Orly Azoulay (L) with her sister novelist Ilana Bernstein

Three Sisters: We Did Read Chekhov

They shared a single room until their teens, refueled each other's passion for words and inherited their father's love of chansons and Jazz and all three became writers- a conversation with Sapir Prize Laureate novelist and sister, Ilana Bernstein

Orly Azoulay |
Updated: 06.01.20 , 17:21

My sister, the novelist Ilana Bernstein, sat at her desk, near the entrance to her elegant apartment, wearing a stylish white shirt with matching glasses, and awaited the news. Normally, when she expects important news, she can be found lounging on her couch – that surprising pose in which she writes her books.

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  • That afternoon, three weeks ago, Ilana was waiting to hear if she had won the Sapir Prize –Israel’s largest literature prize, sponsored by the national lottery (Mifal HaPais) – she chose to sit at her antique desk, facing a frame of black and white photographs of our parents in Purim costumes from their younger days. Those photographs always made me smile, and they fit perfectly in Ilana’s flat which, while in the heart of Tel-Aviv, is reminiscent of Paris’s vibrant Left Bank salons.
    2 צפייה בגלריה
    אילנה ברנשטיין (מימין) סופרת ו אורלי אזולאי כתבת
    אילנה ברנשטיין (מימין) סופרת ו אורלי אזולאי כתבת
    Orly Azoulay (L) with her sister novelist Ilana Bernstein
    (Photo: Howard Horenstein)
    There was something about what she wore that day. Perhaps she knew deep down it was going to be a day of victory. Usually, she wears darker, chic shades of clothing. Our mom used to say she looks straight out of Vogue magazine and our friends would compare her to Diane Keaton. But on that day, Ilana would receive the big announcement – the recognition of her unique voice as an author – in white.
    She was at home with two of her children, Ayana and Gili. Her older daughter, Talia, who lives in New York City, was virtually present by FaceTime, while the rest of the family, scattered across the globe, were anxiously waiting: our sister Ariella (Relly) Azoulay, a professor of comparative literature and media studies at Brown University, was in her home in Providence, Rhode Island, and all of our children were on standby in Tel-Aviv, Herzliya, Canterbury, UK, and Boston. We were all on edge.
    “They dragged it out,” Ilana told me in our sister-to-sister interview. “They said the committee is convening sometime between four and five in the afternoon and that they’ll let us know if we should log into Zoom to take part in an audience-less ceremony. Twenty-five minutes later I told my kids, ‘this isn’t going to happen,’ and got ready to change out of my dress shirt and remove my makeup. Then I got a message asking me to log in to Zoom. I asked the host if I had won the prize.”
    Around that time, her daughter Ayana wrote in our family WhatsApp group: “We can celebrate but it’s not public yet, so don’t spread.” And celebrate we did: dear friends came to our backyard in Washington, D.C. with a bottle of champagne. Our phones buzzed with videos of the cries of joy in Ilana’s apartment and many notes of congratulation. Ilana won the Sapir Prize and we were ecstatic: it wasn’t just about prestige or the money, it was mainly about recognition of a great author. I immediately called Ilana to tell her: “You so deserve it.”
    2 צפייה בגלריה
    תמונה של אילנה ברנשטיין
    תמונה של אילנה ברנשטיין
    Novelist Ilana Bernstein
    (Photo: Avigail Uzi)
    I reminded her that she had sent me the manuscript of the prize-winning book, Tomorrow We Will Go to the Luna Park, even before it was sent to the publisher. I read it in one sitting, gripped by the story of her heroine – a young woman who doesn’t want to be a mother, trapped in a tiny apartment with her two children, facing not only dire poverty but also her own mental instability – and wrote back a short email: “It’s a masterpiece.” Ilana wrote back that I’m exaggerating and that her book will be hard to swallow, as it pierces the myths of motherhood.
    You told me that you feared that readers won’t connect with this book, because motherhood is sacred. Were you surprised that a book you considered hard to swallow would get you the prize?
    “Yes, definitely. This book surprised me all along the way in how both readers and critics took to it. To be a mother in Israel is to be part of the national womb. The babies you birth are nationalized and even labeled ‘the children of all of us,’ and you sacrifice them to the state, ostensibly in the name of national security. In the past, these children were considered part of the six million that had to be replenished and today it’s the demographic craze. That’s why in Israel a woman is evaluated above all as a mother, probably more so than in any other place.
