Another thoughtful review of my book, which sets it within the context of Israel in the 1950s

Unlocking the Past: Stories from my Mother’s Diary – book review by Jeffrey Cohen

May 22, 2018 by Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen

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.

Shira Sebban

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


First in-depth review of “Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary”

Book review: Unlocking The Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary

May 17, 2018 by Sharon Berger
Read on for article

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.

Article about refugees now on Eureka Street

Humanity meets bureaucracy on asylum seeker Fast Track
Shira Sebban | 14 August 2016

‘I just want to lead a normal life like everyone else in this room.’ Sobs rack his body as he pleads with the immigration officer on whom his fate largely depends.

Hand writes in notebook It is hard to believe that this nondescript civil servant has so much power. Clad in a jumper, briefcase in tow, he looks more like a suburban accountant than an authority figure.

Yet, under the Fast Track Assessment process now being used to clear the backlog of protection claims, he, or a fellow Australian Immigration and Border Protection officer, will most likely be the one to decide whether the trembling man seated opposite him will be allowed to stay, albeit temporarily, or forced to return ‘home’ or to a ‘safe third country’ where he has ‘right of entry’.

‘Should you be found not to engage Australia’s protection obligations, the government may share your biographical details with the authorities of your country of origin,’ the official intones.

‘If you give them information about me I will be killed,’ comes the chilling reply.

His support person can do nothing. She is not allowed to speak. Sitting beside the man she has come to consider a friend, she hopes that somehow she can give him the strength to endure this ordeal. As he strives to answer the probing questions about his tormented past, his growing distress is evident. He cannot help but relive the harrowing experiences of his youth.

‘Is this you?’ the official asks, thrusting a document in front of him. The photo is of a young, proud and handsome man. ‘You look very different now.’
The support person asks permission to leave the room to bring him some tissues. Upon returning, she sits there, hand over mouth in shock. While she has been visiting him in detention for six months, he has never told her the extent of his family’s suffering under the Iranian regime.

“She asks a guard if he can see his psychologist, and fortunately, her request is granted. A fellow applicant was not so lucky: told after his interview that he was to be moved to Christmas Island, he slit his throat.”

True, he had shared memories of the Iran-Iraq War, recalling rockets and warplanes overhead and being bundled into an open car boot with his siblings as the family made their escape. His hometown of Khorramshahr in Khuzestan Province, located in southwestern Iran near the Iraq border, was devastated, the 1986 census recording no one remaining from a pre-War population of about 150,000.

He had told her that Ahwazi Arabs — the largest Arab minority in Iran, who reside predominantly in resource-laden Khuzestan — are marginalised as impoverished, second-class citizens. Their oil-rich and fertile ancestral lands are expropriated without compensation, and their water supply diverted and polluted, depriving them of clean drinking water, even though they live in one of the hottest populated places on earth.

But she did not know about the arrest, torture and public execution of family members; the beatings he endured — to the point that his own mother did not recognise him — and his jail sentence for fighting for his people’s political, economic and cultural rights; the hiding from authorities; his desperate escape when, helped by friends, he fled by plane to Malaysia and then by boat to Indonesia and on to Australia. By then, he no longer had a passport, Malaysian people smugglers having broken their promise to return it. He recalls the 14-day passage to Australia as a nightmare: seriously ill from the diesel fumes, he was grateful to be rescued by the Australian Maritime Authority and taken to Christmas Island.

As far as the Australian Government is concerned, that fateful journey deems him to be an ‘illegal maritime arrival’. Fast Track is expressly for the approximately 30,500 ‘people who arrived illegally by boat’ between August 2012 and December 2013. They are the lucky ones, who can still be invited to apply for a temporary protection visa. Those who arrived later will not be granted a visa at all.

The immigration official claims to know about the Ahwazi Arabs’ plight, and is more interested in whether he can provide ‘genuine, original’ documented evidence of his ‘identity, nationality and citizenship’. After all, this is probably his only chance to provide his protection claim in full.

Alternating between Farsi and English, he does his best to comply, producing a file, which the migration agent sitting next to him has helped to compile. He knows he is fortunate: only those assessed as ‘exceptionally vulnerable’ are now eligible for legal funding. When he has difficulty understanding, he relies on the translation provided by the interpreter seated at the end of the table. Coolly elegant, the young, sophisticated woman, originally from Teheran, seems worlds apart from her fellow countryman, with little in common aside from their shared language.

