Expat Israeli Author Creates New Type of Jewish Immigrant Storytelling

Jo-Ann Mort
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Departures board
An airport departures board (illustrative).Credit: Dreamstime
Jo-Ann Mort

“The Best Place on Earth,” by Ayelet Tsabari, Random House, 256 pp., $26

Ayelet Tsabari represents not only a relatively new voice in Israeli literature, but a relatively new type of Israeli literature: one that sheds light on the Israeli immigrant experience. Her characters are unapologetically living outside of their homeland, mostly in Canada, where the author herself has lived since 1998. Tsabari’s stories revolve around the Israeli Jews who are, little by little, integrating into North American Jewish life, like the Jewish immigrants who came from elsewhere before them.

In the title story, “The Best Place on Earth,” two sisters reconcile for a visit: Tamar lives on an idyllic island in British Columbia when her sister Naomi comes to see her from Israel, hoping to find support in dealing with a troubled marriage. For Tamar, Hornby Island is the best place on earth — a revelation that sets in after a visit to Jerusalem, which she finds extremely unpleasant, much to her surprise. “She had missed Jerusalem so much when she was in Canada, but having finally made it there, she couldn’t wait to go back to BC. For the first time, she saw the city through a foreigner’s eyes: the chaos, the traffic, the aggression, what Israelis loved calling ‘passion.’ It was as if the city was stuffing itself into your throat. She no longer belonged.”

Unlike many of her Israeli compatriots, Tsabari writes in English. “Once I let my English writing be inflected with my Hebrew... the oral traditions of my Yemeni ancestors, the tension and urgency of Israel — a new writer emerged,” she once explained. “It adds layers of displacement that echo the experience of my characters, travelers, migrants, expats and outsiders who are often at a crossroads”

Born into a large Yemeni family, Tsabari uses her stories to give a voice to Jews who were born in Arab countries. “My grandparents came from Yemen, so we are Arabs in a way, Arab Jews,” Lily, who has just come from Canada to live with her extended family in Israel, tells her new friend, Lana, a new immigrant from Belarus, in the story “Say it Again, Say Something Else.”

Author Ayelet Tsabari. For her, writing in English 'adds layers of displacement.'Credit: Sean Brereton

“No, that’s impossible,” Lana insists. “You’re either an Arab or a Jew.” “Yeah, but you’re a Belarusian Jew. Why can’t there be Arab Jews?” Lily asks, with Lana resolving the conversation by proclaiming, “I’m Israeli nowand so are you.” In this story and others, Tsabari illustrates the tension for Jews from Arab countries — as well as immigrants from the former Soviet Union: They can’t or don’t want to blend into a homogenized Israeli identity, and want to preserve their heritage and culture while living in a new land.

Tsabari portrays a caustic mix of nostalgia for the past and anger that many Mizrahi Jews still harbor against the country’s Ashkenazi elite in the present. For her Yemeni characters, the upward mobility of their children is a source of great pride, and the immigrant population — now grandparents — in Tsabari’s stories also prides itself on their its to modernize.

A new Yemenite Jewish immigrant (right), one of 19 Jews from Yemen, who were brought to Israel by the Jewish Agency in March 2016.Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

In the story “Brit Milah,” an Israeli mother travels to Canada to visit her new grandson at the home of her daughter, who left Israel, and her half-Jewish husband. “Reuma had prided herself on moving with the times, unlike some Yemeni women from the neighborhood who held on to the old ways, resisted modern appliances, still dressed as though they were in Yemen. ... Despite Reuma growing up with illiterate parents and never earning a high school diploma, she’d raised a daughter so smart, so successful her own daughter had a Ph.D., which she had acquired in Canada, in English.”

No overt politics

Unlike some other works of fiction by Israeli writers, those who know little about Israel can read the 11 stories in Tsabari’s award-winning debut collection and still relate. That’s because, even with the wars in the background, the stories are driven by the characters finding or strengthening their identities, whether in the country or outside of it. The army and the violence are portrayed as facts of life that don’t diminish these characters’ desire to "find" themselves.

