Jerusalem storyteller: Dvora Waysman shares gems on her 90th birthday

“My mother never laughed at my dreams. She always helped me make them come true.”

Dvora Waysman in front of the poster for the Hebrew film based on her popular book, ‘The Pomegranate Pendant’ in her Jerusalem apartment. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Dvora Waysman in front of the poster for the Hebrew film based on her popular book, ‘The Pomegranate Pendant’ in her Jerusalem apartment.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
 Dvora Waysman is in a celebratory mood when we interview her in her cozy apartment in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood at the end of April, a few days after her 90th birthday. It doesn’t take long for her to make us smile as she regales us with sparkling stories of her fascinating life that began in Melbourne and took her via London to Jerusalem.
The first gem comes after she poses for a picture by our photographer, Marc Israel Sellem, in front of the poster of the Hebrew film Rimon Ha’zahav, starring singer Achinoam Nini, based on her bestselling novel, The Pomegranate Pendant (Mazo Publishers, 2009), that premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival in 2012.
“I used to write for a magazine in America and the editor was Marci Tabak, who made aliyah and went to work for Philipp Feldheim, the founder of Feldheim Publishers. She called me one day and said that Mr. Feldheim normally publishes Torah literature, but he wants a novel about the Yemenite aliyah 100 years ago. ‘He’d like a Yemenite heroine who’s a silversmith and the history has to be 100% accurate and, of course, no sex or violence. Mr. Feldheim is a very ultra-Orthodox gentleman.’ 
“So I said, ‘Marci, it’s lovely of you to offer it to me but I have never even met a Yemenite. I don’t know anything about their history, their culture, or how to make jewelry. I don’t really think I’m the one.’ She said, ‘Oh, what a pity. because he was going to offer you a very generous advance.’ So I thought for a quarter of a second and said, ‘You know what, Marci, I think I could write that book!”
Waysman, a prolific writer who has authored 14 books and many short stories and pieces of journalism, did what she always does. She devoted herself to finding out everything she could about her subject, researching for nine months at the Israel Museum’s Ethnography Department, learning about Yemenite gems from a Jerusalem jeweler named Sarah Einstein, and lunching at a restaurant called The Yemenite Step. 
“One day the waiter saw me taking copious notes and came over to me and said, looking very worried, ‘Excuse me, miss, but are you from the health department?’ So I told him what I was doing, and he was lovely and sat down and gave me Yemenite recipes.” 
Asked how she came up with the plot – the long journey of Yemenite Jewish jewelers Mazal and Ezra ben-Yichya in 1882 from Sana’a to Jerusalem – Waysman smiles. “I started with a child bride because they got married very young, and the plot just evolved from there. It sort of wrote itself. I started writing in my study at page one and finished at the end and didn’t do have to do any revision before I sent it all to Marci.”
Before showing us the small study where she writes, she tells us that a granddaughter recently helped her tidy it up after 25 years of accumulation. “I knew I had a nice writing desk, but I hadn’t seen it for years because it was covered in clutter,” she quips. 
The family tree decorating Dvora Waysman’s home. She now has four children, 18 grandchildren and more than 30 grandchildren. (Photo credit: Courtesy)The family tree decorating Dvora Waysman’s home. She now has four children, 18 grandchildren and more than 30 grandchildren. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
DVORA WAYSMAN was born Dorothy Opas in Melbourne to Jewish parents who were themselves born in Australia but came from families originating in Poland, England and Portugal. She was one of five siblings – two brothers and three sisters – and she still talks regularly to her 97-year-old Australian sister, Bobbie (Roberta Rhine), whom she credits with teaching her the inspiring lines, “Writers are dreamers; Head in the skies; Readers are sharing; Another man’s eyes.”
She made aliyah in 1971 with her husband Harry (Zvi) and four children – Mark, Moshe, Elana and Tamar – and became a freelance journalist, served as the press officer for Shaare Zedek Medical Center for 14 years (where she fondly recalls visiting an ailing Menachem Begin in his latter years), a popular author and a teacher of creative writing. 
Harry, a pharmacist who owned a chemist in Melbourne, died last October, and she now lives alone. But she is surrounded by friends and family – four children, 18 grandchildren and more than 30 great-grandchildren “with three more on the way.”
