Dalia Betolin-Sherman, on the page and in person, fills her voice with silence. It animates her stories, pulls taut the tension between her young characters and their elders, and it permeates her speech, dangling between the phrases.
But it is worth waiting to hear what the 35-year-old Israeli writer of Ethiopian heritage has to say, because her real life story, beginning in a rural village in northern Ethiopia, and her short story collection, set in Israel, are a rare opportunity, artfully served, to glance not just at the community– its aches and accomplishments — but at the people that populate it.
The debut collection, “When the World Became White,” came out in Hebrew in 2013. Last week, a first short story of hers was published in English in The Ilanot Review, where this reporter serves as a volunteer editor.
Speaking from her home in Rishon Lezion, Betolin-Sherman, a graduate of Ben Gurion University’s prestigious MFA program where she studied under Etgar Keret and others, began the drama of her family’s exodus from Ethiopia by painting the faintest sketch of their circumstances, noting that she was one of five children and that she and her parents immigrated to Israel in 1984 and then saying, vezehu. And that’s it.
Pressed for more information, she explained that her parents were from a Jewish village called Ambover, in northern Ethiopia. Her family grew corn, wheat, and barley. They raised sheep and cattle. After suffering through civil war and famine and the long rule of Haile Selassie, her parents decided to make the trip to Sudan and from there to Israel. The decision was not sudden. Yearning for Israel was central to the community’s worship and her great uncle had made the journey in the thirties, before the founding of the state, but when the family finally “decided to go, it was quite fast.”
Her grandfather obtained a travel permit in the city and paid the necessary fees. Her parents gathered food and split the children up, sending her older brother with the grandparents, while Dalia, her sister, and her baby brother went with them.
Her memories of the journey are hazy, she said, the seam stitching together dream, oral history, and recollection long since covered. But she knows that the trip took several weeks; that she traveled either by donkey or on an adult’s back; that the guides led them along a circuitous route and extorted them for money.
There were gangs along the way. Uncertainty sapped the fortitude of the traveling families and made food rationing even more difficult. Rumors of deaths were passed up and down the convoy. Dalia’s aunt, for instance, lost a child mid-journey. A woman who lived near them at the absorption center in Kiryat Gat, they later learned, lost four children, she said.
They lived in a refugee camp in Sudan, on the edge of a city, waiting for the Israeli planes to come. It took several months. Conditions were poor. After one of the many silences she keeps, she said, in a soft voice, “one of our kids, too.” Her brother, just over a year old, died in Sudan, from poverty, from scarcity of resources, from the grim reality of refugees. “Death,” she added, brushing away further scrutiny, “almost every family lost someone.”
The fiction begins with arrival. “When the world became white,” she writes in the title story, “the streets filled with people and there were sidewalks, and the roads were paved with asphalt instead of ash and sand. And we saw cars and hardly any animals. And pale women strode past in shorts, and men ate standing up, and discarded plastic bags drifted by instead of sand, and the air was permeated by the stench of gasoline instead of the buzzing of flies.”
The story is a collage of vivid postcards, painted by a growing girl, chronicling the strains of assimilation — particularly on the men in the story, who are rendered superfluous, even as the women are empowered, by the new circumstances. “When the world became white, Grandmother hated Grandfather and never missed an opportunity to tell him so to his face…”
“When the world became white Mother went to the gynecologist and started taking pills, saying that two was quite enough for her, and contrary to Grandfather’s instructions she hit us less and less often, because, she told Grandfather, hitting a child injures his or her self-esteem.”
The grandfather, meanwhile, idolizes America, calls everything American “Coca Cola,” and lovingly fingers his old medals from the war. “When the world became white Grandfather said that he was who he was and had no intention of changing, and he sprawled out in the living room and said that the living room was his bedroom and refused to make space for anyone else.”
The crumbling of the grandparents’ relationship – played out in silence and without direct confrontation – is a delicately drawn and largely unspoken depiction of a force that has shaken the community.
Throughout the collection, the young narrators assimilate, worming their way into whatever part of society is willing to have them, while the adults, all too often, either withdraw or berate.
In the first story she wrote, “Toolbox,” a girl and her father walk to school together, she to first grade and he to Hebrew school. The father shields her from the rain with his umbrella and good-naturedly tolerates her puddle-splashing; by third grade, he works in a factory and has withdrawn into an indecipherable silence.
In “Bookshelf,” a story that bears an initial resemblance to Jamaica Kincaid’s masterful “Girl,” the narrator begins by stating: “This is what I have to do before Ma gets home: remember to lock the door behind me, take a shower (but not use too much water), wash the delicate clothes by hand. Warm up something to eat (but not burn it). Be sure to drink water. Get the house clean. Make it look like I wasn’t just sitting in front of the TV for two hours.”
Her mother, though, scolds her relentlessly, telling her, “if I could write like you, do you know what I could be?”
Racism is treated, in the collection and in conversation with the author, as an element of nature; it is to be expected, like the easterly winds and early morning dew. It too shall pass.
Betolin-Sherman, who is married to a Russian-born orthopedics resident and is a mother of two, said there have always been more and less privileged groups in Israeli society – among Ashkenazim and between Ashkenazim and Sephardim. “They finished with one group, let’s say those from Arab lands, and now there is someone new. So I don’t feel it is particularly against us. We were next in line. Now it is us. Each time someone comes this happens.”
Often, she said, Israelis are oblivious to the racist language they use. “You are a beautiful Ethiopian,” is a compliment she has received frequently. “Why am I not just beautiful?” she asked.
With time, as she lost the ability to use her mother tongue, she too fell into a clichéd perception of her former home in Ethiopia. “I had Africa in my mind as yellow,” she said. Even though her parents would go on at length about the lush landscape they left behind, all she could conjure was drought and deprivation. In 2007, she traveled back to the village where she was born. “Only when I got there and saw the green with my own eyes,” she said, “did I believe them.”