by Ranen Omer-Sher­man

Books Dis­cussed in This Essay

Lit­er­ary crit­ics have late­ly fet­ed what some are call­ing a new” Israeli lit­er­ary dias­po­ra con­sti­tut­ing expa­tri­ates who con­tin­ue to write in Hebrew even after liv­ing abroad for many years (they include Dorit Abusch, Maya Arad, Ari Lieber­man, Ruby Nam­dar, and, most recent­ly, renowned Pales­tin­ian-Israeli nov­el­ist Sayed Kashua). Indeed, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge is devot­ing an entire con­fer­ence to this trend.” Yet while the truth is that there has actu­al­ly been a ded­i­cat­ed sub­cul­ture of Hebrew writ­ing in North Amer­i­ca since at least the 1920s, an arguably more intrigu­ing move­ment of writ­ing has emerged, cre­at­ed by Israeli expats or oth­ers who have gained sin­gu­lar per­spec­tives on their trou­bled soci­ety from their pro­longed sojourns abroad and are deter­mined to reach out direct­ly to Eng­lish read­ers. If the three books dis­cussed here are any indi­ca­tion, their voic­es may con­sti­tute some of the bold­est and most excit­ing writ­ing reflect­ing Israel’s trou­bled real­i­ty today. And as it hap­pens, each has been the recip­i­ent of pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary awards.

Ayelet Tsabari draws on many per­son­al and famil­ial lay­ers in her first col­lec­tion, not sur­pris­ing for one who grew up among six sib­lings in a strug­gling Yemenite house­hold in Petah Tik­va. Reflect­ing on her iden­ti­ty after two decades liv­ing in Cana­da, Tsabari sug­gests that the seeds for her cur­rent iden­ti­ty as an expat writer were mys­te­ri­ous­ly plant­ed with­in her long ago: For some strange rea­son, I’ve always felt in the mar­gins, and felt com­fort­able in the mar­gins. I’m an exile by choice, but where did it come from, when did it start?” That sen­si­bil­i­ty cer­tain­ly res­onates in her sharp por­tray­al of mem­o­rable char­ac­ters such as the prick­ly matri­arch of Invis­i­ble”; fre­quent­ly rem­i­nisc­ing about her final days in Yemen, she feels only a ten­u­ous sense of belong­ing to her osten­si­ble home­land, Israel.

In con­sid­er­ing this and oth­er char­ac­ters’ alien­ations, one can­not help but think of how the collection’s evoca­tive title (The Best Place On Earth) reflects Tsabari’s per­son­al sense of dis­place­ment: This sense of not belong­ing ear­ly in life…I won­der if it’s los­ing a par­ent at an ear­ly age, a sense of look­ing for him in the world, look­ing for a place that would be that type of con­nec­tion.” Her eleven sto­ries, each a vivid immer­sion in a dif­fer­ent Israeli topos (Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Eilat, Negev), are dis­tin­guished by a res­olute open-end­ed­ness, a qual­i­ty that ensures her char­ac­ters and their pos­si­ble futures will linger with us just a lit­tle longer. It is rare to encounter any short-sto­ry col­lec­tion (let alone a first book) with­out some uneven­ness, yet remark­ably that is not the case in this excep­tion­al col­lec­tion. The Best Place On Earth is pos­i­tive­ly brim­ming with exil­ic pro­tag­o­nists (each a tran­sient, nomad, or dis­placed in one way or anoth­er) who find them­selves chal­lenged by myr­i­ad forms of bound­aries and con­tact zones.

