Shoshana and Shai Zaviv

Aviva Lori
Jacob Burak
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Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Aviva Lori
Jacob Burak

Shoshana was born in 1934, in Sana’a, Yemen; Shai in 1964, in Rishon Letzion.

Shoshana lives in an apartment in Rishon Letzion; Shai in a rented apartment in the Ramat Gan neighborhood of Ramat Chen.

Shoshana Zaviv, 78, and Shai Zaviv, 48.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

Extended family:
Shai has two sisters: Noga, 44, a chartered accountant; and Margalit, 42, a saleswoman. His wife, Roni, 34, is a dancer and dance teacher. Shoshana has two grandchildren.

Family project:
Shoshana was 4-months-old when her mother, who was 15 at the time, died. The women in the family grandmother, aunts took turns raising the orphan. Her father, who was a tinsmith, remarried and had five more children.

Shoshana and Shai, 1966. Credit: Haaretz

Broken promise:
Shoshana was married off at the age of 10 and a half to a cousin. “No one asked me anything,” she says. “They dressed me in a white bridal gown and I thought it was a game, but very quickly it turned out not to be a game.” In Yemen, orphans were married off to prevent the authorities from removing them from the house and converting them to Islam. The basis for this custom was an injunction issued by Maimonides, stating that orphans should be married within the community in order to save them from forced conversion. Shoshana’s husband promised the rabbis and the families not to touch her until she began to menstruate. “But he broke the law,” Shoshana says. “Immediately on the night after the wedding I went with him to his parents’ house and I didn’t understand what he wanted from me. After that, I ran away from him and from his parents’ violence every night and hid in all kinds of places with my family.”

Early divorce:
Shoshana immigrated to Israel in 1949 with her extended family, making the journey on foot and by donkey. “I didn’t want to go with him,” she says, “but my father said there was no choice and he paid the guide, someone from the family, to watch over me.” They were housed in a tent camp at Kibbutz Ein Shemer, in the center of the country, where Shoshana contracted typhoid fever. Her aunt and uncle, relative veterans in the country, took her to the hospital and afterward to their home in Haifa. Later, she lived with her father in Kfar Sava. “And then I told my aunt that my husband had broken the promise he had signed for my father, and my family said he had to divorce me.”

Temporary independence:
Shoshana savored her new-found freedom and decided never to give it up again. Her formal schooling lasted two weeks. “My father said there was nothing to eat in the house, so I went to work,” she recalls. She did housework, and worked in farming and in a conserves factory, and made a promise to herself never to marry again. Until a match was found for her with Shlomo Zaviv, a tile layer and contractor. An elderly man, he had divorced his wife because she was barren. He died a year and a half ago. The couple lived in Rishon Letzion.

Shai’s birth:
Shai came into the world in Kaplan Hospital, Rehovot, in a difficult breech birth. Shoshana got to the hospital by taxi and was in labor for two-and-a-half days. “They brought doctors in but decided not to operate,” she says.

“They said it was better for a first birth to be natural. In the end, they took him out and he didn’t have a pulse for half an hour. His father was then working in Grofit [a kibbutz near Eilat] and called every 10 minutes to see what was going on. They weren’t sure whether to tell him if the baby was alive or dead.”

The shame of it:
After the children grew up, Shoshana went back to work, now as an assistant kindergarten teacher. At one stage, there was a proposal to give her permanent work in a kindergarten in a certain neighborhood. “I told my husband that I need to work in that neighborhood,” she says. “But because he once lived there, he said, ‘It shames me that my wife works.’ I gave in and found work in a school, in the kitchen. That was no good, either. He wanted me to stay home, but I didn’t listen and went on working.”

Shai in school:
Shai majored in optics in a school that combined vocational and regular subjects. His mother was called to the school many times, especially in his last year, due to complaints that he was disturbing the class. “I wasn’t much of a student,” Shai says. “I was always stressed out, a dreamer. I think I spent 12 years just staring. Very few subjects interested me: history, Bible I had no competition in there gym and also singing. My father was a gifted singer. He sang at weddings and henna parties.”

Shai served in the Nahal infantry brigade (combining active duty with work), in Upper Galilee and Lebanon.

