Oh My Love, Comely as Jerusalem

In Michal Govrin's new novel, the Zionist-Israeli story is reflected in the heroine's relationship with her father, her husband, her Palestinian lover, and especially in her love affair with Jerusalem.

Ilana Zuriel, the heroine of Michal Govrin's new novel "Snapshots," has quite a collection of lovers. At the same time, she also lives an alienated and antagonistic married life. Her husband, Alain Greenenberg, a Jew from France who grew up during World War II, is a tormented and closed person who is almost totally focused on tracking down aging war criminals. While he is busy with this quest in Europe, Ilana, an architect, raises their two small sons, David and Yonatan.

The plot of the novel, set in the early 1990s, finds Ilana in deep mourning over the death of her beloved father, a typical Mapainik who was one of the leaders of pre-state Israel. She moves to Jerusalem, during the Gulf War of all times, and while her marriage is collapsing, develops a passionate romance with a West Bank Palestinian she meets during their work together on two binational projects in Jerusalem.

Is the romance autobiographical? Michal Govrin says not really, emphasizing that she has never had an affair with a Palestinian. But there are quite a few similarities between her and the heroine of her novel. Govrin, 51, is an author, poet and theater director, and mother of two daughters. Her father came to Israel during the period of the Third Aliyah and parts of his diary are incorporated in her book. Govrin's husband, Haim Brezis, is a religious French Jew, who is known to have right-wing views along the lines of those of the National Religious Party. A mathematician, he lives in Paris. Govrin and her daughters live most of the year in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia. During the summer, the family reunites with Brezis while he teaches in the United States. During the Gulf War in 1991, she and her daughters, who were very young then, were alone in Jerusalem. Her husband was in France and she still remembers the sound of the sirens ...

"Snapshots," published by Am Oved, is Govrin's second novel, and follows four books of poetry. Her first novel, "The Name" was published in 1995 (Barbara Harshav translated the English version, published by Riverhead Books). The book deals with a former photographer, living among the newly religious in Jerusalem, who writes a confession to God with the intention of then committing suicide and uniting with Him as a sacrifice. The suicide is described as a redemptive, erotic act.

In "Snapshots," Govrin sharpens the erotic dimension of her heroine's life. It is an intense novel that tries to capture and encompass the Zionist-Israeli story through the heroine's relationship with her father, husband, Palestinian lover and, especially, her beloved city of Jerusalem. Govrin says that her heroine's sexuality is a type of metaphor.

"Jerusalem is holy to the three monotheistic religions and in all of their myths, it is defined as a female city and as a feminine place. One is permitted to take pride in her beauty and present it for all to see, and even to arouse others. But the moment she glances aside at others, the punishment immediately follows. It's impossible to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict and anti-Semitism without addressing the perverted-erotic dimension that exists in Jerusalem. Ilana Zuriel is like this. For her, sex is part of the immediate communication with the world."

The Jerusalem betrothed

From the first moment, Govrin says, she knew that Sa'id, the Palestinian, would be a character in "Snapshots."

"This is desperate passion for the other - desperate because you can never appropriate the other, and that's what intensifies the passion. This is perhaps my own big erotic dimension - to live in Jerusalem. After I returned from a period of studies in Paris, I could not return to anywhere else but Jerusalem. Tel Aviv is a sexy city, but Jerusalem is an erotic city and the betrothed in it is deeply hidden and unexploited. It's not everything to see bare-midriffed young women on their way to the sea. In Jerusalem, the betrothed is ostensibly covered with lots of clothing and habits, and is red hot. Mea She'arim is a place full of libido and vitality, powerful, and this is the betrothed of religion that I wrote about in `The Name.' The fact that I live in a city in which various types of `others' exist, gives me the feeling of depth, of historical layers and myths. For me, this is a place that is close to the place of falling in love and lust."

The heroine of the book, Ilana, moves to Jerusalem on the eve of the Gulf War and you did the same.

Govrin: "During the Gulf War, I also returned to Jerusalem, from Paris, with the girls who were then two-and-a-half and six-and-a-half years old. It was a voluntary decision that sprung from a complex loyalty. My husband was in France. He is French and not Israeli and is not at all like Alain, the hero of the book. He did support my decision to travel to Israel in such days. If he had opposed this, like Alain, I wouldn't have been able to stand this, partly because the Gulf War aroused acute fears that combined with Holocaust fears that I inherited from my mother."

