Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Q&A with author Naomi Harris Rosenblatt

Q: Why did you decide to start keeping a diary as a 13-year-old?

A: I was not a diligent student. I don’t remember spending hours doing homework. What’s interesting is that I was so affected by the story of the blow up of those bridges, where 14 boys lost their lives. Today, it [still] devastates me….

Growing up in Israel, there was always a powerful sense of a pull of history. So it was never just me listening to this event, but this was part of a larger story, it was the story of fighting the British, against their rules against their allowing these “wretches” from concentration camps to find refuge…

The bravery of those 14, who were Israeli-born and who had never been in any kind of Holocaust situation—it was not negotiable that we would not help them [the refugees] find a place in Israel. When these boys were blown up…I felt it in me that was my duty, my obligation, that I was chosen to record this, so that it would never, never be forgotten. Once I started, I went on day after day.

But why? Because we were brought up with such a sense that we were part of a much larger story; that this was such an important link in Jewish history. It was as if American Jewry didn’t exist at all, we weren’t in touch with them at that point. Or French Jewry, or anyone. We were as if the only ones on whose shoulders [rested] the welfare of the Jewish people. Now this sounds pretentious, but this was deep in our mentality. And [we were] ready to pay the price for that kind of role and obligation.

The rest of the book is full of joy and laughter. On one hand, we were bringing in these immigrants. On the other hand, I am concerned if some boy is in love with me or isn’t in love with me. So it’s as if they have the same weight at the same time…

Q: So why did you return to this material now?

A: It was written in Hebrew, my mother tongue. Then when I came to this country a few years later I translated it into English because I was afraid that my children, not being fluent in Hebrew, would never read it. I was very careful not to add a word or subtract a word…

As the children grew up, and grandchildren began to appear on the scene, I realized that none were really aware or of knowledgeable about what I considered an incredible part of Jewish history.

I knew that my background was rare, because my parents were both highly educated, professional English-speaking Jews. They weren’t running away from anything, nor did they stop loving Scotland, for my father, Canada, for my mother. The idea of continuity of Jewish history within that land [Israel] was what they got committed to.

At the beginning of the Second World War, our house was full of British officers, because we were all fighting the Germans. The house was lively and they had excellent manners and they were beautifully brought up.

But then as we got to the middle ‘40s, then the tension with the British not permitting immigration, and what we considered their being on the pro-Arab side, as we saw it, the relationship came to a complete stop.

But that relationship, with the British, it was very rare. And very comfortable. Every afternoon at 5:00, my mother would reign over giving endless cups of tea and dry biscuits….and that’s very much part of my upbringing.

And then the other event that I wanted to commemorate, although I couldn’t write about it right away at the time, was the story of my cousin Danny and his courage and his bravery. I hope his name will always be carried into future generations.

My upbringing was unusual for an American audience. My school was completely secular. As to what level of observance you kept or not, nobody ever asked; that was our business.

But it was considered incumbent upon us that if we were going to be educated Jews, with a strong sense of identity in who we were, we had to start with the Bible, with the Biblical narrative. That’s where our DNA is, spiritually, politically, psychologically, morally. That’s our basic building blocks.

We studied that four or five times a week and were encouraged to ask questions, to wrestle with the text. We were taken on hikes through the country; we saw where these events mentioned in the bible actually took place. So the strong sense of history and the past was woven into everyday life. And the language of the Bible, the Hebrew, was our language.

One thing I hope comes through is that in a secular school, the study of the biblical narrative, of the prophets…we were taught it and we could memorize sentences the way a British child could memorize sentences out of Shakespeare.

Then there’s the personal side, which tells about my meeting the man who became my husband eventually when we were both 15. We both spoke English. But I was living after two wars…and Peter came from the Upper East Side of New York, very different. He fell for my mother, number one, for the country, and [then] for [me]. I fitted into that collage.

He came back every summer until we got married when we were 19. I managed to do my service in the [Israeli] Navy.

