Lihi Lapid (Vardi Kahana)
Lihi Lapid (Vardi Kahana)

Author Lihi Lapid asks what happens when a mourning mother can’t remember her son

Novel ‘On Her Own’ marks a major milestone in the writer’s career, and paints a poignant portrait of Israel that provides much-needed insight to international readers at this time

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Lihi Lapid (Vardi Kahana)

Israeli author Lihi Lapid has spent most of her time since October 7 bearing witness to the Hamas atrocities, protesting for the release of the hostages, visiting injured soldiers and civilians, and comforting the bereaved.

The national tragedy has made it difficult for her to celebrate a personal milestone: the publication of the English translation of her latest novel, “On Her Own,” by a major US publishing house, HarperVia, in mid-March. It is the first time one of her books has been published outside Israel.

One of the novel’s main characters, an elderly widow with dementia named Carmela whose son was killed while serving in the military, has resonated with some of Israel’s newly bereaved mothers.

“Women have reached out to me. One sadly said, ‘When I read your book I felt bad for that poor Carmela. Now I am this Carmela,'” said Lapid, who is also a social activist and the wife of the leader of the opposition, Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid.

“When I meet these mothers, there is nothing I can really say to them. I just listen and hug them. Losing a child is the most horrible thing,” she said.

“On Her Own” (originally “Zarot,” “Strangers” in Hebrew) is a beautifully written, propulsive novel that shines a light on many aspects of Israeli society, including some ugly and painful ones.

‘On Her Own’ by Lihi Lapid, translated by Sondra Silverston. (HaperVia)

At the novel’s core is an unlikely and unique relationship that develops between Carmela and a Russian-Israeli teenager named Nina who is escaping small-town life and sexual violence.

The narrative starts with the two women encountering one another in the stairwell of Carmela’s Tel Aviv apartment building and Carmela mistakes Nina for her granddaughter Dana. The confused Carmela thinks that Dana, who lives in America and rarely visits, has finally come to stay with her. Desperate to hide from an abusive criminal, Nina pretends to be Dana and moves in with Carmela in the hope that in her fleeting moments of clarity, the elderly woman will not catch on to the ruse.

The story expands beyond Carmela and Nina/Dana to include a wide range of characters. Lapid expertly weaves together all of their points of view and gives them all a voice.

“I think I do this because I was originally a photographer and I see things as scenes… A lot of writing is about thoughts and opinions, but I wanted to tell a story containing so many stories that in the end they combine into a plot,” Lapid explained.

Lihi Lapid is photographed in February 2024 at a home in Kubbutz Kfar Aza, attacked by Hamas on October 7, 2023. (Courtesy)

“I didn’t want [a narrator] to tell what the characters think. I wanted the characters to share their perspectives and express what they feel in their own language. I let them speak for themselves,” she said.

The Times of Israel recently met with Lapid in the Tel Aviv home she shares with her husband. The couple are the parents of three adult children: Yoav, Yair’s son from a previous marriage, Lior, and Yael, who is profoundly autistic and the inspiration for Lapid’s devoted efforts to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities.

The Times of Israel asked Lapid about her shift from being a photojournalist to a writer, and whether some of the themes and characters in the novel are based on her own life experience.

Lihi Lapid with her husband Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid chairman and leader of the opposition, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 24, 2024. (Elad Gutman)

The following conversation was edited for length.

The Times of Israel: How did you start your writing career?

Lihi Lapid: I was a photojournalist who rode a motorbike and went on assignment to places like Rwanda, but then my doctors put me on bedrest when I was pregnant with my son Lior because the pregnancy was high-risk after I had had two miscarriages. After the baby was born, no one wanted to hire a photojournalist who was breastfeeding every four hours. I was — and am — a feminist but I realized that feminism didn’t deal with motherhood and how becoming a mother changes your life. I wanted to scream and I started to write because I had something to say.

Lihi Lapid hugs a woman at a protest at the Gaza border calling for the release of the women hostages, January 13, 2024.(Courtesy)

I then studied literature and poetry for a year at Tel Aviv University. I did it because Yair is a writer, his father [the late Israeli journalist and political leader Tommy Lapid] was a newspaper person and his mother [Shulamit Lapid] is an amazing author. So for me not to be totally stupid at family dinners, I went to study.