    “Luna Park definitely shatters the mythic understanding of motherhood, especially as men would like to have it: women as natural-born mothers, loving, nourishing, soothing. The women who persist, no matter the challenges. And the mother we encounter in Luna Park isn’t that kind of mother. At times, she even disavows motherhood, which is what society can least tolerate. Post-partum depression is one thing, and a woman who doesn’t want children can be okay too, but a woman who has regrets after giving birth is an outcast. And I thought this would be very hard for readers to accept.
    “Yet this book drew engagement from many readers, particularly women. Many women are mothers and all women are daughters, so they understand these experiences. To write a book that makes women say, ‘I’ve felt this way too sometimes, and you gave me a voice’ – that’s a good feeling. On the other hand, many readers, men, and women tell me they can’t even bring themselves to open this book. It’s as if reading a book about a woman who questions the idea of motherhood will cause them to do the same.”
    We gave birth at the same time, basically. Your oldest daughter, Talia, was born a month and three days before I gave birth to my son Yarden, Shira’s brother. A year later you had Ayana. It wasn’t easy. But I don’t remember us complaining.
    “There was nobody we could complain to. If we expressed any difficulties, we were told, in keeping with family tradition: just bite your tongue, think twice before you say something, even something innocuous like ‘It’s hard for me.’ Our mom had a special saying meant for every mother – ‘Any stray queen can birth a litter, the hard part is raising them.’
    Women of our generation, unlike our mother’s generation, had to juggle career alongside housework and raising children, while still being the desirable woman. Nonetheless, we viewed this arrangement as a hard-won right. We foolishly believed this was the essence of feminism – in fact, it was the new female slavery. We no longer received the general sense of security provided by men of prior generations, meaning they were let off the hook quickly, and we continued running the household and while also working outside the home.”
    So there are personal elements in the story of the mother in Luna Park?
    “You can find traces of me in all my books, in anything pertaining to feelings, thoughts, or the characters’ inner worlds, but not in the plots. Obviously I’m not the characters in all the twelve books I’ve written. These days, more than in the past, people tend to look for connections between the authors’ personal lives and their works, particularly when it concerns motherhood. Everybody raises an eyebrow. Us women, we’re judged by how we mother our children. You can be an excellent writer but if you’re not deemed a good mother, it’s worth nothing. They’ll immediately say: ‘she’s a good writer but at her kids’ expense.’ ”
    What They’ll Write on the Tombstone
    “Bernstein’s language reaches the outer limits of our souls, gazing soberly at the daily struggles for existence, even if sometimes turning it all into a circus,” was how the prize committee explained their choice of Luna Park. “It’s a work of immense social significance, and at the same time, a demonstration of writing that is bare, direct and forceful. Writing that is exposed and compromised in the same way life is.” Of course, I’ve read all of Ilana’s books. I have felt that she brings a different voice, and style, to each – a new twist.
    “It’s true,” she tells me. “I put a lot of effort into the structure of the book, into literary maneuvers, and I try to find the right voice for my narrator. The narrative given by the language is no less important to me than the story. It could very well be that my desire to do things anew – mainly for myself – disappoints readers who expect a sequel. I can tell you that there won’t be a sequel to Luna Park. At the center of the book, I’m now writing is a woman, of course, an aged – or coming of age, at any case – woman who is about to turn sixty. It’s a story of a breakup after many years of marriage. It’s lighter and much more cynical [than Luna Park], maybe even comical. The narrator is convinced that she’s funny, but I don’t know what her readers will think. The name of the book is The Lover [translator’s note: in Hebrew, the title refers to a female lover].”
    One of the books my sister wrote, Her Last Wish [Bakashata HaAhrona], is essentially a story about her long goodbye from our mother who passed away after a devastating illness in October 2010. The book introduced into Hebrew literature expressions that we had heard from our mother and that had become our mottos for perseverance, such as “Talk to yourself” – meaning, there’s no time to be down or to complain. Straighten up your shirt, stand tall, tell yourself a couple of words and move on. “It’s not a book I was planning to write,” Ilana says. “I don’t like to say it but this book sort of wrote itself. That’s not how it actually works, and she who writes knows how much sweat is poured into writing. The last year and a half of mom’s life were really intense, also for me. At the time, I was also going through a breakup – two breakups from the same partner, actually – and mom and dad also passed away one after the other.
    “During the illness, I saw our parents more than ever. Every day, in fact. The writing began as a diary. Daily release. I would come home every night and write. Mom asked that they’ll write on her tombstone ‘Zahava Azoulay of the House of Arieh.’ Arieh was her maiden name. That’s why I called the book Her Last Wish.”
    And what would you like your tombstone to say?
    “I don’t want a grave. It’s expensive real estate. Who needs it? I’m getting cremated. By the way, I made sure that the book would appear only after mom passed. Dad was still alive, but he anyhow didn’t read any of my books. It’s clear that he could read Hebrew, he would read the sports pages.”
