Book Review: ‘The Best Place on Earth’

Of her writing, Tsabari says, “I am comfortable with multiple identities and languages and places I call home,” while at the same time feeling a longing for Israel.

Ayelet Tsabari (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ayelet Tsabari
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Creative works can have many points of origin. For Ayelet Tsabari, a native Hebrew speaker who received the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature in a New York City ceremony on May 6 for The Best Place on Earth, her collection of short stories in English, it was following a guy from India to Canada.
The purpose of the $100,000 prize administered by the Jewish Book Council, which alternates between fiction and non-fiction each year, is to recognize “a book of literary merit that stimulates an interest in themes of Jewish concern.”
Such a tome was authored by Tsabari, who once in Canada, began writing in English and eventually enrolled in an MFA creative writing program – despite not having a BA.
Tsabari never expected to stay in Canada so long, nor to begin to write in a second language that she only began to read in at age 24. Though she said in a Skype interview with The Jerusalem Post that “I love Hebrew, I am attached to Hebrew,” she spent a few years not writing, in a limbo state between languages, since she felt her Hebrew wasn’t good enough as she wasn’t using it regularly, and her English wasn’t yet up to par either.
“I was frustrated with my inability to express myself” during this period, she reveals.
But with the new language, she had to learn to “tell stories in fewer words” – since she did not possess the vocabulary she had in Hebrew. Tsabari found the constraint of limited language actually helped her creativity, rather than stifled it: “The writer in me had to die a little bit to be reborn in a new language,” she asserts.
The advantage of this “reinvention” for Tsabari was that writing in English felt very private, since English was “not the language I grew up with and not the language my family reads and speaks on a regular basis.” She noted that “writing in a different country and a different language gave me freedom,” as well as a “newness that maybe my Hebrew writing lacked.”
Tsabari was one of six children in a traditional Yemenite family, and the importance of telling the stories of others has stayed with her. This spring she spent a few months in Israel on a Chalmers Fellowship, granted by the Canadian government to artists to pursue endeavors that will inspire their art.
Tsabari spent her time collecting the oral songs and traditions of older Yemenite women, and says she sees these songs as a literary tradition.
Interviewing these women, she “has goosebumps on a regular basis” from her excitement at hearing their stories and folktales, and spending time interviewing them about their lives. She feels an urgency in collecting tales of those who were born in Yemen and then came to Israel, since they are dying out. Though there are those who don’t want to remember the hardships of their lives and relive them, Tsabari tells them, “We need your stories.”
Though her own grandmothers are no longer living, she is happy to “still have a way of hearing those stories,” and maintaining a link to her past. Furthermore, while in all of the books she has read since childhood she has never been able to find a “character in literature like me or my grandmother,” part of her goal in writing is to open up a space for a variety of voices in literature.
Acknowledging the Rohr prize, she states, “By portraying characters of Mizrahi background, I was hoping to complicate readers’ perceptions of Israel and Jewishness, and to expand and broaden their ideas of what a Jewish story and Jewish experience can be.”
The stories in The Best Place on Earth encompass many different characters and perspectives. Tsabari says that in her “migration and reinvention,” she finds herself in other cultures, claiming them – particularly from the time she spent in India. Indeed, her stories take place in India, Israel and Canada, and encompass characters from teens struggling with their army service to backpackers in India, from young parents debating whether to circumcise their baby to a Filipina caretaker who is inspired by the elderly woman she cares for to make herself invisible when the immigration police arrive, to a couple who had once been lovers and are now with other partners but find a way to come together in the face of tragedy, after a bomb goes off in a Jerusalem café minutes after they had left the place.
In “The Poets in the Kitchen Window,” a young Mizrahi boy tells his sister he has stopped writing poetry. She asks why and he says, “Name one Mizrahi poet.” Her answer: “Maybe that’s exactly why you should write. Ever think about that?” Despite the fact that their mother is hospitalized for mental illness, they continue to play their game of finding metaphors in the ordinary things around them – smells in the kitchen, the look of the clouds, sunset. The sister then brings her brother a volume of poetry by Baghdad-born Israeli poet Ronny Someck.
Of her writing, Tsabari says, “I am comfortable with multiple identities and languages and places I call home,” while at the same time feeling a longing for Israel.
She describes her missing the country as something that “pinches at my heart – tzovet b’lev. I still long for Israel all the time; that’s why I write about this as much as I do. Though pretty much everything that I write is about Israel... the longing for a place, sense of being away, is a very Jewish theme. I don’t think it occurred to me as I was writing.
“In retrospect – everything that I am is in my content, my themes and my style.”