I'm so excited to have Yael Shahar with me on my blog. I love introducing people to new fellow authors who live in Israel. We've met in cyberspace a few times but I find an interview is really a great way to connect with a writer and her work and this work I find particularly intriguing. Please welcome Yael Shahar.
Yael Shahar was born in the U.S., but followed her dreams to Israel as a teenager. Since then, she has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She served as a reservist in the IDF's hostage rescue unit, and as a sniper in Israel's Border Guard "Matmid" units.
A dynamic public speaker, Shahar has lectured worldwide on subjects related to trends in terrorism, non-conventional and techno-terrorism, threat assessment, and asymmetric conflict. She has published numerous articles on these topics in books and refereed journals. She currently blogs on Jewish topics at www.yaelshahar.com, as well as on the Times of Israel blogs.Previously, she wrote a monthly column for the Haaretz Jewish World. She reserves the right to learn Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough.
GG: What brought you to write Returning? An inspiration? An experience?
YS: You could say that the book was a response to a memory that had plagued me since I was a child. For most of my childhood, I couldn't make heads or tails of what I was "remembering". Was it something out of my own warped imagination? Something I'd seen on TV? A story someone had told me?
I had no answers. I only knew that there was something terrible in my past that haunted me, shamed me, and at times threatened to derail my life. Nightmares, phobias…. And yet, I also knew that the things I remembered could not possibly have happened to me. Often the memory took the form of "waking dreams" during which I would disengage completely from what was going on around me. I had nightmares from which I woke in a panic, without being able to remember a thing. Completely innocuous stimuli could set off extreme reactions of fear. I did have some idea that it was all connected — that the fragments of memories, the fear, and the ever-present feeling of doom somehow told a story. I just wasn't sure what story, or whose.
By the time I was a teenager, I had begun to have a vague idea of what sort of place I remembered. I had learned what subjects to avoid, which books not to take off the shelves in the library, which words I couldn't bear to hear or say. We didn't have a television, but if I was at a friend's house, I learned when to change the channel and when to leave the room. Beyond the few fragments that I had seen, I knew what was in my memory only by what I couldn't face.
Then, when I was 15, I got a job training a horse way up in the Texas hill country. Since I didn't yet have a driver's license, I found it prudent to drive the roads less traveled. One day, on my drive, while trying to find something interesting on the radio, I happened upon the most haunting song I'd ever heard. Suddenly, happier memories came flooding back — memories of the sound of the sea, of friendship and laughter, of walking home singing into the night through dark cobble-stone streets...a memory of home. Only these were not my memories, nor was this my home.
The song provided the key I needed to unlock the past. It also led me to the Jewish community, and eventually to conversion to Judaism. And so, at the age of 18, I started my life over again in Israel with $200 in my pocket and a Ladino song in my head.
I've spent most of the years since then working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, doing everything in my power to keep a remembered tragedy from recurring. After retiring from active service, I taught trends in terrorism, threat assessment, and asymmetric conflict. But when I was diagnosed with PTSD, I decided it was time to switch gears, to deal with life, rather than death. It was time to face the memory.
GG: Are you exploring new themes in this book that are different than those you write about in your essays? What are those themes?
YS: The book is different from my usual focus more in its style than in the themes it explores. Since the story I tell in the book has impacted my life with such staggering force, it's natural that the same themes crop up again and again in my other writings.
The primary theme of Returning is the Jewish concept of teshuvah, literally, "returning". Often translated as "repentance", it's really a much richer concept. It can mean self-healing, returning to one's better self, returning to the place where one made a mistake and taking a different path, or becoming the person you always wanted to be.
Other themes in the book are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the role of memory in creating a sense of self, and religious faith after the Shoah.
The book's central character is Ovadya ben Malka, a Jew from the Greek city of Saloniki who was deported to Birkenau as a teenager. There, he was forced to work in the Sonderkommando, the group of Jews who cleared out the gas chambers and burned the bodies of the victims. Sixty years later, he is still haunted by what he was forced to do to survive. But now he's finally ready to face his past. He asks Yael (yes, I'm a walk-on in my own book!) to find a rabbi to serve as a rabbinic judge.
Returning is about what happens next!
GG: What sort of experience can readers expect from this novel? With such a dark subject matter, are there lighter parts?
