How Yael Dayan Went From a Girl in Khaki to a Woman in Black

Chen Strass
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Yael and Moshe Dayan.Credit: Assaf Kutin/GPO
Chen Strass

“Mineged” (“Transitions”), by Yael Dayan, Modan Publishing (Hebrew), 246 pages, 69 shekels

A few weeks ago, I happened to read an amusing Facebook post, one that took an ironic view of the place occupied by the Dayan family – especially in the family’s own eyes – in the Israeli collective consciousness. “I was delighted to read that Yael Dayan is writing an autobiography in which she will talk about her relations with the family,” the writer noted. “The reason for my delight, you see, is that I’m still missing a little of the Dayan family’s dirty laundry I’m looking forward to the book.”

In fact, Yael Dayan, Moshe Dayan’s daughter and sister to the late Assi Dayan (and to Ehud), probably has a lot to say about the Dayan family, but in most cases chooses not to in her newly published autobiography (which contains no “dirty laundry” at all) – although the blurb on the back cover promises that Dayan will talk about both her father and her brother Assi, the acclaimed film actor and director who died last May at 68. The book is far more focused on the family she herself established as an adult and on her independent activity as a member of Knesset and of the Tel Aviv municipal council. Still, it is hard to talk about Dayan’s book in detachment from the family lineage and from the propensity of the members of the extended family toward memoir writing and soul-baring.

“Mineged” (“Transitions”) is not Yael Dayan’s first memoir. A generation ago, she published a riveting autobiographical work, “My Father, His Daughter” (published in English in 1985), revolving around her relations with her famous father and the crisis his death, in 1981 at age 66, fomented in her life. But the new memoir is confronted by a different reading public, as the post of my Facebook friend indicates, and as emerges from Dayan’s book itself.

Today’s Israeli public is far less tolerant of the Dayan family and the broader ethos it stands for: founders of the country from the storied Jezreel Valley, “lords of the land” who established the country’s first kibbutz, Degania Alef (1909) – Moshe Dayan was the second child born there – and the first moshav, or cooperative farm, Nahalal (1921); the warriors who amassed political and economic power from their self-proclaimed ownership of the land.

Yael DayanCredit: Kobi Kalmanovich

Dayan’s new book glides around and amid this national ethos and its iconic symbols: Moshe Dayan, the Six-Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973), the peace treaty with Egypt (1979) and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin (1995). It also has much to say about Tel Aviv, not to mention the local flora and fauna. Dayan skirts between internalizing the ethos and critiquing it, and between admirable sincerity and feigned innocence – notably, in regard to the more threatening implications of her skepticism about the justification and validity of this ethos. For example, despite her criticism of the occupation of the territories, she writes, “The path of morality and justice [] was once the high road and the founders’ road and the road of light until the assassination in the square” (referring to Rabin’s murder).

This is a book about Yael Dayan, who is 75 years old, and about her troubled present. For her, this is a time of aging, illness, loneliness, rejection and missed opportunities, though also, for all that, of joy in grandchildren and of keeping active.

The present leads Dayan to reflect on subjects such as death, memory, the wonders of science and the human brain, the changing times, and her political disillusionment from being a girl in khaki to a woman in black – thoughts that are interspersed in accounts of her day-to-day life.

Many of the book’s sections are written in ponderous and needlessly ornate language. Here’s Dayan on moving to a new apartment: “I looked patiently for the last parking place in my life, shedding the superfluous and clinging to the desire for protection against faults in the gravity of my comportment, a refuge in which the longings that flood my impending end, when they arise, will be minimized.”

More interesting are the chapters in which Dayan describes, delicately and without pathos, looking after her older husband, Dov Sion, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease for many years, and the experience of being left alone, after Sion’s death in 2003. That portrayal is complemented by Dayan’s frank depiction of how she herself is coping with illness, and with the indignities and limitations brought on by old age and being forgotten – “somnolent edges that once were probing nerves.”

‘Heartbreaking disparity’

Dayan’s focus on a personal and “universal” self – an aging, caring and cared-for self – along with the scarce mentions of her father and brother, and the emphasis on her independent political activity – all this reflects her attempt, almost at the last minute, to cast her life and achievements in their own light. Portions of the book are written in the second person, a literary device often used to create a sense of identification, based on the assumed existence of a shared universal experience that connects author and reader. However, in this case, the effect of the excess language (which also seems forced at times) of the second-person usage is not one of identification, but rather it embodies the experience of acute loneliness of a person who is all alone.

Dayan is out to justify the choices she made: “You see the heartbreaking disparity between what you want and what you are capable of. [] You scrutinize the disparity with a meticulous eye, because you are alone. Because you have no one to whom to express your self-pity in words or in human contact. [] You miss yourself as you were. [] As you were when? At seventeen and a half? In uniform? [] As you were when you were a young writer? [] As you were when you were a fighting elected official?”

Justifiably, Dayan wants to stake out the place she reached in public life thanks to her own efforts. The difficulty she has in relinquishing some of her privileges, and her partial blindness with respect to them, is considerable. She is not “just any woman” summing up her life, and not only a local “elected official” who has retired from public life: She is also a “deposed queen” and also the biblical Hagar, who “went and sat down opposite.”

As the book progresses, the painful reflexivity gives way to a general complaint about “my marginalization,” and a repeated demand for recognition of her political contribution. Dayan served as a Labor MK from 1992 until 2003, after which she joined the left-wing Meretz party and headed its list in the Tel Aviv municipal elections. As a member of Mayor Ron Huldai’s coalition, she served on the city council from 2004 until 2013, both as deputy mayor and as director of the city’s social services unit.

She rationalizes her removal from Huldai’s ticket in the 2013 municipal elections, which effectively ended her political career, at the age of 74, by observing that she did not “fill the missing slot in the list of candidates: Mizrahi, deprived, [] someone who felt on her flesh the outcry of the meagerness of the poor neighborhoods [] You are not those things and [therefore] not ‘representative.’”

Dayan thus ignores both what she herself represents and the deeper political meaning of events, which go beyond her conception of the fact that her place was taken from her on the city council, of the social changes and the different worldviews that prevail in the Israel of 2014. This is the same Israel, she declares, to which she remains committed with all her heart.

Chen Strass is a doctoral student in the Department of Hebrew Literature at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, where she also teaches.