In spite of the book’s uni­form excel­lence, it seems worth sin­gling out a few that bold­ly brush against the grain of some of the well-worn con­ven­tions of alien­ation often asso­ci­at­ed with Ashke­nazi Israeli writ­ers. For instance, in Below Sea Lev­el,” the antic­i­pat­ed clash between a tra­di­tion­al Zion­ist father and a dif­fi­dent son takes an unex­pect­ed­ly redemp­tive turn, while in Bor­ders” (a title that could well serve the entire vol­ume) the young pro­tag­o­nist vaca­tion­ing in Eilat on the cusp of her army ser­vice comes to a star­tling rev­e­la­tion about a very dif­fer­ent pat­ri­mo­ny. And while this entire col­lec­tion refresh­ing­ly presents Israeli real­i­ty from the per­spec­tive of Mizrahi char­ac­ters, nowhere is that more mov­ing than in The Poets in the Kitchen Win­dow” where young Uri’s sense of self and pos­si­bil­i­ty seems irrev­o­ca­bly trans­formed when he first encoun­ters the force­ful lyri­cism of Iraqi-born Israeli poet Roni Someck. Tsabari’s gifts for open-end­ed des­tinies, sharply reveal­ing con­ver­sa­tions that estab­lish char­ac­ter, and the trans­for­ma­tive poten­tial of quo­tid­i­an encoun­ters, is often sug­ges­tive of how Grace Paley, an acknowl­edged mas­ter of the Amer­i­can short sto­ry, might have sound­ed had she delved into the lives of younger native-Israeli hero­ines rather than work­ing-class New York wives and moth­ers. So just where is the best place on earth”? Per­haps wher­ev­er one man­ages to live whol­ly and authen­ti­cal­ly, these sto­ries seem to sug­gest. Tsabari is cur­rent­ly writ­ing her mem­oir as part of a three-book con­tract with Ran­dom House.

It is dif­fi­cult to describe the expe­ri­ence of encoun­ter­ing the vis­cer­al sto­ries in Avn­er Mandelman’s grit­ty and vio­lent Talk­ing to the Ene­my for the first time, but every year, I see their impact on the star­tled faces of my stu­dents who often sin­gle his work out as their favorite writ­ing of the semes­ter. Born in Israel in the fate­ful year of 1947, Mandelman’s entire oeu­vre seems ded­i­cat­ed to tough moral exam­i­na­tions of the reper­cus­sions of the rebirth of Jew­ish sov­er­eign­ty, espe­cial­ly in the lives of those caught up in the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian con­flict. The news one finds in his raw por­tray­als of those ded­i­cat­ed to defend­ing Israel is often very bleak, informed by the writer’s own life. From 1965 to 1968, Man­del­man served in the Israeli Air Force and fought in the Six Day War; lat­er he emi­grat­ed to Cana­da where his lit­er­ary expres­sion found a wel­come home. His works were select­ed for both The Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries and the esteemed Push­cart Prize anthol­o­gy. Talk­ing to the Ene­my won the Sophie Brody Award for Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and a sub­se­quent col­lec­tion, The Cuck­oo, and his sus­pense­ful nov­el The Deb­ba (inspired by the dis­tress he felt in the ear­ly trau­mat­ic days of the Yom Kip­pur War) each received strong acclaim.

These shock­ing, plot-dri­ven sto­ries plunge read­ers deep into both the inner and out­er geo­gra­phies of con­tem­po­rary Israeli real­i­ty. Man­del­man’s shat­ter­ing lan­guage reli­ably enter­tains, quick­en­ing our pulse like an air­port nov­el, but also demands our atten­tion to the trou­bling moral quan­daries pre­sent­ed by the shift­ing posi­tion of the pow­er­ful and the pow­er­less. This occurs most promi­nent­ly in the dis­turb­ing fable Og” in which a golem-like fig­ure is per­pet­u­al­ly res­ur­rect­ed to con­front a myth­i­cal kingdom’s ene­mies but at a great cost. It unfolds with the log­ic of a night­mare and serves as a pow­er­ful­ly time­less coda to the pre­ced­ing sto­ries set in the grit­ty present. Per­haps the most mem­o­rable sto­ries con­cern the recur­ring char­ac­ter, Mick­ey, a Mossad agent and son of Holo­caust sur­vivors, who nar­rates episodes that span a life­time, begin­ning in Ter­ror,” where his betray­al of his younger broth­er earns a vio­lent les­son from his father, the stark doc­trine that will rule over the rest of his life: Is it good for my peo­ple?” The sac­ri­fices made by a gen­er­a­tion inher­it­ing the unre­solved con­flict left by the pre­vi­ous is nev­er more pal­pa­ble than in Mickey’s bleak obser­va­tion that I had been under Oper­a­tional Rules ever since I had joined, nine­teen years before, just as my father had been, ever since he had arrived in Pales­tine, more than 50 years ago.” Cumu­la­tive­ly, the sto­ries of Talk­ing grap­ple bril­liant­ly with that unspar­ing lega­cy: the nature of being hard and the costs of that condition.

