Sofia Ron finished writing her first novel, "We Will Get Through Pharaoh," about a month before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. It's a Russian-language roman a clef that requires no great detective work to identify the real figures behind the fictional characters. The background is an election campaign in which one Yossi Harid is running against a certain Haim Armon. After Armon is elected prime minister, the disgruntled Harid stages a traffic accident in which Armon is killed. Immediately afterward, the left sets up labor camps in which right-wingers are incarcerated until a military coup leads to their release from "Netzarim 2" camp.
"The book grew out of a feeling of total helplessness after the elections in 1992," Ron-Moriah says. "I had the feeling of belonging to a persecuted circle, as during my Zionist activity in Russia." One reader, Yossi Sarid, had little trouble figuring out that he was the real-life model for the assassin Harid. He sued the author for libel but dropped the suit before being appointed a cabinet minister in Ehud Barak's government in 1999. The novel, by the way, sold well among its target audience. The slaying of Rabin cast a prophetic aura over the book and its author, an aura not dispelled by the fact that the assassin came not from the left, but the right.
Ron was an unfamiliar name to Hebrew readers when the book appeared, but was well known among the Russian reading public. In 1998, the year of the book's publication, she was named media woman of the year in a poll conducted by Vesti, the Russian-language newspaper in Israel, where she was a political correspondent. Her blunt style impressed many readers, who learned from her, for example, that the Oslo Accords were a betrayal of the "covenant between the pieces" (Genesis 15) and that the Israeli left spoke in the terminology of the Soviet communists.
Ron had immigrated to Israel 10 years before the book was published. She was raised in a secular home in St. Petersburg, where her mother secretly typed out the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and mimeographed them for distribution in the underground. Ron became religious when she was 16 and joined a local Jewish underground that focused on the study of Hebrew. She left the USSR in 1987 on the advice of a KGB man, and upon arriving in Israel chose to live in the Jewish settlement in Hebron. She had fallen in love with the city of the patriarchs from her first visit. The sight of young men dancing in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, each with an Uzi slung over his shoulder, really did it for her. She knew she was going to marry an Israeli and live in Hebron. Some time later she married a young man from Acre, of Mizrahi - Middle Eastern - descent. The match stirred controversy on all sides. "The racism is mutual, in both communities," she says in retrospect.
Ron notes, in an unromantic analysis, that marrying an Israeli was considered a major achievement among young female immigrants. Mizrahi is not as good as Ashkenazi, but a real Israeli is better than a new immigrant. Her mother declared that "the Sephardim are Jews, too," her friends intimated that she could have done better, and in Acre she heard jokes about Russians that reminded her of jokes about Jews she had heard in Russia. The marriage broke up after six years and two children.
This biographical background is highly relevant. Recently Ron (now Ron-Moriah) published a new novel, this one in Hebrew. Between the two books, not only the language but her life, too, changed. From the Russian press she moved to the newspaper Makor Rishon, where she is a senior political correspondent, the first from the Russian-speaking community to make the transition to the Hebrew press. After her divorce she married Yaakov Moriah, a graduate of the prestigious Or Etzion Yeshiva, and the couple had a boy. They planned to realize a bourgeois settler dream by building a home in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, but fate had something else in store. Her husband fell ill and died over a year ago, leaving Ron-Moriah a widow at 40 with three children to raise.
Nevertheless, she decided to go ahead with the plan they had devised together. For the second time she removed the wide-brimmed hat she had worn as a married woman and went on to complete the purchase of the lot, on which she built a fine, well-appointed home of 280 square meters. It turned out to be a good economic investment, too. Since the opening of the "Lieberman Road" between Jerusalem and Tekoa - named for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who lives in the nearby settlement of Nokdim - the travel time to Jerusalem has been reduced to minutes and the new route hides the Palestinian villages in the area, so the price of real estate in Tekoa has soared. Amid all this, Ron-Moriah also published her second novel.
