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The Schmooze

Why Ayelet Tsabari’s Sami Rohr Win Is a Victory for Arab Jews

Sami Rohr Prize winner Ayelet Tsabari / Elsin Davidi

Ayelet Tsabari, author of the short story collection “The Best Place On Earth” (HarperCollins 2013), has won the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature — and I couldn’t be happier about it.

A couple of months ago, I issued one of those pre-New-Year’s calls for a cultural shift in focus, titled Let’s Make 2015 the Year of the Arab Jew. “I’m often dismayed by how ‘Ashkenazi’ becomes a stand-in for ‘Jewish,’ while Sephardic and Mizrahi voices fall by the wayside,” I wrote. “What if Arab Jewish artists decided to make art that represents us?”

That’s exactly what Tsabari has done in “The Best Place On Earth.”

Here’s how I summed up her project when I reviewed the book for The Daily Beast in 2013:

An Israeli of Yemeni descent, Tsabari is not interested in writing, shall we say, your bubbe’s fiction. She’s interested in cataloguing the experiences of the Mizrahi community — a population rarely represented in Israeli literature, never mind Jewish Canadian literature. In her stories, you won’t find matzo ball soup, Yiddish, or the Holocaust. Instead, you’ll find fenugreek, Arabic, and tales of forced conversion to Islam at the hands of Yemeni authorities. You’ll also see the effects of longstanding discrimination against Mizrahim, and of some Israelis’ refusal to even recognize “Arab Jew” as a category.

Tsabari, who identifies as an Arab Jew and finds the term “romantic and wonderfully controversial,” tackles Israeli resistance to it in her story “Say It Again, Say Something Else.” When teenage narrator Lily tells her friend that “my grandparents came from Yemen, so we are Arabs in a way, Arab Jews,” her friend immediately dismisses the category with a laugh. “No, that’s impossible,” she says. “You’re either an Arab or a Jew.”

Tsabari’s stories dissolve that false dichotomy, giving voice to an underrepresented and marginalized community. And writing stories about that kind of community is not easy. First, you have to get over the fact that you’ve got almost no models in contemporary literature to help inspire or guide your work. Then you’ve got to get over the fear that your work won’t be seen as marketable, and won’t be well received even if and when it does get marketed, because people like to read and review what they know, and they know what they’ve already had modeled for them, and… Are you sensing a vicious cycle here?

It takes a lot of guts to break that cycle — to decide that yours is a book that the world needs, even if the world doesn’t quite know it yet. And it takes even more guts to do this when what you’re working on isn’t your gazillionth book, but your first, your debut.

The good news here is that when the rare writer comes along who’s willing to do this, and when a major establishment voice like the Jewish Book Council rewards her gutsiness (and also, of course, her damn good writing), the cycle gets broken down even further as other writers begin to sense that hey, maybe they can write about this stuff, too. Maybe they’re actually allowed to write from their own experience, instead of trying to achieve what Zadie Smith ironically calls “the mythical ‘neutral’ voice of universal art.” (Read: white, Western art.)

That’s why Tsabari’s victory isn’t just a victory for her (though of course it is that, too!) — it’s also a big win for all of us Arab Jews.

Let’s keep it coming, 2015 — so far, we’re off to a great start!

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