My three homelands
'Israeli literature is like a colorful peep show for tired Europe,' says Lizzie Doron, chosen by French Vogue as one of Israel's 7 most influential authors.
In her overseas lectures to an audience of readers, author Lizzie Doron, speaking in German, describes Israel as the largest psychiatric hospital in the world for post-traumatic Jews. Doron worked with mentally ill patients for eight years as an occupational therapist and should know what she's talking about.
"Israel has post-traumatic Jews from Russia and North Africa and Holocaust survivors from Europe," says Doron. All of them needed a home in which to rest, all of them are looking to revive their souls."
Doron divides the patients here into three wards.
"The first," she says, "is for the more psychotic - messianists who pray to God and live on the hilltops, cut off from the world because they have lost faith in it after it hurt them so deeply. This group preserves its trauma and cannot quash it. The second ward houses the general population, the chronically ill who waver between mania and depression. The third ward belongs to people who are fed up with this hospital and have left it for a second opinion in India or Boston.
"I tell people, 'Look at this nation, sitting here so bewildered, and heaven help us, even the neighbors are suffering and are hospitalized in the same place.' I weave the political discourse into a story of a nation's challenges. That arouses empathy."
Doron's books are popular in Germany and Switzerland, and she is often invited to speak there. She is well received both by her readers and the media. Her books have been translated into German and have sold about 40,000 copies. Recently her first book "Why Didn't You Come Before the War," was translated into French, Italian and Russian.
In the weeks preceding the Paris Book Fair, Doron was interviewed by the big newspapers and chosen for Vogue's Seven Most Influential Israeli Authors list, along with David Grossman, Meir Shalev and Zeruya Shalev.
Last year Doron won the Jeanette Schocken Prize for literature in Germany for her literary works as a whole (in 2003 she was awarded the Buchman Prize by Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority). In Switzerland, a four-day series of events was held in Doron's honor in Zurich when her last book, "Once There Was A Family," was released. This book was also chosen among the 30 best books of 2007 by the Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung. A play based on her first book has been performed in Dresden, and will soon be presented in Switzerland.
In Israel, on the other hand, Doron's recognition has been minor. She has so far published four books in Hebrew: "Why Didn't You Come Before the War," in 1998, "Once There was a Family," in 2002, "Days of Silence," in 2003 and "The Start of Something Beautiful," in 2007. Doron writes in a simple, light, flowing style, without too much literary haughtiness.
A exiled Jew
Doron finds it difficult to explain the difference between the warm welcome that greets her in Germany and Switzerland and the quiet reception in Israel.
"I go to far-flung places and the halls are full, and there are posters in the streets advertising my lecture. I go into a store in Zurich to buy a bag and the young salesgirl yells out to the owner, 'You'll never guess who just walked in!' I get into a cab and the drive asks, 'Do I have the honor of driving the author Lizzie Doron?' Such things would never happen in Israel."
Why not? Perhaps because you write niche literature, about the Holocaust, or are a "second generation" author.
"I really don't know why. I am not a Holocaust author. I am very Israeli. In my books I describe how we fled from our Holocaust survivor parents. Perhaps because I write about traumas and failures. All in all I quite enjoy the relative peace I have, but I would be happier if my books became part of the public discourse." Zeruya Shalev is very successful in Germany and appears to represent a totally different literary world than yours, much more private than public.
"Zeruya offers a peek at normal life in Israel. I love her writing and love her as a person, too. It is interesting to see how Israeli literature is received abroad: I fit in because I write a lot about Israel and Europe; Mira Magen presents the national-religious narrative, Zeruya offers the sane life of marriage, divorce, dreams and expectations. Etgar Keret brings a cynical angle. He is a kind of modern or post-modern Shalom Aleichem. Israeli literature is like a colorful peep show of what goes on here. Israel provides a lively dynamic to tired Europe."
Doron's secret to success in German-speaking countries seems to be that she writes the story of the State of Israel.
"I tell Israel's story from a personal point of view, mixed with a lot of biography and a little debate. The Holocaust is the background. I am constantly being asked what Israel is to me and what Europe is to me. From their perspective I am a kind of exiled Jew. They want to know if I have internalized that I am Israeli or if I still dream about Europe." Your book, "The Start of Something Beautiful" represents the clash between the yen to go back to living in the Diaspora and the passion to establish a new Israeliness.
