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 lays in her masterful prose the story of clashing dreams and shattered hopes which lead to new dreams, while at the same time tackling the big issues of the traditional novel. Lady of Kazan is Arad’s fourth novel, and sixth book.