The assassin's wife
"The Tenth Groom" (published in Hebrew by Ophir) tells the story of a young, religiously observant woman who works as a translator for a right-wing religious radio station. After getting a divorce, she turns to a matchmaker, who finds nine potential husbands for her in quick succession. Each of them represents a different type of masculinity and Israeli existence - though a somewhat closed existence, as they are all from the national-religious camp. The tenth potential husband whom the matchmaker promises to supply does not appear in the book. The protagonist, Dina, decides to pass up the meeting with him and instead returns to her true love: the (fictional) settlement of Migdal Eder.
Two elements that are almost completely absent from the novel in explicit form are sex and politics. Sex is confined to an affair Dina has with a radio announcer who is popular in right-wing-religious circles. It is conducted according to a Clinton-Monica Lewinsky model under the aegis of a halakhic interpretation that permits such an arrangement. Ron-Moriah says she abhors depictions of sex - to her they read like a user's manual.
More surprisingly, politics has almost completely disappeared from the novel, along with the left-wing camp. Her first book seethed with hatred for what was then the peace camp, but in "The Tenth Groom" there is no left wing at all. Ron-Moriah sounds almost apologetic, and in fact regrets the loss of the prey into which one could sink one's teeth. "The book is much less autobiographical than you might think," she says, preempting my question. And no, despite her tendency to provide easily identifiable names for her characters, Alisa, the heroine's good friend, is not Larisa - Dr. Larisa Trimbobler-Amir, that is - the wife of Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir.
The friendship between Ron-Moriah and Trimbobler began when the journalist interviewed her before she married Amir and ended at approximately the time that Ron-Moriah's second husband died.
If her phone number appeared on my screen I would automatically think: "It's the assassin's wife." But you were happy to see that your friend Larisa was calling.
"The truth is that it was riveting. I felt as though I was living in a book. To be the friend of the heroine is sometimes more interesting than to be the heroine herself. It is very difficult to disengage from the intense interest of such a friendship. But the ties began on a professional basis, when a neighbor of the two of us asked if I would like to interview her before she went to visit Yigal Amir [in prison]. There was no talk of marriage then, though I asked her if that was the story.
"I found her to be a very intriguing person, like the wives of the Decembrists [Russian revolutionaries in 1825] and even more than that. They at least basked in the glory of their rebel husbands, while what she got from the relationship was loneliness and the difficulty of raising a child on her own. But there is nothing surprising about this. Being a victim is deeply rooted in education among the circles of the intelligentsia that opposed the Soviet regime. A year later, she called at her initiative to tell me that she was going to divorce her husband and marry Yigal."
What was your reaction?
"I asked her if she would have married him if he were not the assassin of the prime minister. She thought a bit and replied: 'Yes.'"
And that ended the ethical discussion on this issue?
"A political assassin acquires a romantic aura that attracts girls. It's a fact. Besides, in my view, this assassin is a product of prolonged frustration on the right. The left has not been faced with this test. There has not yet been a right-wing prime minister who went so far with his policy. I really do not know what would have happened on the left if Yitzhak Shamir, say, had carried out a [population] transfer or annexed the whole West Bank. But the right wing does not implement any truly far-reaching moves, and you don't go around assassinating people who only preserve the status quo. I also told Yigal that he had done damage."
To democracy, you mean?
"No, I mean in the deepest political sense. If Rabin had not been assassinated, he would have lost the elections to Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu], who would not have had to continue the Oslo policy, because the public agenda would have been dictated by the terrorist attacks, not the assassination."
"When he called me after the publication of the interview with Larisa. At first I thought it was someone on the paper who was good at imitating people, but it really was Yigal Amir. He absolutely did not agree with me."
Could it have been you in Larisa's place?
"No. I could see myself marrying a person from the underground like Hagai Segal [a member of the Jewish underground group in the 1980s]. I view what the members of the Jewish underground did as war. They are soldiers. Amir is not a soldier; he is a Jewish murderer. But still, commitment to a victim is a very Russian approach."
And is this also the secret of Trimbobler's appeal in certain Russian circles?
"Yes. She is perceived as a victim - in her own eyes, too. When I was widowed, she was not with me all that much, because she is the victim. But I understand her. Her life is complicated. Besides, we are in slightly different circles. Socially, I am more of a national-religious woman; I don't like sects."