Dorothy was only seven when her first piece of writing – a poem titled “Little Miss Olden-Days” – was published on the children’s page of a local newspaper, winning her a first prize of two shillings and sixpence. “For a little girl who got a penny a week in pocket money, that was a fortune. So I decided that  I was going to be a writer, and become a millionaire.”
Writing became her passion, and she never stopped, encouraged by her parents. “My mother never laughed at my dreams. She always helped me make them come true.” 
At the age of 19, she and her best friend, Marie, traveled to London for three years, where she worked at an advertising agency during the day and studied at City College at night, completing a diploma in advertising. Upon her return to Australia after her father took ill when she was 22, she began dating Harry, and married him in 1955. After making aliyah, she changed her name from Dorothy to Dvora at the suggestion of her Hebrew ulpan teacher, and pursued her career in writing, becoming a celebrated author and winning the Shabazi Prize for Literature and Art for The Pomegranate Pendant. Her awards include the For Jerusalem citation presented by former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek; the Seef Award given by the Society for Justice and Ethics in Journalist for Best Foreign Correspondent. Na’amat Women USA honored her as “the Israeli woman who has made a difference in literature.”
Her books include Seeds of the Pomegranate, a sequel to her prize-winning novel, Searching for Sarah and one published this year titled Early Days: Where Gardens Bloom, So Does Hope.
Today, she continues to be a frequent contributor to The Jerusalem Post and Jewish newspapers abroad and runs a regular blog called “From Dvora’s desk” (dvorawaysman.com).
“I’m in love with words,” she declares. “I like to tell stories, and I like to write stories. When I start writing a book, the characters tell me what they want to say and what they want to do and after a while they take over. I never plan out a book. It just evolves as I go along.”
What is her advice for budding writers? “I would tell them to write it down, and not to worry about punctuation or grammar. Just do a stream-of-consciousness writing and let it all out and then you can always go back and make it done more precise but let your emotions guide you to say what is in your heart. I think writing is the most wonderful creative outlet.”
“I WAS brought here practically kicking and screaming,” Waysman recalls. Yet she has come to care for Israel passionately over the past five decades. “Now if you try to take me away, I’d be doing the same thing. I fell in love with Israel very slowly. If you’re looking for something to complain about, you’ll always find something, but I love it here and I love the people. I have friends and family in every section of society, from the very Orthodox to the very secular.”
Regarding the recent disaster in Meron on Lag Ba’omer, she says, “My heart goes out to all the families experiencing such pain and grief in the aftermath of the Meron tragedy. The greatest tragedy was that it was preventable. Every year when we saw pictures of the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands participating, we all knew it was a disaster waiting to happen. To start leveling blame is useless, but we must ensure in the future that we entrust arrangements for all mass gatherings to those responsible enough to safeguard our people from harm.”
Is she optimistic or worried about the future? “Everybody worries about Iran,” she responds. “That’s always hovering like a dark cloud above us and we never know what to expect. And God forbid that they should get an atomic bomb, because I know where they would aim it. But apart from that, I’m very optimistic because we’ve got wonderful people, and visionaries and idealists, and I think our educational system is wonderful and our young people go into the army quietly and modestly without any fanfare and give two or three years of their lives just as a matter of course. It makes for wonderful human beings who learn about sacrifice and I’m very proud of the young people in this country.”
Dvora and her late husband, Harry, on their wedding day. (Photo credit: Courtesy)Dvora and her late husband, Harry, on their wedding day. (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Her favorite article published in The Jewish Press in 1979 is titled “My Ethical Will,” a custom based on an ancient Jewish practice. Writing it while sitting on her balcony, looking through pine trees at the Knesset, the Israel Museum and the Shrine of the Book, she informs her children that she is leaving them with an extended family – the whole house of Israel – and memories, some sad, some triumphant. “And so, my children, I have only one last bequest,” she concludes. “I leave you my love and my blessing. I hope you will never again need to say: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ You are already there – how rich you are!”
WAYSMAN’S FAVORITE among her books is Esther, A Jerusalem Love Story. “I like it because a lot of this is my story; a lot of it is set in London when I was young. I was up in Lebanon very briefly as a war correspondent in 1982 at a time when my son was up there as a paratrooper and my son-in-law was up there too, and I kept hoping I would run into them but I never did.”
