Writing a Novel to Encounter Other Versions of Myself


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I wrote The Lover to encounter an alternate version of myself. Who would I have been had I made different choices? Like Allison, the primary narrator of The Lover, I am a half-Jewish Canadian who moved to Tel Aviv for graduate school. Like her, I was a blossoming academic; like her, I was in love with ancient Jewish texts, with a particular fascination with the lives of words. And like Allison, I really did meet a 19-year-old Israel soldier on the bus. Despite an eight-year age gap, we began dating. As in the novel, his family absorbed me—a tribe of tiny blond women.

Like Allison and her soldier (Eyal, is the character’s name in the book), my soldier and I wrote each other love letters while he was away at the army. Like Allison, I initially came to Israel for a few months, which became a year, two years, citizenship, three years.

Despite the overlap, Allison is not I. The Lover is not memoir thinly disguised as fiction. I wish I could write auto-fiction; I love reading it. But I can’t. I never hold my own interest long enough. Allison, and her story, are ultimately creations. To form her, I took perhaps my most dangerous quality—my desire to be loved and accepted, possibly stemming from my own pervasive loneliness—and I magnified that trait until it became the primary characteristic of a person, and I named that person Allison. In this way, I could examine one part of myself and its consequences.

Other parts of me I extracted and used to form Allison’s sister, who bears no resemblance to my own sister except for some childhood memories I gave the girls about walking home through snowbanks.

The soldier in The Lover, Eyal, is not a replica of the soldier I dated a decade ago. Similar to the way I created Allison, I took a single trait of the soldier I loved—his unlikely sensitivity—and magnified that trait until it defined him.

This is why I love writing fiction: I can create circumstances that allow me to see truths that were, in lived reality, much more faintly present. I want to know how love changes us. What are the politics of love within a system of power? When is violence an act of love? What does power over others do to our hearts? To our souls? What did becoming Israeli do to me? Or, what did I do to myself?

As an outsider integrating into Israeli society, Allison makes choices that are increasingly at odds with her self-concept as a liberal. Her sister back in Canada says Allison is becoming radicalized politically. These comments irritate Allison, but she never questions the brutal consequences of maintaining an ethnic democracy. She sees these realities—the power disparities, the indifference to certain lives, the political cynicism—and decides that she can accept them. Or rather, that they are worth accepting because of the love and acceptance she herself has found in Israel. I made a different choice.

The difference that changed my whole life: Where Allison fled, I stayed. I stayed and I listened, despite my discomfort.

In the summer of 2014, Israel was hurling toward another invasion of Gaza. It was my second year in Israel. The previous summer, I learned about rocket sirens—enjoyed a certain plucky familiarity with the machinery of war. The summer of 2014, I was living in Jerusalem, and perhaps less inculcated than in Tel Aviv, I became attuned to fantastic violence. Boys were kidnapped on their way home from school, from prayers, dying horribly. Their faces and names where everywhere; which names you said depended on which side you were on.

My soldier and I were still dating. It had been over a year at that point. At that time, Ramadan was falling in the summer. The invasion was coming, everyone knew; it was unbearably hot.

Like Allison, I accepted an invitation to a Palestinian home. In my case, it was not a home in the Arab-Israeli city of Nazareth but in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem. Unlike Allison, my boyfriend knew, and was very against me going, If something happens there, I cannot come for you, he said. Like Allison, I had hidden the fact that I was dating an Israeli from my host—a man named Caesar who worked as a tour guide and invited me to join his family for a meal.

Unlike Allison, I was scared. I’d never been to a Palestinian place. On the other side of the eight-meter-high wall, I felt so beyond my known world. My host’s sons picked me up from the checkpoint that I walked through; I was privately convinced they were actually going to kidnap me. We laugh about this now, all these years and visits later—me in the car almost peeing myself as we sped through the streets of Bethlehem, racing back to their parents’ home for the Iftar meal that breaks the Ramadan fast.

Like Allison, I felt enveloped in warmth and hospitality in a Palestinian home. The food, the welcome, the instant understanding I felt with the women of the family. My host was a tour guide I’d met through a friend. I found myself particularly close with his adult daughter—Hadeel—who was finishing the graduate work that would lead her to a career in Palestine’s climate change policies.

Hadeel’s name is an Arabic word for the cooing of doves.

Like Allison, I congratulated myself for being an exception to the boundaries and walls of this divided place. My presence in the room forced everyone to speak English. Everyone in the house had fasted, but I probably ate more than anyone: perfectly cooked lamb, resting on a mound of rice. Fruit juice squeezed from the trees outside. I ate it all.

Like Allison, I grew increasingly uncomfortable as the talk turned to historical violence of the Zionists, the violence of the settlers, the atrocities in Gaza, and the complicity of every single Israeli. I felt panicked and sick to my stomach. Like Allison, I was beseeched by the women of the house to stay over—Stay a night, we’ll make up a bed for you, it’s too late to travel back, back across the checkpoint, back over the wall, back back back.

