For a taste of “Unlocking the Past”, here is Chapter Seven, “Sordid Beauty”, just published in Tell Magazine
Shira Sebban’s Unlocking the Past documents her mother’s experiences as a young woman living in the new State of Israel in the 1950s. Carefully drawing from her mother’s diary entries from this time, Sebban painstakingly pieces together a vibrant social history to provide a peek inside an individual story behind the larger international events.
Among the most striking elements of Sebban’s book are the photographs. Sebban includes both personal and archival photographs, and the juxtaposition of the two amplifies the inter-connectedness of the personal and national narratives. The Israel that Naomi inhabited was a country brimming with young people and potential. The country’s tiny geography adds to the intimacy of the setting and the relationships that Naomi experiences.
So what did a young, educated, and single woman do in Israel in the mid-1950s? Naomi’s life, according to her diary entries, was largely defined by her work as an economist, her connection to the Hebrew University, and an endless stream of movies, concerts, and small parties in people’s apartments or at cafes. It was a largely secular and urban life, with perhaps the only traditional element being the expectation that a young single woman must be looking for a husband. Sebban does not gloss over the military and security threats, but she addresses them apolitically, with direct reference to how they affected her mother’s day to day experiences. Readers who are hoping for a story of spiritual-awakening and efforts to make the desert bloom will be severely disappointed. Readers who wish to engage with the energy of young people eager to establish their roots in a new home will find abundant inspiration.
As Sebban has tried to stay true to her source material, the narrative sometimes feels choppy or distant. The excerpts she includes in the book make it clear that her mother was not given over to flowery prose in making her diary entries, and Sebban is faithful to the simplicity and sharpness of Naomi’s writing. It is to her credit that Sebban chooses not to try to speculate or fill in the blanks where her mother’s story is incomplete. Rather, she gives her readers a priceless gift – the hint of a personal narrative that makes us question and want to explore more fully the lives of those we hold most dear. We will never know the whole story, but we can try to find connections that will support our shared memories, and allow us to better understand ourselves.
BooksandBlintzes received a free copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review. The opinions and content of this review are solely those of the review’s author.
This book, for it is a little larger than a monograph, tells the story of Shira’s mum and her journey in Jerusalem (and getting there and back) as she pursues her PhD at the Hebrew University.
In that, she is just one of many. But this book is set in the 1950s! It is the story of a young woman in her twenties and the experience of being in an emerging country, not yet 10 years old.
There is much written and published about the birth of Israel (say from 1945 to 1950), be it in historical fiction like O Jerusalemor The Sourceas well as shelves of historical and personal accounts. At the other end of the spectrum is more recent works especially those discussing the political and historical (and even economic history) of Israel from the election of Begin in 1977 until today. What is missing is observations of those years between 1950and the Six day War of 1967.
Shira and her sister discovered a diary kept by their mother, Naomi, after her death in 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. It helps give some of the answers to questions they could no longer ask their mother. It is a labour of love.
Naomi Moldovsky was born in Palestine but had settled with her father in Melbourne. In 1955, she had an opportunity to study Economics in Jerusalem [and to become reacquainted with her mother who lived in Tel Aviv]. The book is a series of short vignettes describing events and feelings about what is going around Naomi. It is also set in a time while she is still single for it is only in 1958 that she does marry. She describes how lonely she felt as a single person in Jerusalem.
Many of us forget that this time was less than a decade since Israel’s Declaration of Independence and fighting a war for survival- and during the writing of this journal was the Suez Crisis. Israel then is not he Israel of today. The Labor Party of David Ben Gurion was firmly entrenched at all levels, not only of government but throughout society. Having lost half of Jerusalem and the main campus of the Hebrew University much was on an ad hoc basis. This is reflected, at least on one level, by the description of the location of her supervisor whose offices were in part of Terra Sancta building where both the humanities and the social sciences were located until much later when it was subsequently moved to the Givat Ram.campus.
Some of the book gives one a sense of déjà-vu. Just as in today’s Israel which experiences terrorist action do too it was in the Jerusalem of Naomi’s time. Described are a number of events which happened in April 1956.
What I missed, for not that much is available, is Naomi’s perception of the Suez Crisis. It was a time of uncertainty with world powers vying for control and influence and the United States forcing Israel and its partners back from the Suez Canal.
The reality of this book is in its style. Shira has taken the words of her mother’s diary and written them in an easy to read form that enables the reader to understand that period of time. It is clearly not intended for those seeking primary documents.
