To Hell and Back: Shifra Horn Returns With a New Book – and New Insights

Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori

After eight years of silence, Shifra Horn’s new book, “Promenade a Deux” (Kinneret Zmora-Bitan; in Hebrew), was recently published. Horn has had eight difficult years. She contracted leukemia, from which the chances of recovery are slight. But Horn is optimistic; she believes the new book will improve her chances of survival. She says that intuitively and entirely subconsciously she scatters small self-fulfilling prophecies through her books.

The four novels that preceded the new book were all written from a female perspective. Horn centered them around large, strong women, without men, who take care of themselves. Around them she wove complex plots that are very reminiscent of her own family biography.

In “The Fairest Among Women,” published in 1998, Horn, who is today 61, wrote about the “Note House” (so called because of the musical notes on the facade) in Jerusalem’s Old Katamon neighborhood, a house she has known since childhood. To her great surprise, her son Gilad Horn, who never reads her books, rented an apartment there after his military discharge. In “Tamara Walks on Water,” published in 2002, she set the story in Jaffa; she later bought herself an apartment in its Ajami neighborhood.

The most prophetic book, from Horn’s point of view, is her 2004 “Ode to Joy,” a novel that takes place in Jerusalem during the second intifada. It describes dead children, hospitals, people who walk the streets seized by horror and fear of death and in this hell also a love story. Horn was unable to distance herself and observe her main characters from an omniscient perspective. She took part personally in part of the plot and was infected by fear of death. “I had a feeling something terrible was about to happen to me,” she says.

And something did. She finished writing the book in Auckland, New Zealand, in the home of her partner Peter Bolot, sent it to the publisher in Israel, and two weeks later she fainted.

“I spoke about all this afterward with [author] Amos Oz,” she says, “and he said, ‘That’s why I try not to end my books with too great a tragedy, because in my experience, too, sometimes the books foreshadow what actually happens.’”

In New Zealand, back in 2003, after she had fainted several times for no obvious reason, Horn went to a doctor who said, “Something bad is happening in your bone marrow.” Physicians in Israel confirmed the diagnosis: leukemia. Momentarily, it seemed as though Horn felt a certain amount of relief, as though she had been waiting for it all her life.

“For some reason I always believed I would die at the age of 36,” she says. “I have no explanation, and I knew that it would be from leukemia. I had a very pessimistic attitude toward life. As though my soul revealed what my body did not yet know. I was a sickly child ... I was also influenced by the film ‘Love Story,’ in which the heroine dies of leukemia, and she’s so beautiful, lying in bed at the end with her hair spread out over the pillow ... I have no rational explanation, I simply thought that if I contracted cancer, it would be leukemia.”

Before “Promenade a Deux,” which she wrote while undergoing treatment, Horn felt that she had to switch her point of view. To abandon the legendary heroines of her family and the essence of her own existence and to create a male protagonist. She believed that by doing so she would distance from herself the curse that has been hanging over her since she wrote “Ode to Joy.”

The hero of “Promenade a Deux” is Orion Herman, a fatherless boy who is being raised by two elderly German women, Holocaust survivors. This is a journey about memory and forgetting that begins in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War and goes back to the War of Independence.

“I lived for eight years in the body of Orion, my main protagonist,” says Horn. “I turned off the left lobe of my brain and thought like a man. I sat in cafes and saw how he looks at beautiful women passing by in the street. I did everything deliberately. I thought that if this time the main character was a man, I would be able to distance the illness from myself and perhaps to recover.”

Lost in Tokyo

Horn was born in Jerusalem to Boris, who died two years ago, and Shulamit Koresh. Her father was born in Kishinev, Moldova. At an early age he was captivated by communism, and his parents panicked and sent him to Palestine. Her mother’s family was among the founders of the Bukharan Quarter in Jerusalem.

Horn grew up in Old Katamon and attended the Hebrew University Secondary High School and went on to serve in the air force. She completed a B.A. in Bible and archaeology and an M.A. in Talmud. At age 20 she married Yarden Horn.

