Judith Katzir on the lives of Israeli women, both real and imagined
Judith Katzir’s second novel, Dearest Anne—published in Israel in 2003 and newly available in English—is written in the form of letters from a young girl named Rivi Shenhar to Anne Frank. The letters are rife with intimate details of Rivi’s discoveries and indiscretions, as she navigates the eighth grade, reads voraciously, and explores her sexuality—notably through a passionate, scandalous love affair with her married literature teacher, Michaela. They’re also richly descriptive of the particulars of Israeli life in the 1970s.
Since her first book, a group of four novellas titled Closing the Sea, was published in Israel in 1990, when she was twenty-six, Katzir has been deliberately building on the relatively new tradition of women writing in Hebrew. Now with seven books to her name, she’s working on one based on the handwritten memoirs of her great-grandmother, who moved to Palestine from Russia in 1906, and eventually settled in Tel Aviv—where she lived in an unconventional communal arrangement with her husband, their five children, and her lover (a vegetarian fascinated by world religions who was nearly ten years her junior).
Katzir was born in Haifa and today lives in Tel Aviv, where she works as a literary editor and teaches creative writing.
Until about twenty years ago, Hebrew literature was pretty much dominated by men. How did you experience this, and how does it relate to your work?
When I was in school, we studied mostly male writers. Maybe we read two stories by women, and a few poems. We had the male canon, but I had to find my own subversive canon of women’s literature, translated from other languages. It was a strange concoction of high literature like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Marguerite Duras, and things like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Anne Frank was a very, very important model for me: She was not only a woman writer, she was a girl writer.
It was important for me not just to read about women’s experience, but to create a portrait of a female artist for myself. Even when I wrote my first stories, in my early twenties, there were very few women writers active in the literature scene here. There was the first book of Orly Castel-Bloom [the story collection Not Far From the Center of Town], and we studied Amalia Kahana-Carmon’s stories in school. In the ’80s, she said that if Hebrew literature is a synagogue, the part of the women is behind a curtain. But now I believe that women writers have built a parallel synagogue for themselves.
Since you didn’t really have female writers as role models, did you feel like you were doing something new?
Yes. Critics said Closing the Sea included the first description of female orgasm in Hebrew literature. I had new areas to explore, and I felt I was among the first to explore them: the feminine body, the aging body, sexuality, relationships between women, mothers and daughters, relationships between men and women. For me, it’s very important to be an insider witness for these topics that are quite new to Hebrew literature.
Was it shocking for people when that kind of writing by women first came out in Israel?
Feminism in the U.S. developed in the late ’60s, early ’70s. I think in Israel we’re about twenty years behind. A Room of One’s Own was translated in the beginning of the ’80s, along with Doris Lessing and a few others. But gender studies in universities started maybe less than ten years ago. So we are behind. But people were quite open to reading such literature. My first collection was a great bestseller here, which is very rare for a collection of stories, and for the first book of a very young woman.
That book was not feminist per se, though the four main characters are all women. They aren’t political stories; they deal with other subjects, like the memory of the Holocaust. The first novella is about two cousins, ages thirteen and fourteen, who spend their summer at their grandparents’ house in Haifa. Their grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and the cousins go to the attic and play “Anne Frank and Peter in Hiding.” Another one of my stories is about a mother and daughter; another about two friends from childhood, and what happens to their friendship when they are in their thirties.
Your work also brings to life historical women writers who haven’t gotten a lot of attention, like Dvora Baron. What attracted you to Baron, and made you decide to write a play about her?
I found her life story much more fascinating than her stories, actually. Her father was a rabbi, and he let her get an education like her brother. And at the age of sixteen, she moved with her brother from their tiny village to Minsk, and studied there, and started to write and publish stories in Yiddish and Hebrew. In 1911, she arrived in Palestine. She met the editor of one of the workers’ magazine—she edited the literature part of the magazine—and they got married and had one daughter. In 1920, she discovered that her brother Benjamin had died in Russia, and she decided not to leave the house anymore. For thirty-five years, until her last day, she was in the house, most of the time in bed. She wrote her stories in bed. Her daughter was an epileptic and never sent to school, and she became a kind of servant for her mother.
Baron was a very difficult personality, very clever and egocentric. The play is about the relationship between her and her daughter; the main character is actually the daughter. It takes place on the day of Baron’s death, and is based on the daughter’s flashbacks.
You mentioned that Anne Frank was an early influence on you, and she’s a very strong presence in your writing. How did you first come across her?
In the ’60s and ’70s, when I was a child, many of my friends’ parents were Holocaust survivors. My father’s parents arrived from Poland before the war, but many of their relatives were murdered in Auschwitz. I’m not a second-generation Israeli, but in many ways my generation is a second generation, because we knew many elderly people who had a blue number. But the subject was hushed. They were post-traumatic, and they wanted to protect the children by not telling them about what happened.
We experienced the Holocaust as a big secret, with many images that we didn’t understand. Every year there was a ceremony in school for Yom Hashoah, with the same speeches and the same songs. It was stiff, not personal. Now young people, when they are sixteen or seventeen, go to Poland to see the camps. But we didn’t; young people had to play macabre games in order to control their anxiety about the subject.
So my first real acquaintance with it was through Anne Frank’s diary. It’s a very good introduction to the Holocaust for young people, because she wrote about life in hiding, about the fear, the claustrophobia, but she never wrote about the hunger and disease and death in the camps. Most of the time, her point of view is very optimistic. But still, I knew she was murdered, so it gave me my first knowledge about life destroyed. For me personally, she was very important as an icon of a writing girl, and for all the victims she symbolized. But in Dearest Anne, it was important to take her off the pedestal and relate to her humanity.
The character of Rivi Shenhar appears in both Dearest Anne and your earlier novel Matisse Has the Sun in His Belly. How did she develop over the years?
The two novels are like two pillars of the same house. When I started to write Dearest Anne, I didn’t know it was going to be about the same Rivi. It was important to me that the reader experience the story from the perspective of the young character, without moral judgment. So I decided to write it in present tense, as a diary of what happened to this young girl every day. Then I thought about Anne Frank as an icon, an address for this character, who decides that she’s the fictional Kitty. Kitty doesn’t have a biography or a face, so every girl can decide that she’s Kitty. She’s only a silhouette. I started to see that this was the same soul as Rivi from my previous novel, and I decided it was going to be her, in a different part of her life. She’s a sort of alter ego, but there are differences as well.
In her afterword to the English translation of Dearest Anne, Hannah Ovnat-Tamir writes that the book reminded her of “growing up and coming of age in a time of great historical and national importance.” Was this something you had a sense of when you were growing up?
Yes, but in the book most of the important nation-building issues are in the background. What’s much more important to Rivi is her relationship to her family, and her relationship with Michaela. It’s an alternative way to look at Israeli history. What’s important for most people were issues like the peace process. But for a young girl, what’s important is her world.
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