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Shocks to the System - Book Review

From Bomboloni to Bagel: A Story of Two Worlds

By Jacqueline Semha Gmach with Hillary Selese Liber

Gefen Publishing House. 2014.

ISBN: 978-965-229-641-2

Reviewed by Lucille Cohen 

A cartoon-like cover, simple sentences and short chapters belie the true nature of this collaborative memoir of personal growth.

Within its covers, the reader discovers the disarmingly frank and highly personal tale of a girl who, raised within the confines of a traditional, extended, Sephardi family in Tunis, comes to find herself, later in life, immersed in the very different, freer but emptier world of West Coast America's La Jolla, San Diego. The protagonist's change of locations and cultural norms provides the backdrop to the life and characters peopling Jackie's world, but this change also mirrors her inner journey.

Like a cinematic film throwing in a dollop of enriching background scenery, we are taken on a trip via Paris and Montreal, through a multitude of both happy times and vicissitudes. This journey is well reflected in the transition from the land of the title's rich Tunisian delicacy, the Bomboloni, to the bland, what-you-see- is- what-you-get world of the American Bagel. Unfortunately, the over-use of these shorthand reference points tends to render them stale towards the end of the book.

I chose to dive in at page 81, where Jacqueline Semha Gemach meets her future husband in the clichéd, but nevertheless delightful, "love at first sight" moment. When the book was finished, I returned, as in a flashback, to her early life in Tunis because I sensed that this approach might provide the most satisfying read. It proved the best choice for me. The revelations of her childhood years provided the necessary insight into her inner world like an onion being peeled of its outer skins, and added a sense of anticipation.

As the fashioner of this biographical memoir, Hillary Selese Liber has fleshed out the memories confided to her by Jackie over an intense three-year period into a series of short vignettes. They are crafted such that each can be read as a short story. Throughout, however, it is the psychological element that proves the most dramatically powerful aspect and unifying thread of the narrative.

Jackie's experience of her removal from the close-knit, cocooned world of Tunis that evokes her feelings of alienation, isolation and displacement, is both personal and universal, echoing that of so many immigrants to Israel and indeed that of many of those who move country and exchange cultures, whether willingly or owing to circumstances beyond their control.

In Jackie's case, the continual shocks to her system send her in a downward spiral from which she struggles to escape. This descent is compounded by the independence of her daughters and geographical distance from them. Indeed, their distance from her only seems to mirror what must have occurred to her own mother when Jackie left her parents' home to study in Paris.

Turning to another of the book's themes, Jackie takes up at an early stage her difficulties with school and studying. Despite her educational challenges in early life, she is inspired to struggle to overcome them and succeeds - and in no small measure.

Her saving mantra is "Si tu veux tu peux - if you wish it you can!" This exhortation, she knowingly admits, echoes Herzl's famous Zionist encouragement: Im tirzu eyn zu agadah - if you will it, it is no dream.

Empowered by her innate drive and relying on an inner strength, Jackie wins through a reactive depression to become a dazzlingly leading light in the La Jolla community. Ultimately then, the message conveyed by her engrossing account is uplifting and inspirational. 



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