+972 Magazine » Life & Culture http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Wed, 25 May 2016 07:31:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 What we left behind in Egypt: Mizrahi thoughts on Israel http://972mag.com/what-we-left-behind-in-egypt-mizrahi-thoughts-on-israel/119490/ http://972mag.com/what-we-left-behind-in-egypt-mizrahi-thoughts-on-israel/119490/#comments Tue, 24 May 2016 13:29:18 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119490 Even when they had reached the borders of the Promised Land, after 40 years in the desert, all the Children of Israel wanted was to go back to Egypt. In Erez Biton’s poem, the immigrant from Algeria and his son fail to build a home in Israel. Independence Day is also the tale of the rift in our identity, created by immigrating here.

By Mati Shemoelof

Footprints in the sand in the Sinai desert. (Dudarev Mikhail / Shutterstock.com)

Footprints in the sand in the Sinai desert. (Dudarev Mikhail / Shutterstock.com)

“And the children of Israel said unto them: ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” [Exodus 16:3]

“…And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron; and the whole congregation said unto them: ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would we had died in this wilderness!;

And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey; were it not better for us to return into Egypt?’;
And they said one to another: ‘Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt.’” [Numbers Chapter 14 2-4]

Before we discuss the Mizrahi present in Israel, let us examine the trauma as it is reflected in the desire of the Israelites to return to Egypt and postpone the narrative of redemption in the Promised Land. Looking back at this theological question is important for a psychological understanding of the modern perception of identity, and the impossibility of achieving inner autonomy within Zionism and its holidays and Independence Day in particular.


At the beginning of the Israelites’ journey, and at the end of it after 40 years, the Israelites ask to return to Egypt. Both requests are impossible, as Egypt is already impossible. They are in a never-where, in the desert, which is neither the Promised Land nor Egypt. But in both cases they do not speak to God or to Moses and Aaron, and if they do, all they ask for is life and death in the land of Egypt, which still seems like a safe place to them. How could Egypt be a safe place for them, after having left it with such sturm und drang? How could they ask to return to Egypt, having drowned Pharaoh and his army in the Sea of Reeds? And how dare they ask to return to Egypt, a moment after the Song of the Sea, and all the miracles the Lord has performed for them?

It can be understood when they are still Egyptian slaves at heart, and so the moment there is hunger, and they are in the desert, they are afraid and want to go back. But after 40 years, during which they have received the Ten Commandments, Moses as a prophet and Aaron as his right-hand man, received the greatest technology there is, acquired monotheism, which no nation around them had. And with all these wonders, they still want to go back to Egypt. How does this happen?

Yearning for the cut-off hand

I wish to argue that Egypt in this context is not the Egypt of an enemy. Egypt is their identity. Egypt is their mother tongue. Egypt is the first memory. Egypt is the frame of reference, the context in which they live. When they say that they want to return to Egypt, it is like saying that they wish to return to their mother, to the womb. They are Egyptian slaves who following the awakening of a new identity have been thrown on a journey.

And they reject the terms of the journey. This is perhaps the context in which we may understand the golden calf. At Mount Sinai of all places, a moment before the theophany, they are Egyptians, and as such they speak with Egypt, even if at present Egypt is the land of the enemy, is the perfect other, is the one that wanted to put them to hard labor, to annihilate them.

Thus, a moment before entering the Promised Land, after 40 years, and also a moment after the escape, they discover Egypt as a place of love, a place where they’d rather die than live hungry in the desert, or fighting wars in the Promised Land against large nations, and huge kings such as Ogg King of Bashan, and the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Hivites and the other local peoples. They want Egypt, even though Egypt is impossible. They hold a dialogue with Egypt, and we may re-read Pharaoh’s reluctance to give them up also as Pharaoh’s reluctance to give up the Jewish-Arab aspect of his Hebrew-Egyptian subject. Suddenly the Israelites’ hyphenated identity, as Hebrew-Egyptians, and the Egyptian identity of Moses, as the grandson of the previous Pharaoh, and as a leader opposed to the current Pharaoh – all these do not seem so far fetched.

The Israelites’ cry is to bring Egyptian-ness into their world. In the crisis of hunger and threat of war, of all moments, they go back to speaking with Egypt, in Egyptian, and give up the spiritual guidance of their prophet, who comes from a different class, and is already speaking with God face to face. This is a class-based rejection, directed at an elite that no longer understands their daily life problems.

They wish to replace Moses and Aaron, to effect a revolution. They wish to die with full bellies sitting on the fleshpots of Egypt. In both cases, the first and the last, they reject the Lord’s leadership, despite all the wonders and the miracles, all the parting of the sea, Mount Sinai, water from the rock, manna from heaven, the pillar of cloud going before the camp, the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant and other super-natural moments.

Their call to return is almost childish, infantile, but could be considered as a desire to unite aspects of their identity that are irreconcilable in modern Jewish thought. Their wish to be Egypt is a wish to be with the dead parent, with the hand that was cut off. But in today’s thought there is no way to heal the trauma and to make peace with it. Especially not on Independence Day, because of its absence in the public sphere, within all the exclusion from the culture in general in Israel.

“Scaffolding,” By Erez Bitton (translated by Tsipi Keller)

On the threshold of half a house in the Land of Israel
my father stood
pointing to the sides and saying:
Upon these ruins
one day we will build a kitchen
to cook in it a Leviathan’s tail
and a wild bull,
upon these ruins
we will build a corner for prayer
to make room
for a bit of holiness.
My father remained on the threshold
and I, my entire life,
have been erecting scaffolding
reaching up to the sky.

Erez Biton in his poetry does not deny the darkness, the night and gloom – the trauma – entailed in immigration. He has no moment of redemption, he does not come to Independence Day with flag in hand. On the contrary. The father holds on to hope, as he moves from Algeria to Israel. But the father does not enter the Promised Land and has not a shred of Zionism’s redemptionist concept of itself, as celebrated on Independence Day. Biton’s father remains on the threshold. Belief in the Messiah will yet awaken, the father promises, with the Leviathan’s tail and the wild bull. He will yet build.

Erez Biton (Screenshot, Social TV)

Erez Biton (Screenshot, Social TV)

It is he, with the faith, who believes he will yet enter the Promised Land, but fails to do so. There is no kitchen, no temple. The son is busy with just erecting scaffolding to the sky. What does erecting scaffolds to the sky mean? Is it asking God to make his promise come true? You build the scaffolds, He’ll build the rest. Is it defiance? Like the Tower of Babylon? This is the internal Mizrahi state, which is hard to understand. Even if we wave the flag, that doesn’t mean the psychic trauma has been healed.

The father comes to half a house, to ruins. We know that Erez Biton grew up in Lod. Does he mean the ruins of the Palestinian city of Lod, or does he mean metaphorically, the ruin into which the Arab-Jews are thrown under the Ashkenazi-Zionist regime?

When we connect Biton’s poem to the theological part with which I began, we may see the perception of the impossible part of identity, which one wishes to unite. Therefore we see the dialogue between the father and the son: the father leaves behind hope, but remains outside. What does remaining outside mean? Can we compare this to the Israelites who remained outside of Egypt? Even stayed in Egypt at heart, despite arriving at the threshold of the Land of Israel, unable to enter the Promised Land? The Promised Land is the Independence Day celebration. As if the sovereign status of the State of Israel can cure the psychological problem of Mizrahim in Israel.

Did Moses die in the desert because he sinned, or because he was an Egyptian through and through, who could not have entered the Promised Land? This threshold is precisely the point of immigration, a point between here and there, between there and here. A point at which it is impossible to enter a culture that does not accept or contain the different parts of your identity. It leaves those parts outside, and so you remain outside as well. The father in Biton’s poem is full of hope that he might be able to go in, with a kitchen and a temple, in half a house, in the ruins; but the son discovers the truth, that the father’s promise has remained as scaffolding to the sky, remained outside.

Is Erez Biton’s “Scaffolding” the desire to build a Jewish-Arab culture within a state that has set it as its purpose to erase the Arab parts in its inhabitants identity? Do we think that with bestowing the Israel Prize the process of accepting Erez Biton and the Jewish-Arab poetry has been completed? Even if so, the trauma still stands, with the son looking at the father, and the grandson looking at his father, who is still looking at the grandfather, who still remains outside. The memory of exclusion passes as a collective viewpoint, a lamentation of parts excluded, leaving entire communities outside.

Mati Shemoelof is a poet, editor and author who lives in Berlin. Join him on his FB page, website. And Twitter. This essay was originally part of a sermon delivered in Fraenkelufer Synagogue

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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Epilogue http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-epilogue/119258/ http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-epilogue/119258/#comments Wed, 11 May 2016 14:13:09 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119258 Read the full series: The Long Road to Bethlehem

A road leading through the West Bank. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

A road leading through the West Bank. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

I began writing this series in December 2014, just a few months after I arrived in the United States, and finished in September of 2015. Much has changed since then.

