Exodus and Aliyah: Jewish-American Writers on Israeli Turf
By SANFORD PINSKER
For many Jewish-American readers the novel about Israel they
know and love is Leon Uris’s Exodus.
Many read it in high school and the effect, on even those who did not
especially like novels, was extraordinary. Exodus
had everything that stirs young hearts: heroism, history, and mythic sweep.
Zionism oozed from every page, so much so that complications—political or
otherwise—checked their headaches at the door. Exodus gave the world vivid portraits of Jews who had equal
measures of brawn and brains, and who could act decisively in their own
Problem was, Uris was a clumsy writer. He had a lead ear for language and a
disturbing way of telegraphing his punches. Even worse, his characters were not
terribly realistic. Indeed, the litany of stylistic complaints could rattle on
for pages but none of them would diminish by one whit the raw power that Exodus packed. And when Uris’s novel
made its way to the silver screen, an altogether dreamy Paul Newman made
teenaged girls (and their mothers) swoon. Most literary critics knew when they
were outmatched by the popular culture and either dummied up or gave Uris a
Serious literature about Israeli life would come later: Hugh Nissenson’s A Pile of Stones (1968),
the late Saul Bellow’s
non-fictional account, To Jerusalem and Back(l976), Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock
(l993) and the “Judea” section of The Counterlife
(l987), Tova Reich’s Master of the Return
(l988) and The Jewish War (l995),
Ann Roiphe’s Lovingkindness
(l993), Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate
(l998), and Melvin Jules Bukiet’s Strange Fire
(2001). These books, and others written in the years between the publication of
Exodus and the early years of the 21st century, made it clear that
Jewish-America writers had an imaginative range no longer confined to family
squabbles and corned-beef sandwiches. They could also write about the tangled
life that Israelis lived an ocean away.
Not surprisingly, some writers were more penetrating than others. Here, a
comparison between Philip Roth and Saul
Bellow can be instructive: Roth’s Operation
Shylock not only asks us to believe that a character named Philip Roth
worked with/for the Israeli secret service but also that his extraordinary
efforts literally saved Israel from
annihilation. “Take that!" the
book fairly screamed at those who had been on his case since the early days of Goodbye, Columbus
and Portnoy’s Complaint. "Enough already with the dreary
talk about how I’m a self-hating Jew," the novel seems to insist,
"I’m as much a Zionist—indeed, more
of a Zionist, than you."
The trouble, of course, is that nobody really believed that the Mossad would
trust the likes of Philip Roth—or indeed, any
fiction writer—with state secrets. The novel, with all its slipping in and
out of autobiography, fell awkwardly between two stools: it was neither objectively
“true” nor persuasively “false.” Like about half of Roth’s novels, Operation Shylock quickly landed in the
“remaindered” pile, where it languished and was soon pulped.
By contrast, The Counterlife
remains one of Roth’s most interesting fictions, if only because it marks the
place where his ongoing experiments in postmodernist narration begin. It also
marks the place where Roth tries to sort out the tangles that increasingly
define life in Israel. I would like nothing more than to report that Roth’s
account of Jewish fanaticism is by now dated, but, alas, it is not. Indeed, his
telling fictional portraits demonstrate—as though more demonstrations are
needed—that Keats’s “negative capability” is still the best way
to probe the underside of deep political divides. In a land where there are
five strong opinions for every four citizens, Roth was able to imagine a wide
variety of Others, and in the process to portray an Israel still in the grip of
fanaticism by Palestinians and Israelis alike.
Not only did Israel unleash some of Roth’s best writing to that point but it
also suggests why The Counterlife
still has life and why Bellow’s To
Jerusalem and Back was always dead in the water. Whereas Roth speaks to us
through his riveting counter-voice, Nathan Zuckerman, Bellow’s rumination are,
well, Bellow’s. The result in the latter case is an extended travel sketch, one
that reminds us of how much we believed, really believed, that an egghead like Moses Herzog
could lead us out of the postmodern wasteland (that is, if his breakdown
somehow abates), and of how much Saul Bellow walks around Jerusalem as
perplexed and confused as the experts he meets for coffee.
