The Woman Beyond the Sea (Amazon Crossing, $16.99, translated by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann) a wildly successful Israeli novel tells the story of a young woman named Eliya’s fractured search for love, healing and belonging.
Author Sarit Yishai-Levi was born in Jerusalem to a Sephardic family that has lived in the city for eight generations; she talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how her family’s roots have informed her writing and her life.
YZM: Looking at the Israel of the 1970’s that is depicted in novel and the Israel of today, what in your view is different and what has stayed the same? As someone whose family is deeply rooted in Israel, what is your connection to the country and its culture?
SYL: Israel of the early seventies was more naive, less sophisticated, less arrogant. This was a country that slowly opened to the world and began to absorb culture from all over the world. This was Israel after the Six Day War, and it had several years of “quietness” that allowed the culture to blossom—in theater, music, literature, and fashion. There was a feeling that we were connecting to the big world. Then, in 1973, the Yom Kippur War came and devoured the cards. This cruel war claimed the lives of young people and left many young people wounded in their body and soul. One of them is Eldad, one of the heroes of “A Woman Beyond the Sea”. After the Yom Kippur War, nothing remained the same. This war left a gaping wound in the heart of the nation–the polarization of the nation deepened. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 only widened the gap among the various fractions of the nation. At the same time, amazing things were done here, a pulsating development. Israel became a startup nation and was proud of being the only democracy in the Middle East. Some of Israel’s achievements changed the life of the world: the disk-on-key, WAZE app, the drip irrigation system, and much more.
But unfortunately for 2023, after the elections in which Binyamin Netanyahu was elected Prime Minister and established an extreme right-wing government, we find the State of Israel divided and polarized. I feel that we are now fighting for the face of Israel as a democratic state. We are fighting for the character of the state that an ultra-Orthodox minority is trying to turn into a Halacha state. That the right-wing extremists, who until recently would never have thought of entering the Israeli Knesset are now serving in the Israeli government and will not change the country that we love so much and that our parents fought to establish.
YZM: Eliya tolerates her husband’s abuse because to her, he is a genius; do you think this attitude would be as common now?
SYL: Elia admires books and authors. She hopes that she is her husband’s “muse” (and how hard is the disappointment when she finds out that she is not). She draws inspiration from the wives of well-known writers who helped their husbands with the “small details” of life to make time for them to write. She is willing to suffer abuse from him because she truly believes that he is a genius, and that the novel he is writing will change the face of the Israeli literary world, and she admires him blindly. I assume that even today there are women who live in the shadow of their husbands, who feed on their husband’s fame and are ready to give up themselves to remain in the cestus of “his wife”. I personally do not know such women.
YZM: At one point, Eliya says she married her mother; what does she mean by that?
SYL: Elia realizes that Ari’s behavior is a male copy of her mother, Lily. When he is angry and raging, he reminds her of Lily, when he disappears for hours he reminds her of Lily, and just as her father bows his head and waits for her mother’s anger to pass, so does she. It takes her far too long before she understands and says, “Oh my God, I married a man who is my mother’s image”.
YZM: Can you talk about the rift that separates mothers from daughters in this novel?
SYL: Lily does not know how to be a mother because she grew up without a mother. She grew up wild in the world without a family, she was never hugged, she was never cared for, she never uttered the word mother.
When she became a mother to her first baby, she felt love for the first time in her life, she felt a connection for the first time in her life, she understood what a family is, and then the baby was taken from her with unbearable cruelty that disrupted her mind. She doesn’t know how to love Elia more than that, she is afraid to love Elia, she truly believes that everything she loves has been taken from her, and in fact, she is a “stranger” to her daughter, she protects her. Elia does not understand her mother, she does not feel loved by her mother. Only after many years, when she learns Lily’s tragic story, is she able to forgive and love her.
YZM: Do you believe that the wounds of the past can be mended?
SYL: I say it explicitly: forgiveness brings love. Only after Elia forgives her mother and only after Lily forgives her mother, Rachel – the love comes. Every wound can be nursed with the help of understanding, forgiveness, and love.
YZM: What’s next on your horizon?
SYL: As of today, I am excitedly looking forward to the reaction of the English-speaking readers to “Woman Beyond the Sea”. The book was very successful in Israel and sold tens of thousands of copies, and has been translated into several languages. These days we are working to adapt it into a TV series script. I am also finishing the writing of my third book. Its temporary title is Atonement.