Haviva Ner-David
Haviva Ner-David
post-denominational inter-spiritual rabbi, mikveh specialist, spiritual counselor, author

Hope lies in stepping into the other’s shoes

It was a chance meeting in the valley that divides my Galilean Kibbutz Hannaton from the Bedouin village of Bir al Maksur, that planted the seed for the storyline of my debut novel, Hope Valley. I was out walking my dog when I saw Hussein, a shepherd who frequents the valley, out with his sheep; but this time, his wife was with him. She was foraging.

Sabah el kher,” I said.

Sabah el nur,” she answered.

Despite my elementary Arabic and her non-existent Hebrew and English, we found a way to communicate, especially with the help of Hussein’s translation. When she asked me how old I was, and I told her, she started to cry. Her daughter, who had recently died from breast cancer, was my age.

When she told me more about her daughter, I said I wished I had met her. And that was the truth. I began to think how, if we had met, we might have connected over living with illness, despite the cultural differences and history of conflict between our two peoples. I live with a degenerative neuromuscular disease called fascio scapular humeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD). It is not necessarily fatal, but as the disease progresses, it can be, as at a later stage, it can spread to the respiratory system. I am already experiencing the effects of a weak diaphragm.

And thus, my novel, Hope Valley, was conceived. It was born eight years later and tells the story of the unexpected friendship between a Jewish-Israeli woman U.S. expat with multiple sclerosis, Tikvah, and a Palestinian-Israeli woman, Rabia (or Ruby), who returns from 25 years living abroad, to be treated for lung cancer. The two women meet one day during the summer of 2000, right before the outbreak of the 2nd intifada, in the Galilean valley that divides Tikvah’s moshav from Ruby’s village.

While at first there is suspicion and resentment between the two women, who are both artists (although Tikvah is experiencing artist’s block and Ruby is well-known and successful), they slowly become friends. Tikvah is not me, but there are aspects of her with which I identify and wanted to explore in the novel.

For example, multiple sclerosis is not FSHD, but it is also a degenerative neuromuscular disease. And while I am not an artist, I am a writer, which is a kind of art.

There are other similarities as well. Tikvah, too, moved to Israel out of Zionist ideology, although hers was not from her upbringing, as mine was. Instead, she was attracted to her Zionist youth movement in search of a feeling of belonging — as her parents, Holocaust survivors but not Zionists, were distant as a result of the trauma they endured.

Like me, Tikvah, too, becomes more aware of the Palestinian narrative, although she does so through her friendship with Ruby. I, on the other hand, became aware of the Palestinian narrative through many friendships, not just one.

And Tikvah, like me, has a daughter with a Palestinian-Israeli life partner (an important element of the story) who grew up in Jaffa — although her daughter and her partner are very different from my daughter and her partner. Tikvah’s daughter’s relationship plays an important role in her opening to the Palestinian narrative, while I was already on this path when my daughter and her partner met.

I will not give away the plot of the novel. In the first drafts, the story was told all from the point of view of Tikvah. After all, that is the story I felt most comfortable telling. But something was missing. I tried writing from the shifting points of view of Tikvah and her husband, Alon. But that, too, did not feel right. Writing from the point of view of Tikvah, the Jewish character, felt natural. She was not me, but she was close enough that I was comfortable stepping into her shoes and speaking in her voice.

I was in the process of figuring out the best way to tell this story, and all along, I think I knew, that the best way to make the story come alive would be to try stepping into Ruby’s shoes. But I did not know if I could manage it. It was a challenging task. Over the years, however, Ruby became a friend, a character I walked around with in my head and heart. At some point, I felt up to the challenge, and I gave it a try.

That is when the novel came into its own. I do not know if I did justice to portraying a Palestinian-Israeli woman, but I do think I did justice to portraying Ruby. And that is the point. She is a composite of various Palestinian-Israeli women I know, as well as a unique character unto herself. I see many of my Palestinian-Israeli friends in her, and she is the result of the years I spent listening to their stories.

I am a member of a Palestinian-Jewish narrative-sharing group in my area. We get together once a month to hear life stories around the conflict. This may sound simple, but the idea is to not only listen, but to listen in non-judgment. To witness and be present, to hold space for the other, without letting your own story, thoughts, or national narrative, get in the way. It is an amazingly healing and opening process. Transformative, really. And this is part of what I was trying to get across in the book.

My younger children also attend/ed a bilingual (Arabic and Hebrew) multicultural primary school. The school is not only for the children who study there, however. The organization that runs this network of Hand-in-Hand schools across the country, provides a rich community for the adults as well, with a wide variety of activities to help bridge these two sectors that are unfortunately highly segregated in Israeli society.

