Welcome 🦔!

Memories of my aunt Ronit Dovrat (2015)

· json · rss
Subscribe:

About

My aunt Ronit passed away when I was 21, and to be honest, I don't think she liked me too much. Not more than the simple, usual way we tend to love relatives. It seemed that Ronit was especially fond of my older sister who, since her youth, rebelled and carved her own path outside the conventional Israeli mainstream. My sister attended an arts high school, and her room echoed with the sounds of an electric guitar. I, on the other hand, seemed like just another one of the pack . And it seems that nothing disgusted Ronit more than the mainstream Israeli, masculine, “Tzabar” culture.



Ronit, besides being my aunt in flesh and blood, was also a symbol for me. Every time she visited Israel, she brought with her a European air that, although slightly chilly, I sorely missed in the closed Israel where I grew up. She was a voice of uncompromising morality, calling you to wake up and take action. And it was precisely from the day she died, on December 15, 2011, after a short battle with cancer that had suddenly been discovered, that I began to trace her character. When Ronit died, I was still serving as a soldier. It was after a period of seven months stationed in Hebron, living then in the neighborhood of "Pisgat Ze'ev" outside the Green Line, where I served as a Nahal soldier. On the day I learned of her death, I was released home from the army.


I found my parents' house full of people who had come to mourn her death, bringing with them stories and anecdotes. The photo albums came out of the attic, and with them, the memories appeared. Ronit's character, who had just lived somewhere in Italy a few days ago, took on her full form - the more I heard, the more her character became legendary.


At the start of the second millennium, when I was ten, children in Israel used to apply "jojoba" gel to their hair and style it into spikes – and like everyone else, so did I. But like Ronit, I also inherited problematic hair, and after a short while, it turned into a sticky, peeling, disgusting black mass. "Maybe stop using that gel? It's really ugly," Ronit said to me as I walked with my parents and her family in Italy. Uncompromisingly, in her characteristic sharpness. I was a bit offended, of course, secretly. Today, it's hard not to see it humorously because I don't know what bothered her more – the desperate lack of aesthetics of my spikes or the fact that I behaved "like everyone else," that I was one of the herd. Either way, she was right – it was indeed a terribly ugly habit.


Among all the memories from that trip – memories of walled cities and fog-covered spires, glowing marble statues, and glittering cathedrals, one memory in particular strikes me. It was when we stayed at Ronit's house, then located in a small village in Tuscany. Upon arrival, we were warmly and lovingly welcomed. We sat in the dining area to drink coffee made in an authentic Italian macchinetta. Ronit opened the fridge -- and that moment is etched in my memory and will probably never fade. There I learned what bohemianism is. The fridge contained: a carton of milk, a few eggs, and some slices of prosciutto. And I, who was used to the overstuffed Israeli fridges I saw in Binyamina – fridges bursting at the seams, some with vegetables, some with various engineered foods, so stuffed that I often feared opening them lest they collapse – I was struck dumbfounded. The distance between the two worlds was vast. Immediately I connected all the dots: if you're an artist, you must make do with little, because it's not at all certain you'll have enough money to sustain yourself. And if art is as important as I was taught to believe, then the conclusion is that money is overrated and secondary. And thus Ronit taught me, without any particular intention, a first and essential lesson for life.


That year I started learning to play the piano. I had a strict teacher who shouted at me in a heavy accent, so I progressed quite quickly. However, I didn't practice enough and preferred to wear my “Beitar Binyamina” football suit and go play on the field with everyone. After a year, I quit the piano lessons I had so long awaited, but not before I had managed to learn a minuet by Mozart. When I was sixteen, Ronit came with her son Noam, who was my age, to spend the summer holiday in Israel with the family. They stayed at our house, and it's hard to say that it was a peaceful visit. It was the summer of 2006, a soldier was captured, and a few days later what is known colloquially as "Operation Summer Rains" began. The house was full of rough arguments, as no Israeli family could contain Ronit's anti-Zionist views. At least, that's what I thought, and as someone who sought to alleviate some of the tension, and perhaps mainly to catch the attention of the prominent guest – I sat down at the piano as if it were a routine act, and began to play the Mozart minuet I had learned many years earlier. I knew, the way to an artist's heart is through the classics. Ronit indeed paused for a moment, and whispered from between her lips: "Mozart? Nice, continue."


