Rothman-Zecher, Moriel. “Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel”, Atria Books, 2018.
A Coming-of-Age Love Triangle
Jonathan is a young man who is preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country. We begin in an Israeli military jail, where Jonathan remembers clearly the series of events that led him there. It all began two years earlier when after spending several years in Pennsylvania, Jonathan moves back to Israel and is ready “to fight to preserve and defend the Jewish state”. His grandfather was a Salonican Jew whose community was erased by the Nazis and he was one of the pioneers to help establish Israel. Jonathan is conflicted about the possibility of having to monitor the occupied Palestinian territories and this becomes a very deep concern when he meets Nimreen and Laith, the twin daughter and son of his mother’s friend.
From that meeting, the three become inseparable as they wandered the streets on weekends, had new adventures and laughed together. They shared so much from joints on the beach, trading snippets of poems, intimate secrets and family histories, resentments, and dreams. In effect, they created their own family. With his draft date rapidly approaching, Jonathan wrestled with the question of what it means to be proud of your heritage and loyal to your people, while also loving those outside of your own biological and tribal family. Then the day that put Jonathan in prison came and his relationship with the twins was changed forever.
This novel looks at one guy as he tries to find his place in the world and who found, along the way, love. In the process, we gain a look at identity formation, both personal and collective. As I read, I was reminded of so many of my own life experiences. As young people we become very aware of the changes in the world that we want to make. We establish our own set of values and beauty and see what we want to see.
The story is told through letters written by Jonathan whose grandfather convinced him of the honor and duty that cones with the defense of Israel. Jonathan becomes devoted to his grandfather’s dreams of recapturing some of that which he lost when they were forced to leave Palestine. At the same time he is became friends with Palestinian Arabs, Laith and Nimreen.
Laith and his twin sister, Nimreen, became Jonathan’s voices of the other side of the political divide. Their relationship becomes strained because of ideologies and Jonathan is sure that he must follow what his grandfather told him to do. Laith and Nimreen feel that their view of the situation is right.
Jonathan tells the story through his letters, thoughts, journal entries that he writes to Laith, his friend he feels he’s lost along the way as he sits in an Iranian military jail cell. How he got there and everything else about his life is told in flashback.
This is so much more than a coming-of-age story— it also shows the dangers and ravages of war and this is also a love story of a kind. We sense Jonathan’s spirit, thoughts and feelings and the see the effect that the Israeli/Palestinian has on his relationship with Laith and Nimreen. Beautifully written and honest and sincere there is, of course, a message here.