Contemporary Israel, In The Literary Spotlight


Archeology and Coexistence: A kabbalist and his motley crew of outcasts.

‘You are young. The needs are great. You can help.” If this reminds you of a saying from the sages, that is fitting since the speaker is indeed a sage, though a fictional one: Rebbe Yehudah, the holy man in whose courtyard author Ruchama King Feuerman sets her beguiling novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist.” (Originally published only as an e-book by New York Review Books last December, it is now also available in paperback.)

The novel takes place in the pre-intifada Jerusalem of the late-1990s — recent enough for Feuerman’s evocative descriptions of the city’s winding streets and narrow alleyways to be entirely recognizable, but long enough ago to make her tale seem almost wistful. The story itself unfolds like a fable. Disenchanted by New York and dispirited after being jilted by his fiancé, 40-year old Isaac Markowitz sells his haberdashery business and decamps for Jerusalem. Wanting to start anew but clueless as to how, he stumbles into the stone-floored, olive-tree shaded courtyard presided over by Rebbe Yehudah and his wife Shaindel Bracha.

There the aged couple tends to the needs of a motley crew of beggars (most prominently, the flatulent, garlic-loving Mazel) and a changing cast of troubled advice seekers and confused religious souls: a classical pianist whose non-stop hiccupping has ended his career, a middle-aged rebbetzin who lusts after her husband’s young students, and singles of all ages seeking religious charms to help find their intended. Isaac, used to serving his own array of oddball Lower East Side customers in his store in New York, easily falls into the habit of helping the rebbe with his regulars. What’s different is the atmosphere — spiritual rather than materialistic — and that makes all the difference to Isaac, an endearing bumbler whose new black hat marks his recent turn to strict Orthodox observance. No wonder that when the rebbe asks him to be his assistant, Isaac hears it as a call and accepts. Yet it will be a while before he begins to understand that the deeper lessons the courtyard holds for him reside beyond the books he studies and in the people he encounters.

Among those is Tamar, a redheaded ba’al teshuva who drives a sporty motorbike and sees in Isaac romantic possibilities that he blindly ignores until almost too late. But the most memorable is Mustafa, a devout Arab Muslim whose life has been tragically defined by a physical deformity so grotesque that even his mother shuns him. Lonely and unloved, he yearns for human connection and aspires to something beyond his lowly job as a janitor at the Temple Mount. The glimmer of a different future emerges from a chance conversation with Isaac, whom he meets in the souk. Mustafa’s job isn’t so lowly after all, Isaac tells him, but in some ways akin to that of the Kohein who cleaned the Holy Temple.

The idea that he may be not just useful in the world, but doing godly work (no matter whose God that may be) strikes Mustafa like a revelation. To thank Isaac, he brings him a gift: a discarded stone he has retrieved from the construction site where he also works — and which turns out to be an ancient clay pomegranate carved with Hebrew lettering. In other words, an archaeological find of potential significance.

But pomegranate, it turns out, is also Israeli soldier slang for hand grenade. That’s appropriate (and a clever authorial double entendre) because this antique pomegranate could also prove explosive for Jewish-Arab relations, Israeli authorities fear, as an artifact that lends historical credence to Jewish claims to the Temple Mount against those of the Arabs. An arrest, a brief jail sentence and other complications ensue for Isaac, Mustafa and Tamar. But ultimately, Mustafa’s other great find — an ancient clay dove, symbol of peace — eludes everyone.

The plot’s pace is leisurely, sometimes too much so, and some of the minor characters can border on caricature. But Feuerman writes with grace and wit, and in her descriptions of Jerusalem you can hear echoes of Hebrew poets across the millennia. The rebbe and his circle provide engaging company, and “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist” is as wise as it is heartfelt.

Coupling in Katamon: Yale Unterman’s stories of ‘love and longing.’

The Jerusalem neighborhood that provides the setting for the linked short stories that comprise Yael Unterman’s “The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love and Longing” (Yotzeret Publishing) will be familiar to anyone who has seen the hit Israeli television series, “Srugim.” The district called Katamon (Greek for “under the monastery,” the landmark under whose hill the neighborhood sits), is a once-elegant area inhabited by well-to-do families that is now home to numerous apartment-sharing Orthodox Jewish singles. It’s this demographic that both the TV show (available through Hulu) and Unterman’s stories focus on, chronicling the romantic hopes and disappointments of a similar group of marriage-minded women in their 20s and 30s.