Shortly after I finished the last essay, the current escalation in violence began. I also returned to Israel-Palestine for October and November of 2015 (read about that trip here) to update my research for a forthcoming book about migrant workers and African asylum seekers in the Jewish state, a project I’ve been working on in one form or another since 2007.

Despite heightened political tensions, I met with my husband’s family for the first time in November of 2015. And in January of 2015, I gave birth to our first child. Mohammad and I got our happy ending. But what about Israel and Palestine? Can the two peoples also have a happy ending?

For a long time, I believed in a one-state solution. Or, to be more accurate, I didn’t call it a one-state solution because “solution” implies something optimal that everyone has agreed to. I believed in what I called a “one-state outcome.”

Considering that the Israeli government already controls most aspects of life between the river and sea, there’s already a de facto one state on the ground. I felt an acknowledgment of that single state was inevitable. It was only a matter of time — well, time, and international pressure.

After my experiences living and working in both the West Bank and Israel, however — and much has been omitted from this series — I no longer believe that there is a solution to the conflict, in part because so many foreigners, Israelis, and Palestinians have a vested interest in the continuation of the conflict.

Even if there is eventually some sort of a peace agreement, I don’t believe that it will put an end to the fighting, whether that fighting is internal or between the “two sides” (though there are arguably more than “two sides” involved).

Lastly, a number of readers have emailed and messaged, asking if I will and suggesting that I should turn the series into a book. I’m trying. Thank you for your encouragement. And thanks for reading.

Read the full series: The Long Road to Bethlehem

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At Peace Holiday, normalcy is the best act of resistance http://972mag.com/at-peace-holiday-normalcy-is-the-best-act-of-resistance/119192/ http://972mag.com/at-peace-holiday-normalcy-is-the-best-act-of-resistance/119192/#comments Mon, 09 May 2016 11:53:49 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119192 A new holiday was established by the binational, bilingual school kids at Neve Shalom Wahat al-Salam. We painted, cooked, built puppets and celebrated. Only the roar of aircraft on their way to Gaza brought a small reminder of reality.

The march through Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Dafna Lobel Lederer)

The march through Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Dafna Lobel Lederer)

Please mark down May 7, 2016 as the first “Peace Holiday” – a new addition to the already crowded calendar of the binational, bilingual school of Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom. It is in the proximity of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Nakba Day, Independence Day, Land Day, Passover, Easter, Mimouna, Asraia and al-Miarg’. With grief and bereavement rituals, religious celebrations and festivals all around, we struggled to find a single date that was free of the baggage of ethnic and religious divisions that fuel the long-standing national conflict.


The “Peace Holiday” is an initiative launched by small children – Jews and Palestinians – following a democratic vote in their student council. The holiday is intended for parents and families of the school in the village of Wahat al-Salam – Neve Shalom as well as for the general public. Actually, it is for every human being who is simply tired of war.

Preparations for the event lasted several months. We had to make fateful decisions that would determine the future relations between the Arab and Jewish peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, that would affect the situation in the Middle East and, of course, influence world peace. For example: should we invite US President Obama? The Pope? What about the Dalai Lama? Should we send an invitation to President Rivlin? And should we write a letter to world leaders asking them to make peace? No less important, we had to decide what we would sing and what kind of food each class would bring.

The march through Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Dafna Lobel Lederer)

The march through Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (Dafna Lobel Lederer)

My third-grader Adam and I decided to bake a chocolate cake with a colorful rainbow made of sweets, though such an item was not included among the suggestions we were given, and it wasn’t particularly healthy. But naturally, on a holiday, we can permit ourselves to indulge in sweets more than on ordinary days – so we strayed a little from the suggestion list.

Each class was assigned a different rainbow color, in which it was supposed to make banners, flags and a “Man of Peace” mascot character. The third grade’s orange seemed very nice but, in the process of preparing our character, we couldn’t decide whether it would be a boy or a girl. So, we gave it a boyish hairstyle but then attached a long braid for the satisfaction of the girls in the class. “The boys won’t like this! “, I warned these enthusiastic girls. We don’t want a gender war on a peace day! And sweet Hagar, who had toiled hard to prepare the braid, said with complete sincerity, “the boys will deal with it.” She passed my first feminist empowerment test. “What fun,” I said to myself: this proves that the feminist struggle and the struggle for peace are intertwined like the orange braid. There is no way to separate between one kind of oppression and another, I thought to myself. But before I could pursue my reflections on struggle, oppression of minorities, violence and incitement I was stopped by my son Adam. Evidently feeling the boys’ sacrifice, and a little annoyed by my heedless laughing with the girls in his class, he pulled hard to win me back. “Mom, I wrote a chant for the parade: “One people or two – we want to be in peace.”

(شعب واحد او شعبين بدنا نكون بس سالمين)

“That’s great,” I marveled, rejoining him. And, having won his mom back, he calmed down.

Peace Holiday celebrations at Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam. (Dafna Lobel Lederer)

Peace Holiday celebrations at Neve Shalom Wahat al Salam. (Dafna Lobel Lederer)

Finally on Saturday, the colorful parade took to the village streets. Actually, every day of the week is like the Sabbath here. Apart from the barking of the neighbors’ dogs, few sounds are heard. So a bit of rumpus was a pleasant change. The colorful parade of wagons, flags and unaccountable smiles that flew in all directions was joined by foreign guests who were staying at the hotel, and representatives of friends organizations from around the world who have been supporting this tremendous educational project for many years. Everyone was happy, and they all marched forward in a spirit of brotherhood.

Between the attack of Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans and the bombing of Gaza, I met Nadwa, the school’s first grade homeroom teacher. Nadwa was attacked, the other day, as she was leaving Jerusalem’s Malha shopping mall, by a crowd of Beitar fans just after their team’s loss to Sakhnin. They spat on her, beat up her vehicle with clubs, breaking the mirrors and shouting “Arab terrorist.” This mother of two toddlers and a little girl in first grade, suffered 15 minutes of terror, while her car was surrounded by a belligerent and bloodthirsty mob. Nadwa told me the fans threatened, “We’ll claim you were driving like a maniac.” After blocking the vehicle for a long time, Nadwa says they yelled at her, tried to pull her out of the car and climbed up on it. Eventually, she reversed, hit the car that was blocking her, and fled for her life.

“You know, if someone had a gun he would have shot me without any difficulty,” she said. “They would have said that I’d wanted to run over Jews. Believe me, it would have gone over in the Israeli media. I thank God I’m alive – though I’m pretty traumatized.” I hugged her and said I was glad she’s okay and back at the school – and that what we are doing is the healthiest response to racism and the violence of the Beitar fans. “There’s nothing to be done – you have to move on,” I said. Nadwa nodded.

And I thought: “Is there really nothing to be done?” I looked around and found dozens of smiling families and color. Everyone had left the sofa in their air-conditioned living room, their trips to the countryside or family visits, to come and spend their free day here, with families of the neighboring people. We spoke Hebrew or Arabic; we were dressed differently, maybe, and for sure we hadn’t prepared the same foods.

All of us could hear up above the roar of aircraft on their way to attack Gaza. Together we checked the updates on our smart phones and talked, on this naive Peace Holiday of ours, about the future of this place, about this government that needed a war in order to survive yet another summer of bloodshed.

The Peace festival didn’t stop the shelling in Gaza. It didn’t stop the Color Red rocket warnings, the crazed Beitar fans or the crazy right-wing ministers. It didn’t stop the occupation or the neutralizing of Palestinians from their lives. Our march of colors did not re-color the blackness or the hate rampaging outside, in Israeli society. But one springlike Saturday, full of light and sunshine, we enjoyed a few hours of sanity and joy. Actually, believe it or not, these were hours of peace. Happy Peace Holiday to all!

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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WATCH: Overdue recognition for Mizrahi poets http://972mag.com/watch-overdue-recognition-for-mizrahi-poets/119166/ http://972mag.com/watch-overdue-recognition-for-mizrahi-poets/119166/#comments Sat, 07 May 2016 13:08:07 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119166 For decades, the poetry, literature and culture of Mizrahi Jews, those who came from Arab and Middle Eastern countries, was excluded from and marginalized in the Israeli mainstream and educational curriculum. That is beginning to change, and there exists a unique opportunity to correct the course.

