The Book of Israela

January 1, 2013

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.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Rena Blumenthal

  1. 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?

  2. 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?

  3. 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?

  4. 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?

  5. 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”?

  6. 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?

  7. 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?

  8. 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?

  9. 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?

  10. 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?

  11. Why do you think the author chose to tell the book entire­ly from Kobi’s per­spec­tive? What was gained or lost in this choice?

  12. 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”?