Now, smart women seeking husbands is not a new theme in literature (or TV series). Nor is the lamentable resistance of some men to women who are their intellectual equals or superiors an unfamiliar plot line in fiction (or real life, either). The extra twist here is that these accomplished women are both observant and equality-minded, standing up for the right to participate in the same religious rituals that men do. Unfortunately for them, however, theirs is a profile that is not altogether welcomed by everyone in the pool of religious Orthodox bachelors.

Thus, in the story “Species,” set during the holiday of Sukkot, Hannah carries her etrog and lulav to shul with a combination of self-empowered pride and anxious self-consciousness; in fact she is the only female in the women’s section of the Orthodox shul to possess a set. In a comic fantasy, she imagines men and women pelting her with all manner of fruit and vegetables redolent of the fall festival. In reality, no one has given her a second look. Which is worse, she wonders, to seem outrageous or merely be ignored?

Unterman displays a wry sense of irony. In “Glove,” Karin collects lost unmatched gloves found on the street or on the bus: who will find a match first, she wonders, these singlet gloves or herself? In “Cold Dates,” Shari’s blind dinner date with a rabbinical student becomes unexpectedly steamy when he holds up a pitted date and commands, “Feed me.”

She also experiments with different writing forms and styles. “Katamonsta,” the longest story in the collection, consists of a series of blog entries by Emma, whose non-stop quips (“When God said ‘It is not good for man to be alone,’ he was talking about Adam, not Eve,” she jokes) keep her from crying out loud from loneliness. “The Fellowship of the Ring” brings together several characters from previous stories in a radio-play kvetch session. The final tale, “Dateline Manhattan 2029,” envisions a futuristic dating scene presided over by such groups as “The Protocols of the Zeldas of Zion.”

Unterman previously published a book of serious scholarship, “Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar”, but “The Hidden of Things” is her first work of fiction, and there is a certain inconsistency in the quality of the stories. While each one has at least one moment of hilarity or poignance, all of them would have benefit from trimming, and her characterizations could have been sharpened. Even so, Unterman’s gift for comedy is unmistakable, not hidden at all.

A Holon Whodunit: D.A. Mishani’s working-class crime fiction.

There’s something about a Sephardi that makes a good detective. With the likes of Batya Gur’s now-iconic Michael Ohayon, Jonathan Kellerman’s Daniel Sharavi (So he’s not Sephardi, but Yemenite — who’s counting?!), and now, in D.A. Mishani’s “A Possibility of Violence” (HarperCollins), Avraham Avraham, Sephardim are salient in the genre. Mishani’s protagonist, Avraham Avraham, seems to be an almost peripheral character, from working-class Holon — not poverty-stricken, but hardly glamorous. Avraham is slightly off-kilter, even marginal, none too bright and not always successful — but, in his dogged tracking of a case, he sees things that others do not.

Every good detective novel follows a “formula” — the detective who “gets it” while others don’t; the constipated supervisor, bureaucratic to a fault; the villain, sometimes psychopathically murderous, sometimes nebbishy. And “A Possibility of Violence” is no different. In Mishani’s riveting second detective novel, the formula works, and works well, but before too long the reader realizes that the formula is left far behind.

Mishani himself is no stranger to crime fiction, but he made his bones not as a novelist but as a literary historian specializing in detective literature, and this is evident in his new novel. The careful reader will note that homage is paid to the classics of the genre, especially to Ed McBain and to Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Swedish detective Martin Beck.

The plot of “A Possibility of Violence” is straightforward, and is one that resonates in contemporary Israel. Why would anyone want to plant a fake bomb in a suitcase outside a day-care center? The case seems trivial. But everything about the case makes Avraham Avraham uneasy.

Well — imagine our surprise! — “A Possibility of Violence” is about more than a fake bomb. Mishani’s narrative, deftly unfolded, implicates Inspector Avraham’s professional and personal past — it turns out that the fake-bomb case is an exercise in personal redemption — and by extension Israeli history and sociology. Setting the novel in Holon, paradigmatic of hard-working, low-end Israel, is highly suggestive. Is 21st-century Israel about Tel Aviv and Jerusalem? Hardly, the author dryly submits; it’s about Holon.

