Toy Train, Robert Clark, 1940, Index of Amer­i­can Design

Con­grat­u­la­tions to the inau­gur­al win­ner of the Paper Brigade Award for New Israeli Fic­tion in Hon­or of Jane Weitz­man: Maya Arad (Our Lady of Kazan), select­ed by guest judge and trans­la­tor Jes­si­ca Cohen. This selec­tion from the win­ning title can be found in the 2019 issue of Paper Brigade.

This award seeks to hon­or an out­stand­ing short work or excerpt of Israeli fic­tion pub­lished in Hebrew. Each year, JBC fea­tures a guest trans­la­tor who works along­side Jew­ish Book Coun­cil to review nom­i­nees and ulti­mate­ly trans­late the win­ning selec­tion. The win­ning selec­tion is trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish and pub­lished in both the orig­i­nal Hebrew and the trans­lat­ed Eng­lish in Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s annu­al lit­er­ary jour­nal, Paper Brigade. The 2018 guest trans­la­tor and judge was Jes­si­ca Cohen.

The goals of this prize are to intro­duce Amer­i­can read­ers to new Israeli writ­ers; to help Israeli writ­ers gain access to the Amer­i­can mar­ket; and to inter­est Amer­i­can pub­lish­ers in pub­lish­ing new Israeli fiction.

Maya Arad is a long-stand­ing mem­ber of the Israeli lit­er­ary dias­po­ra — a grow­ing group of con­tem­po­rary Hebrew writ­ers liv­ing out­side of Israel. While much of her fic­tion is set in the Unit­ed States (whether in Sil­i­con Val­ley or in acad­e­mia — both milieus she knows well) and fea­tures Israeli expats nego­ti­at­ing their Amer­i­can dreams, her 2015 nov­el Our Lady of Kazan takes place in Israel and address­es a uni­ver­sal predica­ment: being a sin­gle, child­less woman in a soci­ety that pri­or­i­tizes mar­riage and moth­er­hood. Arad has an extra­or­di­nary gift for cap­tur­ing the nuances of human inter­ac­tion and the ways in which we per­ceive each oth­er and our­selves. Her char­ac­ters are won­der­ful­ly and painful­ly real, their dia­logue vivid and believ­able — a sort of lit­er­ary hyperrealism.

In this excerpt from Our Lady of Kazan (a best­seller in Israel, like most of Arad’s books), the pro­tag­o­nist, Idit, has arrived home with her tod­dler, Lev, after an ardu­ous adop­tion process. Pri­or to this, we have fol­lowed Idit’s failed roman­tic efforts, her reluc­tant acknowl­edg­ment that she may nev­er find the one,” and her attempts to con­ceive a child on her own. Hav­ing final­ly ful­filled her dream, Idit intro­duces her new son — an orphan from the tit­u­lar city of Kazan, in south­west­ern Rus­sia — to the real­i­ties of a harsh Tel Aviv sum­mer. The exhaust­ing strug­gles of moth­er­hood force a swift dis­il­lu­sion­ment from her long-held roman­tic fantasies.


Idit had known from the start that she wasn’t going to enroll Lev in day­care or camp over the sum­mer. That’s not what her adop­tion leave was for. Now was the time to imple­ment all the plans she’d made for her child over the years: going for walks; climb­ing trees; col­lect­ing pine cones and seashells; splash­ing around in the sea; mak­ing veg­etable sal­ads and fruit sal­ads and squeez­ing fresh grape­fruit juice togeth­er; bak­ing bread; cut­ting out pic­tures from mag­a­zines and mak­ing col­lages; fin­ger-paint­ing and draw­ing with chalk on the side­walk; mak­ing Play-Doh out of flour and water and a lit­tle nat­ur­al food-col­or­ing and knead­ing it into shapes and fig­ures. And above all, lots and lots of sto­ries. Over the past month, Idit had bought dozens of children’s books, which now lined the shelves in Lev’s room. She imag­ined him sit­ting in her arms lis­ten­ing to her read all the Israeli clas­sics, like Where is Plu­to? and Hel­lo, Dad and Friend­ly But­ter­fly, sound­ing out the final syl­la­ble of each word for her.

