Off the Shelf: Novels that take place in Israel-part 1

Novels that take place in Israel tend to fall into two categories: those that talk about domestic life and those that focus on hamatzav (literally “the situation,” referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). However, it’s difficult to draw lines between domestic and political arenas because they overlap: most Jews – male and female – do a stint in the army and almost everyone has been either affected by terrorism or knows someone who has. Underlying some personal drama are emotions raised by those who lived through, or lost relatives during, the Holocaust. The mixture of these topics makes for interesting reading. This first review focuses on three novels that concentrate on the more domestic aspects of life. 

“The Liar”

One mistake – one lie – can have terrible consequences. At least, that’s part of the lesson learned in “The Liar” by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Little, Brown and Company), although the truth of the matter is far more complex. Nofar Shalev has had a terrible summer vacation: her work at an ice cream parlor has not turned into the adventure she hoped it would be. Unknown to her, she is being watched by Lavi Maimon, a teenager who lives above the alley behind the ice cream parlor and watches Nofar when she walks to the bathroom outside the shop. One day at the end of summer, Avishai Milner, a winner of a singing contest whose career has stalled, walks into the ice cream parlor and takes out his frustration on Nofar, who has already endured too much humiliation in one day. When she stalks outside the shop and screams, everyone thinks that Avishai, who followed her into the alley, did far more than insult her. That is, everyone but Lavi, who watched what occurred through his window and knows the truth. Life for Nofar and Avishai quickly spins out of control as their lies, misstatements and hesitations take on a life of their own.
While the basic premise sounds simple, the beauty of Gundar-Goshen’s novel is that the actual situation turns out to be far more complex than expected. For example, Lavi starts to blackmail Nofar, demanding that she spend time with him. These two loners, both of whom feel they have never lived up to their parents’ expectations, actually find a connection. Avishai does not help himself when using sarcasm with the police and goes about the wrong way to try to prove Nofar is a liar. Then halfway through the novel, the author introduces another character, Raymonde, an elderly woman who also lets a misunderstanding turn into a lie. Yet, like Nofar, the results are not black and white, but a far more interesting mix of grey. 

“The Liar” contains far more character development than plot. Yet, the novel is very suspenseful – meaning that readers will be impatient to learn how the story resolves. They may find themselves reading slowly, though, because Gundar-Goshen does such a wonderful job analyzing human nature that they won’t want to miss a word of her descriptions of the emotional and irrational ways people behave. 


Personal satisfaction versus family obligations: that is an over-simplistic view of Zeruya Shalev’s “Pain” (Other Press). The pain Iris feels is both physical and psychological. The physical pain is a result of being injured in a terrorist attack 10 years before – a pain that has suddenly returned. The psychological pain is based on her relationship to her family. 

Although Iris’ career as a school principal is a success, less so is her marriage. She and her husband, Mickey, have grown apart. Her daughter, Alma, has moved to Tel Aviv and has little time for her parents. She also seems a bit aimless – working as waitress, rather than attending college or planning for her future. Omer, Iris’ younger child, has always been the difficult one: Iris blames herself for focusing more on Omer than Alma when the two were growing up. Then suddenly her life changes: the pain doctor she sees to treat her newest bout of pain is none other than Eitan, the lost love of her life. Their connection is immediate: it’s almost as if the years they were apart never took place. 

Although at first the plot focuses on Iris and Eitan’s affair, it slowly takes a different direction: something is wrong with Alma and it’s unclear exactly what. When Iris discovers what is really going on, she faces a difficult choice. Should she sacrifice her own happiness to save her daughter, or is her dream of a life with Eitan just that: a dream that can’t come true? Learning about Iris’ early life – the death of her father and her relationship with her mother – helps place her decisions into perspective. The novel then becomes far more interesting and complex than a simple love story. Filled with biblical imagery and descriptions of emotions, “Pain” shows just how complex is the human heart. 

“The Teacher”

Who is Elsa Weiss? That question forms the core of “The Teacher” by Michal Ben-Naftali (Open Letter). In fact, when the novel opens more than Elsa’s life story is unknown. The narrator begins by using the pronoun “we” and does not reveal her gender or relationship to the teacher until the book’s fourth chapter. In fact, the only thing that is apparent in the first few pages is that Elsa has jumped from the window of her apartment and no one knows the reason why.
The narrator’s desire to discover what occurred – to learn why Elsa would want to die – is what drives the story. While the narrator admits that it’s impossible to know what happened to Elsa before she came to Israel, that doesn’t mean she won’t try to find out. Details of Elsa’s life are very slowly revealed; for example, even when the narrator finally mentions the subject that Elsa taught, the explanation of why she picked that subject is discussed later in the novel. The narration moves forward and back in time, with readers learning about Elsa’s life in Europe before World War II, what happened to her family during that time and how she finally arrived in Israel. Why does the narrator care so much? Somehow, Elsa – a woman who seemed to have no connections with others, who seemed to have renounced beauty – made an impression on her students.

The explanations of Elsa’s emotions are generally well done, but at times it was difficult to understand exactly what the author was trying to convey. That introspection made the novel feel static and, unfortunately, by its end failed to keep my interest. Part of the problem is that Ben-Naftali is trying to do the almost impossible: to understand a survivor’s story without letting her speak for herself.

Part two of this review will appear in an upcoming issue of The Reporter.