Interview with Sara Shilo - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen Interviews


Chanukka 5784 im Dezember 2023 - Beitrag vom 27.09.2012

Interview with Sara Shilo
Sharon Adler

The author of "The Falafel King is Dead", ("Zwerge kommen hier keine" (DTV 2005), a beautifully drawn account of a family collapsing under an unbearable loss, talked about family structures,...

...hopes and desperation. AVIVA met with Sara Shilo during the German-Israeli-Literature-Days 2012.

Sara Shilo, born in Jerusalem in 1958, comes from a family of Iraqi-Syrian immigrants. In 1976 she moved with her husband to a settlement in Ma´a lot where she first worked as a social worker and as a kindergarden teacher. She also led the Center For The Arts, wrote children´s books and founded a puppet theatre which she led for 15 years and which has become extremely well known.

Published in Israel with the title "Shum Gamadim Lo Yawou" in 2005, "The Falafel King is Dead" was Shilo´s first book for adult readers and remained on the Israeli best-seller list for several months. It has been praised for the way Shilo describes the marginalised Israelis living near Israel´s northern border who are under constant threat of rocket attack by telling their story using their own distinctive, ungrammatical speech.

The novel was later published in Germany under the title "Zwerge kommen hier keine" (DTV 2009), and translated by Anne Birkenhauer. It has been translated into seven languages and won the Ministry of Culture Prize for a debut novel as well as the Sapir-Preis, Israel´s highest award in literature. Sara Shilo has five children and lives with her family in the North of Galilee, close to the border of Lebanon.

"Sara Shilo is, in my opinion, one of the best authors who currently write in Hebrew, and Walk´s film wondrously depicts her complexity as a person and a writer." David Grossman

AVIVA-Berlin: The German-Israeli-Poets/Literature-Days 2012 had the title "beziehungsweise(n)", which refers literally to "different shades of relationships" as well as "respectively". All the chosen novels in this event deal with family and family structures. If you could think of and create the family of your dreams, for you and for everybody else, what would it look like?
Sara Shilo: In my life experience I see a creative challenge in building a family. A challenge that one can enjoy.
Naturally, there is not one model that suits everyone. We can talk about values or the family way of life. I usually look back, in retrospect, at the family in which I grew up in, and to the families of my parents, as well as at the family that my partner and I built, in order to view what are the right things beyond the particular time of in which we live.
I can distinguish values of listening to one another without passing judgments, and with flexibility regarding the individual needs of each member of the family.
The family is the one structure that needs to find ways to contain each of its members in the best way for each of them. For this, one needs to be very creative in finding solutions and ignore as much as possible the way society judges our actions. Of course, it is important that each family member respects the bigger unit – the family – that allows him/her to feel that they belong and have a place in the world.
When all the people who are part of the family see the importance of it, and the success in building a family is dear to their hearts, there is a good chance that the family will become a supportive, warm environment, that allows each to grow and develop.
As a mother, I always looked at my kids, and the other kids that we adopted into our family, at "eye-level". There was never a real hierarchy. There was freedom of expression and mutual respect.

