Arts & Culture

“My True Love”

This January marks the beginning of the third year of Zeek’s initiative to make contemporary Hebrew literature available in English translation to readers worldwide. The last two years have featured more than two dozen stories, excerpts, and poems from some … Read More

By / January 19, 2009

This January marks the beginning of the third year of Zeek’s initiative to make contemporary Hebrew literature available in English translation to readers worldwide. The last two years have featured more than two dozen stories, excerpts, and poems from some of Israel’s finest writers and most accomplished translators. And with this month’s publication of an excerpt from the award-winning novel The Confessions of Noa Weber, Zeek introduces readers to the fiercely talented voice of Gail Hareven. Her novel startled Israeli critics upon its publication with the insistent, combative, and deliciously ironic voice of its protagonist, a middle-aged feminist writer who is “addicted to love.” Though the first-person narrative contains echoes of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Hareven’s idiom is squarely rooted in the experience of contemporary, secular Israel.– Adam Rovner, Translations Editor

 

The city of J lies at the top of the hills of J. That’s how I’d like to begin my story; at a calm distance, with a deep breath, in a panoramic shot focusing very slowly on a single street, and very slowly on a single house, "this is the house where I was born." But you’d be making a fool of yourself if your J wereJerusalem, since every idiot knows aboutJerusalem. And altogether it’s impossible to talk aboutJerusalem any more. Impossible, that is to say, without "winding alleys" and "stone courtyards," "caper bushes" and "Arab women in the market place." And I have nothing to say about caper bushes and stone courtyards, nor do I have the faintest desire to flavor my story with the colorful patois of colorfulJerusalem characters, twirling their mustaches as they spin Oriental tales.

 

Nor do I intend to mention here the hills of J, in other words the Judean Hills. These hills always depressed me with their thick history and the thin trunks of their pine trees, and the picnic leftovers scattered over the dry pine needles. And anyone who didn’t spread out a picnic blanket and open a picnic basket surely trailed behind their scoutmasters there in the footsteps of Judah Maccabee and Uri ben Ari and the continuing saga of Jewish heroism, which I somehow managed to forget, however hard they drilled it into my head.

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And even if once upon a time, a great many years ago, I went for walks in the forests of J, it definitely isn’t worth the effort of distancing the camera for the sake of those ancient neckings. They’re about as riveting as the autumn crocuses. Or the spring. Or whatever you call them. The truth is that I wasn’t really born inJerusalem, either. I was eight when my parents left the kibbutz — for seven years after that we lived in Tel Aviv –and if I began by saying, for example, "I was born in the Emek Hospital," you’d come right back: "Ahaa, of course, my two sisters-in-law gave birth there too," and immediately want to talk to me about "that amazing midwife, the one with the faint mustache, worth more than all the doctors put together, you don’t mean to say you’ve never heard of her?"

It isn’t my personal problem as a writer. It isn’t my personal problem that a person who was born here can’t open with the words "I was born" — because so what? So you were born, good for you, you were born, okay, and then what? Because after "I was born" has to come an adventure story that will take the first person far, far away from his birthplace, and how far can you really get from here? To the Far East on the beaten track of the ex-warriors from the Golani Brigade? To Uman with the nutcases of the Bratslav Hassids to their rabbi’s grave? And however far you went you’d end up meeting someone who knew your cousin’s cousin. Not interesting. Not interesting at all.

Not that I’m complaining, God forbid. The facts of my birth and upbringing have nothing to do with what follows here, and even if they did, you need calm and composure to distance the camera like that; calm and composure and a sense of historical perspective, and as far as my situation is concerned, I clearly suffer from a severe lack of both.

For the record I’ll simply mention here that I was favored by the luck of the draw. I grew up well fed and protected, and that’s another reason why where and how I "came into the world" is not a matter of public interest. People who’ve survived a holocaust, who were born into a world that no longer exists, they can begin their biographies with "I was born." The heroes of nineteenth century novels begin with "I was born," my heroic father can begin his story with "I was born." Not me. My early history is too boring, it fails to provide any explanation for what happened to me in later years, and I have never felt the urge to examine it or whine about it. Nor do I now.