In contrast, the support person recalls having an immediate affinity with this charming, soft-spoken man whom she visits each week. Enriched by their friendship, she admires his resilience, his efforts to improve, learning English and updating his professional qualifications online. Yet, as he often reminds her, ‘You have the advantages of education and freedom.’

Finally, the interview ends. He is emotionally spent. The process has been respectful, if dispassionate, his story finally heard. Promising to send the required character references, he gets up to return to his room. The support person cannot leave him like this: he is too vulnerable, his reopened wounds too raw. She asks a guard if he can see his psychologist, and fortunately, her request is granted. A fellow applicant was not so lucky: told after his interview that he was to be moved to Christmas Island, he slit his throat. ‘There’s only so much a person can take,’ he explained while recovering.

Weeks pass in a flurry of activity as final documentation is supplied. Intended to process claims ‘more efficiently’, Fast Track only allows limited time to respond.

Gradually he stops asking for advice. Life returns to what passes as normal in the surreal world of the detention centre. He resumes his activities — exercise, reading, eating, sleeping — some detainees call it ‘time-wasting’ — while he waits in limbo.

Fear of uncertainty still troubles him: what if his application is refused? She strives to offer comfort: under Fast Track, he may still get a second chance, with some rejected claims referred for limited review by the recently established Immigration Assessment Authority. Hopefully, he will be recognised as a refugee and granted a temporary visa. Then he too will be able to realise his dream to live in freedom, if only for a short while. For as the government constantly reminds us: ‘Settlement in Australia will never be an option for anyone who travels illegally by boat.’

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor, passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist, she previously taught French and worked in publishing.

Shira Sebban
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Pages From My Mother’s Diary: A Bus Trip to Ashkelon

Monday, 7 December 2015
Another story from my mother’s diary has been published
← Rescuing The Past
December 7, 2015 · 7:00 am
By Naomi Gross (Tel Aviv, Israel) and Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

My sister and I never expected to find the diary of our late mother, Naomi Gross. Indeed, for many years, we did not even know of its existence. It was only when we sorted through our mother’s possessions after her death in July 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, that we came across the non-descript, navy-bound volume, stashed away and seemingly long forgotten in a drawer of her writing desk.

The diary reads like a film script, relating experiences in the Israel of the mid-1950s of a young woman whom I did not recognize. After almost a decade’s absence, she had returned to her birthplace from Australia, where she had gone to join her father after World War II, only to discover that she had become somewhat of a stranger in her own land.

At the same time, and especially in the wake of the most recent deterioration in relations between Israel and the Palestinians, it is sobering to read a personal account of the early trials and tribulations, anguish and vulnerability of the new State of Israel.

Now, nearly sixty years later, I have decided to bring the yellowed pages filled with my mother’s distinctive script to life once more, recreating stories from her diary, which has become one of my most cherished possessions.

Shira Sebban


There was not a soul in sight. Surrounded by orange groves, my mother expressed her growing unease, “recalling some unfortunate encounters workers had with Arab infiltrators some months ago.”
I picture her, as she was then, an attractive and bright 20-something student, alone – except for her cousin Miriam – in the hot afternoon stillness. She would have been unable to get the image of those poor workers out of her mind. What if she was attacked too?

The infamous date of 4 October 1956 must have been etched in her memory. Only six months previously, five Israeli construction workers had been killed in an ambush in broad daylight on a desert highway near the Dead Sea, just a few hours away from Ashkelon.

Why on earth had she agreed to visit the South in the first place? It had been sheer madness to try to walk to the 5000-year-old site of ancient Ashkelon from the beach cafe, and they were still two kilometers away from the excavations.

The term, “infiltrator,” with its connotations of menace and evil, has recently been revived to refer to African asylum seekers to Israel. Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when numerous attacks on Israeli settlements culminated in the 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law,” which defined Palestinians and citizens of surrounding Arab states, who entered Israel illegally, as “infiltrators,” punishable by law, especially if armed or accused of crimes against people or property.

