You can hear the Podcast interview with author Yael Shahar HERE, but for those readers who don’t have internet access, below is the full transcript of the interview.
Interviewer: Welcome to the Jewish Book Review, we’re interviewing Jewish authors, and today we’re interviewing Yael Shahar, author of Returning.
So, Yael has spent many years in Israeli security; she knows how to ride a motorbike – like seriously; she can also ride a horse bare-back; and she was Israel’s large bore rifle champion for five years in a row. And now, she’s written book.
So welcome Yael, first of all. What can you tell us about your book?
Yael: Well, the book actually grew out of my desire to understand how I had come to Israel, and how I had gotten to where I am. You mentioned that I spent most of my life in security: it’s true! I’ve spent almost my entire life trying to keep bad things from happening to good people. And, at a certain point I realized that I don’t even know why I’m doing this. Why am I so dead set on protecting the Jewish people? What’s the background for this?
And about the same time, I was diagnosed with PTSD.
Interviewer: What is PTSD?
Yael: PTSD is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s a condition that develops if you’ve been in a life-threatening situation. And it can be very debilitating.
Interviewer: How would it manifest itself? Like what sort of symptoms were you having?
Yael: I was having flashbacks where I would zone out completely and be in another world for a very short time, then come out of it terrified. I was having nightmares, and I had other symptoms that were very typical of PTSD such as being easily startled, being a nervous wreck for no obvious reason.
And so, I got a clinical diagnosis, really for my husband who was saying: ‘look, you are in an army unit doing really frightening things and you are never frightened of it. All of a sudden this one thing is bothering you – you can’t let this one thing rule your life!’ And so he had me get a diagnosis. He was right, as it turns out. I had difficulty telling him how right he was, because then he gets very smug about it all, but yes he was right.
And so I became interested in the whole phenomenon of memory, and how memory makes us do what we do. Returning answers, or attempts to answer, one question: ‘what happens to memory when no-one survives to tell the memory?’ What happens to the memory itself?
The book is a novelized memoir—novelized in the sense that it tells the story in two different narratives, which are interwoven in the book. One is my own narrative, trying to get to the bottom of why I am what I am.
Interviewer: The cowgirl from Texas who ends up doing what she’s doing in Israel….
Yael: The cowgirl who ends up an Israel soldier, essentially. And the other is Ovadya. Ovadya was born in 1926 in Saloniki, which was a very vibrant Jewish community at one point. In fact, half the population was Jewish; the port was controlled by Jews; the stevedores and ship unloaders were all Jewish, and the port was closed on Shabbat. It was a very famously Jewish town, or city. Ovadya was deported with his family to Birkenau, and everyone he knew was killed. The entire Jewish community was slaughtered.
And so, the book follows Ovadya as he struggles with the need to tell what he did and saw, and to come to terms with it. Interwoven with that story is my own need to tell, because telling is part of the therapy for PTSD. So that’s the common denominator for two people who are having a very difficult time speaking of what they went through.
Interviewer: The book is a very powerful book, so what was the hardest part of writing the book?
Yael: Well there were a few parts that were very difficult. One was telling Ovadya’s story. Seeing it written on the page was very, very difficult. I’ve told people who are reading the book: don’t read it at night. There are parts that are really, really powerful and very, very vivid, of what he went through in Birkenau.
And, so that was obviously very difficult.
But beyond that, this isn’t the book I intended to write! When I first started writing this book, I’d intended to write it through the correspondence of Ovadya and Masha.
Interviewer: Who is Masha?
Yael: Masha is a woman whom Ovadya met at a PTSD support group. They only corresponded, they never met in person, except for one time. Most of their correspondence was at a distance, and they became very close friends. Ovadya felt guilt for what he had done to survive and it was only to Masha that he was able to tell what had happened.
Interviewer: What were Masha’s experiences? Why was she able to get that out of him?
Yael: Well, first of all she was very stubborn! But she had also gone through in the shoah some of the same kinds of experiences. She was deported to the same camp but had managed to hide the fact that she was Jewish. And there she was forced into prostitution, and her whole life she felt guilty for not committing suicide instead. I think that to the end of her life she felt guilt. She was just exactly the right person that Ovadya needed to talk to. They were both struggling with some of the same emotions.