Father and prince
Politics does trickle into the novel on page 206, at some point between the sixth and the seventh potential grooms. (None of them, by the way, is any sort of big deal.) Dina hears on the news that a secretary in the Prime Minister's Office has filed a complaint against the PM (who is unnamed) for sexual harassment and for committing an indecent act against her. The prime minister's son was also involved in the indecent act. If the secretary is still capable of forgiving the conservative prime minister and pre-state Palmach commando, we, who lean toward postmodernism, cannot. So writes the author.
Here is the abridged description of the unnamed prime minister's son: "[He] resembled a troll. His hulking body was capped by a small bald head." The prime minister and his son also plan to evacuate settlements in Samaria, including the settlement to which Dina longs to return. The evacuation, as you may have guessed, is intended to divert attention from his sexual escapades. In short, Ariel and Omri Sharon are here ostensibly seasoned in a particularly unsophisticated way with a little Moshe Katsav.
Why did you choose sexual harassment as their offense?
"The truth is that I wanted to write a book without politics at all, until the disengagement [from Gaza] trickled into it. I created the Sharon-Katsav hybrid simply because sexual harassment suited my purpose better than financial corruption, even though I think that what Sharon did is worse."
It's in the description of Omri, Sharon's son, that the burning hatred comes through.
"That is how I feel about him. The father is a brutal man, but a genius. The son, the prince, is already a different story. He is the gray eminence of the disengagement. In principle, what Sharon did is far worse than what Rabin did. Before that, I saw Rabin as a traitor. After the disengagement I changed my attitude toward Rabin. The real criminal is Sharon."
"It's like two armies trying to capture a besieged city. Rabin came from the outside, from the other camp, imposed a siege and tried to starve people and smuggle them out. Sharon is something else completely. He himself is from the besieged city, but brought the enemy inside. I still consider the Oslo Accords a crime, but what Sharon did is genuine treason."
The heroine in your novel ends up moving to a high-risk settlement, on the assumption that there will not be another evacuation. Do you share that assumption?
"I truly do not believe there will be another disengagement. Public opinion will not agree to missiles being brought closer to the big cities again. At the moment I am more worried about the Golan Heights."
The conversation with Ron-Moriah slides constantly into politics, with which she conducts an affair that is more than platonic. In the 1990s she wrote - in return for payment - articles for a right-wing MK that appeared in Vesti, a practice that was commonplace at the time in the Israeli-Russian press. In 1999, when she was on the directorate of the Moledet party, she vied for a slot on the party's Knesset list. Even in that ultranationalist party, some viewed her as too extreme.In 2001 she occasionally contributed to the newsletter put out by Moshe Feiglin, a far-right Likud politician.
Throughout this period, she conducted a sharp dialogue with the Israeli left. She likened the dovish Meretz party's political platform to the solution for the Middle East conflict published by Pravda in 1982. In an interview she held in the late 1990s with Yossi Beilin, who at the time was still a member of Labor, she trapped him with his own words. In an attempt to appeal to Russian readers, Beilin drew a comparison between one of his proposals and a well-known dispute between Lenin and Trotsky. Ron pounced on this. She quoted Beilin accurately but added that she was astounded to see the degree to which the debate among Russian communists remained relevant for Israeli socialists.
About a decade later, ahead of the 2009 elections, Ron-Moriah was offered a slot on the Likud ticket for the Knesset under the "immigrants" rubric. Benjamin Netanyahu met with her, but nothing came of the initiative. Still, her accomplishment cannot be gainsaid: She traversed the path not only from Russian to Israeli but also from what was considered the almost lunatic fringe to the heart of the consensus of the ruling party.
Last week a reception was held to mark the publication of Ron-Moriah's new novel. The venue: the Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem. (Gush Katif was the name of the Israeli settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip.) The invitees included right-wing MKs, the writer Naomi Ragen and the matchmaker Rivka Shimon, but also Tzvia Greenfield, a religiously observant woman who served in the last Knesset on behalf of Meretz.
Your writing has changed since you started to work for a Hebrew-language newspaper. Is it only a matter of style, or is there more to the change?
