Yael Shahar's debut book, 'A Damaged Mirror', ranks as one of the most powerful, thought-provoking books written by an orthodox Jew I've ever read. It's the story of how Yael discovered she had a spiritual 'alter ego', Ovadya ben Malka, who'd died in the Shoah, and then returned - via Yael - to put right what had gone so wrong in his own life.
As part of the ongoing series to celebrate the launch of the The Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife, I was very keen to see if I could get an interview with Yael. Hashem pulled some strings - and here it is!
I hope you enjoy it, and I also highly recommend Yael's book, A Damaged Mirror, which is ultimately a story of hope and rectification, and shows that when God is in the picture, things are never as hopeless, or 'lost' as they may appear.
Well, it definitely wasn’t a conscious decision. I had enjoyed writing in high school, and had kept a journal off and on for years. But I never had any aspirations to write for a living. If I thought of writing at all, I saw it as a means to an end—a way of getting my ideas across—rather than as something to do for its own sake. And really, I think that has remained true. Through three separate careers, writing has been just part of my job; most recently my job was writing intelligence reports and academic papers. These jobs helped me to hone my skills in persuasion and clarity, but none of it required any great literary skill.
2)Why did you want to write ‘A Damaged Mirror’, and how long did it take you to write it.
I wrote A Damaged Mirror simply because I had to. I had been living with the story—and its consequences—all my life. Once I had reached a point of resolution I was able stop “living it” and begin telling it. I realized that telling the story could be a means of atonement and healing, so I took early retirement from my job and set to work. How long did it take? Six years! And during that time, the writing occupied six to eight hours a day. Of course, most of it wasn’t actually writing, but rather organizing the hundreds and hundreds of pages of source material. But it really was a full-time job!
3)What was the hardest part of writing the book, and why.
Undoubtedly the hardest part was putting together the testimony from Birkenau. I had several hundred pages of journal material to go through, and for the most part I simply could not read through it without triggering. I found it easiest just to choose a piece that seemed relatively self-contained, copy it into the manuscript and leave it there. No proofreading, no editing, nothing.
In the final draft, my husband Don went back over things with the eye of a professional editor. As often as not, he found it best just to leave the testimony untouched. So those bits ended up being the “primordial substance” of the book. Everything else was built around the journal entries, filling in my own story, telling what happened after Ovadya’s meeting with Rav Ish-Shalom, and generally making sense of two different life journeys.
4)Can you tell me a little bit about your unusual co-author, Ovadya ben Malka. Is he still an active part of your life. What impact did writing the book have on him.
He most definitely is still a part of my life. He still learns weekly with Rav Ish-Shalom, and continues to find ways to challenge the rabbi’s worldviews. (For his part, Rav Ish-Shalom is on record as grateful for the challenge). In some ways, Ovadya remains the 17 year-old that he was on arrival at Birkenau—naïve, idealistic, rebellious, and poetic—and the fact that the rabbi relates to him as he was before the lager has helped him to reclaim that earlier self. That recognition that what was lost was of
worth has been immensely healing.
I believe that the writing has given Ovadya a sense of peace. For all those years, the untold stories of the dead had tormented him. They’d made him promise again and again to tell, but I don’t think he ever imagined it would be possible. He knew that he and the other Sonderkommando would not survive to tell. And here—against all reason, the story has been told!
But I think that just the ability to see his decision through to the end brought about most of the healing. Up until the book was published, the past was still very much part of the present. This is evident in the language that he used to describe the conditions of Birkenau—“was” gives way to “is”; “there” becomes “here”. There is no way out of that terrible interchangeability of past and present other than through it and out the other side. For Ovadya, that meant taking his case to Rav Ish-Shalom to judge.
The search for justice and atonement was his path to healing. Telling his story was mine.
Mostly the reactions have been positive. I had worried a great deal that the book would re-open old wounds for others who carry the memories of those days. This was compounded by Ovadya’s anxiety about facing the condemnation of survivors. That did happen on occasion; for example, a woman in a support group lashed out at him as a collaborator, leading to a very painful encounter. But for the most part the more pessimistic fears were not realized. Instead, the book seemed to tap into people’s personal sense of having lost something they were unaware they had ever had.
One woman wrote to me that although she had been estranged from her Judaism all her life, the book had caused her to want to visit Israel. Another wrote that she was lighting Shabbat candles for the first time in her life. Some of the messages of this kind were incredibly personal and very moving, and proved to me that the writing was worth the risk.
6) The book covers a number of very profound, even disturbing concepts, in a very personal way. What was the main message, or messages, you wanted to put across to readers.
Probably the central message is that it is never too late to change, and that even death is no barrier to t’shuvah. I’m aware that many people saw the book as proof of their own ideas about life after death, t’chiat hametim, etc. But for me, while the theological or philosophical implications are intriguing, the main message is that God is—ultimately—on the side of life. Despite my own periods of not being on speaking terms with Hashem, I think that the events described in the book are truly a paean to hope; there is reason to trust, even when trust defies reason.
I’ll start with a story. Many years back I was due to fly to the U.S. for a lecture tour. Upon boarding, I found myself seated next to a colleague, the head of a prestigious security academy. Just before takeoff, I became aware that he had grown very quiet and was gripping the arms of his seat in a way that made me think he had a fear of flying. Well, one of the benefits of being an Israeli is that you don’t have to stand on ceremony… “Are you afraid of flying?” I asked.
