Fic­tion

The Hill­top: A Novel

Assaf Gavron; Steven Cohen, trans.
  • Review
By – November 4, 2014

Roni Kup­per, at a bar in Tel Aviv, turns to a woman sit­ting by her­self. What do you say, Rav­it,” he asks. Can peo­ple change, or do they always remain the same?” That’s the emblem­at­ic ques­tion for Roni and for his broth­er Gabi, albeit in dif­fer­ent ways. 

We meet the broth­ers in a hill­top out­post on the West Bank, where Roni has unexpect­edly arrived on Gabi’s doorstep. Ma’aleh Her­mesh C, an off­shoot of the old­er settle­ment Ma’aleh Her­mesh A, is home to just a hand­ful of fam­i­lies. Their car­a­vans” sit on land that is not their own. Some of it is des­ig­nat­ed as a nature reserve by the Israeli gov­ern­ment; some is owned by a Pales­tin­ian who lives in Beirut; some is sur­vey land;” and some is Israeli state-owned land assigned to the orig­i­nal settlement. 

Most of the denizens of C” are reli­gious, but their rea­sons for being there are var­ied. Oth­niel, the de-fac­to chief, con­tin­u­al­ly uses his con­nec­tions in the gov­ern­ment and the army to fend off attempts to declare the out­post ille­gal, togeth­er with Hilik, anoth­er pio­neer­ing spir­it. Brook­lyn-born Josh, who left Amer­i­ca after 9/11, tries to build a new life as he strug­gles with his Hebrew; he shares a trail­er with Jehu, who invit­ed him to the out­post. Jenia came from Rus­sia; the Gotlieb fam­i­ly moved to C“ from anoth­er set­tle­ment. Shaulit Rivlin, a teacher, tries to raise three small chil­dren despite scant help from her feck­less husband. 

Gabi is new­ly reli­gious. As a boy he was teased by the oth­er kids, and took out his enraged revenge in anti­so­cial, rebel­lious ways that got him into trou­ble. He did the same thing in the army. He decides to try his luck in New York, work­ing for a mov­ing com­pa­ny, and ends up back in Tel Aviv, mar­ries, and has a child. But when anger gets the bet­ter of him yet again, he los­es his wife and his son. The con­so­la­tions of reli­gion, par­tic­u­lar­ly the teach­ings of Rab­bi Nach­man of Breslov, help him make a new start on the hilltop. 

By con­trast, Roni — four years old­er than his broth­er — was con­fi­dent and pop­u­lar when they were grow­ing up on a kib­butz in the 1980s. He went on to serve in an elite com­man­do unit in the army’s Golani Brigade. Through a com­bi­na­tion of charm, hard work, aggres­sive­ness, and luck he built a suc­cess­ful chain of bars in Tel Aviv in the 1990s. 

In the mid-2000s he too moved to New York, to be a fund trad­er. He earned mil­lions, but thanks to a high-risk gam­ble at the wrong time he lost it all — and huge sums from oth­er investors as well. When Roni flees New York he takes refuge in the only place he could think of: his brother’s trail­er. He los­es no time in pro­moting anoth­er get-rich-quick scheme, this one involv­ing olive oil made the tra­di­tion­al Arab way in a neigh­bor­ing Pales­tin­ian village. 

Mean­while, life in the out­post goes on, some­times con­tentious­ly. Left­ists demon­strate against the set­tlers on Fri­days. Work pro­gress­es on the sep­a­ra­tion bar­ri­er between Israelis and Pales­tini­ans, and a peti­tion is filed to protest the destruc­tion of olive groves. A teenag­er uses his avatar on Sec­ond Life to do mis­chief against vir­tu­al Mus­lims. Anoth­er teenag­er trysts with a sol­dier sta­tioned at the out­post. Ancient coins are dis­cov­ered in a cave. A baby is born. A chaot­ic press confer­ence at the out­post by the Edu­ca­tion Min­is­ter turns into an inter­na­tion­al inci­dent when it comes to the atten­tion of the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States — an inci­dent that could change every­thing in this small world. 

There are many won­der­ful set-pieces. One takes us to the olive press oper­at­ed by a Pales­tinian vil­lager, where mill­stones pow­ered by a don­key press olives straight from the tree. The Purim par­ty at the book’s cli­max is also full of mar­velous details, such as the boy who arrives in the cos­tume of a Tel Aviv left­ist: a Peace Now T-shirt, and restau­rant menu in hand that fea­tures shrimp. These rich­ly-imag­ined sit­u­a­tions and the peo­ple in them give Ma’aleh Her­mesh C the tex­tures of a vivid­ly real place. 

This stun­ning nov­el, like life itself, is packed with inci­dents both impor­tant and inconse­quential, and some­times you can’t be sure which is which. Yet, as event­ful as it is, The Hill­top cares most about the long­ings and hopes and lim­i­ta­tions of the indi­vid­u­als who pop­u­late it. The real dra­ma lies in whether they can find for­give­ness, redemp­tion, love, or hap­pi­ness, and — yes — whether they can ever real­ly change. 

The Hill­top touch­es deep­er ques­tions of mean­ing and truth in the way all great fic­tion does: not by tak­ing sides, but through keen obser­va­tion of the human com­e­dy with enor­mous sym­pa­thy for every­one in it. It is bril­liant­ly imag­ined, deeply com­pas­sion­ate, con­stant­ly enter­tain­ing, and well served by Steven Cohen’s deft, lucid trans­la­tion. Assaf Gavron has giv­en us noth­ing less than a mod­ern masterpiece.

Relat­ed Content:

Inter­view

Read Beth Kissileff’s inter­view with Assaf Gavron here.

Discussion Questions