The word on the streets

Meet Dan Benaya Seri, Jerusalem's magical mystical storyteller.

dan seri storyteller (photo credit: )
dan seri storyteller
(photo credit: )
On a cold Saturday night, writer Dan Benaya Seri is telling stories in a living room in Mevaseret Zion. A group of mostly middle-aged couples is celebrating the surprise 65th birthday party of a former government official. They've invited Seri, as a special treat. Assembled on couches and folding chairs, they listen to Seri's mystical stories. The room is quiet, and all attention focuses on the thin, wiry man at the center, as he draws verbal pictures of Jerusalem's Yemenite and Bukharan communities of the 1940s and '50s. Seri is expressive but understated. Although he has authored numerous books, won several national prizes for literature and is a much-sought-after speaker on the storytelling circuit, his demeanor is humble. He seems to be the quintessential Jerusalemite, wise and slightly scarred, with tales to tell. Many of those tales come from Seri's own experiences growing up poor in the mixed Mizrahi community in the New Beit Yisrael neighborhood, next to Mea Shearim. During the British Mandate and then the early years of the state, Seri lived in what he now calls a "multicultural" environment, where his own family of Yemenite heritage mixed easily with Bukharans, Persians and Eastern Europeans. His magic realist narrative style, in which the miraculous mingles with the everyday, was born on the neighborhood streets, in the sounds and sights of Jerusalem. There was also plenty of pain in those early days. One of Seri's earliest memories is the way in which his own family was torn apart by the fights between various internal Jewish factions during the British Mandate. His brother, who had joined the ultra-nationalist "IZL" underground, refused to sit near his own uncle, who served in the Hagana. "As a kid, I thought it was crazy that Jews, family members, were fighting against each other," he says now. And so it is not surprising that his stories are full of tales of internal family fighting and tragic, romantic figures such as the Bukharan Juliet and the Yemenite Romeo, who commit suicide because their families don't approve of their relationship. Or the poor Yemenite widow who would rather remain a maid in Jerusalem than marry a wealthy man and leave her beloved city. Looking out at the trash bins of the city, where she is forced to search for food for her children, she says that she sees vessels for the Holy Temple instead of wastebaskets - such is her love for the city. Today, the stories are all that remain. "Since the 1960s, when the haredim became involved in politics, Jerusalem has been overtaken by the religious. I give tours in my old neighborhood but it is now completely haredi, as is Geula and Kerem Avraham. Even Maalot Dafna, where I currently live, is going in that direction," he complains. The secular community has "escaped" to communities like Mevaseret Zion, Tzur Hadassah and Har Adar. Many young people move to different areas of the country completely. And ethnic neighborhoods no longer exist because they have been absorbed by a more general Israeli flavor, which Seri believes is less authentic and more permissive - "like America or some European countries." Yet it is many of these same less authentic, more permissive, modern Israelis who are now renewing their interest in their country's recent past. And they are also the ones who come to Jerusalem from all parts of the country to experience Seri's literary tours of the Bukharan Quarter. The popularity of Seri's novels is another example of this resurgence. Grandma Sultana's Salty Biscuits, published in 1988, won the Newman Prize for Israeli Fiction and was listed as a curriculum book by the Ministry of Education. His other books, Dead Fish in Jaffa, Birds of the Shade and Mishael have been favorably reviewed and are on their way to becoming new Israeli classics. A novella, The Thousand Wives of Naftali Siman-Tov, was made into a 1989 movie, starring singer Rita (Kleinstein). In an article entitled, "Toward the Nineteen-Nineties: A Generation without Dreams," literary critic Gershon Shaked observes that while Seri's books usually include Mizrahi themes and often a whole cast of traditional characters, his work is not "ethnic fiction per se." Rather, Seri writes about the human condition in a universal way, using the framework of his own cultural background. Seri himself is quick to point out that his work does not include the exaggerated kitsch of some ethnic literature. He says that he writes about what he knows, just as a Western writer would write about his own immediate surroundings. And he acknowledges that he has been influenced by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem, writers who, like him, incorporate Jewish themes, the language of the synagogue and a healthy dose of local flavor. Seri's acute awareness of his surrounding, and perhaps also his calling to write, can be traced to a childhood event that changed his life. In 1948, when he was 13, his father, a Yemenite immigrant who ran a small grocery store, was killed by Arab fire, leaving Seri and his six siblings in the care of their barely 30-year-old mother. "That was a breaking point. On that day, I grew from a boy to a little man," he recounts. With several children to support, his mother went to work as a cleaning woman for a government office. The children, left to their own devices, each found their own way to cope with the pain. "Suddenly, I couldn't rely on my father. I couldn't ask my mother to take care of me and the community wasn't able to help us. They were all poor people, struggling to support their own families," he explains. Attending school at night, Seri