Granted, Israel has a long history of inspiring gush, even among writers known
for their wise cracks (Mark Twain) or multi-layered ironies (Melville).
Painters look upon Jerusalem sunsets and try, usually without much success, to
capture the way that light glints off its stone buildings. In some cases, a
good deal of research and first-hand knowledge goes into, say, the portraits of
“Jerusalem fever” in the Robert Stone’s Damascus
Gate; but there are also cases (Melvin Jules Bukiet’s Strange Fire is Exhibit A) in which an author may never have set
foot on Israeli soil and still can make telling observations the land and its
people. True enough, some Israeli reviewers were quick to point out that Bukiet
was not always a reliable guide where street names and places were concerned—on
this score Stone was much more informed—but Bukiet is much more concerned with
capital-T Truths than with small-t ones.
The latest round of books about Israel written by Jewish-American writers
suggest that a religious education and a life devoted to observance—once
regarded as delimiting conditions for would-be artists—has become at once
important and nearly a necessity. Why so? Because a growing number of Jewish
Americans, especially in their 20s and 30s, have joyfully turned a long history of assimilation on its head.
As Dara Horn, the author of an ambitious first novel entitled In the Image
puts it, “when young Jewish adults want to be rebellious, they become
Orthodox.” Indeed, the desire of many young people is not to be richer than
their parents or to live in larger houses than they remember from childhood but
rather to be more religious. Even when parents are frum (religiously observant) what their children want to be is more religious. They not only want to be
frum but to be very frum: “They [many
beleaguered Jewish parents] had heard stories,” the narrator of Tova Mirvis’s
novel, The Outside World, tells us, “about children who came home
from Israel and carted off all the dishes in the house to be dunked in the
local mikvah” (ritual bathhouse).
What this extremist behavior comes down to the latest spin on the old fairy
tale question, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall/ Who’s the fairest of us all?” For
a long time those in the grip of identity politics insisted that the issue
wasn’t “who’s the fairest,” but, rather, who’s the blackest or the poorest or
the most disabled group in America.
There was no end of candidates, especially when estimates of “authenticity” got
thrown into the mix. Here’s one case (there aren’t many) in which the Jews were
Yakovs-come-lately because what they asked was “Who’s the most authentic Jew of
us all?” This query simply would not have occurred to an older generation that
prided itself, above all else, on being thoroughly assimilated, mainstream
For a long time Jewish-American writers shied away from Israel because the land
was not theirs—in its language, daily
rhythms, and everything from Jerusalem’s confusing streets to the special coin
required to make a telephone call. But a sea change has gradually emerged—an aliyah of sorts—as many young writers
find themselves attracted to the omnipresent “Jewishness” of the Jewish state.
Granted, I am not using aliyah in the
strict sense that describes Jews who have resettled in Israel but rather as a
way of pointing to the sympathies that prompted a number of Jewish-American
writers to spend limited stays (a couple of months. perhaps a year) in Israel.
The exception is Allan Hoffman, author of Kagaan’s Superfecta, a quirky comic writer who teaches at
Bar Ilan University and who lives—easily, comfortably—among the ultra-Orthodox
of Jerusalem’s Jewish quarter. When he writes fiction, Hoffman gives into his
postmodernist imagination; when he prays, he does so in the company of his
ultra-Orthodox chums by the Western Wall.
As with any grouping of writers, some are more interesting than others. That is
true for the latest wave of Jewish-American writers on Israeli soil: Risa
Miller (Welcome to Heavenly Heights),
Ruchama King (Seven Blessings),
and. Naama Goldstein
(The Place Will Comfort You).
Miller’s novel is set in Israel’s West Bank where several orthodox Jewish
families from America have made aliyah.
What makes the work interesting, even distinctive, is the way that Miller gives
a human face to people often written off as dangerous zealots. For many Jews,
the presence of these Jewish settlers on the West Bank makes the peace process
infinitely more difficult; so far as the settlers are concerned, a
fundamentalist reading of scripture—indeed, God Himself—has granted them the
land and that, thank you very much, is the end of that.
