Being a Mizrahi Woman in Israel: This Yemeni Author Explains Identity Politics to English Readers

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Ayelet Tsabari. "To have a voice as a woman, let alone as a Mizrahi woman, as a woman of color, in this world — that is subversive to me."
Ayelet Tsabari. "To have a voice as a woman, let alone as a Mizrahi woman, as a woman of color, in this world — that is subversive to me."Credit: Noa Yafe
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard
Joy Bernard

“I have to go. Leaving is the only thing I know how to do. That seemed to be the one stable thing in my life, the ritual of picking up, throwing out or giving away the little I have, packing and taking off. That was what home had become for me.” From “The Art of Leaving” by Ayelet Tsabari

Back in 1988, 21-year-old Ayelet Tsabari was just like thousands of other Israelis celebrating the end of their mandatory army service by backpacking to India and the Far East. But unlike the other young Israeli travelers, she never headed home, choosing instead to embark on a journey that would last for decades.

On a quest to escape Israel, the traditions of her large Yemeni family and the grief of losing her father at a young age, Tsabari exiled herself to New York, Thailand and India. She embraced the nomadic lifestyle, falling in and out of love with men and women, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and occasionally waiting tables in order to earn enough money to set out on the next adventure.

Wind the tape ahead several years and Tsabari finds herself following her new husband — a fellow traveling spirit she met in India — to Canada. The marriage did not last, but she stayed on.

This wild tale of a modern wandering Jew could have ended there but, tired from years of instability, Tsabari tried to reawaken her old passion: writing. She had been a promising young journalist in her teens, writing regularly for the Israeli daily Maariv. But now, in her thirties, the Israeli adventurer had not written in years. And when she did, what emerged were scrambled journal entries in a mixture of Hebrew and English.

In 2006, she published her first work in English. In its wake came 2013’s debut collection of short stories, “The Best Place on Earth.” She continued trying her hand at essays — until it became clear that, together, the essays and stories were a joint attempt to explain to herself why she had fled her home and what she had been running away from.

The fruits of her labor saw the light of day this February in the form of her befittingly titled memoir “The Art of Leaving.”

Ayelet Tsabari flanked by the book jackets of "The Best Place on Earth" and "The Art of Leaving."Credit: Penguin Random House / Noa Yafe

‘Bottom of the ladder’

In conversation with Haaretz in Tel Aviv — where the 46-year-old moved with her second husband and daughter 11 months ago — Tsabari admits she initially felt uncomfortable with the book being labeled a tell-all. “I never thought I was going to write a memoir, there’s something a little crazy about it,” she says, while acknowledging that these were stories she had to tell. “I had lived my life making sure I would have them, I was collecting stories,” she notes.

Some of those stories were not just her own. In one of the book’s first essays, “A Simple Girl,” Tsabari describes how marginalized she felt growing up as an orphan in a family of Yemenite descent in 1970s Israel.

While many other Mizrahi Jewish writers have written about the racism directed at their families by Ashkenazi Jews in the early years of the state, accounts of the abuse suffered by the Yemenite community — which was historically looked down upon by other Jews — have only begun to emerge in recent decades.

Yemeni Jewish immigrants learn Hebrew after arriving in Israel in 1949 as part of Operation Magic Carpet.Credit: \ Universal History Archive/Unive

These works include playwright Dan Almagor’s “The Rose of Yemen” (2009), which catalogs poems and songs written about the Yemenite community in Israel over the years; Iris Eliya-Cohen’s novel “Galbi” (2016), about kidnapped Yemeni children; and “The Magic Carpet Exodus of Yemenite Jewry: An Israeli Formative Myth” (2012), a historical account by Esther Meir-Glitzenstein that casts a critical gaze on the first wave of Jewish immigration to Israel from the Muslim world at the end of the ’40s.

The latter was translated into English, but the vast majority of such works have not. None were originally written in English, making Tsabari’s memoir a first of its kind in contemporary literature. She is also the first Israeli author of Yemenite descent to garner a global readership.

Tsabari says she was aware of her unique status as she began writing “The Art of Leaving,” but “had to shake it off. I had to remove from myself the burden of representing an entire community, an entire nation. Because then I wouldn’t be able to write anything at all.”

