Just before he was sent to prison, Moriel Rothman ’11 got an unexpected Facebook message. It was from Kayla Zecher, a 20-something law student who, like Mori, lived in Jerusalem and ran in left-wing activist circles. Kayla didn’t know Mori well, but she knew of him. Moriel is an unusual name, no less so in Israel, where he was born, than in the United States, where he was raised. Plus, on some level, it seemed like everyone in Jerusalem knew Mori.
Kayla had heard Mori was going to jail for refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). She’d had friends, hardcore activists—more hardcore than Mori, to be honest—who’d been thrown in prison for months, even years. She didn’t want to risk losing track of him. Let me know if you need anything, she messaged him.
Mori thought it was a strange offer. He had a lawyer. Then it occurred to him that maybe Kayla just wanted him to have her number. He wrote it down, in his neat hand, on the back leaf of a collection of Tolstoy stories.
It was the fall of 2012, and Mori was 23. He thought it would be kind of romantic, reading Tolstoy in prison. It turned out to be a miserable idea: way too bleak. James Patterson would have been a better choice, or a spy novel—something less depressing. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Mori is now 29, no longer in prison, and has a novel of his own, Sadness Is a White Bird, which was published this past winter. Part love story, part Bildungsroman, part meditation on the instantaneity of violence, it is an impressive first work of fiction. Its characters slip in and out of four languages as they cross borders, decades, and boundaries. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Michael Chabon called it “nuanced, sharp, and beautifully written.” Its pages betray an urgent, prodigious talent.
Mori is a gentle soul, warm even to strangers, whom he greets like friends. An energetic conversationalist, he is opinionated but thoughtful, partial to long lunches and coffee on the couch, where he does not fiddle with his phone. His hair, when he wears it long, is wild and unruly, somewhere between revolutionary and street-corner poet. His ears are a bit elfin. Eyes feature prominently in his work, and it’s easy to see why: his own are lively and bright, raindrop blue, penetrating more than watchful, the kind you fall in love with from across the room at a party. He doesn’t shy away from the naked intimacy of holding his listener’s gaze. Indeed, he seems to relish it.
Mori became a novelist in the same way he became an ultrarunner, and before that an activist: slowly, and then all at once. He doesn’t mind doing hard things—torturous things, really—so long as they’re things he chooses. He feels the same way about rules. He likes following them, unless they’re rules he disagrees with, in which case he takes not a little delight in breaking them.
It was something of an accident, the novel. In the fall of 2015, Mori was living in Jerusalem, working for a nonprofit and organizing against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories. He was chiseling away at a proposal for a poetry-slash-memoir thing, but the material wasn’t terribly promising. He felt uninspired, even a little bored. On Yom Kippur, while fasting, he had a revelation, perhaps divinely inspired, or perhaps simply the consequence of being very, very hungry: he was writing the wrong book. After years of blogging, protesting, poem slamming, and otherwise divining the question—the problem, the future—of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, he would try his hand at fiction.
Mori sat down, and in 10 weeks, 100,000 words tumbled out of his brain and onto the page. He recognizes this is neither common nor likely to happen again in his career. It’s like the story had been boiling inside of him, waiting to spill over.
Abandoning nonfiction was a fortuitous decision, in part because Mori doesn’t particularly like nonfiction. He doesn’t care if this makes him unfashionable—a philistine, even—because it happens to be true. “I didn’t want to write something I wouldn’t read.”
Mori reads fiction obsessively, with a kind of self-imposed discipline that invites both admiration and, frankly, envy. In the back of his journal, opposite a color-coded chart where he tracks his weekly running mileage, is a list of all the books he’s read recently. At the moment, he’s working his way through the Pulitzer Prize winners. He adored Gilead (Marilynne Robinson, 2005) and The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead, 2017). He had a harder time getting into The Shipping News (Annie Proulx, 1994). He reads close to 50 novels a year, after which he shelves them in his library. He’s happy to lend books to friends, and even happier when they don’t come back.
Drafting a novel required Mori to forget most of what he knew about writing. The journalist’s cardinal rules are often the novelist’s laziest crutches. He was accustomed to writing op-eds for American newspapers, where the whole point was to be didactic, even pedantic. To tell, not show. To insist that readers agree. “The luxury of fiction, the privilege of fiction, is to let the reader decide for themself.”