How many incidents had there been in the past 18 months since my mother’s return to her birthplace from Australia after almost a decade’s absence? Five people had been massacred in the previous two months alone: on 18 February 1957, two civilians had been killed by landmines next to Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on the southern border of the Gaza Strip; on 8 March, a shepherd from Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, not far from Ashkelon, had been murdered in a nearby field, while just two days prior to her excursion, on 16 April, two guards had been killed at Kibbutz Mesilot in the North.

No, she decided firmly, she and her cousin would have to miss out on seeing the Neolithic excavations recently undertaken by French archeologist Jean Perrot; it just wasn’t worth the risk. They would then have joined the disorderly, long queue catching the Egged bus back to Tel Aviv. The two-hour trip would be a nightmare, she thought as they boarded, jostling in the narrow aisle against laborers standing cramped two or even three abreast after a hard day’s work.

It had not been as overcrowded that morning, when at least she had managed to find a seat next to Miriam. They were taking every opportunity to spend time together, renewing the strong bonds of their childhood friendship. Born and bred in Tel Aviv, Miriam was eager to inspect recent developments undertaken by the new State, remaining ever hopeful that her enthusiasm would somehow rub off onto her more-worldly cousin.

A high-pitched voice rang out above the din of the other bus passengers:

“Whose idea was it to throw Joseph into the well?”

“Was it Judah?”

The tentative reply was met with squeals of laughter.

“Wrong! You lose a point.”

My mother turned. “The seats behind us were occupied by four Yemenite girls, 15-17 years old, probably recent arrivals to the country,” she subsequently noted in her diary. “Full of joy of life, laughing and continuously talking in squeaky voices, cracking small black seeds and throwing shells on the floor of the bus. They were conducting a biblical quiz concerning the story of Joseph and his brothers in a childish manner, heavily taxing their minds and enjoying it tremendously.”

She was recalling the rescue mission, Operation Magic Carpet, which had airlifted most of Yemen’s 50,000 Jews to young Israel between June 1949 and September 1950 in what had been the first wave of Jewish immigration from the Muslim world.

The exuberance so evidently displayed by the girls would have contrasted sharply with the largely discontented demeanor of most of the other passengers. She glanced out the window and found the land “flat and uninteresting,” the monotony of the green fields “relieved here and there by red and yellow spring flowers.”

Ashkelon itself had been a disappointment – “An old Arab town with one main street containing the shops,” she would write, “now occupied mainly by migrants.”

That “old Arab town” was al-Majdal Asqalan, established under Ottoman rule in the 16th century. A commercial and administrative center, it had been part of the area occupied by the Egyptian army during the War of Independence, when its Arab population, about 11,000 strong, had largely fled, ostensibly temporarily, to nearby Gaza, before the town itself had been captured by Israeli forces in early November 1948. Less than two years later, the remaining Arab population, which had been confined to a fenced-off “ghetto,” had been transferred mostly to Gaza.

Meanwhile, demobilized soldiers and new immigrants, including survivors from the displaced persons camps in Europe and Jewish refugees from Yemen, Iran and Iraq, had been moving into what was Israel’s first development town. After several name changes, it had officially become Ashkelon in 1956 – only the year before my mother’s visit with her cousin. They had not lingered long, boarding another bus for the ten-minute ride west to the recently incorporated seaside township of Afridar.

Touted as a South African-style garden city, Miriam had long wanted to visit Afridar, which was being built on a large tract of land granted to the South African Zionist Federation by Labor Minister Golda Meir. Even its name sounded exotic, an amalgam of “Africa” and the Hebrew word, “darom,” meaning “south.” But as her description reveals, my mother had found the town center frankly uninspiring: on the right was a cinema, while on the left stood “a museum, library, health center, city municipality, all in one building. Likewise there is a row of about ten shops, comprising the entire shopping center, also a café. There is a tall tower with a clock at its top, and there, at the bottom, is the information bureau.”

The buildings, she conceded, were quite attractive, constructed of “colored bricks, with a somewhat oriental touch,” and “surrounded by lawns and flowers,” although multiple official notices forbidding visitors from walking on the grass spoiled the overall effect.

