Ayelet Tsabari’s memoir, The Art of Leaving, chronicles her life as a long series of departures: from homes, lovers, languages, and countries. The themes of departure, wandering, and migration also characterize her fiction, which focuses on Israeli expatriates and those at the margins of Israeli society. As an Israeli writer whose chosen language of composition is English, Tsabari has deliberately elected to explore and challenge the norms and tropes of Israeli literature in order to assert her own place, as a woman and a Mizrahi, or non-European, Jew, in Israeli society and culture. In doing so she has also made visible the existence of other outsiders to the dominant narratives of Israeli life – women, queer people, migrant workers, emigrants.
Early Life and Writing
Born in Petach Tikvah, Israel, in 1973, Ayelet Tsabari is the fifth of six children born to Yona Mahdoon Tsabari and Hayim Tsabari. Her maternal grandparents immigrated to Israel from a village in northern Yemen, part of a small group of Yemeni immigrants who trekked across the country to resettle in Palestine before the establishment of the state of Israel. Her paternal grandparents were also from Yemen, and her parents grew up together in the tightly knit Yemenite communities of suburban Tel Aviv. Tsabari’s father, a lawyer and aspiring poet himself, died when she was nine, a trauma that became a defining event in her young life.
After graduating high school and completing her mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces, Tsabari spent many years traveling through India, the United States, Canada, and Thailand, finally settling in Vancouver, Canada, in 1998. In 2001 she completed a diploma in media at Capilano University. After a brief marriage, Tsabari met her current partner, Sean Brereton, in 2004.
From the age of fifteen, Tsabari worked as a teenage correspondent for Israeli magazines. She had been writing in Hebrew since she was a child; her father’s last promise to her before his death was that he would publish a book of her best work for her tenth birthday. Though she had always thought of herself as a writer, by the early 2000s it had been many years since Tsabari had written or published anything.
For their first anniversary, Brereton requested that Tsabari write him a story, which became her first formal piece of writing in English. Shortly afterward, Tsabari enrolled in the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University and began writing again in earnest, this time in English, her second language. She has described the process of deciding to write in English as an “act of reinvention,” a clean slate that offered her anonymity and freedom in its unfamiliarity. It also mirrors, for her, the displaced and in-between state of many of her characters and the experiences she tries to represent.
In order to continue to pursue her writing, Tsabari moved to Toronto in 2009, where she enrolled in a Creative Writing program at The University of Guelph, from which she received her MFA degree in 2011. During this period she began work on the stories that would become part of her first book. In 2013, Tsabari gave birth to a daughter.
That year, HarperCollins published The Best Place on Earth, a collection of short stories set in places as diverse as India, Israel, and Canada, and populated by characters not often represented in fiction: a teenage lesbian just beginning to understand her own identity; a Filipina caregiver living illegally in Israel; Israelis who have chosen to live in the diaspora; a young Lit. "Eastern." Jew from Arab or Muslim country.Mizrahi poet searching for literary role models.
Initially published only in Canada, The Best Place on Earth made news in 2015 when it was awarded the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, a substantial monetary award administered by the Jewish Book Council in the United States. The following year, the book was also awarded the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish Fiction. With these prestigious prizes, Tsabari became a well-known name in the world of contemporary fiction and Jewish literature. The Best Place on Earth has been translated into French, Italian, Estonian, and Hebrew, bringing Tsabari’s work to the attention of her home country.
Tsabari is one of a growing handful of translingual Israeli writers, writers who write in languages that are not their first – in this case, Hebrew. Although the history of Hebrew literature is full of translingual writers, since Hebrew was not spoken widely until after 1948, since the establishment of the state Israel has privileged Hebrew as the only legitimate language of its national culture. The Best Place on Earth explores Israeli culture and society from the perspective of its outsiders and emigrants, a unique angle both enabled and reinforced by its language of composition. Tsabari, with her widely acclaimed work, poses a challenge to monolingual Israeli culture and has opened the realm of Israeli literature to writers in other languages.
The book also reflects Tsabari’s growing connection to and identification with her Yemeni heritage. As a child, she was an avid reader but never encountered characters like herself in Israeli literature. One of the stories in The Best Place on Earth chronicles the early development of Uri, a young Israeli boy of Iraqi heritage who wants to write poetry. One day he finds a volume of poetry by the Baghdad-born Hebrew poet Roni Someck, which awakens him to the possibility that he, too, could be a writer.
Tsabari has often said that her writing about Mizrahi, or non-European Jewish, characters and a diverse array of Jewish and Israeli experience is an attempt to increase the visibility of Mizrahim in Israeli culture. With the success of her work she has also aimed to promote Mizrahi writers and artists in order to provide literary role models for young Mizrahi writers like herself and Uri.
Tsabari writes about her relationship to her Mizrahi identity at length in her memoir-in-essays, The Art of Leaving (Random House, 2019). There she details her childhood ambivalence about her identity, often embodied in popular culture in the derogatory image of the freha, a sexualized projection of Mizrahi femininity. The word “freha,” which originates from a common term for Mizrahi women derived from the Arabic word for “happiness,” has long been used to denigrate Mizrahi girls as simple, uneducated, and sexually available.
As a teenager, Tsabari identified with the popular singer Ofra Haza, who also came from a Yemenite family, at the same time as she struggled with her increasing recognition of the marginalization of Mizrahi culture in Israel. Athough initially she felt like an outsider in Canada, Tsabari credits her time there, where she came into contact with friends and co-workers from a variety of Arab countries, for allowing her to become comfortable with her own Mizrahi and Arab heritage.
Other Writing and Teaching
In addition to her literary work, Tsabari also frequently writes about Israeli culture and politics, focusing on Mizrahi writers and political issues like the Yemenite Babies’ Affair, the suspicious disappearance from hospitals and transit camps of hundreds of children of Yemeni descent in Israel between 1948 and 1954. She often represents perspectives and covers topics that have not been widely discussed in mainstream news outlets. Her work has appeared in outlets as diverse as The Forward, The Globe and Mail, and Foreign Policy.
Since the publication of The Best Place on Earth, Tsabari has become a sought-after speaker and teacher. She is on the faculty of The University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada,, where she teaches in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction program. She also regularly appears at writing workshops and teaches at Tel Aviv University and the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies.
In 2019, after 20 years in Canada, Tsabari moved back to Israel with her family. Tsabari, who has written of her emigration from Israel as accidental, in that she never intended to stay in Canada, calls her return to Israel “an act of reverse migration.” She now lives in Tel Aviv with her partner and daughter.
Works by Ayelet Tsabari
The Best Place on Earth (2013).
The Art of Leaving (2019).
Brawarsky, Sandee. “To Tell Mizrahi Stories.” The New York Jewish Week, May 12, 2015.
Houry, Leeron. “Why Does Ayelet Tsabari Hesitate Over the Term Arab-Jew?” Lilith blog, April 27, 2016.
Tsabari, Ayelet. “After 20 years in Canada, I returned to Israel. But the country I returned to is not the same as the country I left.” The Globe and Mail, April 5, 2019.
Tsabari, Ayelet. “Why I Chose to Write in English.” Literary Hub, March 23, 2016.
Weininger, Melissa. “Hebrew in English: The New Transnational Hebrew Literature.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 33:4 (Summer 2015): 15-35.