Many readers around the world were stricken with a deep sense of loss at the death of Ronit Matalon in 2017 at the age of fifty-eight. A beloved professor of Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University, Matalon was the daughter of Egyptian immigrants to Israel whose struggles inspired her fictional portrayals of Mizrahi immigrant and feminist experiences. She published nine novels in her lifetime, including the highly acclaimed The One Facing Us and The Sound of Our Steps. In his eulogy, President Reuven Rivlin praised both her literary voice and her encouragement to younger writers: “She was a wonderful author whose books sounded a clear, original and determined feminine and Mizrahi voice” who “gave rise to a whole generation of authors and literary scholars.” The day before her death, she won the prestigious Brenner Prize for her final work, And the Bride Closed the Door, praised by the committee for exposing the “deep inner structures of Israeli society, the existential tensions of being Israeli, and questions pertaining to the definition of individual identity” all “dealt with brilliantly and light-handedly.”
Given that its action unfolds over a single day in a small apartment, And the Bride Closed the Door often feels as claustrophobic and rancorous as Israeli society itself; after the titular bride, Margalit or Margie locks herself in her mother’s bedroom hours before 500 guests are expected at her wedding. Chaos ensues. That essentially sums up the plot of this largely character-driven novella. This story (beautifully translated by Man Booker International Prize winner Jessica Cohen), is brimming with wise and compassionate commentary on a plethora of concerns: culturally-imposed gender roles, the role of public and private memory, and the dysfunctions that drive families apart. Above all, it deals with the secret inner lives of her cast of characters.
Arguably the most humorous of her works, Matalon’s farcical treatment of the Israeli wedding industry offers sly commentary on how fraught marriages have become in the Jewish State, as if the entire Zionist enterprise would grind to a halt were one bride to suddenly resist. In the end, the social and ideological forces swirling around them seem to imprison each of the family members as much as the bride on the other side of the door has trapped herself.
Throughout the family’s mounting pleas and threats, Margie stubbornly keeps her silence, with the sole exception of a scrawled note containing a famous Lea Goldberg poem, “The Prodigal Son.” Or not quite — as the original was written in the masculine Hebrew tense, and the version that appears has been voiced in the feminine. The ensuing struggle over the cryptic missive’s meaning leads to even more consternation and uproar among the battling family members. Oddly, the more frenzied their efforts to force Margie into the open, the more her bewildered fiancée Matti expresses solidarity (if not understanding), with her mysterious resistance. Margie’s grandmother is another sympathetic character; though hard-of-hearing and confused, she seems to possess a preternatural understanding of Margie’s determined refusal to play her part in the social order. At one point, this matriarch’s singing of Arabic lyrics by the legendary Lebanese chanteuse Fairuz, is rendered in language that might well serve as a delicate homage to Matalon’s own feminist art.
Matalon’s posthumous speech at the Brenner Award ceremony, delivered by her daughter Talya, draws a wry parallel between her fate and that of her protagonist, the absent bride: “There is something sad yet a little bit funny in the fact that I, just like my locked-in bride, am not attending this ‘wedding’. But I hope it is clear that — just like in the novel — absence is sometimes as significant as presence and that some kind of wedding, legal, semi-legal or barely legal, is still occurring.” As knowing, sophisticated and humane as those parting words might suggest, And the Bride Closed the Door offers its readers all the more reason to mourn the loss of Matalon’s bold, uncompromising voice.
Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville and editor of the forthcoming book Amos Oz: The Legacy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.