In inter­views Man­del­man has remarked on his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the prob­lem of how much nec­es­sary evil can be allowed by a civ­i­lized soci­ety,” and I can’t think of a writer who pro­vides bet­ter insight into that ques­tion and indeed the entire Israeli psy­che, in which the unbear­able ten­sions of life in a soci­ety so devot­ed to the tri­umph of strength and tough­ness that life itself can seem a fortress. Whether explor­ing a Mossad oper­a­tion gone bad­ly astray, child­hood trau­ma, or famil­ial strife, the ancient bib­li­cal palimpsest is always an insis­tent pres­ence, lurk­ing just beneath real­i­ty, beneath lan­guage itself. Mandelman’s acer­bic attune­ment to the trag­ic ways in which ancient scripts of vio­lence are encod­ed in the con­flicts of his home­land is suc­cinct­ly cap­tured in a rue­ful salu­ta­tion from the penul­ti­mate page of Talk­ing: I would like to acknowl­edge the ancient fic­tion­eers who anony­mous­ly wrote the all-time best­seller, and who, aston­ish­ing­ly, man­aged to con­vince half of human­i­ty that it is entire­ly nor­mal to live one’s life accord­ing to antique fic­tions. With­out this mar­velous­ly orig­i­nal con job, I would have lit­tle to write about.” All the heart­break, hilar­i­ty, and hor­ror in Talk­ing seem to derive from this epiphany.

Like Man­del­man, Shani Boian­jiu uses lan­guage that is shrewd­ly illus­tra­tive of the unde­ni­ably cor­ro­sive effects of mil­i­tary cul­ture on young Israelis, espe­cial­ly the toll tak­en on female sol­diers. Her com­plex and tough-mind­ed The Peo­ple of For­ev­er Are Not Afraid was short­list­ed for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture and excerpt­ed in The New York­er—a sub­stan­tial achieve­ment for such a young, first-time nov­el­ist. More­over, she is the youngest recip­i­ent ever of the U.S. Nation­al Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 Award. Boian­jiu grew up in Kfar Vradim, one of Israel’s so-called periph­er­al” com­mu­ni­ties, a small vil­lage in the Galilee close enough to the Lebanese bor­der that it was embat­tled by fre­quent Hezbol­lah rock­et attacks. Though Boian­jiu first began to write dur­ing her IDF ser­vice, those ear­ly efforts were entire­ly dis­card­ed and her first book orig­i­nat­ed in a cre­ative writ­ing class under­tak­en while study­ing Eng­lish at Har­vard University.

For any­one still accus­tomed to think­ing of the war sto­ry as a mas­cu­line genre, this brave first nov­el may be a rev­e­la­tion. Boian­jiu first began to write dur­ing her IDF ser­vice and the fact that she chose to write in Eng­lish results in an under­cur­rent of desta­bi­liza­tion that pro­duces the notes of sur­re­al­ism famil­iar to any­one who has ever served in the mil­i­tary of any coun­try. As she told the New York Times, that choice forced me to think care­ful­ly about every word I used.” Per­haps because of that mind­ful­ness, the young voic­es of Boianjiu’s pro­tag­o­nists are both brash and vul­ner­a­ble, often at the same time. We first meet Yael, Avishag, and Lea, just as they are about to grad­u­ate from a small high school in a remote devel­op­ment town. In the novel’s savvy book­end­ing struc­ture, we meet them again as civil­ians after their IDF ser­vice where we con­front the impli­ca­tions of how noth­ing and yet every­thing has changed for them.

