Holy Land Quest

A novel which grapples with the issues of family, Diaspora/Israeli relations, religion, extremism and of love.

Jerusalem 58 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem 58
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
JOAN LEEGANT’S AMBITIOUS debut novel intertwines the stories of three American Jews, each seeking something different in (and out) of Israel, each driven by a different passion, yet so similar in their emotional isolation.
Yona Stern, a 30-year-old New Yorker, whose voice really dominates the novel, travels to Israel to seek reconciliation with her estranged sister Dena, a stoic and ideological resident of the settlement “Givat Baruch” who cannot forgive Yona for a past betrayal. We meet Mark Greenglass on his way to America, where he will be teaching Talmud for a week, in the throes of a crisis of faith. Greenglass, a baal teshuva (one who has returned to religion), is slowly slipping off the path of staunch Orthodoxy in both practice and belief. Finally, Aaron Blinder, an underachieving college dropout, comes to Israel only to find himself at the hub of a right-wing extremist group.
These three characters are the vibrant center of the book, characterization being Leegant’s strongest facility. She draws us in to their worlds, their families, their beliefs (or lack thereof) and their struggles. In a conversation I held with Leegant, who has won awards for her earlier short story collection ‘An Hour In Paradise,’ she told me that she began this book with the characters and let them lead her to the story. Leegant pokes holes in the myth according to which writers have their stories resolved at the outset of their writing. Rather, says Leegant, “my job as a writer is to uncover the story.” So, while the book has a definite political edge, it did not start out that way. Leegant is interested in marginal characters, and causedriven lives; out of those characters and interests emerged this story of religious and political extremism.
It is sometimes hard to believe that Leegant is not an Israeli native; the scenes she describes are realistically and intimately Israeli: From the burning Israeli sun, to the dusty roads of the settlements; from the tastes and smells of Jerusalem, to the spartan utilitarianism of Adamah, a politically hard-line community.
Not only is the Israeliness of the exterior landscape well captured, but the Israeliness of the interior landscapes – the mentality, the mannerisms, the pace – is convincing too.
Leegant has spent much time in Israel, most recently as visiting writer in the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar- Ilan University, and she is obviously highly invested in the country. Her perspective, though, is ultimately and purposively of an outsider observing. Her three main characters are also very much American – looking in, participating, but never insiders. It’s like an Israeli soldier tells Stern in the novel: “Americans will always be new. No matter how long they’re here.”
INDEED, ISRAEL/DIASPORA RELAtions are artfully and subtly tested throughout the novel, whose very title – “Wherever You Go” – points to this underlying concern.
The title, taken, of course, from the Book of Ruth, uses Ruth the Moabite’s famous declaration of loyalty to Naomi and the Jewish people to trigger multiple associations: of leavetaking, of coming to the land of Israel, of following one’s passion, of turning one’s back on the past, of never letting go of one’s personal baggage despite a change in location. Both Diaspora and Israeli mentalities are challenged in the novel. The following rant, by Shroeder, the short-tempered and tunnel-visioned leader of the right-wing group in Adamah polarizes these mentalities. But, in reading his censure of Diaspora Jews, the reader understands that his Israeli-centered monomania is also deeply flawed: “Parasites… And sycophants. Sycophanitim.
They sucked off the Diaspora’s wealth and prosperity to feed their gargantuan personal appetites, and then they sucked off Israel to feed their shallow Jewish pride…They sent over their parasite money and sometimes brought over their parasite selves…. As if what they said in America, in their American newspapers preaching to their smug American friends, mattered one bit.”
While the plot is supposed to be the thread weaving the stories of the three characters together, more interesting are the thematic elements that link their lives. All the main characters, for example, have troubled relationships with their fathers. Blinder’s father is a writer and, according to his son has been “milking the Holocaust for twenty-five years.” While he lets his readers think that he actually lived through the Holocaust, he has “practically never set foot out of Brooklyn.”
Like Binder’s father, Lenny Greenglass is thoroughly disappointed in his son: “none of Greenglass’s jobs made any money, and money was all that counted for Lenny.” Stern’s relationship with her father is more muted; what is clear is that after her mother died of cancer “her father crawled into a shell and never came out.” All three characters have emotionally distant fathers, and also share fragile or absent mothers. No wonder none of them can find love.
Another thematic thread is religious extremism. When I asked Leegant about the absence of normative religion in the novel, she answered that marginal characters are simply more interesting. That may be so, but I question how Leegant implicitly presents the return to religion and drug addiction as two sides of the same coin. It was religion, after all, that saved Greenglass from his “dope addled torpor.”
For Greenglass, both religion and addiction are presented as misplaced passion, temporary madness. In order to find love, accordingly, he must leave his religion and “turn his devotion, his passion, his supplications, and most especially his love, over to the things of this world, and no other.” Are religion and worldly love incompatible? For Greenglass, it seems, they are. His search and spiritual struggle are nonetheless empathetically drawn; readers will surely find Greenglass a likable character.
Far less likable is Blinder. He is fuelled by a misguided fervor and a belief in a “fiery God,” an “almighty avenger” with “ferocious power.” These convictions paired with a painful insecurity and lack of awareness leave him vulnerable to the manipulations of a powerful surrogate father figure. He is ultimately drawn to a highly destructive act, the plot climax, which will bring his life, Stern’s and Greenglass’s into fraught intersection.
It is at this intersection where Stern realizes her potential as a character. She does something brave and right, and through this act, is able to start liking herself. “I did a good thing,” “I’m not a bad person after all,” she tells Eyal, her Israeli boyfriend, who is the lone representative of the pragmatic political left in the novel. A foil for Shroeder, a mouthpiece for realism and compromise, Eyal is also the quintessential “nice guy” and Yona’s first chance at a healthy relationship. Though her reconciliation with her sister is partial at best, she achieves a personal redemption and is able to forgive herself. The plot resolves itself satisfactorily for Greenglass too. As far as Blinder’s fate goes, the resolution is less satisfactory, both for the character and for the reader.
Suffice it to say that we are required to suspend belief; the justice system in Israel just does not work in the way it is portrayed in the book.
The strength of this novel is less in its plot than in its sensuous writing and rich characterization.
Leegant engages with the Israeli political and religious vista, but in focusing so heavily on extremism, misses the normalcy of Israeli discourse. On the other hand, the scenes and the minor characters that populate them are vividly drawn and convincing. And, Leegant draws us into the stories of her American Jewish characters, whose struggles and yearnings cause us to grapple with the greater issues of family, Diaspora/Israeli relations, religion, extremism and of love.