His politics hadn’t changed, but his novel would be a work of art, not activism. “In art, multiple versions of truth don’t need to cancel each other out. In activism, they do.” Plus, a memoir would require him to write about what did happen, whereas a novel would free him to write about what might have happened, but didn’t.
That first draft, though—yikes. He’d be embarrassed to let anyone read it now. Tonal issues. Unimaginative structure. Preachy bits that bordered on polemical. “I sent it to the agent, and she wrote back, ‘There’s some really beautiful parts here. If you can rewrite the whole thing, I think we can work with it.’” She attached a long list of helpful suggestions, but Mori was gripped. He thought, If I can start anywhere, where do I start? If my characters can do anything, what should they do? “It was a paralysis of infinite possibilities.”
A few days later, Mori was sitting in a café, his Inner Critic yammering away. Riffing aloud to his coffee date, he imagined a book that began with his teenage protagonist, Jonathan, penning a letter to his friend: “Oh, Laith. I don’t know shit about flowers. I was a soldier who dreamed of her breasts in evening blossom, though.”
It was an odd line. Poetic, though. That could do, he thought.
So opens Moriel Rothman-Zecher’s Sadness Is a White Bird. Set largely between Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the book is about Israel-Palestine in the way The Things They Carried is about Vietnam, which is to say, completely and not at all. Mostly, it is a celebration and lamentation of youth. Reading it is to be reminded of the intoxicating cocktail of identity, ideology, and sexuality that is teenagehood—a drink so potent it’s incredible anyone survives, and whose hangover is, frankly, adulthood. The threat of violence and the thrill of Eros lurk in the margins of every page.
Jonathan is an earnest, searching young man. He has returned to his native land, on the cusp of 18, to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, but the novel’s first page finds him sitting in a military brig for something he may—or may not—have done on the front lines. The fog of war is thick. A boyhood spent dreaming of action has done little to prepare him for its realities.
“I was sick of being People of the Word,” he muses. “I wanted to be People of the Sword.”
Caught between identities and beliefs, Jonathan yearns for a truth that is singular, stable, unyielding. Peddling one such truth is his grandfather, a warrior-boned Salonican Jew who escaped the Nazis’ wartime decimation of Thessaloniki’s thriving Jewish community, settled in Haifa, and captained an elite underground strike force in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. “There are only two sides,” he tells Jonathan. “Us and everyone else.”
Driving the novel are the heady days of summer that precede Jonathan’s enlistment, and his ever-shifting constellation of friendships and romantic entanglements. Love is a drag at that age, but so is living with your parents. He would happily spend the summer with his high school friends smoking pot, stealing kisses, and debating the badass-ness of various IDF combat units.
It’s only the unexpected acquaintance of two Palestinian citizens of Israel—Laith and Nimreen, twins—that complicates Jonathan’s understanding of his, and their, homeland. Love ensues, then politics, then tragedy.
Even at its conclusion, Sadness refuses the reader resolution. She will have to decide for herself.
Mori is, like his protagonist, a binational Jew. His peregrinations have shaped him no less than his faith. Born in Jerusalem and raised there until he was five, Mori spent his adolescence in Yellow Springs, Ohio, before his family—like Jonathan’s—returned to Israel for his final year of high school. Mori adored growing up in Yellow Springs. Home to Antioch College, a bastion of progressive education, the town has a funky progressive energy. The Jewish community in Yellow Springs is small, without a synagogue, but even so the Rothmans strictly observed Shabbat. Mori’s love of reading was born, in part, of Saturdays spent without a Gameboy, car, or phone. Friends would come over to the house, and they’d spend hours playing in the woods that bordered the college. Even as a rebellious teen, he liked the stricture of religious rules; when he smoked pot on the Sabbath, his friends would always light the joint.
Mori thought he might do a year at Middlebury before returning to Israel to begin his compulsory military service. “Every society has its God. In the United States, it’s money. In Israel, it’s the army. You can love the prime minister or hate the prime minister. You can be for the occupation or against the occupation. But the one thing you don’t question is whether you serve in the military. Everyone serves in the military.”
