Book review: A cold and divided capital

Zvi Jagendorf’s latest novel takes readers on a journey through the hearts and streets of Jerusalem in 1961.

A view of Jerusalem’s Old City in the late 1950s (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A view of Jerusalem’s Old City in the late 1950s
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Zvi Jagendorf’s latest novel, Coming Soon: The Flood, reads like a love story for one of the world’s most historically violent and contested cities. The book provides readers with nostalgia for a troubled time that many, like myself, may have not even been alive to see.
Jagendorf skillfully leads readers through the narrow, cobblestoned roads of a cold and divided Jerusalem in the winter of 1961, where a society made up largely of Holocaust survivors and immigrants – hardened by surviving both persecution and war – is preparing for the trial of the notorious Nazi murderer Adolf Eichmann.
This event and its significance permeates each moment of the novel, as we meet a group of eclectic characters and artists living along the border between Israel and Jordan, just to the west of the signs that scream to its Jewish citizens: “STOP DANGER.”
Coming Soon: The Flood By Zvi Jagendorf (Courtesy)Coming Soon: The Flood By Zvi Jagendorf (Courtesy)
The story’s main character, Ada, is an artist and doll collector, and works on the set of the makeshift studio being built to broadcast the trial. Living on the margins of society – both physically and metaphorically – in homes abandoned by Arab owners who had been forced to flee, her motley crew of misfit friends, led by the Neal Cassady-esque Milo, decides to perform a play of Noah and the Flood to represent themselves and their unique roles in the story of it all.
“This play is us. We are on the edge here, closer than anyone imagines to the end... of the world,” Milo explains, “and closer than most people get to a dangerous and invisible line, where death waits.”
The aim of the performance is not just to tell their story, but to challenge the sense of accomplishment felt in the country as a result of Eichmann’s capture.
“When everybody everywhere is watching the little Nazi in the dock and feeling good about justice and retribution and munching peanuts, we open our show,” says Milo. “Where? Near enough to make a disturbance.”
Despite history’s view on the trial of Eichmann, the novel reminds readers that many living in Israel at the time did not feel so positively about the attempt to bring a tiny drop of justice into a part of their pasts that had been so devoid of it. It is for this reason the characters mockingly refer to the man as the “Big Sh*t.”
“Does [the trial] make anyone happy?” asks one character. “So we’ve shown we can follow them to their lairs. So what? Revenge, is that what it is?... Revenge is madness. After the war some of us wanted revenge, nothing else, and we were right there among the Germans with British trucks and weapons. There were insane ideas like poisoning the drinking water in the whole of Munich.
“We were just boys and had seen terrible things. But the only idea that made sense was to go after somebody we knew like Mengele or Brunner. We didn’t have enough intelligence and they got away. This one, I don’t remember anyone mentioning him. Now nobody talks about anything else. Why do we have to know what he eats for breakfast and how many showers he takes? It’s demeaning.”
Just a few years ahead of Israel’s victorious recapturing of east Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and the West Bank in the Six Day War, the novel offers a quiet, subtle, melancholy voice that makes the reader question: Will this give us what we truly want? Will this bring justice to those who have died? Are we merely trying to futilely place order onto a world that will yield no such thing? And does anyone care about those who, as Milo puts it, are living so close to the border of death?
While the deeper context is existentially complex, the reader and the novel’s characters are able to take refuge from the cold Jerusalem wind and the weight of the conflict by stepping into warm and passionate Jerusalem house parties.
These gatherings allow these colorful characters to drink, play music and dance as people do in parties around the world, but also allows them to search for depth, meaning and God as people do only in parties within the holy city. These soul-searchers, who can today be found in hobbled shacks of the neighborhoods of Nahlaot or Musrara, sip arak and take long drags of cigarettes, and sometimes also perform complex puppet routines about ancient philosophers.
This masterfully written novel offers Jerusalemites the unique opportunity to walk the streets of the city as it existed in 1961 and to peak out over the no-man’s-land that ominously spread over the contentious border between Jordan and Israel. It depicts a landscape that has changed and developed while maintaining a deep familiarity, and allows readers the opportunity to meet and hear the perspectives of people who have long since died. The book, in short, is a rare gem and a must-read.