An elderly Yemeni Jew carrying the Holy Scroll to a waiting aircraft taking him to Israel, March 21, 1949. Credit: Gerald Malmed / AP

Dr. Ketzia Alon, a lecturer in the field of Hebrew literature, tells Haaretz that when Tsabari was growing up in Israel, the state “really implemented perceptions of hierarchy determined by race and color — and the Yemeni people were at the very bottom of that ladder.”

Alon says part of the reason Tsabari may have felt she did not merit a place in the local cultural scene is due to systematic discouragement by the establishment. She points at a trend that began in the years following Israel’s founding, when many Mizrahi children were sent to vocational schools instead of being offered a high school education.

Dr. Ketzia Alon. “Tsabari is a classic example of someone who could have very easily suffered from that discrimination instead of becoming an author,” she says.Credit: Moti Milrod

“Tsabari is a classic example of someone who could have very easily suffered from that discrimination instead of becoming an author,” Alon asserts. “I don’t want to say that the Yemeni heritage in Israel was erased, but the budgets that are allocated to maintaining it are minimal.”

The author herself admits that the narrative of prejudice against the Yemenite community in Israel is subjective, and that some may not agree with her portrayal of those experiences.

As an example, she cites two Yemenite women who approached her during a recent book tour in the United States. “They told me that everything was great and said they read Yemeni literature [back in Israel]. But when I asked them where, they admitted it was not in school.”

Tsabari believes that such women, who belonged to the same generation as her grandparents, were “so happy to be here that if they didn’t experience the horror of having their children kidnapped [a reference to the scandal in which up to 5,000 babies and toddlers, mostly Yemeni, were allegedly abducted from their parents by the state and given to Ashkenazi families between 1948 and 1954], they were fine as long as they could be part of Israeli society. They wanted to belong. That’s why a lot of the anger is coming from my generation.”

In Israel, Tsabari notes, she received only positive feedback after her first book was translated into Hebrew. “I got nothing but love from the Yemeni community, and I’m grateful for it,” she says.

Cartoonish representation

The only famous Yemeni female figure Tsabari could look up to is a woman she idolized in her teens: Ofra Haza. The late singer-actress has been dubbed “Israel’s Madonna,” but is best remembered here for her hit “Shir Hafreha” (“The Freha Song”). Its lyrics describe the freha — the Hebrew equivalent of “bimbo” — as a light-headed and promiscuous woman (“I don’t have a head for long words” / “I want during the days, I want during the nights”).

Ofra Haza in 1994. Tsabari says the singer was the only famous Yemeni female figure she could look up to.Credit: Orna Itamar

This ridiculed representation of the Mizrahi woman in Israeli culture had made Tsabari ashamed of her own cultural background, she says, and it took her years to embrace the freha image instead of feeling terrified of being associated with it (“I realized that my best shot at not being mistaken for a freha was to aim for the other extreme,” she writes in “The Art of Leaving”). “To have a voice as a woman, let alone as a Mizrahi woman, as a woman of color, in this world — that is subversive to me,” Tsabari says.

“I created the female characters that I wanted to see in the world and in literature,” she explains. “I did it with Mizrahi characters because I was trying to rectify an experience I had as a child of not ever seeing myself or my family reflected in the Israeli literature I read, [and] obviously also not in world literature. They were not there, and when they were they were just cartoonish. They were not characters I could identify with and there were no authors I could look up to.”

Dr. Smadar Shiffman, a scholar at Tel Aviv University who researches young female authors’ prose and teaches about female Mizrahi writers, disagrees with Tsabari’s notion that Mizrahi women are still largely misrepresented in Israel.

She also rejects the author’s assertion that Haza was a success story despite not being played extensively on Israeli radio. “It’s OK that Tsabari has her own subjective experience, but Ofra Haza was widely played everywhere,” says Shiffman. “And, think about it, Israel’s national singer was Yemeni singer Shoshana Damari. Sometimes [the feeling of being marginalized] has to do with how a community perceives itself.”

However, she acknowledges that the stereotype surrounding the freha still looms over the sociopolitical discourse in Israel. Shiffman, whose early research focused on the prose of African-American novelist Toni Morrison, thinks Israelis copied their racist approach toward women of color from the United States and Europe.