But then, as happens: a girl. The IDF would have to wait. Returning to Middlebury for his sophomore and junior years, he continued to study Arabic, dove headlong into a political science major, and got involved with J Street, a liberal advocacy group that calls itself “the home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.” By his senior year, he was the organization’s national student president. (The girlfriend didn’t last.)
Friends from that time recall Mori’s sheer kinetic energy; he was confident, clever, brazen. He took vows of silence, went dancing, climbed trees, interrogated ideas. He zipped around campus on a longboard, occasionally naked. Every adventure in his company involved a detour.
And, during this time, his faith deepened. He began to pray daily, wear a kippah, and, with two friends, study Torah. At the same time, away from Israel, his discomfort with the occupation took on a new urgency. One afternoon, a friend encountered him walking past Ross Dining Hall, clutching a copy of Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine. Mori’s brow was furrowed; he looked gravely concerned. Finally he blurted out, “But what if he’s right?”
Like Jonathan in Sadness, Mori entered adulthood with a vague opposition to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories. “I was a friendly liberal kid. I thought the occupation was bad, I thought it was unfair, but I thought both sides should change some things.” Mostly, though, the whole thing felt disconnected from his life as an Israeli citizen.
Two college summers spent in Deir al-Asad, a Palestinian Arab village inside Israel, changed that. There, teaching English, practicing Arabic, and living alongside Palestinians, he witnessed the reality of a very different Israel than the one he had been born into.
In a neighboring village, Mori lived with the mayor’s brother, a Palestinian calligraphist who’d learned his craft from an Egyptian Jew and saw a kind of cosmic righteousness in opening his home to a member of the other tribe. Young Israelis who speak Arabic are rare—many that do learn it in the army—and Jewish college kids do not, as a rule, spend their summers living in Palestinian villages. With his burgeoning language skills, and by simply changing his dress, Mori could pass for something other than an Israeli Jew.
“This place is suffocating,” Laith tells Jonathan early in their friendship. “Everything here is too black and white, you know? Either you’re this or you’re that. You’re a Jew or you’re an Arab. You’re a man or a girl. A hero or a traitor. There’s no slippery here.”
In Deir al-Asad, unlike many places in Israel, Mori’s identity could be slippery. After years of looking in on Palestine from the outside, he was, for the first time, looking out at Israel from within.
Mori graduated from Middlebury and moved back to Jerusalem on a social justice fellowship. He grew his grassroots organizing skills and launched a current events blog that interpreted the region for an English-speaking audience. The awakening that began during his summers in Deir al-Asad became a daily consciousness.
“I didn’t understand the daily machinations of the occupation. I didn’t know about house demolitions. I didn’t know about raids done in order to terrorize the population. I didn’t know about land being confiscated. I didn’t know what military rule looked like.” It was around this time that Mori stopped thinking of the Israeli occupation as a tragedy. “Tragic is an earthquake, a hurricane. It’s inevitable.” An occupation was a human endeavor, with human actors. No one was absolved of responsibility.
One problem, he believed, was that young Israelis rarely hear what life in the army is like after basic training. “No one talks about what you do. What we talked about in high school was what color beret was the coolest and how many push-ups you can do and how fast you need to run to get into a certain unit. No one’s, like, ‘Then you’re going to be stationed in Hebron, guarding a corps of 750 fanatical Jewish settlers in the middle of a Palestinian city of 200,000 people, basically segregating the roads and arresting—and possibly even shooting—people when they violate your orders.’”
In October 2012, Mori posted an essay titled “Why I Refuse” to his blog. (The New York Times later published a version of the piece.) In its passages he cited, variously, the Book of Genesis, David Foster Wallace, and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Several days later, he reported to an IDF induction base in Tel Aviv, where, in an act of political theater, he formally announced his refusal to serve in the Israeli army. He spent 10 days in Military Prison No. 6, after which he was given another chance to enlist. He refused, again, and was sentenced to 10 more.
When he got out, he called Kayla, the young woman whose number he’d written in the back of his Tolstoy collection. On their first real date they voted in municipal elections, and then spent hours walking around the city. They ended back at Kayla’s apartment where, in a meet cute worthy of a rom com, Mori took one look at her bookshelf and fell head over heels. Before long he was moving in, shelving his paperbacks alongside hers.
