The autobiography that never happened — an interview with ‘Sadness is a White Bird’ author Moriel Rothman-Zecher

Moriel Rothman Zecher/Courtesy

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Some stories demand to be told. Whether because of their emotional significance, their entertainment value or their relevance to an author’s life, certain stories refuse to remain a mere sticky-note idea.

For Moriel Rothman-Zecher, “Sadness is a White Bird” is that story. Rothman-Zecher, primarily a nonfiction and op-ed writer, explains that he uses writing as a way to make sense of the world and his life through his blog, multiple op-eds in the New York Times and his associate editorship on the anthology “Kingdom of Olives and Ash” — a compilation of essays documenting the 50-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Though most of his writing is partisan opinion pieces on the ongoing and historical conflict in Israel and Palestine, Rothman-Zecher, an Israeli Jew, has never told his own story. Born in Jerusalem but raised in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Rothman-Zecher’s new novel “Sadness is a Yellow Bird” was going to be a nonfiction, personal account of the conflict, but soon, he decided he wanted to look past himself.

“I was a little bored, frankly, and a little tired of telling the same stories again and again — telling exactly what happened, exactly what I saw, exactly what this person said, exactly what this person said, exactly what I felt or believed in response to that,” Rothman-Zecher said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

The novel instead follows Jonathan, a 19-year-old Israeli Jew who — though ideologically and personally torn — eventually makes the decision to join the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF. But for Rothman-Zecher, who refused to join the IDF, “Sadness is a White Bird” became an alternate, fictional version of his own life.

Unlike Jonathan, Rothman-Zecher attend college in the United States and thus was able to postpone his IDF draft date until he was 23, during the 2008-09 Gaza War. When it finally came time to make a decision, Rothman-Zecher was torn.

“Is this something that I’m doing fully in line with my own conscious, fully in line with my own beliefs?” he asked himself. “And was this something I could say to my Palestinian friends, my Palestinian colleagues — could I look them in the eye and say, ‘I believe I’m serving in this military … because it is just and it is necessary’?”

Ultimately, his answer was no. “I couldn’t justify serving even a single day in the occupied territories, to myself, or especially to my Palestinian friends,” he explained.

But this is the story of Jonathan, who eventually does decide to join the IDF during the course of “Sadness is a White Bird.” Rothman-Zecher could then take literary license to change his childhood and explore what could have happened, whom he could have met and what relationships he might have had. Heartbreakingly real and breathtakingly honest, these relationships transform the novel from an ideological coming-of-age narrative to a poetic love story.

Yet Rothman-Zecher never had any Palestinian friends when he was in high school. It was only when he returned to Israel during his college summers and stayed in a Palestinian village within Israel that he experienced the culture that, despite having lived in Jerusalem, he had never interacted with before. It was there that he developed an essential question asked by the novel.

“With genuine friendship and genuine love and genuine interpersonal connection, would that be enough to push back against the huge weight of history and politics and society bearing down on every single person in that land?” he recalled asking himself.

Often in complex, identity politics-based conflicts, there is a misconception that if only the two sides could get to know each other and recognize the complexity of each other’s narratives, then peace would be possible. But Rothman-Zecher is clear: This is a simplification. Through his novel, he explores how young Israelis are forced to grapple with their individual contribution to Israel — a nation with such a contensious political history — and how peace could even be possible. Sadly for his characters, the weight of history is just too heavy.



“Even friendship and even love is not sufficient to stop the flow of — to stop the devastating inertia of — history and violence and separation and everything swirling around them,” he said.

Rothman-Zecher does not just explore this idea on a political level, but on a deeply personal level as well. “For this story to work and for the story to get to a level that was deeper than a political polemic or deeper than just a thought experiment, the characters needed to be full characters and sexuality and love and desire and romance and goofiness and pot-smoking and fear and joke telling and all of those things that are so present in a 17-year-old’s life, in an 18-year-old’s life and really in all of our lives,” he said.  

It therefore makes sense that the novel is in first person. But this worried Rothman-Zecher, who  tried to make sure his voice neither became Jonathan’s nor transformed the novel into a poorly-masked autobiography. To do so, he had to get himself out of the way.

“I think that (the characters) developed most when I got my conscious self out of the way and let the streams of interactions over my life and memories … form these characters out of this sort of ether of experience and memory and sounds and words that all of us swim in,” he said.

Though he wrote a highly ideological novel, Rothman-Zecher’s focus wasn’t on politics. His goal was “to write a book in which the deep, weird, pot-smoking, lustful, goofy, bus-riding, humanity of Israeli Jews and of Palestinians is taken seriously.”

“There’s a feeling that only one of those, only people from one of those sides can be fully humanized,” he said. “Sadness is a White Bird” works to change that misperception.

“The specifics of (serving in the IDF) might be foreign, but the experiences of it, the dilemmas, the feelings of pride, the feelings of lust, the feelings of confusion, the loyalties to family, the contradicting poles between two groups of friends, the ambition, the fear, all those things need not be foreign for someone who’s never been to Israel,” Rothman-Zecher said.

Regardless of one’s opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nationality, gender or age, Rothman-Zecher simply wants to start conversations about humanity. He hopes to compel readers to to engage critically with the conflict and remember that no matter where they come from — no matter what side they may be on — everyone shares in the same experiences of being human.

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