Read more:
The roots of anti-Mizrahi racism in Israel
Riches to rags to virtual riches: When Mizrahi artists said ‘no’ to Israel’s pioneer culture
It is time to rebuild ties between Mizrahim and the Arab world

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‘Literature’s task is to pose alternatives to political reality’ http://972mag.com/literatures-task-is-to-pose-alternatives-to-political-reality/119148/ http://972mag.com/literatures-task-is-to-pose-alternatives-to-political-reality/119148/#comments Sat, 07 May 2016 12:34:17 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119148 “Art and War: Poetry, Pulp and Politics in Israeli Fiction”, by Lavie Tidhar and Shimon Adaf; Repeater, 300 pages, $14.95

Have you ever eavesdropped on the conversations of the brilliant people at the table next to you, and wanted to jump in and interrupt, to ask your own questions? Art and War: Poetry, Pulp and Politics in Israeli Fiction, a new book of conversations between two writers, is sure to make readers feel that way.

Art and War consists of conversations between Sapir Prize winning Tel Aviv resident Shimon Adaf and World Fantasy Award winning London resident Lavie Tidhar about the many things that enlighten, bother, and frighten them. They talk here about their worries about the book’s coming out, the realities of Israel today, the Holocaust, science fiction, digression, and how to answer for fictional characters – or each other. Being writers, they’ve each written a story at the conclusion of the dialogue in which the other is a character. Art and War comes from that impulse good friends have to push their friend and force them to actually make sense and clarify statements. Or, in the words of the authors via email, it is, “very much a conversation, not an agreement. Think of two cranky old rabbis having an argument about the right way to boil an egg and that, I suspect, would be closer to it!” says Lavie Tidhar. Shimon Adaf characterizes their interchanges as like “two Halacha students shouting over the status of an egg that has been laid during a holiday…”

The two generated this dialogue, and the accompanying stories, in the aftermath of both being too depressed about the events of the summer of 2014 and the war in Gaza to have much discussion on anything. Yet, ultimately, the sense of needing to respond to the world in which they found themselves got them to speak to each other about things that concerned them. Tidhar responded to this reporter’s query about what is “Jewish conversation” that he is “less a part of the conversation than the guy standing by the drinks cabinet at the party making rude comments about everyone else’s dancing.” His friend Adaf added to his comment, “But that guy has an immense role in the conversation. He drives it along. True conversation is not about agreements, but about speaking to each other while being open to the interruptions, misunderstandings and digressions suggested by the environment. A conversation in empty space is boring and stagnant. Both of us, I think, are providers of misunderstandings – Lavie by being a manufacturer of cunning interruptions, and I, by being a student of digressions.” It is precisely this lack of stagnation and the energy of the arguments between the two that drives the conversation in this text.

Shimon Adaf (Courtesy photo)

Shimon Adaf (Photo by Ronen Lalena)

In Art and War, Adaf writes, “being a Jew is participating in the Jewish conversation that started when reality came into being and will end when reality is redeemed. Everything else is a distraction, an obstacle.” So for each of them, then participation in the Jewish conversation, means something different.

Adaf grew up in a large religious family and his father had plans for him: to be a rabbi. Though Adaf loves Jewish learning, following the path another laid out for him was never his desire. He became a poet, musician, and writer and now chairs the department of creative writing at Ben-Gurion University, Israel’s largest and most prestigious writing program. At 43, he is the author of eight novels and three books of poetry. In addition, Adaf frequently writes lyrics for musicians; an entire album of different musicians setting his poetry to music appeared last year and his work is read on screen in a documentary about the music scene in Sderot, “Rock in the Red Zone.”

Tidhar, 39, grew up on a kibbutz in the north of Israel and partly in South Africa, the son of a family of Holocaust survivors from one side and grandparents who came to Israel as Zionists in the 1920s and were founding members of the kibbutz on the other. Tidhar is the author of numerous books and graphic novels; his A Man Lies Dreaming was be published in March, 2016 in the U.S., and Central Station is out in May, 2016. Tidhar says of his identity in a recent interview that, “well, at the moment I’m back living in London. I suppose my main identity is still as an Israeli – Hebrew is my first language and it’s still an important part of me.”

Lavie Tidhar (Photo by Kevin Nixon / SFX Magazine/TeamRock)

Lavie Tidhar (Photo by Kevin Nixon / SFX Magazine/TeamRock)

Though their backgrounds are far apart, as Adaf is from a Moroccan family in Sderot in the South and Tidhar from an Ashkenazi family in the north of the country, they share a love of particular books read in childhood, of science fiction and writing. Tidhar left Israel before his army service to backpack around the world, including to the village his family was from in Transylvania, the only person in his family to make the trip. Tidhar writes in Art and War of that, “I went back to the cemetery where my great great grandfather lives. His name was Adolf Heizikovics. How is that for irony? Hitler even managed to ruin the name.” Adaf by contrast feels that it was not Hitler but Zionists who removed his family’s pride in their heritage as Mizrahim and as religious Jews. Adaf writes, “I write for readers who defy ready-made categories of identity and experience and their ready-made modes of representation. Yet, I’m vigilant in giving form to my past, to my parents’ silenced heritage, even to the unkind memories of studying with my father, of the gnashing of teeth.”

Tidhar says in an email that they share both having a “childhood spent in libraries of one sort or another.” He added that, “we know each other by the books we read as kids.” Adaf says of his childhood reading, “So I escaped, in the only way I know how, through other texts. I immersed myself in children’s books that told about fantastical escapes from mundane life – children going on adventures, child detectives nosing around, children entering wonderlands through unexpected doors. And later on, science fiction, oh, stories and novels that told about travel in the expanses of space, meeting aliens, transfigurations, metamorphoses of the consciousness, becoming alien yourself, to everything you knew, being reborn.”

ART & WARArt and War came about after Tidhar convinced his London publishers PS Publishing to bring out Adaf’s third novel, Sunburnt Faces, in English. Tidhar explained the genesis of Art and War in an email:

“It started off, as you mention, as a simple interview. Sunburnt Faces was coming out in English and I thought I’d interview Shimon about it, but Shimon insisted on answering every question with a question of his own, and before we knew it – and despite my protestations! – it became a long conversation instead.”

Adaf wrote, “Whenever I started answering a question as to my reasons for writing or as to a certain choice of materials and forms, my interest turned from my own work to Lavie’s and the techniques he employs in it. In Art and War we decided to roll with it, to give the book the loose structure of a conversation in correspondence. It is a form that has been common among writers all along. Here are two thought provoking questions: what is a friendship between writers?” Adaf concluded by wondering whether such a thing as a friendship ”can be formulated into a new form of writing?”

This reporter queried both of them via email. All quotes are from Art and War.

BK: Lavie writes, “I see literature as an act of unbalancing, as a challenge. It needs to upset people, it needs to push. It needs, I think, to be uncomfortable. It shouldn’t please.” How is this done? Are there limits?

Shimon: I think it is more a regulative idea than a concrete goal. It means that writers should start by working out the conventions and systems of values of their time (and of the literature written in order to ascertain them) and find a way to expose them or oppose them. It means that writing, basically, should be a critical act. And as for limits, is it a question about the limits of oppositions and provocation or about the writers’ limits of thinking outside of the paradigms of their time? If it’s the first, it is up to each writer to decide for themselves. If it’s the second, then of course there are limits. It’s hard to admit, but writers are human too.

Lavie: Graham Greene made a distinction between his ‘novels’ and his ‘entertainments,’ but later on his life had to admit it was a pointless distinction. I think the position I come from is you try to write the entertainment, and kind of hide the rest inside it. I think it’s why I’ve been attracted early on to science fiction – it can be a very subversive literature that masquerades as cheap entertainment. You can see it used that way in repressive regimes – the Soviet Union is often given as an example.

BK: Lavie writes, “I don’t have answers, but it worries me when it becomes so that there are questions you can’t even ask. That you’re afraid – like I was in that interview – to say what you really think because the threat of violence is very real.” I wonder whether living as a Jew, even an Israeli Jew, in the Diaspora there are things you fear and violence you fear in a different way than in Israel? But it seems odd and wrong to say to someone who grew up in Sderot, the most fired upon city in Israel (correct I think?) that there is less violence against Jews in Israel than in Diaspora. I am interested in both of your takes on this.

Shimon: Yes, there is irony here. During the 2014 war in Gaza, waves of immigrants from France flooded Israel. One couldn’t help but laugh at first: really, the safe haven you seek is bombarded Israel? But it is a bitter irony. What enables this cognitive dissonance is a conceptual shift in the perception of the self – from persecuted people to lawful citizens defending themselves. This very shift also enables them to discard any iota of compassion they should have toward other populations under oppression. We live in a time in which the desire for violence comes first. We look for justifications afterwards. Jews aren’t an exception to this.