In September, the National Book Foundation awarded Mori one of its “5 under 35” prizes; previous honorees include Téa Obreht and Karen Russell. Most rising literary stars spend their 20s debating whether to get an MFA or move to Brooklyn. Mori and Kayla chose Yellow Springs.
The couple wed in 2014—Mori proposed, on a romantic stretch of lakeshore that had unexpectedly become the finish line of a triathlon—and in the fall of 2017, they left Jerusalem and moved into the Rothmans’ childhood home. (Their dog, Silly Department, came with them.)
Six years of activism had taken its toll on them both. Kayla’s work as a human rights attorney, specializing in gender and refugee law, had started to consume her every waking moment. Mori feared his thinking was stagnating; he felt like he had said everything he needed to say. “In Israel, you’re either a soldier or an activist, or you have to leave. If you’re not able to be a good soldier or a determined activist, it starts to eat you alive.”
Sadness appeared on shelves in February. Three days before it was published, Mori slogged through his first 50-mile trail race, in the kind of frigid, sloppy Midwestern conditions only someone very committed, or very stupid, would endure.
To be an artist in the year 2018 is to be continually grappling with questions of privilege, authority, and authenticity.
Little has changed in Yellow Springs, although the special at Ha Ha Pizza no longer comes topped with hallucinogenic mushrooms, as lore holds it once did. Locals joke that the town is an island of Bernie in a sea of Trump, a rainbow-flag-flying outpost amidst miles of cornfields. The high school kids do slow laps up and down Xenia Avenue in their jacked-up trucks, politely stopping at all the crosswalks, while Antioch students debate Wittgenstein at the Underdog Café. Soon after moving back, Mori wrote a letter to the local paper arguing that, given the human toll of America’s neo-imperial forever wars, the town council should refuse to fly the Stars and Stripes on Memorial Day.
The Yellow Springs literary scene is slightly larger than Mori and a poet friend occasionally meeting up for coffee. Thanks to Dave Chappelle, though, Mori isn’t even the town’s most famous resident; when someone spots him on the street and waves, it’s probably just his third-grade teacher saying hello. His friendly hometown competition is not a fellow novelist but a 50-something ultrarunner, Jay, whose body-fat percentage hovers around the medically necessary mark and who can run Mori into the ground. When they hit the trails together, Mori peppers Jay with training questions while Jay picks up trail trash and stuffs it into his very short shorts. Mori recently decided to sign up for his first 100-mile race, next summer. On his Saturday long runs, he sometimes stops by the statue of Horace Mann, Antioch’s first president.
“Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” reads the pedestal.
In April, Mori and Kayla’s daughter was born. They named her Nahar, “river” in both Hebrew and Arabic. Like some mysterious traveler in a Marquez novel, she can alter the flow of time, speeding it up impossibly fast, or stopping it altogether for a while. Mori and Kayla pass her back and forth every couple of hours, allowing the other to work or, mercifully, sleep. Mori is amazed how, even before his two hours of freedom are up, he begins to miss his daughter. Someday, Nahar’s favorite thing in the whole world might be books, or even her father. For now, though, it’s the ceiling fan.
The family home is white brick, half 19th-century Colonial, half 1960s modernist renovation. A floating staircase descends into an expansive, warm-wood living room. Guests, neighbors, and housemates drift in and out of the wide doors that lead to the backyard; someone is always staying over. There’s a vegetable garden and a chicken coop, and the overhanging trees are impossibly green.
Kayla and Mori serve Shabbat dinner at the same table where Mori sat as a kid. Zucchini parmesan with ricotta, melon salad with herbs from the garden, peaches and tomatoes, focaccia from the local bakery. They light the candles and bless the wine. They break the bread and sing the songs. “Shalom aleichem malakhei hashalom.”
Mori writes in the early mornings, for at least two hours, at a neatly organized desk. While working on the novel, he had dinner with a painter in San Francisco who told him, “Staring at a blank canvas counts.” Some days he just stares at the screen for two hours. When that fails, he closes the laptop and reads. It’s all part of the process. He’s working on a new long thing—he won’t say much—but it requires learning Yiddish. The primary texts on his desk includes Ulysses, Baldwin, and Gay New York.
