By – February 12, 2018

Rarely does one come across a debut nov­el as artis­ti­cal­ly accom­plished, polit­i­cal­ly unset­tling, and emo­tion­al­ly unflinch­ing as Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s Sad­ness Is A White Bird. A rich­ly empath­ic sto­ry of Israel and Pales­tine, his­to­ry and mem­o­ry, explored through the inti­mate bonds between young Jew­ish and Mus­lim Israelis, it offers all that one could wish for in a com­ing-of-age sto­ry. By turns humor­ous, joy­ful, melan­choly, erot­ic, and trag­ic, the author’s lumi­nous prose con­sis­tent­ly deliv­ers the cru­cial ele­ment of con­vinc­ing detail.

Though it begins and ends in a mil­i­tary prison cell, that bleak fram­ing device actu­al­ly con­tains an ebul­lient and unpre­dictable series of events. When teenage Jonathan moves back to Israel with his fam­i­ly after years of liv­ing in the Unit­ed States, he set­tles in hap­pi­ly with his Jew­ish high school friends until a chance encounter with Nim­reen and Laith — a twin girl and boy who hap­pen to be Pales­tin­ian Israelis — trans­forms his life irrepara­bly. The three form a utopi­an bond, hitch­hike from one end of the coun­try to the oth­er, share inti­mate secrets, smoke pot, and grad­u­al­ly fall in love with one anoth­er. Jonathan’s sex­u­al flu­id­i­ty is con­veyed mat­ter-of-fact­ly and per­haps that very inde­ter­mi­na­cy spurs him to com­mit oth­er trans­gres­sions, includ­ing loos­en­ing the chains of his grandfather’s sacro­sanct ideology.

As for Nim­reen and Laith, read­ers well-versed in Israeli lit­er­a­ture might won­der whether Roth­man-Zech­er intend­ed to send a sal­vo across the gen­er­a­tions by evok­ing the mys­te­ri­ous twins who pre­oc­cu­pied the secret desires of Han­nah Gonen, the unsta­ble nar­ra­tor of Amos Ozs canon­i­cal 1968 nov­el My Michael. (He insists no.) In any case, far more than fig­ments of sub­con­scious desire, these sib­lings spring to life on the page, as mem­o­rably com­plex as Jonathan him­self. This being Israel, the three inevitably argue pas­sion­ate­ly about pol­i­tics and iden­ti­ty; their raw and testy exchanges about painful real­i­ties and mis­per­cep­tions of the oth­er” con­sti­tute some of the novel’s most grip­ping moments. Yet, for a time, their shared inti­ma­cy seems inde­struc­tible. How­ev­er, the twins bit­ter­ly recoil when Jonathan decides to join the Para­troop­ers, a deci­sion part­ly inspired by his family’s own wound­ed his­to­ry in Saloni­ca, part­ly by his desire to prove him­self in a coun­try that places a supreme val­ue on mil­i­tary ser­vice. He pre­tends that noth­ing will change but of course every­thing does: My sol­dier dream was the fourth mem­ber of our group, fol­low­ing the three of us wher­ev­er we went.” While a vital source of the novel’s verisimil­i­tude is its intense explo­ration of the ten­der sol­i­dar­i­ty (and poignant illu­sions) of young sol­diers train­ing for com­bat, Sad­ness Is A White Bird adamant­ly over­turns the pop­u­lar image of the Israeli Defense Forces as the world’s most moral, humane army. Roth­man-Zech­er has lit­tle patience for the cor­ro­sive cul­ture of hypocrisy steadi­ly nur­tured by the mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion. But if this nov­el doesn’t shy from tak­ing a prin­ci­pled oppo­si­tion to Israel’s occu­pa­tion of the Pales­tin­ian ter­ri­to­ries, there is nev­er a moment that strays into sanc­ti­mo­ny, nor do polemics over­shad­ow its sheer artistry as storytelling.

