Off the Shelf: Israelis and Americans

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Joan Leegant will speak at the Campaign 2025 Federation Super Sunday Brunch on Sunday, September 8. For more information about the event and an interview of Leegant, see future issues of The Reporter.

I spend a great deal of energy looking for books of interest – both for the paper and my personal reading. When I find an author I like, their name goes on one of my lists and I periodically check to see if they have a new work coming out. That list has gotten a bit out of hand so sometimes I miss a book. Take, for example, Joan Leegant. I read and reviewed her first two books: “An Hour in Paradise: Stories” (which was published in 2003 and won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish-American fiction) and the novel “Wherever You Go” (which appeared in 2010). For years, I looked to see if she’d published any new work. After a decade with no new book, her name no longer appeared on the top of my to-look-for list. That means I was delighted to learn a new book of stories, “Displaced Persons” (New American Press), was being published. That work, which won the New American Fiction Prize, has reminded me of just how good a writer she is.

The book is divided into two sections: “East” (meaning Israel) and “West” (meaning the United States). Stories in both sections focus on family and friends, in addition to the daily difficulties of managing life. For example, “The Eleventh Happiest Country” tells the story of two friends, Roi and Tal, who met in the Israeli army. They continued their friendship when Roi directed his first film, which featured Tal as an actor. That was before Tal became religious and would no longer work as an actor. But now Tal has an idea for a film he wants Roi to direct, even though the details haven’t been worked out. The idea of the film is of less interest than the way Leegant portrays the two mens’ thoughts about life in Israel, including how their friendship is so deep that they manage to drive each other crazy, but still love each other like brothers.

The difference between life in Israel and in the U.S. is portrayed in “Beautiful Souls,” when two American teenagers, who are visiting Israel with their parents, are allowed to visit the Arab shuk on their own one afternoon. The teens are not impressed with their parents’ sudden desire to practice Judaism: they’ve seen them discard too many fads to accept their sudden conversion to religion. After straying into an alley and entering a restaurant, the teenagers receive a lesson in the complexity of Israeli society.

The stories that take place in the United States are equally good. Hierschman, the main character in “Roots,” is proud of being an agnostic who deliberately flouts Jewish law. When his daughter Wendy becomes more religious and marries Ronald, a dull man whom he dislikes, Hierschman misses the days when she was a protesting firebrand who only needed him when bail had to be posted. However, to his surprise, he finds himself drawn to Ronald’s teenage son and forges a real connection. 

“Hunters and Gatherers” focuses on a mother-son relationship, in this case, Gina and her son, Greg, who clearly suffers from a mental health disability. Her husband has moved to another city, but without formally announcing a legal separation, Gina, who has enough trouble trying to keep Greg healthy, is actually relieved to not have to defend her behavior to her husband. The story portrays her deep love for her son and the ways she tries to keep him safe from himself.

A family uses jokes to make serious points in “The Innocent.” After separating from her husband, Pammy lives with her aging and ailing father. Her father tells her he has a debt he needs to repay before he can die in peace. The two travel to the Bronx, where Pammy learns that the truth about the past depends on who is speaking. She also reviews her relationship with her ex-husband, who never understood her family’s way of coping with difficult situations through humor.

My favorite story, which appears in the “East” section, is “Bus.” This four-page work about a mother’s relationship with her son is powerful and moving. Although there is little specific plot, Leegant manages to capture the essence of what it means for a mother to love and care for her son. 

Anyone familiar with Leegant’s work will definitely want to read “Displaced Persons.” Lovers of short stories will find much to enjoy and discuss in these pages. Even those who generally prefer longer works will find these stories satisfying and thought-provoking.