spent his days working as a messenger at a government ministry, enduring the harsh directions of his superiors at work and turning increasingly to solitary pursuits for comfort. "You would think that I would have tried to find friends to give me the love I lacked. But I was very suspicious of people. I just didn't want to get hurt again," he says. Writing stories, which he began to do informally at 18, became a way to solve his emotional problems through narrative. He created characters that would love him as people in his life could not, and other characters who expressed his own internal wish for attention. Clara, the main character of Grandma Sultana's Salty Biscuits, is so needy for human touch and affection that she is willing to accept it from anyone. When she is raped, she imagines she has finally merited the return of her own feelings, merely to be horribly disappointed. "Clara is the character that I most identify with. I took all the pent-up anguish that I felt and expressed it in her," Seri observes. Mishael, the title character of another novel, is a widower who discovers that he is pregnant with his wife's baby. Afraid that he will never experience the joys of fatherhood, he attempts to locate the feelings of parenthood within his own body. For Seri, "Mishael" represents his own search for his father, particularly the father inside himself, which he had to locate upon his own father's early death. Fatherhood figures as importantly in Seri's fiction as it does in his life. In fact, the creation of Clara, Mishael and other fictional characters took a backseat to the raising of his own two children with his wife of over 40 years. Working fulltime as a civil servant for the Ministry of Agriculture, Seri did not begin writing seriously until he turned 40. That birthday coincided with the Yom Kippur War and the fact that his own children were older and no longer needed him as regularly. Still, in order to stay involved with his family, Seri began a writing schedule that has persisted until today. He wakes at 3 a.m. and writes in the kitchen until 6 a.m., at which time he used to break to make breakfast for his family and prepare the sandwiches for his kids' lunch. Now that he is retired, he has the luxury of continuing to write until later, but the early morning tradition has stuck. "At that hour," he says, "the only distraction is the sounds of the birds singing. I often think that they are owed a good bit of credit for the musical quality of my writing." Indeed, whether telling a story, reading from his work or just chatting, Seri tends to speak quickly, in long, ornate sentences, punctuated by his distinctive accent. A native Israeli, his spoken and written Hebrew is rich and evocative. His sophisticated writing style has earned him two commendations by the Prime Minister and it keeps him in demand at libraries and bookstores throughout the country. But he claims that the only prize he really recognizes is the response of his local readers. Partly for that reason, only one of his novellas, The Thousand Wives of Naftali Siman-Tov, has been translated into English. That work, together with an Italian version of Grandmother Sultana's Salty Biscuits, are the only translations of his books in existence. "What connection do I have with international readers? Where will I see them and get a chance to interact with them?" he says. Although he sees no need to enter the international market, his readers have already begun to compare him to writers from around the world. One 12th grader recently wrote a paper comparing Seri's work to the novels of Latin-American magic realist Gabriel Garcia Marquez - a fact that brings a grin to Seri's face. He also treasures the face-to-face meetings with his loyal readers, whom he sees at readings and storytelling events throughout the country. He tells of a recent event in Givatayim, when a sickly woman waited at the home of a friend for three days in order to see him read from his works. Suffering from a chronic illness, she told him that she had been ready to give up the fight to survive, until she read his novella, The Thousand Wives of Naftali Siman-Tov. In that book, a wise haham (learned man), seeing a particularly unfortunate woman, says that there are some people who it would seem would be better off never having been born, but if they have been born, there is a special reason for them to be alive. "I decided to live and find out why I was born," the woman told Seri. The search for inspiration underlies much of Seri's work. Although there is realism to his stories, which can be disturbing, he always seems to be groping for something better. Both secular and religious audiences have responded to the search for love and home, which is a significant aspect in his narratives. It is perhaps ironic then, that he feels that there is little future for true diversity in Jerusalem, his home and his spiritual base. "Sociologically, Jerusalem is going… to get more and more religious and take on qualities that will continue to make secular people leave," he observes. But mystical Jerusalem, which resides in the minds of all Jewish people, will never change. "When someone is in Yemen, the United States, Russia or the Philippines and they say, 'Next year in Jerusalem,' they are talking about the spiritual place. What they mean is a feeling of longing that has nothing to do with a street or address," he explains. Now 70, Seri has begun to speak of the mystical in increasingly immediate terms. "I hope that my father is looking down from heaven and that he's saying to the people around him, 'You see that Yemenite that is coming here to join us soon, he isn't an embarrassment to us, right? Well, you know what? He's my son.' That is what would make me happy."