Finding Deeper Truths in Fiction — the Best About Israel


In recent weeks, many of us “Diaspora Jews” kept ourselves neck-deep in news from the Middle East: jumping out of bed to check the front page, keeping the television on all night, refreshing Web sites for the latest headlines. Of course, our routine paled in comparison to many Israelis, who were dashing into bomb shelters, being forced from their homes, arranging funerals. Still, it was a change, part of our anxiety-propelled, bottomless need for information.

But information does not necessarily breed understanding. This is especially true for us who are here and not there, and the distance is a complicating factor. Even those who have planted themselves firmly on one side or another of the political spectrum have been struck by new, different, often uncomfortable thoughts. (“How can I accept the killing of innocent Lebanese civilians, even by Israel?” one asks, while another wonders whether he should up the ante of his support by joining the Israeli army.) Behind these questions is the desire to get a better hold on the exact contours of one’s individual relationship to the State of Israel — not necessarily by figuring out one’s politics as much as by plumbing one’s emotional connection.

The answers to these questions cannot be found on CNN (thankfully). For this, we might be more successfully aided by fiction. One should read Israeli writers, of course — Agnon, Amichai, A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew’s relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.

One of the best of these books is “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth’s 1986 masterpiece. Less a linear tale than five riffs revolving around the same set of characters, the book acts as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope on Jewish identity; with each slight shift of perspective, a whole new picture emerges (think “Sliding Doors,” but smarter). The structure is designed to put the author’s famed alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, face to face with characters who challenge his identity as a Jew — vis-?-vis signature Roth topics (sex, family, psychoanalysis, sex, assimilation, sex) as well as broader ones: the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and, most evocatively here, Israel. Nathan’s good, moderate, American values are challenged — from his resistance to religious ritual and distaste for the political right (“We do not wish to crush the Arab,” a settler leader explains, “we simply will not allow him to crush us”), to his subtle romanticization of Israeli life.

“Whenever I meet you American-Jewish intellectuals,” says his friend Shuki, a wearied Israeli journalist, “with your non-Jewish wives and your good Jewish brains, well-bred, smooth, soft-spoken men, educated men who know how to order in a good restaurant, and to appreciate a good wine, and to listen courteously to another point of view, I think exactly that: We are the excitable, ghettoized, jittery little Jews of the Diaspora, and you are the Jews with all the confidence and cultivation that comes of feeling at home where you are.”
The book is not exclusively about Israel, but those were the sections that moved me. And they are what I’ve found myself rereading over the past weeks.

“The Counterlife” is only one of many, many books about Israel by Americans — from “Yehuda” (1931) by Meyer Levin to “Exodus” (1958) by Leon Uris to “Light Years” (2005) by Tamar Stein (see sidebar). Perhaps it is this kind of reading that can begin to provoke understanding of the conflict a continent away. l

To push fiction as a complement to the newspaper, the television and the Internet in our quest for information and understanding about Israel, we asked readers to help us create a list of the best novels and short stories about Israel written by Diaspora authors:

