Truth, loyalty and religion

Karen Levy


At first, Israeli-American writer Karen Levy’s writing was heavily influenced by Russian literature and the classics. Then, she discovered Latina writers such as Julia Alvarez and Sandra Cisneros. It was Cisneros’ vignette-heavy 1984 novel, The House on Mango Street that helped shape her memoir My Father’s Gardens (Homebound Publications, $17.95), which explores identity and divided loyalties. Opting not to self-publish, Levy began a quest for a publisher that she said “almost turned into an addiction.” Levy, who’s studied under Mary Mackey and teaches composition at Sacramento State University, says she’s already thinking about her next project, a work of fiction. That undertaking, she admits, will be more difficult. “I know how to tell the truth,” she said. Levy spoke with SN&R about home, friendship and what it’s like to serve in the Israeli military.

You grew up in two lands; is there one that is more your home than the other?

They are home in very different ways. I’m attached to both but for very different reasons. My children were born here. I work here. My attachment to Israel is in my blood. That’s where I was born, where I was raised, where I served in the military. There’s something that’s always calling to me there.

How did that affect the formation and retention of friendships?

[My friends and I] started out together in preschool and traveled together through school. Our classroom of 35 to 40 kids remained together. So, it was more family than “I’m your friend this year.” They knew my family’s lifestyle. They always knew I was coming back. It was as though I hadn’t left. … My best friend was still my best friend. In the U.S., I can go to Safeway and see someone, and I recognize them, but they don’t recognize me. … My best friend in Israel, we’ve known each other since we were 8. It’s as if no time has passed.

What about identity?

As an Israeli, I knew where I belonged. You live in the Holy Land. There’s no question of who you are. … Christmas comes around here [in the United States]; it’s awkward when people assume we all celebrate. An Israeli Jew knows where they belong and isn’t a minority, trying to raise children among people unlike them, while American Jews have to work harder, I suppose, at making sure their faith is preserved.

Why publish this book now?

Israel is always pertinent. I hope it speaks to various audiences. I know it speaks to Jewish audiences.

What has the response been like?

Jewish audiences respond differently because they’ve either been to Israel and the book makes them nostalgic for it, or they’ve never been, and the descriptions make them want to go. As far as a non-Jewish audience, I think it’s curiosity.

Were there repercussions?

Friends in Israel haven’t seen the book yet. My father couldn’t be prouder. He read through most of it. He’s open enough to talk about things and move forward. It’s my account of our lives. Can you imagine what would not be created if we stopped ourselves every time that there were repercussions? We’d be deprived of a lot.

You mention that Israel is like any other place.

I’m not sure if American audiences have a clear idea of what living in Israel is like. From the news, I’m not sure what kind of ideas that they have. People raise their kids, [and] you have to add to that the tension of being surrounded by so many enemies. … They’re people like everybody else, [with] the same desires and needs.

You served in the Israeli military. Were you required to do so?

In Israel, at the age of 18, it is mandatory to serve in the military. I’m an Israeli citizen. It is required of all Israeli citizens, and they do so proudly. … To serve your country, to protect your country.

How long were you required to serve?

Girls for two years, boys for three, unless [they] signed on to become an officer.

Did you ever want to become an officer?


You said Israelis are proud to serve—do see that same type of attitude here?

I’m astounded every semester at how little [my students] care about, how little passion [they have]. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an 18-year-old Israeli who would not be outspoken. In fact, I ask these American kids, “Is there a passion that you would live for or die for?” It was never an option for me—I would die for my country. It saddens me that I don’t see that passion here. Maybe it’s good that they’ve been protected, that they’ve never had to answer a question like that, that they’ve never had to face that dilemma. That’s probably why when something happens in Israel, I want to hop the next plane.