By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
There is a debate about whether reviewers should discuss an author’s nationality when writing about their work. When reviewing novels and memoirs about Soviet Jewish immigrants to the U.S., it makes sense to compare and contrast their experiences, especially if they came to this country at different ages. I’ve reviewed three British Jewish authors’ novels in one column, but the works were so different, it wasn’t possible to talk about them in terms of the authors’ nationality. I thought about this when deciding to review two new works of fiction by Israeli authors: “Jerusalem Beach: Stories” by Iddo Gefen (Astra House) and “More Than I Love My Life” by David Grossman (Alfred A. Knopf). Yes, they both contain material that is particularly relevant to Israeli life, including mandatory army service and the traveling that many Israelis do after the army. However, the works differ due to the age of the authors: while Gefen mostly writes about younger Israelis, Grossman’s work focuses on an event that occurred decades earlier.
The stories in “Jerusalem Beach,” which is Gefen’s first publication, mixes reality and fantasy. Some stories are completely realistic. For example, his most complex work, “The Geriatric Platoon,” looks at three generations of a family. The narrator’s elderly grandfather has decided to re-enlist after the death of his wife. The story is told through the eyes of the grandson, Yuli, except for several e-mails from his mother, whom Yuli has refused to speak to since she left his father. What is left unspoken by the characters is as important as what they actually say. What’s impressive is that Gefen’s writing allows readers to fill in those blanks.
Another realistic story is the beautiful, but sad, “The Jerusalem Beach.” An elderly man brings his wife on one last visit to Jerusalem before she enters a nursing home because her increasing dementia makes it impossible for her to remain at home. His attempt to meet his wife where she is mentally made for moving reading. “Flies and Porcupines” is a wonderful, but sad, look at the reality of life in Israel – particularly army service – that also offers a touch of fantasy. To say more would spoil the surprises, but this thought-provoking work is very impressive.
Some stories qualify as fantasy or science fiction, but also offer commentary on Israeli life. In “The Girl Who Lived Near the Sun,” the narrator is taking time off to travel after his army service, but, rather than traveling across the Earth, he visits different planets in our solar system. A woman he chats up at a party invites him to stop by her own personal planet if he is ever in the area. Although he doesn’t even know her name, he takes her up on her offer. Things do not go as expected, something that forces him to face what he’s actually doing with his life. Hiding from the world after army service is a theme in several other stories, including “Three Hours from Berlin,” which takes the idea of presenting an idealized version of your life on social media to an extreme.
Not all the stories in “Jerusalem Beach” are a complete success, but they do prove Gefen is a talent to watch. Even his less interesting tales offer readers something to think about. His biography notes that his first novel will also be published in the U.S. I look forward to reading it.
While Gefen is just beginning his career as a writer, Grossman has been publishing for decades. His novels have been translated into more than 40 languages and he has won numerous awards, including the Man Booker International Prize. “More Than I Love My Life” is narrated by 39-year-old Gili, whose life has been greatly affected by the actions of her grandmother, Vera, and her mother, Nina. The family connections are complex: Gili’s father, Rafael, fell in love with Nina when he was 15. This was just after his mother had passed away. Then Rafael’s father, Tuvia, married Vera. Rafael pursued Nina even after she ran away from the kibbutz where they all lived. Although he found her and eventually convinced her to marry him, Nina left him and her daughter when Gili was 3-years-old.
Now the extended family has gathered for Vera’s 90th birthday, an event even Nina attends. She has been alienated from her mother for decades, even before they moved from their native Croatia to Israel. The three women and Rafael decide to visit the island near Croatia where Vera was imprisoned and tortured for three years during the Soviet regime after World War II. That was just after Vera lost her beloved first husband and when Nina was 6 years old. Since Rafael was once a filmmaker and Gili still works in film, they decide to film the trip, focusing on Vera’s descriptions of what occurred during that time. Gili hopes learning more about Vera will also explain Nina’s life and her often self-destructive behavior.
“More Than I Love My Life” is a complex and fascinating novel. It explores parent/child relationships and how they change or remain stagnate over the decades, with one character noting that people become mature “when they accept that their parents have a right to their own psychology.” But the most chilling and important discussion focuses on a decision Vera made, one that challenges readers and makes them wonder what they would have done under similar circumstances. That decision reverberates through the generations, even as the women seek to make peace with each other and themselves.