Interviewer: They had the same question about whether they’d made the right decision?
Yael: Yes. They were both questioning – constantly questioning – did I do the right thing? Did I do the only thing I could have done, and now, how do I get over it? What do I do now? And Ovadya’s question of ‘what do I do now’ eventually led him to Rav Ish Shalom, and that’s where the story changed. Because the book that I’d intended to write was between Ovadya and Masha, and I had thousands of pages of correspondence.
And this is what was difficult about writing it—just trying to figure out which of those letters, each of which was very good, was going to go into the book.
Interviewer: It sounds almost like a love story.
Yael: It was! It absolutely was a love story. It was a story about how two wounded people find each other, and even if they never meet in person, they can still help each other to heal. So that was the story I had intended to tell, and I had thousands of letters all spread around my living room floor at one point, trying to figure out where to put what. I had finally winnowed it down to several hundred letters when something happened. And that ‘something’ was when Ovadya met Rav Ish-Shalom. And suddenly the story I had wanted to tell was completely, completely passé.
Interviewer: Why did he go to Rav Ish Shalom? I mean, Rav Ish-Shalom appears in the book, but what drew Ovadya to Rav Ish Shalom?
Yael: It was actually almost a coincidence. He had expressed to my husband Don the wish to put himself on trial for what he did. And Don said “yes, you need to do that. You need to contact a Rabbi.” Now, we didn’t have any rabbis in the family (laughs) and the only Rabbi I knew was Rav Cordozo, with whom I learnt many, many years ago, and I hadn’t stayed in touch with him. I didn’t know anybody I could trust. And so, I went looking for somebody. Then a colleague said ‘here’s the business card of a rabbi that I know, who is really, really good.’ So that was the Rav we contacted, just out of the blue.
And, the rest is the story of Returning, what happened when Ovadya decided he was going to put himself on trial for what he did in Birkenau.
Interviewer: So, your rabbi clearly figured very largely in this story. Do you still have a relationship with him? Is he a real person?
Yael: Oh yes. He’s a real person. He asked me to use a pseudonym. He said that the first person who comes knocking on his door saying ‘Oh, I read about you in this book’ will be the end of our relationship (laughs). He’s one of these people who’s very shy. He doesn’t even let me send people to him with halachic questions unless they really don’t have anyone else to go to. He takes the hard cases. But he was the one. The book is really told as if it was told to him. The reader knows about the characters as much as Rav Ish-Shalom knows about them as the story is develops.
Basically, some of the book was actually being written right after the events that were told in the book.
Interviewer: In real life, as it’s happening in real time?
Yael: Yes, it’s happening in real time. And the conversations with the Rav were written up right after they happened. So they are very, very clear. And it was nice that I could also go back to him and say: ‘did I get this conversation right?’ And sometimes he would say: ‘I don’t remember saying exactly like that…’ and I would go back over it with him and he would say, ‘yeah, you’re right! I did say that, didn’t I?’ (laughs)
It’s very real.
Interviewer: It comes across that you actually really enjoyed those conversations. Were they your favorite part of the book, or what other parts of the book did you enjoy?
Yael: They were definitely my favorite parts of the book. Just as Ovadya’s story was so hard to write, the conversations with Rav Ish-Shalom were a joy to write, because they were so uplifting. He’s such an optimistic person, and he so believes in life. His faith through all the darkness is startling, and it was beautiful to have come in contact with such a person.
Interviewer: So you initially wanted to write the book as part of your healing journey, and your returning to yourself and getting over the PTSD. Did you feel that writing the book helped with that stuff?
Yael: Oh yes! It helped on several levels, both from the point of view of PTSD and also the feeling that I had told Ovadya’s story, and for him that was really significant. Because he felt overwhelmed by the inability to tell what he had experienced, and he had assumed that it would die with him—that what he saw would never get out into the world.
And all of a sudden, now here it is, black on white, on the paper, and he could say ‘Now it’s told, it’s out there’. That was a very healing thing for him. From my point of view too, telling what happened is part of the therapy for PTSD. And so here you have two people who can’t tell, and who have finally told. That is very, very healing.