In any case it’s no great loss, and if the right to say "I was born" has to be paid for in dire catastrophes, stepfathers, orphanages, and picking pockets in the market place, I say, "No thanks," and choose to enter this story at the age of seventeen, where the real me begins:

Me and my love for Alek — which against my better judgment I experience as transcendence. Me with my dybbuk — which is the only thing that gives me a sense of space.

Forty-seven, that’s how old I am now; forty-eight in September.

 

***

 

I told you to forget about a panoramic view, but there’s one panorama at least that I can offer you. A panoramic picture of the disease I’ve been dragging around with me for almost thirty years. The picture that comes up on the computer screen after midnight is at its brightest between two and four in the morning, and fades gradually towards dawn, Israeltime:

LAA – Love Addicts Anonymous – holding hands on the web. Lovesick ladies from the East Coast to the West Coast, from Europe to Australia, entering the forum for therapeutic encounters. All of them fell in love suddenly, once and for all. And through winter, summer, autumn, and spring they cling to the one and only love that never lets them be.

Women who love too much, is how they define themselves. Women addicted to love. Women whose neurons have been screwed up by their unhealthy loves.

Since discovering the LAA forum, whenever my own neurons begin to go berserk, I enter the web site. I call myself Adele there, a private joke which I have never explained to my sister sufferers and which I never will. Adele, after Victor Hugo’s pathetic floor-rag of a daughter, who followed some nothing all the way to Marrakech and went so crazy because of him that they had to put her in the loony bin. The Adele H. of Israel. Very funny. But the women-who-love-too- much wouldn’t find it amusing, none of them would laugh.

Maybe women who love too much have no sense of humor and maybe they just have no idea about Israeli names and how unromantic they are. Take Sarit for example. Can anyone imagine Sarit throwing herself under a train? Or drowning herself in a river? Which river, exactly? In the shallow trickle of the Jordan? Or perhaps in the fish ponds of some kibbutz? No, the most Sarit could do is give a revealing interview to the mid-week supplement of one of the tabloids. Some names simply impose an anti-romantic discipline on their owners: Pazit. Sarit. Yossi. Amit. Try fitting them into an old love song by Alexander Penn, for instance, "My plain winter coat and the lamp on the bridge, / An autumn night and my face wet with rain. / That was the first time you saw me, remember? / And it was as clear to me as two and two / That I was in love with Amit, and Amit was in love with Pazit, / Yes, it wasn’t any good, it was gloriously bad…..’

Gloriously bad. I actually understand these words. And they are the ones that creep up from my tailbone to my collarbone, in complete contradiction to my logic which tells me that bad can’t be glorious. And that all this romantic bullshit is basically a conspiracy against the female sex.

 

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Women who love too much aren’t very interested in metaphysical sins of this nature. Squandering their child’s college-savings fund, throwing acid at the legal wife, abandoning their bodies to violence, self-imprisonment, subsidizing their man’s drug habit by prostitution, catatonic depression, drunk driving, these are the kinds of practical sins that preoccupy them, and in comparison to them my sins of thought and feeling turn white as snow. Well, maybe not quite white, but you could certainly say they pale in comparison.

It’s not the fact that I have no sensational sins that prevents me from confessing to the group. The problem is the language. They are all guilty of "co-dependency," they all want to free themselves of "harmful relationships" and make themselves fit for "meaningful relationships." They are all trying "to develop their spiritual aspect," to "grow emotionally," "to be in touch with their feelings" — whatever the hell that means — and all of them without exception believe in the liberating effect of archaeology. As a consequence of this belief they carry out energetic excavations in their family history, and on bad nights I definitely find their stories gripping. SenileSandy fromSeattle, for example, had an alcoholic father and an alcoholic grandfather, which in her opinion and that of the group explains the "co-dependency" she has with her clown. Brainless Betty fromBoston has no history of alcoholism in the family, but she had a neglectful mother who to this day is still a compulsive overeater. And it’s certainly touching to read how little Betty used to hide the bread in hopes of saving something for her school sandwich from her mother’s nightly kitchen raids. Except that according to Betty’s and the rest of the group’s logic, a mother who loves food sentences her daughter to a lifetime of compulsive love, and at that point I stop being touched and begin to laugh.