Dr. Smadar Shiffman. Sometimes, the feeling of being marginalized has to do with how a community perceives itself, she says.Credit: Asaf Tamam

“European colonialism looks at darker-skinned individuals as more sexual. That’s the freha: Her sexuality is bursting out of her. That is how black men and women were perceived in America,” she says. “I think this is what Tsabari felt: She was afraid of being perceived as that hypersexual freha.”

Tsabari concurs when asked about this, explaining that the disorientation she felt as a teenage girl whose body started changing was exacerbated by the prevailing approach toward women of her ethnic background. She reflects that only years later, after she had already lived in Canada and was working as a waitress at a Lebanese restaurant in Vancouver, was she finally able to “embrace” her sensuality and femininity.

A writer stripped of words

Cultural identity is not the only issue Tsabari has grappled with over the years: Writing was a daunting challenge of its own, she says. Although many authors suffer writer’s block at some point, Tsabari felt she had lost her words. Having lived abroad for decades, she hadn’t written professionally in Hebrew, but had also never attempted to write in English — a language she says it took her time to be comfortable in.

When I suggest that she didn’t only travel halfway across the world to avoid her upbringing but also to put herself in verbal and literary exile, she smiles. “When I was in Canada I was mute,” she says. “I was stripped of my language — which as a writer is my tool — and that was really debilitating.”

Yemeni Jews praying in a synagogue in Rehovot, September 1997.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky / AP

Tsabari says she still toyed with the notion of writing in her native language, but “I wasn’t using my Hebrew, so when I tried to write in it, it didn’t feel as fluid and fluent. I lost the joy in that.”

She eventually pursued a film and photography degree in Vancouver, where she directed two documentaries: One of them, the award-winning “Fixed for Life,” follows the path of a teenage boy from an affluent Vancouver family to drug addiction.

Later, she obtained an MFA in creative writing. Even there, though, her Yemeni identity caused tension. “A professor once said to me about one of my characters, ‘So she’s Yemenite and she looks Indian but she’s Jewish and from Israel? That’s so confusing.’ And my response was, ‘Really, is that so complicated? Try harder.’”

Tsabari ultimately chose not to pursue a career in filmmaking, having realized that her true dream was to write. Her first published short story in English was about her military service and is an evocative example of her writing. While most Israeli writers who have written about the army describe their combat service and the collective national trauma of war, Tsabari writes about teenage angst and the rage she felt at being pushed around by commanders her own age.

In one of the harshest parts of “The Art of Leaving,” Tsabari recounts the sexual harassment she suffered while serving in the army. She describes facing unwanted advances from a girlfriend’s father, and how the girlfriend subsequently accepted her father’s version of events and pushed Tsabari away.

Did the recent wave of #MeToo stories inspire this? Not quite. Tsabari reveals that she wrote her story before the movement emerged — “but that’s the beauty of #MeToo: People are finally saying ‘No, I don’t need to feel ashamed about this.’ Writing allowed me to say the unsaid. Enough years had passed for me to look at the young woman that I was with compassion and see her in a different way. I wanted to say through that: It’s OK to be a young, naive woman. It’s OK to be inexperienced and not stop” the assault.

Coming home

After working on her memoir for 12 years, Tsabari says she is finally able to look at her own family background with that same compassion she reserves for her younger self.

In the book, she describes how she suddenly felt the urge to learn how to cook the traditional Yemeni dishes her mother had made when she was a young girl. She tells Haaretz how she has been carrying out extensive research for over a decade to trace the outlines of the Jewish Yemenite community, focusing on the mother-daughter tradition of passing down stories through song.

It was in 2018 that she decided to take a leap of faith and return to Israel, where she is currently working on her third book, a novel. However, her ambivalence toward her homeland remains. Although she is not certain if she is here to stay, Tsabari is certain she is not interested in writing in Hebrew. “I love Hebrew, but there is still a newness to writing in English, there is still a challenge,” she explains. “Writing is hard, and I want to be challenged. That’s what keeps me on my toes.”

The author also rejects the idea of gaining more recognition in Israel by having her book translated into Hebrew. In a response that seems characteristic of her nomadic nature, she says: “For now I said no, but maybe later on in life I’ll change my mind.”

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