Rebel with a cause:
“I didn’t have fun growing up,” Shai says. “I had more fights at home than you can shake a stick at. My father didn’t let me do what I wanted and I kicked up a fuss. I wanted to take science courses in high school, but Mizrahi children were sent to learn a profession. That’s what the guidance counselor and everyone said: ‘Send him to a place where he will get something out of it.’ I wanted to go to the beach, but he [his father] wouldn’t let me. He sat me in the house to learn Torah. I lived with dissonance. On the one hand, in a secular Ashkenazi society; and on the other, in a religious family. I was the only dark kid in a group of whites, and I got slapped around by Mizrahi guys for hanging out with them.”

The great revolt:
After his army service, it took Shai a few years to realize that the chaos he had previously generated at home was only the prelude to doing something that would really drive his father crazy: After a year of backpacking in South America, he came home and started to operate a mobile puppet theater. He cowrote a play based on the hit stage version of the Hebrew children’s classic “A Tale of Five Balloons,” by Miriam Roth. “At that time I thought it might be right for me, so I studied acting at Yoram Loewenstein’s Performing Arts Studio. My father was terribly ashamed, but I didn’t care.”

King of the kiosk:
Unable to find work as an actor, Shai worked at a falafel stand and in a kiosk in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood. “I totally enjoyed it, I was king there,” he recalls. At the same time, he staged a play with actor Amos Lavie and was accepted by Rina Yerushalmi’s prestigious ensemble theater but left after two months. Two weeks later, he got a call from the Habima theater. “They were looking for extras. I said, ‘Why should I be an extra when I am a star in my shop?’”

Theater bug:
Nevertheless, he joined Habima and appeared in its productions of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “12 Angry Men,” “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” and others. “Then Ilan Ronen called and offered me the part of [Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin] Yigal Amir in a new play. It was a hard role, because the character was hated and everyone in the audience had something to say about him,” he notes. He left Habima after seven years. Making a living proved tougher than he had expected. But necessity is the mother of invention. “I started to teach theater,” he says. “I worked with at-risk youth; I founded theater and music tracks in schools; established acting workshops; prepared people for drama schools and for auditions; organized special productions and acted in television series.”

Leibowitz’s door:
While appearing in Ronen’s play, Shai did an about-face and drew close to religion. “It’s not exactly that [playing] Yigal Amir made me religious. It’s more Yeshayahu Leibowitz. I read his writings,” he says, about the late scientist and thinker, “and I understood that I had a door through which to enter the world of Judaism and live in peace there. These days I pray, but keep things stored inside.”

Ultra-Orthodox career:
It turned out to be a good move. Shai got a serious job offer from a Haredi theater that serves the Sephardi community. He has been performing for ultra-Orthodox audiences for the past five years. “We appear all over the country,” he says. “The women sit at the back, the men up front, and I, the ‘black guy,’ play Graf Pototzki” a legendary figure among Polish Jews.

Closing a circle:
While his father was sick, Shai and the playwright Yosefa Even-Shoshan wrote a one-man play, “Pursue Justice,” which Shai performed at an annual theater festival in 2010. “I play nine characters. The play is about father-son relations, the generation gap and the eternal left-right political conflict. With this play I felt I was closing a circle and making peace with my father.” Shoshana was less enthusiastic: “It was a little while after his father died, and I found it hard to watch.” Shai performed the play at the Tzavta Club in Tel Aviv, in prisons and wherever he was invited.

Reflections in the mirror:
“We are honest people,” Shoshana says. “We always speak the truth. We are like one another in that.” Shai: “We are pluralistic, not racist and have no prejudices.”

Something never before said:
“There was a huge intergenerational split here,” Shai says. “It was like they were living in Yemen she less, my father more. From a young age we were already into things, we played pranks and they didn’t understand a thing. I was ashamed to bring them to school her less, Dad more.”

“I was disappointed that she didn’t protect me when I had arguments with Dad,” Shai says. “But I don’t blame her. She was like a little chick.” Shoshana understands and talks about feeling helpless: “I learned to be silent and I made myself pretend so his father would be pleased. He would say that the boy would not know how to say kaddish for him. And I said, ‘Don’t worry that he’ll know.’”

Shai regrets not understanding his parents and feeling ashamed of them. “I envied the parents of my friends who were born in this country.” Shoshana regrets not having been more firm with her husband and not helping her children choose the path they wished. “In the end, I came out of it alienated,” Shai says.

Shai’s mega-fantasy involves fleeing to the Caribbean. “To this day I want to escape to some place all the time,” he says. Shoshana’s fantasy world is more meager. “I wasn’t allowed even to fantasize,” she says. “At the age of four I had a fantasy that I would have a mother. At a later age I dreamed that if I was getting married, the man should at least have an apartment.”