Book Review: Forever young

Almost 40 years after she wrote ‘Once Upon a Potty,’ Alona Frankel is back with the curly-haired Naftali, in a new book called ‘I Don’t Feel Like It.’

Alona Frankel (photo credit: YAIR LIN)
Alona Frankel
(photo credit: YAIR LIN)
 If I had to summarize the life experiences of author and illustrator Alona Frankel in one description, it would probably be: “The woman who sees everything.”
She notices every cat and tree, every cloud; every single person walking by holds Frankel’s interest and is important to her. Only recently, Frankel was seen bringing coffee and cookies to the street sweeper on Tel Aviv’s Ben-Zion Boulevard, then bending down to pet a cat sunning itself on the sidewalk.
But when you look at Frankel, you see she has a heavy heart.
“I find it quite surprising that I’ve reached the age of 77; I’ve never been this age before,” she says excitedly, going on to talk about how becoming a grandmother has been the best part of her life so far – along with Yair, her partner for the last 12 years since the death of her husband, painter and poet Ziggy Frankel. “He wrote wonderful children’s books. But then he died.”
“People are so cruel to animals and they don’t really see things. They look, but they aren’t truly looking; they don’t treat each other with respect. One day, I hope people will understand that we’re all the same. If I see a homeless person on the street, I can’t just walk by and let him go hungry; instead, I’ll buy him a falafel. I always have loose change in my pocket to hand out to beggars.”
Frankel survived the Holocaust as a young girl and, as a result, has a unique personal relationship with God. “Most things in this world are beyond our ability as human beings to comprehend. That’s why I love people who stutter, speak slowly or hesitantly.
“People who have absolutely no confidence in what they do, yet what we see is such a small amount of what actually exists.
We must accept the fact that we know so little.
When scientists make a new discovery, it opens new worlds for them and years of additional research. It’s the same for writers, too.”
In addition to her children’s books, which can be found in the home of nearly every family in Israel and have been translated into multiple languages, Frankel also wrote a series of autobiographical novels titled Girl about her childhood years during Holocaust-era Poland, for which she was awarded Israel’s Sapir Prize for Literature in 2005.
In her novels, Frankel wrote endlessly about hiding places: a cart full of straw, a bunker dug behind the kitchen cabinets, a pigsty and a box shaped like a coffin; and the list goes on and on. This game of hide-and-seek Frankel that played for years was exceedingly dangerous, especially since the Gestapo was constantly lurking just outside her door. Over time, she forgot how to walk, how to speak and even how to cry.
But she never stopped dreaming and entertaining herself in her mind, painting and looking for other children to play with.
As a persecuted little girl and later, as a foreign young woman living in the Tel Aviv of the 1950s, Frankel learned how to see but not be seen. She tried not to understand what her eyes saw as she stared intently ahead of her, but her mind insisted on recording every single detail – no matter how terribly cruel or incredibly funny.
Frankel never rested, but was constantly writing.
Recently, she was awarded the Levi Eshkol Prime Minister’s Literary Prize and recently published a book called Naftali Velo Ba Li (Naftali Doesn’t Feel Like It), which features the same cute boy with the black curls from the award-winning Once Upon a Potty book she wrote in 1975.
The new book, published by Modan Publishing House, investigates the evolution of defiant speech, namely the expression “Lo ba li” (I don’t feel like it).
“Often now, I hear children on the street saying to their parents, ‘Lo ba li.’ However, I must admit that I prefer kids who say this over kids who have no opinion or will of their own, kids who are just submissive to others. If they’re submissive, it means they’re afraid – and we all know how easily children can get scared.
And so I prefer rebellious children.
“People say children are so spoiled, but I’m not so sure. I don’t have anything against spoiled children, anyway. After all, every week there’s a new theory about how to raise children and somehow, we still manage to reproduce.”
And we grow up.
“I became a grandmother at a very late age. My two sons are 54 and 42; the first one is Ari, who lives with his wife and their children in Boston, and the second is Michael. They both waited a long time until they found love. They looked high and low for the right girls, and in the end they succeeded.
“I once told my daughter-in-law Maya, ‘The fact that I don’t intervene is not because I’m holding myself back, but because I think everything is fine. If I thought something was awry, I would say something.’ Not that I’m forgiving – I’m not at all, I’m actually very judgmental.
But I have enough sense to realize that everything is fine, so what would be the point of nagging?”
