I will be coming to the United States to lecture early next year. Dates are available at the end of January and beginning of February. A UK stopover is an option. If your organization, congregation or campus would like more information,
The Book of Ruth could have been written by Jane Austen, a friend said in her warm voice at our table on Shavuot night. She was right. The books of Esther and Ruth are the two biblical stories that feel closest to modern novels – books with clear plot lines, crafted to be read on their own, but packed with allusions to other literature. Esther is a wild, bawdy farce. If it was written by someone named Mordechai, I suspect that it was actually Mordechai Richler. In Ruth, the wars and dynastic struggles, the wrestling brothers and earthshaking revelations are somewhere over the horizon. Women are talking to women about their relationships, with each other and with men. But Jane Austen never managed to write anything this concise, this essential .
Ruth is also the Bible’s description of how someone comes to Judaism individually, and it has to do with those relationships between people.
Dov, the guy who owns the hole-in-the-wall computer lab, explained to Elliott and me that the operating system was only in English; he didn’t have Arabic Windows. As for service, he said, that would be no problem, "as long as he brings it here."
Unfortunately, Muhammad Abu Arkub, to whom we were delivering the computer, has about as much chance as getting a permit to enter Jerusalem for a computer repair as he does of getting back his wife’s gold. Dov wasn’t being snide. He’s the old-fashioned gruff kind of guy who curses about everything and then puts in twice the work fixing your computer that he planned and charges no more, and would be embarrassed if you mentioned it. But the village of Wadi al-Shajneh, in the South Hebron Hills, is beyond where he does service calls. He was surprised when Elliott explained why we were buying the computer. "And you with a kipah ," he said. Not that he objected to what we were doing.
Elliott read about Muhammad in a Ha’aretz article by Gideon Levy, a few days after we went to Hebron to give a washing machine to Ghassan Burqan. If you read my previous post (Journey to Hebron: Nightmares and Hope ), you’ll remember that Ghassan had bought his own washing machine and was carrying it to his home in the Israeli-controlled side of Hebron when he was stopped by Border Police, beat up and arrested. The machine disappeared. In memory of our late friend Gerald Cromer, Elliott decided we should bring Ghassan a replacement.
Muhammad’s home was searched by soldiers who arrived at midnight. They said they were looking for weapons. The search lasted two hours. Muhammad, his wife Lubna, their two small daughters, and Muhammad’s younger brother Rami were all kept under guard in Rami’s home – a single-room shack built onto the side of Muhammad’s house. When the search was over, and the family rushed back into the main house, they found their computer and television smashed. And, they say, the jewelry box where Lubna kept her gold was gone.
In the final scene of Adoor Gopalakrishnan‘s film Shadow Kill (Nizhalkuthu), a young man, dressed in black, sets out to perform his first hanging. The young man, Muthu, is the son of the hereditary executioner of the south Indian principality of Travancore. He is a Gandhian nationalist and pacifist who has made speeches in his village against the death penalty. Yet upon his father’s death, during the night before the execution, Muthu accepts the doom of his descent-even though he knows that the boy around whose neck he is about to place the noose is innocent.
Such an end implies that we have just seen (at the Cinema South Film Festival in Sderot, see my post Cinema of the South: Celebrating Sderot and Kerala) a film about how Muthu wrestles with his heritage, resists, and then accepts it. But in fact it is not Muthu but his father, Kaliyappan, who agonizes, from the story’s first scene to its penultimate one, about having killed an innocent man the last time he was called from his village to perform his office. Emulating his hero, Muthu buys a spinning wheel to spin out string, which is taken to the local jail to be made into rope. It’s Kaliyappan who, like the Greek fate-goddess Atropos, cuts the rope-the rope of his last hanging, whose ashes, burnt in ritual and prayer, are a balm that heals the sick and troubled.
In keeping with tradition, on the night prior to the execution, the king’s police officers ply Kaliyappan with liquor and keep him from sleeping (he must not sleep, because his victim is certainly not sleeping this night) by telling him stories. The story that finally helps keep the elderly executioner awake is about a romance between a young teenage girl and an orphan flutist. The girl asks the boy to teach her to play his instrument; when he leaves her to practice, the girl is attacked, raped, and killed by her brother-in-law, who has developed an uncontrollable passion for her. The flute found in her hands implicates the orphan boy; the girl’s family knows who the real murderer is but protects him.
Sderot was celebrating yesterday–it’s been celebrating all week, in fact. Who cares about the missiles coming over from Gaza when you can catch a good flick–lots of them? The Cinema South Festival, held in Sderot each year under the sponsorship of the film school at adjacent Sapir College, is one of the most stimulating, and heart-warming cultural events on Israel’s calendar.
The day’s only Red Alert happened just as we emerged from our rental car next to the housing project where my daughter, Mizmor (finishing up her first year in the animation program) lives. We scurried to safety–well, it’s all relative–under one of the building’s outdoor stairwells until, seconds later, we heard a distant boom.
After dropping off some home-cooked food in her apartment, we drove over to the Sderot Cinematecque. The festival was in full swing. “South” here doesn’t mean Alabama and Georgia-it means Israel’s poor, forgotten, and bombarded Negev region. Sapir students were quaffing beers and muching on sandwiches and sticky sweets while a Kerala band played songs that sent my wife Ilana-whose late father grew up in Bombay, after his family moved there from Baghdad-into dreamy nostalgia.
Yael Hedaya’s Accidents is an intriguing, maddening novel of contemporary Tel Aviv-intriguing in its astute portrayal of the relationships between its characters, maddening in the shallowness of its vision. During the weeks I spent reading it, I wanted it to end so that I could move into a different, more profound fictional world-but neither could I put it aside until I’d read everyone of its 547 pages.
