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Dorit Sasson's Top 4 Memorable Memoirs

Wednesday, June 22, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dorit Sasson described the self-imposed silence she learned to break in writing her memoir Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Going through transformational, life-altering events certainly changes a person, but when it comes to writing these events in the form of a memoir, one has to know how to ground the reader in the story.

Transformation isn’t only for immigrants like myself who typically experience displacement, but for showing any kind of change or growth—cultural, psychological, or emotional. To read just immigrant memoirs would be to ignore the other voices of change. “Not everything that is faced can be changed,” James Baldwin observed. “But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

In Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the young narrator travels back and forth in time from her current Pacific Crest Trail experience to memories of girlhood to find her soul. She struggles to understand her mother’s death at the onset of her journey, not fully understanding that those dramatic moments will give voice to her higher self. Each time I “traveled” with Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Crest Trail, I started to think about ways to translate the cultural, emotional and social obstacles into story material. My character would need to undergo some kind of transformation. As an IDF female immigrant, how would that cultural transformation show up in my story? To show that transformation, I had to go back to the beginning, to where the story started—in New York City. I had to get in touch with that eighteen-year-old again.

Gabrielle Selz and I grew up in the same building known as Westbeth in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York City so our parents already had many things in common. Her memoir Unstill Life tells the story of a daughter of a larger-than-life father known as Mr. Modern Art, curator of the Museum of Modern Art, and her relationship to a world where the boundary between art and life is often blurred. For Selz’s parents, art always came first and children were regarded as “side dishes.” Selz understands that her relationship with parents, especially with her father, is anything but traditional; as she comes to terms with her father’s relationship, she struggles to figure out her purpose in life and whether following in her father’s footsteps in the art world is part of that journey.

Another memoir that particularly spoke to me is Karen Levy’s My Father’s Gardens tells the story of a native-born Israeli who tries to find a sense of home and connection while traveling for most of her childhood and young adult life between her native Israel and equally familiar United States. She feels uprooted most of the time. Karen is also a native-born Israeli woman who ends up serving in the Israel Defense Forces and soon after, travels back and forth between both countries. She, too, has a complicated relationship with her mother as she seeks to escape her for more positive experiences, and it was edifying to study how she handled the cultural-psychological journey of learning to become her own person in her writing as I began to chronicle a parallel path.

Lastly, I’d be remiss to neglect The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah, in which Joel Chasnoff describes his immigration to Israel from an Ivy League with the intention of serving in a high combat unit in the IDF. Chasnoff serves in a high combat unit in South Lebanon, and uses military slang and humor as his way of adjusting to this new militaristic mentality. Chasnoff’s memoir is largely an American-Jewish memoir.

For the past twenty-three years I had lived the events of my Israel Defense Forces service in my head, but I still needed to figure out the best way to tell the story. When I read the memoirs of others, I started imagining myself in their stories. These memoirs gave me “permission” to write about the challenges of my service as a female immigrant at a time when there were no programs for lone soldiers.

These memoirs would quickly become my good friends. These memoirs helped me find my way home.

Dorit Sasson writes for a wide range of print and online publications and speaks at conferences, libraries, and community centers. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her memoir Accidental Soldier through the JBC Network.

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Breaking the Self-Imposed Silence

Monday, June 20, 2016 | Permalink

Dorit Sasson is the author of Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

A few months ago, I emailed an old friend hoping she’d host me for the book tour for my book Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces while I visit Israel with my family for the first time in five years. Two emails later, she mentioned that no one from the English teachers at the school where I once worked would really care about my story.

Once the sting had dissolved, I realized that my friend had just illuminated why I couldn’t have written my IDF memoir during the eighteen years I lived in Israel: I never felt I had a voice.

Each time I tried downloading a scene from my IDF service in Israel, a voice would try and stop me. You’re no longer a nineteen-year-old trying to prove to your Israeli father that you can become your own person. But the issues would go much deeper than that. I didn’t feel that what I did by leaving my mother and New York City was important. On one base in 1991, I’d written, “I know from all these experiences that I’ve got a story inside me I need to write one day.” But that “one day” would be almost twenty-five years later.

During all that time, I played it safe by hiding behind my American identity. From the moment I got inducted in the IDF, I was preoccupied with trying to be an Israeli. I would rarely use English, choosing to speak in Hebrew when managing a classroom and teaching English as a foreign language to Israeli schoolchildren. I was afraid to be rejected by my Israeli peers if I tried to be an individual, but deep inside I was yearning to express myself beyond the “survive and thrive” mode.

The closest I ever got to revealing a vulnerable side happened at a teacher’s meeting many years after the army. I had showcased how many of my students had come full-circle by learning to analyze American literature. I cross-paralleled their growth with my own personal breakthroughs, only to encounter dead silence by the other teachers. No one responded or asked questions. I even got a few quizzical looks and glares. It felt lonely.

That experience reminded me that no matter how hard I tried to be accepted, my individual story didn’t carry much weight. I’d have to stick with the wolf pack mentality if I wanted to make it in Israel. “I now understand that living in Israel requires a group mentality,” I include in my memoir. “Israelis thrive in groups in a way that Americans do not. Where Americans take pride in their individuality, Israelis don’t strive to be singled out – they prefer the cohesion of the whole, whether in military, religious, or secular life. They’ve earned their reputation for traveling in “wolf packs” because they tend to hang out in largish groups.”

The day finally came when I finally decided to time-travel to that period in 1990, when I decided to leave New York City forever. It was 2012, and I was five years back in the United Sates, finally mustered the courage to write about a difficult time in which I sought to prove to my Israeli father I could be my own person, away from Mom’s fears and paranoia about the Middle East.

I thought I had conquered my former anxieties once and for all when I moved back to the States, but in fact each time I wrote I felt vulnerable, scared and naked. I connected with writing groups online and in-person in my hometown to validate that part of my identity which ushered in that individuality. I could still survive and thrive in my new American home; I’d just have to switch mental and emotional gears. I didn’t have to try so hard to win over a bunch of Israelis anymore.

Over the two-and-a-half years it took to write the memoir from start to finish, I learned one important thing: the fear of writing my memoir would never go away. I would have to drum up enough will power if I wanted to take ownership. To give voice to my memoir, I needed to feel safe and emotionally supported.

Dorit Sasson writes for a wide range of print and online publications and speaks at conferences, libraries, and community centers. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her memoir Accidental Soldier through the JBC Network.

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