In the "Operation," 10 Israelis and 394 Palestinians were killed, presumably more, depending on who you ask. Over 1,000 Palestinians were injured. Since then, the captured soldier has been returned. Israeli young men continue to hold with force a conquered land that does not belong to them, but political debates have quieted down. These days, no one preaches at the gate. Even Friday dinners proceed orderly, lacking Ronit's challenging voice.


Two years later, I finished high school and was preparing to go on a service year and live in a commune of the youth movement I was a member of. I was a young man imbued with "social change," a sort of "Zionist-socialist," of the draining Mapainik type. Ronit made sure to send me a gift: a book by Oz Almog, "The Sabra: The Creation of the New Jew," which deals with the social and psychological critique of Zionism. It was a provocation, and like all provocations, it was annoying but useful. When I moved to the commune, I was in charge of organizing the library, and that book earned a place of honor on a shelf named "Know Thy Enemy." Alongside it were books by Jabotinsky and many others. Today, Jabotinsky actually has a place of honor on my poetry shelf, because his opinions, as dreadful as they were, do not change the fact that he was a wonderful poet. I threw away the book by Oz Almog, though. I was never interested in bitter academic drivel. But that does not change the fact that the provocation did its job. It sowed doubt in me, a doubt that further widened the crack that was already there. Over the years, I actually learned to appreciate the act that hurt me at the time. As it is said in Proverbs: "Reprove a wise man, and he will love thee."


***

I have been staying at Ronit's house in Italy for half a year now, and inevitably I think about her constantly. I have imaginary conversations with her, trying to trace her opinions on the fields of art, literature, and politics that I now miss so much. It seems we hardly agree on anything. Her library stands intact. A bit disorganized. An impressive library of at least five languages. It shows that our literary tastes were quite different. Yet, it seems that the common ground is broad. Slowly, among the books, I identify the classics that I admire. Even in the political sphere, it appears we didn't quite agree. But still, it seems that much more unites us than divides us, and our deep disdain for Israel could have bridged the gaps. Even in terms of painting, which was central to her life, our tastes were very different. In the large studio room, the worktable is still full of notes and lists, notebooks and pages filled with annotations in Hebrew and Italian. On the floor are spread many paintings of abstract figures drawn in light lines, most of them still unfinished. I came to Italy somewhat as a self-appointed pilgrim, with the goal of tracing Renaissance and Baroque art, but I gained added value and learned to appreciate contemporary art as well. On the wall lean canvases with paintings Ronit made, intended for the last exhibition she held in Israel, titled "Wall Carpets."



The last time I saw Ronit was on the evening of the opening of that exhibition. It was at the "Artists' House" in Tel Aviv. Alharizi Street was bustling that evening, providing a pleasant change of atmosphere. I dare say Ronit blossomed. Her black, voluminous curls bounced from person to person, she kissed and thanked all the visitors (a demanding task indeed for a painter), and her unique, bubbling laugh could be heard from every direction. Twenty-five years had passed since she had held a solo exhibition of her works in Israel, from which she had exiled herself willingly (perhaps even out of an inner necessity?), and for many years she had refused to exhibit her works. In 1984, when she was 29, she received a residency grant at the "Cité des Arts" in Paris. It was after she had completed her studies at the Midrasha School of Art at Beit Berl and was among the founders of the "Achad Ha'am 90" gallery in Tel Aviv, considered the first anti-establishment gallery in the city. She stayed in Paris until 1986, and then moved to live in Italy, where she resided until her death in December 2011.