Shira has brought her own literary talents to this book. She has previously worked as a journalist and her sister, Leora, is still in the field. It is a fascinating read.
Mazo Publishers $20
Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen is Associate Professor of Medicine (Sydney Campus) at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He served as CEO of the Sydney Jewish Museum [1996-2001] and has been involved in Jewish Christian Dialogue and Pastoral/Spiritual Care in North America and Australia
Watch the launch here
Shira Sebban was very close to her mother, Dr Naomi Moldofsky…writes Sharon Berger.
Upon her death she discovered an unknown diary which gave her a glimpse of her mother’s experiences in Israel in the mid-1950s. Not only was she able to discover a side of her mother she never knew, but the diary describes a very different Israel from today.
This discovery encouraged her to further explore this early period in Israel, and resulted in her first creative non-fiction work Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Dairy.Using the diaries as the scaffolding Sebban had done extensive research to fill out the stories in an interesting combination of historical insight, politics, social parties, and an array of potential suitors. This intriguing mix of the mundane and historic tells this period of Naomi’s life in a series of short and easy to read vignettes.
Chapter by chapter we get to know Naomi’s unsentimental character better. She is a no nonsense conservative young lady, focused on her economic studies, for which she won a scholarship to study at Hebrew University. Her parents bemoan her spinsterhood in her late 20s and Naomi grapples cynically with her ongoing loneliness. After 10 years in Australia Naomi had become “too Australian” and “not much of a sabra anymore. We meet her friends, her professors, and her family and get to know her better as a music aficionado and book lover.
At times it is a bit tricky to keep track of the cast of changing characters surrounding her and once or twice the reader is introduced to a character and then left hanging as to what happens with them. However this is the limitation of writing creative nonfiction, one of the fastest growing literary genres.
Most poignant are Sebban’s descriptions of Israel, in its nascent statehood, which transport the reader to a totally different world from today’s start-up nation. Descriptions of armoured plated vehicle convoys to the Hebrew University Mt Scopus campus, the elegant Edison cinema, Jerusalem neighbourhoods newly built on the ruins of Arab villages, and a no mans land occasionally interrupted by sniper fire dividing the Israeli controlled West Jerusalem from the Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem were all very real during Naomi’s stay. She also refers to fascinating interactions she had with newly arrived immigrants from Yemen and Egypt.
Sebban’s skill is in recreating these scenes in vivid detail for the reader, almost making one feel like they have been taken back in time. While her detailed descriptions are recognisable to anyone who has spent time in Israel the passage of only 60 years has totally transformed these depicted landscapes. The archival photos interspersed throughout the book further help bring both the characters and locations to life.
The book highlights how much has changed in such a relatively short time. Naomi describes a time when people did not have telephones in their homes and communicating plans was challenging. Yet today Israelis have one of the highest rates of mobile phone usage in the world.
Interestingly some things have changed very little even with the passage of time: ultra-Orthodox rioting against the use of public transportation, Jerusalem’s sleepy nightlife, Steimatzky’s book stores, impatient Israeli crowds, terror attacks, and Independence day military parades, to name a few.
Unlocking The Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diaryoffers a brutally honest look at Israel in the 1950s. Naomi has not been swept away by her experience in the Holy Land. Eventually she leaves Israel for Australia via Europe. She notes in her typical dour humour of her travelling companions, “All five claim to be great Zionists; still seem to be pleased to stay out of Zion.”
It is difficult to be impartial when writing about someone so close to you but Sebban has done an excellent job of being honest with the subject showing not only her achievements but also her shortcomings and frustrations. In doing so she has made Naomi’s story come to life in an enchanting way.
My book is now available either as an e-book on Amazon or in paperback from Mazo Publishers. It can also be purchased from Golds World of Judaica in both Melbourne and Sydney, as well as from the Sydney Jewish Museum and Lindfield Bookshop.
Shira Sebban had long abandoned hope of uncovering more details of her mother Naomi’s past, especially after her death in 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
That was before Sebban and her sister discovered a diary Naomi had kept during a study trip to Israel in the mid-1950s.
Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary brings Naomi’s vibrant and descriptive diary entries back to life as a series of creative non-fiction short stories. In so doing, Sebban embarked on a fascinating journey, exploring a place and space so different to her own. Not only was her mother still single, but she had also become somewhat of an outsider, having returned to her birthplace after a decade away in Australia.
