Israelis live a bifurcated existence. On the one hand they wearily read the morning paper, always knowing someone who is affected by a bomb, or the closing of businesses caused by the bomb. On the other hand, they go to bed dreaming of childhoods in Toronto or Paris or Arad, worrying about unfinished paintings, or remembering a first kiss behind the chicken coop near the abandoned kibbutz.
These two distinct modes of being jumped out at me from two recent books about Israel: Amos Oz’s "The Same Sea," a beautiful, meditative novel written in verse; and Jon Papernick’s intense and impressive "The Ascent of Eli Israel," about the relentless parade of violence and apocalyptic thinking that animates almost everything about the Holy Land.
Oz’s book, published last year, barely touches on the political scene, obsessed instead with the existential concerns of everyday people who eat salad on the veranda late at night, watching the sea, waiting for death, or deliverance or enlightenment. Two elderly colleagues lose their spouses to illness; an attractive young man searches Asia for peace of mind; a homely film producer desperately cajoles money from a pretty girl to produce a screenplay. The imagery is Amichai-like, full of gardens and deserts and birds and wind.
The book’s retreat into solitude is intentional. During a recent visit to the U.S., Oz, a die-hard leftist, explained how he was able to write excoriating editorials about politics with one hand, and with the other a kind of fable that floats above all that. Unless we clear a place of privacy and normalcy, he said, where the political is not personal, "we lose a part of our soul."
In "The Ascent of Eli Israel," a debut collection of short stories, the personal, political and theological are always interconnected. Meditation has no chance against the raucousness and violence that permeate the society. Written by an American about Americans and Israelis of all religious backgrounds, the stories walk a tightrope between the harsh, carefully observed existence of present-day Israel, a journalist’s appraisal of the political and social scene, and the feverish fantasies about power and theology that are just as much a reality as the fragrant olive trees and cobblestone streets. In one story, "An Unwelcome Guest," an Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn moves to Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter with his wife, acutely aware of all the bombings and shootings that go on around him. In the middle of the night an Arab man magically appears in the middle of his living room to tell him that the house belongs to him. The man’s family members slowly materialize in the room as well, and soon enough his gun is stolen from him. In the end it is unclear if an evil deed has been done in reality or in a dream. Is reality, then, a nightmare for Israel? Who can tell the difference?
There is also throughout the book the sense of Israelis being on trial. In "Malchyk," a young boy can’t rest until he proves he can find his father amid the battle of Jerusalem during the War of Independence. The American from "An Unwelcome Guest" must play backgammon with his Arab guests to see who gets to keep the house. Eli Israel hears God telling him to leave New York for Israel to purify himself, which entails almost a biblical level of sacrifice. And in "Lucky Eighteen" a lovesick American can’t even suffer his private indignities without his obnoxious photographer friend trying to snap the most offensive political photograph possible.
Papernick, who covered Israel for United Press International before publishing these stories, grasps that fiction can hardly keep up with reality in Israel. Despite the book’s leitmotif of fantastical elements, the stories can barely stay ahead of reality’s escalating absurdities. In this regard I thought of Joseph Heller’s "Catch-22," a Marx Brothers routine that has broken out in the middle of World War II. The Catch-22 for Israel, of course, is that there is no peace until land is given, but no land can be given until there is peace.
Perhaps one day there will be a place for Israelis in between the extreme inwardness and escapism of "The Same Sea" and the collapsing of the personal into the political, historical and theological that haunts the characters of "The Ascent of Eli Israel."