Not a sin­gle one of the plans came to be. Idit hadn’t imag­ined how much time it took to feed, dress, and bathe a tod­dler. The morn­ings dragged on end­less­ly, but still she left the house with an unkempt, dirty-faced child because she couldn’t wait any longer to go out — oth­er­wise it would get too hot. Lev took no inter­est in any­thing she pre­pared for him. Idit want­ed to show­er him with every­thing he’d missed out on in the first two years of his life, but Lev did not want all that. He crum­pled the mag­a­zines Idit brought home and refused to draw, knead dough, or play with the dolls and lit­tle wood­en fig­ures she made for him. Dur­ing the rare, brief lulls she was able to find, Idit turned a shoe­box into a doll­house. She padded the bot­tom and sides with col­or­ful fab­ric and craft­ed fur­ni­ture out of card­board and fab­ric scraps. She labored over this gift for her son for eight days, and when she hand­ed it to him she was thrilled to final­ly see a spark in his eyes. He ran over to the box excit­ed­ly, crushed it with a few swift moves, and tossed the whole thing aside.

Not a sin­gle one of the plans came to be. Idit hadn’t imag­ined how much time it took to feed, dress, and bathe a toddler.

As lit­tle inter­est as Lev took in toys, he took even less in books. Ruthi’s mom came home with a present!” Idit tried, recit­ing one of her favorite first lines, but the boy refused to sit still and lis­ten. She picked up a dif­fer­ent book: Gadi was sick. He lay in bed think­ing, How sad I am … ”

Idit would not give up, but all she man­aged to do was make Lev loathe the books even more. When­ev­er he saw her tak­ing a book off the shelf he would get up and leave the room. And why should this boy like to read? she thought bit­ter­ly. There was no rea­son for him to resem­ble her in any way.


What had gone wrong? she won­dered. How had the adop­tion leave she’d dreamed of so long­ing­ly, the sum­mer-camp-for-two that would mold her and Lev into a real fam­i­ly, end­ed up a night­mare? She tried des­per­ate­ly to pin­point the cul­prit, hop­ing that would pro­vide some sort of repair.

It was the bureau­cra­cy, she decid­ed. There were so many things to take care of: the med­ical clin­ic, the nation­al insur­ance, reg­is­tra­tion at the Min­istry of the Inte­ri­or. Each of these tasks required drag­ging Lev around from office to office, col­lect­ing doc­u­ments, wait­ing in lines. When she got to the Min­istry of the Inte­ri­or she was told she had to make an appoint­ment ahead of time and sent home. Yes, it was the bureau­cra­cy that was to blame. If not for all those errands, she could have enjoyed the child with­out wor­ries. Enjoyed the free­dom, the summer …

The sum­mer was at fault, Idit decid­ed a few days lat­er. If only Lev had arrived in win­ter, it would have all been dif­fer­ent. The adop­tion leave would have been full of fresh oranges from the orchard and hand-knit sweaters and daf­fodils and ground­sel. But Lev had arrived in sum­mer, and every day, pre­cise­ly dur­ing the hottest hours, when Idit usu­al­ly sat qui­et­ly with the shut­ters drawn, he insist­ed on jump­ing around and demand­ed to go out. She changed her sweat-soaked clothes sev­er­al times a day. The laun­dry ham­per was always over­flow­ing. She would drag Lev to the laun­dro­mat on Ibn Gabirol, where they would wait for a machine to be avail­able. Some­times she washed things in the bath­room sink and hung them to dry overnight. The play­ground was always emp­ty in the mid­day hours, the slides and climb­ing gyms too hot to touch. None of the chil­dren and moth­ers Idit longed for were there.

She gave up on the beach after their first attempt: Lev refused to sit in the stroller and they had to walk the whole way; she fret­ted con­stant­ly that he’d run into the water before she could stop him; and he refused to bathe when they got home, sandy and dirty.

Still, Idit knew, it was not the bureau­cra­cy or the sum­mer heat that made the adop­tion leave unbear­able. It was Lev. It was all his fault. She’d expect­ed him for so long, pic­tured her­self lav­ish­ing him with mate­r­i­al and intel­lec­tu­al boun­ty, giv­ing him end­less love. Instead she found her­self tak­ing things away from him, for­bid­ding him to do things, warn­ing him con­stant­ly. She could feel her patience, which she’d always con­sid­ered infi­nite, wear­ing down. Dur­ing that hap­py month between the two trips to Yaroslavl, she’d pic­tured her­self putting Lev to sleep, mak­ing him din­ner, read­ing him sto­ries. In between, she’d assumed he would play with toys, enter­tain him­self, or nap. But Lev required con­stant super­vi­sion through­out his wak­ing hours. When­ev­er she took a knife away from him or pre­vent­ed him from inspect­ing the elec­tri­cal sock­ets, he screamed and raged, just like he had in the hotel room when she’d tak­en the ash­tray away: he lay on the floor, kick­ing his legs and flail­ing his arms, his face red and con­tort­ed with fury.

