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An intimate memoir in essays by an award-winning Israeli writer who travels the world, from New York to India, searching for love, belonging, and an escape from grief following the death of her father when she was a young girl
This searching collection opens with the death of Ayelet Tsabari’s father when she was just nine years old. His passing left her feeling rootless, devastated, and driven to question her complex identity as an Israeli of Yemeni descent in a country that suppressed and devalued her ancestors’ traditions.
In The Art of Leaving, Tsabari tells her story, from her early love of writing and words, to her rebellion during her mandatory service in the Israeli army. She travels from Israel to New York, Canada, Thailand, and India, falling in and out of love with countries, men and women, drugs and alcohol, running away from responsibilities and refusing to settle in one place. She recounts her first marriage, her struggle to define herself as a writer in a new language, her decision to become a mother, and finally her rediscovery and embrace of her family history—a history marked by generations of headstrong women who struggled to choose between their hearts and their homes. Eventually, she realizes that she must reconcile the memories of her father and the sadness of her past if she is ever going to come to terms with herself.
With fierce, emotional prose, Ayelet Tsabari crafts a beautiful meditation about the lengths we will travel to try to escape our grief, the universal search to find a place where we belong, and the sense of home we eventually find within ourselves.
Advance praise for The Art of Leaving
“Candid, affecting . . . [Ayelet Tsabari’s] linked essays cohere into a tender, moving memoir.”—KirkusReviews (starred review)
“Ayelet Tsabari’s memoir is a passionate account of the pain, fire, and fury of adolescence and young adulthood, the search for a sense of belonging, and reconciling the disparate parts of our lives and ultimately ourselves.”—Camilla Gibb, author of This Is Happy and The Beauty of Humanity Movement
“Ayelet Tsabari is a fierce-tender writer. Her work is an enchanting mix of vivid anecdote and vigorous insight—spanning generations and geographies, glittering with humor and heart.”—Kyo Maclear, author of Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Art of Leaving
In My Dreams We Hug Like Grown-ups Do
For my tenth birthday, my father promised he would publish my writing in a book.
“A real book?”
“A real book. Put together your best stuff.”
I had been writing ever since I learned the alphabet. By the end of first grade, I was crafting books from school notebooks, complete with illustrated cover images and blurbs on the back. I had even started a library of my writings that was frequented by neighbors and cousins. I attached a pocket for a library card to the back of each notebook and fashioned a library stamp by carving letters on an eraser.
My father used to write too; I had seen the scribbling in his bedside drawer—parts of poems, unsent letters, his handwriting artfully drawn and rounded with long strokes, always in black ink. At the bottom of the drawer, I found a yellowing magazine titled Afikim, in which one of his poems was featured, his only publication.
That day, after my father made his promise, I locked myself in my room and wrote until dinnertime. After dinner I wrote some more. By the next day, I’d filled a notebook with the tale of a young girl adjusting to a new school. Earlier that year, my family had moved, so I drew the story from my own experience. When I finished, I proudly presented my father with my work. He was resting in bed, leaning against a pile of pillows, recently out of the hospital.
“What’s this?” he said.
“A book, like you asked.”
He laughed, flipped through the pages. “You wrote all this yesterday?”
“Yes.” I puffed out my chest.
He put the notebook aside. “Writing a book should take longer than a day. There’s still time before your birthday.”
“But you didn’t read it!” I protested. “How do you know it’s not good?”
He promised he’d read it.
A few days later, as I was walking back from the library, two books clutched to my chest, I saw an ambulance parked on the curb outside our house, its orange flicker lighting up the rosebushes in timed, urgent intervals—a busy signal.
∙ ∙ ∙
After school, Nurit and I mostly go to her place, because hers is always empty and mine never is. Nurit’s house key hangs like a pendant around her neck, and she has pay phone tokens threaded on her shoelaces for emergencies. In my house, unless my mom is visiting my dad at the hospital, she is at home with the baby, and my older sister and three older brothers are in their rooms or in the kitchen or in the living room or downstairs playing Ping-Pong with their friends. Every day my aunts and uncles and cousins come to visit too, for lunch or for an afternoon coffee and cake, or just to chat. “This house is like a train station,” my mother often sighs, but she sounds secretly pleased.