  • “Yehuda” by Meyer Levin: Based on the author’s own experiences, this book is the first known novel depicting life set on a kibbutz in then-Palestine of 1931 (1931).
  • “Exodus” by Leon Uris: A detailed account of the transition from the ill-treatment of Jews in Europe to the founding of Israel sets up a fictional background for political arguments on issues of the 19th and 20th centuries (1958).
  • “A Weave of Women” by E.M. Broner: A group of very different women band together to save a shelter for wayward Jewish girls (and learn a lesson or two in politics, when they change its official name to “Home for Jewish Future Homemakers”). “Life’s contradictions live throughout this novel,” wrote one reviewer (1978).
  • “Preparing for Sabbath” by Nessa Rapoport: A young woman’s spiritual quest, set in Jerusalem (1981).
  • “The Hope” by Herman Wouk: An epic novel about Israel’s fight for statehood. The author delves into the personal lives of the dramatis personae, including Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Anwar Sadat (1993).
  • “Operation Shylock: A Confession” by Philip Roth: An impostor, calling himself “Philip Roth,” causes a furor in Israel by advocating “Diasporism,” the polar opposite of Zionism, encouraging Israelis to return to Eastern Europe (1993).
  • “The Jewish War” by Tova Reich: A radically religious, polygamous man, Jerry Goldberg transforms from a mere social worker in the Bronx to a terrorist leader of a group of American Jews in Israel who secede a portion of the West Bank to form their own nation in this satire (1995).
  • “From a Sealed Room” by Rachel Kadish: The lives of a young woman from New York, a Holocaust survivor and an Israeli housewife intersect (1998).
  • “Damascus Gate” by Robert Stone: A journalist in Jerusalem, reared both Jewish and Christian, feels devoid of a true sense of identity, despite the fact that he is surrounded by some of the most devoutly religious peoples in the world. “The characters in ‘Damascus Gate’ may be ‘God-struck,'” wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, “they may dream insistently of a better world, but like so many Stone characters, they end up captives of history and their own very human illusions” (1998).
  • “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges” by Nathan Englander: “A debut collection of nine stories that explore the condition of being Jewish with an often hallucinatory, epigrammatic eloquence that is, as advertised, reminiscent of the fiction of Isaac Singer, Saul Bellow, and especially Bernard Malamud,” noted Kirkus (1999).
  • “The Family Orchard” by Eve Nomi: Spanning six generations, this epic follows the lives of one family grounded in Jerusalem (2000).
  • “House of Guilt” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen goes on a hunt to find a tycoon’s wayward son, with his search leading him right into the heart of the West Bank (2000).
  • “Strange Fire” by Melvin Bukiet: A dark comedy about a speechwriter for the Israeli prime minister (2001).
  • “Crimes of the City” by Robert Rosenberg: Police detective Avram Cohen must track down the killer of two nuns in Jerusalem while contending with a host of religious and political tensions (2001).
  • “The Ascent of Eli Israel” by Jon Papernick: In seven modern-day stories, the scene is established in Israel, and the plots are mostly driven to underscore hypocrisy, touching on cultural tensions and war (2002).
  • “Quiet Street” by Zelda Popkin and Jeremy A. Popkin: A woman living in the suburbs of Jerusalem must come to terms with reality as she watches her 18-year-old daughter take on the role of soldier instead of farmer (2002).
  • “Seven Blessings” by Ruchama King: Set in an Orthodox community in Jerusalem. King has been described by writer Wendy Shalit as “a writer who writes about a devout lifestyle that she actually lives” (2003).
  • “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy” by Aryeh Lev Stollman: “An expert weaver, Stollman brings together themes of religion, science, and love into an emotional whole,” noted Kirkus (2003).
  • “Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller: A cohort of Jews from the United States ventures to the West Bank to build a new community, but their settlement becomes a primary target of violence (2003).
  • “The Butcher’s Theater” by Jonathan Kellerman: A chief inspector of police who is also a Yemenite Jew begins work on a case involving the death of an Arab woman. After a second killing occurs, the inspector bears witness as Jewish-Arab conflicts ensue (2003).
  • “Ten Thousand Lovers” by Edeet Ravel: A novel, set in the 1970s, about the relationship between a Canadian √©migr√© and an army interrogator. “The tragedy here is both anticipated and inevitable,” said Booklist, “but the textured personal story rises above its political context like a melody soaring beyond the steady rhythm pulsing below it” (2003).
  • “An Hour in Paradise” by Joan Leegant: This collection of 10 short stories covers a breadth of characters — from the secular to Orthodox, young to old — through whom Leegant poses questions about faith, love and change (2003).
  • “The Place Will Comfort You” by Naama Goldstein: In this collection of short stories, American Jews make aliyah and Israelis immigrate to America (2004).
  • “Faith for Beginners” by Aaron Hamburger: An American Jewish family teeters on the edge of collapse. In a last resort, they travel to Israel on a package tour with a mission to reinvigorate their spirituality (2005).
  • “The Task of This Translator” by Todd Hasak-Lowy: According to Publisher’s Weekly, “Hasak-Lowy artfully reveals layers of personal and national identity,” including one story about an Israeli ex-journalist working in the cafe at Yad Vashem who clashes with an American businessman over a stale pastry (2005).
  • “The Covenant” by Naomi Ragen: Set in 2002, a pregnant Israeli woman, her husband and their child are abducted by Hamas (2004).
  • “Light Years” by Tammar Stein: A 20-year-old woman leaves Israel for college in the United States after her boyfriend is killed by a suicide bomber in a Tel Aviv restaurant (2005).