The book is a combination of this love story to the man I’m still married to 62 years later, the combination of the sweet, a wonderful rich personal life in the youth movement, in a family that was basically very harmonious, but on the other hand the casualties, that of my cousin and of the others, that were seared into our souls.

There was always that balance—of feeling chosen in the sense that this was an unusual role that we were privileged to be part of, but the tremendous responsibility, and heavy pain. Israel never had a military procession after any of her wars. We take the casualties very personally.

Q: What do you feel is unique to your life as a young Israeli, and what is more universal?

A: The story of coming of age has universal implications. Number one, it’s important that teenagers feel a sense of belonging, to wherever you are…to the country you live in, your community, your faith, or traditions, a powerful sense of belonging.

Number two, people, when they start their adolescence, there has to be a sense of responsibility to a community larger than merely themselves. The more you feel a sense of responsibility, the stronger you become…

Bringing up a teenager to be independent of the popular media’s idea of what a teenager should be like—if you can inculcate in your son or daughter, I don’t care what the guy next door is doing; this is what I want for you.

If the child comes from a tradition where there are some spiritual traditions, that’s important, to give them the tools to deal with the ups and downs of life.

Q: As you looked back at your diaries from the late 1940s and early 1950s, did you closely identify with your younger self, or did you feel a sense of distance?

A: I completely identified with what I was reading! Rereading it was like a mini-psychoanalysis. I wept with what I wept about then; I laughed with what I laughed about. And I was struck by how wholesome that upbringing was…There was always a group. Teenagers should feel part of a group. I never worried if [a date] did or didn’t [call]—there was always a group I belonged to. And I’m missing my parents terribly…

My diary came about five years after the Second World War. We had no sense of victimhood. It was really forging a new Jewish identity where we weren’t going to be dependent on anybody, we were going to take care of ourselves; we had a long history to fall back on…

Q: What was different about the writing process as you wrote this memoir, compared with your previous books?

A: In my first and second books, I analyzed the biblical text from a spiritual, psychological point of view, and I delight in the process. I gain wisdom by studying those ancient texts, and I benefit from it.

When I was writing the memoir and reading the diary, I would go through periods of profound sadness, and periods of smiling to myself, and always feeling fortunate because I feel I benefited so much from that particular Israeli upbringing. Doing the memoir produced a whole combination of moods, but in the end, feeling terribly good that I was privileged to be born in that period and that country.

Q: What does your husband think of the book?

A: I’m very lucky that he knew my parents, and of course loved my mother, who wouldn’t, and got along with my father, who was very reserved. He enjoyed it, and he saw himself through my eyes in a way that maybe he wasn’t aware of originally. But I trusted him from the moment we met that very first evening.

For my parents, his constancy—they knew that I was going with somebody they could trust. It wasn’t like today when every Tom, Dick, and Harry is flying back and forth. I didn’t realize how far I was going…I knew wherever he went, I would go with him and start teaching Hebrew and the Bible.

It’s really important to stress to a child: Strengthen your character and inner resources, whatever they may be--anything that makes you less dependent on how the outside world chooses to define you. And that you take with you in good times and in bad times. It’s an inner core that’s portable. The child has to feel that as they go to college.

Q: Do you feel you had that when you left Israel for the U.S.?

A: I never realized what I was doing, I was so sure of myself. There was never even a glimmer of a doubt….That was part of my upbringing. I was like a turtle—I took my identity like a turtle carries its house wherever it goes, it went with me. It was all forged by the time I left at 19. I am not unique; I am very typical of the Israeli.

Anne Frank was writing her diary during the Second World War, and she ends up going to the gas chambers. I was writing my diary that was all about the future and rebuilding and feeling so chosen that I was born there. And that’s two Jewish girls at the same time during the Second World War…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Naomi Harris Rosenblatt will be participating in the Hyman S. and Freda Bernstein Jewish Literary Festival at the Washington DCJCC, which runs from October 19-29, 2014. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here. Bless the Bitter and the Sweet is available at Politics & Prose bookstore.

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