Canadian Writers Abroad‘s quest for Canadian authors living in Israel found an Israeli Canadian author now living and teaching in Canada, who also teaches at Tel Aviv University, and who has travelled a lot: Ayelet Tsabari. In addition, her work takes up themes common to Canadian writers abroad: identity, alienation, and place. Even better, CWA found a reviewer specializing in literature on Israel and Palestine. Aaron Kreuter reviews The Art of Leaving (HarperCollins Canada 2019) by Ayelet Tsabari.
The Art of Leaving, Ayelet Tsabari’s much anticipated memoir, could easily have been called The Art of Living. The chapters, which read like individual essays but build to a satisfying whole, are brimming in nearly every paragraph with the details of a life lived to its fullest: friends, both lifelong and momentary, shoestring travel, returns and departures, drugs taken to escape, to experience, to party, the smells of Yemeni cooking, all-consuming love. This is Tsabari’s second book; her first, the award-winning short story collection The Best Place on Earth, was a window into the Jewish Yemeni experience in Israel, a viewpoint not often found in English literature. In The Art of Leaving, Tsabari continues to mine her personal and familial experiences as a Yemeni Israeli Jew in a multi-pronged attempt to uncover why she always felt “out of place in my own country” (263).
The memoir’s opening section, “Home,” narrates Tsabari’s childhood and young adulthood as a Yemeni Jew growing up in Israel, the death of her father, and her experiences as a conscript in the Israeli army. The middle section, “Leaving,” is concerned with Tsabari’s travels, loves, and first years in Canada. In “Return,” the closing section, the return not only relates to Israel, but to Tsabari’s return to being grounded, to living in Vancouver and Toronto, to starting a family, to returning to her father’s life and the history of Yemeni Jews in general. The death of her father—a well respected lawyer and community member—when Tsabari is ten years old looms over the entire book, and is given by Tsabari as a primary reason for why she originally left Israel, why she always felt the need to move, to migrate, to “leave,” which, as the title suggests, she honed into an art. As Tsabari, writing about the moment she heard about her father’s death, insightfully puts it, “And as I grow up, I will try to live as wildly and loudly as I can to outdo the enormity of this moment, to diminish it” (21). The penultimate chapter, “Unravel the Tangle,” delves into Tsabari’s father’s life and early death, and is studded with Tsabari’s own translations of his Hebrew poetry.
The book is written in Tsabari’s clear, evocative, often original prose, a prose style that is perhaps borne out of the fact that English is her second language. Describing New York City, Tsabari writes that “The city is electric with agency, as though hooked up to an amplifier in the sky” (88); on why she ended up in Canada, she bluntly states that “I did not relocate to Canada; I drifted there” (184).
In the terrifically named chapter “You and What Army,” Tsabari lets readers into the claustrophobic world of the Israeli Defense Forces as seen through the eyes of a rebellious Mizrahi Jew who had no interest in being in the army in the first place. Tsabari describes her relationship with the army as if it was a sexual tryst, writing that “The army and I were all wrong for each other” (45), and, at the end of the essay, “We had a cold parting, the army and I, a limp handshake with no eye contact” (58). In “Yemeni Soup and Other Recipes”—my favourite chapter in the book—Tsabari writes about her experiences with Yemeni food, her mother’s kitchen, and the importance of tradition, organized under subheadings for different Yemeni and Israeli dishes, including “ugay shmarim,” “chicken livers,” and “jichnoon.” The early chapter about Tsabari’s abuse at the hands of her friend’s father, which reads as a critique of Israeli machismo, contrasts with a much later chapter where Tsabari is assaulted by a group of teenagers on a Vancouver bus, suggesting that the perceived differences between the two countries aren’t as set-in-stone as they may seem.
It is possible to read The Art of Leaving as a travelogue, even a romance. Tsabari spends significant time in India, Israel, and Canada, does a fair amount of drugs, especially cannabis and LSD, and has many heartbreaks. There is a darker, more political aspect to the book as well, though. Besides the aforementioned death of her father and the violence Tsabari experiences, a good portion of the memoir is taken up with what it means to grow up Yemeni—and, more generally, Mizrahi—in Israel, what Tsabari calls “the prejudice, discrimination, and abuse Yemeni immigrants faced in this new country” (186). Take, for example, the chapter on the Yemeni Israeli singer Ofra Haza. Tsabari encapsulates Israel’s societal racism when she writes that “Despite the glaring recording-industry exclusion of Mizrahi music—a genre inspired by Middle Eastern and North African musical traditions and rhythms—those Yemeni songs were seen as great ambassadors for Israel’s image” (24). In other parts of the book, Tsabari writes about how the friendships she makes with Arabs outside of Israel allows her to reconnect to her own Arabness, “the Yemeni identity I had rejected as a teen, as though my body returned itself, gave up the fight” (36). These are some of the more powerful sections of the book. Besides these intra-Israeli concerns, the book mostly steers clear of engaging with the Israeli/Palestinian situation.
As someone who studies and writes on Tsabari’s fiction, it is impossible to not read the essays in The Art of Living as source material, side narratives, and fascinating counterparts to the stories in The Best Place on Earth. Her travels in India, not to mention being mistaken for any number of non-white ethnicities, is the background of the story “A Sign of Harmony,” where a Yemeni Jew has a troubled affair with an Indian man. Tsabari’s grandmother’s Filipina caretaker, Evelyn, can’t help but bring to mind “Invisible,” a powerful story about the bond between a elderly Yemeni woman and her Filipina helper.
I ended my review of Tsabari’s first book discussing what to expect from her in the future, and I will do something similar to end this review. In the memoir’s acknowledgements, Tsabari mentions the “extensive research into Yemeni Jewish history,” inside and outside of Israel (317), that she has undertaken in the past decade. Whether this research will provide the raw grist for short stories, a novel, or another memoir, there is nobody in the English-speaking world more qualified to write this book than Tsabari.
Aaron Kreuter is the author of the 2018 short story collection You and Me, Belonging, and the 2016 poetry collection Arguments for Lawn Chairs. He is currently finishing a dissertation in English Literature at York University on Jewish North American fiction that takes Israel/Palestine as its subject matter.
Credit for header photo of Ayelet Tsabari: Jonathan Bloom.