Fortunately, the community of Heavenly Heights is not as single-minded nor as
intractable as the liberal media often suggests. They, too, have human faces,
forever adjusting to the army helicopters that circle overhead or to the very
real possibility that Palestinian militants will murder them in their sleep.
Still, Miller gives only scant attention to the clash of political ideas;
instead, much more attention is paid to the small details of daily life among
observant Jews. Unfortunately, the details do not add up to a coherent, much
less compelling plot. In the end, the upper middle-class family that the novel
has been following decides to return to America and life in Heavenly Heights
goes on as usual
By contrast, King’s novel is a love story, one in which how the plot shakes out
is important. That said, however, I hasten to add that King sets her double-
and triple-plotting in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish Quarter, a place King
knows well. At one point she lived with a marriage broker and it is easy to see
how real-life moments crept into her
fiction. Moreover, King knows how the ultra-Orthodox dress, eat, pray, and act.
She is particularly good on the layer upon layer of customs that govern dating
rituals, and it will surely surprise some readers that marriage brokers often
arrange a whole series of “first dates,” before finding the right lid for the
perfect pot. That, of course, is were the tensions in the novel reside, even
though we know that her middle-aged American protagonist is headed for the chuppah in the concluding pages.
Finally, there is The Place Will Comfort
You, a collection of eight stories that stretch from the l970s to the
present and from difficult adjustments to living in Israel to ambivalent
returns to America. Goldstein’s title, taken from the verses in Genesis that
describe Jacob’s ladder ascending and descending from heaven, drips with irony
because the various protagonists of her stories (one suspects that the person
we see growing from a child to an adult is none other than Goldstein herself)
are hardly “comforted” no matter where they live.
For Goldstein’s characters. Israel is a land with mixed blessings, especially
if one is an outsider. In “The Conduct for Consoling,” where the phrase “The
place will comfort you” is traditionally uttered, a bright but awkward American
girl is picked to represent her class at the shiva of a classmate’s mother. Not only is her unfamiliar with the
etiquette that surrounds shiva calls,
but she was chosen solely on the basis of her academic performance. Try as she
will, however, she cannot fit in: a classmate points out that “Americans are
In “Pickled Sprouts,” an America girl in much the same pickle as the
protagonist of “The Conduct for Consoling” is mortified that her mother makes
her take an American-styled lunchbox to school. These small details, which to
be sure are not “small” to those who want to fit in with their new Israeli
classmates, is one place where Goldstein’s book outshines her competition.
Another is her sense that Israel is a place where, as one character puts it,
“you look out your window in the morning [and] your eyes might hit on the exact
spot where Hannah prayed for a son. Hang your laundry, the wind on your clean
sheets is also stroking the same ground where Eli the Priest lay his head at
night.” The sacred and the profane so mingle that each embodies the other. That
is what makes Israel so attractive to Goldstein but it is also why she waxes
satirical about American visitors who want nothing more than to turn Israel
into a religious theme park (see “A Pillar of Cloud”).
Most encouraging of all, Goldstein has a sharp ear for language, for those
whose Hebrew speech is rendered in an appropriately awkward English as well as
those American transplants struggling for fluency in Hebrew. The result
are sentences that capture Israeli
rhythms, often slightly askew, just as
her sense of humor humanizes characters honestly trying to do their best: “My
last report card in Leviticus I got an Almost
Very Good Minus, in History of Our State Almost Very Good Plus, in Math Good
Minus, which is a difficult subject for me, but English Class, even though
it’s new this year, from the minute I started I was ahead. I can come up with
more rhymes than anyone for Pin.”
Given the heart-wrenching news that comes out of Israel on a weekly, sometimes
daily basis—about suicide bombings on buses and in pizza parlors—it is
understandable that many Jewish-Americans put off making tourist visits much
less making aliyah. Nonetheless,
there are those who feel that if Israel needs the financial support of
Jewish-Americans (and, indeed, of America) it also needs Jewish-American feet
on Israeli turf. If the trio of Miller, King, and Goldstein bring varying
degrees of talent to the literary table, their books suggest that Israel is now
a congenial subject for those in the new generation of Orthodox storytellers.