The Israeli Novel About Jewish-Arab Love That Had Author Fearing for Her Life

Author Herzfeld reissues 1994 ‘Inta Omri’: ‘I decided to fight for its innocence’

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Herzfeld says she wrote the book in “an outburst,” completing it within “a month, perhaps six weeks.”
Herzfeld says she wrote the book in “an outburst,” completing it within “a month, perhaps six weeks.”Credit: David Bachar
Doron Koren
Doron Koren
Doron Koren
Doron Koren

Twenty years before “Geder Haya” (“Borderlife”), Israeli author Dorit Rabinyan’s novel about a romance between an Israeli Jewish woman and a Palestinian man — which was denounced by the Education Ministry, became a best-seller in Israel and will be released in English on April 25 (as “All the Rivers”) — there was “Inta Omri.” Published in 1994, it is based on a relationship that its author, the Israeli poet and writer Smadar Herzfeld, had with a Palestinian man, and it is immeasurably more powerful and revealing than Rabinyan’s pleasant, adroit, apologetic and overly literary novel.

But while “All the Rivers” kicked up a political fuss last year that inadvertently boosted sales, “Inta Omri” met with rage that silenced Herzfeld for a number of years. From the right, someone threatened to throw acid on her, while the left-wing literary critic Ariana Melamed, for one, called for a boycott and said the book was pornographic and racist.”

“It was too barbaric, extreme and crazy,” says Herzfeld today. “I wasn’t broken, but it had a shell-shock effect and I had to forget about writing for a time. I had to heal.”

She focused her attention on building a family, marrying and divorcing twice, and adopted two babies from Vietnam. Both are serving in the army.

Herzfeld’s next book was about her spiritual journey in South America a decade earlier, seven years after “Inta Omri.”

Smadar Herzfeld
Smadar Herzfeld in the 1990s.Credit: Debbi Cooper, Emil Salman and courtesy

Now 65, she is reissuing the novel, having reacquired the rights a few years ago.

“I felt I didn’t fight for its innocence, and decided to give it a second chance,” she says at a meeting in Talbiyeh Cafe, in the Jerusalem neighborhood by the same name. She has lived there for years, close to Hansen House. Parts of the novel are set in the building, a former hospital for people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) that was recently renovated.

Ariana Melamed.
Ariana Melamed. “Decent people would do well not to read it.”Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s likely that “Inta Omri”’s attackers didn’t read the book. While it is set in the waning days of the first intifada, the narrative soon pivots from politics to the stormy emotional tie between its two stubborn, lost, educated main characters, both of them outsiders in their respective communities. It is precisely the nonjudgmental quality of the story that makes a possible allegory for life here. In any event, the novel’s sex scenes disqualify it for study in high school, so Education Minister Naftali Bennett is free to ignore it, unlike “Borderlife.”

Herzfeld notes that the novel blends her experiences with imagination. “The romance happened, and we did both work in stores near Jerusalem,” she recalls. “And he had scars on his back from torture in a Jordanian jail, and the hikes together and the like. But, it is first and foremost a love story between two people who are miserable types. They are people who fail in life.”

When asked about Melamed’s assertions of racism, Herzfeld says the critic accused her of having an elitist, colonialist attitude. “It was a wild attack,” Herzfeld says.

Smadar Herzfeld
Smadar Herzfeld.Credit: Emil Salman

“It is convenient for Herzfeld to ignore that my tough critique was based on the content and language of her book,” Melamed said recently, adding, “Decent people would do well not to read it.”

Herzfeld says she wrote the book in “an outburst,” completing it within “a month, perhaps six weeks. ... I don’t even remember when I sat down to write it. It was suddenly there.”

A superficial glance at the book can be misleading. It begins with some mutual violence between the couple, which externalizes the suspicion and nationalist hostility, for example the following insulting sentences said by the woman at a café: “’What did you do?’ I shouted at the Arab, wiping my lips with my sleeve, wiping his skin from my lips. ... ‘Do you always touch Jewish girls?’ I was right on the mark. I know that I had hit him in the heart.” However, these nationalist sadomasochistic scenes fade away quickly, and the couple’s love for each other turns personal and deep, devoid of any racism and certainly of pornography, too — unless by the word “pornography” one means simply sexual relations (which are in this case very creative). And perhaps the somewhat pessimistic end also arouses objection among those who hoped for a speedy peace in those days at the start of the Oslo Accords era.

Herzfeld notes that the novel’s title is from the famous Umm Kulthum song. She recalls falling in love with the Egyptian singer through the cassettes of a friend. Umm Kulthum, the daughter of an imam, dressed and lived like a nun, she says. “‘Inta Omri’ is a secular love song, but her personality and the style of the song connected to my religious side,” she says. “My endless love for this woman remains to this day.”

Herzfeld says that her own Arab boyfriend, like Omar in her book, was considered a traitor in his home village, in this case a refugee camp. She says she doesn’t know what happened to him. “It is a love story that ended and became a literary work.”

The art of Smadar Herzfeld
The art of Smadar Herzfeld.Credit: Debbi Cooper

In the book, Herzfeld describes submitting to his will. “That situation of obedience gave me pleasure,” she wrote. “It mesmerized me from within. It was like alcohol for me — a means to lose control.” She says today losing control is part of the story.

Herzfeld says she is pleased with her choice of Eli Hirsch to edit the new edition. “He didn’t touch the words, but he divided the book into chapters, giving it a kind of breathing pace.”

Sex and the Torah ark

But before “Inta Omri,” there was “Shoshanei Duma” (“Roses of Death,” Herzfeld’s only published book of poetry. (Duma is a nickname for death, a place of silence, and in the Talmud a reference to a woman who is suspected of adultery.) Few have noticed the book’s rare innovation and magic. One poem, “Your Angels Come to My Lips,” exemplifies Herzfeld’s unique mix of sex and holiness, with snakes — also in their sexual meaning — and angels come to her together (and both, angel and snake, meet in the word seraph).

She says the foundation for her poetry dates back to her student days at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the 1970s.

“Those were the years when I moved between there and the world of my childhood in Tel Aviv. I studied Jewish philosophy and I was really attracted to the Catholic world. At a certain stage I worked at the YMCA library, where I met one of my best friends until today, an Armenian. I became part of a literary group called Marot (“views”), in which everyone was interested in religion. We all came from completely secular homes. Our group of Jewish poets then was quite a novelty.”

She says the group included Moise (Moshe) Ben Harush, and Binyamin Shvili.

“There was also my Armenian friend, who would write in English,” she says. “And [the poet and artist] Amira Hess — although she was not part of the hard core. And we were all a little crazy, crazy about poems, drunk on God.”

In “Your Angels Come to My Lips,” Herzfeld compares her body during the act of sex to the Holy Ark. Today, the writer still sees a connection between sex and holiness.

“My life as a woman always moved in a dichotomy between the celibate side and the public celebratory side, the side of ‘free love,’” she says. “I had bold, very physical, very dramatic, tales of love. On the other hand, I have been my own master for a large part of my life, living alone, deciding for myself, and I need it. I am my own man and woman.”