Though Ilana makes it through the Gulf War all right, she eventually pays with her life. At the beginning, in fact: The book opens with her death, in a car accident on the highway between Strasbourg and Munich. She is pregnant when she dies and doesn't even know who fathered the fetus in her womb - her Jewish husband or Palestinian lover.

"The accident demonstrates Ilana's incapacity to encompass everything while still dreaming such big dreams," explains Govrin. "This is the technical way in which this fragility is shattered. I don't think that this is an intentional suicide, but rather the death of someone who lived beyond her capacity and limits. Therefore, I put at the beginning the motto of Jacques Derrida, who wrote that the porcupine blinds itself. Rolled up in a ball, prickly with spines, vulnerable and dangerous, dangerous and ill-adapted (thus, because it makes itself into a ball, sensing the danger on the highway, it exposes itself to an accident)."

Govrin and the French philosopher became friends when she was his student and they have maintained a dialogue over many years. "Derrida and I were supposed to write this book together, which was supposed to be a text of thoughts on the topic of Zionism." At first, they planned for Derrida to write the introduction or notes to the novel, but in the end, they published a joint book of thoughts in New York, together with David Shapiro, entitled "Body of Prayer" (Cooper Union, 2001).

The events in "Snapshots," whose name was chosen because its literary form is similar to photographic snapshots, were written as a type of internal narrative by Ilana, including chapters of a personal diary written while traveling on the highway and at home in Paris. Says Govrin, "I wanted to write in an unraveled way. I thought the story reflects the ragged tale of us Israelis. It's a story we try so hard to mend, but we're not sure what will happen in the end." The plot of the book came to her in a burst of inspiration in July 1993, about two months before the signing of the Oslo accords, when she was directing the play "Gog and Magog." The play, based on Martin Buber's book, was created at the School of Visual Theater in Jerusalem and was performed at the Israel Festival in 1994.

"The central elements of the plot were written in one fell swoop; the plot imposed itself on me. It was during the morning hours, in Paris, when the whole family was sitting on suitcases, because we were on our way to Holland. I was already packed, but everyone else was still packing. I started to write the opening text and then all of the central elements of the text burst forth from within me. Later, it was a process of automatic writing, like that of the surrealists."

It took about six years for Govrin to complete the writing. She composed her previous novel, "The Name," over a period of 12 years.

"I had to write `Snapshots,'" she says. "I began to write the book at a time when post-Zionism was at its peak, with the feeling that it was impossible to make peace without putting Zionism aside, because the two things are incompatible. This led me to want to conjure up the character of the pioneer father, with his innocence, and to become deeply familiar with the sacrifice made by him and his generation. On one hand, there is an understanding for the desire of the heroine to betray these values. And on the other hand, there is a recognition that beyond this betrayal, there is a very deep loyalty, which is, in fact, the existential definition of the Zionist story."

Family sagas

Govrin is now publishing an account of the Zionist journey of her father, Pinhas Govrin, as described in his writings. (Part of his memoirs is also included in "Snapshots" as the journal of Aharon Zuriel, Ilana's father.) Pinhas Govrin was born in 1904 in Ukraine and arrived in Palestine at the age of 17, after changing his hairstyle so that he could be accepted into a group of pioneers. In the late 1920s, four generations of his family came to Palestine, including his great-grandfather, who was religious and settled in Mea Shearim. Another branch of the family rebelled against religion and was among the founders of Kibbutz Beit Hashita. Pinhas arrived with the Hehalutz movement and joined the Labor Battalion. He became one of the founders of Tel Yosef and moved to Ein Harod after the split occurred in the Labor Movement.

During the 1930s, he came to Jerusalem and became the secretary of Yitzhak Ben Zvi (the second president of Israel), who Hebraized his name from "Globman" to "Govrin." When he met Rina (Regina) Poser-Laub in Tel Aviv in late 1940, he was already a divorced father of two. Poser-Laub, born in Krakow in 1912, had completed her law studies and married a wood merchant from eastern Poland. She had one child with him, a son named Marek. When the area was under Russian control, her husband was murdered at the sawmills he owned. In August 1944, Rina arrived in Auschwitz with Marek. Soon afterward, Marek and his friends were taken from the children's house for extermination.

