Ayelet Tsabari

In A Sim­ple Girl,” pub­lished in Ayelet Tsabari’s new mem­oir, The Art of Leav­ing, and excerpt­ed in the 2019 issue of Paper Brigade, Ayelet Tsabari describes grap­pling with Mizrahi stereo­types as a child — and the inspi­ra­tion she found in Ofra Haza, Israel’s icon­ic, Yem­i­ni singer. In the essay below, she shares a strange, unex­pect­ed post­script” to the story.

Dop­pel­gänger,” read the sub­ject line. The email had been sent by some­one named Hay­im, which was enough to get my atten­tion — it hap­pened to be my late father’s name, and not one I’d often encoun­tered after mov­ing to Cana­da from Israel. My wife, Aya,” Hay­im wrote, is also Yemenite Israeli and was con­fused for you in our neigh­bor­hood in down­town Toronto.”

Hay­im told me that Aya had been push­ing her stroller in a park, when a man had approached her. Ayelet?” he said. As it often hap­pens when native Eng­lish speak­ers try to say my name, some­thing in his pro­nun­ci­a­tion was off. Aya heard an a” and a y,” and said yes?” Just to make sure, the man asked more ques­tions: You’re Yemeni Israeli, right? You just had a baby? You live in this neighborhood?”

Yes, yes,” Aya answered, grow­ing uneasy. Can I help you?”

I’m a big fan of your work,” the man said. I fol­low you on Twitter!”

Um, I’m not on Twit­ter,” Aya said. You must be con­fus­ing me with some­one else.”

Ayelet, right?” the man said. You’re a writer?”

Aya laughed, relieved, and told him he had the wrong per­son. When she came home, she told the sto­ry to Hay­im, who quick­ly looked me up online. We should all meet up for a cof­fee,” he wrote. At the very least, there’ll be a great sto­ry behind the ques­tion, how did you meet?’”

Then, in paren­the­sis, Hay­im men­tioned one more detail — one that made this lucky acci­dent appear almost mag­i­cal. Aya is a Haza,” he wrote. Ofra’s niece.”

Ofra Haza, one of the most renowned musi­cians to ever come out of Israel, was my child­hood idol. Her posters graced my bed­room walls; mag­a­zines with her pic­ture on the cov­er were piled in my draw­ers, her records dis­played on my shelves. And I wasn’t the only one — Mizrahi girls all over the coun­try looked up to her. Her suc­cess gave us per­mis­sion to dream big. My best friend Michal and I — both of Yemeni her­itage — per­formed Ofra’s songs at school assem­blies, dream­ing of one day becom­ing famous singers just like her.

Like many leg­ends, Ofra appeared oth­er­world­ly, larg­er than life. But she also exud­ed a sweet­ness that made her seem as if she would be approach­able, despite her inter­na­tion­al suc­cess. That feel­ing of kin­ship may have had some­thing to do with our shared her­itage, too. She looked like fam­i­ly,” I wrote in my essay A Sim­ple Girl.” Like one of my more beau­ti­ful cousins.”

How will you rec­og­nize each oth­er?” Hay­im joked when we final­ly arranged to meet at Christie Pits Park in Toron­to. Despite the aus­pi­cious begin­ning, it was a while before we found time to get togeth­er. We were both in the throes of rais­ing a baby, those first few months when there are no days and no nights.

When I saw Aya walk­ing with a stroller down the park trail in a long, sweep­ing dress, I didn’t think we looked alike at all (although I was flat­tered — Aya was stun­ning). Still, I knew what that man in the park had seen. Had I passed her on the street, I would have sure­ly made eye con­tact and smiled, shared a flick­er of recog­ni­tion. We could have been relat­ed: the head full of curls, the olive-brown skin, the dis­tinct Yemeni-ness. That spring day, we sat on a bench at sun­set, watched our kids crawl around in the play­ground, and chat­ted. I liked her instant­ly. Our con­ver­sa­tion was effort­less, her demeanor com­fort­ing, sincere.

After a few hes­i­tant get-togeth­ers, we became friends. We met again and again, at her house, at mine, in the park. Our friend­ship grew and deep­ened until one day it seemed like we had always been in each other’s lives — until Aya and her fam­i­ly became a part of what Toron­to meant for me, and I couldn’t imag­ine liv­ing there with­out them.

