about losing or leaving, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is captured by Donald Justice, Bishop’s contemporary, a poet who stayed far closer to home: “It always comes, and when it comes they know / The knack is this: to fasten and not let go.”

Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, won the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature.

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