The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari (Random House, $26) is a memoir seasoned by turmeric and nicotine, chronicling Tsabari’s coming-of-age in a large Yemeni family in Israel and her travels around the world until ultimately she creates, for herself, her own definition of home.
The first third of Tsabari’s memoir focuses on the death of her beloved father just before her tenth birthday, leaving her young mother alone with six children to raise. Tsabari vividly depicts the devastating impact of this loss: “That moment, crystallized in my memory through the fog of grief, will be the fork in the road where my future splits in two: what could have happened had he lived and what happened because he didn’t. And as I grow up, I will try to live as wildly and loudly as I can to outdo the enormity of this moment, to diminish it.” Not long before her father’s heart attack, Tsabari had shared with him some of her writing, and her father had promised her that he would publish it in a book. Three decades later, Tsabari finally became a published writer on her own, and this memoir is on one level the story of how she found a way to make good on her father’s promise – and on her own.
As a girl growing up in Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli culture of the 1970s and 1980s, Tsabari struggles with her identity as the granddaughter of Yemeni immigrants. She refuses to eat her mother’s Yemeni soup with its wilted cilantro and fenugreek paste and buys herself burgers instead. And though she is proud when her childhood idol, the Yemeni singer Ofra Haza, becomes one of the first Mizrahi artists to make it into the Israeli canon, Tsabari does not want to be mistaken for a freha, the subject of one of Haza’s most famous songs and a popular stereotype of Mizrahi women — intellectually shallow, heavy made-up and accessorized, marked by poverty and promiscuity. In search of her own identity, she becomes a hippie, gets hired to write for a popular teen magazine, and tries to pass as an Ashkenazi. Only when she gets a job, decades later, at a Lebanese restaurant in Vancouver does she finally feel free to embrace her ethnic identity halfway around the world.
Tsabari finds herself only by traveling far from her family to India, Thailand, Vancouver, Toronto, and New York. Once, while calling her family back home from Manhattan, she reflects, “It’s strange how much I miss them and how badly I need to be away from them right now… Maybe I need to do my growing up away from them. Or maybe I love them so much, it feels safer to walk away. Because you never know what might happen to the people you love.” It is not just the loss of her father that haunts her; in an era of suicide bombings, she writes that a bus in Israel is an “instrument of death”; in a later chapter about Vancouver, she describes the bus as a “traveling circus” where you never know whom you will meet. And so following her unhappy and inglorious army service, she spends most of her twenties and thirties rolling joints, bargaining in bazaars, waitressing for enough money to pay for her next plane ticket out. As a boyfriend once tells her, “You play backgammon like you live your life. You play aggressively, you constantly take risks, you don’t want to build houses. You leave yourself open all over the place, and when things get dicey, you run away.”
The most compelling parts of Tsabari’s memoir are not about her longing to leave, but about her struggle to stay. (But then again, perhaps that’s just my own bias. I have always been far more captivated, for instance, by the memoirs of those who struggle to come to terms with their religious identity than by the many accounts of those who leave Judaism, or Hasidism, or the Modern Orthodox community. I prefer memoirs about decades-long marriages to sordid sagas about devastating divorces. Is it not always harder to stay?)
For Tsabari, the struggle to stay takes many different forms. It is about learning how to fry her mother’s chicken livers and bake her chocolate yeast cake –which is first and foremost about seeing her mother’s strengths after years of being blinded by grief. It is about bringing her Canadian Christian husband home to Petah Tikva to clean out her childhood home. It is about discovering her father’s poetry and realizing that he, too, fought long and hard to master a literary language not his own. It is about researching the story of her Yemenite great grandmother, who abandoned her toddler twin daughters and followed her husband to a strange land: “I see her walking away, shoulder trembling, tears streaming. I imagine the mountains and the spirits who lived in them looking on as the family began their journey toward a new life. The mountains had witnessed the lives of the people for centuries. They watched patterns evolving through generations, old roles taken over by new faces, new husbands replacing the dead, girls becoming mothers and mothers becoming grandmothers. Nothing ever changed, but rather shifted ever so slightly, like an ancient folk song played in a new key.”
Most poignantly, for Tsabari, learning to stay is about becoming a mother herself and recognizing that in order to stay, we cannot help but leave: “Perhaps motherhood is a series of small abandonments, in the same way that life is a series of goodbyes. We are raising our children to survive without us in the world. We are raising them to leave us, raising them to endure our own departure.” Perhaps the art of leaving is not all that different from the art or losing. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, a poet born in Massachusetts who circumnavigated South America and traveled extensively in Brazil. The real art is not about losing or leaving, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is captured by Donald Justice, Bishop’s contemporary, a poet who stayed far closer to home: “It always comes, and when it comes they know / The knack is this: to fasten and not let go.”