Lavie: Though you could argue that’s always been the case…

BK: Lavie writes, “And it’s a danger for writers, because you have to speak for yourself, not for others. And it’s easy to be seduced. To accept an award, to become a spokesperson, and eventually you become a part of the group, a part of this story that we want to present to the world. I remember you saying once about the Israeli writers who became successful overseas, in translation – our great Spokesmen, for they are always men of a certain kind – how their writing became writing for translation. There is that insidious form of government sponsored propaganda in Israel, the Hasbara, the great project of explaining, a campaign to justify and promote Israel and what it does to the foreign media, and it’s almost a responsibility to do so – and yet you wonder why it’s needed.”

So yes, both of you, what made you write this in English? Who will your readers be? Or do you hope your readers will be?

Shimon: Since childhood I had the fantasy of expressing myself in a language unbeknownst to my peers, be it a private language or a foreign one. In my third collection of poetry, I was stricken with such a grief I felt that my command of Hebrew prevents me from fully expressing it. I had to learn my language anew. One of poems came out in broken English (in a Hebrew transcription). It opens with the lines: “Just before I fall asleep, I think / I should write in a language where / I’m deaf to the pulse of words” [Editor’s note: Poem 28 in the book Aviva-No, 2009]. So I went back to the university and studied Latin. Being brought up religious, Latin, as the Talmud teaches us, is the language of the oppressor, of the enemy of everything holy, of the evil empire, the destroyer of Judaism, at whose gate the leprous Messiah sits and waits. I’d never gain the expertise to write in Latin. But the urge to write in a language that allows me to abandon the accumulated knowledge of my own language is still strong.

Lavie: I never actually expect to have any readers! Also, I never expect to learn Latin, which I’ll probably regret if I ever end up in the middle of the Roman Empire during a time travel accident. So let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

‘Since childhood I had the fantasy of expressing myself in a language unbeknownst to my peers.’ (Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com)

‘Since childhood I had the fantasy of expressing myself in a language unbeknownst to my peers.’ (Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com)

BK: With the current climate in Israel today – Dorit Rabinyan’s book Borderlife being excluded from the high school curriculum, and left-wing NGOs needing to declare where they get their funds? Even more Im Tirtzu put out a list of artists who are “leftie traitors” ( I haven’t checked but am guessing Shimon would be a candidate for the list). How is it possible to deal with reality in Israel where dissent is being stifled more and more? To publish this in Hebrew?

Lavie: Well, there’s a good reason this is being published in English, overseas… and in fact, none of my books are published in Israel, a state of irony I find it hard to be indifferent to. I think it’s interesting my books can be published in Japan, or Italy, but not in my home country. Especially when the subjects I deal with – the Holocaust, terrorism, Jewish history – would seem, on the face of it, to be core subjects of Israeli fiction. But of course my take on them, and the tools I use to address them, aren’t really a part of what Israeli fiction does. I’ve grown to accept it, I suppose. At the end of the day I have a career many would be envious of, it seems silly to be upset because I can’t be published in this one small country… [Editor’s note – he will now be published by Keter so this has changed.]

Shimon: I was really bummed out I didn’t appear on the “home grown traitors” list. It would have been an honor. The more the political reality is revealed as fascist in nature, the more it is the task of literature to pose and explore alternatives. The question of publication for me is always secondary. It is the question of sanity that drives it all. After all, as the struggle becomes clearer outside of me, the inner one, for autonomy, grows fiercer.

BK: Shimon has the last word in Art and War. “You have the answers you need. Writing – be it writing speculative fiction or detective fiction or poetry or your unique mesh of them – enables you to stay in contact with the initial awe and bewilderment we slowly forget as we go along… I won’t improve in the art of becoming myself unless I re-imagine this self into more vibrant forms of existence, full of radiance.” Do you feel differently now that you’ve written it all out?

Lavie: It may sound odd, but I feel very uncomfortable with the book coming out. It does seem to me terribly self-indulgent to do a book like this, and I usually much prefer to keep my thoughts, my voice, to fiction. It does feel like an odd public performance – but I think, like with the fiction, there was the sense that these were subjects worth talking about, and worth discussing – as personal or uncomfortable as they may be.

Shimon: I tend to oscillate in my recent novels between fiction, poetry and essays, to try and bring together the many voices of writing. Naturally I wish to challenge the definitions of the biographical-confessional and the fictitious (because, what’s more true to my experience, that I have worked as a teenager in a factory or that I’m haunted by ghosts?). So, on my part, the writing of this book is an expansion of what I consider to be my “literary endeavour.”

BK: Lavie opens with the stories of writers who have a great deal of early promise and then don’t do what they might have been able to do with it and his wanting to live as though if he were hit by a bus he would die knowing that he had done all he could to be his best. In Shimon’s story he has this line: “Once more, I felt a pang of sorrow for choosing not to have children.” I find it interesting that you address the question of legacy so differently. What do you each want your legacy to be?

Lavie: I suspect my legacy might be being a footnote in Shimon’s eventual biography… I’m joking (I think). I don’t really think it’s something to worry about that much – it’s more about doing something worthwhile while you’re still around. Which in a way is very much like Judaism – it’s not a question of will you go to heaven, it’s a question of, will you be good here on Earth?

Shimon: It seems weird to have to answer for the sentiment of a fictional character. But I’ll try all the same: Isn’t it somewhat possessive to consider children as legacy? I never think of my work in future terms. Sub specie aeternitatis, as philosophers would say, everything is dismissible. On this scale, the glory of the footnote is alluring, the call of nothingness crashes the spirit.

Lavie: We were going to have footnotes in the book too, but then we didn’t. I keep trying to write books with footnotes in them and they keep getting taken out. More seriously, I suspect I might just be a character in one of Shimon’s books, so I hope he is accountable for my actions.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis and author of the novel Questioning Return. Illustrative photos by Shutterstock.com

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Israel’s forgotten heroes of the Red Army http://972mag.com/israels-forgotten-heroes-of-the-red-army/119059/ http://972mag.com/israels-forgotten-heroes-of-the-red-army/119059/#comments Wed, 04 May 2016 19:45:52 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=119059 This Holocaust Memorial Day, a group of young Russian-speaking Israelis is calling attention to the stories of their grandparents —  Soviet heroes who defeated the Nazis, living on the margins of Israeli society.

By Edi Zhensker and Berry Rosenberg

A Veteran marches in Moscow, May 2015 (Photo: Haggai Matar)

A veteran marches in Moscow, May 2015 (Photo: Haggai Matar)

A lot of us stare at them and wonder: who are these elderly people who speak Russian? What are they wearing on their chest? Who gets so many medals? Many wonder whether it is some weird 90s fashion trend that these immigrants brought with them, and which they refuse to let go of. Others have a hard time pronouncing the word “veteran” and confuse it with “veterinarians,” which hurts them immensely.


The truth is that some of these elderly Russian-speaking people we often see on lined at the supermarket or at our health care clinics were actually combatants in tank, infantry and air force divisions of the Red Army who fought against the Nazis. Some of them bravely stood at the Blockade, the punishing siege the German army imposed on the city of Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), were forced to flee their homes in one of the biggest population transfers in history, “the evacuation,” and joined the partisans or survived the war in territory occupied by the Nazis in the Soviet Union. The Nazis annihilated around 90 percent of the Jews in that area. These veterans lost all their property, their friends and family on their way to the Allies’ victory in 1945.

Tens of thousands of them and their children immigrated to Israel over the years and settled here quietly, without us noticing. Most of them lived and still live in poverty and isolation. Some of them still live among us, utterly transparent, invisible. They are not part of the Israeli discourse, their stories of heroism and pride they carry with them are not part of the State of Israel’s narrative, despite their relevance to the end of World War II and the survival of the Jewish people.

One day a year, May 9, Victory Day over the Nazis, is their holiday. It is the day they emerge from their anonymity and isolation and feel historic pride, whether they were medics in the Red Army, or those who invaded Berlin. It is the day they wear their many medals from the war and go outside, to celebratory marches in the hearts of their cities, to tell their stories. They march slowly, accompanied by relatives, using walking canes or sitting in wheelchairs. In their typical quiet manner, they tell their stories before going back to daily survival and isolation. They enable us to remember their courage and how we are indebted to them, as a people and as a country.

This year for the first time, in honor of Holocaust Memorial Day, we decided to get their stories out to the public, in Hebrew. “Operation Veteran” is a national project we launched to distribute these stories, among other ways by encouraging the combatants’ grandchildren to share their stories on Facebook.