Mishani’s characters are finely wrought. Avraham’s new supervisor Benny Saban seems like a harmless bean counter, but there is more going on. Avraham’s mentor Ilana Lis avoids the detective, and why she does so is crucial to the story and to Avraham’s redemption. Amos Uzan, the initial suspect, seems like just another thug — but something about him bothers Avraham. Is it the mustache? And sandwich vendor Chaim Sara seems like a more-or-less honest schlub. What is there in his story that does not ring true? And so on … Who are these people?

There is also Avraham’s new girlfriend, Marianka, introduced to us in Mishani’s first novel, “The Missing File.” Marianka is hardly a minor player in this intricate drama.

Is “A Possibility of Violence” beach reading? Highly recommended. But for the student of modern Israel who wonders about the changes in Israel from the communal character of the Yishuv and the early state to the urban identity of today (Why are there detective novels written today in Israel, while the genre was unknown a generation ago?) there is more. For that person, Mishani’s novel is required reading.

Jerome Chanes

From Baghdad To Israel: Eli Amir’s post-’48 novel of immigration.

Eli Amir’s sprawling novel, “The Dove Flyer” (New York Review Books, ebook), is set in Baghdad post-1948, and portrays the struggles of Iraqi Jewry facing the question of whether to leave the familiarity of home for Israel and all its uncertainties. Through the ages as anti-Semitism has escalated, other Jewish communities have wrestled with this same challenge. Many of us wonder what we would have done in Germany in the 1930s.

“The Dove Flyer” was published in Hebrew in 1987 and recently translated into English by Hillel Halkin. Amir, who was born in Baghdad and moved to Israel as a teen, is an award-winning novelist and civil servant who has worked on behalf of refugees.

In the novel, set against a backdrop of increasing Muslim hostility, Communists and Zionists compete for the commitment of young Iraqi Jews. Kabi, the chief protagonist, is a teenage boy struggling with all that teenage boys confront. His parents are opposed on whether to go or stay. The arrest of his uncle, an active Zionist, is the catalyst for action. Ultimately, Kabi’s mother, who had no desire to leave Baghdad, seems to do better amid the realities of Israel. His father, who dreamed of Zion, is unable to bear the challenges that early immigrants faced.

Sharon Anstey

The Write Stuff: Aharon Applefeld’s latest novel.

Aharon Appelfeld’s latest novel is the most tender of love stories. But “Suddenly, Love” (Schocken) is also a meditation on memory, writing, faith and the aftermath of the Shoah.

When 70-year-old Ernest, a lonely, retired investment adviser who has written several (unpublished) novels, speaks toward the end of the book about what he has learned about writing, he easily could be speaking for Appelfeld, one of Israel’s most distinguished writers, who has written more than 40 books and won major international literary prizes.

“Good writing has to be like Grandfather’s peasant smock: a simple tunic, with no decoration, comfortable to wear. Once Grandfather told him that there’s not a superfluous word in the Bible. Every word counts and has its place.”

The novel follows the evolving of an unlikely relationship between Ernest, a Red Army veteran from Ukraine who came to Israel after World War II (whose wife and daughter were murdered by the Nazis and is divorced from his difficult second wife of five years), and Irena, a woman in her mid-30s who is his caretaker. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she was born in a displaced persons camp in Frankfurt, where her parents met. Never married, Irena lived with her parents until their deaths, and arranges her home exactly as her mother did, often refolding their clothing to remember them and give her strength. She follows Jewish religious tradition exactly as they did. Ernest, however, lost the faith of his childhood.

Ernest writes every day, although with frustration, and begins reading to the very steady and reserved Irena. He comes to realize that while she doesn’t speak much, “the little that leaves her mouth is drawn from deep within her.” Inspired by her unstated curiosity and goodness, he learns to write anew. Their emotional connection is mutual. As his health declines and she feels the Angel of Death lurking, she shoos him away, “the way one would drive away a bird of prey.”

Sandee Brawarsky