Covering an 18-month period, from late 1955 until mid-1957, beginning with Naomi’s arrival in the then divided city of Jerusalem to take up a scholarship at the Hebrew University, the chapters portray what life was like in the new State of Israel, particularly in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Disparate events are covered, from social, cultural and political public happenings to more personal concerns like love and loss.Naomi’s friends included future advisor to Margaret Thatcher, Alfred Sherman, renowned concert pianist, Nelly Ben-Or, and Ilan Hartuv, now best remembered as one of the Entebbe hostages, whose elderly mother, Dora Bloch, was among those killed.
Importantly, we gain an understanding of what it was like to be a single, young and intelligent woman during the foundation years of Israel.
American and Canadian readers can purchase either version on Amazon.
UK readers please click on this link to Amazon
French readers please see this link (English version)
The paperback version in English is also available worldwide from Mazo Publishers.
They did not know whether Indonesia – where they applied for recognition as refugees earlier this year – would follow Australia’s example and return them too.
Now, however, the two mothers can breathe a little easier: officials from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees have visited the group of 18 Vietnamese asylum seekers, including 12 children, currently in detention in Jakarta to tell them they have been granted refugee status.
Loan and Lua had been facing lengthy prison terms in Vietnam for helping to organise “illegal” departures to Australia on family-owned fishing boats in 2015.
At the end of January 2017, they fled Vietnam for Australia again, only to be rescued 10 days later from their sinking boat off the Java coast by Indonesian authorities.
Assessed at sea and found not to warrant protection, they were forcibly returned after the Australian government received written assurance from its Vietnamese counterpart that returnees would not be punished. Several members of the two groups were subsequently incarcerated, including Lua, who has complained of being severely mistreated in prison.
Both she and Loan were facing up to 15 years’ jail as repeat offenders under the recently amended Vietnamese penal code. The women maintain police had threatened to beat them in jail for having spoken out to foreigners in the past. They had also told their lawyer, Don An Voh, they would rather commit suicide by jumping into the sea than be jailed in Vietnam.
Retired US ambassador Grover Joseph Rees visits the Vietnamese families in detention. Photo: Shira Sebban
According to Loan, her family had originally left in 2015 because the state had seized their land, they had lost their livelihood due to Chinese incursions into fishing grounds, and also because of institutionalised discrimination against Catholics.
Taken into Australian custody and held at sea for almost a month, they underwent “enhanced screening” by two officials. While Australian authorities claimed they were fairly assessed, Loan said a translator was not provided for the group, none of whom spoke English. They only realised they were being returned when they reached port in Vietnam.
Loan’s husband, Ho Trung Loi, was sentenced at the time to two years’ jail in Vietnam, seven hours away from the family home. He was subsequently moved to a harsher prison in the Vietnamese jungle, and told he would never be released unless his wife and children return. Frequent beatings damaged his sight in one eye; he suffered a stroke and lost considerable weight.
Last week he was released, after being forced to sign a document stating that he had not been mistreated. He is now seeking medical treatment and is under police watch for the next six months, forbidden to leave his local area without express permission.
The family’s desperate situation first came to international attention in mid-2016 when Loan lost her appeal for leniency despite being the sole carer of her four children, then aged between four and 16, who were set to be forced to leave school and live in an orphanage. Donations from ordinary Australians subsequently ensured the children could stay at school and be cared for by relatives. Both Loan and Lua were eventually granted a temporary reprieve from jail.
Meanwhile, however, Australia has continued to return Vietnamese intercepted in the Timor Sea. Last December, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton signed a formal agreement with Vietnam’s public security minister, Lieutenant-General To Lam, to return “Vietnamese nationals with no legal right to enter or remain in Australia”.
Ineligible for resettlement under current Australian immigration policy, the families in Jakarta now hope to find another country which will offer them a safe haven. “UNHCR said they would soon work with the International Organisation for Migration and the Indonesian Immigration Department to get us out of here,” Loan said.
Canada, which is prepared to take 300,000 immigrants this year, is a serious option.
“Despite their assurance that refugees would face no sanctions or retributions for leaving the country, the government of Vietnam continues to jail, beat, torture and prosecute refugees returned to them by the Australian government,” Canadian senator Thanh Hai Ngo said. “The occurrence of these violations of basic human rights and civil liberties are at the core of why many are choosing to flee and are well known by the Canadian and Australian governments.”
The first Canadian senator of Vietnamese origin, he has agreed to “discuss and bring this re-occurring issue on Vietnamese refugees to the attention of the Australian High Commission and to the appropriate authorities here in Ottawa”. He has also requested full documentation and an update on each of the refugee claimants to help bring their cases forward.
Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor and a member of Supporting Asylum Seekers Sydney.