"True, I actually have three homelands. The place where I was born, Israel, where my family and friends are; my language and my weather. I have the homeland of my soul, that my parents dreamed of and could not return to, and that is Europe, Poland, Germany, Austria. The third is New York.
"On Yom Kippur I love to be in Manhattan. In Israel I do not go to synagogue, because that would be taking a political stance. To wear a skullcap in Israel means not only belonging to a tradition and culture, but usually indicates your worldview of a Greater Land of Israel, the messianic vision, a state governed by halakha, things with which I have difficulty identifying.
"In New York authentic Judaism has been preserved. People there live in a democratic, liberal world, and come to continue the Jewish story. I go there in order to yearn. I go to Europe to live what I grew up with behind closed doors, and in Israel - well, that's where my life is."
Cut off from mother
Doron was born 55 years ago in Tel Aviv, the only daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her father died when she was 8. She grew up in the Bitzaron neighborhood, among families of Holocaust survivors.
"There was a mixture of languages there - Yiddish and Polish and a little Hungarian. I first heard proper Hebrew at school, from my teacher Yona, who was also the first Sabra I ever met," recalls Doron.
"The Israeli opportunity enchanted me, and at age 18 I left home and was one of the first settlers in the Golan Heights. I grew mangos, herded sheep; was the girlfriend of all the combat soldiers. I felt a kind of initiation into Israeli society. My mother cut all ties with me for three years; never came to visit me even once. She felt that Jews were never peasant farmers; that I came from a cultured family. She called my first boyfriend 'underworld' in Yiddish.
"We had lots of dreams, like both sides of the Jordan [belonging to Israel]. Then in 1973 Syrian planes brought me back to reality. In the army I was given the ID tags of soldiers who had been killed. I had to inform Holocaust survivors who lived near my home that their only sons had been killed. I did not return to the farm. I gained a painful understanding of what war is. I began to search for peace. I helped found a peace movement."
Doron earned her bachelor's degree in sociology and criminology at Bar-Ilan University, and then studied linguistics at Tel Aviv University. She is married to accountant and businessman Danny Doron. They have two children - Dana, 26, a medical student (who also has a regular spot on Emanuel Rosen's morning program on Radio 99), and Ariel, 23, who studies film at Tel Aviv University, and also works in advertising.
Doron began writing when Dana was given a "roots" assignment at school. Doron gathered biographical information and wrote stories about her childhood, her mother, and about being a second-generation Holocaust survivor.
"The Holocaust is always there in my stories, because it is the only event that connects all the people here, including the Mizrahim (immigrants from North Africa and the Arab countries). It is a memory that connects to a common past and a common threat."
The problem is that Israeli society often uses the Holocaust for political purposes, claiming human suffering for itself and becoming insensitive to the suffering of others. "This indicates that we have not recovered properly. We are still suffering and miserable and licking our wounds. When a person is sick he cannot see his neighbor is hurting."
Do you experience any anti-Israel or anti-Semitic responses abroad? "Yes, more in east Germany than in west Germany. My worst experience was at a lecture in which the host stood up and said, 'The ones who paid the full price for World War II were the East Germans, who were expropriated from their land and forced to be Communists, while you got a state and your parents survived. What do you want from us?'
"An Austrian journalist phoned me once, after the Israel Air Force bombed the Gaza Strip, and asked, 'You are so sensitive to human suffering. How can you live in Israel?' I told her, 'You are right, Israel is unethical. I have my mother's Austrian passport. I think we are about 250,000 descendants. We were exiled from your country and want to come back. Will you let us in?' At that moment, she switched to asking about literature. Perhaps she prefers me to be unethical in Israel than a citizen of Austria."
You have essentially become a representative of Israel and the Israeli establishment.
"It's very frustrating. That is the fate of the Bosnians and the Chechens. Wherever there are problems with the government and war and ethics, private individuals become representatives of their countries. I would rather just discuss literature. Coping with all the questions, however, has actually heightened my sensitivity. I don't talk politics when I'm abroad, but rather simply describe life in Israel through my books."
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