“No. Just of leaving,” he said. “I’m always afraid of ending up somewhere terrible. Look around—you’ll see the same fear in others on this flight.” And then, in a very quiet voice he said, “It’s from the Shoah.”
Now, my colleague was one of the least mystical people I know, the epitome of the secular, pragmatic Israeli. And yet, he summed up in a few words my own fear of leaving home, which, up until then, I had thought was just part of my own personal neurosis.
Since then, I’ve met others—perfectly normal people in all other ways—who express specific fears and anxieties that are usually associated with survivors of extreme trauma. So yes, I think that a great many of those born after the war have “inherited,” for lack of a better word, the trauma of our history.
What can be done to help in the aftermath? I think that validation of the memory is probably the most important thing. Regardless of how we come by these fears, and regardless of the fact that the danger is past, the fear remains. When we realize that the fear is based on something real—albeit something that is past—the sense of unreality is lessened, and we can move on from the fear.
The next step is to open a path toward doing something with the memory. I don’t believe that life is lightly given; those things that we are born with are part of a sacred trust. There is meaning in remembering, even when the memory is painful. The question is: what can we do with the memory? How can we transform it, or channel it into making the world a better place?
Even trauma can be given meaning if it is used to help us become someone who can prevent future trauma.
It’s become fashionable to speak of “tikkun olam” as the Jewish version of social justice. But it’s important to keep a sense of perspective. In its Mishnaic origin, “tikkun olam” meant mitigating the unwelcome consequences of necessary laws. It was invoked on a case-by-case basis: feeding the hungry person at your doorstep rather than attempting to resolve world hunger.
There is a sense of humility here, an admission that we don’t have the full picture, and perhaps can’t have the full picture due to the complexity of life. So we do what we can to heal that part of the world that presents itself to us. In my experience, nothing is as effective in healing trauma as doing something positive to help someone else. Such small-scale intervention is still “saving the world”.
8) How did your life change after you published the book.
At first, I simply felt a sense of intense relief: “Now it’s out there!” Of course, the story continued (and still continues!) but I felt that having told it, I was free of a great burden of responsibility. I felt that I had accomplished what I was born to accomplish.
Had my life ended at that moment, it would have been enough. So imagine my surprise when the next day dawned, with its normal litany of bills to pay, laundry to do, and leaky pipes to fix… I felt as if I had saved my world, but I still needed to live in it. And so, I began thinking of the next step.
But that’s another story!
Well, I’m not very good at the “housewife” thing, though not for lack of trying. I spent most of my life alone, marrying only when I felt I was past the optimal child-bearing age. I had taken a vow never to bring children into the world, a promise that I felt I had kept. But God has a sense of humor: my b’shert was a widower, the father of three young daughters. And so I found myself a mother at the age of 38. I’ve muddled through and enjoyed every minute of it.
As for the housewife side of things…my husband does the shopping and the cooking. I do the vacuuming and the gardening. He fixes electrical stuff and I fix plumbing. It works for us.
My connection to Judaism is mostly via learning. I study at Matan HaSharon—the advanced Gemara class and as many other courses as I can afford. I also set aside four to six hours a day for study, the gleanings of which may end up woven into my next book. I would love to find a venue where I could combine my two great loves—learning and teaching. But despite a career of some 30 years in teaching in academia, I have yet to find a way to combine both learning and teaching in a Jewish venue. So for now I concentrate on learning. And I write!
10) What secret are you willing to share?
Well, having written Mirror, I’m not sure I have any secrets left! I suppose it’s no great secret that I’m an introvert and a wanna-be hermit. So my big secret is that I actually underwent training in being an extrovert. One of my careers was in intelligence and counter-terrorism. Now, part of working in intelligence is pretending to be someone that you’re not, and for me, that meant learning to be a party animal, a sociable sort who could strike up a conversation with anyone. Fortunately, the training was rarely needed. Still, I’m glad for the opportunity to learn how to become, the chance to learn that we are more than what we’re born with.
My next project is to tackle a very serious research question, namely, what happens when you sit down to study Talmud…with a cat? Havruta with a One-eyed Cat will explore philosophical conundrums and issues of justice—both divine and human—as debated in the Talmud and aggadic sources. The working subtitle is “Whimsical forays into the philosophy of Jewish law.”
The idea is to explore some fairly complex issues, but to do so through a series of imagined dialogues with a cynical feline, whose quirky observations will bring out the very humanity of the Talmudic debate. I’m having a lot of fun writing this one; among other things, it gives me an excuse to read all sorts of amazing books, from the Maharal and the Netziv to Steven J. Gould. Not that I need an excuse, mind you—but it’s nice to be able to call such pleasant activity “research”!
12) Where can readers learn more about you and your books?
My webpage is: https://www.damaged-mirror.com/. While there is plenty of information on A Damaged Mirror, most of the site deals with Jewish philosophy (Hashkafah), Talmud, Parashat HaShavua, and various issues in Halakhah. There’s also a section devoted to the various inputs to Havruta with a One-Eyed Cat.
I would love to get feedback from readers on the excerpts from Havruta in particular, but also on anything they’d like to see in terms of future projects. For example, are there readers who would like to see a further compendium of Ovadya-Masha correspondence, or further dialogs between Ovadya and Rav Ish-Shalom? How about favorite Talmudic sugyot for Pixel the cat to analyze in light of political theory? Don’t be shy; if an introvert like me can be social, anyone can!