On days when Nurit does come over, mostly in the afternoons when my mom is napping, we go up to the roof. From there you can see rain-streaked buildings with protruding balconies, their flat white roofs crowded with crooked antennas, water tanks, and gleaming solar panels. Kids sit on window ledges and dangle legs through metal bars, and strings of colorful laundry smile under windows. Looking east, you can see the end of Petah Tikva, the trees that line the highway leading to the airport, and the hills of Rosh HaAyin in a squiggly line on the horizon. On our west, down the eternally jammed Jabotinsky Road, is Tel Aviv, the big city with its narrow streets and white sand beaches and the promise of the world beyond its shores. Airplanes circle above us like hungry seagulls before landing, and sometimes warplanes zoom by on their way north of the border. The war is far away, but we can see it written on the grown-ups’ faces: the tension in their cheeks, the groove between the eyebrows. We can hear it in the music played on the radio, beautiful songs in minor keys about death and the land that fill us with sweet sadness.
Our new house is in Mahane Yehuda, a Petah Tikva neighborhood that was founded by Yemeni immigrants at the beginning of the twentieth century. The main street—a short strip with stumpy buildings propped against each other like a train that has stalled in its tracks—is hidden behind a row of cypress trees, spiky palms with leaves like fountains, and a scary abandoned house with a broken staircase suspended in midair, leading to a nonexistent second floor.
Nurit and I play in my attic, a small triangular alcove under the slanted roof that you have to access through a hole in the wall. Other times, my brother who is three years older than me invites his friends to play music there, which isn’t fair because he has his own room and I have to share mine with a baby.
Nurit and I tell each other everything. I’m the only one of her friends who knows her mom had an accident when she was young: her dark, beautiful hair was caught in an industrial fan in the factory where she worked and that is why she now wears a wig. I’ve never told anyone about that, but every time I walk by a large fan, I imagine my hair being ripped out of my skull. Nurit is also the first person I called after my dad had the heart attack.
Aba’s heart attack happened on the first Shabbat of September in 1982, two days after I started fourth grade. I was playing at Keren’s, my neighbor who lives a few houses down from us, even though her family isn’t Yemeni. There are a few families like hers on our street, lured by the cheap prices and the proximity to downtown. Keren’s two brothers are in the air force, so she knows things about the war in Lebanon that started in the summer, when the Israeli troops made it as far as Beirut. In the spring, when we saw Israeli kids kicking and fighting and crying on TV as the army evacuated them from their homes, Keren was the one who explained to me why we were withdrawing from Yamit, which was in the Sinai Peninsula, and how it was a good thing we were returning it to Egypt because now we could finally have peace and go see the pyramids. Once, she lent me a top secret air force book that teaches soldiers how to identify warplanes, and I’ve studied it carefully in case I see enemy planes in the sky.
We were in Keren’s room when my sister came to get me. My sister is sixteen. She wears shapeless embroidered galabiyas she buys from Arab shopkeepers in Jaffa and walks barefoot. She has a poster of Janis Joplin over her bed, screaming into a mic, hair fanning out like an octopus. Her bedroom smells like smoke and incense. In our old apartment, we shared a room, and I would fall asleep to the sound of her turning pages. Now she never lets me into her room. When she’s out, I sneak in and search for secret notebooks and letters. I open her wardrobe drawers and try on her makeup and perfume, hoping to rub some of her coolness onto me.
“You have to come home,” my sister said.
“But why? Ima doesn’t mind.”
My sister stared at the floor for a bit and finally sat down on Keren’s bed. I sat beside her. “Aba had a heart attack while playing soccer,” she said. “He’s in the hospital.”
Keren placed her hand on my arm and told me her father had a heart attack too, a few years ago. He was airlifted by a helicopter to a hospital. “He’s fine now,” she said. “Yours will be fine too.”
