CJL: Israelis in the U.S. and Israel

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There’s been a backlash against Israeli authors recently, everything from leaving negative reviews on websites because the authors are considered Zionists to the cancellation of readings and book signings. Refusing to read these authors, though, would mean missing two excellent and interesting works: Maya Arad’s “The Hebrew Teacher: Three Novellas” (New Vessel Press) and “On Her Own” by Lihi Lapid (HarperVia). The stories in the former take place in the United States, while the latter offers a view of Israeli culture. 

Arad’s author biography notes that she is the author of 11 books, but this is the first of her fiction to published in the U.S. When reading the title story, I looked at the publication date of the original Hebrew work (it was 2018), because its message is so timely, she could have written it yesterday. The story focuses on Ilana, a Hebrew instructor at a college in the Midwest, who’s faced with a disturbing new Hebrew literature professor at the university: Yoad Bergman-Harari. To Ilana’s surprise, Yoad dislikes reading literature and is only interested in the philosophical and sociological implications of the writing. He also refuses to participate in local Israeli community events and is very left-wing in his politics. The two clash because Ilana, whose life revolves around her teaching of Hebrew and her connections to the community, cannot understand his attitude. Arad does a wonderful job showing how the personal is indeed political and the shifts in academia’s thoughts about Israel. 

The two other novellas focus on family relationships. In “A Visit (Scenes),” Miriam travels to the U.S. to visit her son, Yoram, and his family because they have not visited Israel in years. She longs to get to know her grandson and spend time as a family. Unfortunately, Yoram, who works in Silicon Valley, is rarely home and her daughter-in-law, Maya, can barely stand to be in the same room as her. Even worse, they didn’t prepare her grandson, Yonaton, for her visit so he treats her as a scary stranger, that is, when he even gets to spend time with her. That’s because he spends long hours at a daycare center so Maya can work on her Ph.D. The story has greater depth than this summary suggests, though, because Arad not only offers Miriam’s viewpoint, but those of Yoram and Maya. Those sections show the barely visible cracks in their marriage they are trying to hide from Miriam and themselves.

“Make New Friends” portrays problems that can occur when a mother invests too much interest in her daughter’s social life. Efrat, who lives in California with her family, worries that her middle-school-aged daughter, Libby, does not have enough friends. Oh, there seem to be girls who are willing to talk to her when they see Libby in a store, but those same school friends never invite her to any gatherings. Efrat crosses a line when she begins to follow those girls on social media, something that has implications to her relationship with her daughter. The story is clever in that Arad slowly reveals as much about Efrat as she does about the relationship of the preteens.

“The Hebrew Teacher” is so good, it made me wonder why more of Arad’s work has not been published in English. I hope this book is just the first of many.

While all of Arad’s stories take place in the United States, Lapid’s novel offers an interesting view of the underside in Israel. It opens with a disturbing look at Nina, a teenager who ran away from home with Shmueli, an older married man and petty criminal. After Shmueli becomes abusive and Nina witnesses a crime, she runs away from him. Looking for a safe haven, she finds herself hiding in a stairway of an apartment building in Tel Aviv with no idea what to do next. Her problem is partly solved when Carmela, one of the building’s residents, finds her and thinks Nina is her granddaughter. It quickly becomes clear that Carmela suffers from dementia. Lapid’s descriptions of Carmela’s wavering between knowing what is happening around her and the fog that comes over her feels convincing and is extremely moving.

Nina pretends to be Carmela’s granddaughter and begins to care for her, both practically (for example, cleaning her apartment) and emotionally. However, Nina, also worries about her mother, Irina, a Russian immigrant, who is desperate to learn if her daughter is OK. Irina had warned Nina not to leave with Shmueli and now regrets the fight they had that night. But Shmueli is looking for Nina and visits Irina, frightening her and leaving her worried about what will happen if Shmueli finds her daughter.

Lapid also offers the thoughts of several other characters, which makes the novel feel episodic at times, but does produce a more complete portrait of life in Israel. The work comes together in the end with a satisfying and moving conclusion. It also offers readers a chance to ponder the meaning of family and what constitutes a home, which makes it an excellent work for book clubs.