With­out impos­ing a false sym­me­try, Sad­ness mem­o­rably jux­ta­pos­es two fam­i­ly tragedies; one con­cerns the killing of the broth­er of Jonathan’s grand­fa­ther in Nazi-occu­pied Greece, the oth­er the cold-blood­ed mur­der of Nim­reen and Laith’s grand­fa­ther by sol­diers in 1956. Inevitably, these dis­tant hor­rors intrude on the present. After a brief sojourn in Saloni­ca, Jonathan emerges grim­ly deter­mined to over­come his ear­li­er ambiva­lences. If once he enter­tained a naïve fan­ta­sy of rais­ing mixed Jew­ish-Arab chil­dren with Nim­reen, he now aspires only to move straight ahead, from my people’s past into my people’s future, my family’s future. I was done zigzag­ging into the pasts and presents of oth­er peo­ples, oth­er fam­i­lies.” The dam­age Jonathan’s sud­den turn inflicts on both those he loves and on his own increas­ing­ly frag­ile psy­che is dev­as­tat­ing. Yet ulti­mate­ly some­one else pays a far heav­ier price.

Roth­man-Zech­er is an accom­plished poet and his lyri­cism often shines, as when he por­trays the hor­mon­al rush of the young nar­ra­tor antic­i­pat­ing see­ing his friends: I could almost hear the watery mur­mur of the bong, almost feel the sta­t­ic crack­le of poten­tial col­li­sions, between tongues and palms and slen­der bod­ies.” The author’s intense admi­ra­tion for oth­er poet­ic wit­ness­es to the Mid­dle East’s harsh real­i­ties (includ­ing Yehu­da Amichai), and a haunt­ing homage to the verse of Palestine’s unof­fi­cial nation­al poet” Mah­moud Dar­wish is del­i­cate­ly inter­wo­ven through­out, begin­ning with the novel’s very title. And that deep attune­ment to language’s inher­ent poet­ry is also evi­dent in his insis­tent inter­min­gling of Ara­bic and Hebrew in both their lyri­cal and slangy forms; the result is a vibrant col­lage of cul­tures and a hap­pi­ly immer­sive expe­ri­ence for readers.

Roth­man-Zech­er is hard­ly the first writer to rec­og­nize that oth­er­ness” is the most seduc­tive spice in all the Mid­dle East, nor is he the first to explore a Romeo and Juli­et” nar­ra­tive between Jews and Arabs. (Just last year, Dorit Rabinyans All the Rivers aroused the ire of Israel’s polit­i­cal Right and was banned by the Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion for por­tray­ing inti­mate rela­tions between a Jew­ish woman and a Pales­tin­ian man.) But Sad­ness Is A White Bird may be the most art­ful and irre­sistible explo­ration of illic­it” love in the Holy Land since A.B. Yehoshuas beloved 1977 nov­el The Lover. At once a cel­e­bra­tion of youth and love, and a lamen­ta­tion for the daunt­ing odds of sus­tain­ing either in the trag­ic cir­cum­stances of the Mid­dle East, this nov­el of incon­ve­nient truths is a tri­umph of the aes­thet­ic and moral imag­i­na­tion, one that will like­ly leave its read­ers (one can only hope that many Israelis and Pales­tini­ans will be among them) feel­ing unset­tled and per­haps utter­ly transformed.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

Discussion Questions

Sad­ness is a White Bird tells the sto­ry of an Amer­i­can-Israeli teen, recent­ly draft­ed and on the eve of adult­hood, as he recounts the events lead­ing up to his mil­i­tary incar­cer­a­tion and con­comi­tant descent into the moral and emo­tion­al abyss. With the Israel-Pales­tine con­flict as back­drop, Roth­man-Zech­er deft­ly explores Jonathan’s inter­nal con­flicts on the oft-com­pet­ing demands of loy­al­ty and love, fam­i­ly and friend­ship. Weav­ing togeth­er two people’s his­to­ries and heart­breaks, Roth­man-Zech­er offers a nuanced per­spec­tive that eschews uni­lat­er­al con­dem­na­tion in favor of a more com­plex real­i­ty, choos­ing to focus instead on the indis­putable tragedy of all that is lost in this polit­i­cal mael­strom — lives and land, yes, but also youth and inno­cence on both sides. As unset­tling as it is unmis­tak­ably beau­ti­ful, Sad­ness is a White Bird is a remark­able debut nov­el that places Roth­man-Zech­er as a new voice in fic­tion to watch.