In her newest book, Transitions: Close Up (Mosaic Press, $19.99) translated by Maya Klein, Yael Dayan sadly reflects— without illusions or bitterness—on her own life, her famous family, and the State of Israel. The memoir is largely about her disappointments, losses, loneliness and regrets. Throughout the book, Dayan switches between first and second persons. Perhaps she does this, she writes, to ease her loneliness. Her writing is poetry-like and, at times, ornate; reading Transitions sometimes feels like observing Dayan and her world through a lace curtain that both reveals and obscures.
Yael Dayan is the third of the four-generation, Kennedy-esque Dayan dynasty, a family that comes as close as Israel has to royalty. The family’s history, talent, dedication to Israel, and wanton disregard for the rules are an integral part of Zionist mythology.
She is the oldest child of the late Moshe Dayan, the moody, womanizing, daring and enigmatic eye-patched hero of the Six Days’ War. For decades, he was revered almost as a demi-god, the symbol of the national and military rebirth of the Jewish people. But as Defense Minister during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he was vilified for Israel’s failures; he died a bitter man in 1981.
She is sister to the late Assi Dayan, celebrated Israeli filmmaker, actor, cultural icon and drug addict, and to Ehud Dayan, a well-regarded sculptor. Her mother, Ruth Dayan, nearing her 100th birthday, is a peace activist and the founder of Maskit, the ethnic fashion house that promoted Israeli design and crafts throughout the world.
Now 77, Dayan is the author of two previous works of non-fiction and five novels. She served as a member of Knesset between 1992 and 2003, where she founded and chaired the Statutory Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women, initiated and pushed through Israel’s innovative law that criminalizes sexual harassment. She spearheaded efforts for affirmative action, lgbt rights and protection for victims of spousal abuse. After failing to be reelected to the Knesset, she served on the Tel Aviv council from 2008 to 2013, where she pursued the same issues.
During a long, revealing interview, Dayan sits on a sofa in her roomy, welcoming Tel Aviv apartment, with terra cotta floors and walls in soft pastels. Books of poetry and prose in several languages fill the floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
The apartment overlooks Rabin Square, site of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and most of Israel’s most important demonstrations and rallies. Over the years, Dayan had addressed cheering or jeering crowds at many of those events.
But now, she says, she is “a 79-year- old grandmother, a retired civil servant, the widow of a high-ranking IDF officer, the sister of a drug addict who died….transposed from my place as an initiator, generator of action, to an object of it.”**
She suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which makes it difficult for her to breathe and sends searing pain throughout her oxygen-deprived body. Her portable oxygen concentrator machine is close by, and her devoted caretaker hovers over her quietly. Her language is rich, but her voice is crusty.
Dayan knows that she is rapidly receding from public life. That, too, is a transition.
“When did the girl in khaki become the woman in black?” she asks near the beginning of her memoir.
Khaki, she explains, refers to much more than the uniform she proudly wore. When she was an officer in the Israeli army, she was sure of herself and her place in life. In a well-known picture, she walks alongside her father, both of them dressed in khaki uniforms; she seems, arrogantly, to know that she is pretty, smart and privileged.
In her twenties and thirties she became a sophisticated, best-selling writer. Referred to as “the Israeli Francoise Sagan,” she was a member of the international jet set. Like her father, she provoked both contempt and admiration, and her various international love affairs, including a long-term relationship with Michael Cacoyannis, dashing and acclaimed director of “Zorba the Greek,” were the topic of gossip columns in Israel and abroad.
She wasn’t, she recalls, a feminist. “I thought everything was fine in our country, because I thought everything was fine for me. But on my visits to the United States, I began to understand the oppression of women. And as I became more aware, I realized that feminism is a way of life. Feminism isn’t only about support for women; it’s about support for everyone who is victimized or marginalized. I accepted that way of life.”
And so she transitioned into being a “Woman in Black”—a reference to the feminist group that has demonstrated for decades against the occupation—as she became more aware of the failure of successive Israeli governments to promote peace and to put an end to Israeli rule over the Palestinians.
Dayan was her father’s favored child, and she blamed her mother for her parents’ divorce. Only many years later, after Moshe Dayan died and left his considerable fortune to his second wife and nothing to her or her mother and brothers, was she able to acknowledge that he had been a philanderer and, in many ways, a very poor father.
She chose to go into public life only after her father died, when she was 52. “I understand that because I went into politics so late in life, I was never able to achieve all that I had hoped. But it never seemed right as long as he was still alive. Maybe I knew it would rupture the delicate fabric of our being.”
In the Knesset, Dayan championed feminist ideals and peace with Palestinians. Her style was gruff and in-your-face. “It was a man’s style,” she says now. “I did this deliberately and I didn’t like it. But then I thought that since politics is a man’s game, I had to play like a man.”
But the combination of the Dayan name, her provocative style, and the then- radical topics she championed—including a much-publicized visit to Yassir Arafat in Tunis—made her a target for some of the most violent invective the Knesset had known. A right-wing extremist threw scalding tea in her face, others drew graffiti on the door to her apartment; someone unknown left live bullets in her mailbox; male Knesset members publicly taunted her with sexual innuendo.
“Am I a Patriot? A Traitor?” she asked herself in response.
Few knew that, all the while, she was also caring for her beloved husband, Dov Sion, who was dying from Parkinson’s disease. The chapter in which she describes Sion’s descent into death is the most moving in the book, and provides insight into Dayan’s softer, compassionate side.
She writes: “The disaster that we endured for a decade, every day and every night , was not one we shared equally. W e lived in the same house, sat down to the same table, we had two children and a granddaughter, a joint bank account…Two people, so different and loving, walking the same road holding hands or talking or in silence, when suddenly, half-way through, an abyss opens up…seizing Dov and transporting him to another land, and he is unaware…that we have lost one another forever.”
Sion died nearly 14 years ago.
She regrets that she never reached the heights of achievement that she had once thought she would reach, that she never fulfilled her own potential. “My record could have been richer. I know I made contributions, and there is a value to the breakthroughs,” she says. “And I know there will be continuation to the things I have accomplished. But not by me.”
She writes about her illness, the growing limitations, the constant pain. But above all, she writes about her loneliness—missing her husband, and also the camaraderie of the feminist movement, the pace of political activity, her friends who are slowly dying off, the sense of mission.
“There is little room for old women in public life,” she says.
“I’m busy. I have friends,” she continues. “But for me, doing means contrib- uting, doing for others. I read, I study— but these are things I do for myself, they have no output for others. Except for my time with my grandchildren—every moment that they are with me, they are learning something, and I am, too.”
She writes that she is disappointed in, yet resigned to, her relationships with her two children: “If there is love, it isn’t a dependent kind, and the children’s criticism and judgment is one sided; I suppress my comments and reactions as much as I can, confining them to the chambers of the heart, there too, the oxygen supply is low. I have no doubt in my heart that their impatient love will dwindle in time. I tread with caution, so as not to extinguish it prematurely.”
She smiles wanly. “I didn’t always know how to ‘suppress my comments and reactions’. Now I do. I have learned.”
That is another of Dayan’s transitions, intensely described in this memoir of a woman, a family, and a country.
**Quotations in italics are from Transitions. Quotations not in italics are from the author’s interview with Yael Dayan.
Eetta Prince-Gibson, former Editor- in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is an award-winning journalist from Jerusalem.