Eight short stories. All of them sad. Englander pitches his stories to test the limits of love in binding marriages, ageless friendships, families, and neighbors. Two matriarchs of Israel’s settler movement are asked if they can continue to stand by one another as personal tragedies and then national tragedies overtake them. Childhood friends from yeshiva are reunited after one has become an ultra-orthodox Israeli and the other the mother of a secular son in Florida. Now both married they sit with their husbands and prod one another: for whom would they would sacrifice themselves to save another’s life? Holocaust survivors pass a lifetime in an Israeli shuk acting upon, but not speaking of the unspeakable. Englander’s stories make us think about our own boundaries and sometimes about what in the world he is up to when, for example, he places a protagonist in a peep show staring first at his Rabbi and then at his mother. The author’s directive is that relationships are untrustworthy.
There are several reasons to read murder mysteries. After all, the expectation upon opening the book is something really awful must happen before the story can really begin. To make a mystery worth reading, of course, the puzzle of figuring out who dunnit must be simultaneously complex and fair to the reader — no random murderer can suddenly appear in the final ten pages, for example. Great mysteries also teach you something about a time or location you otherwise couldn’t know about, and very few mystery writers are better than Israel’s Batya Gur. In Murder on a Kibbutz her detective Michael Ohayan is called upon to investigate the murder of a kibbutznik, which in Israel is exceptionally rare. Gur peels away the layers of the onion that make up a family-like group of 300 people who care about one another, share everything, and despise one another as only family members can. What I can say, having lived on an Israeli kibbutz, is that every page of description is microscopically accurate, the characters are almost too real to be fictional, and the mystery is hard to solve.
Somewhere near the end of Keret’s memoir covering the seven years between the birth of his son and the death of his father, Keret writes about his experience living in a narrow house in Warsaw, Poland. The invitation to live in the house comes from a Polish architect who felt compelled to construct a house for Keret that matched the building codes of Keret’s short essays. The house is tiny, only four feet wide, efficient, fitting between two existing buildings, and yet bursts out the top. It is three stories in height. And as life imitates art and vice versa Keret’s recounting of his stay in the house is at first odd and funny and finally brings you to tears when it turns out the house is constructed in the gap between the former Warsaw Ghetto and the slightly less Nazi-occupied parts of Poland. Keret’s mother, a young girl during WWII, made nightly runs, at the risk of death if she were ever caught, to collect what food she could for her family, all of whom save Keret’s mother, died. No other writer can wring so much emotion, plot, or character from only three pages. In this, Keret’s first book of nonfiction, layer upon layer of the humor and tribulations of living in contemporary Israel, a country of profound joy and horror, capture a man and his country like few others.
Safekeeping is a description of common characters residing on an Israeli kibbutz in the late 1990s. At the center of the story is Adam, a drug addict from New York city, on the lam and carrying a 700-year-old brooch. He stumbles into Ulya, a sexy, ambitious Russian immigrant to Israel, who feigned a Jewish identity to escape the confines of Russia only to find herself trapped in a tiny country and inside an even tinier commune. Claudette, is a French Canadian volunteer with an unrelented case of OCD. Ancient, dying, Ziva represents the Israeli pioneers that fought for the country’s independence and social identity. There are Arab workers and young soldiers sent to keep peace on the West Bank. Everyone is indeed universal: I met a variant of each one on Kibbutz Ketura when I live there. In the end, however, despite the meticulous notes that Jessamyn Hope must have taken when she lived on her kibbutz, very few of the characters feel complex enough to fully engage our sympathy. Not even the brooch.
Israel is threatened, and always has been, from within and without. Beyond its borders are hundreds of millions of Arabs, and 1.5 billion Muslims, most of whom would be happier if Israel did not exist, and some of whom are working hard to acquire the nuclear capability to make that wish a potential reality. Within the country’s borders (I know, I know, even their borders are fuzzy), reside an internal, and justifiably unhappy Israeli Arab population, a rapidly growing ultra orthodox group of Jews that control too many state decisions, fanatical settlers, a million Russian immigrants of questionable loyalty to Israel’s original visions of itself, high-tech millionaires indifferent to the plight of the growing underclasses, and a collective malaise brought about by a hundred years of nearly continuous warfare. Shavit displays each worry beneath a bright light and uncovers additional concerns that few native Israelis have paused to consider. Most notable is that the very premise of Israel from Day One of the earliest Zionist Congresses is that Israel was a land of occupation and settlers. Overtaking the West Bank and Gaza was only a continuation of a Jewish plan to escape the ashes of pogroms, centuries of ghettoization, and the Shoa by taking over another people’s land. A lot like Western occupation of the Americas. Like many Israelis themselves, Shavit is loud, arrogant, compassionate, argumentative, insightful, and brilliant.