In “Borders,” the protagonists, Karin and Na’ama, take a hitchhiking trip to Eilat before beginning their army duty. They have a carefree attitude toward their civic obligation, even though the first Gulf War has recently ended, and, as portrayed in another story, residential neighborhoods have been battered by scud missiles (in this pre–Iron Dome era).

“Karin was enlisting in September, predestined for the infantry corps, which was exactly what she wanted, to be surrounded by cute boys in uniform,” Tsabari writes. “Na’ama was due to report in November; she was assigned to general basic training, which suited her fine since she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do anyway.”

As the story continues, Na’ama yearns for her childhood home on the other side of Eilat, in the Sinai Peninsula — which Israel returned to Egypt as part of the two countries’ peace deal — where her mother was part of a cohort of hippies who believed in free love and had set up a farming community. Na’ama recalls Tariq, her mother's Bedouin companion who frequently took care of her when she wasn’t around. It turns out that Tariq probably had a strikingly different role in Na’ama’s life than she had thought, though Tsabari doesn’t hit her reader over the head with ideology — she allows Na’ama, as she does with other characters, to sort out her personal issues without making overt political points.

The invisibles

A recurring theme throughout these stories is the difficulty that immigrants have in settling in a new place — not just the Mizrahi Jews, who often feel like second-class citizens and about whom Tsabari mostly writes. There’s an especially touching scene in the story “Invisible,” whose protagonist is a Filipina caregiver named Rosalynn. Her immigrant status is described along with that of the elderly Israeli in her charge, a woman she calls “Savta“ (Hebrew for grandmother), a Yemeni immigrant who tells Rosalynn how she “walked for weeks through the desert, from San’a to Aden, with a group of Jews on their way to Israel. How she too had worked in people’s homes when she arrived, cleaning and doing laundry for the rich Ashkenazi.”

A caregiver with an elderly Israeli woman in Tel Aviv (illustrative). Credit: Ariel Shalit

This story takes a turn that is perhaps typical in American immigrant fiction, where a relationship develops between Rosalynn and Yaniv, a friend of Savta’s grandson, who is just out of the army and comes to live in the shed behind Savta’s home. He asks Rosalynn about the beaches and surfing in the Philippines, based on what he’s heard from his friends who traveled there, but she thinks, “In the neighborhood where she had grown up nobody cared about beaches or surfing. Rosalynn tried to imagine Yaniv in her hometown, pictured him walking with her on the dirt roads, saw through his eyes the patched-up shacks, the piles of trash, the streams of dark water, her extended family all living under one roof.”

In Israel, Rosalynn is part of a largely invisible universe of migrant workers, who fill jobs that were in some cases once filled by Palestinians, and in others, Israelis simply don't seem to want. They are often treated with contempt at best, though they and their Israeli-born children are more Israeli today than some segments of Diaspora Jewry.

Rosalynn, who goes to meet her friends at a Filipino club in South Tel Aviv, takes the reader into their world “near the old bus station, an aging, decrepit part of Tel Aviv that was now claimed by migrant workers as their own": "The streets, bustling with discount shops, international phone booths, restaurants and street vendors, were suffused with a rich blend of aromas that didn’t typically go together: coconut, cinnamon and cloves, smoked fish, fresh ginger, toasted green coffee beans, grilled skewers of meat, sweet narghile smoke. In sidewalk cafes men drank in front of TV screens blasting action movies, and in the side streets johns slipped into red-curtained massage parlors whenever the immigration police raided the area, the party would come to a halt, everyone lining up to produce passports and visas. Rosalynn had seen friends who worked illegally, like her, escorted into vans, from which there was no coming back.”

Tsabari humanizes and makes visible these immigrants whom most of Israeli society tries to keep invisible, as the story's title suggests.

Tsabari’s stories are immigrant tales, tales of immigrants who live in Israel — either Jews who immigrated legally and with the help of the Israeli government, as did the Jews from Arab lands, or illegally, like so many of the migrant workers. But her stories also give expression to the Israelis who have become global citizens of the world and who, having grown up in Israel, start a new adventure as immigrants in North America, much like the author herself. With these stories, Tsabari has helped create a new type of Jewish immigrant storytelling.

Jo-Ann Mort writes opinion pieces for Haaretz and is also co-author of “Our Hearts Created a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel?”

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