The project includes the documentation of the veterans’ stories and what they went through on their road to defeating the Nazis in 1945. On Holocaust Memorial Day, dozens of veterans will share their testimonies across Israel as part of our cooperation with the organization, “Memory in the Living Room” with Hebrew translations carried out by youngsters of “Generation 1.5.” You can go to the Facebook page in Hebrew called “The Cultural Brigade” and choose one of many events to attend. Also, during Victory Day on Monday May 9, dozens of youth will join the street marches across Israel and hand out flowers to each veteran.


The rest of the year these veterans are silent, invisible. (Illustrative photo by Tatjana Aleksandrovna Veselova CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

You can read about Yerachmiel Plazenstein, a Hero of the Soviet Union (the highest Soviet decoration), a Chabadnik who singlehandedly killed 50 Nazi soldiers in Crimea, suffered a head injury, survived and returned to combat. Yerachmiel was willing to return the medal in order to immigrate to Israel.

There’s also Lidia Litvak, an Ace at shooting down combat aircraft, with 12 certain shoot-downs on her belt. She is the first female pilot to have shot down an enemy warplane in aerial combat, and one of only two female pilots to have been deemed an “Ace” champion of shoot-downs.

The people behind these stories continue to live among us. They are in absorption centers, in line at National Insurance Institute offices, on the bus to the market, on line at the supermarket or sitting on a park bench. For us they are mainly invisible. But behind each and every medal is a story about soldiers, heroes who defeated the Nazis and lived to tell about it. Unfortunately, with each year that passes, there are fewer and fewer of them around.

We must admit that we too, the 1.5 Generation from the Soviet Union, may have realized too late how important it is to tell the story of our grandparents. But luckily it’s not too late.

Boris (Berry) Rosenberg, 33 from Jerusalem, is a member of the 1.5 Generation, one of the founders of “Veteran Operation” and of the “Cultural Brigade.” The “Cultural Brigade” is a group of young Russian-speaking Israelis from the 1.5 Generation, who were born in the Soviet Union but grew up in Israel. It works to expose Soviet-Israeli culture to the public at large in Hebrew. Edi Zhensker is a blogger for +972′s sister site, Local Call, where this article was originally published in Hebrew. Read it here.

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Mimouna, a Jewish-Muslim festival everywhere except Israel http://972mag.com/mimouna-a-jewish-muslim-festival-everywhere-except-israel/118960/ http://972mag.com/mimouna-a-jewish-muslim-festival-everywhere-except-israel/118960/#comments Sat, 30 Apr 2016 18:55:57 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118960 Moroccan Jews have always celebrated Mimouna with their Muslim neighbors – and still do in Belgium, Italy and France. But in Israel, this charming custom fell prey to Zionism’s primeval instinct to divide and rule. 

The Mimouna Festival, marking the end of Passover, is celebrated in a special tent in Jerusalem, April 16, 1990. (photo: Alpert Nathan/GPO)

The Mimouna Festival, marking the end of Passover, is celebrated in a special tent in Jerusalem, April 16, 1990. (photo: Alpert Nathan/GPO)

Mimouna, the Jewish-Moroccan post-Passover festival, always offers an interesting glimpse into Ashkenazi-Mizrahi relations in Israel, by virtue of being the only Mizrahi custom that successfully acceded into the Israeli mainstream.

Fewer and fewer Ashkenazis come out of it unscathed: Those who look down on Moroccan customs as primitive and uncivilized get their share of abuse, as well as those who pay lip service to multiculturalism by taking part in this gluttonous fiesta, especially politicians who likewise hope to pander to an otherwise skeptical electorate.

But now, a new group of Mizrahi activists calling themselves The Golden Age have “named and shamed” Zehava Galon, the leader of the left-wing (and predominantly Ashkenazi) Meretz Party, for never having celebrated Mimouna. They invited her to their party so that the next day they could call her out on her hypocrisy.

What is the fuss all about, I asked myself, and as part-Moroccan, I decided to delve into the origins of Mimouna. I tried to figure out how a custom that developed in a faraway Muslim land made aliya as part of the Law of Return and immediately started simmering in Ben-Gurion’s melting pot.

I browsed Arabic websites in search of information about how Mimouna, similar to our Muslim Ramadan, is celebrated in Morocco today. And it turns out that the Muslim neighbors play a central role in it: They keep the leavened bread during Passover, and as soon as the sun sets they show up at the Jews’ doors with basketfuls of sweets and pastries, and celebrate together until the wee hours. Moroccan Jews and Muslims in Belgium, Italy and France still celebrate it together, like they did in the old country.

In one video that I found, the Rabbi of Brussels addressed the mixed crowd and talked about the persecution of minorities in Europe, and asked who could better understand how Muslims feel in Europe today than the Jews. The Imam of Brussels, for his part, said in his speech that Muslims are bound by the Quran to maintain good relations with Ahal al Kitab, the People of the Book (i.e. Jews and Christians). It sounded too sweet to be true, and not because of the excessive amounts of honey!

It’s so unfortunate that this charming custom lost its charm the minute it arrived in Israel. This festival of spring, health, fertility and good neighborliness has turned into a Zionist self-affirmation, clad in a jellabiya and a turban, and the Arab Muslims – the natural partners for it – are left out.

We are not short on festivities, thank heavens, but it’s so frustrating that the destructiveness of Zionism runs so deep. We Palestinians witness it all the time, but even for other ethnicities and cultural groups, divide and rule is the name of the game. Zionism labors to efface the unique characteristics and rewrite and appropriate history to its own ends. The harmonious relationships between Jews and Muslims in the Arab countries are all but wiped out.

One should be careful not to idealize that period: There were plenty of difficulties and crises. But 50 years on, looking at the racism and hostility around me today, I can safely say that our ancestors did a better job.

I’ve never taken part in Mimouna celebrations. When the day comes, I hope for myself and my Jewish friends that I’ll do it for the right reasons: respect, friendship and good neighborliness.

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The Long Road to Bethlehem: Part six http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-six/118510/ http://972mag.com/the-long-road-to-bethlehem-part-six/118510/#comments Fri, 22 Apr 2016 08:10:22 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118510 Read the previous chapters of The Long Road to Bethlehem here.

We live with Mohammad’s brother for the first two months as I look for an apartment—a difficult thing to find in America when you’re both living off of your meager savings, your ex-husband has successfully wrecked your credit (long story), your foreign partner doesn’t have a social security number, and neither of you have proof of current employment.

In early October I see an advertisement on Craigslist for a house with three small bedrooms and hardwood floors. The pictures show a tidy, clapboard, whitewashed home, edged with mango and avocado trees. It’s located in a historic neighborhood. Best of all, it fits our modest budget of less than $1,000 a month—criteria that has only yielded, thus far, section eight housing in the ghetto. And there’s an option to buy from the owner—no money down, no banks—the right tenants can simply take over the mortgage. It seems too good to be true.

In South Florida, rentals can go within minutes of being listed—and some are snapped up “site unseen” meaning that the renter hasn’t seen the property in person—so I call right away. The landlord tells me to drive by the place first. If I’m still interested, he’ll show me the inside of the house.

“The neighborhood is,” he pauses and clears his throat, “eclectic.”

Mohammad and I go that evening. As we pull up at the address, we notice the rundown cars lining the other side of the street. A man is sitting in one of them, his parking lights on. Another man approaches the passenger side and leans in the open window. The two talk. Money and baggies change hands. A drug deal.

I notice the house in the background then. One of the windows is broken; some wooden two-by-fours have been hammered across the hole. The other windows are covered with heavy black fabric. It’s impossible to see what’s going on inside. A smashed TV is in the middle of the yard. Nearby, a man takes a shit next to some overgrown bushes. I wonder, for a moment, why he isn’t going behind the shrubbery. He stands and stumbles about. And then I realize:

“It’s a crack house,” I say to Mohammad. “That’s why this place is so cheap. It’s across the street from an active crack house.”

Still, I’m not ready to give up on the three-bedroom cottage with hardwood floors. I point towards the tidy white place. “But look. Our house is perfect. And if the neighborhood comes up, it’ll be a hell of an investment.”

Mohammad shakes his head. “I didn’t leave one war zone to move to another.”

“Maybe it’s not as bad during the day,” I push. “Let’s come back and see what the neighborhood looks like in the morning.”

We do. And, in the daylight, the crack house looks even worse.

I realize I’ve crossed the globe only to end up in a place that, in some ways, isn’t so different than the one I left.

“Okay,” I say, as we stand in the front yard of the rental home. “But if you put your back to the crack house and just look at our house…” I raise my arms and open them, gesturing towards the trees. “Look how green! It’s like we’re in the Caribbean. And there’s the mangoes and avocadoes—”

“Are you going to feel safe here alone while I’m at work?” Mohammad asks. “Are you going to want to go for a run in this neighborhood?”

