A walk on the dark side

Amnon Rubinstein shows readers an unlikely slice of Israeli life in his venture into fiction.

amnon rubinstein 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
amnon rubinstein 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Road Number Five Kvish Mispar Hamesh By Amnon Rubinstein Schocken 236pp., NIS 79 'I always wanted to write fiction," admits Professor Amnon Rubinstein. "It started to burst out of me years ago, but when I served in the Knesset, I suppressed it. I don't think an MK or a minister should be busy writing novels. That's why I was so happy to leave the Knesset, I began writing The Blanket the day I left." Before this, Rubinstein was known for such scholarly tomes as the landmark The Constitutional Law of the State of Israel, now in its sixth edition, and the Zionist polemic Israel and the Family of Nations, written together with Alexander Jacobson. Amnon Rubinstein is the kind of public figure who defies any attempt to define and categorize him. He is a professor of law, a veteran parliamentarian, a cabinet minister, founder of three political parties, author of legal and political tracts, a newspaper columnist, university president, this year's Israel Prize winner and now, in his mid-70s, he's started yet another career as a novelist. His second book, Road Number Five, published last month by Schocken, is in many ways a continuation of his first. The Blanket was an eclectic collection of imaginary anecdotes on shady figures habiting 60 years of Israel's past. Through them, Rubinstein shed light on the dark underbelly of the Zionist narrative, offering an alternative history of sorts. Road Number Five is another disturbing tale, taking place this time in today's Israel. It is the story of a day in the life of successful lawyer Uri Manos, who on the way to an important business meeting is swept from the safety of his shiny Volvo to a surreal journey through the margins of Israeli society - places where his wealth and social standing offer him no security. Readers familiar with Rubinstein's personal history can only be surprised at the figures and scenes that populate his imagination. It is a well-used literary theme - the confident hero with a comfortable and secure life, who finds himself suddenly in the depths of a personal hell, deprived of all his protections. But most authors who have used it over the years - Charles Dickens and George Orwell are but two examples that spring to mind - had some kind of experience of deprivation, whereas Rubinstein has lived a life of privilege. Scion of one of the wealthiest families of the Yishuv, Rubinstein received his PhD in law at the London School of Economics in the early '60s, went on to head the Tel Aviv University Law school, wrote columns for Ha'aretz and presented a political talk-show in the early days of Israeli television. Then he made an easy transition to politics in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War, and served in the Knesset for a quarter of a century, was telecommunications and education minister and pushed through landmark human-rights legislation. Last month, following the resignation of Professor Uriel Reichman, who joined Kadima, he was appointed head of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, which sees itself as the first private university in Israel. In other words, he's the last person you'd expect to be writing about the dark side of Israel. "It's not that I see a dark side to everything" says Rubinstein in an interview in his Herzliya office two weeks ago. "I just want to paint Israel in whole. And besides, I don't mock these marginal figures, or patronize them, I describe them with a great deal of empathy." He's aware that readers, including many friends of his, are surprised by his choice of material. "It fascinates me also, but that's the way I write. I prepare a basic sketch and let my characters lead me away. Like the boy Ibraham in the book, who's half-Jewish and half-Arab. When he turns up at a Jewish funeral, it's only natural that he'll be thinking about his grandfather's Muslim burial. Also when I wrote The Blanket, people asked me how a Zionist like myself can describe an Arab mother and her fantasy of vengeance, and I answer that I'm a Zionist who believes in the Jewish state, but as a writer, I look at the individual who is a victim of circumstances." Rubinstein doesn't claim to have first-hand experience of the scenes that are realistically recreated in Road Number Five, nor has he met the characters that Manos meets on his way - a teacher transformed into the leader of a beggars colony, a paratrooper and basketball star who underwent a sex-change, a Moldavian prostitute and new-age hippy couple. Neither does he regret not meeting them: "There are many compensations that come with a comfortable life and family, but I still think the characters are authentic. I've lived in Israel, I read the papers and watch television. The story of the transvestite is authentic, even though I've never met someone like that up close. I think that imagination makes up for lack of experience. Anyway, what's important isn't authenticity, it's the idea." The other theme is the confrontation between Manos and his family demons - his grandparents who came to Palestine from Nazi Germany. His father's parents refused to let the Nazis ruin German culture and immersed their only grandson in Schubert, German lullabies and Marlene Dietrich, while his other grandparents tried to pass on the humiliation of the Holocaust. Rubinstein himself is not of "Yekke" extraction but is fascinated by the German Jewish experience. "The leitmotif of the book is that a person's character is not the result of his homeland's culture but of that of his family, and that family history destabilizes his sanity. German Jewry have a trauma like no other, from being the most assimilated, successful and talented community (half of Berlin was Jewish) to having lost everything overnight and becoming refugees with no rights - a total humiliation. And then they came here to a cultural wilderness." Uri Manos (meaning "escape" in Hebrew), suddenly stripped of privilege, is reliving his grandparents' nightmare in his own small way. And all it took was a traffic jam and a malfunction in his fancy car. Road Number Five is a reminder of how fragile even the most stable and successful lives can be. It's a disturbing and colorful description of Israeli life at both ends, with large doses of humor and history. All the more interesting given the identity of its author.