by Haviva Ner-David
Bedazzled Ink Publishing, 240 pp.
Reviewed by Janice Weizman
One of the more contentious issues for fiction writers today is the notion that it is unethical to assume that one can effectively portray a person from a race, religion, gender, heritage, or culture that is not one's own. After all, the logic goes, literature is filled with books by writers who tried and got it wrong, or if not exactly wrong, they created characters that say more about the author's fantasies or wishes or prejudices than what it's really like to carry the identity of the character in question. The current working assumption posits that a writer can only speak with authority if what she is saying is the product her own lived experience and identity. Anything else is appropriation.
From that perspective, it seems audacious, or even foolhardy, to do what Haviva Ner-David, an American-born "post-denominational" Rabbi and author of three memoirs, has done in her first novel, Hope Valley. The book depicts a relationship between two middle-aged women: Tikvah, an American/Israeli Jew, and Ruby, an Israeli Arab. Ner-David tells the story of their connection through both women's voices, unflinchingly reckoning with the complexities of the past, and portraying a vision of uneasy reconciliation and co-existence for the future.
Set in the year 2000, Tikvah, an artist afflicted with MS, lives in the agricultural village of Sapir in the lower Galilee, where she and her husband, Alon, make a living renting rooms to tourists. While walking in the nearby hills with her dog, she meets Ruby, also an artist, who is struggling with terminal cancer. Following a successful career in the US, Ruby has recently returned to her village of Bir al-Demue, which is situated across the valley from Sapir (both locations are fictional).
The 1948 Nakba figures largely in Ruby's family history. Following the destruction of his village and exile to Lebanon, her father, Jamal, returned to build a life in Bir al-Demue. The book delves deep into Jamal's story, including excerpts from the diary he kept as a young man in the months leading up to the war. When Tikvah and Ruby meet, it transpires that Tikvah and Alon's home is the sole remaining structure of Jamal's old village, and it was within its walls that Jamal hid his diary. Ruby befriends Tikvah in the hope of getting a chance to search for and retrieve it.
In Tikvah, Ner-David has created a character not often seen in Israeli literature: the Anglo Israeli, who has immigrated not out of a need for refuge or freedom from persecution, but out of a search for a certain kind of meaning. Like other immigrants from prosperous English-speaking countries, Tikvah has brought with her a belief in the value of fairness, the possibility of co-existence and a lack of familiarity with the underlying cultural norms and codes of the Middle East.
While Tikvah, as an American Jew who came to Israel partly to escapes the stifling atmosphere of home, (both of her parents are holocaust survivors), has only a partial understanding of the events that lead to the creation of the state, Ruby and her family live their tragedy on a daily basis, the sight of their family home, now Tikvah's, visible from their window. When the two first meet, Ruby feels a powerful antagonism toward Tikvah:
Again, Ruby held herself back from attacking this woman, who could just step off a plane and get Israeli citizenship because she is Jewish, while Ruby's father's family who were born here but had fled to Lebanon after the village was destroyed in 1948, could not even return, let alone become Israeli citizens.
It is here, in the sections written through Ruby's point of view, that Ner-David faces the challenge which, according to prevailing attitudes about characterization, she cannot possibly meet authentically or fairly. Ner-David is clearly well aware of the problem, as she confronts it head on in her Amazon author page:
I think I knew that the best way to make the story come alive would be to try stepping into Ruby's shoes. But I did not know if I could manage it. It was a challenging task …Hope Valley is not a one-sided novel. It is told from both women's points of view, because that is one message I am hoping to impart: that there are two parallel narratives that can sit side-by-side, and can merge to create a shared peaceful narrative moving forward.
As a means of storytelling, the parallel narrative concept works well, enabling Ner-David to present a complicated story from opposing angles. The novel embraces the complexity of the Israeli-Arab conflict, while suggesting that dialogue and recognition of the other's pain is the only constructive way forward.
What is particularly interesting here is Ner-David’s treatment of the relationship between the two women. Ruby and Tikvah aren’t exactly “friends” in the usual sense, as their connection is seasoned with caution, moments of skepticism, and a reckoning with the question of whether a real friendship is even possible. However, the novel suggests that what is possible is form of empathy rooted in an acknowledgment of what it means to struggle—with the inherited narratives of the past, and with the resulting grievances. This understanding is compounded by the fact that both women are suffering from terminal illnesses—which ultimately leads to a different and more powerful form of mutual understanding. If this sounds somewhat idealized, it is to Ner-David’s credit that it nonetheless rings true.
One of the ways that writers deal with the problem of representing the "other" is by giving the manuscript to a "sensitivity reader," to read it for accuracy and authenticity. Ner-David explains that she gave the manuscript of Hope Valley to a Palestinian-Israeli friend, Nadia Mahmud Giol, who wrote this about it:
With her unique sensitivity and open heart, Haviva succeeds in describing and humanizing in a balanced and accurate manner the complex reality of two peoples sharing the same piece of sacred land, and each bringing to it a world and its fullness. Without encounters like Haviva brings alive in this book, Palestinian and Jewish Israelis will never be able to see each other as human beings, for each lives with their own painfully true story.
Literarily speaking, the novel is somewhat disappointing in the unfolding of the narrative, as it comes to hinge on a series of unlikely co-incidences. Whether this constitutes a flaw is up to the individual reader, but ultimately the improbable plot turns serve to reinforce the book's theme of connection and shared humanity. Late in the novel Tikvah reflects on her own journey of awakening about the history of her adopted homeland:
Tikvah had been full of faith in life back then, but she had also been too trusting. Naïve, even. She had been so hungry for truth, she had swallowed it down too eagerly, without inquiry or doubt.
‘Since meeting Ruby, I see that it's not that simple, that it never was.’ She thought of the diary of Jamal and Marie. ‘I don't want to live in the dark anymore.’
Perhaps, this book seems to say, reconciliation begins with resolutions like these.