“I ran in the West Bank.”

“It was safer there.”

I’m not ready to admit that yet. “Let’s walk around a bit and get a feel for the area.”

Mohammad obliges me. We link arms and move deeper into the neighborhood. The houses’ architectural details mark most of the houses as historic but many are boarded up. I admit to myself that this is a bad sign. Good things don’t happen in abandoned buildings. That the owners can’t rent or sell their properties doesn’t say anything too promising about the neighborhood.

“These houses would be a great long term investment, I’m sure,” I say.

Mohammad nods.

At the end of the street, we see a woman picking litter out of her yard. I approach her; she doesn’t speak any English. Spanish only—my long-neglected second language. I sweat and blush as I stumble my way through a clumsy conversation. Still, we manage to communicate: she lives in the neighborhood with her husband and children. I ask her if she feels safe here. She bends over to pick up a faded soda can. She stands up, puts the garbage a plastic grocery bag and offers me a weak smile and a wane “sí,” yes.

“You see?” I say to Mohammad as we walk away and I offer a literal translation. He didn’t understand our words but he picked up on the nuance of her movements and facial expressions; he offers me a skeptical “huh.”

The next block seems a little nicer and we see a house for sale. Just for fun, I call. The real estate agent cuts to the chase, “Look, I can find you a house on that part of the neighborhood—the west side of the main road—for thirty thousand dollars. But you won’t want to live there. Check out the east side. It’s much nicer.”

You know something’s wrong when a real estate agent is steering you away from his own listing.

I close the phone and report back to Mohammad. He interrupts before I can repeat the whole conversation. “And he said we should look on the other side of the main street.”

“How did you know?”

He smiles. “I did my research, dear.”

Mohammad leads me out of the west side, to the busy main road. We stand next to an empty lot, waiting for a break in traffic. I see liquor stores, parked taco vans, and storefront churches, including one named the Mount of Olives. English signs proclaim “We take EBT [food stamps] here!” The Spanish ones advertise “Money transfers to every country.”

On the other side of the vacant lot, I notice dozens of Hispanic men milling about. From their clothes and heavy work boots, I guess that they’re day laborers, waiting for potential employers to pull up. I think of south Tel Aviv’s parks, where African asylum seekers sometimes stand in wait of work. I remember the human rights worker who told me, in 2010, that the scene resembled “a slave market.”

I realize I’ve crossed the globe only to end up in a place that, in some ways, isn’t so different than the one I left.

There’s a pause in the flow of cars. Mohammad and I dart across the street. Just steps into the east side, I see the difference. There’s no litter in the lawns here, no crack houses, no boarded up windows, no chain link fences.

“How do you feel here?” Mohammad asks.

I have to admit that I’m more relaxed.

“Can you imagine yourself running in this neighborhood?”

I can.

“You see, dear? This is where we want to live,” he says.


A week later, I find a tiny studio in the “good part,” the east side, of the neighborhood. The landlady, Rebecca, tells me that she’s on her way out of town but Ada, a woman who lives across the street, has a key and will show me the place.

Ada lives in a one-story quadruplex less than a block from the Intracoastal Waterway. A wooden carving of the word “Love” hangs next to the door. Indian music and incense streams from her open windows. A post it note on the doorbell tells me that the buzzer doesn’t work. So I knock.

A tiny woman—she can’t be taller than 4’10”—with a shock of curly white hair opens the door. She wears jeans and a blue spaghetti strap top, revealing bone thin but toned arms. She lights a cigarette, takes a drag, and sizes me up.

“You here to see the place across the street?”

“Yes,” I say and introduce myself.

“Rebecca’s my friend,” Ada begins, pausing to take a pull off her cigarette. “So if you talk to her again, don’t tell her I said this, but it’s a shithole. And she’s asking too much. But let’s go.”

She closes the door behind her, locks it, and we head across the street, the Indian music fading as we move away from Ada’s apartment.

Rebecca’s house is surrounded by palm and banana trees; the plants are so dense it’s hard to see the building. Ada cracks open a side gate but it sticks as she pushes. We peer around it and see random things—a mildewed chair, some milk crates, empty Tupperware containers—piled on the other side. Together, we push the gate open enough to squeeze through and follow a sidewalk to a door. Ada unlocks it and we step inside.

“Look at this. You don’t want to live here,” Ada says. She’s like the anti-real estate agent.

The room is about 15 feet by 15 feet with a kitchen counter and a sink. There’s a small bathroom. A sliding glass door that leads to the back yard. I look up at the ceiling fan—there’s no AC—and notice the pitched ceiling and dark wood beams.

“I like the exposed beams,” I say.

Ada snorts as she lights another cigarette. “A month in this place and you’ll hang yourself from one. Trust me. You’re two—“

“And a cat.”

“Two and a cat. You need more room than this.”

“But the price is right,” I insist.

“She’s asking too much for this small a space,” Ada pushes back. “You’ll find something else.”

“But we’ve looked and looked.”

“So keep looking.”

I sigh.

As we leave, Ada invites me over for a coffee. She drinks Café Bustelo, the Cuban-style espresso that got me through graduate school. When I spy its trademark yellow can in her kitchen, I feel at home in a way I haven’t in months. But the feeling passes as quickly as it came.


The building is surrounded by a wall, there’s a guard and a gate—it reminds, a bit, of a settlement.

The apartment hunt continues. I find a couple of decent places but the next step is always a lengthy application—including a credit check, bank statements and pay stubs from the past three months, and local references. We have none of those things.

I feel like we’ll live in Mohammad’s brother’s guest room forever.

And then Ada calls, “Some neighbors just moved out. The place is perfect for you.” She doesn’t have the landlord’s number so she gives me the super’s instead.

When I arrive, I find a large two-story house that’s been subdivided into four apartments. The super, an older African American man named Robin, shows me the place: a galley kitchen, a space that can double as a living and dining room, a small bedroom, and a tiny bathroom with a stand-up shower. A park and the Intracoastal Waterway are, catty-corner, across the street. When the wind blows, I smell the saltwater.

It’s perfect.

Robin gives me the landlord’s wife’s number. Her accent is so heavy I have a hard time understanding her—I’ll learn from her husband, later, that they’re from Guyana, which he still refers to as “British Guiana”—but I make out that they’re in New York City visiting family and that they’ll be back in a week. “We get in Monday night,” she says. “Call me again on Tuesday morning.”

Before we hang up, I ask if there’s a rental application.

“No,” she laughs.

I’m thrilled.

The backyard of the house. (Photo by Mya Guarnieri)

The backyard of the house. (Photo by Mya Guarnieri)

The neighborhood is full of green spaces. While it’s a little rough—prostitutes congregate on the main road just a few blocks away, a few homeless people camp out in our park, burglaries are a problem, and I often find empty nickel bags and used needles on the ground—it’s relatively quiet and safe. Especially compared to the neighborhood on the other side of the main road.

We decide to get married in one of the many parks near our house and to have a small reception at home. Mohammad’s brother, my parents, and grandmother will come. Some friends from Gainesville will join us, too, and they generously offer to contribute a wedding cake. Mohammad and I will do the cooking. Excited, we start planning the menu.

I call the landlady back on Tuesday morning and tell her about Mohammad and myself. I’m honest and admit that he doesn’t have a social security number and I don’t have a job. As she and her husband were immigrants themselves, the woman is sympathetic. I’ll pay her cash every month and we’ll meet that afternoon for me to give her our first month’s rent and get the key in return.

A few hours before we’re supposed to meet, she calls me back.

“I’m very sorry but there was some sort of confusion with my husband,” she begins. “I didn’t know that he’d listed the place with a real estate agent.”

The agent already promised the apartment to someone; it’s not available after all.

There’s nothing to say. I thank her and hang up. Where will we get married? And forget about the wedding, where will we live?

The phone rings again later that afternoon. It’s the landlady.

“We went to meet the real estate agent and I didn’t like the way he looked. He had bad energy,” she says. “The place is yours.”

We seal the deal the following day with a handshake—the arrangement feels more West Bank than West Palm Beach.


As I spend the next three weeks getting the apartment ready, other minor miracles occur. Ada supplements her social security by cleaning apartments in what we call “the tower”—expensive condos that sit directly across the street from us, next to the park, perched on the Intracoastal Waterway. The building is surrounded by a wall, there’s a guard and a gate—it reminds, a bit, of a settlement.

One of Ada’s clients there has just bought a second condo in the building and it came completely furnished. But the new owners are gutting the place and dumping everything in it. Ada tells them about me and they say that I’m welcome to come by and take a look. I score some furniture, pots and pans, sheets and towels.

