When Dvora Waysman, born Dorothy Opas in Melbourne, Australia, came to live in Israel with her husband and four children in 1971, she had no idea that the window to a new world was being thrown wide open to her. “Life in Australia was ordinary. In Israel, every day I found enormous stories that I had to write,” she says from her apartment in Jerusalem. The walls are decorated with family portraits, several book release announcements, and a poster of the film “The Golden Pomegranate” based on her novel The Pomegranate Pendant. “I write about 2,000 words a day,” says 83-year-old Dvora, “but family comes first.” With her children, eighteen grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren living in Israel and dropping in regularly for a bowl of her soup, I’m surprised she fills her quota…until she shares her secret: “I don’t feel old inside.”
The Shabazi Prize
Dvora Waysman is no stranger to literary awards: in 1972, she received the For Jerusalem citation from the late Mayor Teddy Kollek for her fiction, poems and features about Jerusalem and, in 1981, she received the Seef Award from the Society for Justice, Ethics and Morals for Best Foreign Correspondent. Yet, this past November 12th, when she walked into the packed auditorium in Petach Tikva to receive the Shabazi Prize, granted by the Committee for the Heritage of the Jews of Yemen, in recognition of her historical novel The Pomegranate Pendant, she admits, “I nearly passed out when I saw the crowd of 800 people – I told my husband that I was going home.” This combination of humor, humility and plain good writing is what has made her a popular author of thirteen books to date.
The First Words
Dvora began her writing career at the tender age of seven when her mother submitted her work to a local newspaper. “It was a dreadful poem, but it rhymed,” says Dvora with a laugh. She was born in 1931, the worst year of the Depression, but when she won a certificate for her poem and cashed it in for two shillings and six pence, she was convinced that the road to riches lay in writing.
At nineteen, after skimping on bus fare and taking sandwiches to work for lunch, Dvora had saved enough to pay for half her fare to England; her father paid for the second half. After a six-week voyage, including a stopover in Aden, where she saw a street filled with cages of women for sale, Dvora arrived in London, where she stayed for the next three years.
She returned to Australia in 1955 and soon after married her “very-Orthodox” husband. “I had to learn to keep what I hadn’t known existed,” she says. Dvora grew up in Australia before its formal Jewish community was established by European immigrants, so she had very little Jewish education. However, thanks to the family traditions her parents kept, she had always retained her Jewish identity. As the only Jewish child in a school of 250 pupils, it remained a hidden identity…until the day she won the first prize in a competition: it was a New Testament. “I hurled it off the pier and promised God that if it wasn’t washed up and my parents didn’t find it with my name inscribed in it, I’d no longer hide my Jewishness,” she recalls. “That was probably the beginning of my journey back home.”
While Dvora was always writing, her early work didn’t have a Jewish flavor. This changed after July 4, 1975, when she survived a terrorist attack in Zion Square, downtown Jerusalem, where a Palestinian terrorist set off a booby-trapped refrigerator containing five kilograms of explosives. “I wasn’t injured because when I came out of the bank, I stood in the protected entrance to watch a little girl in a red suit skipping down the road holding on to both her parents’ hands. Suddenly, the three of them were lying at my feet, dead,” Dvora recalls. Fifteen people were killed and 77 wounded. “The next day, I went to the Kotel. Although I had been traumatized and would need months of therapy to process the horror, I had been spared, when so many hadn’t. I thought that it was perhaps in the merit of one small talent: my writing ability. So, I decided that I wouldn’t waste it anymore. I’d write about Jewish matters, things that could impact another life. Something else changed too: Whereas until now, I had been doing things to please my husband, now I did them for me.”