Jerusalem, 2002: the height of the second intifada. Kobi Benami is a middle-aged psychologist whose life is in shambles. His wife has thrown him out for casual philandering; his daughter won’t speak to him; and he may lose his job due to indifferent work habits. At this desperate juncture, Kobi gets a new patient, Israela, whose story is full of uncanny Biblical references, and whose powerful enigmatic husband Y may or may not exist. Israela hasn’t seen Y in months, but she is being stalked by his prophet-like emissaries, spanning the spectrum of Israeli society — Orthodox to secular, right-wing settlers to left-wing urban elites — united only in their harsh condemnation of Israel, a fierce devotion to Y, and connection to The Outstretched Arm, a sinister organization purported to be run by Y. As Kobi becomes ensnared in a surreal encounter with anthropomorphized ancient Israel, and preoccupied with questions about the nature and existence of Y, he is forced to confront his dysfunctional life patterns, his family’s tragic past, and the endless war that rages around him.
The Book of Israela
January 1, 2013
Courtesy of Rena Blumenthal
- The main character, Kobi, is a secular Israeli and a disaffected Jew. Through his new patient, Israela, he develops a surreal encounter with the story of ancient Israel that begins to shake him out of his self-absorbed ennui. What is it about Israela’s story that effects Kobi so deeply?
- Israela’s husband, Y, represents the Biblical characterization of God, but he comes across as an often violent and threatening figure. Why is Israela so devoted to Y despite his frequent threats? How does this depiction relate to the modern perception of God in Western culture?
- Israela is being stalked by an odd array of characters reminiscent of the Biblical prophets. What role do Y’s emissaries play in the book? How is that similar to the role the prophets play in the Hebrew Bible?
- Aside from the prophets, the “Book of Israela” contains a large number of other Biblical characters and allusions. Do you recall any examples? What function do these Biblical characters and allusions play in the story?
- Y’s emissaries represent a range of Israeli “types,” prompting Kobi to ask Shaya (p.158): “How is it possible for all of you to work for the same organization?” Shaya responds: “It’s true that we disagree about many things. But we all bear the same message.” What do you make of this exchange? How does this shed light on the nature of Y’s organization, the “Outstretched Arm”?
- Dolls are a central metaphor in the book. When Israela creates a doll to comfort her in the desert, it functions as an allegorical representation of the Golden Calf, the Biblical prototype for idolatry. How is idolatry an apt metaphor for Kobi’s hapless quest to buy Yudit the “perfect” gift?
- The book implicitly raises the question as to the relevance and impact of the Bible on modern Jewish life. Does the Hebrew Bible still play an essential role in contemporary Judaism? What is your own relationship to this ancient text?
- The book is set in Jerusalem against the backdrop of the second intifada, and all the bombings referred to are real historical events. How does this backdrop contribute to the plot? How would the book be different if set in more peaceful times?
- Kobi’s parents are Holocaust survivors, but they coped with their trauma in very different ways. How did their war experiences effect Kobi and his siblings? How is inherited Holocaust trauma relevant to the central themes of the book?
- After his phone call with Yudit, Kobi has the following insight (p.212): “it was hard to know where affliction ended and blessing began.” What does this mean to you? Were there times in your life that you felt that way?
- Why do you think the author chose to tell the book entirely from Kobi’s perspective? What was gained or lost in this choice?
- At the very end of the book, Kobi understands that the so-called “Book of Y” is really the “Book of Israela.” Why is this significant? Did you come to a conclusion, in the end, as to whether Y “exists”?
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