Ayelet Tsabari’s award-winning stories reflect Yemenite background, global outlook

Julie Wiener

Ayelet Tsabari

Ayelet Tsabari: “I love accessing different characters to put myself in characters that are not necessarily me.” (Sean Brererton)

(JTA) — Ayelet Tsabari acted as a child and teen, appearing in Habima’s youth performances in Israel, a commercial and some student films. Although Tsabari no longer acts, the author of the award-winning “The Best Place on Earth” feels that the experience of fiction writing is not entirely unlike acting.

“I love accessing different characters to put myself in characters that are not necessarily me,” she says.

Tsabari, 41, speaks of her fiction as a process of “embodying” her characters, be they a Yemenite grandmother, a Filipina caretaker in Israel, a young woman in the Israeli army or an Indian man who is a British citizen. She elaborates, “I do believe that we are all human, and I can relate to most people. You have to find that kernel of truth in you.”

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Tsabari’s collection of short stories — for which she recently won the Sami Rohr Prize for Fiction — reflects that diversity, with tales set in India and Canada, as well as Israel, and with characters of varied ages and nationalities.

Administered by the Jewish Book Council, the $100,000 Rohr Prize is the largest literary prize in the Jewish world and is intended for writers early in their careers who have published one or two books. The prize alternates between fiction and nonfiction each year and is awarded to “a book of literary merit that stimulates an interest in themes of Jewish concern.”

Tsabari grew up in Israel but has lived in Canada for 16 years, having “followed a guy” she met in India when she was in her 20s.

“I never planned to stay as long as I did,” she says.

Tsabari now lives in Toronto with her husband, but is currently in Israel for a project. In an interview via Skype, she says she is “comfortable with multiple identities and languages and places I call home” while at the same time missing Israel.

“I still long for Israel all the time,” she adds. “This is why I write about [it] as much as I do. “

Although “pretty much everything that I write is about Israel,” she says, the “longing for a place, the sense of being away, is a very Jewish theme.“

Tsabari’s family emigrated from Yemen to Israel, and many of her characters are Jews of Mizrahi (from Arab countries) background. As she said in the Sami Rohr prize news release, “By portraying characters of Mizrahi background I was hoping to complicate readers’ perceptions of Israel and Jewishness, and to expand and broaden their ideas of what a Jewish story and Jewish experience can be.”

The cover of Ayelet Tsabari's award-winning story collection,

The cover of Ayelet Tsabari’s award-winning story collection, “The Best Place on Earth.”

In one “Best Place on Earth” story, “The Poets in the Kitchen Window,” a Mizrahi boy who loves to write poetry tells his sister he has stopped. She asks why, and he says, “Name one Mizrahi poet.” His sister takes a drag on her cigarette, and he continues, “See.” Her answer, “Maybe that’s exactly why you should write. Ever think about that?”

The characters then continue to play a game in which they make poetry together out of the things that surround them. Later the sister brings her brother a volume of poetry by the Baghdad-born Israeli poet Roni Someck.

Tsabari says “The Poets in the Kitchen Window” was a very personal story because her father had always wanted to be a poet but put it aside to go into a practical career, law, and to support his family of six children. He had been set to start studying poetry again in his early 40s when he passed away suddenly.

In the months since winning the Rohr prize, Tsabari says she often finds herself shaking her head without speaking — her way of expressing that she can’t articulate all the good things that have happened as a result. Random House has agreed to publish her next two books — a memoir and a novel — as well as “The Best Place on Earth” in the United States. (Currently it is published only in Canada, by HarperCollins Canada.)

But even before winning the Rohr, Tsabari was earning recognition. She is in Israel on the Ontario Arts Council’s Chalmers Arts Fellowship, which supports artists in projects to advance their careers and inspire and inform their work. Tsabari’s project: recording the stories and songs of elderly Yemenite women. The project is so exciting, she says, it gives her “goosebumps on a regular basis.” She isn’t quite sure how she will use the material she is collecting, but she feels an “urgency” to speak to these women since they are elderly and dying.

Although she is a native Hebrew speaker, Tsabari now writes in English (“The Best Place on Earth” has not yet been translated into Hebrew). She compares writing in a new language to living in a new country, and says it feels like a “mirroring the act of migration.”

It’s also another way of inhabiting new selves and new roles.