Monastery

Bellevue Literary Press  2014

 

Seasoned Holy Land tourists will sympathize with Eduardo as he blindly boards a sheirut, a communal Israeli airport taxi, learning the hard way of its risks of delay. But as Eduardo’s narration continues, his frustrations grow more contentious. Eduardo flies to Israel because his “abruptly devout” sister announced her plans to wed an ultra-Orthodox man there. And as Eduardo explores the land, his furies regarding Jewish identity and ritual explode.

Eduardo is increasingly offended as he explores famous ultra-Orthodox pockets of Jerusalem. It is clear that Eduardo’s scruples regarding his sister’s decisions are not flippant or lazy. Eduardo respects the unique trajectory of each of his grandparents, some of whom are Arab Jews. Sickened by bigotry and proud of his family, he pursues a lifestyle to satisfy his adventurous and lustful spirit.

This adventurousness takes us far from Jerusalem, all around the globe, as we follow Eduardo’s picaresque path of memories. Guatemala, Eduardo’s country of origin, provides what is perhaps the novel’s most shocking terrain. The narrator navigates some physically filthy locales, where Halfon renders scenery in neat and memorable detail. Native customs, dialogue and food come comparably alive as Eduardo moves into more intimate local settings, where he meets his central love interest. When it’s time to go, Eduardo learns that Ben Gurion isn’t the only airport with peculiar practices.

Each subsequent destination gives us deeper appreciation for Eduardo’s thoughtfulness and the life experiences that bring him to his present, angry state in Israel. In a short span, the reader is brought from Harlem’s jazz scene to a German submarine base on the coast of France. Each memory explores love, grief, and writing through Eduardo’s careful cogitation. Eduardo is intelligent and authentic: his thoughts, on Judaism and in general, are at times meticulously considered, and at times raw, blunt, and bitter.

Unexpectedly, it is amid an erotic escapade that Eduardo affords us clearest exposure to his complex engagement with questions of Jewish identity. Eduardo finds himself on the Dead Sea beach, frequently distracted by his bikini-clad interlocutor. Here, he discusses his richly Jewish dreams and his examined sentiments regarding concealing one’s Jewishness. Eduardo’s head navigates questions all too relatable, with a mind notably sensitive, pragmatic, and tormented. He questions how one should manage Jewishness vis-à-vis individuality, especially when the former may threaten your life.

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