On a number of occasions I was tempted to make the girls happy and join the party at last by cooking up some sort of terminal explanation for my case. An eloquent etiology of my disease. Ready? Yes, they’re all ready. So what happened to me, girls, is that my father was hardly ever at home, my heroic father was in the army with men and other women, he was with other women a lot, and I never had a real home either, because the first eight years of my life I spent in the children’s house on a kibbutz. Allow me to confine myself for a moment to the story of the kibbutz.

Kibbutz, girls, do you have any idea of what a kibbutz is? No, of course you don’t, because the only people who know what a kibbutz is are those who grew up on one, like me. If there are any Jewish souls among you, if you grew up on the propaganda of the Jewish National Fund, kindly forget the fishermen spreading their nets, the female tractor driver and the sun-tanned women picking oranges and smiling photogenic smiles from the tops of their ladders. A kibbutz, my sisters, is not a poster, and even though the children’s house covered in ivy and bougainvillea looks like the Garden of Eden in the photographs, that’s what the island in Lord of the Flies looked like in the beginning, too.

The children’s house…let me tell you about the children’s house. In this house with the red-tiled roof I was abandoned every day to the violence of my peer group, and every night to my loneliness. Eight years times three hundred and sixty five days equals… You can work it out yourselves, but the sum is the number of nights that I was abandoned by my mother.

Eight times three hundred and sixty five days of violence and ridicule, and eight times three hundred and sixty five long nights of anxiety and fear, taught me to hide my neediness. When I ran away from the group to my parents’ room, my mother would lose no time in taking me back. When I complained, she pretended that she didn’t hear or told me to be strong and pull myself together. And I, it seems, was a good pupil, and gradually I stifled my tears until the weeping was silenced inside me and turned into quiet despair. That’s how they taught me to associate love with abandonment, and that’s how they got me used to the idea that love is not a refuge.

This kind of description, which is definitely not complete fiction, but only partly false, this kind of description would immediately reward me with an international wave of empathy. The trouble is that what I need is contempt, not empathy, and certainly not the empathy of blockheads.

A parody of self-interpretation will not bring me the self-disgust I’m looking for.

I say a parody of self-interpretation, partly because my childhood wasn’t as miserable as I described it, but mainly because I, in contrast to my sisters-who-love-too-much, do not believe that my dybbuk has a "psychological background." My father, my mother, and Yochie the kibbutz children’s caretaker, have no part in this story, and if not for the psycho-babble they hear on the television or read in the newspaper, it would never have occurred to the love-addicts of LAA to shove their parents into the picture, either. Think of Romeo and Juliet, for instance: it’s true that Romeo and Juliet had parents, and logic demands that before the play begins they had some kind of childhood too, but nobody would seek the reason for Juliet’s love in Mrs. Capulet’s eating disorder, the love came of its own accord, the love seized hold of her, the love made her what she was. And in the face of such a lightning bolt only an idiot would insist on asking, "Why?"

So even if I could easily offer a psychological explanation for my dybbuk, and not only just one but a few, in this matter you won’t get even a hint of a clue from me. Accept it, dear reader, or not; here I stand, and this is not a psychological novel.

And if, like some stubborn interviewer, you go on nagging me about the "why," I’m prepared to throw out the hypothesis that on the second of July, nineteen-hundred and seventy-two, somebody put a love potion into my coffee. It was black Turkish coffee, and I drank it from a thick glass purchased in the Machaneh Yehuda market inJerusalem. The kind of love potion imbibed by Tristan and Isolde, who as far as I know had no psychological reasons for their love either.

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Zeek‘s Hebrew translations are made possible by a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency. Please direct submissions and queries to editors[at]zeek.net

This excerpt appears with kind permission of Melville House Publishing, publisher of The Confessions of Noa Weber. Worldwide translation copyright © by The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Writer Gail Hareven was born inJerusalem in 1959. Hareven has published six novels and three story collections, as well as non-fiction and children’s books, and has had four plays staged in Israel. Her novel, The Confessions of Noa Weber (Melville House, 2009) [Sheahava Nafshi (Keter, 2000)], received Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize in 2002.

Dalya Bilu immigrated to Israelfrom South Africa in the 1950s. She has translated some of Israel’s most well-known writers and has received the Israel Culture and Education Ministry Prize for Translation, and the Times Literary Supplement and Jewish Book Council Award for Translation. Bilu’s translation of Judith Katzir’s Dearest Anne was published by the Feminist Press last year.