A Frank conversation

Rina Frank, whose semi-autobiographical novel was recently published in English, talks about growing up poor in Haifa.

November 12, 2010 16:38
Israeli author Rina Frank

311_Rina Frank. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Rina Frank tells me apologetically that she had considered canceling our interview. Her grandchild is unwell, she explains, and she wanted to make herself available if necessary. But things had worked out satisfactorily in the end. In any case, she has always been wary of rescheduling appointments. “You never know what is going to happen tomorrow,” she says.

Every House Needs a Balcony, Frank’s 2006 Israeli best-seller recently published in English, is a case in point. Frank started to write it not with the intent of penning a best-seller, but rather as a simple act of grieving and commemoration.“Unfortunately, my sister died in a car accident and it was this that prompted me to write the book,” she explains. “On the day of the shloshim, I went back home and suddenly felt the urge to tell about our childhood, to celebrate the fact that although we were so poor, she became quite successful before she died.

It was especially for her daughter and for my children. I wanted them to know the kind of Israel we came from, what our childhood was like. And through this act of writing, I felt connected to her.”

Poignant yet unsentimental, Every House Needs a Balcony is a deeply personal, lightly fictionalized account of the author’s childhood in the deprived Wadi Salib neighborhood of Haifa, chapters from her childhood interspersed with a clinical dissection of a later period in her life, what at the time seemed like a Cinderella marriage to a wealthy Spanish Jew.

“Two families and Tante Marie lived in our three-room apartment and kitchenette,” Frank writes in the opening pages. But what follows is not a pathological account of woe and misery, but rather an unaffected, candid narrative of the rich intimacy among the mainly immigrant families of the neighborhood. Particularly dominant is the relationship between the narrator and her sister, Yosefa. A year and a half older, Yosefa was special in the narrator’s eyes: normal children were born on holy days, she understood, but Yosefa “persuaded God to arrange for her to be born on a regular weekday. And God agreed.”

Before she began to write the book, Frank – a successful independent television producer, responsible for hit programs like Platypus and Ha’isha Ha’aheret – had never harbored any literary ambitions. “My work was developing scripts for television dramas. I judged them, made suggestions, acted as a script editor, but I had never, never, never thought of writing something myself,” Frank smiles. “I had never written before, not a word... Grief brings out many things that you can’t believe are in you.”

Particularly striking in the narrative is the juxtaposition between the Haifa years of the author’s childhood and the later period when she meets and falls in love with the scion of a wealthy Barcelona family. In Haifa, families lived cheek by jowl, personal affairs conducted not behind closed doors but rather on the eponymous balconies of the title. “Sitting on the balcony was practically the same as sitting in an armchair and watching television... what we saw was real life, played out by authentic actors and in real time.”

But Frank depicts an authentic closeness rather than the absence of privacy, a distinction that becomes clear when later, she leaves the country and moves to Barcelona to live with her fiancé and his family. The duality is made all the more clear by Frank’s writing style: The Haifa period is written in the first person, Barcelona and afterward in the third person, with the primary characters distinguished by the anonymous descriptors “he” and “she.”

I speculate that this distinction was a deliberate means of comparison between the two worlds, between families who were poor financially but with a rich emotional life – as she asserts was the case with her childhood – and the opposite, the emotional paucity that dominates the Barcelona period and afterward.

“I never thought about it this way, but I guess that it is a fact,” she replies. “I think that when you are missing something, when there is a lack of something in your life, then the sensitivity with which one appreciates the other is stronger, bigger.”

AS WE speak, the waitress brings Frank a cup of tea. She looks at the Hebrew edition of the book placed on the table between us, and remarks that she enjoyed reading it very much. “Thank you,” Frank murmurs, a little self-consciously. The waitress looks at her, then at the author photograph on the book before making the connection.

She blushes and apologizes profusely for not recognizing her.

“No matter what, I think that poor children will always have a greater sensitivity,” Frank continues. “Because of their lack – what they don’t have – they are always much more aware.”