    Yes, dad was a bookworm, but only in French. He didn’t read my books either. Or my newspaper articles. When they sent me to interview PLO officials in Tunis and the frontpage had my name and photograph wearing a headscarf, dad freaked out because he couldn’t understand what’s written next to the picture of his daughter. He was worried that I was arrested. He asked the neighbors to read it to him, then he calmed down. I also remember you, how you’d recline on the couch for hours and write.
    “I don’t do that as much. After years of writing on the couch, my body started complaining. Hours of bad posture aren’t good. In recent years I haven’t had a desk, so I write at the kitchen table.
    “There are those who need peace of mind and optimal conditions in order to write. I don’t need any special conditions. I wrote my first three books when Ayana and Talia were little when I worked a full-time job in an advertising firm. After they went to bed I would write – from eight-thirty at night until one o’clock in the morning. Writing three books this way is a lot. I could sit down at a busy crosswalk and write. I tune things out easily. And my writing process is first and foremost very intensive. I need to write a book in one breath.”
    Two or three years ago you disappeared on us. You didn’t answer phone calls or messages. A few days later you resurfaced and said: I wrote a book. That was Early Days [Yemei Resheet].
    “That was a special case. Gili was studying at the Technion at the time – and I am single, unfortunately – so there was nobody at home. I told my three kids that I’ll be unavailable, I bought dry foods that would last a while, I went to sleep when I was tired, and ate when I was hungry. I was completely disconnected from the outside world. And after eleven days, the book was done. That was the most extreme thing I’ve done when it comes to writing. It was a kind of trip.”
    You actually began your artistic career as a painter; you studied at Thelma Yellin and then at New York University, and your paintings were hanging on the walls at mom and dad’s all these years. And mom had in fact wanted the three of us to become schoolteachers.
    “Mom wanted us to realize her unfulfilled dream. She had always wanted to be an arts and crafts teacher. She told us it’s best to become schoolteachers, so we’d get lots of vacation time to be with the kids. By the way, Relly teaches at Brown University, I teach writing workshops, and mom would tell us: ‘see, you did become teachers.’ I think she said that in a way to minimize us, even though being a teacher is obviously an honorable thing. She could have said: ‘I had wanted you to become schoolteachers and look how far you got.’ ”
    There’s another saying of hers that still rings in my head and that you highlight in the book: “In our house, we either study or work.” It gave us a kind of drive. They didn’t let us sleep in on holidays. We always worked summer jobs. There was always a need to be rushing somewhere.
    “Mom and dad were hardworking and active and in a way afraid of having free time. So yes, her saying represented a kind of drive. In addition, they really believed in our abilities. Mom had small dreams, dad had big dreams, and they never fulfilled them. Maybe it’s a generational difference, they dealt with other hardships. But their belief in us worked. It gave us a lot of power.”
    A Month Together in Europe
    We are three sisters who write: that’s our profession. Each in her own genre. Ilana, the middle one, who is four years younger than me, published her first novel in 1991. The youngest sister, Relly, who is four years younger than Ilana, published last year her nonfiction book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, and at the time also curated a large exhibition in Barcelona called Errata. And I’m a journalist at Yedioth Aharonot where I’ve been working for forty-four years.
    You published twelve books, Relly has eleven, and I have three (the fourth one is on the way). Together we have written twenty-six books, which is a good two bookshelves’ worth of books.
    “Three out of three,” Ilana smiled. “Adam Baruch [translator’s note: Israeli journalist and critic] told me once that someone should check if it was something in our mother’s milk. Anyhow, ‘three sisters’ has become a literary genre.”
    Yes, and we did read Chekhov.
    “Yes, and ‘We Did Read Chekhov’ is a great title for our conversation. By the way, I also wrote a novel called Three Sisters and the name of one of the characters was taken from Chekhov’s play. I wanted to write a book that pays tribute to this genre.
    “It’s also worth noting that you introduced the whole writing thing into our home. You were the pioneer. At age eleven you said you wanted to be a journalist. I was seven then. It sounded magical to me as if you had said you wanted to be a detective or a scientist, both professions that seemed ‘literary’ to me. It wasn’t a common profession that children at the time would talk about, and definitely not girls. It ignited our imagination. I remember that when I started writing I felt like I was encroaching on your turf. Did you ever feel that way?”
    On the contrary. When I read your first manuscript, I was in awe. I’m in journalism also for the scoops, but mainly for the writing. When I read what you had written, I was gripped with excitement. There’s nothing more exhilarating than a superbly written text.
