Hannah Groff travels to Israel on assignment, to write about the murder of poet David Bellen. The poet had writen a book called “Kid Bethlehem,” with the biblical King David reimagined as a 20th-century gangster, and then his body was found in the village of Beit Sahour, outside of Bethlehem. As soon as Hannah arrives, she’s asked again and again, Why have you never been to Israel?
Zachary Lazar’s new novel, “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” (Little Brown), opens as though it were the journalist’s memoir, or as Hannah explains, a memoir that’s more about others than about herself. But the novel is a complex assemblage of pieces that move back and forth in time, including both Hannah’s “published” article about Bellen and Bellen’s unpublished essay “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” in which he discusses Meyer Lansky, also a character in the book. As the story unfolds, the poet is also linked with both Hannah’s father and Lansky’s mistress, Gila Konig.
Sentence after sentence, Lazar’s novel is infused with originality, insight and poetry, as he reflects on human connections, as well as on Israel and Jewish identity.
In an interview, Lazar explains that Meyer Lansky emerged in his consciousness after he finished his 2009 nonfiction work, “Evening’s Empire: The Story of My Father’s Murder.” When Lazar was 6 years old his father had been killed by hired assassins, Mafia hit men, over a real estate scandal, the day before he was to appear before a grand jury.
Eventually, Lazar began to think about the Jewish version of the Mafia and found that the Israel chapter of Lansky’s life — he tried to immigrate there under the Law of Return toward the end of his life, but his petition was denied — seemed the most interesting and most meaningful to develop. Based on his idea of juxtaposing Meyer Lansky and King David,
Lazar received a Guggenheim Fellowship, but ultimately abandoned that idea and found a new approach.
The title “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” is drawn from a Bob Dylan song. Lansky is an immigrant to America from Belarus; Gila, who meets Lansky in Tel Aviv, is a Holocaust survivor who immigrates to Israel and then, on her own, to America. Hannah says that in writing her book — this book — “I have come to feel like an immigrant in my own life, inhabiting a world of reflections and images of people I can’t fully know, some of whom are dead, and I see now that my life has been shaped by this network, in ways I didn’t always perceive.”
After Hannah’s brief note at the book’s opening, the novel shifts to Israel, where Gila, a cocktail waitress with dreams of becoming a fashion designer, has a hard time thinking of Lansky as a gangster, racketeer or mobster — not that she doesn’t believe the stories; she finds that “the truth of him resided in understatement.” Lansky buys her expensive gifts, even as he understands that she will sell them. Lazar explains that he didn’t know that Gila would continue to be a character in the novel, but that she turned out to be “more interesting than I anticipated, more interesting than Lansky to me. I wanted to keep her in there.”
Hannah returns to Israel and keeps writing about the poet Bellen, who may have been murdered by Palestinians or by right-wing Jewish fanatics, or perhaps committed suicide. As for her connection to Israel, Hannah understands that her own longstanding lack of interest in the state might relate on some deeper level to her lack of desire to “face too directly the idea of myself as a Jew.” But she’s drawn in by the Israelis she meets. Her view is dark, but she also agrees a bit with Bellen’s ex-wife, who tells her, “Because the world is also like this: a glass of white wine on a nice day” — with room for forgiveness and healing.
Lazar teaches creative writing at Tulane University and is also the author of the highly praised novel “Sway.” He admits that he had some trepidation in taking on Israel as a subject.
“I’m not a policy expert. I don’t have any new insights into how to fix the problem. I thought that if I could present the situation as I see I, that would be worthwhile in and of itself,” he says. He realizes that he’s writing in part for an anti-Israel audience, for “a lot of friends who are reflexively anti-Israel without knowing anything. I wanted to try to find a way to speak to them that might open up their minds a little.
“I have plenty of criticism to level at Israel myself. But in doing the book I came to see it in a more complicated way,” says Lazar, who made two trips to Israel to do research. For interpretations of King David’s story, he turned to the work of Robert Alter, which really opened up the text for him.
One of the challenges in writing this collage of a novel, with its uncommon structure, was to “keep track of all the moving parts and to keep the reader as oriented as I could,” he explains. “The novel takes a view of history as a fractured and fragmented story. I try to show that we are made up of the things we choose to think about and also those things that happened before we were born, that we may not be aware of.”
Zachary Lazar will be reading from “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” along with Boris Fishman, author of “A Replacement Life,” on Wednesday, Aug. 6. The event, “The Truth of Fiction,” is the first in The Jewish Week’s Literary Summer series, at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, 7 W. 83rd Street, at 7 p.m. It will be followed by a book signing and reception. The second event, on Wednesday, August 10, features Marina Rubin, author of “Stealing Cherries” and Larry Smith, author of “Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life.” Tickets are $15 for the series, or $10 at the door for each event. (thejewishweek.com/summer-literary-series)