When Jonnie Schnytzer, an Australian immigrant to Israel, gave me his debut novel to read, I kept it for an upcoming trip to Sinai. Just as there is a travel advisory for Sinai, let me warn you about his espionage thriller, The Way Back
: once you get into it, it’s hard to put it down.
It turns out I could not have chosen a better place to read it.
The prologue begins with the story of Zalman Hartbacher, a tailor in Zaslaw, Poland, who uses a hanukkiah to save his village from a Cossack pogrom in 1648. Then it skips to Rohatyn, Galicia, in 1942, when another Zalman Hartbacher, presumably a descendant, leaves behind his family’s precious hanukkiah and escapes into the woods carrying nothing but his sorrows after his wife and baby daughter are murdered by German soldiers in their Ukrainian town.
The book itself kicks off in Ezuz, Israel, in 2018, with a man named Razi Kahn paying to be smuggled into Israel via the Egyptian border, leaving his son behind.
Then we jump to “Eshel Prison, Be’er Sheva,” where another David Hartbacher languishes in jail after being arrested for a truck bombing. With elections approaching in Israel, he recalls his brief affair with Dina Solomon, head of the Am Yisrael (People of Israel) party, and reads its campaign pamphlet titled, “It’s time to replace Zionism with Judaism!”
“Israel is no longer a fantasy, and that is only thanks to Zionism, but it has become more of a challenge to love her,” it reads. “In Judaism, the first word for love is knowledge. It’s time we rediscovered why we are here!”
Without explaining Schnytzer’s philosophy, connecting the dots, spoiling the plot or giving away the ultimate love story, his own synopsis probably sums it up best: “When the son of a Mossad agent is kidnapped, dark secrets from the past threaten to surface,” reads the book’s blurb.
David Hartbacher, an Israeli vigilante, is forced to flee to Egypt, leaving behind him a trail of blood. Limor Schwartz, a former Mossad operative with plenty of chutzpah will stop at nothing to bring down the most lethal terrorist in the Middle East. Enter Zahid, a charismatic beggar from Benghazi, shaken after a mysterious bombing.
The story, according to Schnytzer, ties together the fates of three protagonists: David, an ex-con haunted by his past, Limor, a former licensed killer, and the Libyan-born Zahid, whose original name was Tzion and who had for many years hidden his Jewish identity to serve as an agent for powerful Arab leaders.
After forgetting who he really is for so long, he comes to the cathartic realization: “I am no longer Tzion. I haven’t been Tzion for years. I am no longer even Zahid. He too died years ago.”
The Way Back promises to pull its readers into a beautifully written web of smugglers and spies, Israel and the Middle East – and it fulfills this promise. Through the secret world of the Mossad, it crisscrosses the Middle East and introduces us to a range of colorful characters from politicians to terrorists, exposing their strengths and weaknesses just as the Bible portrays its heroes – warts and all.
In his review for JNS, Dr. Zohar Raviv got it right when he wrote, “The Way Back is about the relentless search for redemption, that of a kidnapped soul. It is about our desperate search for heroes and the eternal struggle to shatter the shackles of a burdensome past, while grappling with modern-day illusions.”
Currently serving as director of Programs and Strategic Partnerships at the Israel-Asia Center, Schnytzer studied philosophy at Bar-Ilan University, and regularly posts his interpretation of the weekly Torah portion on social media, in English and Hebrew.
“I was born Down Under and moved to Israel at the age of three on a flight I can’t remember,” Schnytzer says. “Serendipitously, my future wife was also on that same flight, a fact we discovered on our first date, which took place over a bottle of wine while sitting on a rooftop in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“The first time I felt the urge to write was a hot summer’s day, out in the middle of nowhere, M-16 over my shoulder. I wiped the sweat off my brow and took a sip from the little water left in my canteen. I then took out of my cargo pants pocket a pen and a crumpled, moist note pad. It was a ‘gift’ from the IDF on draft day. The urge to put words on paper was inexplicable. What followed – beyond an exciting military service in one of the most talked about, action-packed countries in the world – was a story: my debut novel, The Way Back.”
A gifted storyteller, Schnytzer is already at work on his next novel, which centers on the quest for a lost Kabbalistic manuscript.
“My characters represent the mosaic of Israel society and answer to the Jewish calling,” he says. “My goal is to tell the Jewish story in a profound way, both to Jews themselves as well as to the world at large. We need to return Israel to its roots, to promote a better understanding of our Jewish background and how it connects to Zionist projects.”
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