Productivity-wise, it helps to live in a small town, where the neighbor’s weed wacker is more likely to be a distraction than her book launch party. It also helps not to have a day job. Mori quit his last full-time one less than a month after he and Kayla got married. This was probably for the best. “A day job brings out my worst self, having other people telling me what to do with my time. It makes me anxious, depressive, self-pitying, and resentful.” It is not lost on him that this is how most people would describe locking themselves in a room and attempting to make art.
Mori doesn’t consider himself a tortured artist, nor does he aspire to be. He finds it curious that Americans have such a Puritan conception of artistry—that hardship must be required to produce something serious or weighty. Like, if you enjoyed creating it, how good can it be? He once read an interview with Mario Vargas Llosa, where the Peruvian novelist admitted that he loved to write. “That felt very permission granting. I’m, like, ‘Yeah, me too.’ I really like writing. It feels fun. It feels like a privilege. And some mornings are painful, and sometimes I want to weep from self-pity, staring at my screen of tangled nonsense. But mostly it’s fun.”
In this way, writing is a close cousin to activism. “What’s not often said, and can feel kind of dirty and inappropriate, is that people do activism because they enjoy it. It can be quite fun. It’s invigorating. Being shot at with tear gas by the police. The after-work and late-night meetings.
The organizing, the marching, the chanting. It has a kind of thrilling element, even though that’s obviously not the point.” He realizes, in the same breath, that this is his privilege speaking—that another obvious reason people are driven to protest is because they are deeply oppressed and very desperate. Activism is full of such paradoxes, and Mori has, over time, learned to embrace the discomfort they cause. He tends to view the world as a place where multiple truths don’t compete so much as coexist.
To be an artist in the year 2018 is to be continually grappling with questions of privilege, authority, and authenticity. In his novel, Mori gives voice to an Arab grandmother, an IDF commander, a West Bank Palestinian, and a gay teenager in Auschwitz. If the only story you have permission to tell is your own, he thinks, then the abiding premise of art is dead. Still, telling others’ stories means telling them with great care. Mori asked a diverse cast of friends to be early readers; they fact-checked everything from his Arabic transliterations to the number of seats in an Israeli armored personnel carrier. He’s proud that, even when former IDF soldiers disagree with his politics, they don’t fault his rowdy depiction of life in the barracks.
As a Jewish writer who both loves Israel and is unafraid to fault it, Mori is accustomed to attracting criticism from all quarters. Any invective you can think to hurl at him—colonialist, anti-Semite, apologist, self-hating Jew—he’s already heard, probably more than once. In August, on a trip to visit family, he was detained in the Tel Aviv airport for two hours by Shin Bet security officials, who questioned him about his anti-occupation activism. The officials told him it was a “cautionary conversation,” and he left the encounter deeply unsettled.
Mori used to write only when he was inspired—when something outrageous or hopeful seared his imagination. Now he writes every day, even when he’s not inspired. Especially when he’s not inspired. He knows from racing ultras that, just as he can always run one more step, he can always write one more word. Incrementalism isn’t sexy, but it’s the only way to write something longer than a wedding toast.
He discovered early on that simply getting started is half the battle. “I had this fallacious idea—and I don’t know why no one told me otherwise—that I had to have the whole story figured out. If I’d waited for that to happen, I would never have started the novel.” Instead, he populated its pages with half-formed characters and, through countless revisions, let them evolve. They began to interact in the recesses of his imagination, developing personalities, quirks, proclivities, and histories. They took on lives of their own.
One morning in 2016, deep in the writing process, Mori walked Kayla to the train. She kissed his cheek and, as she turned to go, said, “Say hi to Laith for me.”
She wasn’t joking, not exactly.
“It felt like we were living with these three”—Jonathan, Laith, and Nimreen—“especially during the most intense months of writing. It’s as if they were alive in our house. And I miss them sometimes. I don’t interact with them much anymore—occasionally, at a reading, I’ll re-enliven them—but I miss thinking about them. I miss their lives having an open-endedness, a what-happens-next-ness.”