When I finish reading a moving memoir, I like to google the author. Sometimes, I find a writer on Facebook and we correspond. Sometimes I go to readings. Experiencing the artist beyond the constraints of her work adds depth and dimension. I hope to catch glimpses — in this expansion of text plus person — of the writer’s creative process.
I too am writing a memoir. My father was a rabbi. My two older brothers rebelled and left religion and later, died. One of cancer and one of AIDS. And then there was me, the third son. At twenty I was a rabbi in training; the youngest child “making it right”, as my mother said. In my thirties I was a moderate and a questioner who saw religion, and life in general, in shades of gray; maybe I was trying to reduce the gap between myself and my brothers. At forty I denounced religion and religiousness in every way possible; I’m not sure why exactly.
At fifty I realized that when you grow up within a religious construct; home, community–it stays with you for life. Leaving doesn’t help; the skeleton inside you remains religious. Although I aim to be a secular Jew, “formerly-religious” really describes me better.
When I think about the changes in my life–Orthodox by upbringing, more pious by education, living in Baltimore, New York, Israel, married, one dead brother, another dead brother, divorced, not practicing Orthodoxy but still believing, married again, divorced again, no longer believing–I get dizzy and fatigued.
Writing my life-story soothes and even energizes me. In one sentence, I can be the sanctimonious, twenty-five-year-old ideologue and the forty-year old doubter. A paragraph can hold despair, hope, confusion and stillness, and still tell a coherent story. A pleasing chapter reveals harmony where previously I saw chaos.
But I struggle with important questions about writing.
I think about revealing family secrets. Do these personal details serve a purpose, or is writing them a sensationalistic airing of dirty laundry?
Harder yet is the question of why. Why am I telling my family story? Do I fancy myself as a social commentator with a warning message? If not, what is the point? Does writing about yourself make you a narcissist? Hardest of all is finding the answer to the simple, impossible question: what is the story I want to tell?
Having read a number of books on life- writing, I have gleaned some vague guidelines — which I sum up as be authentic. Unsure how to do that, I continue searching for insight.
After reading “The Book of Separation” by Tova Mirvis, a memoir about leaving Orthodoxy and leaving a marriage, I heard the author speak at a book store in Manhattan. I asked if she saw her book as the story of a personal journey, or as social commentary.
When I saw the movie “In Her Footsteps”, I felt compelled to meet its director and main character, Rana Abu Fraiha. Unlike Mirvis and I–who are both divorced, formerly, Orthodox American Jews–Rana and I seem to have little in common. She is a twenty-seven-year-old Muslim, Israeli Arab.
Rana’s mother, Rodaina grew up in an Arab town in the north of Israel and when she married, she moved to her husband’s Bedouin town, Tel Sheva, in the Negev desert. When Rana was five years old, her family moved from Tel Sheva to Omer, an upper middle class, all-Jewish town, just down the road.
In one of the film’s scenes, Rana asked her mother about the decision to leave Tel Sheva. “I never wanted to live there. I had no independence there, I worked and came home to a prison. A woman couldn’t walk into a store. I had to wait until eleven at night, for your father to come home to bring me milk and groceries. I couldn’t live that kind of life.”
Rana’s mother was an English teacher in the school in Omer and her father an engineer in the local council. The language spoken at home was Hebrew. Rana’s brother, Amir, won the local Bible contest. The family blended in and was accepted in Omer in every way.
In scenes filmed by Rana’s father when she was a toddler, we see the Abu Fraiha family participating in the most Israeli of cultural activities, waving Israeli flags and singing traditional songs. “This land of Israel of mine is beautiful and blossoming. Who built and who planted? All of us together!”
While these lyrics are moving, the implied all-togetherness of Jews and non-Jews in Israel, is much more of a wish for the future, than an expression of today’s reality. Hearing this song sung by non-Jews, highlights the difficulty of an Arab, Muslim minority in a state that defines itself and its primary community, as Jewish, both by nationality and by religion. In the reality of this Jewish state, Arabs and Jews lead very separate, and separated lives.
When Rana’s mother Rodaina, was dying of cancer and asked to be buried in the cemetery in Omer, her request was refused. As Rana put it, her mother believed that “it was possible to live together and die together”. She was proven wrong.
Rana and I may not have much in common, but our stories do. Both are about family and coping with death. Each story has an individual, as well as, a societal layer.
I meet with Rana at a café near her home, in the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv. After I tell her how deeply her film touched me, and about the memoir I am writing, I ask how she approached the issue of disclosing private family matters.
During the two hours we speak, Rana rolls and smokes cigarette after cigarette. I have to lean across the round, sidewalk table to hear her over the street sounds and conversations around us. But when I do, the intensity in Rana’s voice makes the noises of the city fade away.