Then I wrote my first novel, which was published in 2001. Based on the success of that, the largest Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, offered me a job writing a weekly column, which I did for 15 years. At first, they wanted me to write tips for family and home and recipes, but after a few years, I was able to write whatever I wanted about life and the situation here in Israel.

How many books have you written all together and have any of them — other than “On Her Own” — been translated into English?

I have written three novels, two children’s books, and a cookbook. One of my friends was in Kibbutz Be’eri after the massacre there and she found an open copy of my cookbook on the counter in one of the homes. She took a photo and sent it to me. It was so emotional to see that.

My second novel “Woman of Valor” was translated into English by an English-language publisher here in Israel.

What’s the best writing advice you have received?

When I was thinking about writing “Woman of Valor,” which would reveal a lot about my personal and family life, I asked my mother-in-law, a distinguished writer, whether I needed to write the whole truth and nothing but the truth. She looked at me and said, “You write the whole truth, and then you erase a little bit.”

Lihi Lapid joins the effort to cook and deliver food to IDF soldiers on the Gaza border, November 30, 2023. (Courtesy)

The character Carmela has dementia. Is this something you have dealt with in your family?

Thankfully not. I was originally going to make Carmela an elderly Holocaust survivor, but then Yair shared with me one Yom Hazikaron [Israel’s Memorial Day] a poem written by a father whose son fell during his military service. I was so moved by it that I decided to have Carmela be like the bereaved parent in the poem — someone who lost a child in the army and now has dementia.

The poem goes like this: “When I am old with dementia, and I will ask you where is he? Don’t tell me he died long ago. Tell me he just left and will be back in a moment.”

Aerial view of the southern Israeli town of Arad. March 12, 2021. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Nina grew up in a small, remote town and gets into extreme trouble doing things she thinks will help her get out and live a bigger life. You grew up in Arad in Israel’s southern desert. Is there any Nina in you?

We lived in Arad until I was 11 and then we moved to Ramat Hasharon, just north of Tel Aviv. It was like moving to a different country, but it allowed me to be exposed to art and culture. I don’t know where I would be today if my parents had not moved us.

Nina and her hard-working single mother Irina are Russian immigrants. You show their close relationship and the value Irina places on education and culture despite their economic hardships. Did you model this small family on anyone in particular?

Like Carmela, my mother and late father have a store. My mother is still working there after 43 years. It was part of my childhood and I worked there as a teenager. Women from all over the world worked in the store, including Russian immigrants. So I know the struggles of those who are single moms and have a problem [like a studious daughter like Nina who suddenly and dangerously rebels] and there is no family here to help.

The most heartbreaking relationship in the novel is that between Carmela and her remaining son Itamar, who lives in the US and rarely comes to visit.

Lihi Lapid lights candles at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy)

I wanted to tell a story about a family that lives far apart. So many families are dealing with this now in our globalized world. I have written a lot about what we as parents owe our kids and my books have been about motherhood. But what about whether our kids owe us anything? I wanted to deal with the question of what happens when we are old and have children who don’t live here. Who will take care of us?

The book deals with the burden Itamar feels being the only son left, living in the shadow of his fallen brother. He pays a price for leaving Israel but at the same time, it is legitimate for him to question whether, after losing his brother, he would want to move back and have to send his son to the army one day.

My older brother moved to the US and lived there for 30 years with his wife and children. We are a very close family and it was hard having him so far away from us. He died of cancer at age 56 while still living there. I dedicated the English translation of the novel to him.

What are your thoughts about this very Israeli novel coming out in English in the wake of October 7?

I feel somewhat sad because I am afraid that a lot of people won’t want to read it now because it is an Israeli book. I hope people — and not just those who are Jewish or have a connection to Israel — will read it and understand that we pay a price for being Israeli and living here. There’s a price for being an Israeli woman and mother. We live with a lot of circles of pain.

On Her Own: A Novel by Lihi Lapid

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