Sadness Is a White Bird
Moriel Rothman-Zecher's debut novel begins in an Israeli military jail. The protagonist, Jonathan, ended up in jail shortly after his nineteenth birthday. It soon flashes back to his senior year of high school, when Jonathan starts hanging out with two Palestinian twins (Laith and Nimreen). The narrative weaves in and out of Jonathan's military service with his time in high school and growing up.
Basic outlines of the plot: Jonathan's family moved back to Israel after spending time in Pennsylvanian. Jonathan, nearing draft age, was excited to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF); encouraging him was his grandfather, a Greek Jew, who saw his entire community destroyed by the Nazis. But after he befriends Laith and Nimreen, his feelings on Israel and the military grow more complex. As Kirkus Reviews writes, "A passionate, poetic coming-of-age story set in a mine field, brilliantly capturing the intensity of feeling on both sides of the conflict."
The author made a conscious decision to set the story in Haifa and not Jerusalem, even though he is from Jerusalem:
For part of the book, which is set largely in and around the northern city of Haifa, the story is about a friendship between a young Jewish Israeli man, Jonathan, and two Palestinian twins, Laith and Nimreen, both citizens of Israel. Later in the book, their friendship ends up crumbling under the weight of history and politics, but still it is a friendship that at least had a chance to take root and grow into something actual and genuine. To have set such a friendship against the backdrop of modern Jerusalem would have changed the genre of this book from an attempt at realistic fiction to a work of whimsical—or delusional—fantasy.
If I'm going to be honest (and I always am here!), I disliked the book at the start, but it found its way into my heart. I felt like I had my guard up at the beginning, thinking it was going to be a super leftist book about Israel. Of course, it was more nuanced than that. Good fiction is never just black and white.
One of my favorite parts of the book was when Jonathan travels to Greece, by himself, before starting his IDF service. He starts to check in to a hostel, and the guy behind the desk asks him where he's from, and he responds Israel, and the conversation devolves. The guy at the desk accuses Zionists of being the worst people in the world, and this is what happens:
'Do you know where my grandfather was from?' I said, slowly, loudly, as if he couldn't speak English well. His English was just fine.
He didn't say anything. 'Here,' I said. 'Right here. From Salonica. And you know why he wasn't killed?'
Silence. I continued: 'I'll give you a clue. It wasn't because of the intervention of his Greek neighbors. No thanks to your grandparents, who were probably thrilled to see the Jews go. By the way, do you know who lived in your house sixty-five years ago? Or in this hostel?'
The air was spoiled pudding, slimy and rancid all around us. He was bigger than I was, and I was completely alone in Thessaloniki, Greece, and now out as being a Jew and an Israeli. Still, I couldn't stop.
You feel the tension, you feel the idealism, you feel the weight of history... Moriel Rothman-Zecher magnificently weaves all these strands of Jewish identity together.