[Intro from Jack Engelhard: We’ve all endured this frustration about a book we’re trying to write – but it just refuses to happen. I met Orit online. I ran into one of her pieces at israelinsider.com and was taken by her brutal honesty and her cool style with words. I’ve been a fan ever since. She is also a knockout in the looks department and I promised to cast her when The Bathsheba Deadline goes Hollywood, a promise I intend to keep. But enough from me. Here’s Orit.]
I Burned my Own Book
By Orit Arfa
Beware any society that burns books–it is one that leads to a dictatorship. To name a few: China’s Qin Dynasty, Nazi Germany, Ray Bradbury’s fictional America in his novel Farenheit 451.
So what does that say about me? I just burned a book—my own. Have I become a one woman dictatorship?
Actually, I felt like I had to burn my book so that I stop becoming a dictator—over myself.
I called a childhood friend Jeff who made “yerida” (downward immigration) to our hometown of Los Angeles not long after me for pretty much the same reasons I did, and I told him of my plan. He loved it. He remembered all those nights in Jerusalem when I stayed home to work on this book while all my friends went out partying. “You were a hermit,” he recalled.
The dastardly book in question is the novel I have been working on for some five years. I invested thousands of dollars editing it; I spent weekends interviewing people for research; I took jobs related to its themes, particularly nightlife and music. I secured the interest of a literary agent who recommended editorial changes before taking it on. But it utterly consumed me at the expense of my social life—and I knew I had to consume it if I were to start living my life instead of living behind a computer.
To summarize, the novel followed the migration of a 21-year-old Gush Katif expellee from Gaza into Tel Aviv where she acted out her rebellion against religion and the State of Israel in the country’s hottest nightclub. It spoke true of my own experience as someone who protested in Gaza during the Disengagement—an event that completely shattered my admiration and belief in the Zionist entity as such. They didn’t burn books in Gaza, but the IDF demolished thousands of Jewish homes. They let the Palestinians burn the synagogues—and whatever holy books got trapped inside.
My story gradually went up in flames in Jeff’s backyard. We didn’t have any lighter fluid—only two disposable aluminum pans and a lighter for some 600 pages of my manuscript (including editing marks). We create a bonfire, and ten pages at a time, barbecued the sucker as if this were an Israel Independence Day mangal (barbecue).
I felt little regret as I watched the edges and words turn black. Actually, Jeff commented, “you’re smiling”, as I carried a burning scroll as a torch. It felt like bi’ur hametz, the act of burning leavened bread before Passover, and I felt like bi’ur ha’book was leading to my liberation.
But it was taking too long, and the pages started looking too much like matzah. I wanted the sucker incinerated, as much as a devout rabbi wants all hametz (leavened bread) gone before Passover. So we went to Jeff’s brother’s house down the street (turns out they’re both pyros—to my great delight!) and toasted Part II on his grill—with gasoline.
In the act of burning, I didn’t only do myself a favor—but others as well. I’m sure, if ever published, the novel would have been on the “books to burn” list of quite a few people: liberals and conservative, settlers and their opponents too. It was steeped in iconoclasm. It questioned the Jewish state and the potential Palestinian one. It questioned both religion and secularism.
I wrote it to relieve my angst—but also as a means to change Israeli society. It was my intellectual weapon to change all the banes of my Israeli existence: the Jewish and Arab collectivism, the political corruption, the socialism. But there came a point in which the Israeli system so wore me down—in addition to the more mundane annoyances like traffic, notorious Israeli rudeness, urban squishiness—that I simply decided to migrate back to my original home: Los Angeles.
Indeed, my novel was my attempt to make Israel more like America—a land of the free and home of the brave. A place where people aren’t judged by their race and religion (ideally), but by their character and creativity.
And now that I’m here, my Israeli intellectual activism has become less urgent. I don’t believe in the Jewish State as much as I used to—so why dedicate so much time, energy, heartache and money to fighting for it—or for what it could be? This is what my protagonist kept asking herself after the State of Israel destroyed her family’s life. Now that I’ve expelled myself from Israel I’m living out her quest for individualism in a country that still honors this value.
And maybe I had to burn it because it simply meant too much to me—as Israel did. And the temptation to go back to Israel—and to go back writing it—will always be there. Sometimes, like a dictatorship, we seek to purge the very ideas that threaten—and intrigue–us.
Only the pages didn’t burn completely. The manuscript got wet when we doused a small fire that spread on the lawn. A small stack went unscathed. Maybe a spark of idealism can never be extinguished? Does that mean I’m destined to go back to it? (Okay, I admit, I have old drafts saved on my hard drive.) I can’t think about that now. If I ever do, it will be from a place of joy, not duty; inspiration, not desperation; and most of all: true illumination.
And now that I have burned the book, I intend to start a new chapter in my life, one in which no one dictates who or what I should be or do—and let’s hope in America, with our new president, it stays that way.