— Compiled by Elisha Sauers

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward

Beware of Formerly Observant Writers


“Beware of God” by Shalom Auslander (Simon & Schuster, $19.95)

God is a chicken.

God is a stalker.

God is a tougher advertising client than Proctor & Gamble.

God is just the bureaucrat of the “production nightmare” that is all of creation. And God just hates all the “micromanaging bull—-.”

In Shalom Auslander’s recent collection of short stories, “Beware of God,” God appears as many, many things, except for the Almighty, All-Knowing, Omniscient powerful Being He has traditionally been for the last however many-thousand years (depending on which religion you ask).

Like other novelists who have been raised in the Modern Orthodox world — Nathan Englander, most recently — Auslander takes his yeshiva upbringing, his knowledge of Jewish history and familiarity with the back and forth dialectic of Talmudic argument and turns it all on its head.

It’s all a big joke to you, Auslander,” one can picture his rebbes telling him in high school.

And it is a big joke, for the most part. Like some of Woody Allen’s shorts, Auslander manages to take what he knows, combine it with what the world knows, and turn it into an absurdist commentary on Orthodoxy — and on piety itself.

In “The Metamorphosis,” the character Motty awakes one morning “to find himself transformed into a very large goy.” Instead of bug eyes and wings, as in Kafka’s original tale of species transformation, this protagonist has to deal suddenly with a hairy chest and muscled biceps. And he’s “overcome with desire to build something with hammers and wood.”

That’s the danger of a Modern Orthodox education — one that’s equally strident in Judaic and English studies. In a modern religious life, which reaches for footing in both the secular and religious worlds, sometimes the balance and the tension cannot hold. (Which might explain why the Modern Orthodox world has moved further to the right since Auslander went to school in the ’70s and ’80s.) Auslander, like Englander, is a rabbi’s worst nightmare: Like the Wicked Son of Passover, he has all the knowledge and not much of the belief.

In “Prophet’s Dilemma,” God is just like a stalker. He tells Schwartzman to build an ark. But Schwartzman has already built a temple in his backyard, (with the help of the Home Depot man), has slaughtered a goat, has alienated his neighbors and his wife (“She made it very clear she didn’t want God around when the baby arrived”), so by the time the ark request intrudes — while he’s watching Jay Leno on TV — Schwartzman decides to get rid of God.

Schwartzman’s psychiatrist, who specialized in stalkers, advises his patient to ignore this voyeuristic, sadistic lonely member of society.

“Every time you respond, you’re positively reinforcing his behavior,” Dr. Herschberg tells Schwartzman, adding that the stalker will find a new person to bother after he doesn’t get what he wants.

It proves to be questionable advice for dealing with God — who, after all, has countermeasures in his arsenal. Like Job, Schwartzman and his wife lose everything — but unlike the distraught prophet, the couple “had never been happier.” Finally, this mean, vindictive, sulking God leaves the nonreligious couple alone and finds someone else to bother. The story ends on this one word: “Schmuck.”