Frankel began reading sophisticated novels at a very young age.
“It’s what kept me sane,” she confesses. Since there were no children’s books to be found, she dived straight into Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables at the age of nine.
“I read everything. Of course, I only understood what a child of that age could manage to comprehend, but I knew there were so many things that were beyond my grasp. And I made myself read every single word, never skipping over parts that were less exciting. I was always afraid I’d run out of books to read; I couldn’t imagine what I would do if that happened.”
And now?
“Now, it’s different. I walk into a bookstore and think to myself, ‘Oh my goodness – I’m never going to accomplish everything I want to in life.’” And yet, Frankel has found the time to write and illustrate. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened if she hadn’t.
“It’s a paradox,” she says. “I might be one of the few people, at least here in Israel, who actually makes a living from writing – and I’m grateful for that every second of the day.
“It never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes I think to myself, ‘What in the world would I do if I weren’t good at writing and drawing? I don’t know how to do anything else.’ And I can only work completely on my own. Except for illustrating other people’s books – that I can do.
“It might not be politically correct to say this, but I always prefer to work on books written by dead authors; I’ve never worked on a collaboration with a live writer.
When the renowned author Ayin Hillel approached me, I was flattered, but also terrified – so I told him I don’t work with other people. And I’ve never shown my work to others to be critiqued, either.”
When Frankel made aliya, she didn’t know a word of Hebrew – so she reread all of the books in Polish she had brought with her, dozens of times. Finally, when she had no alternative, she started reading books in Hebrew. She very clearly remembers how difficult this was in the beginning. “What helped me most was I understood that I didn’t need to understand everything.
This type of thinking saves people from becoming vain or arrogant.”
What happened to Naftali from Once Upon a Potty? Or, the big question: Have children changed since the 1970s?
“I don’t know. The basics don’t change,” Frankel avers.
“I had hoped that as I got older, I would no longer be so fragile and sensitive to events that take place around me, that I would have created some kind of protective shield for myself. But that hasn’t happened at all. I still feel the exact same way I did when I was young. If someone next to me is yelling, I get scared and look for shelter as if I were still five years old.
“I guess I’m still like a child, but not everyone can be like this or needs to be like this.”
She continues: “I’m amazed by things all the time; everything fascinates me. Sometimes when I’m walking down the street with Yair, he says to me, ‘How can anyone walk with you? You’re like a little girl; you stop and look at every little thing.’ My good friend who has passed on, Ruti Tzarfati, was like this, too. When we would go places together, it was enough for one of us to nudge the other with her elbow and the second would know exactly what the first had noticed. I miss her a lot. Noa Blass was also like this.
“Everyone has the ability to be sensitive, but only some people are able to put these feelings into words.”
As everyone who’s read any of her books has realized, Frankel knows that children are thinking individuals.
“Whatever they don’t understand today, they’ll learn tomorrow; the day after that, they’ll learn some other new idea.
“It’s hard to be a child. They’re short, they don’t have credit cards and everyone’s always telling them what to do. Just picture a baby who was born in the spring and is experiencing winter for the first time in his life.
All of a sudden, there’s something falling from the sky – which up until now has only come out of a faucet.
We adults would also go crazy if we saw KitchenAid mixers suddenly falling from the sky, right? “Do you realize how hard it is to absorb so many new ideas every day without going crazy? Unfortunately, there are numerous sophisticated methods of killing human curiosity.
If you keep your mind open, the sky is the limit.”
Who are you writing for?
“For myself. It’s as if I’m trying to give myself a hug – really! Yair is always surprised that before going to print, I don’t read what I wrote to children to see how they react.”
“I’m very serious about my work and I do the best I can,” Frankel reveals. “I don’t cut corners and I’m not lazy. I create the highest-quality work I can at that given moment. Sometimes when I look back at what I wrote, I say to myself: ‘I was such an idiot! Why didn’t I do it differently?’ “I realized why people like books they read as children so much: because people are always changing.
But the books we read as children remain intact; they’re exactly as we remember them,” she notes.
“Amos Oz once said, ‘An act of creation happens when someone writes a book, and another completely separate act takes place when someone reads that very same book.’ And you never read a book the same way twice. Just like when you go swimming in the river, the experience is always a little bit different each time.
“When you read a book for the second time, you’re a different person. If it weren’t for culture, we would never be able to survive.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.