“I had begun working in the National Library and studying at the university, and I met him. He was one of the handsomest boys. We were in love like two little children. We lived in the student dorms on Mount Scopus; afterward we moved to the Old City. Gilad, my only son, was born in 1976. I was running a Beitar [a right-wing Zionist movement] day-care center and my husband was a member of Beitar one of [Rabbi Meir] Kahane’s boys. Imagine, me, the daughter of communists. I was a diligent student and I bought a house [in Gilo] from the scholarship money I received from the university.”

The marriage lasted for five years. “We married too much in love, too young and too poor,” she observes. “In the end we were unable to bridge the gaps between us and decided to have an amicable divorce.”
Horn went on to work for the World Union of Jewish Students, a non-Zionist umbrella organization founded by Albert Einstein.

“I remember that during that period we were terribly poor,” recalls her son Gilad today. “When they would ask me in kindergarten to have Mom bake a cake, I always said my mother was terribly busy and couldn’t bake cakes.”

“And I didn’t understand why all those years they didn’t ask me to make cakes,” says Horn. “Being a single mother back then was no great shakes. Every pair of shoes I bought for him was a big deal. I bought clothing at the Carmel market ... I received very little alimony, with my consent. I only wanted everything to be over. And in the 1970s and the 1980s there was no support for day care and no discount for the mortgage and my salary wasn’t big. We really were very poor.”

In 1982, Horn met the man who would be her second husband. “I was divorced and very sought after, but on the other hand I remained a conservative nerdy Jerusalemite, who didn’t understand the meaning of one-night stands. With the potential for serial marriages. At a party I met an intelligent man with a sense of humor, an employee at the Foreign Ministry, who had just returned from Europe. He took my phone number, we started dating and we moved in together. In 1985 I went to Japan with him. He was on assignment at the embassy in Tokyo. We stayed there for six years. That was the darkest period of my life.”


“When I arrived in Japan I thought I was going to have a great time. But that didn’t happen. He was abusive, in the financial sense. There was never enough in the house; I couldn’t work there and he didn’t give me money, and the situation became very difficult. I left behind a family and friends and work in Israel and was dependent on him exclusively, and with a child yet. That was very problematic ... But after six months I got a job. I was the correspondent for [daily newspapers] Maariv and Hadashot, and for Army Radio, and I taught in the Sunday school of the Jewish community in Tokyo. Afterward I ran things in the community in Tokyo, gave lectures on Bible and taught Hebrew. I made quite a nice living and didn’t need his favors.”

Horn hoped that things would work out with her husband, but they didn’t. She blames her naivete for that: “He continued to abuse me financially and made me feel that I was worthless, and I believed him. Sometimes to cheer myself up I would look back at my life story and say to myself, ‘You’re worth something. Don’t let anyone humiliate you.’ Today when I look at the pictures from that period I see a very sad woman.”

Why didn’t you leave him?

“When I said I wanted to return to Israel he said he understood my distress and promised that the situation would change, and that tempted me. I was trapped in a vicious cycle. Gilad was in eighth grade and I wanted him to finish the year, and I already had a well-paying job, so I stayed.”

And weren’t there any warning signs when you were still in Israel?

“The real problems began in Japan, but in Israel there were also warning signs that I refused to see. I very much wanted to get married and to have a family and more children. I had an optimistic outlook on life. A year after we returned to Israel we divorced. I remember the break-up. He gave Gilad a towel, NIS 50 shekels and said good-bye. After an 11-year relationship, including three years of marriage, I started everything from scratch.”

‘I was hostile’

Japan gave rise to her first book, “Shalom Japan: A Sabra’s Five Years in the Land of the Rising Sun,” a big success that sold about 120,000 copies. It’s an enjoyable, amusing and quite critical book about the Japanese way of life, which in no way reflected her misery.