She could feel her patience, which she’d always con­sid­ered infi­nite, wear­ing down.

Idit could not avoid the con­clu­sion that it was her fault. She final­ly had a child, just as she’d want­ed. Her dream had come true. How could it be that she was so frus­trat­ed? Why wasn’t she hap­py? Why didn’t she real­ly love him, in the pro­found way a moth­er loves a child?

Yes, she’d heard moth­ers say­ing they hadn’t fall­en in love with their babies imme­di­ate­ly. But they were sim­ply dis­ori­ent­ed, unpre­pared. She’d wait­ed for this child for years. She’d want­ed him so bad­ly. She’d had all the time in the world to get ready for his arrival, yet she didn’t love him.


The more the doubts tor­ment­ed her, the more Idit longed for exter­nal val­i­da­tion. Smiles from passers­by, casu­al con­ver­sa­tions with acquain­tances in the nat­ur­al food store or at the play­ground — all these were a drug for her, and she was will­ing to tol­er­ate the exhaust­ing dai­ly rou­tine to get more of it.

The praise that Idit was so thirsty for came in tiny dos­es. She want­ed to shout: Pay atten­tion! It’s me, Idit! The world has changed — I’m a moth­er! But this fact did not always impress the peo­ple she came across, who usu­al­ly had two or three chil­dren of their own, with the youngest already in preschool or school. Con­grat­u­la­tions,” they recit­ed, and went about their busi­ness. Even the ones who were impressed by the boy and hap­py for Idit said the wrong things. Good for you,” they said approv­ing­ly. And some­times they spec­i­fied, Good for you for hav­ing the courage to do it, on your own.” Or, You’ve done a real mitz­vah.” Oth­ers asked, Who are his parents?”

I’m his moth­er,” Idit would answer, as she’d learned from Daf­na and from the online adop­tion forums and the work­shop offered by the adop­tion agency. But this reply brought an arti­fi­cial smile to the asker’s face, who would press her: Who are his real parents?”

What a cutie!” an old­er neigh­bor exclaimed when she saw Lev, and she peered at Idit as if to gauge: Is he yours or adopted?”

A friend­ly shop­keep­er at an old sta­tionery store on Ibn Gabirol, where Idit shopped out of loy­al­ty and com­mis­er­a­tion with fail­ing busi­ness­es, pat­ted Lev’s head and gave him a red pen and a col­or­ful note­book. Sweet boy. Pret­ty boy. He looks so much like you …” Then he low­ered his voice: You know, maybe you should think of mov­ing to a place where peo­ple don’t know you. You won’t have to tell any­one. Every­one will think he’s yours.”

The praise that Idit was so thirsty for came in tiny dos­es. She want­ed to shout: Pay atten­tion! It’s me, Idit! The world has changed — I’m a mother!

The only per­son who would have been as excit­ed as she was, Idit thought, was her moth­er. But her moth­er would nev­er know this child. That fact, though obvi­ous, sud­den­ly struck her. And know­ing full well that if her moth­er were alive things would be even more intol­er­a­ble— with both a child and a sick moth­er depend­ing on her — did not make Idit feel any bet­ter. She now felt the full weight of her grief over her mother’s death.


The days were so exhaust­ing that Idit didn’t return calls from Daf­na, Nechama, and Anat. Feel­ing ashamed of how dif­fi­cult she found every­thing, she was in no hur­ry to put Lev on dis­play. Still, on a boil­ing July after­noon, she final­ly went to vis­it Anat. She found her home alone, rest­ing on the couch.

Anat hugged Idit and stroked Lev’s head, but he pulled back.

Idit looked around the emp­ty room: Where are the boys?”

Ido went to a movie with Yoni’s mom, and Itai’s play­ing at the neighbor’s.”

Idit felt cheat­ed. She’d imag­ined Ido and Itai play­ing with Lev, spoil­ing him, com­pet­ing for his attention.

Could we call Itai to come home?”

Anat gave a dis­mis­sive wave. Now that he’s final­ly gone and I have some peace and qui­et? Come on, I’ll put some things out in the play­room for Lev.”

Lev tod­dled over to the toys eager­ly. He was dizzied by the selec­tion. At home he had one ted­dy bear, one doll, a ball, and a wood­en car.