"He was apparently eight years old. These were subjects that I was afraid to ask Mother for fear of opening up the wounds," Govrin says. "There were pictures of Marek in her drawer. She spoke about him sometimes ... Only after her death, I found out that she had brought an egg she stole to this boy and the kapo who caught her yelled at her. My mother had nine friends and they called themselves `the minyan' [prayer quorum]. And together they survived the ghetto in Plaszow, Auschwitz and the death march, and arrived at Bergen-Belsen. After her death, these friends came to the shiva [the place where the traditional seven days of mourning were observed] from Mea She'arim. And despite the fact that my parents were products of the Labor Movement and secular, they still kept in contact. Only later I learned that these friends had physically restrained her so she wouldn't run after her son and the rest of the children during the `action.'"

At the end of the war, after she was released from Bergen-Belsen, Rina volunteered to work as a nurse. She was active in the Illegal Immigration Institution [during Aliyah Bet] and, in the last stage of her activity in Europe, accompanied a group of children via Paris and Marseilles to Israel. During the first cease-fire in the War of Independence, she arrived in Tel Aviv and met Govrin.

Memoirs and diaries

Rina was 38 when she gave birth to Michal, her only daughter, and Pinhas was 46. "The house was charged, a kind of synopsis of Jewish history in the 20th century. On father's side, it was to grow up within Mapai during its glory years, part of what they once called the `red' aristocracy. Uncle Akiva Govrin was an MK and later a government minister in Israel during the 1960s. But under his pioneer wrapping, my father had lots of yiddishkeit. We would travel to my uncle Akiva's home on Shabbat and they smoked, but they also sang zemirot [Shabbat songs], drank schnapps, ate herring, and danced Hasidic dances.

"This was a natural linkage, taking in both Hasidism and Zionism. My father closely experienced the crisis his father underwent in confronting the destruction of his town and the destruction of Europe, and he treated Mother's attitude toward the Holocaust with great respect. He helped her write her memoirs."

The small family lived on Derech Haifa (now called Namir Road) and Rina became a biology teacher. Recalls Govrin, "In my childhood, I was very close to my father. He had great empathy, attentiveness and lots of imagination - something of the child remained in him until the end. Both of them loved literature. Father not only wrote memoirs, but also short stories. Mother passed on many things to me - warmth and fears, but also strength. It was a very meaningful relationship. I remember her always dragging carpets to beat outside and cleaning the house obsessively. And I thought that it was something that she brought from the camps. Therefore, I'm terribly sloppy and this infuriated her even when I was a child.

"I finished a doctorate at the age of 25 because otherwise I would not have survived. She passed on to me a fear that I wouldn't survive. It was under the surface and a child hears the intonations and energies. A great fear of life as a struggle. On the other hand, there were moments of release and love for the theater, and for Brecht in particular. But the notion of not doing anything and just resting was not acceptable for her, even in moments of frivolity."

In elementary school, in a rowdy class, there were only four pupils who looked forward to the lessons of the poet Itamar Yoaz-Kest. (These four included Michael Handelzalts of Ha'aretz and the poetess Hevatzelet Hevshush, who was the sweetheart of the late poet Pinhas Sadeh.) Yoaz-Kest would read to them the poems of Rilke and Dylan Thomas and the stories of Agnon and Edgar Allan Poe. In high school, Govrin was already involved in theater and was an actress in a troop called "Hazman" - together with Micha Levinson, Handelzalts (who translated a play from Polish) and Omri Nitzan (who directed).

Govrin started to write at the age of 14 or 15. She still has her diary, which she began to write at age 12. The diary is also characterized by "automatic" writing - like in "Snapshots" - "writing in which you write something close to yourself." She didn't want to be embarrassed, and started to write with complete authority only at age 16. Her first short story was similar to a script.

In 1972, following a year of military service as an army reporter and after studying comparative literature and theater at Tel Aviv University, Govrin traveled to Paris to do her doctorate: "I knew that I was attracted to the European philosophical dimension and I wanted to do a doctorate on the subject of theater and religion. Like Ilana, my parents also sent me money and my parents' letters were emotional. In Paris, I lived in rented rooms and the memories of my arrival in Paris are presented in the book as the memories of Ilana."

She completed her doctorate in 1976 in the theater department at the University of Paris. Her thesis was entitled "Contemporary Sacred Theater." She encountered the radical left for the first time during her initial visit to Paris during the summer of 1967. The university where she studied was one of the strongholds of the local left, and also a stronghold of the Fatah movement. She already knew then many of the Palestinians who became her classmates.

"I realized quite quickly that I wouldn't be a political activist. I felt that literary activity suited me more. I'm interested in the deeper realms of reality, mysticism, psychology. It's difficult for me to say decisive things about reality so it's hard for me to be a political activist. But as is apparent in `Snapshots,' I have an attraction for figures with a radical character. This part of the soul attracts me. I have an unpublished manuscript about a Jewish leftist in France after 1968. When a person is entirely swept up by a political idea, it's very similar in my view to a religious fantasy."