Back in Israel, she recounts, “I worked like crazy. I started writing books, I gave lectures and I was the spokeswoman of the national road safety authority in the Transportation Ministry. I became the spokeswoman of the Reform Movement and then of the Tower of David museum. When I was working for the road safety authority I was the first to be exposed to the stories about [Moshe] Katsav, who was transportation minister at the time. He didn’t harass me, but the girls used to come to my office in tears. When Katsav ran for the presidency against Shimon Peres, I told the story to Yoram Dori, Peres’ adviser, but nothing came of it. After the affair was exposed, reporters came to my house and I told them what I knew.”

Dori confirms that. “I met Shifra at a cultural event in Jerusalem. She approached me and said, ‘This sex maniac must be stopped.’ I asked to whom she was referring and she said, ‘Katsav,’ and told me about her good friend from the Transportation Ministry whom he had abused sexually. She asked me to inform the press. I told her to go back to her friend and ask her if she stood behind her words and was willing to complain. She returned to me and said her friend was not willing to expose herself. Later on that woman was one of those who complained to the police.”

In 1998, Horn became self-employed. She was involved mainly in public relations in the fields of culture and art for publishers such as Keter and Yedioth Ahronoth, and on behalf of the Jerusalem International Book Fair. In her spare time, she wrote: to date five novels, three nonfiction books and two children’s books.

In 2000, she met her third husband, who is from New Zealand, by chance. She had been invited to a writers’ festival in Australia and decided to hop over to New Zealand.

Horn: “The Foreign Ministry had arranged a connection with the embassy in Auckland for me, and they were supposed to organize lectures and meetings for me in the Jewish community. My hostess in Sydney told me that she had a friend there, a dentist who was a widower a big donor to the Jewish National Fund.

When I arrived in Auckland someone called the hotel and introduced himself as Peter, and I naively thought he was one of the poets ... He invited me to dinner and I realized that he wasn’t the poet, he was the date. I was hostile. Whatever he said, I said the opposite. I didn’t like him at all. A dentist, one of the professions I hate, nine years older than me, an Orthodox man from the New Zealand Diaspora ... He opened the door for me, got up when I entered the room, I found it ridiculous.

“I thought he got the message, but on the second evening he once again invited me to a restaurant and I suddenly saw an intelligent man who read books. The next day he bought my book, ‘Four Mothers,’ which had just arrived in the stores in Auckland. When we parted I thought I would never see him again. But in Israel the intifada had just broken out and he called and suggested that I come to Auckland. I of course had no intention of leaving, but we started to correspond.”

After six months they met midway, in London, where Peter has a son and grandchildren. In 2008, they had a religious wedding twice: once in Australia, where Peter has family, and once in New Zealand.

“We got married because his conservative children didn’t want us to live in sin. It wasn’t easy for them. He comes from a very conservative Anglo-Saxon mentality,” Horn explains.

Today she lives in Jerusalem’s old Malha neighborhood in a restored Arab house on a hill, which is full of mysterious spaces and arches. At the entrance a sign says “Shifra Horn and Peter Bolot,” but they are not always together, dividing their time among Jerusalem, New Zealand and London. They meet once every month or six weeks for about two months. The rest of the time they are each on their own.

Horn: “At our age it’s ideal. I really need my space, and so does he. The month or two that I’m without him is excellent. There’s time to miss him, and every encounter is good ... He doesn’t speak Hebrew and [when] we go to friends and I have to explain everything to him. I hear myself translating myself. I try to familiarize him with the country, to explain jokes to him, but it doesn’t work.”

How to die right

In 2003, as mentioned, Horn returned to Israel and faced a crucial decision: to live or not to live. The tests showed that her bone marrow was almost 100 percent infected by cancerous cells: “A doctor showed me a picture of a man who had been cured of leukemia and I asked if she had other pictures, but that was the only one. I told myself and the doctors that I was all right: I had done a lot, I had lived, traveled, and I had no problem with leaving the world. At first I didn’t want treatment but my son Gilad and Peter and his sister pressured me not to give up.