I find a great couch at Goodwill for 50 dollars. We paint. Our new home is ready before the wedding, as is the custom in Palestine.

We get married in another park a little further up the road. Smaller than the one by our house, it’s a long, thin stripe of green, edged by palm trees, running all the way to the water. We sign our Florida marriage license, a Muslim wedding document called a katib al ktab, and a Hebrew ketubah. We take our vows under a blue veranda, with my family, Mohammad’s brother, and a few dear friends from Gainesville looking on.

At home, during our little ten-person reception, I make a toast. I tell our guests that everything feels like a miracle: that we stayed together through the difficult year in the West Bank of crossing checkpoints and spending hours on the road; that we found this place; that we lost it and got it back; that we got the apartment ready in time; that we pulled together a wedding in three weeks. Our love—and our life together—feels like a miracle.


I’ll feel stupid that I didn’t put it all together sooner: the empty dime bags and needles I’d noticed in their yard.

Our new home—which is in a black and Latin neighborhood—reminds Mohammad of a refugee camp. Something about the place reminds me of south Tel Aviv. With a neighbor next to us and neighbors on top of us—and with our building wedged in between over-crowded duplexes and quadruplexes—we have little privacy. Because we don’t have proper AC, we keep our back door propped open. Our neighbors often appear in our doorway to borrow-some-sugar-borrow-some-milk-borrow-some-aluminum-foil-borrow-twenty-dollars-offer-some-pie-give-us-some-mangoes-from-a-brother’s-yard, mangoes-that-are-sweeter-than-the-ones-we-have-on-our-lot-and-here’s-a-pineapple-that-was-growing-in-the-yard-of-this-place-where-I-cut-the-grass-the-other-day-and-oh-did-you-hear-about-what-happened-with-our-other-neighbors-and-oh-I-heard-you’ve-got-shingles-here’s-something-for-your-skin.

My upstairs neighbor, Tania, drops the tube of medicine over the railing into my waiting hand.

They show up in our doorway to comment on our relationship, “So,” Ada begins, sucking on a cigarette. “You guys had an argument the other night…?”

“It’s been quiet lately,” Tania says on another occasion. “Things are going good, huh?”

I’m making jerk chicken one night on the stove, which is right by the backdoor, and the smell of the spices drifts up to Tania’s balcony.

She and her guest—a male visitor—lean over the railing.

“Girl, what you cookin’?”

“Let me guess,” her friend shouts. “That’s some jerk chicken.”

“That’s right,” I yell from the kitchen.

“Damn, smells good.”

When Robin, the super, passes our doorway he often remarks on my food. “You got it smellin’ good up in here, girl.”

Our back porch faces the parking lot. One afternoon, Clyde, our other upstairs neighbor, pulls in. When he gets out of the car he tells me, “Hey, I have an interview on Monday. What color tie do you think I should wear?”

“Blue?” I offer.

“My daughter says burgundy,” he says.

“Burgundy’s nice, too.”

When Monday comes, I ask Clyde how his interview went and what color tie he wore. He went with blue, he says, and he fills me in on the details of his day. On other occasions, he shares the local news about shootings on the west side of the neighborhood. In the summer of 2015, there’s a spate of them—gang violence—and Clyde gives the grim updates.

Still, we all feel safe over here.

I realize, though, that the neighborhood could tip in either direction. One spring night, I’m jerked out of sleep by gunshots—TAK TAK TAK—three in a row, one right after another. I don’t know where they’re coming from but I know they’re close; without thinking, I jump out of bed and lie flat on my stomach on the tile floor, below the windows.

“Mohammad!” I shout at him to get down, too. A heavy sleeper, he doesn’t wake up. I’m too scared to get back on the bed and shake him. I stay on the floor until I feel certain that it was just those three gunshots, that whatever happened outside is over.

One of our neighbors in the quadruplex next to us—not Ada’s building but the one that’s painted a cheerful Tweety-bird-yellow—is a drug dealer. I’ll discover this during one of the many screaming matches he has with his baby’s mother, when she’ll shriek that she’s tired of people coming round all the time to buy from him. I’ll feel stupid that I didn’t put it all together sooner: the empty dime bags and needles I’d noticed in their yard, that strange white couple that lingered on the man’s back porch one afternoon. They took turns ducking down behind the low wall that runs along the steps while the other one kept watch, round eyes peering out from gaunt, sweaty faces.

So the five of us in our building—we watch out for each other and the friends among us. When Ada’s dog dies, we all pay our sympathies. When Robin falls into a depression after the landlord threatens to kick him out—locking himself in the apartment for days, only to emerge to ride his bike to the liquor store and back—Ada and Tania get worried. Via phone, we conspire as to who will check on Robin and what we should do if things get worse.

Fortunately, the fog lifts. Robin returns to our shared back porch, where he spends most of the mornings and evenings drinking. Robin stays on top of the weather updates and shares the daily and weekly forecasts with me almost every morning. We talk about music (Motown, Curtis Mayfield), life, love—Robin has never been married but he has loved. Three times. He tells me about each of the women. We talk about my cat. We talk about gardening. Robin admires our plants and gives me tips. I marvel at the mango and guava trees he plants; they seem to shoot up overnight.

Robin tells me about growing up in West Palm Beach, about what things used to be like here, about how the first black people here were runaway slaves who joined the Indians to fight the white settlers. Robin tells me about his regrets—the days he sold drugs. He tells me how he’s one of seven boys and how out of all of them only his littlest brother made it. The youngest is a software engineer who owns a home; he’s the pride of the family.

We talk about God. Robin has a lot to say about Jesus.

Robin tells me all of this in an accent that I remember from my childhood—his mother grew up in Gainesville, where she lives today. The music in Robin’s voice reminds me of the kids on the bus, only he doesn’t call me “white girl,” he calls me by my name.

Clyde drives a school bus during the week and a tourist trolley on the weekend. During a cold snap, a petite woman forgets her denim jacket on the trolley. Clyde brings it to me.

Six months later, during the summer mango season, our landlord will steal milk crates off of Clyde’s porch to hold the fruit he’s stripped from our tree. It’s scandalous and we all stand outside by our respective apartments talking about it—Tania and Clyde hollering from upstairs, Robin and Mohammad and I shouting up to them from below. But our shared indignation gives way to laughter—this man owns over a dozen properties in West Palm Beach and New York City and God knows where else and here he is taking our mangoes and using Clyde’s milk crates. He’s so stingy it’s funny.

As Mohammad and I take our seats on the porch, he smiles and shakes his head. “It’s like Dheisheh here,” he says. “We can’t escape Palestine.”


But it’s not Palestine.

Sometimes, I fall into memories from the places I lived. My footsteps on the stairs as I walked up to my old, fourth-floor apartment on Sheinken and Allenby. The sound of the key in the lock, the door shutting behind me. The smell of the basil plants I grew in discarded olive tins from the shuk. Sudden winter rain, the sound the latches made as I closed the windows. Music, conversation, and laughter floating up from the wine bar on King George, a tiny place I can see from my balcony.

The ding-ding of the Jerusalem light rail. Wind in the pine trees. The cold walk from the train stop—the last on the line—to my apartment, the gate squeaking open, the door sliding across the wood laminate floor. Sitting on the wall next to my apartment on Friday evening, watching the sun fall into the Jerusalem forest. Shabbat’s curtain of quiet. Jackal’s mournful cries, drifting over the hills at night.

Those flocks of tiny black birds that put on aerial shows in Tel Aviv in the late afternoon. Their swoops and dives, their excited chatter.

I realize I must leave Israel and Palestine behind. Or at least find a way to contain them. My life literally depends on it.

Having tea with Mohammad on the roof of my apartment building in Abu Dis. Watching children play in the streets below. Bethlehem’s stones. The smell of the wood-burning oven at the bakery across my second sublease there; the sounds of the family who lived across the small, narrow street. The call of those same birds I heard in Tel Aviv.

Mohammad’s key in the lock on Fridays, the door closing behind him as he entered. The sound of wedding in the surrounding neighborhoods—horns honking, the music, the celebratory gunshots. The musaharati.

I say I “fall” into these memories because that’s what it feels like. I stumble upon them and am pulled into a hole where I am completely surrounded, where I see nothing but the world around me, the maps inside my head. I trace my route from my apartment in Bethlehem to the bus station where I would board the service to Abu Dis. Or I follow the stones to the dukkan down the street, where I would buy al-Juneidi white cheese. I’m entering the store, saying “kif halak?” to the owner, walking to the cooler. I’m taking a container out and heading towards the counter. I’m paying, stepping out onto the sidewalk. Home is just up the street.