Over the next few weeks, as my father goes in and out of the hospital, looking thinner and weaker each time, I keep thinking of Keren’s words. I wonder how long it took before her father was fine, but I never ask.
Most days, Nurit and I talk about boys—boys like Danny, who has hair the color of straw and bluish-gray eyes. Danny isn’t popular like my boyfriend, Alon, who is athletic and cool. Danny does not play sports and he’s good at math. Nurit thinks he likes me. I wave my hand at that and tell her she’s crazy, but inside my chest, my heart does a little dance.
Alon asked me to be his girlfriend last year, in third grade. I had just started in the new school. We were playing hide-and-seek after class under an apartment building on Bialik Street, and when I hid behind a hibiscus bush, Alon knelt beside me. We crouched silently for a while. My palms felt clammy. He glanced at me and said, “Do you want to be my girlfriend?” I blushed and said, “You don’t even know me.” And he said, “I like what I know.” And so I said, “Okay, yes.” We stayed for a while and talked, even though the game was over and someone was yelling, “Come out now, everybody.” When we joined the rest, my face was flushed and I couldn’t stop smiling, and this girl Iris looked at me funny. I didn’t know that she liked Alon. I didn’t know he used to be her boyfriend in second grade.
A few weeks after that, Iris and some other girls cornered me at recess and told me that I was too bossy and snobby, that I always wanted to make the rules for the games, and that they weren’t going to play with me or talk to me anymore. When I came home for lunch, I was crying, and Aba sat on my bed and asked me to tell him everything. Aba always listens to me. He doesn’t just nod while folding laundry or washing the dishes, like Ima does. That day after lunch, he took me to his work and bought me a strawberry jam donut, powdered with sugar, from the European deli by his office. On the way back home, sitting in the backseat of his olive-green Ford Cortina, I heard him talking to his brother in English so I wouldn’t understand, but I did. He said, “She is sad because the girls say she’s acting like a queen.”
When I go visit Aba at the hospital, he looks thin and his eyes are tired, but he’s still smiling. The nurses beam at him and call him dear, and I can tell they like him. Everyone likes my dad: the people at the deli who give me free donuts; his secretary, who perks up whenever he walks in; the strangers on the street who shake his hand effusively; and his clients, whom I see sometimes when I visit his law office, many of them old people from Sha’ariya, a small Yemeni neighborhood at the edge of Petah Tikva. They thank him repeatedly, overcome with emotion, until he waves his hand, embarrassed, and says, “Don’t worry about it. Just pay me when you can,” or sometimes, “It’s okay. Just pray for me in the synagogue.”
Aba asks about my writing and the books I’ve been reading. Before his heart attack, he wrote the word “masterpieces” on an old shoebox and filled it up with books he thought I might want to read and discuss, like Around the World in Eighty Days and Little Women and David Copperfield and Oliver Twist. I want to climb on his bed and cuddle with him but my mom says I can’t.
At night, before I go to sleep, I pray to God to make Aba better and hope God listens even though my family isn’t really religious and we drive and watch TV and turn on appliances on Shabbat. I hope God remembers that before Aba got sick, he used to go to synagogue every week and helped people for free. When I take off my shoes, if one of the soles faces the ceiling, I fix it right away, because my savta, my mom’s mom, who came from Yemen, once told me it is rude to be giving Him the dirty sole of your shoe. Savta peppers her sentences with “God have mercy” and “Insha’Allah,” which means “God willing” in Arabic. She looks up at the sky, shaking her head and sighing and slapping her thighs, and I know she is talking to Him, probably listing her misfortunes: her dead husband, her brother who was killed in the war, her mother, who abandoned her when she was only two and no one knows why. I wish I had such a candid, direct relationship with God.
AYELET TSABARI was born in Israel to a large family of Yemeni descent. Her first book, The Best Place on Earth, won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and was long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The book was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2016, and has been published internationally to great acclaim. Excerpts from her forthcoming book have won a National Magazine Award and a Western Magazine Award. She lives in Toronto.