The days were so exhaust­ing that Idit didn’t return calls from Daf­na, Nechama, and Anat. Feel­ing ashamed of how dif­fi­cult she found every­thing, she was in no hur­ry to put Lev on display.

So how’s it going?” Anat asked as she poured ice water with slices of lemon and fresh mint sprigs. Is he set­tled into a rou­tine yet?”

More or less. But I’m so tired!”

Idit detect­ed a touch of gloat­ing behind Anat’s com­mis­er­a­tive smile.

I didn’t real­ize how much work it is. Con­stant­ly. All the time.” Pre­cise­ly because Anat had been through all this her­self, Idit was hop­ing for a ges­ture of admi­ra­tion, a lit­tle pat on the shoul­der. How do you feel?” she asked Anat, to be polite. She had no inter­est in the answer.

So-so. Bet­ter than with the first two.”


I had an ultra­sound. The doc­tor thinks it’s a girl, but we’re wait­ing for the amnio.”

Idit stopped lis­ten­ing. This preg­nan­cy was a slap in her face. Why should Anat be able to do it when she couldn’t?

Oh,” Anat remem­bered, I have some­thing for you.” She left the room and reap­peared with an enor­mous card­board box.

Wow, thanks!” Idit gushed. She was expect­ing to find piles of Ido and Itai’s ironed and neat­ly fold­ed clothes, which she’d hint­ed to Anat that she’d love to have. But instead the box con­tained a huge plas­tic seat, uphol­stered in shiny blue fabric.

It’s for the car,” Anat explained.

Idit could bare­ly dis­guise her dis­ap­point­ment. But I don’t have a car.”

You can still use the seat. For when you need to take a dri­ve. In a taxi, or …” Or in a friend’s car, she stopped her­self from say­ing. So you don’t turn up with­out a seat next time some­one does you a favor and dri­ves you somewhere.

Thanks,” said Idit, won­der­ing where she would put it. Since Lev had entered her life, the apart­ment was get­ting very crowded.

If you already have one, you can exchange it,” Anat added.

No, I don’t. Thanks.”

The door opened and Itai walked in. Idit wel­comed him warm­ly. Come and meet my son!”

Itai glanced at the tod­dler sit­ting on the floor sur­round­ed by toys.

Do you want to play with him?” Idit asked, try­ing to sound enticing.

Itai con­sid­ered the offer. No.”

Idit knew it was ridicu­lous to be hurt by a lit­tle boy not much old­er than Lev. But she was also offend­ed by Anat: why wasn’t she mak­ing Itai play with Lev? She’d come here specif­i­cal­ly to intro­duce Lev to the boys. He had to get used to being with oth­er chil­dren. But Anat’s kids were too big, and Daf­na had gone to stay with her par­ents. How was she going to find friends for Lev? She didn’t even know how to find them for herself.


She remem­bered Tzi­ki and Liat, who’d promised to stay in touch, and called them anx­ious­ly yet hope­ful­ly. Final­ly, a girl of Lev’s age. A girl who was also adopt­ed. Liat was hap­py to hear from her and invit­ed them to vis­it the fol­low­ing week.

Final­ly, a girl of Lev’s age. A girl who was also adopted.

When they arrived, Idit sat in the liv­ing room and Lev imme­di­ate­ly went to play with the toys scat­tered on the floor.

I’ll be there in a minute!” Liat called from the bed­room. Nao­mi just woke up.”

Idit stud­ied Nao­mi, whom she remem­bered as the apa­thet­ic girl. The one who hadn’t talked or laughed. Now she clung to her moth­er, laughed when Liat whis­pered some­thing in her ear, and scam­pered around hap­pi­ly. Idit sud­den­ly had the urge to ask what the girl’s pre­vi­ous name was. She her­self couldn’t under­stand why she want­ed to know so badly.

Lev inspect­ed Naomi’s toys. Idit noticed that he was show­ing par­tic­u­lar inter­est in any­thing that was made of plas­tic, emit­ted pierc­ing beeps, or lit up with flash­ing lights: exact­ly the toys she would not have at home. He banged on the keys of a plas­tic piano, delight­ing at the dishar­mo­nious noise.

Nao­mi went over to the piano and tried to play with Lev, but he pulled it away from her. Nao­mi pulled it back. Lev grabbed the piano and Nao­mi fell over and start­ed crying.

Lev!” Idit scold­ed him. That’s not how we treat our friends!”

She was afraid they would now be unwant­ed guests in this home, too. That they would have nowhere left to go.

