I wish to thank Sephardic Horizons for publishing both an in-depth review of White Zion and a new short story of mine titled Book Talk in their latest issue. I'm honored to be part of this publication. A thank you also to writer Susan Weintrob. I am very grateful and so pleased you enjoyed White Zion and found it valuable.
Thank you to Sephardic Horizons editors: Judith Roumani, Yael Halevi-Wise, Jane Mushabac.
Gila Green's Cultural Worlds
White Zion Cervena Barva Press, 2019, ISBN-13: 978-1950063123
Reviewed by Susan Weintrob
Gila Green's White Zion, a collection of sixteen short stories, is filled with betrayals, humiliations, disappointments and strengths. Much of the focus is on Yemenite characters, their culture an exotic one from a Western point of view. Through her stories, Green reveals harsh conditions that made life difficult for the Temani immigrant both in Israel and Canada. White Zion is an ironic title built on the false assumption of many that Israel was built solely by the sweat and tears of pioneers who looked like Ben Gurion and Golda Meir.
The author's parents come from distinct Jewish cultures. Her paternal ancestors left Yemen in the 1880's for Ottoman Palestine; her father was raised in British Mandate Palestine while her mother grew up in Canada. Her characters are from the multi-cultural worlds in which she grew up in Canada and in Israel, to which she immigrated and now lives.
While some aspects of the stories have parallels to her own family, as in "The End of Jewish Jerusalem," the stories are from Green's own imagination. In this story, Assaf, the Israeli born father of Miri, the story's narrator, now lives in Ottawa.
She thinks, "I never knew my father was Yemenite until I was already in university. My mother had told me he was Israeli and he was not a talker. I knew he was as strong as the desert heat and just as relentless" ("The End of Jewish Jerusalem," White Zion, 29).
Assaf's childhood was one of poverty, living without central heat on the edge of what became the new Jewish border of Israel. During the War for Independence, a provisional air force control room is set up on their roof. His mother sends Assaf up each morning for the soldiers' leftovers, which gives the impoverished family their breakfast.
Assaf's father, a loyal Mapai socialist in khaki clothes and a hat, not a kippah, is furious that an Ashkenazi from Russia received a promotion he wanted. Assaf's mother answers him,
"Well, that's your party," she spits at him in Arabic… "You're a token, Mordechai…One Kurdi, one Parsi, one Morrocai and one Temani…you'll never go up more" ("The End of Jewish Jerusalem," White Zion, 36).
Even as Mordechai bows to party leadership, his wife, bitter at this betrayal, is forced to create an equally bitter dinner: boiled wild grass in the week's water rations.
Short Story: Book Talk
by Gila Green
I took time out from translating my father's letters in his beautiful Hebrew script last night. Instead, I went to a lecture, a writer.
That's not the part that did it to me. It was during the question period that I had to step on feet, push past on my way to the ladies' room. It's when I broke, sucked back the one tear that had reached my upper lip.
So many of us, like the fictional Atara, spend so much of our lives trying to please a parent, in this case, a mother. Atara could never make her mother smile; her mother was a hard woman.
But all the time her mother's sadness had to do with a baby that Atara never knew existed. Her brother had mysteriously died at five months old. None of the siblings knew of his birth and death, but when her mother's time came to die, she requested a grave next to her first born. This is how the family learns of the terrible secret, this invisible shadow of death over their lives.
The novelist, Shelli, explained this to the absorbed audience of forty hat-covered women. Shelli went on to talk about this human failing; to cling to what is missing and neglect what we have, but I had lost her by then. My head was clicking like puzzle pieces fitting together and the message was clear: I had just collided with myself in a writer's first novel.
When Atara discovered she had a dead baby brother she was forced to re-examine her whole world with new eyes, every interaction with her mother was dubbed over like a foreign film.
Listening to Atara's story, I gripped the sides of my plastic chair. The tension between the Canadian culture I was part of and the Yemenite-Israeli ones my parents still very much belonged to was there with me.
Shelli wrote her novel in Hebron. She typed away on her computer each morning for two years, "feeling like a criminal," she said. "I felt it was self-indulgent, writing a novel when I should have been looking after my husband's affairs or the household," Shelli said.
The writer confessed through her smile. Her husband is an Israeli parliament member. He is considered an extreme right-winger. They both are.
"Who would take an outspoken, right-wing politician seriously as a novelist?"
She asked the audience and I could hear the gold-and-silver-colored bangles jingling on her arms in the silence that came after. It was difficult for me to tell if she expected an answer.
The audience took her novel seriously; they nodded their encouragement and recited favorite passages. One reader said she was using it as a guide to raise her own daughters.
The book was a best seller.
"How did I get it published?" Shelli asked.
The audience assumed this was a rhetorical question and their heads wobbled from side to side, as their palms turned upward. Shelli had an established name; she wrote editorials on behalf of the Right for two decades. Wasn't that enough? It turns out the answer is, no.
"No one would touch my manuscript," the author said. "It was rejected outright by two publishing houses in Israel for the same reason: no one will buy a novel by a right-winger. No one, meaning the secular, the Left."
