As some of you may know (because I talk about it all the time) I work in a bookstore. One of the perks of my job is getting to read advance copies of books, and one of the books I read that came out recently was Sadness is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher. Sadness centers on the story of Jonathan, a soon to be 18-year old former American Jew who moves with his family to Israel to finish out high school. He meets Arab twins Laith and Nimreen and quickly develops an intense and intimate friendship with them that is complicated by the combination of Laith’s deep belief in the Palestinian cause and Jonathan’s impending entrance into the Israeli military.
While most of the book focuses on how the trio navigate this complex relationship, an important part of Jonathan’s story is revealed by his grandfather, a man who escaped Greece during to Holocaust by fleeing to Israel and starting a new life. One of the biggest driving forces behind Jonathan’s patriotism for Israel and his desire to join the army is the legacy of this man and hearing about the persecution he faced. One of the most beautiful sections of the book happens when Jonathan takes a trip to Greece alone in order to try and visit his grandfather’s hometown. When he gets there the reality is that nearly every trace that there was a vibrant Jewish community in Salonica has been erased, and with it the history of violent persecution they faced that wiped them out. A key theme in the book is trying to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict as two groups of people who both feel they have been persecuted, and instead of that being a bonding point it is at the core of what drives them apart. This scene for me is the point at which I understood Jonathan’s character the best, and it serves as a perfect foil to the story of the twins’ grandmother’s persecution at the hands of Israeli soldiers that is told earlier in the book.
While I would certainly not call this a Holocaust book there is no doubt in my mind that all of its character’s motivations are informed in some way by the Holocaust. Some might argue that you can’t have a modern Israeli novel that is removed from the Holocaust, but in this case the relationship is explicit and central to the story. I would recommend this book to anyone who has a base understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict but wants to be able to see it through the eyes of nuanced and well-developed characters.