Ronit Matalon's Novella Exposes the Rift Between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Israelis

A Mizrahi bride, an Ashkenazi groom, a psychiatrist of Russian origin, an uncle who’s a drag queen and a Palestinian laborer are only part of the gallery of characters in Ronit Matalon's latest book.

Ronit Matalon.
Ilya Melnikov

“Vehakala sogra et hadelet” (“And the Bride Closed the Door”) by Ronit Matalon, Keter Books (in Hebrew), 130 pps, 78 shekels

Ronit Matalon’s tightly constructed novella is primed for a wedding and takes place in the hours leading up to the high-pressure event. Surely nothing can match an Israeli wedding for soaring drama and tension on all levels: personal, familial, social. The drama is exponentially intensified when, on the morning of the big day, the bride, Margie, locks herself into a room in her mother’s home and announces that she’s not going through with the wedding. The groom, Matti, together with his parents and the bride’s mother, grandmother and cousin, clamor outside the door for her to come out.

Each of the gallery of characters – the six family members we encounter, along with a few others who insinuate themselves into the text, among them a psychiatrist of Russian origin and a Palestinian laborer – possesses personality traits ranging from the amusing to the eccentric. There’s a hypochondriac father, a demented but wise grandmother (a local version of the traditional “fool” character), a cousin who’s a drag queen, and so on.

The text is very theatrical and cinematic, augmented by the author’s frequent use of parentheses (in the form of minor stage directions). The novella is an encounter between an elegant, sophisticated and well-balanced play and a comic, folksy, lowbrow movie recalling the Israeli “bourekas” genre of the 1950s and ’60s. In Matalon’s text, their intersect gradually unfolds as a cultural rift.

The novella’s brief time span (one day) and single location (a home in the middle-class town of Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv) allow for the Aristotelian classical unities (of action, time and place) to come into play in a rigorous chamber piece. Think of Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” not only in the sense of a literary author, but also in the sense of an omniscient “authority” that will find a way to make a whole family out of these non-fitting human pieces of a puzzle.

The marriage of Matti and Margie is meant to cement ties between two different families, but also between the parts of a broken, atomized society. Underlying the human drama of a bride threatening to turn the tables at such a sensitive moment is the hidden social drama of this place, Israel. Matalon doesn’t state it explicitly, but the ethnic and class identity of the two families – Margie of Mizrahi origin (Jews of Middle Eastern descent) and Matti of Ashkenazi origin (Jews of Eastern Europe descent) – becomes clear from dozens of indicators scattered throughout the book in seemingly offhand fashion.

At one point, Matti is sitting against the closed door, trying to conjure up his bride’s physical image (“Suddenly he couldn’t remember what she looked like, he just couldn’t remember”). He recalls various small moments that they shared together. In one of them, “Margie opens the front door for him, stands there awash in tears after finishing the last page of a biography of Chekhov (‘He died, Matti, Chekhov died,’ she told him through her tears).”

What is Chekhov, of all people, doing in this novella? In this context, it’s hard not to recall the resounding declaration made by Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev when she took office in 2015: “I, Miri Regev Siboni, from Kiryat Gat, daughter of Felix and Marcelle Siboni, have never read Chekhov.”

It’s important for Matalon to create a Mizrahi woman who reads (about) Chekhov or gets into a romantic quarrel over a film about the poet Lea Goldberg, and who studies literature and theater at university – but also to have her announce that “Chekhov died.” This moment in the book lays bare the cultural and social fissures between East and West. The character of Margie held out promise to bridge the chasm, not least through her marriage with Matti, but the door behind which she closets herself suggests the gap can no longer be overcome. In fact, one of the sides is on the ropes. (The vocal proximity in Hebrew between “meit” [to die] and “Matti” – “Hu meit, Matti, Chekhov meit” – suggests which of the two sides is vanquished in this story.)

