Author of 'The Pomegranate Pendant' says having her book made into a movie is "like a dream come true."
By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
"The sign of a good sex life," quips Dvora Waysman, "is having a lot of grandchildren."
If so, Waysman - who has 18 - is in great shape. But fruitful family relations aren't the only source of satisfaction for the 78-year-old prize-winning journalist, essayist, poet and author of 11 books. Particularly not these days, when one of her novels is being made into a movie that is scheduled to be released early next year.
"It's like a dream come true," admits Waysman, who still has trouble grasping that The Pomegranate Pendant - the compelling saga of Mazal, a child bride in Yemen, who makes her way to pre-state Palestine - has been filmed and is actually in its editing stage.
Not only that, but superstar Ahinoam Nini (currently in Moscow with the other half of her coexistence duo, Mira Awad, to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest with "There Must Be Another Way") is going to perform two songs in the film.
To add to Waysman's excitement, she herself was "surprised by having been given a tiny cameo role" on screen.
But for Waysman, sailing wasn't always this smooth, certainly not when she, her husband and four children came on aliya from Melbourne, Australia, in 1971 - which meant leaving behind an aging mother, close siblings and the comfort of her own culture and language, her most valuable tool.
Ironically, it took a war and a terrorist attack to shift her attitude from one of self-pity to a sense of belonging - and of having found her calling: to use her "gift of writing to tell the world about what a wonderful country Israel is."
How did you, an Anglo immigrant with Ashkenazi roots, come to write a historical novel about Yemenites - one with such a culturally accurate feel to it?
The truth? Many years ago, Marci Tabak, at the time the editor of Feldheim Publishers, which dealt in Torah literature, called me up from America, and she said, "Mr. Feldheim has decided he would like to publish a novel set in Jerusalem 100 years ago, during the First Aliya. He would like a Yemenite heroine, preferably a silversmith."
I said, "It's very nice of you to think of me, Marci, but I don't know anything about Yemenites. I don't think I've even ever spoken to one. I'd have to do an awful lot of research. I don't think it's really my cup of tea."
She said, "That's a shame, Dvora, because he was going to give you a very nice advance."
After considering it for about a quarter of a second, I said, "You know, on second thought, I think I can do it."
What kind of research did you end up having to do?
I studied my history. I went to the ethnography department of the Israel Museum. I studied jewelry. I tried to meet as many Yemenites as I could. I listened to Yemenite music. I frequented The Yemenite Step, a now-defunct restaurant in Jerusalem. In fact, one day, while sitting there writing down everything on the menu, one of the waiters got very nervous, and he came over and asked me if I was from the health department. But when I explained that I wanted to know about Yemenite food, he was very kind and helpful. He even gave me some of the recipes.
How long did it take for you to complete the book?
The writing took about seven months, and the research took six months before that. That's a long time for me to spend on a book. I've written many, and I usually do them in three or four months.
How did the filmmakers come to read it?
It's really a fairy story. I used to write for a [now defunct] literary magazine in America called The Jewish Spectator. Its publisher, Robert Bleiweiss, attended a Jewish media conference in Jerusalem 14 years ago, when the book had just come out. So I gave him a copy. After reading it, he told me that he had fallen in love with it, and that he was going to make it into a movie. I said, "That's wonderful," but I didn't believe for a minute that it was ever going to happen. But not only did he write a movie script, he got in touch with Praxis Films in Israel, and made a sort of partnership with them, bringing out something called Pomegranate Productions. Not only that: He raised nearly all the money himself, and put in a great deal of his own.
Judging by the film's synopsis on the Praxis Web site, it's clear certain changes have been made in the original text. Is that problematic for you, or did you agree to the adjustments?
There have been many changes. But, first of all, I had to come to understand that a movie is not a book. Movies are visual, and require a certain kind of dramatic input that is less necessary in novels. But throughout the process I've been in touch with Robert Bleiweiss, and have been a party to all the changes he was making. We did have a bit of a falling-out at one point, because he wanted to add a rape scene, which wasn't in my novel, and I didn't want it there. The original publishers [of the hardcover] were ultra-Orthodox, and though they stopped printing it - and Chaim Mazo Publishers put out the paperback - I felt uncomfortable with the prospect of there being something in the movie that might be offensive to them. That disagreement took a little while to iron out, but in the end, the rape scene is not in the movie. It is still real family entertainment. There's no sex on camera, for example.
