Standing on the shoulders of ancestors

Raised on stories of her family history, Liat Taiber Ben-David tells a Zionist tale that spans generations.

yahrtzeit book 88 298 (photo credit: )
yahrtzeit book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Yahrzeit By Liat Taiber Ben-David Gefen 280pp., $15.95 Liat Taiber Ben-David is a fourth-generation "sabra." Her mother's family came to Israel in 1882 from Romania; her great-grandparents were among 60 families who established Zichron Ya'acov. Her father's family came to Israel in 1900 from Russia, her great-grandfather having arrived in Jaffa at Theodor Herzl's behest, as an aide to Zalman David Levontin, who was sent to create the Anglo-Palestine Bank (which later became Bank Leumi). Ben-David herself was born in Haifa in 1960. "My ancestors came to Israel before they knew that what they were doing was going to be called 'Zionism' one day," says Ben-David, who just published her first novel, Yahrzeit, based on her family's extensive history in Israel. "I see myself as the Israeli equivalent of the American descendents of the Mayflower." The 260-page historical novel traces 120 years of Israeli history - from the first wave of aliya under the rule of the Ottoman Empire to the British Mandate, the First and Second World Wars and finally to the establishment of Israel through first- and second-hand testimony of matriarchs spanning four generations: Ben-David's great grandmother, grandmother, mother and the author herself. "My mother and my grandmother were remarkable women," says Ben-David, a PhD in Molecular Biology from the Weizmann Institute and a mother of three. "I feel that if I've come far in my short, 45 years of life, it's because I stand on their shoulders." "I grew up surrounded by their stories," she says. "I was raised on history - the long-term history of the Jewish people, the short-term history of Zionism, and my family history. I was raised knowing that I was a fourth-generation sabra, that my kids would be the fifth, and I tell my kids that their kids need to be the sixth. Israel is an integral part of our family identity." But the novel is not exclusively based on the stories of Ben-David's ancestors. "The novel is based on three pillars," she explains at a reading at the Shalom Aleichem House, behind the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on the first night of Hanukka. "One is my own family history, for which I interviewed all surviving members of my family, one is historical research - and we're talking about 120 years of one of the most exciting times of Jewish history - and one is imagination. I created this web in which I took the threads of reality and filled in the gaps with my own imagination." The end result is a historical novel that takes its title not only from the Yiddish word for "memorial day," but from a unique custom of remembrance designed by Ben-David's great-grandmother Rivka who, while her husband Isaac was busy meeting Herzl, loses their fifth child, Leah, to crib death. It is at this time that Rivka realizes all five of her lost children had died during the week of Hanukka. She begins lighting five Yahrzeit candles together with the Hanukka candles. "Somehow, for reasons unknown, the light of the menorah was always second best, giving way gracefully and with awe to the light of the memorial candles," reads Ben-David aloud, explaining that this Hanukka tradition is one that her family upholds to this day. "Although happy Hanukka songs were sung, the simple words of the mourner's prayer - which Rivka stubbornly insisted on singing when lighting the Yahrzeit candles - were always the ones that brought peace and comfort to her soul." Remembrance forms the thematic backbone of the novel. A strong sense of the past sticks with Ben-David and her family throughout the duration of their time in California, where she moves with her parents when she is two years old. When Ben-David is seven years old, the Six Day War breaks out, on June 6, 1967. "Our entire world turned into one small radio," she recalls. "My parents clung to it day and night. It became a lifeline, a thread, a fragile connection. "This part of the book always makes me emotional," she admits. But it was Israel's most recent war - the second Intifada - that inspired Ben-David to return again to the United States. In October 2000, Ben-David and her family were on a vacation in the Netherlands when they heard the news about the lynching of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. "A Palestinian was shown lifting up his hands in victory, covered in the blood of the soldiers he had mutilated, and CNN still managed to make it sound as though it was Israel's fault. It was absolutely devastating." She recalls that the news agency's coverage had her screaming at the television set. "Right then and there I decided I had to do something - I had to explain Israel's position to fellow Jews in the United States." Less than a year later she found herself in Palm Beach County, Florida, working as an educational emissary for the Jewish Agency. She had quit her job of 10 years at the University of Tel Aviv, as Israel's middle school educational curriculum writer for subjects of science and technology, packed up her family's home in Maccabim and moved. "My job was to bring the voice of Israel to the Jewish community there," she says. "I thought it was absolutely crucial to show Israeli presence in Jewish communities abroad, at a time when Jews were not coming to Israel." As it turns out, the job was even more of a challenge than Ben-David expected. "I discovered that not only did most Americans not understand what it meant to live in Israel and what we were going through, but my own brothers and sisters - Jews just like me - didn't understand. "Most American Jewry grew up knowing that Israel is a fact - and not only a fact, but a goliath of some sort, which is absolutely not the case. "There are two major Jewish communities in the world," she continues, "One is in Israel and one is in North America. As of today they are approximately the same size, but as the former is still growing, the latter is shrinking. We both have Jewish identity problems, for different reasons. In both places, our children should know more, both about their Jewish identity, and about their Zionist identity. "We're at an important crossroads wherein Jewish identity in general, and Israel as a pillar of that identity, is at stake, and if we don't wake up and really put our minds as a people to what it means to be Jewish, then we will be lost." It was during her 30 months in Palm Beach County that Ben-David wrote Yahrzeit. "I'm still not sure why it happened then, or why it came out in English, but the story just seemed to flow out of me," she says. "If this is my humble contribution to bridge the gap of knowledge and understanding of what it's really like to live in Israel, and what it means to be Israeli, then I have done something. "The book is a tribute to my mother, as well as a torch to pass on to my kids," she adds. "It is also dedicated to the State of Israel, which I think is truly a miracle. "A miracle is defined as 'a remarkable event that does not follow the laws of nature.' For 2,000 years the laws of nature for the Jewish people were to sit passively and wait for something that would bring redemption. Then 120 years ago we started defying the law of nature that we had been following for 2,000 years. Suddenly, we started to fight back. We started to defend ourselves. And we started to forge the Jewish state."