Beyond this, Frank explains that she uses the distinction in writing styles between the two periods as a means of establishing the connection between her roots and her maturity. She quotes from a Yehuda Poliker song: “Everything starts from home, and the rest is coincidence.”

So it is possible to extrapolate from her childhood the reason for some of the decisions that she made later, when even though – on the surface – comfortably ensconced within the security of her tight-knit and affluent family by marriage, she yearned to return to Israel and to the security of her roots? She nods emphatically. “Rather than writing the book in two distinct parts, I wanted to use individual chapters to illuminate the influence of past upon present.”

Frank initially tried to write the latter aspects of the book in the first person as well, but was not comfortable with the results. “You have to remember that it is very personal, and involves other people aside from myself.”

Since remarried and for many years resident in Tel Aviv, Frank explains that the deliberate anonymity of the fictional description of her first marriage was – in part – out of respect to the other main participant in the drama, her then husband. She initially tried to write the latter aspects of the book in the first person, she says, but was not comfortable with the results.

“You have to remember that it is very personal, and involves other people aside from myself.”

The third-person construct provided a degree of objectivity to the narrative, she states. This aside, there are also other deliberate elisions along the way. Aside from her daughter – who plays a central part in the narrative – she also has an older son, but he is not mentioned at all in the book. These deliberate abstractions and omissions, Frank argues, give a universal aspect to this part of the narrative. “The story [of the failed marriage] was mine, but it could happen to anyone. But the childhood was mine… it can’t belong to anyone else.”

Beyond the personal, Every House Needs a Balcony also reads as powerful social documentary of a bygone age, depicting the challenges faced by new immigrants to the nascent State of Israel, and the social tensions between the establishment and the underdogs. One line in the book is particularly striking: “Fantasy plays an important part in poverty.”

I ask Frank whether she thinks that this still rings true today. “I don’t know whether there is still room for imagination today, given that everything is around one, in one’s face even.”

What were her fantasies when she was a child? Frank pauses for a moment. “In a way, they were always material. For instance, I wanted to have a doll; we were very jealous because a friend of Yosefa’s had a piano.”

In this sense, the past and the present do have some similarities, I venture. Frank agrees.

“But the basis for this was simple, so innocent. I wanted to have enough money to go to the circus and not to have to sneak in, or to buy a half felafel... we were thinking about the basics, really.”

I wonder whether she thinks that the tangible sense of community that she evokes so vividly in the book still exists today. The social gaps that she describes in 1950s Haifa were between the haves and the have-nots, a distinction born of financial rather than ethnic considerations. I remark that society appears much more fragmented in these days, individual community groups much more self-contained and preoccupied with their own experience of exclusion rather than with the broader picture.

Frank nods. “Then it was just the beginning of the State of Israel, and the goal of having a country of our own was so important. I was born in 1951; you have to remember that this was just six years after the Shoah. I think that just to be in Israel generated so much pride, even though we were from so many different communities...”

Frank pauses to sip from her tea, which has remained untouched for most of our conversation.

“But now it is different. I speak a lot with my husband about how for our children it is obvious that we have our own country. It is so sad for us, because everything that is taken for granted is not appreciated, things that one does not have to work for. The feeling for Israel now is different from what it was then.

“Mind you, then, more than half of the population were immigrants. Now, I’m not sure what the percentage is, but many groups have their own established communities and so... it is different.”

While we wait to settle the bill, Frank tells me about how gratified she was by the reception accorded the book when it was initially published in Hebrew in 2006. Especially meaningful, she says, was the praise she received from people who said that they rarely read fiction. “It really meant a lot to me,” she says, “because the book is so much me.”

She tells me that she is currently working on adapting the book for the screen with the acclaimed director Avi Nesher (Turn Left at the End of the World). “It is such a pleasure working with a master of his craft,” she gushes. And for a moment, caught up in her enthusiasm, it is almost possible to forget that the source material is hers and hers alone.

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