No, these are not tales for the true believers. Nor are these stories for those who cannot laugh at themselves. Although how can you not laugh at Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League calling an emergency meeting of the Jewish Defense League to disprove “The Book of Stan” — tablets that claimed the Old Testament was fictional? (“If there were no real tribe, then there were no real Jews, and if there were no real Jews there could be no real anti-Semitism, and if there were no anti-Semitism, then Abe and his staff were s— out of a job.”)

The 14 short stories in this thin book are, for the most part, irreverent, cynical apostasy that is not particularly high on character development but heavy on humor and spoof. The exception is the comic-tragic, storyless story, “Holocaust Tips for Kids,” which would be handy when Holocaust educators want to scare the hell out of middle-schoolers.

The humor has a deeper point, of course. God may not be dead, but He’s sure “tired of the whole damn business.”

In one of the strongest stories, “Somebody Up There Likes You,” God is distraught — cursing and smoking cigarettes, actually — over His inability to kill Bloom. It proves true, in fact, that it’s hard to kill someone who drives a Volvo. He, the devil and Lucifer go down to Manhattan to find Bloom “but even for archangels, crosstown traffic on a Friday afternoon was treacherously slow going.” It unfolds that Bloom has outfoxed them once again and has gone — where else? To a synagogue to repent: “He was where they all went when they wanted to make His job more difficult than it had to be.”

Like other pious characters in Auslander’s world, it’s only when Bloom finishes his repentance, prayer and charity to remove the evil of the decree” that God, Lucifer and the devil finally manage to run him down in the middle of the street.

In “Beware of God,” prayer, repentance and following God’s will are all for suckers, because, as it says in “God Is a Big Happy Chicken,” well, God is a big, happy chicken. You get the feeling that Auslander is very much like the main character of that story, Yankel Morgenstern, who goes back to Earth to tell his nine children and pious wife of his awful discovery. In the end, “He couldn’t do it.” Morgenstern can’t bring himself to ruin his family’s belief in “the Merciful God, the God of our Forefathers.”

Auslander also doesn’t seem like he’s renounced his faith — despite his various portrayals of God as wacko, demanding, tired, moody and malevolent. Yet no matter how many jokes he cracks about God and his followers, Auslander is, in the end, much like a latter-day Nietzsche, albeit with a smirk, proclaiming: “God Is Dead. Long Live God!”

The Once and Future Yiddish Language


 

“Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish” by Dovid Katz (Basic Books, $26.95).

Given the sentimentality of much recent writing on the subject, American Jews might be forgiven for believing that no one with a critical eye, or without sepia-colored glasses, could possibly write an entire book about Yiddish — much less a detailed overview from its very beginnings to its future.

Into this breach springs Dovid Katz, a professor and linguist at Vilnius University, peripatetic interviewer of the last shtetl Jews, Yiddish novelist and short-story writer, with his book, “Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish.” The history of Yiddish spans nearly 1,000 years, from what Katz calls its “big bang” — in which the embryonic language emerged from contact between Jews and non-Jews — to the present day. In between are huge tracts of history, politics, literature, religion, sociology and linguistics, not to mention lesser matters that might seem trivial to the non-Yiddish speaker but fire many an impassioned debate: etymology, spelling, word choice and Chasidic literary esthetics.

The author’s massive erudition, clear, witty prose and unhesitating self-confidence make him more than a match for this enormous task, and — just as worthy of admiration — he, or perhaps his editors, managed to shoehorn the whole thing into fewer than 400 pages. If not a beach read, at least something that can be comfortably hefted with one hand.

Katz is an exploder of myths, doing so in cogent fashion from the very first page. “This book,” he writes in his introduction, “presents an unabashedly alternative model of Jewish cultural history… with no malice toward the winners of the public relations battleground. Israel, Israeli Hebrew and the modern American Jewish establishment … are all, thank heaven, secure and mature enough to withstand efforts to add to the mainstream canon some other parts of the Jewish heritage.”