Eight short stories about young and old Jews in America and in Israel and every character elicits your sympathy. Antopol starts her stories in the middle of a discussion you might have just dropped in upon and within moments you are riveted by people so real, angst so visceral, and tension so necessary to resolve it is at once remarkable it is only a story that you are reading and even more exceptional that it is a short story at that. In one, a pair of brothers living in Israel must come to terms with the fact that the younger, less talented, and less capable has saved the life of the older, more handsome, and more successful-in-every-way brother. In another, a B-grade actor is released from a year in jail after getting caught up with communist actors and directors during the McCarthy era. A young Israeli, in a third story, is, forced home to live with her parents when her overseas career as a journalist burns out but falls in lust with a slightly older widower who has a troubled teenage daughter. How would you balance an unexpected love affair, fizzled career hopes, your parents, and a teenager living her despairing father and without her mother? Neither the plotlines, nor the list of protagonists does justice to this series of stories that all seem to revolve about a single aphorism. “Be careful what you wish for.” A must read of a young author’s first book — Antopol is in her early 30s.
Before Jesus was the Christ (Savior), he was Jesus of Nazareth. This book does its best to set the scene in First Century Palestine. The Romans rule their far-flung, not-very-important outpost on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and do so with typical Roman efficiency and brutality. Only it isn’t working. The Jews of Palestine are having a difficult time living beneath authoritarian rule of an outside government that insists it’s ruler is a God. Complicating matters among Jews in the region is the Temple cult dominated by a handful of power-crazed Pharisees. Messiahs are a shekel a dozen, each promising some variation of escape from hunger, brutality, and corruption. By cross-referencing Roman documents from the period, archaeological evidence, and the Gospels, Reza Aslan takes his hand at reconstructing a historical Jesus who emerges from all the Messiahs in the Middle East as the one who makes it. Aslan’s contextualization of the geography and the era are extremely informative. His guesswork about who Jesus was and what he might have been really like as a man are superficial at best because so little documentation is available. He finishes the book, however, with the transformation of Jesus the man into Jesus the Son of God by analyzing the context in which the Gospels, especially Paul’s, were written. Naturally, for the deeply religious much of the book will be blasphemy.
Why are so many contemporary detectives so depressed? Here’s another: Detective Avraham Avraham, a lonely, single, self-doubting Israeli detective slogging into a job that utterly consumes him. His first case, or at least the first in the series, revolves around a missing teenager, Ofer. Ofer is sixteen, introverted, sharing his bedroom with his younger brother, and spending way too much time on his computer. Ofer has a creepy neighbor downstairs, tense inattentive parents, and apparently no real friends. After Ofer heads to school on Wednesday morning and doesn’t return, Avraham Avraham has to find him. Someone once said you read mysteries only in part to figure out whodunnit. The other part is to learn about foreign places and times. The Missing File, translated from Hebrew, does reflect contemporary Israel, but only subtly. This mystery could have taken place anywhere. It’s an easy read, so credit goes also to the translator as well as the author, but also a little scary, probably because of the emphasis on foreshadowing that heightens the feeling of anxiety.
In the 1940s a Bedouin searching caves above the western shore of the Dead Sea discovered urns with scrolls inside. He knew right away they were both ancient and valuable and sold them. When they turned up in the antiques market, archaeologists started searching for similar caves. When archaeologists weren’t there Bedouin continued hunting. The scrolls, hundreds of them, date from the first centuries BCE and CE making them contemporaneous with the life of Jesus. Christian scholars have analyzed the texts for clues to the lives of early Christians. Jewish scholars, when they were finally permitted to examine the scrolls, look to the texts to learn about the lives of Jews just prior to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Complicating matters is the adjacency of the archaeological site of Qumron, an Essene branch of Judaism that decisively separated itself from the Priestly cult of the Pharisees. This account is more of an academic summary article of the state of the archaeological and analytical affairs than it is a book worth curling up with. It is most fascinating for its insight into how historians of the period attempt to piece together archaeological and historical evidence to paint wildly contradictory canvases of life at the time. The lesson, not surprisingly, is that most of us peering back into the past find what we expect to see, oftentimes overlooking what might actually be there.
Ora is worried to the point of illness that her son who has been called up by the Israeli Army for a special operation is going to die. Rather than sit at home waiting for what she is certain will be the imminent arrival at her front door by men in uniform bearing bad news, Ora strikes a childish bargain with God. If she is not at home, she calculates, than the Army cannot tell her that her son has been killed. She runs off with a former lover and hikes aimlessly through northern Israel, careful to avoid any sources of news. While that is the plot it is David Grossman’s incomparable ability to capture the intensity (insanity?) of contemporary Israeli life and reveal the inner workings of a mother with a son fighting in a war that make this book Nobel caliber. Not to be overlooked is the quality of the translator, Jessica Cohen, who will make you believe you are reading this book in its original language.