The voice of Zilah
Interview with Judith Katzir
Judith Katzir1, 51 years old, an Israeli writer, mother of two daughters (15 and 22) receives us in her apartment in Tel Aviv. Her last novel, Zilah, published in 2013, has not yet been translated into French. It recounts the story of her great grandmother’s who arrived in the country at the beginning of the 20th Century.
To be a mother, what does that evoke for you?
My family is matriarchal. I come from a line of women that begins with Zilah, my great grandmother. If however, a mother usually supports her encounter with maternity through her own mother, for us this transmission was amputated. My mother and grandmother both died young. And so both of us experienced maternity in the absence of our own mother. There was something like a rupture. I promised my daughters to break this malediction. I wish to see my grandchildren. Thus, the filiation of which I am speaking is a construction that I created despite the absence of continuity. It was made in my interior, in my mind together with my writing, notably in Zilah.
Often one speaks of filiation on the side of masculine transmission, from father to son. You speak of maternal filiation. What is transmitted from mother to daughter?
A whole slew of things. One could say it in a positive way, or speak of the weakness of men. The women of our filiation, ever since Zilah in the beginning of the XXth century, have dominated. They managed the household and maintained the family. In this way, Zilah, the “patron mother” of this filiation, who left Russia and her parents to immigrate to Palestine in 1906, wandered the country searching for a livelihood. Perhaps, it is not unimportant that this searching led her to live in Gaza for ten years. Her husband, to whom she gave five children, followed her in this search. At 37, she fell in love with another man. She lived with both 25 for years; both depended enormously on her. The moral patrimony of family dominance was transmitted to my grandmother, her eldest daughter, and then to my mother, to me, and to my eldest daughter.
What does this book narrate?
It is the story of a woman who leaves Ukraine after having lost an eye from an axe-blow during a pogrom in October of 1905. Lazar, the man who will later become her husband, was with her during the pogrom and was revealed to be weak. He fled and left her in the hands of the pillagers. Then, in Palestine, she met Hanan, nine years younger than her, a special man, a vegetarian, and an intellectual, with a great spiritual thirst. He becomes her lover and second consort by her husband’s side. Though Hanan is not a “strong” man either, in the conventional sense of the word, his love is reassuring. He cares for the children of Zilah, which are not his, and above all, he translates her memoirs from Yiddish to Hebrew. This text constitutes the base that permitted the writing of this book. Zilah died when I was four, I knew her through her written memoirs. Thus, I read her from the inside, as she wrote, and I felt enormously connected to her.
What did your mother say of this?
With regard to Zilah, my mother had a mixture of admiration, fear, and identification. My mother also unmade her marriage for the love of another man. Lazar refused the divorce, but left space for Hanan, all the while remaining with the couple. He came to eat with his wife and her lover three times a day, even after they lived in separate houses. It was a method of showing them their sin, their guilt and his suffering. When he stopped working, they sustained him; Zilah washed his clothes, paid his debts.
What would you say of the tension between what a mother has that is most private and the mother insofar as Israeli?
First of all, I must say that I was very lucky to be mother to these daughters. These days, if I had a son in Gaza, I would die of anxiety. The boyfriend of my elder Amalya lost his brother, fallen during the 2002 operation Defensive Shield. We are very attached to their family and we experience sh’chol2 with them.
My mother was very worried for her two sons, my brothers. But in the extended family, the tribe of Zilah, no one was really very combative; no one was injured or died in a war. Therefore this subject is not very dominant in my book. For that matter, one of the objects of this book was instead to show private lives as they unfold in the shadow of great historical events. This, even if these lives are marked by these events, begins with the pogrom experienced by Zilah.
Why this novel today?
When a writer hears an incredible story, it is as though there was an obligation to transmit it, to retell it, even more so when it involves one’s own family. My mother told me, shortly before dying: you will write a novel of my grandmother. It wasn’t an order, but a prophecy, as though she knew what would happen. When the youngest daughter of Zilah, the sister of my grandmother, gave me these memoirs, the feeling of obligation became even stronger; all the more so as no one had read them before me. In the beginning, I tried to transform these memories into an imaginary novel inspired by the family history. But it was as though the voice of Zilah in me wouldn’t let me continue. She commanded that I narrate the true story. During twenty years, I tried writing the story in several manners, unsuccessfully. It is only after I was forty years old, when I was already a more aged mother capable of seeing childhood and old age equidistant, that I succeeded in doing it. I understood that my dialogue with Zilah was not uniquely a dialogue between two women, two mothers; nor was it between a descendant and her great grandmother. Rather, it is a conversation between two people with the desire to write and the need to think out their life via writing. In this way, I kept her original account and I used part of her authentic writings. In the interval, between these fragments of text, I converse with her, I ask questions, I make hypotheses, I fill in the empty space, I fantasize and add color.
What did you discover in the voice of Zilah?
Namely the fact of being whole. Her voice that relates is characterized by sincerity and an absolute honesty with which she describes the conflicts that she endured. She needed to be faithful to herself in each decision she needed to take, even if that was at the expense of others. But at the same time, she always continued to occupy herself with the other and to take him in consideration. Her love story with Hanan is a manifestation of her fidelity to herself. She could not do otherwise, in spite of the fact that she knew the wound inflicted on Lazar and with scorn to the price she paid socially. The writing of this book coincided with my decision to separate from my husband, after years of hesitation. Maybe, one never knows, thanks to the voice of Zilah…
Interviewed on the 4th of August 2014 by Patricia Bosquin Caroz and Gil Caroz in Tel-Aviv
Translation to English by David Hafner
 Judith Katzir has published a series of books, two of which have been translated into English: Closing The Sea (Harcourt Trade Publishers); Dear Anne (The Feminist Press at CUNY)
2 Sh’chol: a Hebrew word for the sentiment bound to the loss of a son. This word is central to Israeli culture, especially regarding sons fallen in war. For example, one speaks of the “family of sh’chol”, to speak of the group of families, which have lost sons during military service.