In addi­tion to her nuanced por­tray­als of her three pro­tag­o­nists, Boian­jiu evinces pro­found con­cern for the fate and iden­ti­ty of the oth­er” and her empath­ic por­traits in The Peo­ple of For­ev­ers loose­ly-struc­tured plot (best to think of this work as sto­ries linked by recur­ring char­ac­ters rather than a con­ven­tion­al nov­el) take us deep into how the myr­i­ad unset­tling real­i­ties of the Mid­dle East affect indi­vid­ual lives. For instance, in Check­point,” Lea can’t help obsess­ing over the mar­riage and domes­tic life of Fadi, a Pales­tin­ian man she encoun­ters as he cross­es into Israel from the West Bank in search of day labor. Else­where Boian­jiu deft­ly maneu­vers between the alter­nat­ing per­spec­tives of Avishag and a des­per­ate Sudanese refugee who hurls her­self onto the barbed-wire fence at the Egypt­ian bor­der. In The Peo­ple of For­ev­ers uneasy, and occa­sion­al­ly caus­ti­cal­ly humor­ous episodes, Boain­jiu ren­ders unfor­get­table por­traits of char­ac­ters trapped between girl­hood and wom­an­hood, not only belea­guered by ques­tion­able secu­ri­ty mis­sions that severe­ly chal­lenge their sense of val­ues and self­hood but dam­aged by sex­u­al harass­ment, and worse, from their fel­low sol­diers. Though her first book was writ­ten while liv­ing in the Unit­ed States and Ire­land, she is now back in the West­ern Galilee at work on her sec­ond novel.

Any read­er wish­ing to under­stand Israeli real­i­ty, both its claus­tro­pho­bic togeth­er­ness and its frag­men­ta­tion, and the heavy bur­den borne by its young cit­i­zen-sol­diers will find each of these pow­er­ful books deeply reward­ing. As should be evi­dent by now, in addi­tion to their expa­tri­ate sen­si­bil­i­ties, the works of Tsabari, Boian­jiu, and Man­del­man also share a pro­found con­cern for the fate of Israel’s myr­i­ad Oth­ers”, whether the alien­at­ed Arab minor­i­ty, the ambiva­lences of Mizrahi Jews, or the home­sick­ness of Philip­pine care­givers. And some­thing else: each of their sin­gu­lar insid­er-out­sider per­spec­tives bears wit­ness to the inevitable coars­en­ing of young peo­ple (and by exten­sion, their entire soci­ety), wrought by their mil­i­tary ser­vice and a con­flict with no end in sight. Final­ly, while the choice to write in the Eng­lish lan­guage may still be a rel­a­tive­ly minor phe­nom­e­non, it seems worth not­ing that the acclaimed Israeli artists Rutu Modan (Exit Wounds and The Prop­er­ty) and Yir­mi Pinkus (a founder of the graph­ic nov­el pub­lish­ing house Actus Trage­dus) have both been pub­lish­ing their graph­ic nar­ra­tives in Eng­lish since the ear­ly 2000s.

In Jews and Words, a charm­ing­ly icon­o­clas­tic account of Jew­ish lan­guages and lit­er­a­tures, coau­thors Amos Oz and daugh­ter Fania Oz-Salzberg­er cel­e­brate the fact that Jews around the world have not been so mutu­al­ly intel­li­gi­ble since the fall of Judea” due to the increas­ing con­ver­sa­tion of Hebrew and Eng­lish, the two major sur­viv­ing lan­guages of the Jews…[both are very much alive in this role. There is still some­thing of a chasm between them but many bridges are being built; the present book, writ­ten in Eng­lish by two native Hebrew speak­ers, is one such bridg­ing attempt.” More­over, even the much-cel­e­brat­ed writer Etgar Keret has elect­ed to pub­lish his much-antic­i­pat­ed mem­oir The Sev­en Good Years exclu­sive­ly in Eng­lish. An exam­i­na­tion of an unusu­al fam­i­ly that reads like a micro­cosm of Israel itself (a child born on the day of a sui­cide-bomb­ing; an ultra-Ortho­dox sis­ter who has eleven chil­dren; a dovish, mar­i­jua­na-smok­ing broth­er; and Holo­caust-sur­vivor par­ents), promis­es to expand the hori­zons of Israeli lit­er­a­ture. While not strict­ly in the cat­e­go­ry of expat lit­er­a­ture, this grow­ing trend may rep­re­sent some­thing even more inter­est­ing. Per­haps, as the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of Israel grows, its writ­ers are grow­ing more rest­less, eager to escape the insu­lar­i­ty of their tra­di­tion­al audi­ence and plunge direct­ly into the uncer­tain recep­tion of a much wider readership.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

Relat­ed Content:

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.