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Memoirist turns to fiction with tale of Arab, Jewish women’s unlikely friendship

Haviva Ner-David’s ‘Hope Valley’ weaves a story of Israeli and Palestinian histories in the verdant setting of the Galilee

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Haviva Ner-David, rabbi and author whose first novel, 'Hope Valley,' tells the story of a friendship between two women, one Jewish Israeli and the other Palestinian (Courtesy Haviva Ner-David)
Haviva Ner-David, rabbi and author whose first novel, 'Hope Valley,' tells the story of a friendship between two women, one Jewish Israeli and the other Palestinian (Courtesy Haviva Ner-David)

Writing a book wasn’t a new concept for author Haviva Ner-David, who has two memoirs under her belt, including one about her journey to becoming the first woman to be publicly ordained by an Orthodox rabbi.

But a work of fiction? That was, well, novel.

Call it part of Ner-David’s decade-long adjustment to living in the Galilee.

“Hope Valley,” Ner-David’s recently published novel, is about two women, one Jewish, one Arab, who live in adjoining villages and take the path of friendship in a corner of Israel’s northern region.

‘Hope Valley,’ Haviva Ner-David’s debut novel published in April 2021 (Courtesy Bedazzled Ink)

The book tells the intertwining stories of Tikvah, an American-born Israeli living in a northern moshav with her husband, and Ruby, a Palestinian woman of a similar age who has returned home to her village for cancer treatment after many years abroad.

Their friendship develops during foraging walks in the valley that separates their villages, while their life stories are told in connecting chapters.

Tikvah is the child of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel on her own to live in the Jewish state, while Ruby, a well-known Palestinian artist, left Israel and is now anxious to find her father’s diary — buried somewhere in Tivkah’s house, which was once Ruby’s father’s home before his family was expelled in 1948.

The book plays out over the months prior to 2000’s Second Intifada, which would reshape Israeli-Palestinian relations for decades to come. Tikvah discovers new information about her husband, who suffers from PTSD due to his role in one of Israel’s wars, as well as the history of her moshav and home. Ruby, meanwhile, struggles with her unexpected friendship with Tikvah, while anxious to find the diary before her health fails.

It’s a tale Ner-David wrote over the course of many years and numerous drafts. She started work on it after moving from Jerusalem to northern Kibbutz Hanaton with her husband and kids 11 years ago. They had immigrated to Israel from New York more than a decade earlier, and the move up to the Galilee offered new experiences for the family.

Ner-David found herself meeting more Arabs through a joint community group and one of her children’s schools. She also began attending alternative Independence Day events at a nearby Arab village, where Jews and Arabs attempted annually to hold a conversation about Israel’s struggle for independence in 1948 — the event that Arabs call “nakba,” or disaster, for the exodus and displacement of many of their people during that period.

In recent weeks, as events escalated between Gaza and Israel, and between Jews and Arabs in mixed Israeli cities, Ner-David has kept in touch with her Arab friends, who are often touched that she reached out to them.

“It made me realize how important it is to stay connected through all this because there’s this feeling in the Arab sector that we’re all against them,” she said. “My hope is that this will wake people up and that demonstrations are not enough. It’s about really sitting and listening to people and acknowledging their pain. You have to listen to what is behind the rioting, to understand where it’s coming from.”

After the bat mitzvah of one of her daughters, Ner-David began writing “Hope Valley.” At first it was more of a memoir, as she was trying to work through some of her own familial issues. She then met a local Arab shepherd and his wife who frequently foraged in the nearby valley, and in one of their first conversations, heard about their daughter who had died of cancer. Details like those became the core of Ner-David’s novel.

In some ways, Ner-David’s life forms the basis of Tikvah, although the author feels she shows up in more than one character. Ner-David, who suffers from fascio-scapular muscular dystrophy, a genetic degenerative neuromuscular disorder, wanted her two protagonists to bond over illness. Tivkah has multiple sclerosis, a disease Ner-David has always been fascinated by given its similarities to her own affliction.

“I wanted to explore the idea of illness but did something to distance myself from it,” she said. “The goal was not to be too attached to my details. It may have been good therapy for me, but it didn’t need to be in the novel.”

There are also large chunks of the novel that are fictional, which offered her more freedom to create drama.

“It’s a story of a woman who is awoken,” said Ner David. “”She’s a Zionist who comes to this country, makes the choice to live here, still believes we have the right to be here, but starts to slowly learn about and acknowledge the Palestinian narrative, but still doesn’t claim to have any political solutions. She’s trying to figure out her place and responsibility in all of it.”

Ner-David was concerned about backlash to the novel from the Jewish world with which she has been intertwined for her entire life. Yet she feels the book is balanced and moderate in tone.

“It’s not for people who won’t even say the word ‘nakba,’ but I don’t go to anti-Zionism, either,” she said. “I think it shows both sides.”

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