Review of “Sadness is a White Bird” by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

This book tells a tragic and ultimately stunning story, and although it is fiction – it speaks important truths to those who would hear them.

It is narrated by Jonathan, 19, currently in an Israeli prison. The narration is in the form of a monologue during which Jonathan reminisces about how he ended up in prison. Addressing his musings to his beloved Arab friend Laith, Jonathan frequently invokes snippets of poems by Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, whose award-winning work has inspired the Palestinian people; “Identity Card” has been turned into a song of protest. Darwish, who died in 2008, is considered to be “the voice of the Palestinian Diaspora . . . the voice of the fragmented soul.”

With Darwish’s poetry, as in other aspects of this story, the author makes us work for the whole. He provides only pieces of the poet’s work; you need to google it to find out the rest. This is also true of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet quoted in the book. (Similarly, the ending is one we must construct ourselves along with the author.)

On its surface, this is a coming-of-age story about Jonathan, a Jew who grew up in a mostly non-Jewish town in Pennsylvania. He felt weakness and shame over his inability to respond to anti-semitic bullying. He fantasized about going to Israel and becoming a “warrior”:

“I was sick of being People of the Word. I wanted to be People of the Sword. I wanted tanned arms and campfires, braided folk songs and righteous rifles. I wanted to be like [my grandfather] Saba Yehuda, teeth bared like tiny shields against the stabbing world.”

Surrounded by other Jews at summer camp, he thinks:

“If dinky little Camp Samaria was so full of possibility, I could barely imagine what sort of redemption lay in wait in the actual Land of Milk and Honey and Uzis and Bamba [an Israeli snack] and Eucalyptus Groves and Khaki and Tragedy and Redemption.”

Note: the ideas of both tragedy and redemption form important parts of Jonathan’s psyche.

Jonathan was born in Israel and thus had dual citizenship; his mother was Israeli, and his grandfather still resided in Israel. When the grandfather became terminally ill and requested his daughter to come back so he could know his grandchildren better before he died, Jonathan got his wish to live in Israel. Enlistment to the Israeli Defense Forces is mandatory for all Israeli citizens who have turned 18, so Jonathan could also fulfill his desire to become a “warrior” when he turned 19.

In an episode on Feb 17, 2018 remarkably similar to one occurring in this book, Israeli Defense Force soldiers fire tear gas canisters on Palestinians during a protest demonstration

But before that happened, he unexpectedly made two Arab friends, Laith and Nimreen, the twin children of his mother’s friend. That friendship changed everything Jonathan thought he knew and believed. He looked at the twins and “I felt it, like a drop of pomegranate juice spreading through a glass of bright-white milk, changing everything.”

As he later reflected, speaking in his mind to Laith:

“…you and your sister, molten twins, mournful and wild, silly and sacrilegious, sharp and stoned, gentle and beautiful, whose love was burning through my flesh, threatening to scorch and disfigure my past. To engulf my future.”

Jonathan grew to love and desire both Nimreen and Laith. It was perhaps the case that Jonathan was simply bisexual, but this author’s work is steeped in metaphor and symbolism. I saw Jonathan’s relationship with both the twins as more of a reflection of his ambivalence about the divide between Israel and Palestine. Both male and female, cool versus fiery, appealed to him for different reasons, and he was torn between the two of them.

Through the twins, and especially Nimreen, Jonathan gains a new perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For background, it is important to know that the State of Israel was created from a movement at the turn of the 20th century in Eastern Europe by a group of Jewish intellectuals. They were looking for an alternative to living under the threat of increasing anti-Semitism and the violent movements spawned from it. They picked Palestine because of the historical association of Jews with the land. The term “Zionism” was coined in 1885 by the Viennese Jewish writer Nathan Birnbaum, Zion being one of the biblical names for Jerusalem. But unfortunately and inconveniently for the Zionists, the land was already occupied by an indigenous population. Much like European colonizers who came to America, however, the “Natives” were considered expendable.