“At a certain point my girlfriends brought me a medium and she said that my soul didn’t want to live. I told her that was true and she promised to help me die. The medium said, ‘Within a week or two you will no longer be here,’ and the moment she said that I told her I had changed my mind. I went to the hospital and started treatment. I decided that I would show the doctors, and I became a patient from hell.”

How was that reflected?

“For example, I had an unexplained fever for a month and the doctors decided I had a fungus that could destroy someone like me, who had almost no immune system. Every evening they treated me, causing my entire body to start trembling uncontrollably, along with fever and terrible vomiting. I told the doctors that after another such treatment I’d jump out of the window, and that they should find something that didn’t cause such side effects. Only because of my threats did they find another substance that I could tolerate. That’s how it was with everything: I kept testing the doctors.”

Peter was in New Zealand at the time, she adds, “because I preferred that he not be here. His first wife died of cancer, and I didn’t want him to go through that twice.” Gilad had just begun his master’s degree in microbiology at the Hebrew University, and wanted to abandon his studies. “Everyone helped me so that I wouldn’t leave, he says now. “Mom had a terrible prognosis and didn’t want to live, but I forced her. In the end she fought the doctors and most of the time gave them instructions. She’s a fighter and won’t let people tell her what to do ... [but] doctors really admire people who know what they want.”

Horn was in the hospital for six months, undergoing unbearable treatments. The disease went into remission.

In 2004, she traveled with Peter to the Yarra Valley in Australia to a camp for cancer patients and their families: “We were 30 people with partners. They taught us all kinds of things there, including how to die. To understand the meaning of resuscitation and whether or not you want it, how to write a will, arrange your affairs so the children won’t curse you later, ask forgiveness from people we have hurt. To leave the world in dignity. But also how to keep going.”

“To keep going” in Horn’s case was to hang by a thread and waver between hope and despair. Upon her return to Israel she discovered the disease had come back. “Peter was here for a visit and when I drove with him to the airport I called my doctor, and she stuttered and avoided a straight answer. I understood the disease had returned. I burst into tears and the people in the airport looked at me ... The miracle was that a short time later it turned out that my sister was a perfect match for a bone marrow donation, but the idea of undergoing a transplant while the disease was active seemed almost irrational. They gave me about a 15 percent chance of survival. It was Russian roulette, but I decided to go for it.”

The transplant was successful. Horn was in isolation for six weeks, drugged and in a stupor and survived, against all odds. “I asked Peter to go home; I preferred to deal with it by myself. I turned all black, I lost my sight and I’m very glad that he wasn’t there. Because the disease was active they gave me enough chemotherapy to kill an elephant. When I left there I wasn’t able to walk or sit on a chair. I was pitifully thin, I couldn’t see out of one eye. I was sure that I wouldn’t be able to write anymore.

“I returned home and was totally dependent. It was terrible. I lay in bed for over half a year, assisted by a Filipina caregiver. Girlfriends got organized and brought me food. Slowly but surely I learned how to activate my body. I had to return to the hospital three times a week for an entire day of tests and treatment. Afterward they reduced it. Now it’s once a month.”

As a result of the transplant Horn’s DNA is now identical to that of her sister. “Today we’re like identical twins ... I used to have curlier and thicker hair and now I have straight silky hair, just like hers. My body structure also changed. I was very thin and now I’m rounder, like her.”

Is it also reflected in behavior?

“No, only in external things. My personality and behavior have remained as they were before the transplant. But I suffer from post-traumatic syndrome. I don’t have the physical strength I used to, I get very tired and am exposed to infection from diseases. I’m the first to come down with flu, and that’s how it will be for the rest of my life ... Meanwhile they were happy events in the family. Gilad got married eight years ago and I have two granddaughters: Gefen, 5, and Yaara, 3. I wrote a book.”

Can it be said that you’re healthy now?

