Lis Harris Bridges Troubled Waters in Her New Book About Jerusalem
BY Rochelle Goldstein, October 9, 2019
In a work that was 10 years in the making, Professor of Professional Practice and future Writing Chair Lis Harris’ exhaustive and sensitive reporting in her new book In Jerusalem: Three Generations of an Israeli Family and a Palestinian Family manages to humanize a deeply polarizing and volatile conflict.
Most of us in the West see this issue through a welter of images, a montage of war, suicide bombers, rage and panic, but Harris has given us something rare and extraordinarily valuable: she has turned these heart-rending images into a much-needed ground level view of daily experience.
Embedded with both an Israeli and Palestinian family Harris tells the story across generations, as well as through a cross-section of people she met during her extensive travels throughout Israel. Gaining the confidence of her subjects, she was allowed to become a sympathetic eavesdropper in their lives.
Both families have suffered dislocation: the Israeli witness, Ruth HaCohen, a musicologist, and the members of her family end up in Israel because their grandfather, once the chief rabbi of Munich, was forced to flee the Nazis; Niven Abulleil, a Palestinian speech therapist and her family lost much of their land in the outskirts of Jerusalem after the Six-Day War.
Detailing the psychic and physical costs along the fault lines of this bitter ongoing struggle will prove eye opening for readers “interested in seeing beyond the stereotypes,” commented a reviewer for the Library Journal.
“The power of the stories that Harris tells of the two families is they do succeed in speaking to the larger upheavals taking place around them,” noted a leading Israeli publication Haaretz.
According to Publishers Weekly, Harris “ably navigates between harsh criticism of the way Israel has treated the Palestinians,” and “knee-jerk support.”
“[W]hat is special about Ms. Harris is her combination of openness and skepticism toward her subject,” Christopher Lehman-Haupt opined in The New York Times in a review of her first book, Holy Days, which is still true of her now.
Harris has brought to her latest project decades of experience as a staff writer for the New Yorker, and authorship of three previous nonfiction works: Rules of Engagement—Four Couples and American Marriage; Holy Days: The World of the Hasidic Family; and Tilting at Windmills. She twice won the Woodrow Wilson Lila Acheson Wallace Fellowship, as well as numerous grants. She has taught at Columbia’s MFA program since 2003.