Looking for a place to have lunch, I picture the two women entering the information bureau.
“Welcome to Afridar,” the official behind the counter – clearly a new South African immigrant – would have intoned in stilted Hebrew. “This is the first modern neighborhood of Ashkelon, and the first, and up to now, only Anglo-Saxon settlement in Israel!”

“It’s impossible to utter any genuine impressions or opinions in front of the local people,” my mother would later record in her diary. “They will bite your head off as they can’t take any criticism. Still, the overall impression is a poor one, which might change with the enlargement of the place.”

She described the sea from a distance as appearing “beautiful, very blue and calm.” Small single- and two-family homes with red tiled roofs, arched front balconies, and spacious private gardens dotted the broad dirt road, an occasional old, rickety bus ambling past. Upon closer inspection, however, she expressed her disappointment as “the shore was poorly looked after, the sand none too clean and quite uninviting,” the only saving grace being the “most beautiful purple, yellow and orange wildflowers” growing in abundance.

At that time, the coastal dunes were quite deserted, save for two buildings, one a hotel and the other a café, which stood closer to the edge of the sandstone cliff running along the beach. The hotel was none other than the Dagon Inn, which had been established in 1954 by the Government-owned Afridar Development Corporation. Sharing the name of the Philistine god Dagon, whose temple Samson knocked down in biblical times, the Inn was one of the South’s first hotels, its then 16 vacation cabins even attracting the Prime Minister himself, David Ben-Gurion.

Its sole neighbor, Café Maurice, had proved to be the perfect place to have lunch, which was ” beautifully prepared and exquisitely served,” my mother wrote, although “the bill was tremendous – 12 lirot for both of us, which was very high for Israel, but perhaps worth it.”

“The place belongs to my parents,” the waiter had told the women in response to their compliments. “They’ve been in Israel for ten years – lucky for me as I was kicked out of Egypt last month.”

“What were you doing there? Your English is excellent,” my mother noted.

“Thank you, I speak five other languages as well. I studied hotel management in Switzerland and then owned some big hotels in Egypt. It was a great lifestyle – working six months a year and travelling around the world for the other six. But it’s all over now – I left with 20 pounds to my name. I’m leaving for Brazil soon. Prospects look good there. Israel’s a lovely place for idealists, but it’s got nothing much to offer me. Even if you have great talents to share, the country can’t cope yet.”

The waiter was part of the “second exodus from Egypt” after World War II, an expulsion that lasted for around 20 years, reaching its peak in the wake of the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Of Egypt’s once 80,000-strong, multicultural Jewish community, 34,000 would immigrate to Israel, the rest leaving for France, Brazil, North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. Forced to leave their property behind, many of these largely middle-class refugees were deported with little more than the clothes on their backs, their travel documents stamped “One way – no right to return.”

On the trip back to Tel Aviv, a frail, elderly lady had squeezed onto the bus, complaining of a sick heart, but no one was prepared to give up their seat. Huddled in the aisle, my mother and Miriam must have watched in disbelief as the mother of a little boy, nonchalantly sitting next to her, vociferously stood her ground, to the loud protestations of those around her.

“I paid for his ticket! He doesn’t have to get up for anyone!”

In a vain attempt to block out what my mother described as the ensuing “lively discussion,” peppered with frequent swearing, the cousins strove to share their impressions of the day.

“Miriam was most enthusiastic with all she saw,” my mother wrote. “Perhaps patriotism makes one so. As for me, I couldn’t work up a spark of enthusiasm or particular pleasure. Pity, I seem to be missing something vital.”

For other stories based on my mother’s diary see: and
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, she previously worked in publishing and taught French to university students. She now serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online and print publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Australian Jewish News, Times of Israel, Eureka Street, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion, as well as The Jewish Writing Project. You can read more of her work at

Sordid Beauty

Thursday, 20 August 2015

After we lost our mother, my sister and I discovered her diary in a desk drawer. Her diary entries read like a film script, inspiring me to bring them back to life as stories. Today the Australian Jewish News has published one of them, “Sordid Beauty”. You can also read another story from the diary here

Garishly painted faces leered at Naomi as she scurried nervously down Jaffa’s dark, unpaved lanes. She shuddered as strange, shadowy figures darted urgently past the workshops, factories, stores and cafes, where the smoke of nargilehs mingled with a heady aroma of spice and perfume. Police seemed to be on guard everywhere.

