Jewish Journal

Writer Displays Keen Eye for Israeli Life

by Sandee Brawarsky

Posted on Feb. 12, 2004 at 7:00 pm

The Israel that Donna Rosenthal depicts in her new book, "The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land" (Free Press) can sound like one very crowded apartment building, filled with interesting, passionate people from many backgrounds, often shouting in the hallways, sitting on the stoop, offering advice out their windows, sharing tragedies. But the tenants don't know much about those neighbors who aren't like them.

Rosenthal is a journalist with an eye for the telling anecdote. She presents scores of profiles of Israeli citizens, stories full of complexities, sometimes contradictions and mysteries: Here are Bedouin women watching Oprah, then washing clothes in plastic buckets on the floor; ice-skaters with names like Tatiana and Vadim who practice in an Olympic-sized rink in Metulla and bring home medals for their adopted country; people for whom it has become not uncommon to attend funerals and weddings in a single day.

Among many others, she depicts an ultra-Orthodox father who won't allow his daughter to keep the "dental hygienist" Barbie doll given to her by a secular friend of the family; an Ethiopian electrical engineer working for Intel who never used electricity or saw a telephone until he was 12; a young man who studied Torah all through school and says that his first spiritual experience was in Goa, India; a Christian Arab social worker doing outreach to gay and lesbian Arabs; a Yemenite psychologist who tried to bleach her skin white as a child.

"Israel is a talkative country," Rosenthal said in a telephone interview from her office in Northern California, when asked how she was able to get so many people to open up their lives. "It's an easy place to be a journalist."

"The Israelis" was inspired by the comments of an international news producer at CNN who told her that viewers were confused about Israeli identity, noticing that there were Jews who look like Arabs, Arabs who look like Jews, men in 16th century garb and girls in tight pants.

"Who are these people anyway?" he asked.

"I'm trying to smash stereotypes," said Rosenthal, who has lived in Israel on and off since in the 1970s and worked as a producer for Israeli television and as a radio reporter. Although Israel receives a great deal of news coverage, she said, "There's an amazing amount of ignorance [among reporters]," and added, "Some of the most ignorant reporters have been Jews."

She's no easier on the American Jewish community.

"I'm appalled at the lack of knowledge among Jews, even those who've been to Israel," she said, after speaking about the book at several Jewish book fairs and at synagogues and bookstores.

Her judgments may be harsh, but even those individuals who make a point of staying current with Israel through reading its press and literature, talking frequently with Israelis and visiting are likely to hear voices of Israelis they haven't previously heard.

This is not a book of politics and politicians but of regular people. Rosenthal's two criteria for inclusion were Israeli citizenship and not being famous. She made sure to include a large number of women. She said that their stories are frequently left out of books. Her interviews and profiles are woven together with historical background and statistics.

Some of her findings are particularly surprising: That Arab Christians are the most educated and affluent of all Israelis, that Muhammad is the most popular name for an Israeli boy.

She finds pockets of tolerance, like a Turkish-Sephardi grandmother who grew up in Hebron and saw her father murdered by his Arab business partner. But she never lost her faith in God and never hated Arabs. When a bomb goes off, she always says, "Rotten terrorist" -- never "Rotten Arabs." Her oft-quoted proverb: "If you live to seek revenge, dig a grave for two."

Avoiding easy generalizations, Rosenthal writes about such themes as mixed marriages (between Ashkenazim and Sephardim), life on the fast track in the world of high tech, the "widening fault line between Jews and Jews" over matters of religion, the daily impact of terrorism, resentment toward new immigrants, differing work ethics, a religious reawakening among non-Orthodox Jews who are studying Jewish texts anew and what one man calls "kippology" -- the meaning of different head coverings.

She covers sexuality, writing about army life, customs of the haredim, gay Arabs and Jews, prostitutes and brothels and parents who prefer to have their children sleep with their boyfriends or girlfriends in their own beds at home so that they know they are safe.

In addition, she writes about the various Arab communities, finding on newsstands an Arabic magazine, Lilac, a cross between People, Cosmo and the National Catholic Reporter, with glossy photos and pointed articles about premarital sex, date rape and homosexuality.

Rosenthal's first book was "Passport Israel," a guide to cross-cultural communications and doing business in Israel. She said that over the years, she has learned to understand the Israeli character. For one thing, she realizes that a "no" may really be a "maybe." When she is turned down for an interview by a leading businessman, she calls right back, asks again, and turns "no" into "yes."

The author, who until this intifada kept a horse in an Arab village on the Mount of Olives, spent about four years writing the book, living first in the center of Jerusalem, then near the beach in Tel Aviv and traveling back and forth to the United States.

Rosenthal's own politics are nowhere to be seen in this rich and lively book. She's very much the absent narrator; she offers neither prescriptions nor solutions.

In an interview, too, she revealed little about herself, other than that she comes from a background that's both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, "a mixed family of Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, non-Orthodox and everything in between. A typical family."

"I'm trying to have no fingerprints," she said, and expressed satisfaction that she has been invited to speak at synagogues across the denominational spectrum and has heard positive comments from Israelis involved in the settlement movement, as well as from members of Peace Now about the way they were covered. "Everyone thinks I'm one of them."

Discussions about "The Israelis" will take place at The Jewish Community Library, Feb. 25, 7 p.m., 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (323) 761-8644; and Stephen S. Wise Temple, March 2, 7:30 p.m., 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles.

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