Gershona is older than the State of Israel

Speech at the Jewish Book Award Ceremony

New York, June 12, 1991

What happens to Gershona after the book ends?
When asked - and often I am - I try to imagine Gershona now.
What would she be like if she were here today? She would have been 44 years old, a mother of three perhaps, maybe a career woman like me, and forever older than the state of Israel.

In the book, Gershona's father tells her that she must always be responsible for the state of Israel, as if she is her younger sister. And although I am younger than both Gershona and Israel, I could be a perfect example of a generation of people who examine their relationship with their so called "sibling". Exploring the roots of our young, perhaps fragile, Israeli identity, we became the imaginary fifth son of the Hagadda - the one who indeed knows how to ask!

I nick named my heroine Gershona-Shona, meaning in Hebrew 'Gershona the Different', because so many of us indeed felt out of place. Our parents were born beneath some distant sky, speaking strange languages which we didn't understand. Often they told us: "You are a brand new page in the Jewish book. Why deal with the past? The past is gone and done with."

But the main gap between my generation and our parents' is the fact that they chose the Hebrew and we were born into it. We're built-in this revived language.

The renaissance of the Hebrew language is the most breathtaking miracle in modern Jewish history. You Americans receive our Israeli culture veiled in your English language, but I must remind you that we make love in Hebrew and we die in Hebrew!

My Gershona is an inquisitive person. She seeks to unravel the secrets of her family past, not only out of curiosity but in order to communicate with her loved ones. I believe most Israelis are in the process of a quest to find out more about their different ancestors. This book is about Gershona, yet it is also about Nava. I too had a blind grandfather who left Europe and his family many years ago and went to America.

The very day this novel was published in Israel we left on a diplomatic mission to New York. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I must emphasize that writing a book is never an imitation of life. Becoming Gershona is by no means a biography. For me the most exciting thing about writing is being able to write not what really happened, but what could have happened.

One of the first things I did upon arrival to New York, two and a half years ago, was to go to Norfolk Street number 122. This is where my grandfather lived for many years. There are almost no Jews in the Lower East Side anymore. The building is covered with Graffiti and one can easily detect the address, for it's written with chalk on the filthy garbage cans outside. We checked the names of the tenants. None of them were Jewish.

A few months ago I registered my grandfather in the wall of immigrants on Ellis Island. Although at the end, he came back to the family, immigrating to Israel, to the very last of his days he remained very much an American.

Writing for me is not only my way to ask questions - often enough painful ones - but to reconcile with the past, especially the personal scars. Through writing I learn not only to understand but most of all to forgive.

Embracing my grandfather back into the family is exactly what my father did when learning that his father was seeking a home. I am very happy that my father could attend the ceremony. By coincidence he is here tonight. I feel as if the circle is indeed closed.

Not all Jews chose Israel as their final destination. Sometimes, people come for other reasons. But this home does exist, and you can be certain that it will welcome you if God forbid you suffer any persecution or if, like my grandfather, you're blinded.

I am deeply honored to receive the National Jewish Book Award. I thank the distinguished panel of judges for choosing Becoming Gershona. I thank my wonderful translator Seymour Simckes for bringing the Hebrew to life, even when dressed in another language clothes. I'm deeply grateful for my excellent editor Deborah Brodie at Viking-Penguin, who like an archeologist, dug deep into the text and showed me its new layers.

I'd like to thank my American agent Mary Jack Wald for her assistance and support, and my deepest thanks go to my two best friends; my husband Noam and my son Iyar, who have to live with all these strange characters I bring home.

When readers ask me "And what happened after the book was finished?" I tell them you can predict any fate you like. The choice is at your hand. You are the author now. The book is yours!

Saying farewell in a book is never an end, but always a beginning of a new book!

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