The Best Place on Earth: Stories

By – January 23, 2015

2015 Sami Rohr Prize win­ner Ayelet Tsabari deft­ly applies the influ­ences of her Amer­i­can short sto­ry con­tem­po­raries to a col­lec­tion of nar­ra­tives from that oth­er coun­try of immi­grants. Set between Israel and Cana­da of the past few decades, The Best Place on Earth flits through the day-to-day life of mod­ern his­to­ry, alight­ing on the Per­sian Gulf War, the Sec­ond Intifa­da, the occu­pa­tion and with­draw­al from the Sinai Penin­su­la, and the count­less, name­less cam­paigns on Gaza. Imbu­ing the dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances and real­i­ties of Israeli (and expat) life with the soft­en­ing sweet­ness of its details, Tsabari imparts a yearn­ing for home that res­onates across the globe.

Despite the speci­fici­ty of the set­tings and their denizens, every sto­ry in The Best Place on Earth har­bors a bea­con of uni­ver­sal­i­ty, of crit­i­cal human­ness. The expres­sions of mar­gin­al­i­ty in each pro­tag­o­nist — dark skin, black curls, the lin­ger­ing scents of exot­ic foods, numbed or numb­ing pains of dis­place­ment — are but shells to the rela­tion­ships and inter­ac­tions thrum­ming steadi­ly at the heart of Tsabari’s writ­ing. A pair of teenage friends nav­i­gat­ing a sum­mer of inde­pen­dence in Eilat could just as well be two girls from rur­al Texas; den­i­grat­ing and absent fathers mold­ed by life­long enlist­ment in the IDf trans­late as career sol­diers in any mod­ern army; the divi­sions between mem­bers of Yemenite fam­i­lies are the same as those described in a Mario Puzo nov­el or Jhumpa Lahiri’s sto­ries, only with a dis­tinct Mid­dle East­ern piquan­cy. The alter­nat­ing self­ish­ness and gen­eros­i­ty of old­er sib­lings, the line in the sand for grand­par­ents prid­ing them­selves on pro­gres­sive val­ues, the lurch of see­ing an ex unex­pect­ed­ly a life­time lat­er, and the guilt of being unable to love some­one back as they deserve pile into a latent home­sick­ness — bat­ted resilient­ly away until a sting of nos­tal­gia puts the ever-spin­ning world on pause — for the best place on Earth,” wher­ev­er that might be.

Unas­sum­ing­ly cap­ti­vat­ing, Ayelet Tsabari’s sto­ries stealth­ily, steadi­ly engulf the read­er like dreams from the Sand­man. The Best Place on Earth opens worlds for­eign and coax­es you inside, steer­ing so gen­tly, so qui­et­ly you do not real­ize you have been absorbed until you emerge, blink­ing, from a moment you nev­er meant to enter.

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ran­dom House

  • What are some of the themes that are thread­ed through­out the eleven stories?

  • What do the char­ac­ters in The Best Place on Earth have in common?

  • Many of the sto­ries are set against a back­ground of war and con­flict. How does the polit­i­cal and domes­tic inter­twine in these stories?

  • Dis­cuss the use of for­eign lan­guages in the sto­ries. What tech­niques did the author use to incor­po­rate the Hebrew lan­guage in the book?

  • Many of these char­ac­ters are try­ing to get away from some­thing: home, his­to­ry, tra­di­tion, fam­i­ly, love. Talk about the theme of flight in these stories.

  • The open­ing sto­ry, Tikkun,” is about a meet­ing of for­mer lovers against the back­drop of a bomb­ing in Jerusalem. Why is the sto­ry called Tikkun?

  • Many of the sto­ries in the book deal with cul­tur­al clash­es with­in fam­i­lies. What are the rea­sons for those clash­es? How are they reconciled?

  • The sto­ry Invis­i­ble” fea­tures a Fil­ip­ina care­giv­er work­ing ille­gal­ly in Israel. What is the role of mag­ic in this sto­ry? How did you expe­ri­ence the end­ing of this story?

  • Does the order of the sto­ries cre­ate a nar­ra­tive arc for the col­lec­tion? Does the book as a whole have a sense of an ending?

  • How did read­ing the sto­ries com­pli­cate your notions of Israel and of the Jew­ish experience?

  • What do you think of the title of the book? What is The Best Place on Earth?