I had been liv­ing in Cana­da for fif­teen years by the time I met Aya, and had been blessed with a strong com­mu­ni­ty, a tight-knit group of friends on whom I could count for sup­port: when I hurt my back severe­ly while my part­ner, Sean, was away, my friends took turns tak­ing care of me. But becom­ing a moth­er changed every­thing. My needs changed, my pri­or­i­ties, my pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. For the first time since I’d moved to Cana­da, I start­ed to long for my fam­i­ly intense­ly. I missed my moth­er and my sis­ter who lived in Israel, missed being able to drop by their hous­es and call them up for help. I wished I could sit in their kitchens idly with my baby, the way I’d seen my aunts do when I was grow­ing up.

Per­haps the prob­lem was that none of my close friends in Toron­to were par­ents at the time. My friends did their best to help, two of them even offer­ing to babysit so I could have time to write — prob­a­bly the kind­est thing a friend can do for a moth­er who’s also a writer. Still, I spent most days alone with my baby, grow­ing iso­lat­ed and depressed. I loved that I could talk to my friends about lit­er­a­ture and art and their lives — it was a wel­come dis­trac­tion from the hard­ships of car­ing for a new­born — but some­times I need­ed to talk about moth­er­hood with some­one who under­stood. I found myself court­ing moth­ers at the park, seek­ing their com­pa­ny, feel­ing exceed­ing­ly lone­ly — almost as lone­ly as I had been dur­ing my first year in Canada.

I also didn’t have many Israeli friends in Toron­to. I lived down­town, where­as most Israelis lived on the out­skirts of the city. Truth was, I hadn’t active­ly sought them out. I pre­ferred my friend­ships to evolve nat­u­ral­ly. But now, as I longed for the close­ness of fam­i­ly, I found myself also long­ing for iden­ti­ty, for a sense of home. As a moth­er, I felt a new respon­si­bil­i­ty to pass on my tra­di­tions to my daugh­ter, to edu­cate her about her Yemeni Israeli her­itage, to teach her Hebrew. I want­ed to find ways to cel­e­brate Jew­ish hol­i­days — which, until then, I had done spo­rad­i­cal­ly and noncommittally.

Once, ear­ly on in our acquain­tance, Hay­im said to me, Our kids are going to grow up like cousins.”

I smiled and said noth­ing in return. It seemed too fast. We had just met.

Now we cel­e­brat­ed the Jew­ish hol­i­days with Aya and Hayim’s fam­i­ly, had Shab­bat din­ners at their house. Through them, my daugh­ter was exposed to the Jew­ish cus­toms I remem­bered from my own child­hood. And she loved it. She looked for­ward to singing the prayers on Fri­day evenings; she was the first one rush­ing down the stairs to light can­dles with Aya. And when Hay­im blessed his daugh­ters at the kid­dush, he blessed mine, too.

Final­ly, I had a friend with a kitchen where I could idly sit while our daugh­ters played and cook­ies baked in the oven. Aya and I watched each other’s chil­dren, picked them up from school when the oth­er couldn’t, made each oth­er soup (Yemeni soup, of course!) when the oth­er was sick. Remark­ably, all four of us got along — not just as a group, but also in pairs. I hung out with Hay­im and the girls while Aya and Sean worked. Sean and Aya did the same. When my moth­er came to vis­it, we all rent­ed a lake­side cot­tage togeth­er, showed her the Ontario coun­try­side. We also did this when Aya’s mom, Shuli, vis­it­ed. Shuli, who had been Ofra Haza’s con­fi­dant and best friend, who resem­bled her famous sis­ter so much, and was warm and love­ly and kind.

Once, ear­ly on in our acquain­tance, Hay­im said to me, Our kids are going to grow up like cousins.”

I smiled and said noth­ing in return. It seemed too fast. We had just met.

But he turned out to be right. Our lives became entwined, bound togeth­er. Aya offered a reflec­tion, or pro­jec­tion, of my own long­ing for my back­ground, my fam­i­ly, my self.