When did the attraction to religion begin with you?

"Since the Hasidic thing was part of my life from my parents' home, I already was aware of the theatricality of Hasidic texts and stories. I was a student of Yossi Yizraeli at his directing seminar at Tel Aviv University after `Once There Was a Hasid.' And when I came to Paris, the coach at the leftist university encouraged me to go in the direction of sacred theater. I was close to the theater of Peter Brook and I began to read Antonin Artaud [an actor and theater producer and theorist, known for his book `Theater and its Double,' published in 1938]. At the same time, I delved into Hasidic writings and Martin Buber's books. During this period, there was a blossoming of the Parisian Jewish school and I also started learning Talmud - furthermore, I was a student of Emanuel Levinas. Against the background of French cuisine, I also realized that eating habits also mean something. I started to eat kosher and keep Shabbat and holidays, and also do so today. But I don't like being called a hozeret b'tshuvah [a newly repentant Jew], and not only because my faith is an inner one and is not reflected in my external appearance."

Govrin met Brezis in 1978 in Jerusalem. He came to visit and actually searched feverishly for her because of an article she wrote entitled "The Journey to Poland," in which she described a trip she made to Poland in October 1975. She traveled alone, when she was nearly finished with her doctorate, at a time when there were no diplomatic relations between the Eastern Bloc and Israel. Thanks to a French Jewish friend, who made her "the representative of France" in an international theater festival in Wroclaw (Breslau), she received a special entrance visa for a week. This trip to the hidden past of her parents, and to what she called "the secret of her birth," became "the geological fault-line that changed my emotional and intellectual landscape and stamped its mark on my writing."

Do you define yourself as a researcher and director, or as an author?

"I was never a researcher. The doctorate was a way to learn and also to fulfill the wishes of a Jewish mother. In Paris, I directed while doing research on theater and Hasidism. I see myself only as an artist, in writing and directing, two media that complement each other. It would be terrible hubris to say I was born an artist, but I have to write because that is identical to the definition of my existence. Setting out to write is for me very close to an organic-physical place. Even my more contemplative thinking comes from the body."

Brezis felt a common destiny with Govrin after reading about her journey to Poland and thus decided to look for her. Brezis was born near the end of the war in 1944, while his parents were hiding from the Nazis in a small French village. His father is French, of Romanian descent, and his mother is a Jew who fled from Holland. Though he comes from a religious home, he wears a skullcap only when visiting Israel. This is customary in France, Govrin explains. He teaches at the University of Paris and lectures during the summer at Rutgers University in New Jersey. His views are right-wing, Govrin acknowledges, but she's not sure about his identification with the National Religious Party. In any case, "there are sharp political disagreements at our home."

Govrin does not see herself as belonging to any particular political camp in Israel: "I see the blind spot in every camp. When I need to vote, I vote in father's direction. I really try to stand between the camps and this is the way I see my role as a writer. I'm the head of the theater department at Emunah College, a religious college, and from there I go to teach at the School of Visual Theater, and that's more or less the crowd of the Ha'uman 17 [a popular Jerusalem night spot]. This complexity fascinates me. I decide in the voting booth during elections. I see in my decision a feeling of responsibility that I have in regard to this place.

"I also felt this way when I wrote `Snapshots.' I wanted to open the discussion to the mystical-religious wellsprings that feed the conflict between us and the Palestinians, which it seems to me we've ignored for a long time. Only these wellsprings feed the conflict."

Are you sure?

"We're now in the midst of a collective Palestinian mental illness unprecedented in history. I'm referring to the phenomenon of suicide bombers. I regard this as a mental illness and we have to deal with this. First of all, it's the responsibility of the Palestinian society. Our role as Israelis is to bring the conflict to an end as far as we can from our side, with honesty and the greatest of humanism. I think that today we are struggling anew over Zionism's right to demand a Jewish country.

"In light of the great enmity that has erupted in France toward Israel, I realized that if we were destroyed, no one would shed a tear and ever since, I've been living with a feeling that our existence here cannot be taken for granted. Jerusalem is the heart of the conflict and if we succeed in softening this place with water flowing over stone, as described in `Snapshots,' that is hope. A city open to all. A different type of governing must be defined. This city demands a new invention of sovereignty and then there will be an end to the conflict."