YS: It really is a very haunting book, and some parts are almost unbearable to read. At the same time, readers have usually found the book uplifting and hopeful. But no two readers have had the same reaction, as I found when reading reviews; The Washington Independent Review of Books called it "a dazzling epic about memory, and collective memory," while Bill Tammeus of the Faith Matters blog saw it more as an exploration of religious issues, in particular the question of how to relate to God in the wake of the holocaust. Different readers seem to experience the book in different ways.
I had actually been steeling myself for a less positive reaction from readers, both because of the story itself, and the way I told it. I worried that putting such terrible testimony out into the world might do more harm than good. Why, after all, dredge up what is, in some respects, an indictment of God? But the overwhelmingly positive response has allayed those fears. For the most part, readers seem to have been more inspired than not. One reader said that the book made him believe there is life after death, while another told me it had helped him forgive himself for something in his own past. But I think the most beautiful response of all was a woman who wrote to me that the book brought her to light Shabbat candles with her grown daughter for the first time ever. Her letter had me in tears.
So yes, there is a bright side to what is initially a very dark story. The book does have a "happy ending" of sorts, but there's no getting around the fact that it includes some stark and bitter truths. As Ovadya tells the rabbi in their first exchange: "What I have to say may challenge you. If you wish to dig up and open this long-buried jar of memory to read its contents, then you will have to see what I have seen. You will show me God as you have known Him. But I will show you God as I have encountered Him."
Readers can expect to have some of their deepest beliefs challenged on many levels.
GG: Is there anything about the book that has surprised you?
YS: I think the most surprising thing was that this is not the book I set out to write! At the beginning, I had over a thousand(!) pages of correspondence between Ovadya and Masha, a woman who had been forced into prostitution during the war and faced some of the same issues of self-blame as he did. The letters were beautiful, poignant, and sometimes heartbreaking. My husband, Don, suggested that I put them together into a love story, showing how two shattered souls were able to pull one another back to life. It was a good idea, and I may still write that book in the future.
But while I was still sorting through all those letters, something else happened: Ovadya decided that he was ready to face it all. He wanted to put himself on trial for what he did to survive. At the time, I remember thinking that what he really wanted was to be judged guilty and die with his guilt.
But the rabbi had other ideas!
As I watched a miracle take place before my eyes, it became clear that this was the story I needed to write! So I started writing as the events unfolded. In fact, the ending of the book was written almost in real time, in a letter to the rabbi mere hours after it happened.
One other thing that came as a surprise was that a few readers of the earlier version of the book, A Damaged Mirror, wrote to ask more about my own background: how did a Texas cowgirl from a non-Jewish family end up working as a counter-terrorist in Israel? So when I got the chance to reissue the book under a more traditional publishing model, I took the opportunity to add more background.
GG: Do you hide any secrets in the book that only a few people will find?
YS: Absolutely! In fact, the biggest secret in Returning is how I ended up telling Ovadya's story at all. The question is asked by Rav Ish-Shalom early on in the book: "Who is Ovadya to you? Is he your father?" The answer is revealed half-way through the book (classic narrative structure, though when I first wrote it that way, I had no concept of narrative theory). But the answer isn't spelled out explicitly, and some readers never really do work it out. I'm fine with that, because it isn't the main point of the story. What I want people to take away from the book is that it's never too late to become who you should have been — that even the most shattered soul can achieve wholeness, cracks and all.
GG: Are there any characters in this book your readers have seen in your other writing?
YS: Yes, both Ovadya and Rabbi Ish-Shalom appear in some of my essays on Jewish topics. Ovadya also makes an appearance in the book I'm working on now, Havruta with a One-Eyed Cat. This next book is a lighthearted romp through aspects of Jewish philosophy, and will include some of Ovadya's insights. A very different book, but one which would not have been possible without the life-changing experience of "returning".
Thank you so much, Yael. Your work sounds really intriguing and I wish you the best of luck with it.
Publisher website: https://www.kasvapress.com/
Author website: https://www.yaelshahar.com.
Resources for Book Clubs & Educators: https://www.yaelshahar.com/returning-for-readers/
Reader's Guide: Questions for readers to ponder as they progress through the book: https://www.yaelshahar.com/readers/returning-discussion-topics/
- Moral and Religious dilemmas in the Holocaust: Topics for group discussion based on dilemmas raised in the book: https://www.yaelshahar.com/moral-dilemmas-holocaust/.
- Reflections and Resources on Teshuvah: Topics for discussion on Teshuvah, supplemented by Jewish source texts: https://www.yaelshahar.com/readers/reflections-resources-tshuvah-free-download/
Excerpts from Returning: https://www.yaelshahar.com/category/returning/