This happens once as I’m driving towards a red light. I don’t see the intersection or the cars ahead. I don’t see the grassy median on my left or the lane on my right. I’m overcome by a memory—Bethlehem’s stones. I see them and the deep yellow they take on in the late afternoon. The long shadows in the garden. The almond tree. My bench. Dheisheh.

“Red light,” a voice whispers in my ear.

The trance is broken. I look up and gasp as I realize I’m flying towards an intersection and that the light, is indeed, red. I slam on the brakes. Tires squeal to a halt.

Later, I wonder about that voice. Was it my subconscious or something divine? Whatever it was, I understand it as a wake-up call. I realize I must leave Israel and Palestine behind. Or at least find a way to contain them. My life literally depends on it.


Mohammad seems to adapt better than I do, maybe because, as a Palestinian, his life was much harder under occupation than mine was as an American-Israeli who chose to live in the West Bank. Sure, we both lost time and productivity on the road moving between cities. We both went through checkpoints. But, unlike Mohammad, a soldier never pointed at me and asked me to get out of the service so they could search me. Unlike Mohammad, a soldier never held a gun to my face and threated to put a “bullet in the head.” Policemen from the Palestinian Authority never beat me. I didn’t carry a green ID; I could go to the sea whenever I wanted.

Mohammad carries even less here—after years of making sure that he didn’t leave the house without his wallet, which always included his green ID, he doesn’t carry a wallet anymore. He no longer wears a belt, either. He often has to hike his pants up as he walks but he doesn’t want anything that will add even an ounce to his body. He says he likes feeling light.

I find myself carrying more since we left: I keep my teudat zehut in the same pocket it was in every time I went through the container checkpoint. In my wallet, I still keep my Israeli driving license, my Israeli health insurance card, my bus pass, an expired Tel Aviv Cinematheque subscription card, and the 90 shekel credit for the bookstore in Jerusalem.

On the best days, I feel optimistic. Though we’ve been in the States for over a year now and I have yet to find gainful employment in either of my professional fields—and have blown through most of my meager savings—on these days, I’m certain that something will work out eventually. I’ll find my place, I’ll make friends, I’ll build a life here.

On the worst days, tears come for no reason. Evenings tend to be difficult. I realize it’s another day that I didn’t run with Dima and I didn’t go to the university where I would have spent the morning with my students, helping them hone their writing skills. Nights are hard when I realize a whole day has passed and I haven’t spoken any Hebrew or Arabic. I think about the time I invested in both languages, the years I spent building a life there. Almost a decade, tossed out the window on the way to Ben Gurion Airport.

I’m angry about a political situation that made it impossible for us to have a normal life there in the West Bank. I’m angry about the impact that the political situation has made on the Palestinian economy, making it hard for Mohammad to find decent, steady work that would afford us a modest, simple existence. I’m angry that his family has suffered under the occupation—that his father was deported from the West Bank, that cousins have gone to Israeli jails, that Jewish soldiers have raided uncles’ homes, that a cousin died while he was in an Israeli prison, that two cousins have been shot to death by soldiers during the most recent wave of violence. I’m angry that all of this happened and I’m angry that we’re paying a price for their suffering. I’m angry that we had no choice but to leave.

I’m lonely. And because I’m lonely, I join Facebook, something I’d resisted for years. But it doesn’t help. I scroll through it and see both Palestinians and Israelis with foreign partners— foreigners who can live legally on visas or permanent residency with their spouses in the land while my Palestinian husband and I, a citizen of Israel, cannot remain together on either side of the Green Line. Hafuch alhafuch alhafuch.

On one of the worst nights, Mohammad and I lie on our 50-dollar-Goodwill couch, head to foot.

“Close your eyes,” I say. “We’re in the garden again, in Bethlehem.”

He smiles.

“The wind is blowing and we smell the jasmine and the lemon tree and the mishmish baladi,” I say. “We pick mishmish and we don’t bother to wash it, we just bite right into it. The juice drips off our chins. We wipe it off with the back of our hands. We sit on the bench and look out over the orchard.”

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and I swear—just for a second—I can feel the wind coming up from the valley, I can smell the earth from the freshly-tilled orchard below, I can hear the grape leaves stirring above.

“We’re home.”

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The diaspora is an integral part of Hebrew literature http://972mag.com/the-diaspora-is-an-integral-part-of-hebrew-literature/118757/ http://972mag.com/the-diaspora-is-an-integral-part-of-hebrew-literature/118757/#comments Fri, 22 Apr 2016 07:11:00 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118757 There is a ceaseless movement of Israeli culture — and the diaspora experience is just waking up and testing its global limits.

By Mati Shemoelof

Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com

Illustrative photo by Shutterstock.com

BERLIN — There is no such thing as “Hebrew literature written outside Israel” because the definition of “outside Israel” cannot address art in general or literature in particular.

Literature is created in a space that is not a state or a country. The categorization of literature that is written outside or inside a country is problematic.

As such, we should understand that Hebrew literature from the get-go belongs to every country in which there are writers writing in Hebrew, or Israelis whose experience with the Hebrew language has shaped their memory, or citizens of the world who consume Israeli literature in one way or another.

So forgive me, but I will instead use the term “diasporic literature” — that which is written at times from a place of exile; sometimes from a small space that exists between our Jewish life and our life within the local culture written in the various different languages.

Diasporic literature detaches the Hebrew language, Judaism and Israeli identity from national boundaries, sharpens the weight of exposure to new cultures and transforms it from a majority language to a minority language.

Sapir Prize Winner Reuven Namdar, who writes in Hebrew in New York; or the Israeli author Ayelet Tsabari, who writes in Canadian English about her experience growing up in Petah Tikva, and whose first book made it to the New York Times Editor’s Choice list; or Hanno Haustein from Germany, who edits “Aviv,” a Hebrew-German journal; Yousef Sweid, who writes a column in Hebrew in the Berlin magazine Spitz; and of course Sayed Kashua, the Palestinian Israeli who writes in Hebrew from the U.S.

They are all part of this diasporic culture. You don’t have to be Jewish, Hebrew, or Israeli to be part of this diasporic culture. It is one’s consciousness, not one’s origin, that decides.

Diasporic literature certainly has its own language because it is created within a set of values and terms that is entirely distinct from Israeli culture, yet remains associated with it and with the local culture. For example, the third part of my first book of short stories, “Remnants of the Cursed Book,” published by Zmora Bitan, is certainly connected to Berlin culture and constitutes an integral part of Israeli society, like all the stories of all the other immigrants in the city, who are part of Berlin culture even if they are not read there.

In my first year and a half in Berlin, literarily speaking, I wanted to celebrate my life in the multi-cultural metropolis – which is why I published an e-book of farewell poems, full of emotion and a first set of immigration poems called “Last Tango in Berlin.” On the other hand, I had a desire to document my new life, and that’s why I wrote the weekly Haaretz column, “An Israeli in Berlin.” But today I don’t celebrate emigration.

The continuation of diasporic literature is sometimes dependent on the next generation, which doesn’t usually continue writing in Hebrew. But there is a ceaseless movement of Israeli culture — and the diaspora experience is just waking up and testing its global limits.

My first full novel, which I have been working on the last few years, was written in the belly of an airplane of homesickness, with a passport of longing, en route to yearning. It reflects my gum-like soul, being stretched between Germany and Israel, and shows the way in which two cultures cannot be simply disconnected.

Something interesting happened to me recently, when I was among the organizers of multi-language performance and poetry “Hafla” slams in the city. I noticed that the poems I wrote in Hebrew were addressed to a Hebrew-speaking audience, not the local audience. For the first time in my life I decided to write one spoken-word poem in English for the next event. We’ll see how it works.

I don’t miss those who are exclusionary. Like closing off the Sapir Prize to those who live outside Israel. Is that the same Zionism that wants one nation, with one language in one land? Are we really located in just one place in this age of Internet and globalization? Can we really reduce Israeli identity to its physical borders (whatever those may be)? Do we want to shed all the books written throughout time outside Israel?

Literature should be judged by its beauty, its power to imagine new life, and not the passport of its creators. That is how it has always been, and how it will always be.

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COMIC: The Haggadah’s evolution from generation to generation http://972mag.com/comic-the-haggadahs-evolution-from-generation-to-generation/118694/ http://972mag.com/comic-the-haggadahs-evolution-from-generation-to-generation/118694/#comments Tue, 19 Apr 2016 13:51:48 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=118694 Haggadot have historically evolved to reflect the needs and aspirations of their respective communities. Eli Valley envisions an American Jewish Haggadah for presidential primary season.

Eli Valley Passover 2016

Eli Valley is a writer and artist whose work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Gawker and elsewhere. A collection of his comics will be released later this year by OR Books. His website is www.elivalley.com and he tweets @elivalley.

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