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Dora B: A Memoir of My Mother
By Josiane Behmoiras
On first encountering Josiane Behmoiras, a quiet, pretty lady in her early 50s, I am immediately struck by her accent. A curious mixture of French and Israeli, with the occasional Aussie inflection, Josiane's voice reflects the three countries she has called home. Today she lives in Melbourne with her husband and 18-year-old daughter, but she was born in France and grew up in Israel. Last month saw the publication of her first book, Dora B: A Memoir of My Mother.
Josiane was born in 1953; her single mother, Dora, was a Turkish Jew who fled to France to escape looming war. By the time Josiane was eight, mother and daughter were living rough on the streets in the southern town of Montpellier - Dora was suffering from mental illness and even little Josiane could see that their life was far from normal.
"Very early on I understood that there was a difference between my mother's world and the real world," Josiane told me during a visit to London to publicize her book. "One early memory is of her going up to a group of men on a building site and telling them how wicked people were trying to steal all her ideas. Even at that young age I knew it wasn't the right way to interact with people."
By 1961, the system had caught up with Dora, but life did not get easier. Mother and daughter were arrested for vagrancy, and when the police discovered Dora's Jewish origins, they saw a simple solution to their problem. Dora and Josiane were sent to the Jewish Agency and deported to Israel, where they were allocated a small asbestos hut in a ma'abara on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Here, the melange of different cultures and nationalities living together in close conditions of poverty was a recipe for disaster - the Behmoiras's neighbors soon discovered that Dora was "different" and treated her accordingly.
"A pecking order was quickly established and my mother was awarded the role of village madwoman," explains Josiane wryly. "Dora was bullied and picked on because she was an easy target."
Dora and Josiane remained in the ma'abara for 14 years, suffering verbal and physical abuse at the hands of their neighbors. Much of the book deals with the time they spent there, which spanned both the 1967 and the Yom Kippur wars. But intriguingly, the political situation in Israel never seems to impinge on the narrative. Even where war is briefly mentioned, it serves to highlight enmity between neighbor and neighbor, rather than between nations.
"Before the Six Day War we were digging trenches and a surreal fight began to develop between my mother and another resident," recalls Josiane. "He said to Dora 'I hope the first bombs fall on your house' and she replied in kind. The war was just another opportunity for dispute. Dora was living in an imaginary world and by extension so was I - the real world was outside and events there tended to go over my head."
Josiane left Israel for good in 1985, emigrating to Australia with her husband. She tried in vain to take Dora, too, but her mother, terrified of doctors, refused to submit to the mandatory medical exam. Since then she has returned to Israel only sporadically - in 1988, to persuade her mother to go into hospital for a cataract operation and again in 2002. By this time, Dora's mental health had deteriorated and she had been living on the streets as a bag lady. She died just a week after the visit ended. But ironically, it was coming back to Israel as a visitor that finally opened Josiane's eyes to the country.
"I was totally besotted by Israel," she smiles. "I rediscovered the people - I found them so wonderfully interesting. You have to understand that my only real experience of Israel was life in the ma'abara. But once my mother left there, she encountered such sympathy and kindness. There were strangers who came up to her, this bag lady on the streets, and offered to pay for a ticket to send her to Australia. In which other country in the world would you see such compassion?"
Now Josiane hopes that Dora B will help to bring her back into closer contact with Israel. She is currently in talks with an agent regarding translating the book into Hebrew. Writing Dora B has been a cathartic experience - it has allowed Josiane to move on from the past and pursue her dream of becoming a writer.
"I have discovered that I've been very fortunate in my life," she says. "There were difficult things, yes, but I hope my story has encouraged people to look beyond appearances. My mother was a bag lady, but above all she was courageous and honest and she loved me without limit."