The other part is that Ovadya had…there’s no doubt in my mind that when he put himself on trial, it was to make an ending. To go out with a bang (laughs) to say ‘I’m guilty. Just tell me I’m guilty, so I’ll know!’ And the Rav was having none of that, and he said ‘no, we’re going to bring you back to life! It’s not time for you to go yet!”
And that was healing, because he had faith in Ovadya; he had faith that from a point where you’ve become a total failure, you can bring it back around and you can heal from it.
Interviewer: Right. I actually found that a very powerful and uplifting message from the book: that it’s never too late, that things can always be improved, things can always be turned around. It was really….it resonated with me for many long weeks, after I read the book.
Let me ask you: you’ve had very good advance reviews for Returning, but has the feedback been only positive, or have people been a little bit less positive…
Yael: There have been a couple of reactions that have been not quite positive. There was at least one person who came to me and said ‘it’s too difficult. I can’t, I just cannot read the parts about Birkenau.’ Sometimes I could tell them where to skip, but you can’t get away from it. The book really does have some very dark parts, and it vividly describes Ovadya’s history.
There was also someone who said ‘look, it’s a little too weird for me, it’s too strange.’ Because the book goes into memory, very much in an experiential way, very vividly. It goes into how you remember when you are wounded and your memory is not always clear. So there are a lot of places in the book where there is a certain amount of vagueness, about what Ovadya is remembering; what Yael is remembering.
Some people who read the book had difficulty with that.
Interviewer: You speak about inherited memory, so can you explain a little bit. What is inherited memory?
Yael: Well, there are a lot of theories about what it really is. I can only tell you what it feels like, and that is that you remember things that could not have happened to you. There is no way you could have experienced what you are remembering. And yet, you remember it.
Interviewer: Can you give some examples of it?
Yael: Well, my own story is told in the book, so there you have an entire book filled with examples. But, I’ve met a lot of other people with this, and especially in Israel. I can tell you two interesting stories. One of them is a colleague from when I was working in counter-terrorism. We were on a plane together, travelling abroad on business. He was sitting next to me, and as the plane was about to take off, he was fidgeting. I said, ‘are you afraid to fly?’
And he said ‘no, no. I’m afraid of leaving home’. ‘Look around,’ he said. ‘You’ll see a lot of people on this plane, and they’re afraid to leave Israel.’
Interviewer: Right – I’m also afraid to leave Israel (laughs) so now I’m wondering whether that’s also got something to do with it.
Yael: So then said ‘it’s from the Shoah; everybody knows that it’s from the Shoah!’ And I questioned him after. He’s the last person I would have ever thought to be affected by ‘mystical stuff’. He said: ‘I remember being taken from my home; I just don’t remember anything else.’
Interviewer: So it seems that inherited memory if far more common place than is maybe accepted?
Yael: I think it is in Israel, especially. I’ve met other people who remember other things, too. I think that what happens is that we remember trauma, and if we don’t deal with it in our lifetimes, we pass it on to our children. I think a lot of people have inherited trauma from their parents and especially in Israel. We are a nation built of people who survived. And those who didn’t survive – what happened to their memories?
One of the questions that I ask in Returning, and try to answer, is what happened to those memories?
Interviewer: So what is the message? If there’s one message that you’d like your readers to take home after reading this book, what would that be?
Yael: That it’s never too late to become the person that you wanted to be, or should have been. No matter how deeply you have sunk into the mud of your experiences, and no matter how much of a failure you feel, you can always turn it around. You can always return.
Interviewer: So, it’s never too late – that’s the take home message from Yael Shahar, the author of Returning. So can you just tell us a little bit about where we can find the book?
Yael: You can buy it on the publisher’s website, www.Kasvapress.com. It’s also available already on Amazon, and all of the major bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble. It’s also available for.
Interviewer: Sounds great. I would just say that when you get your Harley Davidson – we were just talking earlier about when Yael gets her Harley Davidson she’s going to give me a spin on it, so I’m booking myself in now.
Interviewer: And thank you so much for being with me on the Jewish Book Review today. It’s Yael Shahar author of Returning. Thanks for listening.