(I read the novel in the original Hebrew, but has been published in English in a translation by Jessica Cohen. Hedaya was named a finalist for the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this book; my book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award.)
The time is the 1990s. Yonatan is the middle-aged bestselling author of two novels, but has been melancholy, lost, and unable to write since he lost his wife in an automobile accident. He lives in an apartment in central Tel Aviv with his pre-adolescent daughter, Dana. He meets Shira, whose recent first novel was also a bestseller, and who lives not far from Yonatan and Dana. Shira has been through a number of relationships, most recently with thoughtful, considerate Eitan, but finds herself falling in love with Yonatan, who, truth be said, is not really such a nice guy. The loss of his wife may have given him a good reason to be cold and aloof, but it turns out he’s always been that way. In the end, however, he melts; Shira moves in. Shira is also caring for her ailing father. In the meantime, Dana faces chick cliques at school, and gets through her early teenage years.
Check out the new installment of my monthly Necessary Stories column in The Jerusalem Report: “Political Morality.” While you’re there, check out last month’s column, too, which I forgot to flag here.
Maimonides wrote that we should avoid extremes and aspire to the middle way. He was referring to virtues and vices, not poetry. But in encountering a poem that does not adopt any of the classical forms, one good way to grasp its structure is sometimes simply to count the lines, figure out which one falls precisely in the middle, and begin working out from there.
One poem that can be puzzled out this way is one of my favorite contemporary pieces of verse, Stephen Dunn’s “Odysseus’s Secret, from his 2002 collection Different Hours (read the poem here ). I used two of its lines as the epigraph to my memoir Company C . The name of my new monthly column in The Jerusalem Report, “Necessary Stories,” comes from those lines, and is the name I originally wanted for my book.
The poem is in free verse, with no rhyme structure or stanzas to clue us in to how the poet built it. But it has an odd number of lines, 37, which means that one line stands in the middle-line 19: “he was a man. Lightning, high winds” The caesura in the middle of the line-the full stop, with four syllables on either side, is further evidence that this middle line is indeed the axis around which the poem is built.
If, like me, you are a Jew who grew up in America in the second half of the twentieth century, your Jewish identity was molded by a set of what seemed like self-evident propositions. First and foremost, Jews are different from other people in that they belong to a community that was both a nation and religion. That means you could be a Jew even if you didn’t buy into the God and mitzvah stuff. Second, only racists and Nazis maintain that Jews are racially (that is, biologically) distinct in any significant way from other people. Indeed, “race” is a bad word used mostly by people who want to deny equal rights to Jews, blacks, and other minorities. Third, Jews straddle the great racial divide in American society. We are white of skin, but black in spirit. Sharing a history of oppression and slavery with the blacks, we have a peculiar ability and duty to emphasize with their plight-empathy that the blacks appreciated at first, but strangely stopped appreciating as the century progressed.
Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton University Press, 2006) is a fascinating account of how Jewish identity in the United States was formed in the context of American race relations. In the process, Goldstein shows that our self-evident identities are self-evident only in the framework of the peculiar American experience. That’s one reason why American and Israeli Jews so often miscomprehend each other’s sensibilities.
Israeli book editors are less likely than their American counterparts to demand major manuscript changes of an author. For better or worse-and it’s both-that has been clear to me for a long time. And it was confirmed by four emerging novelists who spoke Wednesday night at Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom literary café in the framework of Jerusalem’s International Writers Festival.
As both a writer and an editor, I have mixed feelings about this. Like all writers, I get annoyed when an editor tells me that parts of my pieces are unnecessary or uninteresting and that other things are, in his or her opinion, missing. It’s no surprise that many authors reach out to self publishing companies to publish their own work to avoid the criticism of editors. Like all editors, I almost always see faults in manuscripts that come my way and believe that if my clients will take my advice, the works will be better. I had very productive and pleasant experiences with the editors of my two books, and I think the manuscripts were improved by their suggestions. But from the stories I hear, my experience is not necessarily typical.
Go into a trendy clothing store, sports outlet, or home improvement warehouse emporium in Israel these days and, as often as not, it’ll be an Arab who helps you find just the right jeans, running shorts, or the doohickey you need to fix your leaky faucet. In today’s Ha’aretz, Ruth Sinai documents this social phenomenon and asks whether service jobs like this represent progress for Israel’s Arab citizens, or just another way to get exploited.
I won’t weigh in on the economic benefits or lack thereof, but this trend is certainly a step forward for ethnic integration in Israel. Historically, Israel’s Palestinian citizens have worked in agriculture, construction, and behind the scenes service jobs like washing dishes in restaurants. In such jobs they were largely invisible, and where visible their jobs marked them as unskilled, alien, and quite often physically dirty.
Compare that to the fashionably-dressed, tastefully made-up, and high-spirited young woman who has become my favorite sales clerk at my local Golf clothing store. I’m not exactly a walking display of the latest fashions-I don’t have a native instinct for choosing the threads that look best on me. So I need the advice and encouragement of a patient and sympathetic attendant. The process involves conversation and interaction with a very visible member of my country’s minority.
What if you make a peace agreement and nobody comes? That’s the fundamental story behind “A Possible Peace Between Israel & Palestine: An Insider’s Account of the Geneva Initiative.” It’s a fascinating look into the conflict and the “peace industry.” Contrary to the intention of its author, political scientist Menachem Klein, it raises more doubts than hopes about the future of the peace process.
(Caveat lector: I translated this book, and two previous books by Klein into English. He’s a neighbor and friend and fellow-member of Kehilat Yedidya.)