Novelist Nomi turns family secrets into work of fiction


SOCIETY is now much more open and accepting of special needs children than in earlier decades.

But back in the 1950s, children with major defects were hidden away in institutions and never visited, nor spoken of again.

It was such an incident in her family history that inspired Nomi Eve to become a novelist and weave her first novel around the unspoken elements of her own family history.

Nomi hails from rabbinical stock. Her father, Joshua Buch, researched his family history back to the 16th Ari, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, considered to be the founder of Kabbala.

A descendant of the Ari and one of Nomi's ancestors was Rabbi Shlomo Berliner Herschell - British Chief Rabbi from 1802-1842.

His son Rabbi David Berliner Herschell moved to Jerusalem, where he was murdered. His grandson was accused of his poisoning him.

Joshua recounted details of the murder incident in his family memoirs, out of which he totally omitted any mention of his own severely-disabled brother who was sent away to an institution in the 1950s and never spoken of again in the family.

Nomi, who studied and now teaches fiction writing in Philadelphia, only found out about her disabled Uncle Raphi's existence in her early-20s, although she had grown up knowing details of the rest of the family's ancient history.

"Raphi was left out of my father's family history," she told me. "The family was encouraged by doctors to place him in an institution and never to mention him. I grew up not knowing about him. It was very typical of the time.

"I was really stricken by the fact that my father had researched back to ancient days and yet when it came to his own generation, he left out such a crucial part of the family biography, not out of any malice, but because that is what he was raised to do.

"As a budding novelist, I felt this was the story I had to tell, not necessarily the story of the missing brother, but the story of how families know themselves, struggle to tell stories and navigate the silences that fill up the spaces where missing people lie.

"Growing up as the daughter of a father who researched our family history that goes back almost all the way to King David and which ties in with great rabbinic lines that goes back to ancient days, I was really fascinated by what gets puts in and what gets left out of a family tree and which people get left out.

"The story of my severely-disabled uncle really was the impetus for writing my book."

The Family Orchard is a fictionalised account of Nomi's family history.

She said: "I wrote the book to try to figure out how we come to know ourselves in our own history. For me the answer is part history, part imagination. We fill in the cracks."

And Nomi certainly has a vivid imagination. The book starts in 1837 when Nomi's great-great-great grandmother Esther Herschell, the granddaughter of Rabbi Shlomo Berliner, Herschell married Yochanan Schine, a student of the saintly Chatam Sofer and went to live in Jerusalem.

Nomi writes: "Esther was pious but in a peripheral way. She knew the mitzvot, she knew to make the Shabbat holy, but she felt there was no real harm in putting her own creative interpretation on the old rules because creativity was an essential and blessed quality and it would be a sin not to use it."

That creativity entailed an affair between Esther and a local baker while she was still living with her husband.

I asked Nomi why she had decided to fictionalise her family history.

She said: "I made up the affair with the baker. When I heard my father and grandmother tell family stories, half of all the stories were of love, mischief and mystery, even though they lived through difficult days.

"It's important to me that my book is not just about dark days, but about real lives which are filled with laughter. It is very important that it is not just a tale of woe, but that it is also a tale of laughter and light."

Like many Jews, Nomi's family lived through grim periods of Jewish history.

Her great-great-uncle in Russia was drafted into the Tsar's army where he was killed. His brother, her great-great-grandfather, ended up going to then-Palestine in the 19th century and living through the pre-state hardships.

Her family cultivated an orchard in Avichail, near Netanya, which is called Shachar in the book.

The orchard was where the bodies of two British soldiers, killed by the Irgun, were hung on the night of a wedding.

In the book, the wedding is that of Nomi's great uncle Moshe, but in reality the wedding was not that of one of her family members.

Nomi told me: "My grandmother was at that wedding. She told me the story of the women bringing the food to the men, while they guarded the orchard. That is a good example of real history intermingled with fiction in the book."

The Family Orchard juxtaposes Nomi's father's accounts of his family history, with her own. Although Joshua Buch did not mention his severely disabled brother, Raphi (Gabi in the book), Nomi's account did.

He was born with missing fingers and toes. As the months progressed, it was obvious that it was not only Raphi's physical appendages which were missing. The child did not develop.

When he was five, his doctors, social workers and rabbis advised his parents to institutionalise the child and forget about him, which they did or attempted to do.

Nomi wrote: "They tried to forget him. They pretended he did not exist. In time, he became buried. They called their child nothing. They never called again on God. And they knew not what to call themselves anymore."

Nomi's father went to study in America, where he settled and married, although the family spent their summers in their ancestral Israeli orchard home.

When she was 21, Nomi's father told her of his missing brother, who had been born profoundly intellectually disabled with physical deformities.

Although his parents were secular Jews, they had named their disabled child Raphael after the healing angel.

Anecdotal evidence suggested that the deformity had been caused by Nomi's grandmother, Rivka Buch, taking medication during pregnancy or through an unsuccessful abortion attempt.

But Nomi said: "I would never hear her version of what happened. But I did know that in her youth, my grandmother had smuggled machine-gun parts in her babies' carriages to aid the resistance against the British.

"She knew well the physical and mental demands of statehood and motherhood. And the demands of raising such a child as Raphi in her place and time? That was another story entirely."

Joshua made Nomi promise never to mention the disabled son to his mother as the very mention of him made her angry or hysterical.

But Nomi, who was not good at keeping secrets, decided she would track her secret uncle down and eventually told her grandmother, who lived till 2000, that she had done so.

Nomi visited Raphi five or six times in what she termed "a very beautiful" Israeli institution. Already old, he still could not speak.

Nomi said: "They were very meaningful visits. I told my grandmother and my family that I went."

Although Nomi was the only member of her family to visit Raphi at that stage in his life, she said: "My family has been nothing but supportive of the journey I have taken through the family history.

"My father couldn't have been more proud and supportive of my work. To this day he continues to be proud and supportive.

"My grandmother knew I was writing the book. She encouraged me to have the book published in Hebrew which it was. She was happy it was out in the world."

Yet in the book, she only refers in passing to the fact that she had visited Raphi, omitting the details and her family's reaction to the visits.

Some family secrets take a long time to come out.

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph