Orit Arfa reached out to me after reading my book review of Unorthodox.  She asked if I would be willing to read her book and write a review.  I was thrilled to do so.  I enjoyed reading her work and am happy to share my thoughts.

A version of this essay has been co-published with my friend David Lange on his website.

Sarah Dakhar was a 21 year old living in Gush Katif, a settlement of about 8,500 Israelis, within the Gaza strip.  She and her family were removed from the settlement in 2005 as the government withdrew from Gaza. 

This forced removal from the only home that she knew transformed her.  Living in Tel Aviv, feeling lost and betrayed by the government she had grown up trusting, Sarah found herself drawn to nightclub life.  Her exoticness story of a settler turned away from her faith brings her to the attention of the owner of Atlantis, the hottest nightclub in the city dedicated to Electronic Dance Music (EDM).  She becomes an Atlantis "Diva" and discovers herself as she moves from her religious roots and blossoms into her identity.

From Sarah's descriptions of the beauty and smells and the feeling of the surf on her skin it is clear that her home in Gaza was Sarah’s version of paradise.  To be forcefully removed from her home by the IDF, who she grew up idolizing, was a shocking turn of events. 

And like any hero who has had their life completely overturned, Sarah has to go on a journey to find herself.  In that journey Sarah will abandon parts of her life, take on new identities, and find a way to reconcile her past with her present in order to go into the future.

Your early 20's are a time of awakening.  You are confronted with the question "do you accept the narratives given to you by your parents and authority? Or do you seek out more nuanced and difficult truths of life?"

Reading Sarah's story reminded me of the grappling I had to do when I was her age. My awakening occurred when I was 22, living in Tunisia in 2001-2002.   In trying to understand why my city was attacked I learned a lot about how the US invaded and deposed governments to install people who were more "friendly".    What I discovered irreversibly altered how I saw my country and forced me to contend with the gap between the myth of my country and its very checkered reality.   I didn’t expect to see something of my own journey when I read this book but it was crystal clear to me as I read Sarah’s inner thoughts that could have been pulled from my mind decades ago.

I know next to nothing about the settlers.  And honestly the videos and interviews that I have seen of them have not been very positive.  

But I do not want to form a caricature in my mind of any group that I don't understand.  I also do not want my opinion on anything to be shaped by an algorithm designed to maximize clicks.  I want to have a deeper understanding;  What motivates them? How do they see the world?   

The most valuable part of this book for me as an outsider was listening to Sarah discuss politics. I got to eavesdrop on conversations and hear genuine opinions instead of political talking points.  This book offered real discourse, not the kind that we have when we dance around sensitive issues in order to preserve the harmony of our relationships.  

When Sarah was with her family she discussed issues differently than when she debated with the urban and secular leftists she meets in Tel Aviv who look down on settlers.  In these moments we see Sarah grapple with concepts she was never exposed to growing up and didn't possess the language to adequately express and defend her way of life. 

I was able to hear how settlers feel about Tel Aviv and vice versa.  I was able to hear the diversity of opinions that Israelis hold about Palestinians and the decades of conflict.  The exchanges have a raw and honest back and forth that tell me that they were drawn from real life.  

Getting to the heart of any matter involving identity and group loyalty requires incredibly difficult discussions.  This book doesn't shy from those conversations.  They were occasionally compassionate, often uncomfortable and sometimes heartlessly brutal.  But they all felt real. 

These are dialogues I could never have.  Any attempts at trying to broach these subjects, even with people I know well and consider to be personal friends, would be fraught with defensiveness, different cultural frames of reference, misunderstandings and a century of turbulent history that makes clear and free discussion nearly impossible. To essentially eavesdrop on these exchanges was valuable.

I recently learned a Hebrew word, Tachles, meaning something like "getting to the essence of the matter".  Reading this gave me the closest I will probably ever get to the Tachles of Israeli society as it debates and fights within itself over issues of settlements, the IDF and how the Israeli government treats its citizens.   

I suspect that Sarah and I could "talk Tachles."  We probably wouldn't come to an agreement on many of these issues but I believe that compassionate people, as Sarah clearly is, manage to find common ground and mutual respect.

This story takes place in 2006 when Sarah is 21.  When I finished reading the book my first question was "What would 40 year old Sarah think about October 7th?"

Where is Sarah in 2024?  Is she still living in Israel?  Where has she fallen politically?  Has she become more conservative, as is fairly common, in her late 30s/early 40s now that she has more material goods to lose?  Has she distanced herself from the government and the country?   How would she use her voice and influence?  In which direction does her moral compass point today?

The fact that I am thinking these questions is the mark of a well-crafted character in a thoughtfully written story.

I have two minor critiques:

  • The final thread of the main story felt like it was resolved too quickly given the scope of the problems presented.  Given the severity of the problems it could have easily used another 100 pages to realistically resolve. 
  • There is a gay Israeli man and an Ethiopian Jewish girl who become Sarah's confidants.  Both of these characters could offer interesting outsider perspectives on Israeli culture and politics but they mostly disappear when Sarah becomes deeply involved with her boyfriend.  A 21 year old falling madly in love and ignoring her best friends feels authentic but we lose a chance to hear the perspective of these two characters who might have offered a very different take on Israeli society. 

Overall highly I recommend this book.  It is much deeper than I expected when I agreed to review it.  I was expecting, based on the cover, to read "50 shades of Israeli Gray."  But this book isn't just a light hearted beach read.  Orit has written an introspective examination of the soul of Israeli youth culture as it grapples with the politics of a country in turmoil that is not easily seen from an outsider's perspective.

Who is this book for and not for?

  • Anyone interested in Israeli youth culture will enjoy the book.  People who want to understand some aspects of modern Israeli society and the conflict within will find the book enlightening regardless of your political stance. 
  • I suspect that Orthodox Jews, or anyone religiously conservative, might not enjoy reading a story about a woman who has moved towards a secular way of life.
  • There will be people who won't want to read this book given what is happening in Gaza.  As someone who is heartbroken every day I watch the news I completely understand that sentiment.  I resolved that struggle by reminding myself that my goal is to better understand why people see this conflict so differently.  But for people who cannot emotionally distance themselves from the horrific suffering that is occurring today then I would not recommend they read this book.  

I sought out a greater sense of understanding and the world connected me to someone who had the capacity to help me cross that bridge.  I am very grateful to Orit Arfa for giving me her book and to David Lange for connecting us.  I come away from this experience with greater understanding of a point of view and where there can be common ground.   If this book sounds appealing to you I recommend you check it out.

Orit Arfa is an author, journalist, painter, songwriter, political commentator, and media personality. A native of Los Angeles, Orit’s works are informed by the ethical dialectic that flows from her Jewish learning and tradition.