Subversive Teenage Diarist

Scandal in a Haifa high school

Judith Katzir’s Dearest Anne: A Tale of Impossible Love, translated by Dalya Bilu (Feminist Press, $15.99) is not your average teen romance, nor is it an average tale of a writer coming of age. Katzir’s work very nearly succeeds in transcending the conventional strictures of these genres. While boldly reinvigorating a standard journal-entry format, Katzir exposes Jewish taboos against the backdrop of a changing Israeli society in the late 1970s — all in the pursuit of revealing a tale of pure but illicit passion. That the resulting story is compulsively readable is a testament to how Katzir articulates, with uncanny precision, the thoughts and feelings racing through the mind of her teenage protagonist.

The novel opens in 2001 as Rivi Shenhar, a writer living in Tel Aviv, is leaving the funeral of her lover in her childhood hometown of Haifa (where Katzir herself was born in 1963). The funeral enables Rivi to unearth some longburied childhood memories. Liberated by the body’s placement in the ground, she takes on the opposite task: returning “to the place where the fire flower was born and where it was buried alive,” then literally digging up a pack of notebooks that contain the secrets of her past with the deceased. Subsequently, we read Rivi reading herself, as she is swept into each journal one by one and relives the most turbulent and formative episodes of her life. This framework enables Katzir to bounce back and forth between the mature Rivi and her adolescent self, a gangly, bespectacled eighth-grader who is deaf in one ear and prone to arrhythmia — hardly a candidate for the torrid love affair that is in fact the main subject of her diary.

Complicating and enriching this gripping story is the Holocaust’s pervasive impact on the Israeli psyche. At age thirteen and a half, Rivi has already read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl (a bat mitzvah gift) several times over. In her first diary entry, Rivi writes to Anne and expresses her desire “to be your Kitty, the one for whose eyes and heart you wrote your diary.” Anne Frank thus becomes both literary muse and recipient of Rivi’s confessional tale of attraction to — and eventual affair with — Michaela Berg, her charismatic literature and composition teacher. Beyond Anne Frank’s function as Rivi’s addressee and tacit co-conspirator, Katzir also includes descriptions of Holocaust Memorial Day ceremonies at school in order to underline the educational and ideological functioning of the catastrophe in Israeli society. Rivi even formulates the small tragedies of her family life in metaphorical Shoah terms; when her parents divorce and her father’s parents stop visiting her, she comments that “I’ve lost half my family, like the people who came from the Holocaust…”

The entanglement of the Holocaust motif with an erotic story of lesbian love containing pedophilic overtones will certainly strike some readers as sensationalistic, if not subversive. Yet Katzir challenges readers to act as Rivi does, to remove Anne Frank from her pedestal and reinscribe her as a real and very human young woman within our own narratives. Hannah Ovnat-Tamir points out in her enlightening afterword that Dearest Anne uses Rivi’s artistic development to map an alternative legacy of female literary influence, starting with Anne and radiating outwards to include Virginia Woolf and such Hebrew writers as Zelda, Leah Goldberg, Dalia Ravikovitch and Amalia Kahana-Carmon. Part of Michaela’s tutelage is to open her student’s eyes to the beauty of words penned by women, and notably, Rivi’s own poems eventually appear in the text.

Towards the novel’s end, even now that she is a writer and the mother of two daughters, Rivi conveys her puzzlement over the true significance of her relationship with Michaela, a union that was, of course, eventually discovered. She still longs “to descend through all the layers of time, to reach rock bottom…” Dearest Anne nimbly represents the process of personal excavation, presenting in sharp relief the lasting effects of a love affair both wrenching and wonderful.

Hannah S. Pressman is a doctoral candidate in modern Hebrew literature at New York University and a visiting lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Washington.