The Art of Leav­ing: A Memoir

  • Review
By – July 15, 2019

In her mem­oir, The Art of Leav­ing, Ayelet Tsabari describes grow­ing up as a Yemeni Jew in Israel before embrac­ing a peri­patet­ic lifestyle that takes her far from her neigh­bor­hood in Petah Tik­va, near Tel Aviv. Sen­si­tive, inquis­i­tive, and rest­less from the start, she didn’t quite fit into her own cul­ture and didn’t blend into the larg­er, Ashke­nazi-dom­i­nat­ed Israeli soci­ety. With­in these nar­ra­tives that progress through her youth and mid­dle adult­hood, Tsabari con­jures lazy days play­ing with friends, the spicy aro­ma of Yem­i­ni cook­ing, the feel of warm sand on scat­tered beach­es, frozen Cana­di­an win­ters, and the altered state of drug-hazed wan­der­ings. Her evoca­tive, unspar­ing account of the choic­es she makes and the places — fig­u­ra­tive and lit­er­al — these deci­sions take her to is brilliant.

The world of Tsabari and her fam­i­ly is one in which they are the Oth­er: a Yemeni Jew, described in a 1909 Jew­ish news­pa­per essay she quotes as a sim­ple, nat­ur­al laborer…in a wild, bar­bar­ic state.” They are also, more gen­er­al­ly, Mizrahi Jews — of Mid­dle East­ern ances­try — which makes for a crowd on the low­est rung of the Israeli social lad­der. Tsabari blasts through the stereo­types as she describes her edu­cat­ed father and the many Yemeni and Mizrahi con­tri­bu­tions in the human­i­ties and else­where, which are increas­ing­ly acknowl­edged and celebrated.

In one of her essays, A Sim­ple Girl,” Tsabari con­sid­ers the Mizrahi bim­bo stereo­type of the fre­ha. She recalls the so-called fre­has in her neigh­bor­hood, old­er girls from the tech­ni­cal high school … who sat on the bar­ri­cades hold­ing cig­a­rettes with thin man­i­cured fin­gers, laugh­ing loud­ly, their bod­ies burst­ing from their tight, reveal­ing out­fits.” She envied these tough, bold young women, even as she looked down on them.

Tsabari’s reflec­tion on the past lacks any rosy tint, except when she focus­es on her beloved father, who died of heart fail­ure when she was ten years old. Leav­ing his youngest daugh­ter at such a vul­ner­a­ble age set in motion a series of events that brought her to where she is today. In the first of her book’s three sec­tions, Home,” she writes, That moment will be the fork in the road when my future splits in two: what could have hap­pened had he lived and what hap­pened because he didn’t.” The loss of her father and its reper­cus­sions are a recur­ring theme.

Tsabari turns a fond lens on her grand­moth­er, moth­er, and aunts. In the book’s first essay, In My Dreams We Hug Like Grown-Ups Do,” she describes them in the kitchen, clean­ing after din­ner: They are loud and curvy and strong-mind­ed and effort­less­ly charm­ing, their curls boun­cy or blow-dried or hen­naed, their throaty het’ and ayin’ melod­ic — syl­la­bles I swal­low, flat­ten, learned in school to pro­nounce incor­rect­ly, like an Ashkenazi.”

The book’s oth­er two sec­tions, Leav­ing” and Return,” also con­tain linked essays that fol­low the tra­jec­to­ry of Tsabari’s life. In Home” read­ers learn of her expe­ri­ence in the army — she was not the most enthu­si­as­tic mem­ber of the ser­vice, it’s safe to say — and in Leav­ing” Tsabari describes her trav­els to the US, India, Cana­da, Thai­land, and (tem­porar­i­ly) back to Israel.

In liv­ing on the mar­gins, Tsabari encoun­ters real dan­ger. Tough Chick,” the first essay in Return,” describes her assault on a bus in East Van­cou­ver in 2004. The final essay, The Art of Stay­ing,” focus­es on her daugh­ter — like her moth­er, a daddy’s girl.” It also describes Tsabari’s deter­mi­na­tion to unearth the sto­ry of her great-grandmother’s immi­gra­tion to Pales­tine from the Jew­ish sec­tion of Sa’ada, a walled city in North Yemen near Sau­di Ara­bia. In con­sid­er­ing her new­born as well as her great-grand­moth­er, Tsabari comes full cir­cle with her Yem­i­ni heritage.

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.

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