Passing a police car, she noticed some prostitutes sitting in the back, mostly young girls in skimpy clothes. “They were waiting to be taken to the station and charged,” she would later note in her diary. She had known of course that prostitutes, both Jewish and Arabic, had long been plying their trade in brothels on the roads between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, but this was the first time she had been so close to the action and her discomfort was evident.

“Let’s go!” she urged her companions.

Reluctantly, Aliza nudged Motke, raised her eyebrows and shrugged wryly. “You’re not much of a Sabra anymore, are you?”

The evening had not been meant to end this way. Aliza, fun loving and capricious as ever, had been keen to hear Aris San, a 17-year-old, short Greek singer, who had recently arrived from Athens and was already making quite a name for himself. Motke had been only too happy to oblige, driving the women to the well-known Arianna nightclub.

The sharp metallic sounds of the bouzouki wafted through the thick, sweltering May night air as they approached the Salonican Jewish-owned Arianna, the bastion of Greek popular music in Israel. Constructed on the ruins of an Arab building, it was not far from Jaffa’s old central bathhouse, which had been converted into another nightclub known as the Hamam.

“The Arianna looks very ordinary from the outside,” Naomi would subsequently record, “but is situated in beautiful surroundings by the sea and close to mosques, towers and ruins of a house – charming indeed”. A few years later, by the 1960s, the Arianna would have become a favorite haunt for army officers and members of the Mapai Government, the forerunner of Israel’s Labor Party. The crowds, which would line up around the Jaffa Clock Tower to get in, included such luminaries as Major General Moshe Dayan and his wife Ruth, who would go there to dance on a Friday or Saturday night.

For Naomi, however, the spell was broken. The chaotic commotion of Jaffa was too much for her. Perhaps Aliza was right … she had become too Australian. At any rate, she preferred Jaffa by day. Hadn’t she and her cousin Miriam battled through the bustling maze of winding alleys just over a month ago to visit the home of the late War of Independence hero Yitzhak Sadeh? She recalled stopping at the end of the street now known as Zichron Kedoshim to see the house that had belonged to the first commander of the Palmach, the elite strike force of the pre-state underground Jewish army, the Haganah.

Perched near cliffs, with panoramic views, it had been easy to picture the charismatic Major General-turned writer, nicknamed HaZaken (The Old Man) while still only in his fifties, hosting his disciples and fellow warriors, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, in the enormous, blossoming garden, with stairs leading down to the sea. Naomi could even visualize the goat that Sadeh had kept tethered to a tree in defiance of then new Israeli laws.

His room was just as he had left it in 1952 – a modest bed and wooden desk, books and photographs, many of him in action against the Egyptians, a collection of military maps and guns, swords and daggers amassed during his military exploits – all as you would expect of one of the founders of the Israel Defense Forces.

That had been a wonderful afternoon, Naomi thought, remembering how they had earlier visited Tamar, lingering over tea and luxuriating in the stunning surrounds.

Tamar had been most hospitable, and the large garden around her Arab limestone villa overlooking the azure sea far below was exquisite, the hilly lawn carpeted with the purple and yellow wildflowers so typical of the Mediterranean coast. Shaded by pine trees and cooled by sea breezes, the stone slabs and fountains taken from the recent excavations in Ashkelon had glistened in the sunny Friday stillness.

“A most ideal place to live,” Naomi would later pronounce. Indeed, situated south of Old Jaffa, Ajami – the neighborhood where Tamar resided – had been founded as a small, wealthy, upper middle class residential settlement by Maronite Christians in the late 19th century under Ottoman rule.

Since the establishment of the Israeli State, however, the roughly 4000 Arabs who had remained in and around Jaffa were now concentrated in Ajami, where many buildings had been demolished. Meanwhile, Tamar’s family had been among the thousands who had settled in homes vacated by the 70,000 or so Arabs who had fled or been displaced.

Ultimately, Ajami would rapidly deteriorate to become a cramped and dilapidated home to the destitute, both Jewish and Arabic … facts that Sabra-turned-outsider Naomi seemed blissfully unaware of during her visit on that day in 1957.