The Zionists, in their moralistic fervor, seemed oblivious to the fact that even while they were trying to escape racism and injustice, they were expressing it on their own behalf somewhere else. But just as memory and identity have never been easily erased in Jews, nor were they so easily erased in Arabs. As one of Nimreen’s friends says to Jonathan:

“I’m not from Israel. I’m from before Israel, from beneath the Israeli towns and cities built over my homes and orchards and fields. I am an Arab Palestinian, not an Israeli.”

Jonathan, like many American Jews, had a rosy, idealistic view of Israelis that was reinforced by a sense of righteousness because of the horror of the Holocaust. Much of what Nimreen told him about the treatment of Arabs by Israelis was not only new to him, but hard for him to believe.

For example, Nimreen took Jonathan to meet her grandmother Selsabeel Ziad, who told him the appalling story of what happened to her first husband Marwan in 1956. In October of that year, Israel invaded Egypt in what the West called “The Suez Crisis” or the “Second Arab-Israeli War.” The Jews immediately imposed a curfew, enforcing it before notification of it could even be disseminated. Marwan and other shepherds were out with their flocks and returned to the village late. Unarmed and defenseless, they (and hidden bystanders) stood in shock as the Israelis mowed them down. Selsabeel and other woman and children ran away and survived, “in body at least.”

After they left the grandmother’s house, Jonathan said to Nimreen, “But is that what really happened?” Nimreen responded, “How dare you.”

[This account is unfortunately quite true. “The Kafr Qasim massacre” took place in the Israeli Arab village of Kafr Qasim situated on the Green Line, which was at that time the de facto border between Israel and the Jordanian West Bank. The massacre was carried out by the Israel Border Police, who killed Arab civilians returning from work after a curfew imposed earlier in the day of which they were unaware. In total 48 people were shot down, of which 19 were men, 6 were women and 23 were children aged 8–17. Arab sources usually give the death toll as 49, as they include the unborn child of one of the women. In December 2007, President of Israel Shimon Peres formally apologised for the massacre.]

From the massacre memorial museum in Kafr Qasim

Nimreen also educated Jonathan about the shootings of October, 2000, when Israeli Police killed 13 Palestinians — 12 of them Israeli citizens — who took to the streets to show solidarity with demonstrators in the West Bank and Gaza. For those killings, there was a complete absence of accountability. Nimreen said to Jonathan:

“Ever heard of Israeli Police shooting live bullets at Israeli Ultra Orthodox protestors or Israeli Mizrahim or Israeli Israelis period? We got the message, then. Our parents’ generation’s plan – integrate, keep hour heads down, beg for scraps, be Good Arabs – hasn’t gotten us anywhere. And anyway, whatever strategy we use to survive, our identity is Palestinian. That can’t be taken from us, you know?”

She agreed there are good and bad people on both sides, but “you guys have the checkpoints and the F-16s and M-16s and Q-16s and whatever and . . . and the Most Moral Army in the Universe, which just so happens to be controlling and destroying the lives of fucking millions of people.’”

As the author stated in an article:

“We are so similar. We are all swept up in self-righteousness, we are all afraid and violent and capable of wishing expulsion and death on the other side.

Israel is carrying out a massacre in Gaza.

If Hamas had the capability to kill or expel hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of Israelis, I am often asked, wouldn’t they do so?

My answer is: Yes. I am confident that they would.

In that case, I am asked, why are you focusing primarily on what the Israeli government and military are doing?

My answer is: While the willingness to kill innocents on the other is similar, the capability to do so is not.”

Author Moriel Rothman-Zecher

He explains further:

“ . . . both sides may want to kill the other, but one side is immensely powerful, and the other side is not. This is not a conflict, and it is not war. If, God forbid, Hamas got a fleet of F-16s, and if, God willing, Gaza were protected by an Iron Dome, then this would be a two-sided war. But that is not the case, and so this is a massacre. . . .”

Jonathan can’t reconcile all of this in his mind. The Jews are seeking refuge from genocide – how can one not have compassion for them? How can their cause not be just? And yet, what he learns from Nimreen is also inexcusable.