AVIVA-Berlin: The main character in the novel is the widow Simona. She sends her five children into the bunker for safety when the Lebonese rockets were being fired at Israel. Just like Simona, you, yourself, sent your family – your husband and your five kids down into the bunker in January 2000 when the Hisbollah-Katjuschas from the south of Lebanon hit your village Kfar Veradim in North Galilee once again. But unlike Simona, who prays to be killed by the Katjuaschas, you started writing your book about her and her family. Concerning family, after having written this book, do you consider Simona as a family member? Do you feel close and connected to her? Is she a character you created who obviously has a lot in common with you? If so, which member of your family might she represent for you?
Sara Shilo: I feel close to Simona Dadon. For more than half a year I literally gave her my body and soul so she could channel through me what she had to say in the most authentic way.
There was no separation between us when I wrote about her. Of course she lived among her family. In the evening of the Katyushas´ night, where she wishes to die on the soccer field, she goes through a process that can be perceived as therapeutic. She even says that the grass in the field is like a green sheet on a huge bed, and I thought of a hospital sheet. In that night she is looking at her life, meeting her dead husband, so she can say farewell to him and to the past, and begins to understand how she should cope from now on.
Simona is not me. Her choices in life are not similar to my life choices. But I feel that I manage to get to the roots of her soul and understand her from the inside.
Last month was the debut of Simona Dadon´s one-person show in Israel. The theater was packed and the play really moved the audience, who also laughed many times during the show. When I saw her character on stage I felt very close to her and to her direct way she speaks her mind and her beliefs. There are parts of other women of my family in her. The thought, for example, that she can do miracles in the world.
That she can give birth to children after their father passed away and yet they won´t be orphans because she won´t tell them that their father is dead. I know women like this, that out of rage for their bad luck they decide that they can change life order. I don´t judge them for that. I have compassion for that, as I know how life requires courage and wisdom that you don´t always have in extreme situations.

AVIVA-Berlin: In today´s Israel every fifth family needs social welfare. Family life, as well as support by and within the family, plays a big role just as it did for the Diaspora in order to survive. What, in your opinion, are the biggest challenges in family life and what do you see the biggest chances as being?
Sara Shilo: Last summer, in Israel, many people got organized to demonstrate against, and discuss the social situation. There was a lot of excitement. For the first time in many years the middle class and the more privileged class gave those subject matters their highest priority. I feel that the most important thing is to keep this discussion open. A new way was paved between the people who barely make living, some of whom are homeless, and the people who are home owners and have steady jobs. The biggest challenge is to have a channel for conversation between people and government, that the government will take into consideration the real needs of the people when making financial and social laws. Solidarity is not money that you can use to buy groceries with, but it´s a start to change from despair and hopelessness into hope and empowerment against the people who run the country.
I really hope that before summer the movement will start again, I know that this is the plan, and I hope we can make a real change.

AVIVA-Berlin: Like your Marocco-born heroine/protagonist, you too are a Sephardic Jew. Your mother was born in Iraq, your father in Syria. When your mother first came to Israel, she lived, like many others, in a tent, while your father worked at the harbour. Later he owned several restaurants in Jerusalem and so you never really experienced poverty. What made you become a social worker?
Sara Shilo: As you said, I grew up in a family that didn´t experience poverty. And yet, we were brought up and educated to share all we have. My father, who spoke very little, made very significant gestures. In the time he owned restaurants, he would come to the big market after Saturday, to buy fruits and vegetables, and people knew that in his truck he had brought with him left over food and produce that he wouldn´t use. He left his truck open so people in need could just come and pick it up with no shame. Many people got loans from him, with no contract or agreement, just a handshake. We learned about it just from the people who came to our home with gifts for him (gifts that he refused to take). This is just one example. We had an open home. When my cousin had a problem and had to leave the city where my uncles lived, he came to live with us for more than a year.
All those things were done quietly, as a matter of fact. I feel that it influenced me and my brothers. Each of us, in his own way, keeps practising the values we learned at home.

AVIVA-Berlin: I learned that you, still today, have the wish to be in contact with immigrants from the Arab countries. How do you feel connected to them? Would you say that, for you, they are a kind of family, too?
Sara Shilo: The truth is that I feel for us, as people who came from Arab countries, there is a big missed opportunity in the role we could have taken.
After all our culture is very similar to that of the Middle East. With that, one could expect that this big community of immigrants who did not come from America or Europe, and did not have to get used to a different landscape and climate, as well as to such an opposite way of life from what they previously had, would serve as a bridge between the Ashkenazi Jews and the Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians. But in reality it is just the opposite. Most of the people from Arab descent vote for the right wing party, and many of them make racist remarks towards Arabs.
This makes me profoundly sad. I think that something very peculiar happened here. The people who came from Arab countries adopted the idea the Arabs are the enemy and will always be. Since they themselves are very close to the Arabic culture that was considered inferior, they had to deny it and adopt a Western culture. I myself am married to a person whose parents are Holocaust survivors. Our kids heard the stories of their grandparents and as adults they are looking at ways to bridge those differences and act on their belief that it is possible to bring Israel to a place where Israelis and Arabs can live side by side. Our son is an active member of the Jewish-Arab (communist) party.

