A conversation with Ayelet Tsabari

Award-winning memoirist and short story writer

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Tel Aviv-based author Ayelet Tsabari burst onto the literary scene in 2016 with her prize-winning book of short stories, The Best Place on Earth. (Random House)  Her memoir, The Art of Leaving (Random House), describes what it was like growing up in a large Yemeni Jewish family in Israel, the untimely death of Tsabari's father, and Tsabari's years of wandering and eventual return to Israel. 

Q: You write about growing up in a Yemeni-Israeli community that was excluded from mainstream Israeli culture.  Are Yemeni Jews more accepted in Israel today?

A: Things are changing for the better.  A lot of people love to say [prejudice against non-Ashkenazi Jews] does not exist anymore.  I don't believe that because I believe echoes of what happened are still with us.  There is still prejudice against us….  I want more [progress] and I think it's fair to expect it at this point.

I talk a lot about Mizrahi music in my books.  That music is way more mainstream now…  I can hear it on the radio now; that was not the case when I was growing up.  It's better than it was.

You and your friends traveled the world after leaving the Israeli army.  So many Israelis leave the country after their army service--Why?

I think it's because you spend two or three years in the army so you can't do what you want: you're losing your individuality...  It makes sense that young Israelis want to travel the world and be free and let loose.  I was no exception.  But in my case, there were other causes at play…  I say in the book, when you lose a parent at a young age, you're losing your homeland a little bit, and your sense of home is fractured.  My sense of belonging wasn't as strong; that drove me to seek something else elsewhere.

In The Art of Leaving, you write about being assaulted.  Has writing about these experiences helped you to heal?

Writing about the sexual assault was very healing because it's something that I felt ashamed of so much so that I didn't tell people, even people who were close to me.  I felt guilt about it. I thought: 'Maybe I did something?  Did I bring it on myself?'  That was very important for me to write-to own it and realize that maybe it could give someone else the courage to talk about that and not feel ashamed.

My first draft [describing the assaults] was like angry diary entries.  It took a few years before I could turn it into a story.  I needed to move past that time.  

The passages where you describe your family are so moving.  At one point you describe your father as your "homeland."  How has this resonated with your readers?

Most of the people who've said this book helped them [have been] other people who dealt with grief and suddenly saw themselves in the way that I dealt with it.  One Canadian soldier wrote to me and said how much my book helped him in dealing with his own grief, his own trauma….  I show that there are many ways to grieve, there are all kinds of losses.

You wrote The Art of Leaving in English and have said you aren't sure you'd like it to be translated into Hebrew.  Why?

With this book specifically, there is something so personal that publishing it in Israel has felt a little too close to home.  Publishing it elsewhere has given me a buffer….  My siblings have read parts of it.  I'm afraid of my mom [reading it]; she's read passages from the book, but she hasn't read the whole thing yet….

When I started writing in English, I felt like a different writer.  It felt anonymous to me, and I found the anonymity of [writing in English] very exciting.

Your work focuses on Yemeni and Mizrahi Jewish communities. What would you like American Jews to know about these unique Jewish communities in Israel today?

I want them to know that Ashkenazi Judaism is not the default Jewish [experience].  I want to complicate what being Jewish means to them.  Because [Ashkenazi Judaism] is not what Judaism means to me and to many other people.  

Yvette Alt Miller, Ph.D., lives with her family in the northern suburbs of Chicago.

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