‘Sadness is a White Bird’ offers poetic, heartbreaking reflection on modern-day Israel and Palestine

Sadness is a White Bird
Simon and Schuster/Courtesy

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In our contemporary political environment, Israel has become an ideological concept, a fluid, changing entity that differs in perspective depending on who you ask.

For some, the Jewish state is a refuge for a people who have suffered incomparable historical tragedies that took advantage of their statelessness. For others, Israel is forcibly removing Palestinians from their own land. Whether it is a country frequently featured on the news, a home, an oppressor or even a place to vacation, Israel is undoubtedly heavily debated.

Yet, despite the frequency of conversations and arguments about the conflict between Israel and Palestine happening in classrooms, workplaces, newsrooms and governmental offices, individual narratives are often brushed over. The novel offers stories of Israelis and Palestinians for whom this isn’t an ideological debate, but day-to-day life.

With his new novel, which was released Tuesday, author Moriel Rothman-Zecher changes that. Born in Jerusalem and educated in the United States, Rothman-Zecher, an Israeli citizen, has been vocal about his decision not to join the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF. Though fictional, “Sadness is a White Bird” is a poignant examination of what it is like to grow up at the center of an ideological and literal battlefield, and a heartbreaking tale of personal accountability. Unflinchingly honest, Rothman-Zecher produces a critical examination of his homeland, one in which no side escapes critique. Written for young adult audiences, this masterpiece is a must read that transcends its literary genre.

An epistolary narrative addressed to his friend Laith, “Sadness is a White Bird” is 19-year-old Jonathan’s deeply personal exploration of the conflict in his country and his place in it. When the novel opens, Jonathan is in an Israeli prison. The nonlinear timeframe of the novel then unfolds, bringing us to Jonathan’s childhood, then slowly back to the present day.

Born in Israel but raised in Pennsylvania, the bullies at Jonathan’s American school make fun of Jews, silencing him. This silence becomes shame. The history of his grandfather — who barely escaped his village before Nazi occupiers sent his relatives to die in concentration camps — transforms this shame into a profound sense of importance of the Israeli state. When Jonathan’s family moves back to Israel for his last two years of high school, he excitedly prepares for the day when he must join the IDF and defend his country.

That is, until he meets Laith and Nimreen, two brilliant Palestinian twins who, enamored by this Arabic-speaking Jewish boy, take him under their wings and transform his worldview entirely.

Their conversations are a complex process of translation, and wisely, Rothman-Zecher does not fully Anglicize the novel, including several Arabic and Hebrew phrases before providing the English translation. In doing so, he textually parallels Jonathan and the twins’ discovery process, exposing the reader to these two languages and their importance — both within the narrative and in Israeli and Palestinian lives.

Jonathan, Laith and Nimreen further deepen their relationship on long bus trips and warm summer nights, with joints in their mouths and poetry on their lips. The three more or less fall in love with each other, listening to the complexity and depth of each other’s narratives. Despite the sometimes literal wall between himself and the twins, Jonathan comes to realize that their family history is no less tragic than his own, that their stories are more shared than opposed.

Yet Rothman-Zecher in no way argues that this process of cross-cultural communication is necessary to generate empathy — rather, that compassion is possible regardless.

Jonathan’s bildungsroman is not simply political and social, but it is also sexual. Throughout the narrative Jonathan has relationships with men and women, and refreshingly, these sexual encounters are not a source of conflict — they only serve to introduce an incredibly inclusive form of love, one that defies ethnicity and gender.

Ultimately, “Sadness is a White Bird” is a nuanced examination of what it is like to be just one person at the front line of a century-old conflict. Rothman-Zecher delicately tells one deeply unique story without claiming to explain every individual’s experience or devaluing experiences unlike his own. Written in beautiful prose, with sentences that will leave you tearing up on the bus ride to work, Rothman-Zecher complicates our worldview and forces us to look internally, examining how we hold ourselves and our world morally accountable.

In a political, ideological, social and deeply personal conflict that continues to defy treaties and agreements, love might seem difficult to come by. Yet “Sadness is a White Bird” is brimming with it. Rothman-Zecher digs deep into his country’s past and present, through difficult truths and beautiful stories, illustrating one boy’s journey of finding himself and his history, finding peace in a state of war, finding love in a world of hate.

Rebecca Gerny covers literature. Contact her at [email protected].

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