    “Because the three of us are so different, we could have envy-free relationships. This is to mom’s credit, and it’s something I’ve learned from her and that is also important to me, fostering a connection between our children. Mom managed to make us very close. You and Relly are the closest people to me, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter when, whenever I call you I know you’ll be there for me. To know that there are people who love you unconditionally gives you a sense of comfort and safety.
    “Our relationship grew strong in part because we lived together in a single room until you turned sixteen. And then you staged your protest. You took a sleeping bag and went to sleep on the balcony. It was winter then, very cold, and mom and dad got the message. The next day they got a contractor to split the room with temporary walls: two-thirds of the room for Relly and me, one third for you. I remember the teenage room they arranged for you. A nice room, with wallpaper with purple flowers, a matching curtain, and a desk.”
    After Ilana got out of the army, we took a month-long trip to Europe together, going around by train. For me, this was a formative experience. The plane from Ben-Gurion airport to Rome almost crashed; we had an emergency landing on a runway covered with fire extinguishing foam and surrounded by fire trucks; when we went to visit a friend who was studying medicine in Padua, we were evacuated in the middle of the night because of an earthquake; in Spain, on the night train that crossed Basque Country, we were told there’s an explosive device onboard and were sent to hide in the fields.
    It was a trip that really brought us closer. From being sisters who are friends to being friends who are sisters. To this day, Relly complains that we left her at home.
    “Yes, she was little then. We did a grown-ups’ trip.”
    Many ask me today about the three of us being writers, whether it’s genetic or environmental. I think the fact that dad was one of the world’s greatest storytellers has a lot to do with it. Friends wanted to come over just to hear him tell stories. Each time he would add more detail to the stories, to the point where he himself couldn’t tell what was fact or fiction. If he had sat down with a pen and notebook, he certainly would have become a writer.
    “That could very well be. Anyhow, he was an oral storyteller. He knew how to tell a story.”
    The metaphorical “gene” for writing we have, is that a blessing or a curse?
    “Definitely a blessing. We look at the world from a different angle, through the keyboard. Writing allows us to process things differently from speech, to reach remote corners of our soul. Perhaps it’s because writing is internal and solitary, while speech is externalized. When you write, there are no witnesses in the room. You gaze at the outside from within. Maybe that’s why prose can be a space of honesty.”
    Ilana of the House of Azoulay married at a very young age to a Bernstein, and since then she’s known as Ilana Bernstein. The day she won the Sapir Prize, one of the online comments read: “That’s how it is when Ashkenazim give prizes to Ashkenazim.”
    “Yes, that was funny,” Ilana says. “Well, I have a message, dear online trolls: We are not Moroccan. Not that I have anything against Moroccans, heaven forbid. Our dad was born in Algeria, so if anything, we’re Algerians. And we have a mom who was fourth generation in Palestine, her family was originally from Austria and Bulgaria, and they arrived in Palestine in 1868, so like many Israelis, our family tree is highly branched.
    “Even though I carry the name Bernstein, I have experiences, both as a girl and a woman, relating to the name Azoulay. I remember one teacher entering the classroom and taking a roll call, and when it was my turn I raised my hand, but she kept calling the name because somehow my face didn’t match what she had in mind. Even today people tell me you ‘You don’t look it,’ which is an utterly racist thing to say. Or alternatively, they say: ‘You’ve Ashkenazied.’ What the hell?! This preoccupation with ethnic origin here is like the preoccupation with motherhood. Everyone has something to say about it.”
    People don’t know what box to put us in. Sometimes when I’d interview people I hadn’t met before, they would tell me: ‘So, you married an Azoulay?’ Pretty insulting.
    “Identity politics, which was a struggle for recognition and legitimacy for those deemed as the Other, has become a way to grind your ax. If I’m of Ashkenazi origin then I don’t deserve to win, and if I’m Mizrachi then I do. Or the other way around, of course. I didn’t experience the oppression or suffer the discrimination that many Mizrachim in Israel have. I grew up as a privileged girl; dad volunteered for the Israeli army and didn’t go through the humiliating process that many Mizrachi emigrants did. In that sense, I can’t even allow myself to say I’m Mizrachi, because to say ‘I am Mizrachi’ is to declare a kind of baggage that I don’t have.”
    The truth is that I wasn’t aware until a relatively late age of the “ethnic demon” [Shed Adati] thing, whether it is bottled or not. It just wasn’t a topic for conversation at home. Dad was a walking encyclopedia for music, from classical to hazzanut. We grew up in a home ruled by France: every Saturday we’d listen to chansons and jazz concerts for about three hours through the huge stereo system in the living room. Mom would cook P’tcha and gefilte fish (two of my most hated dishes, sorry), and even made stuffed spleen, which she learned to prepare from her Algerian in-laws.