That evening, I hardly had a chance to speak with Ronit. We exchanged a sentence or two, I congratulated her, and she dismissed me with a swift kiss, eager to attend to the throngs of people who visited the gallery. She certainly did not know about the upheavals of the heart that were taking place within me as I stood there in the gallery space, since it was a period of great change for me—changes in identity and ideology that she would have wished for, I am sure, and that I, for my part, still hoped to discuss with her.


***

During the last winter, which I spent at Ronit's house in Italy, I also met many of her acquaintances and friends. Each meeting revealed more stories and unveiled another small patch of her life. I was especially privileged to meet her friend Rita Scrimieri, who was also her curator. Rita gave me a transcript of a conversation she had with Ronit in Italian, about a series of paintings she had made called "Mental Boundaries." The paintings had caught my attention before. It's a relatively large series of abstract faces trapped within a space that encloses them. That conversation was held in preparation for a major solo exhibition that was displayed at the Ducal Palace in Massa in 2003. Here is a segment from that conversation, which I translated myself, and Ronit, forgive me if I erred in anything:


Rita Scrimieri: Did this period [during which you painted the "Mental Boundaries" series] come as a response to a creative urge related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Is there a difference between the earlier period and the later one?



Ronit Dovrat: No, because even when there was the Lebanon War in 1982, I organized an exhibition in Tel Aviv at the gallery I founded with two colleagues. It was a gallery of experimental art, where I felt the need to express myself in my own language, in the area between art and politics, and to make a mark. One must be very careful not to fall into the trap of the political manifesto, but at that moment I couldn't do anything else. And it wasn't an excuse, I was completely sunk in the sorrow of that war, in the fury of the desperate injustice, and that was my way of showing my feelings. At that time, you couldn't talk about the Palestinians and certainly couldn't hold a Palestinian flag. So I conducted an experiment: I worked on prisoners, each painted in the colors of the Palestinian flag. Just to tune your ear a bit to the atmosphere at the time, I want to tell you a story: Dudu Shvili exhibited in our gallery afterwards. In his paintings, he showed a dead cat. The war in Lebanon was at its height. I don't remember exactly whether it was during the Sabra and Shatila massacre (the night between September 16/17) or before. People wrote a letter against Dudu Shvili's exhibition, protesting against cruelty to animals, and accused him of using a dead cat. We were shocked, we couldn't believe it. We wrote in the response letter: 'You didn't write any protest letter against the Lebanon war where masses of people were killed, but you care very much about a painting of a dead cat' (...) It's necessary to start with what pushed me to paint the "Mental Boundaries" series. I painted this series during the Second Intifada: The element that connects this series to the period before it is the feeling that an entire population is locked out of life's realm, and I don't just mean physically. And I don't only feel this closure in relation to other people. Ever since and forever, I wake up every day with a heavy burden on my heart... I feel that by creating these "boundaries," I expressed those limitations that the Palestinians suffer from, they created boundaries in me too, they limited my life, my space. I can't wake up and be calm because I carry this burden. And as long as there is this closure on others, there is this closure on me. And it's not just a physical closure. It's a closure that oppresses you, it destroys your life. These are the things I played with when I created "Mental Boundaries." If you notice, the faces are not in proportion, because they are very large, exaggerated, and the body has no meaning, it's abstract and drawn as children draw it."


Ronit paid the price of exile. Her voice, as well as her artistic work, did not receive the attention it deserved in Israel. I hope that changes. Personally, I can only testify that she helped me—almost inadvertently, just by being— to shed the things that should be shed. I left the blue shirt and the army uniforms behind. And if exile seems to me today as a necessary escape, when I think of Ronit, this assumption actually becomes unstable. If only I had a bit of her willpower, if only I knew what to do.



(Written in Hebrew in 2015. Translated to English using GPT4 in 2024.)