Book review: Unlocking The Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diary

May 17, 2018 by Sharon Berger
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Shira Sebban was very close to her mother, Dr Naomi Moldofsky…writes Sharon Berger.

Shira Sebban

Upon her death she discovered an unknown diary which gave her a glimpse of her mother’s experiences in Israel in the mid-1950s. Not only was she able to discover a side of her mother she never knew, but the diary describes a very different Israel from today.

 

This discovery encouraged her to further explore this early period in Israel, and resulted in her first creative non-fiction work Unlocking the Past: Stories From My Mother’s Dairy.Using the diaries as the scaffolding Sebban had done extensive research to fill out the stories in an interesting combination of historical insight, politics, social parties, and an array of potential suitors. This intriguing mix of the mundane and historic tells this period of Naomi’s life in a series of short and easy to read vignettes.

Chapter by chapter we get to know Naomi’s unsentimental character better. She is a no nonsense conservative young lady, focused on her economic studies, for which she won a scholarship to study at Hebrew University.  Her parents bemoan her spinsterhood in her late 20s and Naomi grapples cynically with her ongoing loneliness.  After 10 years in Australia Naomi had become “too Australian” and “not much of a sabra anymore. We meet her friends, her professors, and her family and get to know her better as a music aficionado and book lover.

At times it is a bit tricky to keep track of the cast of changing characters surrounding her and once or twice the reader is introduced to a character and then left hanging as to what happens with them. However this is the limitation of writing creative nonfiction, one of the fastest growing literary genres.

Most poignant are Sebban’s descriptions of Israel, in its nascent statehood, which transport the reader to a totally different world from today’s start-up nation. Descriptions of armoured plated vehicle convoys to the Hebrew University Mt Scopus campus, the elegant Edison cinema, Jerusalem neighbourhoods newly built on the ruins of Arab villages,  and a no mans land occasionally interrupted by sniper fire dividing the Israeli controlled West Jerusalem from the Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem were all very real during Naomi’s stay.  She also refers to fascinating interactions she had with newly arrived immigrants from Yemen and Egypt.

Sebban’s skill is in recreating these scenes in vivid detail for the reader, almost making one feel like they have been taken back in time. While her detailed descriptions are recognisable to anyone who has spent time in Israel the passage of only 60 years has totally transformed these depicted landscapes. The archival photos interspersed throughout the book further help bring both the characters and locations to life.

The book highlights how much has changed in such a relatively short time. Naomi describes a time when people did not have telephones in their homes and communicating plans was challenging. Yet today Israelis have one of the highest rates of mobile phone usage in the world.

Interestingly some things have changed very little even with the passage of time: ultra-Orthodox rioting against the use of public transportation, Jerusalem’s sleepy nightlife, Steimatzky’s book stores, impatient Israeli crowds, terror attacks, and Independence day military parades, to name a few.

Unlocking The Past: Stories From My Mother’s Diaryoffers a brutally honest look at Israel in the 1950s. Naomi has not been swept away by her experience in the Holy Land. Eventually she leaves Israel for Australia via Europe. She notes in her typical dour humour of her travelling companions, “All five claim to be great Zionists; still seem to be pleased to stay out of Zion.”

It is difficult to be impartial when writing about someone so close to you but Sebban has done an excellent job of being honest with the subject showing not only her achievements but also her shortcomings and frustrations. In doing so she has made Naomi’s story come to life in an enchanting way.

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