Writing Fiction in the Shadow of Jerusalem


Arts & Culture


I started writing fiction while a cloud of death and mourning hung heavy over Jerusalem. To be clear: death and mourning are always hovering in the air over Jerusalem. It is not a joyful city. But in this period, beginning in early fall of 2015, death and mourning were increasingly part of the daily reality of almost every Jerusalemite I knew, and were spreading elsewhere, throughout Israel-Palestine.

In late September of that year, a car driven by a sixty-four-year-old Israeli man named Alexander Levlovitz was stoned by a number of Palestinian youths in Jerusalem. He crashed into a pole and was killed. A few days later, an Israeli couple were shot and killed by Palestinian gunmen while driving in the West Bank with their four children, who were not physically harmed. In the days and weeks that followed, the Israeli military began a trigger-happy campaign of suppressing any form of Palestinian uprising, whether armed or not. By mid October, some two hundred Palestinians had been killed by Israeli forces—some of them armed with lethal weapons and attempting to carry out attacks; some of them throwing stones at army posts, vehicles, or checkpoints; some of them entirely unarmed; some of them small children, like thirteen-year-old Abdel Rahman Obeidallah. During the same period, twenty-eight Israelis had been stabbed, axed, run over, or shot to death by Palestinians, and an Eritrean refugee named Haftom Zarhum was beaten to death in a bus station after a group of Israelis mistakenly identified him as the Palestinian perpetrator of a shooting attack that had just taken place there.

During that period, like many other Israeli Jewish Jerusalemites, I was, when I left my house, in a state of hypervigilant anxiety that sometimes morphed into genuine fear. Unlike many other Israeli Jewish Jerusalemites, I also visited Palestinian colleagues in the occupied eastern parts of the city to see how they were faring in the face of the increasingly draconian crackdowns.

That was how I spent my afternoons. But in the mornings, I was neither glancing nervously around the light-rail or the sidewalks, nor listening to stories about flying checkpoints and teens being dragged off into police vehicles at random. I was elsewhere: I was deep in the fictional world of a novel that I hadn’t planned to write. (I’d thought I’d write nonfiction; within six weeks, I’d written the first draft of a novel, at just over a hundred thousand words.) Those mornings spent writing fiction, I think, were simultaneously a way of grappling with the latest wave of violence and death taking place in and around Jerusalem, and a way to escape it.

This novel, I think, can be categorized as a work of realistic fiction, at least insofar as its histories and logics and languages and politics and characters were intended as portraits and sketches of the realities I saw and felt in Israel-Palestine. But the book was also an escape from the real Israel-Palestine, and especially from the city of Jerusalem, where I was born. For part of the book, which is set largely in and around the northern city of Haifa, the story is about a friendship between a young Jewish Israeli man, Jonathan, and two Palestinian twins, Laith and Nimreen, both citizens of Israel. Later in the book, their friendship ends up crumbling under the weight of history and politics, but still it is a friendship that at least had a chance to take root and grow into something actual and genuine. To have set such a friendship against the backdrop of modern Jerusalem would have changed the genre of this book from an attempt at realistic fiction to a work of whimsical—or delusional—fantasy. Perhaps that’s a bit hyperbolic: there are, certainly, some genuine friendships between Israeli Jews and Palestinians in Jerusalem. But in my experiences in Jerusalem, those friendships are often swallowed by the city before they even have a chance to sprout.

That winter, in early 2016, my partner and I flew to visit family in Berkeley, California, and to get out of Jerusalem for a little while. A few days before we arrived, we got an email from my aunt saying that she really wanted us to meet a Palestinian couple—also from Jerusalem! Also visiting Berkeley! Also trying to get away from everything in Jerusalem, at least for a little while. We weren’t sure that they’d be thrilled to spend their time away from Jerusalem with two Israeli Jews, but we reached out nonetheless. The couple—let’s call them Murid and Sawsan—were incredibly gracious, and while our schedules didn’t align in Berkeley, they insisted we come over to their place in Beit Hanina, in East Jerusalem, when we got back. A few weeks after that, we got in a taxi to visit them. (We didn’t want to drive, afraid of getting lost, of being recognized as Jews or being seen as encroaching settlers, and of what might happen then.) The taxi dropped us off outside of Murid and Sawsan’s apartment building, and we went upstairs, where we proceeded to have one of the nicest evenings we’d had in a very long time. We talked some about politics on a zoomed-out level, of course, about how awful it all was, but also about life in general and about California and about family. Toward the end of the evening, they told us they wanted to leave Jerusalem. They didn’t know how to keep their children, three incredibly sweet young boys, safe from the violence—both that which could be done to them and that which they could do. We nodded, tears in our eyes. We didn’t have children of our own but planned to. As members of the Israeli side in this conflict, we were cognizant of the imbalances in power and in statistics, but their expression of fear had a familiar timbre, taste, bodily weight, and we told them this, and they nodded. At the end of the evening, we prepared to take a taxi home, and they said they’d drive us. We tried to demur, but they insisted. As we crossed the invisible but highly palpable border from East Jerusalem into West Jerusalem, the conversation in the car grew strained. I noticed, at a certain point, right before we drove into our affluent West Jerusalem neighborhood, that Sawsan’s hands were shaking on the steering wheel. They dropped us off, and we thanked them too many times, and we all said we absolutely had to get together again, and I think we meant it. But this was Jerusalem: we didn’t see them again.

After a while, we heard that they’d moved to Canada.


Jerusalem is a city of death and mourning and violence and separation.

The novel I wrote, like most novels, is a novel about death and mourning. It is about separation and violence and power and history and politics. But it is also a novel about joy and silliness and nineteen-year-olds getting high on the beach and waxing poetic, and it’s about love and about friendship. I set it far away from Jerusalem, to allow the joy and silliness and friendship at least a little space to grow. Throughout the novel, Jerusalem only appears three or four times and plays no directly significant role in the narrative. But its shadow, I think, hangs heavily over the entire story, like it does over the entirety of Israel-Palestine.


I’m writing this from Ohio. We moved away from Jerusalem last fall, moved away from Israel-Palestine entirely. Most days, I feel a measure of guilt for having left, and an equal or greater measure of relief. I’ve continued writing fiction, but the new stories are set much farther away from Jerusalem than Haifa. My partner and I are expecting our first baby this spring. For a long time, I’d thought that we’d send our children to the one integrated Hebrew-Arabic bilingual school in Jerusalem. But I also know that a child is not an ideological project. Watching Jerusalem from afar, it is less clear to me that we will choose to bring our child or children back to the city we left.

Maybe, at some point, we will take our child to meet Murid and Sawsan’s children up in Canada. Maybe they’ll be able to play together without the shadow of uniforms and checkpoints and preordained violence hanging over their small heads. Maybe here, Jerusalem’s shadow—its languages, its histories, its idiosyncrasies, its beauty, its torment—would connect us, rather than all but ensure that we remained apart. In many ways, hundreds and hundreds of miles of North American sprawl does feel like a shorter distance to travel than the five miles separating our old homes in East and West Jerusalem.


Moriel Rothman-Zecher is an Israeli American writer. His first novel,
Sadness Is a White Bird, will be published by Atria Books in February 2018.