Jewish Journal

What would my Israeli grandmother think?

by Rebecca Spence

May 17, 2013 | 11:06 am

My Israeli grandmother, Bracha Turgeman.

When I hear about the latest events in Israel – the air strikes on weapons facilities in Syria, the flare-ups over women donning prayer shawls at the Western Wall – I can’t help but wonder: What would my Israeli grandmother think?

After all, she spent her young life fighting for the dream of an independent Jewish state.

She was born in Jerusalem, lived in Jaffa for a time, and as a teenager, she joined the Jerusalem Biblical and Folk Ballet, the first ostensibly Zionist dance company. By the time she met my American grandfather and became pregnant with my mother in 1947, the Arab armies had besieged Jerusalem. While my grandfather fought with the Haganah, my grandmother subsisted on food rations.

She was no stranger to hunger. Having grown up in a poor Sephardic family, she didn’t always have dinner on the table. Her father – born in Hebron to a family that could trace its roots in the ancient city back to 1492, when his ancestors first arrived from Spain – had died upon release from a British prison, leaving her mother to feed seven hungry mouths. But my grandmother survived, and at the age of 19, she gave birth to my mother. It was 1948, the same year that the State of Israel was born.

In so many ways, the story of Israel is literally the story of my family. That is why I studied the Arab-Israel conflict as a college student, spent a semester at Tel Aviv University, and went on to become a Jewish journalist, writing for the Forward, the JTA, and yes, the Jewish Journal. It is also why I have spent the last four years and counting writing a novel inspired by my family’s stories.

While I could write a non-fiction account, or even produce a documentary about my family history in Israel – after all, there are few American or Israeli Jews who can trace their lineage in the Land of Israel back to 1492 – I have chosen fiction as my medium because it provides for the most imagination and possibility.

In real life, while my Israeli grandmother had a fascinating and in some ways, heroic, life, she also shunned my mother from birth. I grew up hearing horror stories of her abuse and neglect, and as a result, I had little contact with her, and little contact with the Jewish State. It wasn’t until my mother took me to Israel when I was 16, and I met my Sephardic family, the Turgemans, for the first time, that the flood gates opened. Not only had I found a home and a family, I felt as if I had found myself.

That feeling stayed with me for years, and like so many young American Jews, I thought about making aliyah. In fact, when I was in Israel last spring for book research, my great-aunt Ilana turned to me on the way to Ben Gurion airport, and asked, “So when are you moving here?”

I couldn’t give her an answer, because as Israeli as I feel on the inside, I feel that much more American. But by writing about Israel, by telling its stories – both good and bad – and by bringing to light the story of a family whose life is so inextricably intertwined with that of the State of Israel, I am living there every day, if not in person, then in spirit.

I am also providing a space for my mother and grandmother, who are estranged to this day, to come in contact with one another as characters in the fictional world. That is the beauty of fiction; it allows for new beginnings and new endings. It allows for me to pick up the threads of the past and spin a new tale – one far more forgiving and compassionate than the one I was told.

In order to finish my novel, I have launched a fundraiser through USA Projects. Donations are tax-deductible and will allow me to complete my historical research and finish the manuscript in the next six months. If you’d like to learn more about the book and the fundraiser, please click here.

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Rebecca Spence is an award-winning writer based on the West Coast. She has written for the Forward, Elle, ARTnews, New York Magazine, Tablet, the L.A. Jewish Journal and JTA....

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