Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Dorit Rabinyan, Israeli Author with a Persian Heart

Dorit Rabinyan. Photo Iris Nesher

Dorit Rabinyan’s identity is rooted in Hebrew and Israel. Yet her language is strongly influenced by her parents and grandparents, who are of Persian descent. Her stories layer parables upon parables and scenes are described in metaphors and intricate detail.

“I came over when I was little….no, I was born in Israel, actually,” she corrects herself. “They [my family] made one immigration from Iran to Israel. However, I had to make it each day when I went to school and came back home.” There was a dissonance between the language spoken at home and the Hebrew spoken in the streets, the community, among friends and at school.

“Persian for me was their language of intimacy, the language of the adults.”

Young Israeli children rarely learned the language of their parents, particularly if they hailed from Mizrahi Jewish or Arab countries. In Rabinyan’s case, it was Persian that was the forbidden fruit.

Yet Persian crept into her writing unwittingly. Through her genes.

‘She writes in a juicy Hebrew but as if she writes in Persian.’

“The owners of hybrid identity are always here. Some are enriched by being a hybrid identity owner, and some are torn apart. You can be both lucky and unfortunate. Even during the same day!” Rabinyan says from experience.

Israel is a nation of immigrants. Yet we do not have a monopoly as Oriental Jews. There were waves of immigration. Yet there was also a hierarchy, dominated by European Jews. ‘We may have been loyal to our father’s culture to compensate him for his lost culture’ when he arrived on the shores of Israel.

At a time when Israel and Iran are fierce geopolitical foes, there is still a bridge between Hebrew and Persian and it manifests itself in Rabinyan’s delicate penmanship. A best-selling author and recipient of multiple awards, she has thus far published three books. Her first, Persian Brides, was published in 1995 when she was just 22 years old. Her second, Our Weddings, published in 1999, won the Eshkol Prize. Her most recent book, originally published in Hebrew in 2014, and subsequently in English as All The Rivers, caught the eloquent writer in a political web.

Set in New York, the novel depicts a love affair between a Jewish Israeli woman and a Muslim Palestinian man. Amid the heightened tensions in the Middle East, however, the story struck at the heart of Jewish identity. In 2015, a teacher’s committee recommended that the book be added to the list of required reading for high school students. However, the Ministry of Education decided not to include it, claiming ‘it promotes intermarriage and assimilation’. The decision caused an outcry among teachers and left-leaning politicians including head of the opposition, Labour Party leader Isaac Herzog.

“My mum, despite being on the right side of the political map, supported me,” recalls Rabinyan.  “It [the book] was already a best-seller, she pointed out. However, after this political scandal, the sales doubled.” The older generation of authors such as Sami Michael and A. B. Yehoshua also came out in support of Rabinyan.

“They were acting as humanists, as liberals,” she continues, ”and felt the threat of the dissipating freedom of speech in Israel. I did not connect to the genes of these authors, but to their values. I do not make bonds due to their family origins, but for their humanistic values and similar political ideological outlook.”

The Israeli government eventually found a convenient loophole and retreated, claiming that teachers were free to choose 30 per cent of the curriculum independently the following year.

Language is an essential tool for authors. When asked if she has tried to write in a different language, Rabinyan answers in her poetically Persian style: ”One night, when I was living in New York, and imagined myself as a New Yorker, I mis-typed a word in Hebrew. The mistake was such a clever play on words in modern Hebrew.” But she had no one who would understand the beauty of the mistake with whom she could share it.

It was at that moment she realized that exile was not her destiny.  She realized the intimacy of the language would be left behind, just as it had been between her parents as they spoke Persian.

She did not have the strength to fight to stay in unwilling exile. She returned to Israel. “Despite the fact that Israel is a tough place to live, it is where my identity is fulfilled,” she says.  “In life you have a deck of cards, and you need to play them right.”

So far Rabinyan has played her cards right, becoming an accomplished writer, an inspiration to struggling authors and an ambassador for Israeli literature on the international stage. She is a bridge between Hebrew and Persian cultures, a bridge that politicians have yet to cross.

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