Nimreen quotes more bitter lines from her favorite poet Dawish, and Jonathan asks her: “Does Darwish have any poems that aren’t so political?”

“Nimreen took a deep drag, and when she spoke, her voice was wrapped in a cloud: ‘There is nothing ‘not political’ in Palestine, habibi.’”

Nimreen and Laith both warn Jonathan that if he joins the army, he will not be the same person. But he insists he has no choice.

The result is a nightmare, and the only question is whether or not Jonathan awaken from it.

It is well to contemplate this segment Darwesh’s poem “Identity Card”:

“Write down!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Of my hunger
And my anger!”

Poet Mahmoud Darwish

Discussion: One can only hope this story will at least challenge some erroneous preconceptions Westerners have about the situation in Israel. As the author writes elsewhere and demonstrates so powerfully in this book:

“We need not look far to recall that the experience of oppression does not make a community moral. . . . Seeking justice means seeking justice for everyone.”

He continues:

“This is not a story of Cruel Israelis or Evil Jews versus Good Palestinians or Noble Arabs, and the answer will not come from simply reversing power structures. It is a story of mutual dehumanization and un-mutual power, and the answer has to come from creating power structures in which human beings’ violent, narrow instincts are checked and our capacity for decency is uplifted. And that is something no bomb, no burning, no rifle, no bullet can ever accomplish.”

Evaluation: This poignant and sobering story is distressingly bleak, because polarization over the region is so passionately adversarial and deep-seated. Nevertheless, the author manages to lends poetic beauty to moral complexity. The story also, importantly, illuminates the ways in which cultural discourse informs perspectives. It would be an outstanding choice for book clubs.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2018


About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in Book Review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Review of “Sadness is a White Bird” by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This sounds outstanding. My book club is making recommendations this month but I bet I can’t talk them into this. 😦

  2. Beth F says:

    I have a copy of this … must bump it up. Wow.

  3. Trisha says:

    I’m loving this! We need a book for our One Book, One Division project at my school, and this sounds like it would perfect.

  4. Hi, Jill. I appreciate the contribution to the Jewish Book Carnival, which is where I found the link to this post. And I feel a little awkward leaving this comment, but particularly since I routinely share those Carnival posts, I believe that it’s important to do so. I haven’t read this novel—there’s so much already on my tbr list, with more coming all the time (I am especially looking forward to Yossi Klein Halevi’s “Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor” and Gil Troy’s “The Zionist Ideas” anthology, both of which may already be on your radar as well). So I won’t/can’t comment on the analysis of the book. Like you, however, I worry about “erroneous preconceptions Westerners have about the situation in Israel.” To that end, I’d like to offer more background on Israel’s boundaries/borders than the maps that have been provided above provide. There’s a detailed prose overview of this subject, plus a link to more maps, over on There’s also a video overview from the IDF—I realize that some will instantly disregard that source, and others (myself included) may be uneasy about declaring some of the land “Judea and Samaria” without noting the disputed nature of that territory, as you say, things are polarized. But that aside, the timeline is accurate and worth reviewing: Finally, I’m not sure of the context for the February 18 photo that you’ve shared. I did try searching for it, however; it’s both sad and ironic that news coverage I found that day pointed me here: I guess what I am most concerned about is that whether in a book or a blog post, it’s important not to exacerbate, however unintentionally, the problem of erroneous/incomplete perceptions. Thank you for reading this comment.

    • Thanks very much for your thoughtful and detailed comments. It’s always instructive to get more information and other perspectives, and I’m sure readers of your comments will appreciate them. In reviewing the book, I tried to present the author’s point of view, because it seemed most relevant to the message of the book and to understanding what he was trying to convey by his story. I feel his position is interesting in so many ways, and worth consideration. But as you know, it is only one of many strongly-felt approaches to what is going on in the Middle East, and it is always helpful to hear more voices, like yours, weighing in and adding more background.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s