A cou­ple of years ago, Aya and I crossed paths in Israel for a cou­ple of days. She was there for an event in Tel Aviv hon­or­ing Ofra. I was at the tail end of a two-month win­ter vaca­tion in Israel — a chance for Sean, our daugh­ter, and I to spend time with my rel­a­tives while soak­ing up sun. For as long as I’d lived in Cana­da, the idea of return­ing to Israel nev­er left me. Now it seemed more urgent as Sean and I watched our child spend time with her grand­moth­er. Why not try, at least? If not now, when? What do we have to lose?

Aya and I didn’t get to see each oth­er on those two over­lap­ping days, but as we were tak­ing a taxi to Ben Guri­on Air­port that night, to fly back to Cana­da, she called. I love being here,” she said, sigh­ing. Some­times I feel like mov­ing back.”

I think we’re going to do it.”


We’re think­ing sum­mer 2018,” I said.

Hmmm,” Aya said. Maybe we should join you.”

You planned it togeth­er?” peo­ple in Israel ask, sur­prised, when they real­ize we’d already been friends in Toron­to. You moved here at the same time? With your families?”

Some days — as we all sit among the cit­rus trees in Aya’s grassy back­yard in Mazk­eret Batya, or in my Tel Aviv liv­ing room, or on the beach on a sun­ny day in Feb­ru­ary we almost can’t believe it our­selves. Only a few months ago, we’ll say, shak­ing our heads, we were sit­ting in Aya’s liv­ing room in Toron­to. Only last sum­mer, we’ll remem­ber, we were all hang­ing out at the farm­ers’ mar­ket in Duf­ferin Grove Park. And we con­grat­u­late each oth­er for mak­ing a bold choice and act­ing on it, for hav­ing the courage to change our lives. For cre­at­ing our cho­sen fam­i­ly, and then mov­ing it across the world.

We con­grat­u­late each oth­er for mak­ing a bold choice and act­ing on it, for hav­ing the courage to change our lives. For cre­at­ing our cho­sen fam­i­ly, and then mov­ing it across the world.

Like any fam­i­ly, we don’t always agree. We’re not aligned polit­i­cal­ly or spir­i­tu­al­ly. And our per­son­al­i­ties, obvi­ous­ly, dif­fer as well. Aya knows she won’t be going back to Cana­da; my neshama, my soul, is home,” she says. It’s the kind of thing I might roll my eyes at. (A recov­ered cyn­ic, I find it hard to break old habits.) I’m more cau­tious, still ner­vous that it might not work, aware that it is too soon to tell.

Even now, in Israel, we see each oth­er more than many of our old friends, or our extend­ed fam­i­ly, who’d become used to us liv­ing far­away. Even now, sur­round­ed by our actu­al rel­a­tives, Aya and I con­sid­er our­selves sis­ters. We tell each oth­er how lucky we are to have the oth­er here to soft­en the land­ing, to share the unique expe­ri­ence of return­ing home after many years abroad. Here, too, we mir­ror each other’s sto­ries and expe­ri­ences: we are home, yet we still stand out.

In the orig­i­nal ver­sion of my essay A Sim­ple Girl,” I men­tioned my meet­ing with Aya, the sto­ry of our friend­ship. I had to, I thought. How could I write a trib­ute to Ofra Haza with­out includ­ing this extra­or­di­nary twist of fate? I tacked a short sum­ma­riz­ing para­graph at the end of the essay—A strange, unex­pect­ed post­script, I called it.But ulti­mate­ly I decid­ed it didn’t belong there. It was too much to touch on in pass­ing. It was a sto­ry in itself: a sto­ry about chance encoun­ters, about cho­sen fam­i­lies, about the ran­dom­ness and mir­a­cles of friendship.

Instead, in the acknowl­edg­ments for my mem­oir, in which A Sim­ple Girl” appears, I ded­i­cat­ed the essay to Aya and to her moth­er, Shuli Haza—who look like fam­i­ly, I wrote, because they are.

Ayelet Tsabari was born in Israel to a large fam­i­ly of Yemeni descent. After serv­ing in the Israeli army, she trav­eled exten­sive­ly through­out South­east Asia, North Amer­i­ca, and Europe, and now lives in Toron­to, where she teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to. The Best Place on Earth won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture and was long-list­ed for the Frank O’Connor Inter­na­tion­al Short Sto­ry Award.