“The Last Jewish Woman of Cyprus” by Ruhama Weiss
In her new book, The Last Jewish Woman of Cyprus, Professor Ruhama Weiss combines plots from two different times: the historical fiction story of a Cypriot Jewish woman nearly two thousand years ago whose life is in danger due to religious fanaticism and political destruction and an autobiographic account of her own difficult childhood during which she was the victim of abuse.
Weiss, who is the director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Care & Counseling and is an Associate Professor of Talmud and Spiritual Care on HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus, wrote this book in an effort to confront a serious personal conflict.
The book begins with Weiss recounting a vacation with her adolescent daughter to a rural village in Northern Cyprus:
“On one occasion when the girl lost her patience with the slow pace of life and limited activities available in the village, she angrily exclaimed: ‘Oof, I’m bored, there aren’t even any books to read here!’ I immediately responded: Then why don’t you write the book you want to read and then read it?” My response surprised me but didn’t surprise her. She immediately took papers and colored pencils and sat down to write. It didn’t occur to me that my response was a kind of prophecy that would be mainly pointed at myself. That here of all places, in a remote village in a far corner of Cyprus, I was on the precipice of a book soon to be written – this book.
Since I can’t drive, our only way to travel outside the small village was by taxi. The hostess called a taxi driver at a nearby village and planned a day trip that included visiting the shops and cafes in the tourist town of Famagusta and viewing from afar the ghost town of Varosha–a strip of land which, before the war, was studded with luxury hotels and shops lining Famagosta’s golden beach. Our day trip ended with a self tour of Salamis, a sprawling archaeological site which remains partially-excavated since archeological excavations at the site were discontinued in the aftermath of the 1974 war. There, in Salamis, between the amphitheater and the bathhouses, it happened – Shalom, the protagonist of my book, came into being.”
“Completing this book and telling this story was important to me because it was my way to resist and act against the silent acceptance of violence in all its social spaces: mainly wars and sexual abuse within families. Publishing this book was my way to protest against violence and to act according to the verse from Tehillim (118′ 17): ‘I shall not die but live and proclaim.’ This is my way to tell my own story and the story of so many others.”
In her journey of self-discovery and healing, she reflects on Jewish history from a female point of view. Her path led her from second century CE Cyprus — a time when Jews and Greeks were fighting each other — to contemporary Cyprus, to France, to convents in the mountains of Jerusalem, and finally to her own troubled childhood, which “sometimes resembled another continent, far away, lying across an ocean of pain.”
Of this remarkable text, critic Ofra Offer Oren writes: “The combination that Weiss makes between the illuminated writing and the writing of the shocking historical story is wonderful. It touches the roots of the pain, and does a good job of describing the details of the home-made horror: the anticipation of the physical attack, which is the most excruciating part, almost more than the attack itself, the whimsical tearing away from the childish world that seeks for itself islands of peace and the sudden transition into the violence that is never understood and expected… There are passages that I read and I wanted to hug Ruhama Weiss and tell her: all of us, all those girls, are sisters by choice, even if not by choice. And when we talk, we each tell not only about herself, but also about her sisters. And to add just one more word: Thank you!” (translated from Hebrew)
In Haaretz Ronen Tal writes: “Incest, rape, the IDF – Ruhama Weiss’s book is a courageous challenge against human violence…. It is a revealing and haunting book, a combination of a memoir that describes sexual abuse by a father and a mother’s silence in front of him, and a historical novella about an event that was pushed out of the official history of the Jewish people – the Diaspora revolt in Cyprus in the second century AD which ended in the bloodshed of thousands of dead. The link between the personal and historical trauma is the moment when Weiss’s son was recruited into the IDF.”
The Last Jewish Woman of Cyprus was published by Petel Publishing.
Read a review in Haaretz (Hebrew).
Read a review in Maariv (Hebrew).
Read Critic Ofra Offer Oren (Hebrew).