Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Revisiting The Book of Trees

This week I did something I've never done before. I re-read one of my already published books. Usually as soon as I'm finished a project, I never look at it again except for readings or interviews.  



I picked up The Book of Trees this week because while working on my memoir I was trying to remember why I wanted to study at a yeshiva in Israel. The book didn't prove that helpful- the protagonist Mia wants to become an orthodox Jew because her home life is so unsatisfying- she has an absent father, a distant mother and no Jewish affiliation. This couldn't be farther from my own family or Jewish experience. As I read, I remembered many things about the book. I had forgotten that Mia's childhood home was based on my friends Janet and Bill's house in the Beaches area of Toronto. Neither of them lives in that house anymore. Bill passed away almost ten years ago and Janet now lives in BC. I had also forgotten about the country and rockabilly music that Mia's family plays in the book. Mostly I had forgotten what a funny and unsuitable character for a yeshiva Mia is. She's full of teenage angst and sexual desire and her attempts to fit into a religious world are fraught from the second she gets to Israel. 

I hadn't forgotten about the political realities that form this book, how Mia learns that many of the forests in Israel were planted over former Palestinian villages, and how Mia's political understanding of Palestinian oppression undoes her religious yearnings. I re-read many parts of the book in light of the news about the opening of the American embassy in Jerusalem last week, and the resulting violence in Gaza.  The New York Times podcast, The Daily reported two views of the embassy opening: Netanyahu's jubilant speech, and then the political reality of the violent suppression of Palestinian protest. Despite my rule against crying while driving, I couldn't help tearing up as I listened. I want Israel to be something it clearly is not: a place where my religious heritage is lived to its peaceful fullness, not an apartheid state where one's religious fulfilment only comes with the oppression of another. 

Throughout the week my Facebook feed filled up with Israel/Palestinian stories, most of them sensitive to the Palestinian plight. I felt relieved and vindicated, and less alone as a Jew, until I reminded myself that this wasn't indicative of how the Jewish world really felt. It's so easy to surround ourselves with our own opinions on social media that the few well-written, but supportive of Israel posts stuck out as treasonous diatribes, despite their careful wording and sensitivity. 

One post in my feed that caught my attention, was a link to an article on The Conversation by my friend Dorit Naaman, a Film and Media professor at Queen's University. Naaman is the director of the film Jerusalem, We Are Here, an interactive documentary that digitally re-inscribes Palestinians into the Jerusalem neighbourhoods they were evicted from in 1948.
Naaman's film reminds us of the 750,000 Palestinians who were evicted from their homes during The Nakhba, or catastrophe, and who by Israeli law do not have the right to return. Most Israelis who live in former Arab houses in Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa know nothing of the former inhabitants. Naaman's film attempts to fix this. "I realize that if we - as Israelis- do not face the past and remedy its wrongs, we will have no future," Naaman says. Israel is slowly moving toward a One State solution, and the only way toward reconciliation, Naaman writes, is through acknowledgement and compensation. 

The Book of Trees hasn't sold many copies. It received an icy reception in the Jewish publishing world, and even friends weren't always sure how to respond. One 'friend' said she wouldn't read it at all, that any criticism of Israel was anti-Semitic. I think my (non-Jewish) publisher was brave to take on the book, and didn't realize how unpopular the conclusions are that Mia comes to about the narrative of Jewish return. Mia wants Israel to be the culmination of everything she's learned about Judaism, but she can't help feeling that her own return is at the expense of other people who actually live on the land. 

It's a little odd to feel nostalgic or regretful about a book written more than ten years ago, but I still have secret hopes that somewhere Jewish teens are reading it and reconsidering their perceptions about Zionism. I hope that maybe they're getting a more balanced view of Israel and the moral obligations of being a nation. 

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