“On the one hand, it was very intimidating to think about disclosing things. But on the other hand, I felt that the more I revealed about myself and told the family story beyond the headlines, the labels — Arabs, Bedouins, living in Omer–the subtleties, like the dynamic between my parents, their fights, the difficulties that all these headlines bring into our home, the deeper I go and the more open I am… this makes the story penetrate into the heart. I knew that it was there that I wanted to go, and it was from that deep place that I could start to talk about more complex issues,” Rana says.
Revealing her family’s inner world allowed the viewer to connect to the story and enabled Rana to enter a “deep place” from which she felt able to discuss broader issues.
I tell Rana about the challenges I am facing as a memoirist. What is it really about? Is it my story, or my brothers’? Am I sharing or preaching?
Rana smiles. She faced a similar struggle.
“When we had an early version of the film, we started showing it to people to get feedback. They didn’t understand who was telling the story. Whether it was my mother’s story, my father’s story, mine? Am I reflecting, pondering? Am I inside the story? It was very frustrating.”
Rana’s editor and mentor encouraged Rana to put herself at the center of the narrative. The movie had to be about her.
“I realized that for a long time I had been avoiding diving deeply into the story. I was in therapy at the time, in analysis and my therapist suggested that I try lying on the couch in her office, rather than sitting in a chair across from her. Being on the couch, cut off from eye contact, created something else. Something that is less about my connection with the therapist and more connected to things that I want to work through with myself.”
I was struck by that idea. To figure out how to tell my personal story to others, I must figure out what I wanted to work through with myself.
“The first couple of times I tried it, lying on the couch…I couldn’t contain this thing. I was stuck in the therapy. I don’t know why. It was as if I needed the eye contact with the therapist to enable me to speak.”
During that same week, Rana was also stuck in the editing process. She was unable to make the changes needed to put herself at the center of the movie, and to clarify that which had been muddy for the early viewers.
And then one day it clicked, her analysis and her film editing started to flow.
Thanks to Rana’s openness, I see answers to my questions starting to form. Rana’s two searches–for personal insight, and for clarity in her creative process–were intertwined. Rana had to be at the center of her family’s narrative, because it is herself that the artist knows best. Self-knowledge is a prerequisite for personal narrative, and a resource.
But I still wonder what the process looks like. How does the memoir writer make decisions about anecdotes to include, themes to draw out, characters to develop?
Several times during our conversation Rana talks about the confusion she’s experienced due to her family’s multicultural reality. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Rana asks her mother about the decision to move to Omer.
“I didn’t want to raise you the like the Bedouins in the south…Even before I was married I said, I wanted God to give me daughters so I could show all the Arabs how to raise girls.”
Rana asked, “Didn’t you think we’d grow up confused?”
“We were very concerned. There were many fears and apprehensions. We were worried about criticism from our community: Arabs, Bedouins, Muslims going to live in a society of a different religion, a different nationality, language and culture, wealthy people. As opposite as it gets.”
Reflecting on this, Rana says,“At some point, while I was making the film, I realized that I am a continuation of the choices my parents made. And something inside was pushing me to have a process of separation from my mother. I felt that I needed to understand what I wanted to say; not what my mother would want me to say. As if now is my time to figure out who I am, as Rana — in the world, without my mother. It has to be my own.”
Just as Rana discovered that she could continue in her therapy from the couch, with no eye contact with her therapist, she discovered that she could define herself in the world, despite her mother’s absence.
But the circumstances of Rodaina’s death left Rana having to face something even more complex than it might have been before. Like her mother, she was not at peace with her Muslim heritage and specifically, attitudes toward women. This was reinforced by the fact that when Rodaina was buried, in her home town of Jatt (a village in northern Israel), and due to Muslim tradition, Rana, and all other females, were not allowed to attend the funeral. But on the other hand, Rana no longer felt like Omer was her town, as that very place had not allowed her mother to buried there.
Rana’s identity is made up of shades of gray. Forcing her narrative into the constraints of a script–with a beginning, middle and end, ordered scenes, background music, zooms, pans and all–obligated Rana to impose a sense of order onto her life story.
I realize that, if I am to succeed in telling my story, I too must identify the appropriate sense of order to impose on my narrative. I must identify those critical, pivotal scenes.
The first of these that came to mind was located in childhood and was a memory of violence. When I was seven, my eighteen-year-old brother, Moshe went through a tumultuous, rebellious stage. One Sunday, my parents admonished him because they’d heard that he had driven their car the day before, on Shabbat. This was in violation of the family’s Orthodox lifestyle.
My parents told Moshe that he was no longer allowed to use the car. He was outraged. He ran to the car and started the engine. When my father leaned into the car window, Moshe accelerated and dragged my father down the length of the driveway and out into the street, hanging half in, half out. My father managed to extricate himself and was not hurt, but we never discussed this incident. I grew up with the unspoken knowledge that commitment to the family’s religious standards was a matter of life and death.
In an understated, but powerful scene in “In Her Footsteps” Rana reveals a fear that she grew up with.
Rana: Mom once told me that in our family, a girl was buried alive in a well. Your cousin or something like that. Did that really happen?