"I don't think I have changed my opinions, though Noam Federman, for example, claims I have become a leftist. [Federman is an activist of the Jewish settlement in Hebron.] Writing for Makor Rishon is completely different from writing for Vesti. On the other hand, there is simply nothing to write about the left. Nothing is happening in Meretz, and Kadima may be left but not an interesting left. Tzipi Livni's whole argument for two states is demographic, not ideological. So, if all the Jews from America suddenly immigrate to Israel, does that mean we won't have to give back territories?
"I don't agree with the view that I am in a different place, only in a different debate. I am not currently conducting a debate between right and left, but between who on the right is making the best case. I imagine that in Haaretz, too, there is no debate about whether the right is correct, but a debate within the left. A pity."
What's the pity? That the left is dying, or that in its death it is also killing the ideological discussion within the right?
"Both. These days I have no one to argue with, the way I used to, and my temperament misses that very much."
That temperament is reflected only partially in the book. Dina shows very limited interest in the candidates for marriage sent her way by the matchmaker. One is wearing the wrong kind of skullcap, another asks the wrong questions, a third is so ensconced in his Tel Aviv bubble that he doesn't know there has been a terrorist attack in the territories, a fourth - the most sensitive of them all, of course - turns out to be gay. All of them are religious, all are right-wing and not one of them is an immigrant from the former Soviet Union.
After her divorce, Ron-Moriah relates, she tried "to date a Russian" but found that she was already then incapable of this. She admits that she is no longer in that place. On a date with a veteran immigrant, she switched naturally into Hebrew at the more romantic stage. This was not only the result of the passage of time, but of a true self-investment. She never really liked being a "new immigrant." "It took me 10 years, but I did it," she sums up this chapter of her life. "The establishment and the politicians no longer treat me as a Russian. The most accepting group is the national-religious elite."
The national-religious elite is considered suspicious and insular.
"Not so. It is the most accepting, if you accept its rules of the game. That is fine with me. The test is whether you can gain entry if you accept the terms. That is completely impossible in the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] elite, under any conditions. I have girlfriends from the underground in Russia who will always remain second-class people in the Haredi world. The left-wing elite also looks impossible to enter. Even Bronfman [former Meretz MK Roman Bronfman] didn't really get in. But I am willing to accept the terms of my group, because I find that life so attractive."
Do you consider yourself part of the Israeli elite today?
"Absolutely, according to the objective criteria. It started back in the Jewish settlement in Hebron, which is very elitist and snobbish, and it certainly continues with my job as a political correspondent for a newspaper of the religious Zionist movement. Makor Rishon is today read by a very influential public. Look at the human component of Bibi's bureau: most of them wear skullcaps. Nowadays national-religious society views the media as a type of Sayeret Matkal [referring to an elite commando unit], and I am officer in that unit. Not a major general, but an officer. To a certain extent, for the Russians I also constitute a connecting link to Israeliness, and to the Israelis I represent a large group that has certainly taken the country rightward and is also having a great influence on shaping the country."
Let's dwell for a moment on your last point. Many on the Israeli right are upset by the policy line of U.S. President Obama, but do not dare to use racial slurs of the kind that are uttered by Russian speakers here.
"The Russians really don't like him. In fact, they are not used to negroes [kushim]. They simply never saw any in the Soviet Union. What disturbs me is his Muslim aspect, not the black aspect. One can prettify things, but in the United States there is a certain connection between blacks and anti-Semitism. Terming him a 'beggar on horseback' [Hebrew phrase: see Proverbs 30:22] is indeed a real problem. Not because he's black, but because he came from below. To be president you cannot be moral. A person who comes from below simply has more problematic stations along the way."
As a new-immigrant settler, do you never have feelings of guilt about living on the land of people who were here long before you?
"In my view, this is the most moral thing one can do. It is far more moral to be a settler than to demand public housing in a Jerusalem neighborhood. Instead of asking for a slice of the cake that others baked before, I am baking myself a new cake."
It's a lot more than a pastry shop. The heroine in your novel is ostensibly yearning for love, but the dates she goes on are devoid of romance and her attitude toward men is largely functional. The truly erotic moment is Dina's return to the settlement of Migdal Eder. It's a moment of near ecstasy.
"I hadn't thought of that, but you may be right. Migdal Eder is really a settlement that was supposed to have been established in the Gush Etzion bloc but was not. So I established it in the book." W