This is where it happened. This is where Allison and I diverged—the fork I wrote the book to find, perhaps. The difference that changed my whole life: Where Allison fled, I stayed. I stayed and I listened, despite my discomfort.

I spent the night. I can’t remember if I told my boyfriend. But I spent the night in a home that was, like all homes in the region, suffering from horrible water shortages imposed by the bureaucracy of occupation; I slept in a home that was as eligible as any Palestinian home for the raids (no warrant required) of the Israeli army; I dreamt under a roof where generations had dreamt of return. I was scared for my safety, sure: I’d never been on the receiving end of state violence, never in my whole white life. But more than my safety, I was scared for the ways that this would change me.

After that first night, there were countless other nights that I stayed over—long weekends that spilled into the week. Over the years, I’ve visited so often that when Hadeel built her own home, she referred to the guest bedroom as “Rebecca’s Room.” The reasons I had for visiting changed over the years. Whereas initially, it had something to do with guilt and politics, eventually, I visited simply because I missed Hadeel and her family. I missed the lazy evenings watching American rom-coms, eating off-brand cheese doodles on her comfy sofas; I missed the early mornings in Bethlehem, the light which seems somehow clearer than anywhere else, the songs of Fairuz on the radio, and Hadeel’s young son reluctantly hugging me good-bye as he got ready to go downstairs and catch his school bus. I missed lying on Hadeel’s bed while she did my makeup, drifting into a semi-conscious dream state to the soothing clicks of her powder compacts, her whispered instructions telling me when to close my eyes, when to look up. The day she did my makeup, I went back to Tel Aviv, and all the taxi drivers spoke to me in Arabic.

Over the years, I’ve visited Hadeel more times than I can count. This comfort and familiarity in a Palestinian home puts me at odds with almost every Jewish Israeli I know. It led me other places: to Palestinian refugee camps around Jerusalem and Bethlehem; to the South Hebron Hills where the Youth of Sumud hold down ancestral caves. But I think it is that first night, back in 2014, that mattered the most. It’s where I let Allison make the other choice.

I wonder about the version of me who did not stay that first night in Bethlehem. Is she somewhere, looking back on her decisions, wondering how she became who she is?

Maybe the most interesting choice I’ve ever made as a novelist is to grant Allison an awareness of the path she has taken. So many memoirs and articles I read from liberal Jews living in Israel engage in this tiresome equivocating: they love Israel, despite the heartbreak the violence around them causes; they don’t hate anyone, they remind us; in fact, hate itself (not larger systems of power) is the problem. Allison knows that acts of hate are acts of love. She is honest with herself about the consequences of the choices she has made—the choices that I, in another life, might have made. She is honest with herself about the consequences of an ethnic democracy and what it requires of its Jewish citizens.

I wonder about the version of me who did not stay that first night in Bethlehem. Is she somewhere, looking back on her decisions, wondering how she became who she is? Is she as frank as Allison when she says, Yes, I value Jewish lives above Palestinian lives, but also, I am happy with the life I have built here. Or did she perhaps find her resistance another way? Is she right now, marching in the streets of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, protesting against the right-wing government? Does she ever return to her soldier’s letters?

For all of us—me, other versions of me, Allison—all that remains is the letters we wrote to our soldier. After we broke up, I told him, I want my letters back, and he mailed them to me without complaint. They came in a plastic bag with the American Friends of the IDF logo on it. The letters are as sweet and urgent as those I depict in The Lover, although not quite as well written. G-d, they are unbearable to read. I did it once—in advance of writing this novel—and never will again.

It is inconceivable to me that love ends. Even after all these years and all these loves, I still can’t accept that love ends. It’s true that the age difference between me and my soldier was untenable; that he was weirded out by my decision to learn Arabic (a decision I suspect the character Eyal would have encouraged). It was predictable that we would drift apart. But when he was inside me, I loved him. How can that be over? How can that ever end?

I remember being perched next to him at a combat medic graduation ceremony, me in a floral dress and he in uniform, our fingers intertwined. I remember hiking with him in the north of Israel, not far from his own base, landing upon the ruins of Crusader fortresses. I remember his patience in going down on me. I remember missing a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv because I was texting him about the Odyssey. I remember a visit to New York—he had to get special permission from the army—and how we had desperate, hopeless sex on the floor of a borrowed apartment, and how we both knew something was slipping away even as we pressed our bodies together.

In the margin of a letter I wrote to him—a letter returned with all the others—he left me a final note. I hope you will be happy, Becca. Those are the last words he ever addressed to me, unless you count the occasional text messages I received for a few years following the break up. I never responded. What was there to say? Perhaps only what I said, at last, in the acknowledgements of the book: Thank you, though we are lost to each other.


The Lover by Rebecca Sacks is available now from Harper.

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Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lamber is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes about arts, entertainment, lifestyle, and home news. Nicole has been a journalist for years and loves to write about what's going on in the world.

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