AVIVA-Berlin: How would you define "family"?
Sara Shilo: Family is a place and space where the lives of people who are genetically connected as well as by choice, co-exist. It´s a group of people whose goal is not financial or ideological, but more like a greenhouse; it helps the growth of and supports its members. A family has its own language, rituals, habits, values, and culture. It´s a place where people can experience deep intimacy, and give support and be supported continuously throughout their lives.

AVIVA-Berlin: In Israel today there is a big discussion going on concerning the acceptance of a new, alternative family model – caused by for example the TV-series The Story which describes – amongst other models – gay couples raising adopted kids. Can you please tell us more about it?
Sara Shilo: One of the things that has entered the Israeli awareness in recent years is just how much we are a society where each has the right, but also the obligation, to be a parent. People who don´t have or who don´t raise kids can feel like outsiders, and only by having a child gives them an entry ticket to the society around them. There is a discussion around the reasons for that, saying for example, that it´s a reaction to the fear that the Jewish people will be extinct if people don´t have kids. Moreover there is the discussion that Israel as a nation needs soldiers to protect itself, and that parents are aware of the danger in it, and this is the reason why people decide to have more than two kids. There is a book that was written about this subject and there is also an organization "Al-Horut" (No-Parenthood) that came to support those who choose life without kids. At the same time, there is a movement to find as many solutions as possible to allow every person in Israel to raise a child, preferably his biological child. There are few organizations that introduce homosexual men with heterosexual women where both sides have no intention of building life together. They sign a legal contract and this solution gets lots of support in prime-time TV shows.
But one should not conclude from this, in my opinion, that those who support it, also take for granted sexual freedom and alternative life styles, but only that people identify with the desire to have kids and so they create new ways to solve this desire that don´t include marriage.
Personally, I would be happy if society will open up to truly contain and embrace all its members with their different sexual choices including how to raise their children. When a person feels that he or she doesn´t want to be a parent because of the challenge and responsibility that it entails, I respect the freedom of each to chose how to live their lives.

AVIVA-Berlin: Concerning motherhood and after giving birth to five children, Simona feels quite exploited and seems to be emotionless about it. She complains and points out that for a woman who is alive only means to give birth to others – that´s it. How do you feel about this?
Sara Shilo: One needs to understand that a woman like Simona, who is in a state of a complete despair, all she was taught is that she needs to be a mother, and must find the answers in herself. She doesn´t read feminist texts, and never heard about other world views. I think that she´s against it. She describes in her basic words the gap between men and women in relation to giving birth and raising a child. When she says that women were born just so they can bring to the world the generation after them, she means to say that suddenly she doesn´t agree with that, that there must be another reason for her own existence, and this is why she bids farewell to her family that night and experiences herself: her body, her feelings and thoughts in a completely isolated place. And indeed her senses come back to her as well as her memories of herself as a child, and as a young adult before she became a mother.