Her editor at the time, Dan Leon of the World Zionist Press Service, accompanied her together with a photographer named Douglas Guthrie. “The three of us were in a jeep with an IDF liaison officer and when we were just outside Beirut, there were cannons firing right in front of our jeep. They hit a cow that was killed on the road right in front of us and I kept saying to my atheist editor and Doug, who wasn’t Jewish, ‘We’ll be alright. I’ve got my Tefilat Haderech (Traveler’s Prayer) in my purse,’ which I was clutching tightly. Anyway, when I got to safety, I saw what I really had in my hand. It was a card for shekem, the store for army discounts. And I remember Dan saying, ‘It’s just as effective. Don’t worry!’”
Waysman did a series of articles titled “Voices of Lebanon” which were syndicated to 120 Jewish newspapers around the world. “I remember cherry trees with cherries the size of plums, and there were film crews from Sweden and Germany filming damage they said was caused by the IDF, which was a complete lie because it was from so long ago there were trees growing out of the rubble. And on the other side of the road there were cherry orchards and some of our soldiers were watering the trees for the residents who had fled. I said to these two film crews, ‘Look at our soldiers in the most moral army in the world watering the trees so they won’t die. Why don’t you film them?’ And they said, ‘No no, that’s not what our editors are looking for.’”
Realizing that she was “preaching to the converted” in her stories published in the Jewish press, Waysman decided to expand her readership to a non-Jewish audience by writing Esther, a love story between Esther and Max, starting in her native Australia via London to Jerusalem and a coincidental meeting during the Lebanon War. The book was a big hit, and the publisher sent her on a successful book tour across the US, signing copies in big bookstores such as Barnes & Noble. 
“Parts of Esther are me, but I named her after a very famous artist in Australia named Esther Paterson, who had a big influence on my life. When I was 16, I used to visit her home and watch her paint; she was the first person to take me seriously. When I told her I wanted to be a writer, she said, ‘You follow your dream, and if you really want it badly enough, it will come true.’ I loved her so much.”
Waysman at her piano, wearing the necklace sent to her by a Muslim friend in London. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)Waysman at her piano, wearing the necklace sent to her by a Muslim friend in London. (Photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Paterson, who was also a psychic, forecast Waysman’s brother Athol’s death in the Siege of Tobruk in 1941, and gave her a brooch made from an old coin with Arabic writing, telling her that one day she was going to live in the Middle East. “I laughed and said that was the place furthest from my mind, considering my Australian birth and longing to visit Britain. But she assured me I would live there one day. And here I am!”
Waysman maintains a regular correspondence with her many fans and aspiring writers in Israel and abroad. The last gem comes as she points to the necklace she is wearing, saying she had just received it in the mail from London. Her eyes sparkle as she tells the story.
“About 14 years ago, when I first learned how to use a computer, I used to get emails from people all over the world asking for help with their writing. I got an email from a young woman in London named Sabrina. I helped her publish an article she was writing, and she wrote to thank me, and we began writing to each other quite often and we became friends.”
Sabrina told Dvora she was a devout Muslim, voicing the hope that this would not change their relationship. “On the contrary,” Waysman wrote her. “I’ve come to care about you very much.”
A few years ago, Waysman – together with a granddaughter – decided to pay Sabrina a surprise visit in London, and invited her to tea. “We had a lovely afternoon together, and we became very close. She writes to me at least once a week. Then yesterday I got this parcel at the post office. Sabrina sent me this necklace made from Roman glass with a certificate of authenticity that says the piece of jewelry was unearthed at an archaeological site in Israel and dates back 2,000 years.”
Like many of Waysman’s stories, one is left wondering: Why did Sabrina choose to send her jewelry from Israel? Asked if the 2,000-year-old gift makes her feel young, Waysman laughs. “I’ve still got a while to go,” she says. “Now when people wish me happy birthday and say, ‘until 120,’ I ask them to make it until 130, because I’m getting a bit too close.”
The traditional stone for a 90th anniversary is a diamond. It’s particularly fitting for Dvora Waysman, who sparkles as one of Jerusalem’s most precious gems. ■