My sister and I never expected to find Naomi’s diary. It was only when we sorted through our late mother’s possessions after her death in July 2013 following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, that we came across the non-descript, navy-bound volume, seemingly long forgotten in a desk drawer.

The diary reads like a film script, relating the experiences of a young woman I did not recognise in the Israel of the mid-1950s. After almost a decade’s absence, she had returned to her birthplace from Melbourne, only to discover that she had become somewhat of a stranger in her own land.

Now, nearly 60 years later, I have decided to bring the yellowed pages filled with my mother’s distinctive script to life once more, recreating stories from her diary, which has become one of my most cherished possessions. For it provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.

A former AJN journalist, Shira Sebban is a Sydney-based writer and editor. She also serves as vice-president of Emanuel School. Her work has appeared in online publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Eureka Street, Times of Israel, The Jewish Writing Project, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion. You can read more of her work at

Blood in the Market

Wednesday, 1 October 2014
My first creative non-fiction piece has just been published in the Jewish Literary Journal. It is based on my mother’s diary.
Shira Sebban

With a terrible cry, the young man let go of the knife and fell to the ground, blood oozing from his throat.
Naomi froze in horror in the late spring morning sun, jostled by the bustling market around her. A boisterous crowd was starting to mill about the young Arab trader, now stretched prone in the dirt, surrounded by Israeli police.
He had slashed his own throat; that much was clear. But why?
Moments earlier she had passed by an old Arab basket-seller being arrested. Her ears still rang with his yells of protest. Bystanders had explained that he was allowed to sell his products in the main street, but not in the shuk itself.
Normally her Sunday shopping expedition to Shuk HaCarmel (the Carmel Market) was a highlight of her week. She would linger over the colorful, long alley of stalls packed tight with hundreds of vendors on both sides, each vying for attention, hocking their wares by seeing who could shout the loudest. Dazzled by the array of spices, pastries, and other culinary treats, she would stop to purchase the fruits and vegetables her mother had requested, slipping in an extra juicy peach or crisp apple for herself.
Now she noticed two officers wheeling away a cart full of vegetables.
“They’re taking it to the police station!” someone shouted.
Apparently the young trader too did not have a permit to sell in the market.
Her routine shattered, Naomi made her way through the dusty, dry streets of south Tel Aviv to her mother’s home, where she was staying during her visit to her birthplace. She had not finished her shopping but her heart was just not in it anymore.
“I cannot say who is right or wrong,” she later wrote in her diary, “but I do feel that something must be very wrong for such a thing to have occurred. You don’t cut your own throat just for the pleasure of it, or as an idle demonstration.”
Her thoughts were interrupted by the cries of a watermelon seller. “Avatiach al a sakin!” (“Watermelon on the knife!”), he shouted from his perch atop his horse-drawn wagon, challenging potential customers to test the ripeness of the fruit. At least she would bring home something fresh for lunch, she thought, as he sliced off a red glistening portion for her.
Tensions had been rife between the local populations of downtown Tel Aviv and Jaffa long before that memorable Sunday in May 1957. Indeed, Shuk HaCarmel owed much of its growth to the Arab riots particularly of the late 1930s, which were held in protest against Jewish immigration and land transfers. As a result, Tel Aviv’s Jewish population had tried to end its commercial dependence on Jaffa. The violence had continued in the years before the establishment of the State of Israel, Arab snipers shooting at Jewish shoppers from the nearby Hassan BekMosque, the well-known Ottoman-style building, which still adorns the road to Jaffa by the Mediterranean Sea.
Naomi’s family, like many others, had been personally affected by the riots. Her father Berl’s laundry in Jaffa was burned to the ground, leaving him struggling to support a wife and two young children without a source of income.
According to family legend, he had no option but to go down to the harbor, where he had found one ship departing for South America and another for Australia. It was July 1938, the eve of World War II, and fortunately, he had chosen the vessel heading for Melbourne, promising his young family that he would send for them as soon as he could.
War, however, was to intervene, and it would be several years before he could afford to purchase even one ticket for a family member to join him. Meanwhile, back in Tel Aviv, his wife Chana was forced to resort to housecleaning to feed her children.