Father: I think so, yes. It was an honor killing. I don’t want to know about that stuff.
Rana: Did she do something or did they make it up? Who killed her?
Father: No one knows. No one will tell.
“I grew up with the deep fear of what could happen to a woman who didn’t conform to Muslim norms. I was very scared of letting this [topic of murder] come into the movie.” But she goes on to explain why it had to be included. “This is a fear I’ve lived with since I was born. It has implications on my gendered perceptions and what I feel I can do, and what I want to do, but can not,” Rana tells me.
How interesting! Both Rana and I grew up with an unspoken knowledge that conforming to family tradition was a matter of life and death.
A waiter comes to the table and asks if we want more coffee. Rana rolls another cigarette and I have a minute to pause and think.
I remember another question I wanted to ask. “Is your movie more about family, or community?”
“I wanted to express criticism and protest via emotions and personal experience, in a way that is not as black and white as the things we are used to hearing. About the conflict, about the political injustice toward Arabs living in Israel. This discourse is normally very militant and black and white. But the reality is much more complicated,” Rana says.
Social and cultural issues are, clearly, important in Rana’s life. The Muslim community’s attitude toward women was central to her mother’s determination to move away from Tel Sheva. The small-mindedness and prejudice of Omer city officials prevented Rana’s mother from being buried in her home town. Muslim tradition prevented Rana and her sisters from attending their mother’s funeral.
Although the topic of “honor killings” is a highly disturbing social issue, that was not the justification for including it in this movie. Fear, due to a specific family story, permeated Rana’s childhood and shaped her life, and that is why this topic is essential to her story. Presenting the issue of honor killings within the context of her family’s complicated reality, makes its treatment authentic and meaningful.
I am inspired by Rana’s courage and integrity; courage to reveal, integrity to stick to her own story with no embellishment. Perhaps courage and integrity are essential ingredients in achieving authenticity.
I am curious to hear how publication of the story has affected Rana. She tells me that since the movie’s release, she has been participating in screenings all over Israel.
At an all Jewish school, a seventh-grader approaches Rana and thanks her. He had lost his mother to cancer six months earlier and felt that the movie enabled him to speak about it. “Initially, what drew me in to making this movie was my mother’s illness and the impending death…this thing touches everyone.”
At a screening to recent graduates at the mixed Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem, Arab girls are surprised and invigorated by hearing, for the first time ever, that it is possible to discuss the difficulties they face as Muslim women.
Audiences of Bedouin women are taken aback when Rana answers their questions in Hebrew because, although she understands Arabic, she does not feel fluent enough to speak in the language. And of course, they too, are enthusiastic to have a space in which they can speak openly about their lives.
“Now, during screenings I have the opportunity to speak about how we think within life-headlines, labelled boxes. The discourse on identity in Israel has been a burning issue in recent years, within Jewish society: Sephardim, Ethiopians, Russians. Raising their voice above the multitude of voices with ‘ I deserve! Ideserve what the whites have’. And, of course discourse about identity takes place within Arab society as well; I only recently started to think about my own self — am I an Israeli Arab or a Palestinian?
“But there is something shallow in how we talk about these things. There is the ‘headline’ and there is what happens when you call someone a Russian, or an Ethiopian or an Arab. There is something more complex.”
Telling a powerful, personal story has led Rana to meaningful discourse about public issues.
“The craziness we experienced during the last weeks of my mother’s life — we shouldn’t have had to experience that. It was all a kind of bullshit that came into our home — and it always comes from both sides. The moment we are put into boxes, things become more tragic than they should be.”
I have observed a similar phenomenon. The tragedies of my brothers’ illnesses and deaths, were compounded by being labelled as sons who had strayed from the family’s path.
Initially I was motivated to meet with Rana in the hope that I could learn from her creative process. Now, I am beginning to see the overlap in the themes of our life stories. I wonder if it is the authenticity of Rana’s narrative, that draws out the universality of its themes.
Unable to dig her mother a grave in Omer, Rana undertook a different kind of digging; an archaeological or rather, a geological excavation into her own self. To borrow Rodaina’s expression, Rana and I are, “As opposite as it gets”. And yet, Rana’s insights allow me to see, and grasp more profoundly, themes in my own story: the need to explore one’s identity after emerging from a family full of contradictions; the demanding imperative to place oneself at the center of a family narrative before attempting to comprehend its wider implications; the impact of growing up with a fear based in religion or culture; the way in which the tragedy of illness and death can be compounded by labelling and alienation.
The authenticity that Rana insisted on in her exploration, enabled her to reach a layer of humanity in which headlines are not relevant, a layer of humanity from which complex, universal truths are able to emerge.
I went into my meeting with Rana with the premise that seeing and hearing an artist, outside the constraints of their work, adds depth and dimension. I hoped to deepen my understanding of Rana’s story and learn about the process of creating life-stories. I came away having added depth and dimension to my own story.