As far as the publishing houses were concerned, consumers would read Shelli's name on the cover and flee, as though from scud missiles or infection.
"I was not about to give up," she told us.
She packaged her manuscript and sent it to her nemesis: the extreme left-wing editorialist she battled in the newspapers. He was an icon, an award-winning novelist, beloved. He loved her book and he convinced his publishing house—the most powerful in Israel—to accept it. Now Shelli was busier than before working on her second novel.
"Hah for agents, for publishing houses. Hah on them," Shelli said, with that same smile she'd worn all evening, like a corsage or a scented lapel. The book was only growing more popular. It turns out that Jews are still interested in the lives of other Jews.
"The editor would say to me, 'You have to change this language. No secular reader will understand these Bible verses.' So, they should read the Bible and understand the verses, I told him. I didn't compromise on a word."
"'Your language is not modern,' this means not white, the editor complained. My language is the language of religious Jews, Yemenites, and that's how it is, I'd respond. Not a syllable did I change, ladies. I wanted natural dialogue, real speech of the common people. The everyday people of Israel."
Shelli said this last sentence with an upward hand movement, like she was trying to stop a taxi. The audience straightened in their seats. One woman with a red, braided scarf clapped the loudest, another with a straw hat and sad eyebrows laughed. Hah on the establishment. Hah on them.
Shelli moved her head up and down as she spoke, as in prayer. Her shoulders bobbed, too. Many women in the audience bobbed back.
"The grief Atara's mother carried for her baby prevented her from enjoying her living children, from nurturing Atara," Shelli repeated.
At fifteen Atara wants to marry Joel. They were in love all the way through high school. But the discerning reader can see that marriage is only a vehicle for Atara; she will change the world. She and Joel will establish a new community of truth-seekers; they will worship God so powerfully that the messiah will be forced to come. The young girl's love is fervent, passionate, zealous, but it's hard to say which is more important to her: Joel or her vision.
When they turn eighteen, Joel is frightened of her intensity. He has second thoughts, draws back.
This is the Jerusalem of the 1970s, post-1967 War. This is not my father's Jerusalem, the one I read in his letters that compelled me to attend Shelli's talk. I longed for a live person to connect Jerusalem to something I felt belonged to my father's history and, ultimately, to me.
But Shelli was two generations late. The smell of the messiah was not in the air for my teenaged father to inhale. The young people like my father did not believe God's fingers were reaching down to touch their own, their own hands were pointed downward, picking through grasses, seeking the right ones to boil to ward off starvation.
Joel and Atara live with their families, walking distance from a yeshivah in the center of Jerusalem. When Joel can ignore Atara's requests to make their engagement official no longer, he asks the rabbi for his approval.
Atara is put off; why does her beloved need the rabbi's sanction? She reasons that it is part of Joel's greatness. He wants all of their actions to be other-worldly.
The rabbi Joel reveres is in his sixties. He is Sephardic with ripe almond skin, streaks of black hair between the gray, bearded, black-robed. He wears an oversized, black kippah and his back is bent from learning over the sacred books.
After the young man gushes his request, he wishes only to sit, but that is impossible. There are no chairs or resting places.
The rabbi is as silent as falling snow. Only the quiet speaks and then screams. What was concealed is now unconcealed in the hushed moments that follow; there would be no blessing.
Atara feels her heart breaking, at first slowly, like a milk-tooth, hanging by the root and then quickly, a loss of consciousness, a bang as the back of her head hits the floor. Joel floats on the air beneath his feet, relieved. He had forgotten how light a person could feel.
"How could this happen?" the audience demands to know. "How could Shelli do this to Atara? To her readers, who all seem to have fallen as Atara has fallen, as women fall?"
"I'm telling you something else," the novelist declares and slides her chair closer to the audience. The long, wooden table scrapes the floor as she advances, pushing it with the tops of her thighs and chest. Some of the women inch their chairs backward.
"Joel had doubt in his heart. The great rabbi read this and kept silent. He did not bless the couple, but he did not recommend they part. It was Joel who saw his true feelings reflected in the eyes of the wise rabbi. All of us," Shelli proclaims, banging her fist on the table.
"All of us," she repeats, "Reveal ourselves this way. But so few of us are close enough to God to read another's heart, even our own hearts are mysteries to many of us. It takes someone who lives on a spiritual plane to tell us what we don't want to admit, even to ourselves."
That is when I got up to leave the room, stumbling, tripping, head lowered to the point of stooping. My first interpretation had undergone a reinterpretation that was hurting my brain, now filling with emotional puddles; at that moment I was not Atara, but my mother was and my mop-filled mouth made breathing difficult.
Atara was never to recover from this blow. She was to rebel, cast off her religious lifestyle, like a cherished childhood toy. She led the rest of her life looking back at Joel, caressing their young love in her mind, like a newborn.
Her husband devoted himself to her. He withered, for she never appreciated his offerings. How could she? A woman in mourning, then a middle-aged one, then a mournful grandmother.
I suddenly saw my own mother in the lifeless photographs on the walls of my childhood home in the mirror of a public bathroom.