During the process of the book’s publication, the controversy over the novel American Dirt erupted. This is a novel about the Mexican migrant experience written by a woman, Jeanine Cummins, who is not herself Mexican. Reviewers accused the author and her publisher of cultural appropriation and “trauma porn”, of fetishizing the pain of another people. I worried Hope Valley might receive the same criticism, since I am a Jewish-Israeli woman who wrote not only half of her novel from a Palestinian-Israeli woman’s point of view, but even included excerpts from Ruby’s father’s diary from 1947-8 in the novel.

But attempting to step into the shoes of those with different experiences than ours is part of how we grow as humans. We are told in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers, (2:4), not to judge another human until we stand in their place. Writing from another’s point of view is an extension of that concept. If we all practiced this exercise regularly, we would judge others less, which would create less animosity and conflict. The world would be on its way toward healing and repair.

By attempting to step into my Palestinian-Israeli friends’ and son-in-law’s points of view, I am able to at least come closer to understanding the pain of having lost their family villages and/or homes in the 1948 Nakba (which means catastrophe in Arabic), and of living as a discriminated (and in some cases, threatened) minority in Israel — even if I can never feel it completely. As I could never be them. Just as they can never be me and know what it feels like to be born Jewish two decades after the Shoah (the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, that also means catastrophe), and to live in Israel knowing I am resented (and sometimes even threatened) by many of my Palestinian neighbors.

Hope Valley is not a one-sided novel. It is told from both points of view, because that is the message I am hoping to impart with the novel: that there are two parallel narratives that can sit side-by-side, and can merge to create a shared peaceful narrative moving forward. But this will require leaving our comfort zones and not only listening to each other’s narratives of trauma, but also processing our own collective trauma and integrating it, so that we can move past it together.

There are various levels upon which to read Hope Valley. It is a novel written by a Jewish-Israeli expat from the U.S. coming to terms with her own responsibility as someone living as a Jew in the empowered majority in Israel, writing about (and from the partial point of view of) a Jewish-Israeli expat from the U.S. who is doing the same.

It is also a novel written by a Jewish-Israeli woman attempting to feel into what it might be like to live in Israel as a Palestinian-Israeli, written partially from the point of view of a Palestinian-Israeli woman slowly befriending and growing to trust a Jewish-Israeli woman, despite her own resentments and family history.

That is the structure of the book. It would not have been possible to tell this story effectively without my attempting to speak from Ruby’s viewpoint. I know, because I tried. Plus, I did have Palestinian-Israeli friends read the book to check for plausibility of character and situation. But not to see if they identified with Ruby or would have said or done what she did, as they are not Ruby. Only Ruby is Ruby, and while her story reflects various people I know and stories I’ve heard from their mouths, as well as research I’ve done, ultimately, she is the character I created for my novel.

It is possible what I am saying is not politically correct. But as a human being, a rabbi and interfaith minister, a spiritual companion and educator, I am not concerned with labels. I am concerned with the nuances of living in this complicated, challenging and sometimes beautiful-in-spite-of-it-all life. And as a writer – not only of fiction, but also memoir and personal essay — I am concerned with doing my best to portray life in all of its complexity.

Moreover, as the author of Hope Valley, I am concerned with drawing the reader into the reality of living in our times in this tiny strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This is the reality I live and am steeped in and want to write about – it is not a reality from which I am far removed — but to do so only from only a Jewish character’s point of view would be perpetuating the problem. My hope is that I did the subject justice.

Hope Valley is available on Amazon (https://amzn.to/3d0BJWb)

Or if you prefer not to use Amazon, there is bookshop (https://bookshop.org/books/hope-valley-9781949290592/9781949290592) or Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/hope-valley-haviva-ner-david/1139036074?ean=9781949290592

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A longer version of this piece appeared first on Tikkun.org – https://www.tikkun.org/israeli-dirt-becomes-hope-valley/

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Haviva Ner-David is a rabbi and writer. She is the rabbinic founder of Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, the only mikveh in Israel open to all to immerse as they choose. She is the author of two spiritual journey memoirs: Chanah's Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women's Rituals of Baking, Bathing, and Brightening, and Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination, which was a runner up for the National Jewish Book Council Awards. Ordained as both a rabbi and an inter-faith minister, certified as a spiritual counselor (with a specialty in dream work), and with a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University, she offers mikveh guidance and spiritual counseling for individuals and couples, and mikveh workshops and talks for groups. Her debut novel, Hope Valley, is coming out in April in paperback but is available already now in eBook format at B&N, Kobo and Amazon. The Kindle link is: https://amzn.to/3d0BJWb. Her third spiritual journey memoir, Dreaming Against the Current: A Rabbi's Soul Journey, and a guidebook for engaged couples, Getting (and Staying) Married Jewishly: Preparing for your Life Together with Ancient and Modern Wisdom, are both slated for publication later in 2021. She lives on Kibbutz Hannaton with her husband and seven children.