On the run

Ayelet Tsabari’s memoir explores a young Israeli woman constantly on the run – until she manages to stop fleeing.

(photo credit: JONATHAN BLOOM)
Some of us are born lucky enough to feel grounded with an innate sense of who we are. Love, friends and the world seem to embrace us and carry us forward. Others are not so fortunate.
Ayelet Tsabari found herself in the less-blessed group. She admits that she was an ill-tempered child, prone to fits of anger and rage. She was raised near Tel Aviv and was one of many grandchildren of Yemenite grandparents who came to what would soon be Israel during the 1930s. They struggled to fit in.
Somehow it seems easier to tell you about Ayelet Tsabari by telling you what she isn’t. She is not a phony, but she does enjoy assuming different identities when the mood suits her and is drawn to theatrics. She grew up with her both parents and five siblings in a loving family where she attended school and had intense friendships and her first infatuations with boys.
She loved her father deeply and believes that his untimely death – when she was only 10 – destroyed any hope that she might have harbored for a happy future. She was devastated. Her father was a lawyer who wrote poetry occasionally and encouraged her to write; something she felt already inclined to do.
When he came home from the hospital after experiencing his first heart attack, she held her breath for as long as she could hoping to change the inevitable, but he was soon taken back to the hospital where he later died. Her mother, whom Tsabari always felt was emotionally remote, was left with six children to raise on her own.
Tsabari writes about her father’s death with stark recall: “That moment, crystallized in my memory through the fog of grief will be the fork in the road where my future splits into two; what could have happened had he lived and what happened because he didn’t and as I grow up, I will try to live as wildly and loudly as I can to outdo the enormity of the moment, to diminish it.”
But we don’t really believe her. Tsabari spent her 20s and early 30s roaming the globe, doing drugs and having love affairs that imploded as fast as they ignited. She gave little serious consideration to her behavior or its effect on those whom she left at home, and kept moving as if movement itself would provide some sort of magical antidote to the alienation that engulfed her.
Days disappeared into months and finally years. There was no grand plan other than not to have one.
She struggles explaining her rationale to us: “Leaving is the only thing I know how to do,” she wrote. “That seemed to be the one stable thing in my life. The ritual of picking up, throwing out or giving away the little I have, packing and taking off. That was what home had become.”
Unlike the blame, regret, angst and projected rage and shame that fills up the pages of countless memoirs, Tsabari speaks of her father’s death as if this event and her proclamation about it alone could possibly explain her extended and reckless demise. It just doesn’t make sense. We don’t understand what she is hiding. Or really what she is running from. Or why she refuses to grow up.
BUT THERE is something in the provocativeness of her narrative voice which keeps us waiting for something to pop. There are guys that stay a little longer. And guys that come back. And always lots of drugs.
She travels from Manhattan to Toronto to Vancouver to Arizona and finally to India where she lays scantily dressed upon huge rocks while tripping on acid. There is no mention of pleasure or ecstasy or delight. Or even hints of hope for love. Most of the time, it really doesn’t matter where she is because her mind is nowhere.
She has shut herself down. She has exiled herself into a nether land of sorts where she is immune to the real dangers that surround her. When she thinks of Israel, the memories that stand out are from her days in the Israeli army when she got into trouble a lot, had her first serious love affairs, and took a perverse pleasure in the latent danger and drudgery that smeared everything around her.
Soon enough, Tsabari’s body starts to break down. She begins to have fainting spells and bouts of excessive itchiness, but ignores these warning signs and takes off again.
We never really get to understand the genesis and the prolonged persistence of her prolonged depression, but just as we are about to abandon her, she starts to come up for air. It is shaky at first, but there are glimmers of change, even hope.
She meets a sweet man while in Canada and they marry and have a daughter. Becoming a mother terrifies her, but she tows the line. Her husband encourages her to write and she begins to take classes at a local college. The introspection that she put on lockdown over a decade ago starts to rumble and she is forced to reassess many of her earlier choices. She writes about her earlier self as if she is already estranged from whom she once was.
“I was so young and short-sighted then that I was oblivious to the repercussions these choices – or rather my refusal to make them, my debilitating indecisiveness – might have on my later life,” she wrote. “Leaving, I discovered, did not cure my displacement, but rather reinforced it... I believed I could try other places on, the way one slips into outfits at a clothing store, and if none fit, I could always go back to my starting points as if nothing happened. I thought everything at home would be waiting for me, unchanged.”
SHE FEELS sorrow at all she has lost. She starts reconnecting with her mother; at first on the phone. They discuss her mother’s Yemenite recipes, which she wants to make for her husband. Now a mother, she thinks for the first time what it must have been like for her own mother to have been widowed so young and left with so many children. She visits her mother and grandmother in Israel and is welcomed back into the fold.
She spends time with her grandmother asking her about what it was like to be a Jew in Yemen growing up back then. Her grandmother, well over 90, tells her about the way Jewish women were treated. How they were not permitted to read or write or study or pray, and how men ruled the roost. She tells her how Jewish men were not allowed to carry guns or ride horses and how their homes had to be built smaller than those of their Muslim neighbors.
She grapples with her love affair with Israel, both passionate and critical, recognizing that the way her family was treated when they arrived, and how for years afterward played a crucial role in her own estrangement from all that was going on around her.
“Growing up, I had often felt out of place in my country, a feeling I couldn’t comprehend or name until much later. It had to do with my father; grief shakes the foundations of your home, unsettles and banishes you. It might have also had something to do with not seeing myself in literature and in the media, with being taught in school a partial history about the inception of Israel that painted us as mere extras. Or perhaps that failed sense of belonging was an Israeli predicament, because how does one feel at home when home is unsafe, forever contested? When the fear or losing it is so entrenched it has become part of our ethos?”
Tsabari never felt attractive as a little girl or as a young woman. She mostly felt ashamed of her Arab-like appearance and disliked her dark skin and wide hips and her substantial rear end. As she begins to explore these feelings which she has long suppressed, she recognizes that she feels differently now and sees a beauty in her Jewish Yemenite relatives that entices her.
“My aunts’ faces are a variation of my mother’s, like artwork that was reproduced with slight modifications,” she wrote. “They are all beautiful and weary, their skin marked with years of raising many children, of cooking and cleaning and shopping and breastfeeding. Despite their hardships, their beauty only seems to deepen with the years. I wish I had inherited the good looks from my maternal family instead of their sulk and bad temper.”
But what she doesn’t see yet is that she looks just like them.
If Tsabari had any religious inclinations, she would most likely be convinced that her new life as wife, mother and writer is nothing short of some sort of miraculous intervention. It is hard not to believe that there wasn’t some sort of enchanted force at play that brought this distraught young woman back to a life of such fruitful engagement. She is a beautifully gifted and inventive writer and a postmodern electricity laces her narrative.
There are no tidy endings and danger still lurks. But somehow she seems to convince us that she has finally made it through to the other side.