I think it's going to be a fantastic movie, and I'm very excited about it. It's in English with mainly Israeli actors and directed by Dan Turgeman. There are three actresses playing Mazal, the heroine, at different stages in her life: one as the child bride, another as the young mother, but the culmination is Timna Brauer, who plays Mazal as an older woman. Her performance is so magnificent that it brings tears to my eyes.
Like your heroine, your own aliya was rocky - albeit in a completely different way. Is it true that you didn't really want to come here?
That's an understatement. I was brought here kicking and screaming. My husband felt that our children had reached the stage at which it was necessary for them to know that they had their own homeland. Our eldest son actually came here first, at the age of 13. He said at the time that he felt Jews should live in Israel - but I think it was mainly to get away from his younger brother with whom he fought all the time. He came to learn at a yeshiva in Pardess Hanna, which he hated with a passion. After a year, he wanted to come back to Australia, but my husband said, "No, he only wants to come back because he's lonely. So we're going there and joining him."
I didn't have much choice, but he promised me that it was only to have a look, and that if I was desperately unhappy, we'd go back. Well, I was desperately unhappy, but we didn't go back. Ironically, he has been commuting back and forth to Australia ever since then, because of his business as a pharmacist. So you could say that I'm waiting for him to finally make aliya.
But seriously, it was the Yom Kippur War that changed everything. For the first time, I really felt bonded to Israel and to the people here in a way I'd never felt in Australia. I felt they were family. We grieved together when we had to. We celebrated together when we had a victory. After that, I knew I could never live anywhere else.
Did your being a writer contribute to your initial objections to living here, and then to your malaise after you arrived - because of the language barrier?
Absolutely. Words have always been so important to me. When I came here, all I could manage was, "My name is Dvora, how are you?"
It was terribly difficult, and it was also a whole new culture.
Did you continue writing during the adjustment period?
Yes. But the truth is that, before I came here, I didn't have anything consequential to write about. I wrote short stories for women's magazines and, as a beauty consultant in one of my husband's pharmacies, I wrote beauty tips for the local paper.
And then I saw a terrorist attack. In was the July 4, 1975 refrigerator bombing in Zion Square, which left 14 people dead and dozens more seriously wounded. I personally wasn't hurt, other than psychologically. So I went to the Kotel and made a kind of bargain with God. I couldn't understand why he had spared me, and not all those others. I thought about the small gift I have - my writing - and that maybe I'm meant to do something with it. I made a vow that I would use it for good. I would write about Israel. I would write about Judaism. I would try to show the world what a wonderful country we have here. Everything turned after that. It was quite amazing. Since that day, I have never run out of ideas, and nearly everything I've written has been published.
What made you decide to teach writing?
When I was young in Australia, I desperately wanted to learn how to write, but at that time, there was no framework - no university courses or anything. So I probably made every mistake possible, and when I'd run out of all the mistakes, I realized I'd learned quite a lot. So I thought I'd try to help other writers who were just starting out, to teach them how to approach an editor, how to write a book proposal and things like that, because I'd never had anyone to teach me. It was all trial and error, and mostly error.
It's one thing to approach an editor or write a book proposal, but can writing itself really be taught?
Certain aspects of the craft of writing can be taught - such as how to fashion a newspaper article, with a beginning, middle and end - as can techniques. But what a writer needs is talent, sensitivity and, most importantly, a compulsion to write. If you're only doing it to make money, or if you're only doing it because you think it will make you important to have your name in the paper, you're not going to get anywhere. And having a compulsion to reach out and touch people by letting them see the world through your eyes is probably something you're born with.
Have you encountered writers who have the compulsion without the talent?
Yes, but I encourage even people without talent, especially older ones, to write something for their families, even if they have to self-publish it. People should pass on vignettes from their lives, and the values and lessons they've learned that they'd like their children to incorporate into their own lives.
I once wrote a piece called "My Ethical Will," which has been published about 10,000 times by the World Zionist Press service, as well as included in two books, Ethical Wills and So Your Values Live On. An ethical will is what I think everybody should leave. If you haven't got a lot of money, at least you can leave your children the important things that you want them to know about life.
As an author whose book is being made into a movie, what advice, in retrospect, would you give to fellow writers?
First of all, not to expect that being a writer is going to make you fabulously rich, unless you're, say, J.K. Rowling [author of the Harry Potter books]. It's not something you should do for money. It's something you should do because you feel you have a dimension on the world that you would like to share, and that you really have something that is important for you to say.
Also, to learn to take rejection, because in the early years, every writer is subjected to it. And do it out of love. I have a wonderful older sister, who, when we were young, taught me a little rhyme, on which I sort of base my life. She said: "Writing is dreaming, head in the skies/reading is sharing another man's eyes."
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