Torn between worlds

An Israeli-American’s debut novel explores the nuances and complexities of a conflicted teenager in Israel.

THREE ISRAELI teenagers forge a special bond, but a looming draft date dares to tear them apart (photo credit: REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)
THREE ISRAELI teenagers forge a special bond, but a looming draft date dares to tear them apart
(photo credit: REUTERS/SUHAIB SALEM)
Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s first novel, Sadness is a White Bird, is an amazingly engaging peek at that magical time during late adolescence when friendships can suddenly blossom into unexpectedly intense intimacies and surprising revelations.
Jonathan, a sweet, melancholy Jewish kid just finishing high school, accidentally meets two friends – Laith and Nimreen, who are twins – and his life is turned upside down.
Laith and Nimreen are Israeli Palestinians – non-religious college students caught up in the protest movements of their people. The three of them spend endless ecstatic hours walking the beach laughing uproariously at things only the three of them seem to find funny. They enjoy late nights out smoking pot and sharing family secrets, while chatting in Hebrew and Arabic, which all three are fluent in. Nimreen, who Jonathan is smitten with, shares poetry with him; mostly the work of Mahmoud Darwish; who challenges Jonathan’s world vision.
Jonathan was born in Israel but grew up in the United States in a mostly non-Jewish suburb of Ohio that left a bitter taste in his mouth, along with memories of antisemitic slights delivered repeatedly with a politeness that irked him. He dreamed of going back to Israel with his parents, and they did; a year before Jonathan was to enter the IDF, with dreams of becoming a paratrooper. When a love affair finally erupts with Nimreen, Jonathan is torn between his love for her and his plan to join the army, each now seeming at odds with the other.
I had worried that my feelings toward this novel would be colored by my readings of Rothman-Zecher’s political writings on his blog, The Leftern Wall. He seemed so obsessed with understanding “the Other” and so uninterested in historical context or the harsh reality of ongoing antisemitism around the world. A dual American-Israeli citizen who grew up in Ohio, he came to Israel in 2012 and refused to enter the IDF, earning him a month in a military jail. On his blog, he has described himself as “an Arabic-speaking left-wing activist, and when I write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, my aim is to bolster the struggle against Other- blindness in general – which facilitates violence – and Palestinian-blindness.”
My fear was that Sadness is a White Bird, which is clearly autobiographically based, would be an extension of his political writings, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Somehow, Rothman-Zecher has been able to unleash himself through fiction to explore deeper and more complicated truths. His book is an engaging and emotionally moving meditation that conveys the complexities of Israeli and Palestinian life with passion, nuance and tenderness – and without the amnesia that often laces his blog regarding the suffering of his own people now and throughout time.
The main character, Jonathan, who seems in so many ways a reflection of the author himself, is upset by the inability his friends Nimreen and Laith to understand his need to join the Israeli army. He is bothered by their failure to grasp “that I didn’t want to leave this land, that my soldier dream was the fourth member of our group, following the three of us wherever we went waiting silently around corners, grinning under piles of cactus, its eyes sockets filled with gleaming light as it crawled between the words of the poems.”
Jonathan attempts to make Nimreen understand that joining the army was something he had always dreamed about, and tries to assure her he will be able to hold on to his moral scruples that insist he would never harm innocent Palestinian civilians. He tells himself with the assuredness that can only accompany youth, “I was usually skeptical when other Israelis spoke about Arabs. I was a discerning soldier; ears always perked, eyebrows always raised. Almost always, at least.”
But his army training brings him into a new world of thought and closeness with his army buddies that he did not anticipate. He feels torn between his love for them; his desire to please his parents and grandfather; and Nimreen, who has pulled away from him since he made his decision. We watch his innocence slip away and gruesome realities intervene.
We hear his growing irritation and bewilderment about why Nimreen can’t seem to understand the slightest thing about Jewish history or suffering; she is mired in her entrenched view that she and her people are being mercilessly oppressed. He wants her to understand. He wants to be able to love her. He does love her.
At a protest movement staged by Palestinians that gets out of hand, Jonathan is called upon by his superior to shoot tear gas into a crowd and does – accidentally seriously injuring Laith – and his world disintegrates into near madness.
He finds himself in a military prison nearly catatonic while a guard encourages him to eat and drink. He is lost in waves of thought that haunt him and seem to keep bouncing into one another. There are moments when all he can see is Nimreen’s majestic face; the magic that was always present in her eyes. He thinks back about the night when she hugged him tightly and told him the 26 Arabic synonyms for the word love.
But there are other times when Nimreen fades away and he remembers the stories his beloved grandfather told him as he grew up. About how his grandfather came to Palestine during the 1930s as an 18-yearold from Salonica, Greece to work as a stevedore. He left behind his brother Jacko, who was in love and refused to join him, and his parents. They would all die in Auschwitz.
He remembers his grandfather’s pride when he would recall how he fought for the Jewish state; first in the Hagana, then finally becoming part of the elite force of the Palmah where he took part in liberating Jewish refugees who were being held in a British detention camp in Atlit. He thinks back to his grandfather’s bitter recollections of living in Salonica; the trauma he experienced when the Greeks burned down the Jewish neighborhood of Bos del Pueblo; the antisemitism that surrounded him as a young boy. His grandfather joined a local Zionist group as a teenager and eventually left for Palestine. He hears his grandfather at night whispering in his ear: “There are only two sides, Yonatan: us and everyone else.”
Jonathan went to Salonica shortly before entering the army to see for himself what was left of his grandfather’s world. He remembers feeling startled by the response he got from the locals in Salonica when he identified himself as an Israeli. There was a visceral distaste directed at him along with lectures about Israeli aggression. Nothing had changed. The hate was still present; only the vocabulary was different. People declared they had nothing against Jews, but “Zionism” was intolerable.
He wanted to tell them about his grandfather; but he said nothing and returned home.
Still, on other nights in his cell, all he can see is Nimreen; her long legs; the ring in her eyebrow that so titillated him; the magic of the moments they shared in her dorm room where a strange orange light was always glowing. And he thinks about Laith, whom in some ways he loved as much as Nimreen, and is tortured by what has transpired. He feels trapped inside his own head, certain there is no escape route for him anywhere.
Rothman-Zecher is an incredibly talented young writer who is not yet 30. He has shown a fearlessness and vulnerability on these pages that speak to his ability to explore difficult terrain without feeling the need to draw any neat or concise conclusions. That is the gray matter of great fiction.
It shuns certainty and is open, nuanced, inconclusive and often contradictory. Just like Israeli reality.