Liat hugged Nao­mi, who had tears stream­ing down her cheeks. Don’t wor­ry about it, that’s how kids are. Come on, let’s have a snack.”

Liat put out two glass­es of juice, some choco­late wafers and a bowl of bam­ba.

The boy ate sev­er­al wafers, one after the other.

Idit, feel­ing embar­rassed, tried to get him to stop. You’ll get a tum­my ache,” she explained, but he ignored her and kept shov­ing more wafers into his mouth.

It’s the first time he’s seen those. I don’t allow that kind of stuff at home,” Idit apol­o­gized, but then she stopped her­self, real­iz­ing she might hurt Liat’s feelings.

But Liat didn’t seem offend­ed. She smiled at Idit and asked her to sit down in the liv­ing room.

Idit looked at Nao­mi play­ing calm­ly on the rug. Is she always will­ing to sit still like that?” she asked.

Liat shrugged, as if it were obvious.

What was wrong with Lev? Idit won­dered. Why was he always so restless?

So, how’s it going for you?” Idit said before Liat could ask her the same thing.

All things con­sid­ered, it’s great. It’s all our dreams come true, what can I tell you.”

Idit nod­ded, to imply that she felt exact­ly the same way.

Not that there aren’t all sorts of challenges.”

Yes,” Idit con­curred enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly, hop­ing Liat would talk about the challenges.

You know, a child comes from an orphan­age and all of a sud­den he’s alone in a house with two par­ents breath­ing down his neck, jump­ing at the slight­est peep, and I haven’t even men­tioned the grand­par­ents and fam­i­ly and friends — it cre­ates a cer­tain amount of con­fu­sion. You have to set lim­its. I’m sure you know what I’m talk­ing about.”

Yes,” Idit confirmed.

We had to fend off some of the excite­ment all around. The minute we land­ed in Israel, our par­ents and aunts and uncles and even a few friends were wait­ing at the air­port with cakes and bal­loons. They meant well, but can you imag­ine how over­whelm­ing that is for a child? Then the vis­its start­ed. Our par­ents spent hours here. For my par­ents it’s the first grand­daugh­ter, so you know … And all our friends came, some­times sev­er­al in one day, with loads of kids — for Nao­mi it was real­ly fright­en­ing, but for us too. We need­ed our time togeth­er, just the three of us. To become a fam­i­ly. You know what I’m talk­ing about?”

Idit nod­ded. It seemed she was the only one who longed for com­pa­ny now that she had a child. Since adopt­ing Lev she’d felt lone­li­er than ever. She used to be able to go out when­ev­er she want­ed, to sit in a café or browse in book­shops. Now she spent whole days alone tak­ing care of Lev.

It seemed she was the only one who longed for com­pa­ny now that she had a child. Since adopt­ing Lev she’d felt lone­li­er than ever.

Liat didn’t look like she was suf­fer­ing the way Idit was. Both she and Tzi­ki — who came home at 5:30 — were clear­ly so hap­py, so pleased with their lot, so in love with their daughter.

It’s strange,” Liat com­ment­ed as they watched the chil­dren play, each in their own cor­ner, they don’t seem to remem­ber each other.”

Well,” said Tzi­ki, it’s been more than a month. For them that’s like a year.”

When Idit left, Liat invit­ed her to Naomi’s adop­tion par­ty in two weeks. She wait­ed out­side for a cab and won­dered if she had enough cash. Now she wished she had a car. She wished she’d learned how to dri­ve. She had trou­ble installing Lev’s car seat and in the end she held him on her lap. She was afraid he’d throw up in the taxi after all the wafers and bam­ba he’d scarfed down. She was not look­ing for­ward to anoth­er long evening with Lev, alone. The doubts did not let up: Did she real­ly love Lev? Had she made a mis­take adopt­ing him?

Maya Arad is the author of eleven books of Hebrew fic­tion, as well as stud­ies in lit­er­ary crit­i­cism and lin­guis­tics. Born in Israel in 1971, she received a PhD in lin­guis­tics from Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don, and for the past twen­ty years has lived in Cal­i­for­nia where she is cur­rent­ly a writer in res­i­dence at Stan­ford University’s Taube Cen­ter for Jew­ish Studies.

Jes­si­ca Cohen shared the 2017 Man Book­er Inter­na­tion­al Prize with author David Gross­man for her trans­la­tion of A Horse Walks into a Bar. She has trans­lat­ed works by Amos Oz, Etgar Keret, Dorit Rabinyan, Ronit Mat­alon, Nir Baram, and others.