It was late 1946 before Naomi, by then a teenager, had finally been chosen to make the weeks-long journey to Australia by herself. Now, some ten years later, she was back, living with her mother – the only member of her immediate family still in Israel – in the sunny, whitewashed house her father had built in the south Tel Aviv suburb of Shechunat Brenner. She traveling each week to Jerusalem, where she had won a research scholarship to the Hebrew University.
Having changed considerably during her decade-long absence, the shy and reserved teenager blossomed into an attractive and bright 20-something woman, fluent in English, armed with a Commerce degree, and schooled in Australian social mores and customs. Nevertheless, she had never been able to recover completely from the fears and instability of her childhood, recalling as if it were yesterday, the sirens in the middle of the night, at the first sound of which she and her family would rush to their cousins’ apartment in downtown Tel Aviv, further away from the center of the action.
Now, as she unlatched the low front gate and entered her mother’s simple but neat front yard, the grass freshly mowed and the lemon tree bursting with fruit, her mind wandered back to an incident that had occurred just over a year earlier, in April 1956, which she had also recorded in her diary: “Some people spread panic, saying five Arab terrorists were caught in the market next to us. I was really scared, as that would have meant we were all in real danger. Radio programs didn’t mention anything – probably somebody’s imagination. Still, to be on the safe side, we closed all windows and shutters, bolted doors and stayed inside – horrible feeling.”
That had been a particularly anxious time, when the newspapers were full of alarming reports about shootings and attacks. On one day alone – 7 April 1956 – an Israeli woman was killed when attackers threw hand grenades into her house in Ashkelon in southern Israel; two kibbutz members died when their car was fired upon; and there were other attacks on homes and cars in which one person was killed and three others wounded.
Disheartened, Naomi had written in her diary: “Had some very disturbing news concerning the killing of citizens by Fedayeen-Arab groups. It is a horrible feeling being stabbed in the back when one is least aware.”
Four days later gunmen opened fire on a synagogue filled with children in the farming community of Shafir in southern Israel, killing three children and a youth worker and wounding five, including three seriously.
By “Fedayeen” – a term that has since fallen out of use – Naomi meant Arab terrorists, who infiltrated Israel to strike targets in the years after the establishment of the new State. At their peak, four years earlier in 1952, there had been about 3000 such border incursions, ranging from property destruction to murder.
Hastily, Naomi tried to dismiss the memories, striving to quell the familiar anxiety stirring in the pit of her stomach. She would not tell her mother about this morning’s events in the market. It would only frighten her and life was hard enough… How she wished her Australian papers would come through so her mother could finally leave Tel Aviv and join the rest of the family!
Meanwhile, she brightened, they would go to the movies. A new comedy was showing at the Mograbi Cinema. And perhaps tonight, she would accept Yaacov’s invitation and join him for the munitions exhibition? Even though she was not really interested in ammunition…
My sister and I never expected to find Naomi’s diary. Indeed, for many years, we did not even know of its existence. A non-descript, navy-bound volume, it had been stashed away in a drawer of the massive wooden study desk at which our late mother had worked for so many years. Perhaps she had simply forgotten writing it? Or perhaps she had chosen not to share her youthful passions and agonies, hopes and fears with her daughters… We will never know.
I had long abandoned any hope of uncovering more details of my mother’s past, her memories having been gradually extinguished by Alzheimer’s disease, which had afflicted her for the last decade of her life. Now, nearly 60 years later as I turn the diary’s yellowed pages filled with her distinctive script, I feel grateful for the opportunity to discover her anew, albeit in a younger form, becoming acquainted with the person she once was before I was born.
At the same time, and especially in the wake of the most recent deterioration in relations between Israel and Gaza, it is sobering to read a personal account of the early trials and tribulations, anguish and vulnerability of the new State of Israel.
The ravages of disease had prevented my mother from recounting her memories long before her death last year. Her diary provides a portrait of her, as I never knew her: a young woman dealing with fears and insecurities so foreign to me. It provides the key to unlocking a part of her past with which I was unfamiliar, a past that I thought had been lost forever.
Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the “Australian Jewish News,” she also serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online publications including “Jewish Daily Forward,” “Times of Israel,” “Jewish Writing Project,” “Eureka Street,” “Alzheimer’s Reading Room” and “Online Opinion.” You can read more of her work at