Celebrating Jewish Literature: Three novels by Israeli authors

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

  • “Professor Schiff’s Guilt”

Are we responsible for our ancestors’ sins? If we have in some way benefitted from their actions, what do we owe the descendants of those they harmed? Readers might expect a novel focusing on this topic to take a serious literary approach. That is not true of “Professor Schiff’s Guilt” by Agur Schiff (New Vessel Press), though. Schiff’s novel – which is part satire, part farce – offers a humorous and thought-provoking way to think about the past. The seriousness of the topic and the absurdity of Professor Schiff’s situation mix to create an unusual work of fiction. 

Professor Schiff has no difficulty telling his friends and family that his grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, Klonimus Zelig Schiff, was a slave owner. Klonimus not only owned slaves, but encouraged many of them to convert to Judaism. After the death of his white, Jewish wife, Klonimus left his home in the New World with a pregnant former slave he now considered his wife and several other former slaves – all converts to Judaim – and headed to Africa to create a Jewish colony there. Something happened to the ship, whose wreckage has now been discovered, leading Professor Schiff to travel to an unnamed African nation to reclaim his ancestor’s belongings. Unfortunately for him, he is arrested under a new law that prohibits slave owners’ descendants from profiting from their ancestors’ deeds. While awaiting trial, Professor Schiff is housed in a villa and offered opportunities to learn about Africa.

These sections of the novel are intertwined with the professor’s life before leaving Tel Aviv. While trying to collect money owed to him by a lawyer, he is offered Lucille Tettle-Ofosu, an African refugee living illegally in Israel, in exchange for the debt. Professor Schiff falls in love with Lucille at first glance, something his wife, Tami, finds both amusing and frustrating, especially when Lucille comes to live with them. That problem is partly solved when they offer Lucille a job helping Tami’s step-grandfather. However, that solution soon creates additional difficulties.

What can’t be captured when discussing the plot of “Professor Schiff’s Guilt” is the role that humor plays in the novel. The situations in Israel and Africa are laced with absurdity, especially when dealing with Professor Schiff’s naiveness: he clearly doesn’t understand historic or contemporary racism, particularly how his ancestor and his own actions mirror each other. This leads to a great many humourous situations. The novel is an excellent choice for book clubs interested in moral questions, although some members will shake their heads at just how little Professor Schiff comprehends about his situation and desires. 


  • “The Only Daughter”

Some novels offer a panoramic view of the world; others feature a slice of life. One example of the latter is A. B. Yehoshua’s “The Only Daughter” (HarperVia), which takes place over the course of several weeks of Rachele Luzzato’s life in Italy. Rachele is 12-year-old whose family’s religious connections are a bit complex: her father and his divorced parents are Jewish. Although her mother is now Jewish, Rachele’s maternal grandparents are Catholic. (Well, one is a practicing Catholic; the other is an atheist who still likes going to church.) Rachele is studying for her bat mitzvah with an Israeli rabbi, but still wants to act in her school Christmas play, in which she’s been cast as the Madonna. Unfortunately, her father forbids her from doing so because he fears she will be unable to tell the difference between the play and real life. 

Rachele’s life is also unsettled because her father has just found out he has a brain tumor. Possible surgery is postponed while the family goes on a skiing vacation, although Rachele also spends time with each of her grandparents. The plot focuses on daily life during this period with the novel’s main concern the exploration of family dynamics and Rachele’s thoughts about Judaism. However, the writing is beautiful, as are the descriptions. In fact, the novel moves so smoothly, readers will glide through its pages without caring there is not a great deal of action.

One disconcerting thing about “The Only Daughter” is that it’s not until page 161 that readers learn the novel takes place in 1999. Up to that point, there was nothing to show that it wasn’t written about contemporary times. Yehoshua’s last work is an odd little book: incredibly enjoyable, although it’s not always easy to pinpoint why.


  • “Where I Am”

Some people feel unsure about their place in the world. That definitely seems true of Reut in “Where I Am” by Dana Shem-Ur (New Vessel Press). Although she has lived with her husband, Jean Claude, in France for decades, she still doesn’t feel completely at home. Reut, who was born in Israel, and Jean Claude met when they were in graduate school in the United States before moving to his home country. Reut never finished her degree, but has begun working on it again, in addition to her job translating books into Hebrew. Yet, somehow she still feels unsettled, especially when her Israeli impulses clash with French expectations of appropriate behavior. Even language can leave her unsettled, since she knows it is sometimes impossible to capture the meaning of word in a different language. 

Her feelings are complicated by her relationship with Jean Claude, who makes her feel that any difficulties they face are somehow her fault. She is expected to completely support him, for example, hosting a party for Mikhail, an influential Russian writer her husband has befriended. When Jean Claude receives an invitation for them to visit Mikhail in Italy, he doesn’t ask if she is interested, but expects her to be as enthusiastic as he is. It comes as no surprise that Reut often feels tired and alienated, and longs for time and space of her own. 

While the ending of “Where I Am” leaves readers up in the air about what will happen in Reut’s life, Shem-Ur does an excellent job showing the ups and downs of a long-term marriage, particularly the need for constant adjustment when one partner is prickly and changeable. The descriptions of Italy are beautiful and may make readers wish they were there. This novel also shows just how much drama there can be in a simple domestic relationship.