    Dad, on the other hand, mainly liked prototypical French food: steak frites, the fries double-fried, and a side of green salad – which charmed his grandchildren who loved to eat exactly what he was having. When we became adults, the three of us would visit them with the kids for Saturday lunches, and before the meal, they would serve aperitif with charcuterie, borekitas, and lots of wine. This idyllic setting would get totally disturbed when we’d sit down at the table: mom and dad were right-wingers, and the three of us ended up being Tel-Avivians on the left end of the spectrum. Sometimes the arguing would escalate until mom would bang on the table and plead: no politics.”
    They met at the Sarona base where mom served in the women’s corps [translator’s note: Cheil Nashim, or Chen]. Daughter to a family of citrus growers that settled early in Rishon LeZion, she was expected to marry one of their own, a son of early settlers. But then she met dad, who didn’t speak a word of Hebrew. She didn’t know a word of French. Three weeks later they decided to get married.
    Dad came to meet her parents, at the heart of the moshava, it was August and he wore a three-piece suit. Who would dress that way back then? They served him lunch and at the end of the meal he asked if they have a piece of cheese, because French people like to close a meal with some cheese. Grandma, meaning our mom’s mother, was so offended; she thought he was left hungry. Mom’s dad was immediately opposed to the marriage. How could his daughter marry an immigrant? But that didn’t work. After three months of knowing each other, they were married. Mom took French lessons and dad went to ulpan to learn Hebrew.
    Dad tried to hide his origins all his life. He always told us he was born in Oran, France. Only at age fifteen did I realize he was born in Algeria. He always introduced himself as “Roger,” not Mr. Azoulay, and he didn’t tell us, until very late, that he was in a Nazi concentration camp in Algeria for a whole year. He was ashamed of that too.
    “We really grew up with a mixture of different cultures. And it’s true, on the one hand, dad quickly understood how Mizrachim are treated in Israel and decided to present himself as “The Great Roger” – he wasn’t willing to be on the losing side or stand with those who are discriminated against, and so he hid it very well. But on the other hand, when you thought of changing your last name he was against it. This was a kind of dissonance for him.”
    Dad had to find his place in Israeli society as a Mizrachi and as an emigrant, and he did that successfully. We lived in a home filled with music, and dad was also the party animal of Rishon LeZion: he played the piano, brought home music we didn’t know, and threw famous dance parties. Years later, Rika Zaraï [translator’s note: Israeli singer and writer] told me herself, when we spoke in Paris, that she used to attend those parties.
    “Dad epitomized the colonialist subject who preferred the colonizer’s culture to that of the natives. He claimed that he didn’t even speak Arabic. In fact, he had always dreamed of moving to the United States and becoming a jazz pianist.”
    There was another family secret: dad told us that his mother’s name was Alice. Only after he passed away did we discover that her name was in fact Aïsha. A couple of years ago Relly adopted the name Aïsha in order to embrace the voice of a woman who had her name erased. Relly’s last book came out under her new name: Ariella Aïsha Azoulay. Do you think you would have been seen differently in the literature world if you had carried the name Azoulay?
    “I don’t know how to answer that. I’m also a woman and being a woman writer wasn’t something you could take for granted when I started writing thirty years ago. While the women writers who preceded my generation – Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Rachel Eyan, and others – faced greater challenges and showed us the way, when I started writing there were still those who tried to classify us under the labels “women’s literature” or “feminine literature,” which were seen as derogatory. We weren’t worthy of being part of the writers’ club. I made a long way working with these labels attached to my work – and today I can attest that I write women’s literature, meaning literature that places women front and center.”
    I read in another interview with you that one of the books that influenced you was Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras. I have this book here, with me, and it has influenced me as well at a very young age – it’s interesting because we never talked about it.
    “Yes, that book influenced me not only as a writer but also as a reader. The relationship between mother and son, between husband and wife, because a wife and her lover, the female scream that reverberates throughout the entire novel, the stream of consciousness, the minimalism – all these constituted a turning point in Duras’s writing, and in fact crowned her as a novelist.”
    I connected with Moderato Cantabile because of Duras’s ability to capture, laconically, that great scream. Her ability to produce words at a moderate and poetic pace, even when the piece is a sonatina of the devil. For me, you’re not only a beloved sister and the Sapir Prize laureate, but you’re also in a way Marguerite Duras – and that’s the compliment I wanted to give you for your big win, the beautiful win we’ve all been waiting for, with you.
    Translation from Hebrew: Yarden Katz

    First published: 17:02 , 06.01.20
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