“The doctors refrain from defining or estimating the chances. They say I’ll have to receive treatments all my life. As of now my tests are good and I’m more or less balanced.”

Could the disease erupt again?

“I don’t talk about it. I live the moment. Once a month I go to the hospital to know that I can make plans for the coming month.”

Between the tests and the treatment Horn wrote “Promenade a Deux,” which simultaneously encouraged her and made her anxious. “On the one hand, it was therapeutic and kept me alive, and on the other I was afraid that after finishing it I would die, so I prolonged the writing for a very long time. I wrote one line a day, one word, one metaphor. There were months when I didn’t write at all. In the end I didn’t want to hand it in ... I’ve always been a very rational type, but in such cases people seize on all kinds of nonsense, stars and horoscopes. The main thing is to stay alive.”

You should write a book about the illness.

“I assume I will, but first I have to distance myself from it a bit. Meanwhile ... I’m bringing to Israel a 23-year-old woman from Vietnam. I was there last year, I was invited to lecture, and after a quick decision I told the cultural attache at the embassy that I wanted to bring a boy or girl, at my expense, to undergo a bone marrow transplant with my doctor, Prof. Reuven Or of Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem. They started looking for candidates, but it was hard to find one ... And then came a letter from a 23-year-old student and now we’re bringing her to Israel. I feel that my life was saved and I really want to help.”

Do you make a living from writing?

“Mainly from the National Insurance Institute. I’ve been recognized as 100 percent disabled. Almost nothing is left of the money that comes from translated books, after you pay the agent. It’s not the money, it’s more the honor. The income from the books in Israel isn’t so great either.”

What is your opinion of the proposed books law (that books not be sold at a discount for the first 18 months after publication)?

“I didn’t sign the petition. I think the beneficiaries of the law will be the great writers, who signed it the ones whose books are bought in any case. This law will harm new writers and less famous writers whose books might be excellent but which nobody will buy at full price.”

Everywhere in the world people buy books for realistic prices, even without insane sales promotions.

“I enter a bookstore and see the happiness in the eyes of the buyers, for NIS 200 they can buy eight books. It’s heartwarming.”

Horn herself is a writer of best-sellers: All her books have been on the top of the lists, have been sold in tens of thousands of copies, and have been translated (in as many as eight languages). Her most recent work is now in second place on the best-seller list of the Tzomet Sfarim chain. In addition, she has received many awards: the prestigious Brenner Prize, the Prime Minister’s Prize, the Book Publishers Association’s Gold and Platinum Book prizes, the WIZO Israel prize, and so on. Although the critics praise her books, two of which “Four Mothers” and “Ode to Joy” have been included in the high school curriculum for those doing 5-point matriculation, Horn always finds her work categorized as so-called “women’s literature.”

Does it make you angry to hear that?

“All woman writers have their own language and style, but some condescending people have placed us all in the same niche. Throughout the years women were excluded from literature here. There was a feeling of disdain on the part of the ‘masculine guard.’ You have to understand that most of the literature from the early days of the state was masculine and dealt with serious subjects such as wars and revival. Suddenly there are many women writing about romantic relationships, family life and ‘soot-filled kitchens,’ as one of the female critics wrote about one of my books. I’m doing very well at the moment. I have a feeling that ‘Promenade a Deux’ has been accepted without question by the center of the consensus.”

How do you live with the constant risk of the illness?

“I accept it. I always tell my friends, ‘You don’t know yet what you’ll die from. I do.’ When I was really about to die I told myself it’s not so terrible, at least I’ll be remembered as young and pretty. But today I have a great desire to live. I remember that when I fell ill at the age of 53, my goal was to live until the age of 60. When I reached 60, I said only until 70. But the truth is I live from month to month, and don’t make plans beyond that.”

Shifra Horn.Credit: Kobi Kalmanovitz
Horn and her son Gilad.Credit: Avi-Boris Koresh
Tokyo. Horn describes her time there with her second husband as 'the darkest period of my life.'Credit: Bloomberg