AVIVA-Berlin: How would you react, if you were confronted with the fact that your father had a child with another woman, and that child, 50 years later, tried to contact you?
Sara Shilo: I think that I would allow myself to feel everything that this information would evoke in me, without judging myself. Obviously I would feel anger towards my father, for betraying my mother, and maybe probably I would be shocked, knowing that there is something so important for him that is part of his life that I had no idea about. This kind of information can also cause fear, or shake the confidence one has regarding his parents and his family. It would probably evoke doubts in me, whether there are more family secrets that I am not aware of.
I think that it is always right to let be whatever reaction my soul brings. Even if the mind resists it, this is the time to put on hold what we believe, and let the side that can show us the child in us be in control.
I hope that after the first emotional turmoil, I would be able to calm down, and look at what life brings me now. After all, it happened long time ago, and now we are talking about an adult person, that is trying to communicate and connect with me. I hope that the curiosity and the will for correction and redemption would be stronger than the fear and I would agree to meet with this new family member.

AVIVA-Berlin: How is life today in Kfar Veradim? It used to be a place where Jews and Arabs lived together side by side quite peacefully and relaxed.
Sara Shilo: Kfar Vradim is mainly populated by Jewish people. There are a few Arab families. The place is surrounded by Arab villages, and they are almost connected geographically. Usually there is no hostility. I feel there is tension only regarding land, and building permit for Jewish and Arabs. I don´t think there is fully equality in Israel, but the daily life in Galillee is peaceful and pleasant.
My grandkid goes to a Kindergarden in the Bedouin village where they have an Arab teacher named Iman, and a Jewish teacher named Yoav. The kids there are both Jewish and Arab and the teachers speak to them in the two languages, and celebrate all the holidays of all religions. He is only three years old and already knows plenty of words in Arabic.

AVIVA-Berlin: The main issue in your novel is loss and how the different characters deal with it – or not. Loss has always been pertinent in Jewish lives, even today. How do you personally feel about the possible attack by Israel on Iran or vice versa? What do you think about the letters and postings that say: "Iranians, We love You" or "Israelis, We Love You"? Do you think, like many others, that love messages from the Iranian public or from the rest of the world do not prevent Iran from funding terrorism and other acts of war against Israel?
Sara Shilo: I don´t know how well the social networks will influence the Israeli or international politics. I feel the power of it and I was very happy, with many other Israelis, when last summer they used social networks to demonstrate against the social and economical policy of the government.
Despite the major demonstrations and unique solidarity, we didn´t achieve much in reality. Reality itself did not change for the better and I am looking forward to see what this summer brings with all the planned demonstrations.
I am happy that people are trying to connect with each other behind the politicians´ back, but so far it hasn´t achieved much. As for Israel´s actions against Iran, I think that we need with our independency and our need to protect ourselves to remember that today there are also others who are concerned about Iran´s nuclear weapons. It will be better if we can cooperate with them instead of acting alone and isolating ourselves. The biggest challenge of the Jews in Israel is to be able to act responsibly and not out of fear. If we continue to feel that we are ´the victim´, then again we will find ourselves in this place where we believe we are different, that we are the ´chosen people´ and at the same time being chased and prosecuted. Interestingly, in my novel, there is one character like this, Itzhak Dadon who is all the time on this "chosen vs victim" axis. It´s a trap. The correct way is to feel autonomous but to act so your interest is cooperation and solidarity with other nations.

AVIVA-Berlin: Are you planning another book? Could you give us a hint as to what you are you working on at the moment?
Sara Shilo: I have written quite a bit, but I have no idea where it´s going yet. Usually my process is beyond my control. I assume that the basis for writing is there are questions that can´t be answered otherwise. Something starts to talk inside me, some other me that I am not familiar with. It is a very special part that finds its way to me only this way. The process itself is fascinating and moving and uses all the intellectual, emotional and spiritual potential and when it´s still in this process I can´t talk about it or look at it from the outside.

Dear Sara, thank you very much! All the best, Sharon

Thank you Sharon, it was a pleasure meeting with you, Sara.

More Info at:

Read the review in German on "The Falafel King is Dead"/"Zwerge kommen hier keine" at AVIVA-Berlin

(Interview: Sharon Adler. Translation from Hebrew to English: Shlomit Lehavi)


Beitrag vom 27.09.2012

Sharon Adler