Canadian writer Bronwyn Drainie, the wife of a newspaper reporter assigned to the Middle East, returned from Israel earlier this year (1994) after living in Jerusalem for two years, and promptly wrote a book capturing her unique perceptions as a self-styled “outsider” to both Jewish and Israeli society.
My Jerusalem: Secular Adventures in the Holy City “is a domestic view of the Middle East, not one of those interminable books that try to analyse the situation,” said Drainie recently in Toronto. “It tries to be a woman’s book that tells what it looks like and feels like and smells like to be in such a place. It’s meant to be a sort of tactile book.”
The eldest daughter of the celebrated Canadian actor John Drainie, about whom she wrote a book-length biography some years ago, Drainie writes a weekly column on Canadian culture for the Globe and Mail. Many bookstores in Toronto are displaying her book prominently, some even alongside copies of the other recent book about Israel by a Canadian author — This Year in Jerusalem, by Mordecai Richler.
Jerusalem, to Drainie, “is such a mind-opening, mind-expanding place, because it’s so related to our origins. It’s where our civilization began. The whole concept of monotheism, believing in one God, arose out of Judaism. It’s the dominant cultural theme of our civilization, and when you go there the importance of Jerusalem hits you in the stomach.”
She and her husband (the Globe and Mail’s Patrick Martin) and two pre-teenaged sons lived in Yemin Moshe, an historic neighborhood in the new city that dates from the 1850s. They lived near the Green Line, the former political divide that still delineates Jewish and Arab sections. According to Drainie, it’s a beautiful but somewhat dangerous part of town, with cars being torched and similar incidents occurring several times weekly.
“The real problem of Jerusalem is that both sides (Arabs and Jews) see each other through a distorted mirror of fear,” she said. “They see each other in terms of stereotypes. But if you’re an outsider, you’re removed from that.”
Readers who dip into her book will find that she is expert at gleaning much social information from casual encounters at the Supersol (a local supermarket) and from seemingly routine procedures like attempting to get a business card published. As well, she brings an unswervingly contemporary sensibility to experiences such as confronting the Western Wall, becoming annoyed when orthodox Jewish women seem to look at her disapprovingly for wearing slacks, a seemingly innocent item of traditional male apparel.
According to Drainie, being a secular Canadian is one of the strengths that allowed her to avoid the prejudices common to Israelis and write an objective report of her experiences. Near the end of her interview, however, she surprises this reporter by divulging that she is, in fact, “half-Jewish.”
Her mother — the former Claire Wodlinger, now married to retired film mogul Nat Taylor — is Jewish. By Judaic tradition that would make Bronwyn fully Jewish, but she and her five siblings were apparently raised with no reference to their Jewish heritage. Her book dispenses with her Jewishness as a curious and largely irrelevent detail.
Coincidentally, Drainie met Mordecai Richler while in Israel, and each author is mentioned in the other’s book. “He had been sent out there by the New Yorker to do an article,” she related. “He was staying in quarters not far from us in Yemin Moshe. In the end he didn’t write the article, but it bloomed into a full-length book.”
Drainie said that Richler occasionally accompanied her and her husband, Globe and Mail correspondent Patrick Martin, on outings around Jerusalem. “One day, we took him to watch the Franciscan monks, who were carrying a replica of the cross down the Via Delarosa. We followed the monks for about four stations before we got bored. Mordecai said, ‘Where can we go to get a drink around here?’ So we did that instead.”
Like Richler, but in her own way, Drainie is well-connected to the country’s cultural community. Her book launch party, held recently in a large house in midtown Toronto, drew some of the biggest names in Canadian culture, as well as members of the Jewish community.
Among those present were Irving Abella, president of the Canadian Jewish]; Erna Paris, author of The Garden and the Gun, an earlier book about Israel; Paul Michaels of the Canada-Israel Committee; Allan Gottlieb, former Canadian ambassador to Washington and former chairman of the Canada Council; Katherine Ashenburg, features editor of the Globe and Mail; Richard and Sandra Gwyn, political columnist and writer, respectively; Stephen Clarkson and Christine McCall, whose second joint volume on Pierre Trudeau is due for publication soon; and Peter Herrndoff and his wife Eva Czigler, TVO chairman and producer of CBC-TV’s Midday, respectively. ♦