Gail Hareven’s Confessional

The Israeli Author on Totalitarianism, Feminism and Her New Novel

The Secret: ‘Being a mother — especially of twins — taught me how to work efficiently,’ Gail Hareven said.
Ouria Tadmor
The Secret: ‘Being a mother — especially of twins — taught me how to work efficiently,’ Gail Hareven said.

By David Stromberg

Published February 23, 2009.
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The work of Gail Hareven, one of Israel’s most prominent writers of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature, is being introduced to an English-speaking audience with the recent release of “The Confessions of Noa Weber” (Melville House). This novel tells the story of the titular character’s struggle between her feminist ideology and her yearning for love and spirituality. David Stromberg, a writer and journalist in Jerusalem, interviewed Hareven, the author of 11 books and a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, about “Confessions,” which will be released in paperback this month.

David Stromberg: People often reflect on how someone else’s culture is different from their own, but here you flip the perspective, and Noa seems constantly aware of how her own culture is different from those of others.

Gail Hareven: Noa Weber stands in a culture [that] is between two cultures: Russian on one side, represented by the émigré character of Alek, and American on the other, represented by their daughter Hagar, who is in the U.S., learning to be a rabbi. Noa can feel their influence on her, and also feels what her own culture or personality lacks or yearns for. For her, America symbolizes a compulsive sense of being constructive, optimistic, believing in yourself, a lack of tragic feelings. Russia symbolizes the tragic sense of life, spiritual yearning, also love.

Her love affair with Alek, the couple’s fictitious marriage, her accidental pregnancy — these all seem to pave the way for Noa to break out of the limited social norms available to her. But how does she reconcile her independence with her lingering love?

Noa develops a dual personality. There is her social self, her “persona,” which is that of a feminist writer and social activist, of a single mother who has a feminist ideology. Then there is her inner life, which is the complete opposite — a secret, solitary life in which her love and religious yearning are hidden. For her, there is no option of integrating those two personas. As I was writing the book, I had a question about the political correctness of ethics: How deep should our demands go? Do we ask people only to behave correctly, or do we also expect them to have the right feelings? If political correctness has to do not only with actions, but also with feelings, imagination, yearning — if it makes a demand or claim on inner life — then it is totalitarian by nature.

Noa senses that love and spirituality exist even if she doesn’t believe in them. She’s a monk but also a solipsist. Yet despite her seeming egoism, there is something larger.

Noa isn’t a bad philosopher. Though she isn’t looking for her spirituality, she’s captured by it against her own will. She’s not looking for visions; they haunt her, and she’s struggling with them. I believe that when people struggle and don’t surrender easily, the feelings and beliefs that are left are the real important ones. When Noa surrenders to her love and yearning for the feeling of the divine, it’s not because she wants to. This surrender comes with great pain and a high price; that’s what makes it authentic. By the way, I believe her public persona is no less authentic [than her private one]. One might say that she’s enslaved by her love, but again, there’s a paradox here, because being enslaved to her love for an absent man — almost an abstract entity — is what makes her such an independent woman.

In the early 1990s, Israel saw an unprecedented emigration from Russia — 30,000 people per month, a total of nearly a million new immigrants. At the time, you spent a year interviewing new immigrants, which resulted in a nonfiction book called “Hope, If We Insist.” Is this book connected to “The Confessions of Noa Weber”?

It took me a few more years before I felt capable of writing a plausible Russian immigrant character. But even then, Alek is described through Noa’s eyes. She understands him as much as an Israeli can understand an immigrant. Personally, I think it’s very important for a writer to know what kinds of things are beyond his or her knowledge. Even though I spent a lot of time with people who came from Russia, and visited Russia eight times before writing “Confessions,” I knew it wasn’t possible for me to write what’s going on in Alek’s mind. It was satisfying enough for me to plausibly describe his behavior and speech. I remember once I was at a party with a lot of Russian immigrants, and a guy approached me, half-drunk, saying: “Where did you find all these stories about me? I am Alek.”

Can you talk about being the “housewife and mother” and also being a writer?

Being a mother — especially of twins — taught me how to work efficiently. Family life saves one from the dangers of solipsism, which I think many writers encounter. One has to learn how to live with two parallel worlds, and, in a way, use the actual life as a good and safe base from which one can send expeditions to that parallel world. I think that dealing only with words all the time doesn’t do one any good. It’s good to remember that there are other human beings around you.

The book seems to dwell on a defining moment for Noa, and on her stubbornly cementing that singular moment.

One of the ideas which really engaged my thought while I was writing was the idea of unconditional love. There’s something impersonal about it. It doesn’t matter what the person does or who he becomes. In the end, it doesn’t matter who he is, and it’s not “the person” whom you love. At first, Alek is important as a particular person, but through the years, the experience of love becomes more important than Alek himself. In the end, she has a vision — we can almost say a religious vision — of being left full of love. Being elated by a love which connects to no object. Perhaps to divinity.

Is Noa’s insistence on this “unconditional love” actually an attempt to retain purity?

It has to do with the idea of confession. At the opening of the book, Noa starts to confess the story of her love for Alek. Her idea is to get rid of it by talking about it. As the confession goes on, it becomes more personal. And rather than a method for getting rid of things, it serves as a way of being more committed.

Almost despite itself, the love story turns inward and becomes a philosophical novel. Can you talk about this dichotomy?

For me there’s no dichotomy between thought on one hand, and feelings or passion on the other. They aren’t different spheres. In a way, I believe that our passions appear to us in the form of thoughts. And that thought can be extremely passionate. Every person, when he experiences some kind of feeling, also relates to that feeling — judges it, evaluates it. I think that what makes people different is not so much what they feel as the different ways they respond to their feelings.

Was taking a “fully fledged” and “declared” feminist as a narrator a way of dealing with the public perception of yourself as a feminist writer?

I see myself as a feminist, present myself as a feminist, teach feminism. But I think we have to limit ourselves to social behavior. As I said, Noa’s external social personality stands for the strongest demands — she is the best kind of feminist one can imagine — but her inner secret life is totally different. I was wondering how much this would irritate my readers, and also how I would respond to it. While writing, I had the temptation to “save” her, to find a feminist remedy to her painful feelings. I’m thankful to myself for not supplying her with such a remedy. Letting her solve or deal with those problems in her own way was a learning experience for me. In many ways, Noa has a very good life. I understood when I finished writing that Noa doesn’t need to be saved.

To read an excerpt from “Confessions of Noa Weber,” click here.

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