The Hebrew Teacher

  • Review
By – March 18, 2024

Accord­ing to many crit­ics, Maya Arad is the most accom­plished Hebrew-lan­guage writer liv­ing out­side of Israel, and per­haps one of the best Israeli nov­el­ists of her gen­er­a­tion. Through­out her eleven nov­els and books of short fic­tion, she has cre­at­ed deeply affect­ing and often wrench­ing por­traits of the foibles of con­tem­po­rary soci­ety, par­tic­u­lar­ly those of mid­dle-class fam­i­lies and acad­e­mia. So while it’s a lit­tle sur­pris­ing that The Hebrew Teacher is the first to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, it sure­ly won’t be the last. Com­posed of three novel­las cen­tered on three Israeli immi­grants to the Unit­ed States (each woman is in a dif­fer­ent phase of their accul­tur­a­tion to the new soci­ety), and the fam­i­lies, friends, and col­leagues sur­round­ing them, this book is bristling with insights into the sharp divides between cul­tures, and between generations.

The title sto­ry begins with the stark utter­ance: It wasn’t a very good time for Hebrew.” Born in 1948, Ilana is an adjunct pro­fes­sor who has spent decades labor­ing on behalf of the lan­guage, music, and pop­u­lar cul­ture of her beloved Israel (or at least the 1990s-era soci­ety she once knew). She frets when a ris­ing aca­d­e­m­ic star (he dab­bles in what he calls the Jew­ish” Hei­deg­ger) who has only con­tempt for Israel — as well as for Ilana’s devo­tion to such caus­es as Hil­lel and Jew­ish adult edu­ca­tion — is hired at her uni­ver­si­ty. Ilana is an impor­tant fig­ure, and the inevitabil­i­ty of her painful down­fall and trans­for­ma­tion into an embar­rass­ing rel­ic of the past seems to reflect both the decline of Hebrew-lan­guage enroll­ment and the Jew­ish state’s trans­for­ma­tion into a glob­al pari­ah. Yet despite Ilana’s pro­fes­sion­al humil­i­a­tion, Arad brings most of her focus to bear on Ilana’s enthu­si­asm for a mem­oir-writ­ing class. Ilana strug­gles to write at first (“Forty-five years out­side of Israel and she has no lan­guage”), but even­tu­al­ly she suc­ceeds in con­jur­ing up pre­cious frag­ments of a life that was not unevent­ful and not with­out meaning.

In both the collection’s sub­se­quent novel­las, Arad proves adept at ren­der­ing the often excru­ci­at­ing nego­ti­a­tions and bal­anc­ing acts of mar­ried life and par­ent­ing. The domes­tic dra­ma at the heart of A Vis­it (Scenes)” is set off by the untime­ly vis­it of the husband’s aging Israeli moth­er, who inad­ver­tent­ly expos­es the schism in her son’s mar­riage as she des­per­ate­ly strains to find a place for her­self in the family’s affec­tions. The clash­ing dynam­ics are explored through frag­men­tary vignettes that offer a bit­ter­sweet affir­ma­tion of the endurance of famil­ial bonds. And in Make New Friends,” bit­ter bat­tles are waged over screen time,” body image, and the betray­als and lone­li­ness of mid­dle school. This novel­la cul­mi­nates with a jaw-drop­ping inter­ven­tion when Efrat, a moth­er who wants only the best for her dis­tressed daugh­ter, cross­es the line. Efrat’s star­tling yet utter­ly plau­si­ble response to her child’s unhap­pi­ness is guar­an­teed to make read­ers gasp — yet per­haps also nod their head in sad recognition.

Arad’s Israeli female char­ac­ters strug­gle to find grace after per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al set­backs; and this mem­o­rable col­lec­tion illu­mi­nates their tumul­tuous jour­neys with wis­dom and com­pas­sion, achiev­ing the kind of inti­ma­cy that may remind some read­ers of Grace Paley. Arad’s por­traits of con­tem­po­rary life achieve that rare bal­ance between com­e­dy and pathos, satire and empa­thy — often on the same page. The deeply affect­ing por­tray­als of var­i­ous forms of estrange­ment, missed con­nec­tions, and dis­tances will like­ly linger in read­ers’ imag­i­na­tions for a long time. The world of con­tem­po­rary Israeli lit­er­a­ture in Eng­lish trans­la­tion sim­ply wouldn’t be the same with­out Man Book­er Inter­na­tion­al Prize win­ner Jes­si­ca Cohen’s excep­tion­al work. Maya Arad’s pen­e­trat­ing voice is well served by Cohen’s sen­si­tive and intel­li­gent translation.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

Discussion Questions