In the early 1980s, Lis Harris spent five years closely observing chasidic life through one family, almost as if she were embedded with them. She would travel frequently between her Manhattan home and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, asking difficult questions and sticking around to hear the answers, sometimes again and again. Harris, who is Jewish, admittedly knew very little about the community and approached her subjects with openness and respect. The family hoped that all their talk would lead to Harris joining them, but she maintained her outsider’s perspective even as she became more of an insider. In 1985 she published a highly praised, beautifully written book, “Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family,” which ran as a three-part series in The New Yorker.
Harris, who spent more than 25 years writing for The New Yorker and left in 1996, has written other books since but perhaps her newest book is closest in spirit to “Holy Days” than “In Jerusalem: Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family” (Beacon Press).
Here, she spent almost 10 years — the summers and winter breaks from her teaching position at the School of the Arts at Columbia University — dividing her time between a Jewish family in West Jerusalem and a Palestinian family in east Jerusalem, while staying in a studio in the German Colony. This is not meant to be a comprehensive work on the Middle East conflict, but rather a more modest yet deep look at the ways the conflict touches on individuals who live there.
“I had never been to Israel,” Harris says in an interview. “I consider myself hugely Jewish, but not religious, which is why the chasidic book was such an adventure for me. My family’s attitude was that their home team was the Jews.”
About her motivation for writing this, she says, “It’s the same thing as what drew me to write about chasidim. I am Jewish and these are my people.” And, also, it was “a deep curiosity more than anything.”
In an email, Harris adds, “The fulcrum around which everything else turns is the remark the chasidic man I wrote about in ‘Holy Days’ made when I asked him what he considered the most important of his obligations and he answered without hesitation ‘to treat others as I would like to be treated.’ My family may have been secular but they were firmly grounded in Jewish values, and it was the challenge to those values that hung over the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict that so disturbed me. The argument that war or a warring milieu creates its own rules goes only so far. What I realized over the long period I spent in situ (and had no idea of beforehand), was the violation — from the beginning — of this historic moral charge as it applied to the native population.”
Harris found the two families through a chain of connections, although it wasn’t simple. As she explains, “I’m a very intrusive researcher. Would you want me in your life, night and day?” In fact, three years into the project, she had to find a different Palestinian family as the initial family’s personal situation changed. She doesn’t present either family as typical or representative, just people making their homes in the city of “melancholy beauty.”
While Harris interviews and reports on many family members, her main point of entry, and her focus, is the women: Ruth HaCohen, a professor of musicology at Hebrew University, whose second husband was leading political theorist Yaron Ezrahi (who died just as Harris finished the book); and Niveen Abuleil, a speech pathologist with a degree from the University of Jordan in Amman. Ruth and her family live on a leafy street in the Greek colony, sharing a house (with separate entrances) with Ezrahi’s first wife. Niveen lives with her parents and sisters and extended family (her married brothers and their families on separate floors) in the neighborhood of French Hill, where they have lived since 1948 (now, the Arab population there is outnumbered by Israelis). In both families, several beloved members have passed away over the years.
Harris recounts the history of Israel and of both families in alternate chapters, detailing Ruth’s roots in Germany — her mother was the granddaughter of the chief rabbi of Munich. Some of her relatives got out of Europe at the last moment. Niveen’s family members were 1948 refugees from the town of Lifta, three miles from Jerusalem.
After they had met several times, Niveen’s father tells Harris, in recalling the upheavals of 1948, “We’d heard by then about the terrible things that had been done to the Jews in Europe but we couldn’t understand why we were being asked to pay for it — we hadn’t been their enemies.”
Harris also covers the impact on the families of the Six-Day War in 1967, the years after the Oslo Accords and the two intifadas.
“All suffered from violence, were dislocated. All lost family members,” Harris says of the families. “They have so many similarities in general experience; they had ethnic things in common, an interest in moral issues. But they were more different than the same; their traditions are very different. Though Israel is still in a fragile way often, the life that they lead is much more a modern civilized life — the Palestinians are busy catching up.”
