The Lost Spy and the Green Dress

  • Review
By – August 2, 2023

The ten­sions present in Israeli cul­ture dur­ing the 1960s are at the heart of Alex Paz-Goldman’s engross­ing nov­el, The Lost Spy and the Green Dress. Twelve-year-old Mot­ti strug­gles with his ambiva­lent feel­ings about his par­ents, both of whom are Holo­caust sur­vivors. His father is unable to earn a liv­ing, both par­ents are depressed. Mot­ti views their per­sis­tent use of Yid­dish rather than Hebrew as a sign of intractable vic­tim­hood. Why, he asks his friend Reuven, did his moth­er not arm her­self against the Nazis, or emu­late the heroes of Masa­da, who pre­ferred death over slav­ery”? Try­ing to make sense of the con­tra­dic­tions in his life, Mot­ti becomes obsessed with the idea of duplic­i­ty and espionage.

Set in a time in which Israel has recent­ly expe­ri­enced the tri­al of Adolf Eich­mann, unre­solved ques­tions loom — name­ly, how to rec­on­cile the tragedy of the Holo­caust with the tri­umph of Israel’s birth. Mot­ti notes the incon­sis­ten­cies that sur­round him. His father’s stay in a con­va­les­cent home” does not lead to reha­bil­i­ta­tion. His par­ents’ con­stant argu­ing, and his father’s con­sum­ing inter­est in news items about spies, are con­fus­ing. Only his father has a sur­viv­ing rel­a­tive — a twin broth­er who rep­re­sents an alter­na­tive, and more adap­tive, way of liv­ing with the past.

His­to­ry does not over­shad­ow char­ac­ter psy­chol­o­gy in this well-paced sto­ry, as the author includes plot lines about friend­ship and roman­tic feel­ings. Motti’s friend Reuven is the son of Iraqi Jews. Their loy­al­ty to their own lan­guage and cul­ture does not allow them to iden­ti­fy with Motti’s East­ern Euro­pean inher­i­tance of loss. Reuven is hyper­ra­tional, using log­ic to com­pen­sate for insta­bil­i­ty. Before long, the two boys become enmeshed in a scheme to catch an alleged Nazi spy. Sub­tle touch­es offer insight into the char­ac­ters’ inner lives, such as when Mot­ti feels him­self drawn to the peas­ants depict­ed in a pic­ture by Van Gogh, iden­ti­fy­ing with their lone­li­ness. The com­plex­i­ties of Motti’s attrac­tion to Reuven’s sis­ter emerge in a scene in which the two boys require her assis­tance while putting on Purim cos­tumes. Mot­ti is left speech­less as sex­u­al feel­ings, ten­der­ness, and awe all inter­sect. It was a mir­a­cle my tongue stayed con­nect­ed to my jaw,” he says.

There is no easy time to come of age as a young adult. In Paz-Goldman’s skill­ful­ly woven sto­ry, When Mot­ti chal­lenges his father about the moral impli­ca­tions of Ger­man repa­ra­tion pay­ments, his father tries to explain that, some­times, we have no choice. When you grow up you will under­stand … Some­times life is more pow­er­ful than prin­ci­ples.” While this advice might pro­voke dif­fer­ent respons­es, its res­o­nance with the mind­set of many in 1960s Israel gives this accom­plished nov­el a unique perspective.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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