Humiliating the characters

Matalon spares neither of the sides. She takes obvious pleasure in humiliating the characters she’s created, in portraying their crudity, ignorance and ugliness. How easy it is to evoke the tawdriness of the Israeli suburbs, the plastic bags strewn on the table, the cheap chocolate snack bars collected in the drawers, the glistening perspiration on faces covered in thick makeup, characters who embrace while in their hands they are still holding wet rags (one recalls the title of Lea Goldberg’s book about Chekhov, which juxtaposes “the tragic and ridiculous neighbors”).

True, a surprising delicacy shines through the tackiness – fleeting moments of tenderness and grace that make it possible, perhaps, to accept all the rest. Nevertheless, there’s violence in the writing, which is apparent in the way the characters are degraded by being given ludicrous characteristics (short legs, a crest of hair, linguistic mistakes, literary ignorance, etc.). Indeed, even the moments of grace and gentleness are another aspect of this violence. Consider the financial grace bestowed by Matti’s family on Nadia, Margie’s mother, which is that of the patron who bends toward his subjects from the lofty heights of his social status.

The story, then, is also partly about the exercising of force and control. Not only political control, which makes it possible for the authorities to detain a Palestinian laborer for no good reason, in the middle of the day; nor the class control that underlines the economic disparities between a propertied family and one of meager means. It’s also, and primarily, about the power of control that resides in the act of writing. If Margie is the author who is being implored by the six souls, their position in the face of the closed door obliges them to interpret her actions, understand her, decipher the tacit messages she sends them indirectly, like the vague rustling heard through the door. This is especially the case with the private version she writes of the first part of Lea Goldberg’s short poem cycle “The Prodigal Son” (which she changes to “The Prodigal Daughter”), and slides to Matti through the gap under the door.

Presumably, the deciphering of the poem will explain the bride’s seclusion. However, this entails the sophisticated resolution of a literary conundrum, which seems to be beyond the characters’ capacity to interpret adequately. This interpretation involves multiplying the actual loss of a daughter (Margie’s sister), gender reversals (a female body writing a male voice that was written by a woman) and reflections on the relationship between the original and the duplicate. Here, as elsewhere in the text, Matalon winks at her readers above the hunched-over backs of the characters and is derisive about their interpretive impotence. Only you and I can do it, she seems to tell the reader, as though patting him on the back.

Margie wants to be liberated but is locked in, and wants to change the conformist track she’s on by choosing to avoid it. It’s her very refusal to open the door that dictates the course of events. Matalon is suggesting a channel of feminine resistance that’s accomplished via passivity, containment, doing nothing.

Some of the strands here lead back to her play “The Sleepwalking Girls,” from 2015, in which the somnambulism reflects the resistance to feminine suppression, to the contraction of the self and subordination to norms of pleasing one’s milieu and meeting its expectations. Here, though, the absurdities and illusions of that experimental play are replaced by an all-Israeli realism that is very familiar from the mainstream of local literature and cinema. Even if we aren’t sure if we’ve seen the “poetic” ending of a particular movie, we still feel that we’ve already seen it or something like it.

Margie’s resistance is a creative act of sealing oneself off to the outside, with the aim of reaching the outside and influencing it. This is Matalon’s allegory about writing as power and control – for the other to guess me and interpret my clues. But the parallel between Margie and Matalon is a chimera. In contrast to Margie, Matalon’s text is not difficult to decipher. It surrenders easily to the reader and flatters him a little for his ability to open the different doors with the many keys that she offers him throughout the text. Thus, the reader, too, accumulates control and status, putting him above characters who are standing helpless outside a locked door.

“And the Bride Closed the Door” displays impressive literary skill, without the gravitas and verbosity that have sometimes burdened Matalon’s earlier novels. The elegant, cool writing is totally void of the constrained artificiality that characterizes the work of so many contemporary authors. That said, this book, too, lays bare the limitations of realistic artistic writing, with its measured, planned and meticulously rendered irony, which incessantly sends us reading instructions, calls us to order and dictates meaning.

Unlike Margie, who chooses an extreme, anarchistic step that runs contrary to family and social order, the literature through which her story is told remains in harness, neither tethered nor untethered.

Shira Stav is an assistant professor in the Hebrew literature department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.