Throughout, Harris is a graceful, even masterful, writer, although the book can be unsettling to read. Her close-up view of the Palestinian family highlights many painful experiences — there is also much pain in the lives of the Israeli family that feels more known and familiar. But it’s an important book to read. For as Harris ably gets into the thoughts and feelings of Niveen and her family, the reader is drawn there too, and may begin to see life through their eyes. Or, short of that, the reader might understand a bit more about those thought of as ‘other.’
Many in Ruth’s extended family have more than one advanced degree. While the Abuleil family is far less financially secure, Niveen and her siblings attended private schools. One brother is a dentist, another a civil engineer and another owns a falafel stand (another who died was a lawyer); her sisters work as a social worker, a therapist for special needs children, a teacher of Islamic history, and the oldest runs the household. Their father told Harris of his belief that a strong education is the “chief way, the only way, for his children and grandchildren to push beyond the harsh circumstances of their lives and to grow and prosper.”
One chapter details the experience of one of Niveen’s aunts, whom they rarely speak of, who was tortured and convicted for her alleged role in a supermarket bombing in 1969, jailed for ten years and then released in a prisoner exchange. She later became a prominent activist for the Arab community in the U.S. — Harris met her in Chicago in 2011— but was deported in 2017. Harris says that this was the most difficult chapter to write as she kept changing her position about the aunt’s claims that she did not place the bomb. The reader is left to think about this.
Most of the third generation in the HaCohen/Ezrahi families are on the left, and involved in various efforts toward peace; Ruth’s son from her first marriage has become ultra-Orthodox and leans to the right. Harris devotes a chapter to his vision.
Harris’ methodology is to immerse herself in her subject — to read and research and mostly to be present to observe, engage and ask questions. In writing, she has a clear presence on the page, not about her.
Commenting on her style, she says, “I come out from behind the curtain when it will make the text better” and otherwise withdraws.
“I’m here as a person with a voice,” she says. “I don’t pretend to be neutral. That’s not my job. I want to be fair but not opinionless.”
Interspersed in the narrative, she includes “Travels with Fuad,” accounts of her sometimes-comic adventures with her intrepid Jerusalem taxi driver, the Palestinian Fuad Abu Awwad, who translates for her — she speaks neither Hebrew nor Arabic — and adds his opinions to the mix. He also takes her on detours off track, including to the wedding of his youngest sister-in-law, to meet with a Druze scholar in Nazareth and to eat grilled chicken at a popular stand in Beit Jala.
While working on the book, her friend, the renowned photographer Thomas Struth, visited and photographed the two families, separately. Many inquire if she made attempts to bring the families, or even Ruth and Niveen, together, and she says no, that her subject was not encounter.
When asked whether working on the book left her with a sense of hope, Harris, who now heads the writing department at Columbia’s School of the Arts, says, “I wish I could say it did. I’m a skeptic but also an optimist, and all I can say is an abstraction, that things change. Look at Northern Ireland, Germany. But the weather signs are not that promising. There are so many people of good will. It would be nice to think they could prevail.
“One of the reasons I wanted to write this is that I hope that someone will say, ‘this is more complicated than I thought,’” she says.
As to whether she sees herself as a Zionist, Harris, who grew up in New York City, says, “I would not use Zionist. I was raised to think I was part of a large tribe that was Jewish, that we all belong together. I was raised to think that Jews were great, and the rest of the world not as wonderful, so said my grandmother. Who was not a Zionist after the Second World War? I share that. My family wouldn’t call themselves Zionists but de facto were. But I was a grown woman and still had no sense of the other side of the picture. I believe it’s still true now for a lot of Jews.
“I’ve known all along this is a troubling subject. But I’m glad that I did this – it’s always better to know more. To understand the plight of the Palestinians does not mean that I don’t love the Israelis or feel like I have nothing to do with them, or disown them. Nothing like that. These are my people.”