Sadness is a White Bird will unsettle and transform you

Rarely does one come across a debut novel as artistically accomplished, politically unsettling, and emotionally unflinching as Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s Sadness is a White Bird.
A richly empathic story of Israel and Palestine, history and memory, explored through the intimate bonds between young Jewish and Muslim Israelis, this novel offers all that one could wish for in a coming-of-age story. By turns humorous, joyful, melancholy, erotic and tragic, the author’s luminous prose consistently delivers the crucial element of convincing detail.
Though it begins and ends in a military prison cell, that bleak framing device contains an ebullient, unpredictable series of events.
When teenager Jonathan moves back to Israel with his family after years of living in the United States, he happily settles in with his Jewish high school friends until a chance encounter with Nimreen and Laith – a twin girl and boy who happen to be Palestinian Israelis – transforms his life irreparably.
The three form a utopian bond, hitchhiking from one end of the country to the other, sharing intimate secrets, smoking pot and gradually falling in love with one another.
This being Israel, the three inevitably argue passionately about politics and identity. Their raw and testy exchanges about painful realities and misperceptions of the “other” constitute some of the novel’s most gripping moments.
For a time, their shared intimacy seems indestructible. But the twins bitterly recoil when Jonathan decides to join the Paratroopers, a decision partly inspired by his family’s own wounded history in Salonica, and partly by his desire to prove himself in a country that places a supreme value on military service. He pretends that nothing will change, but naturally everything does.
“My soldier dream was the fourth member of our group,” Jonathan says, “following the three of us wherever we went.”
Without imposing a false symmetry, Sadness memorably juxtaposes two family tragedies: One concerns the killing of the brother of Jonathan’s grandfather in Nazi-occupied Greece, the other the Palestinian grandmother’s anguished account of events leading up to the cold-blooded murder of her husband by soldiers in 1956. Inevitably, these distant horrors intrude on the young people’s lives.
At once a celebration of youth and love, and a lamentation for the daunting odds of sustaining either in the tragic circumstances of the Middle East, Sadness is a novel of inconvenient truths, a triumph of the aesthetic and moral imagination, one that will likely leave its readers (one can only hope that many Israelis and Palestinians will be among them) feeling unsettled and perhaps utterly transformed.

(Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE-endowed chair of Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville.)

Book Review
Sadness is a White Bird, by Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Atria Books, 2018, hardcover, 288 pages, $26.00

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