September Book Club: "The Lemon Tree" by Sandy Tolan

As the rockets continue to fly between Gaza and Israel and as the death toll mounts on both sides, we are once again reminded that we are living through one of the most intractable conflicts in human history, the Arab-Israeli conflict. This month, we will take a look at this conflict from a different perspective, that of two good lifetime friends, one Arab and one Israeli.  Their moving and sometimes painful story is told in The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan.

In 1967, Bashir Al-Khayri, a Palestinian twenty-five-year-old, journeyed to Israel, with the goal of seeing the beloved old stone house, with the lemon tree behind it, that he and his family had fled nineteen years earlier. To his surprise, when he found the house he was greeted by Dalia Ashkenazi Landau, a nineteen-year-old Israeli college student, whose family fled Europe for Israel following the Holocaust. On the stoop of their shared home, Dalia and Bashir began a rare friendship, forged in the aftermath of war and tested over the next thirty-five years in ways that neither could imagine on that summer day in 1967. Based on extensive research, and springing from his enormously resonant documentary that aired on NPR's Fresh Air  in 1998, Sandy Tolan brings the Israeli-Palestinian conflict down to its most human level, suggesting that even amid the bleakest political realities there exist stories of hope and reconciliation.

Booklist Review of The Lemon Tree

To see in human scale the tragic collision of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, Tolan focuses on one small stone house in Ramla--once an Arab community but now Jewish. Built in 1936 by an Arab family but acquired by a Jewish family after the Israelis captured the city in 1948, this simple stone house has anchored for decades the hopes of both its displaced former owners and its new Jewish occupants. With remarkable sensitivity to both families' grievances, Tolan chronicles the unlikely chain of events that in 1967 brought a long-dispossessed Palestinian son to the threshold of his former home, where he unexpectedly finds himself being welcomed by the daughter of Bulgarian Jewish immigrants. Though that visit exposes bitterly opposed interpretations of the past, it opens a real--albeit painful--dialogue about possibilities for the future. As he establishes the context for that dialogue, Tolan frankly details the interethnic hostilities that have scarred both families. Yet he also allows readers to see the courage of families sincerely trying to understand their enemy. Only such courage has made possible the surprising conversion of the contested stone house into a kindergarten for Arab children and a center for Jewish-Arab coexistence. What has been achieved in one small stone building remains fragile in a land where peacemaking looks increasingly futile. But Tolan opens the prospect of a new beginning in a concluding account of how Jewish and Arab children have together planted seeds salvaged from one desiccated lemon tree planted long ago behind one stone house. A much-needed antidote to the cynicism of realpolitik. 

About Sandy Tolan

Sandy Tolan is a teacher and radio documentary  producer. He is the author of two books: Me and Hank: A Boy and His Hero, Twenty-Five Years Later   (Free Press, 2000), about the intersection between race, sports, and American heroes; and The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (Bloomsbury, 2006). The Washington Post called the book “extraordinary” and selected it among their top nonfiction titles for 2006; the Christian Science Monitor wrote, “no novel could be more compelling” and proclaimed, “It will be one of the best nonfiction books you will read this year.” Sandy has reported from more than 30 countries, especially in the Middle East, Latin America, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe.

As co-founder of Homelands Productions, he has produced hundreds of documentaries and features for public radio. He has written for more than 40 newspapers and magazines. Sandy is associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC.  From[masked], he taught international reporting and radio at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley.   In 2007, his students won the George Polk Award for a series for print and radio on the early signs of climate change around the world. It was the first time students have been honored in the 58-year history of the awards.

About Mama's Bakery

This is an excellent Lebanese restaurant that serves fresh, delicious and inexpensive Arab and Mediterranean food.  Here are the web page and the Yelp page for this restaurant:

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  • Elaine B.

    Very nice to meet you all and discuss this book.

    September 21

  • Karen E.

    Great book. Outstanding people. What more could a girl want???

    September 21

  • Karen E.

    Great book. Outstanding people. What more could a girl want???

    September 21

  • Wilfredo P.

    Excellent book, excellent discussion and excellent restaurant! Thanks for suggesting Mama's Bakery, Holly.

    September 21

  • Wilfredo P.

    This is a powerful and moving book that puts a human face on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Please note that we are meeting at 10:30 a.m. this time, a half hour later than usual.

    August 9

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