He is not anti-Hebrew, anti-Israel or anti-mainstream. (These charges are frequently leveled at those who wish to inform or to convince American Jews of the importance of Yiddish. In a column some years ago in The Wall Street Journal, a writer based his hostility toward the rising popularity of Yiddish studies on the fact that the language finds supporters among — horrors! — homosexuals.) Rather, he presents Yiddish, together with other smaller languages, as a symphonic alternative to the monotone of English-only globalization.

Katz calls his high-energy historical tour “the dramatic life story of an embattled, controversial language and people.”

Here’s a good test of whether a book is worth reading: How many times do you turn to the person next to you and say, “Wow! Did you know that…?” There are many such moments in “Words on Fire.” We’re acquainted with, for example, the Jewish brothers who founded Yiddish publishing, later converts to Christianity, whose books were burned by their Jewish contemporaries; a surprising number of early Yiddish women poets; and the government-sponsored suppression of Yiddish cultural activity in the early years of the State of Israel.

In order to cover such broad territory, an author needs a guiding philosophy, and in presenting his own, Katz takes sides in a dispute that’s been smoldering for the last century. Is Yiddish primarily the language of tradition or of the left wing? Is mamaloshen religious or radical?

Katz comes down on the side of tradition. Yiddish hangs on “religious and ideological continuity,” that is, traditionalist observance “challenged and enriched … by secular outbursts” that occur during the first few generations of “creative intermingling” with tolerant non-Jewish civilizations, and then sputter out in their descendants’ assimilation. According to Katz, although the “outbursts” produce much of great value, it is the continuing chain of tradition on which the language depends.

The material that Katz compiles about Yiddish among the ultra-Orthodox, both past and present, can be found in no other book for the lay public, and only very rarely in the scholarly literature. Katz explains (with excitement just short of glee) that the year 1864, the same famous founding year in which Mendele Moykher Sforim began to publish the first “modern masterpiece of Yiddish prose,” saw a proclamation of the religious sanctity of Yiddish in the will of the founder of ultra-Orthodoxy, the Khasam-Soyfer.

Moreover, in his ideological but invigorating conclusion, Katz brings us back to the present day, maintaining that all those interested in Yiddish language and literature must concern themselves with the ultra-Orthodox, mostly Chasidic population that will constitute the vast majority of future Yiddish speakers. Non-ultra-Orthodox Yiddish speakers and cultivators, he argues, are builders of bridges to the day when “the Chasidic world, the new Ashkenaz, moves from Yiddish popular literature to an era of new masterpieces.” Though this “bridge” chapter is a comparatively small one in the history of Yiddish, it is being written at this very moment.

The downside of Katz’s admirable enthusiasm is that it is a shaky foundation for an argument. The reader looking for a bibliography, information on further reading or, indeed, any sort of notes (end-, foot- or otherwise) will be frustrated by “Words on Fire,” and minor-but-annoying mistakes pop up often. Substantive innovations that he would have done well to explain to the lay reader — such as his interesting claim that Aramaic played the role of Ashkenazic Jews’ “third language” after Yiddish and Hebrew — are shot up like flares, providing more interest than light. At times, one senses that rather than a handbook to the history of Yiddish, or a gateway to study, Katz’s treatment is meant to be the “truth.” Such an attitude might explain the author’s peculiar omissions and inclusions in Yiddish literary history (in particular, modern American Yiddish literature is given little more than a paragraph) and his sneers at today’s Yiddish-language activists.

But apart from these qualifications, this book is probably the most intelligent and energetic one-volume introduction available to the history of Yiddish and its culture, entertaining and informing the ignorant while enlightening even the very knowledgeable. Its attitude toward Yiddish is positive without being politically correct and academically well-founded without being library dry. Thus one greets this book with the traditional wish: May there be more like it in Israel!

Article reprinted courtesy the Forward.