'Whence Israel and the Jewish people?'

Recent fiction has taken to the question of ‘Israeliness' through various – and at times, opposing – lenses.

Flag of Israel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Flag of Israel
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
IN THE 1980s critics pronounced that “Hebrew literature has become personal. Writers have cut their umbilical cord to the larger issues of the State, the destiny of the Jewish people.” But a glance at some contemporary works tempers this conclusion.
Whether it comes in the form of a romance, a detective novel, or a family saga, much Israeli fiction continues to struggle with the question, “Whence Israel and the Jewish people?” Ronit Matlon’s novel, “And the Bride Closed The Door,” appears to be light domestic fiction, but it actually provides a glimpse of the “ethnic demon,” the still-painful divide between Ashkenazim and Sephardim.
Margi locks herself in her mother’s bedroom on the day of her wedding and won’t come out. Through the door she announces that she doesn’t want to get married. Her mother and future in-laws are in panic. What about all the guests who are about to arrive? What about all the money the families have to pay for the food and the orchestra and the flowers? What about the embarrassment? Although Margi’s refusal to open the door seems like a childish, attention–seeking act, it becomes a brilliant technique for stripping down layers of Israeli bourgeois artifice.
The bridegroom Matti sits by the door patiently trying to coax his fiancée to come out. He remembers similar behavior in the past and how he accommodated to her moods without really understanding what’s bothering her. The closed door brings Matti to admit to himself that he always had to “bend something in his real self for Margi, to adjust to an uncomfortable position of body and self. There was always a small, even tiny lie...” He was relieved to finally admit it. He felt naked, as if he’d shed a deceptive part of himself.
The members of the families also begin to shed their wedding garb, slouch on the furniture, strip to their elemental selves. But it is the deaf, somewhat confused grandmother, cared for by her grandson Ilan, who brings Margi to her authentic self.
Sabtonit, little Sabta, as Ilan calls her, lives next door to Margi’s mother, cherishing a fur piece, muslin blouses and sequined chiffon dresses inherited from her former tenants, as well as memories of her early life in Egypt.
Matti was always embarrassed at Margi’s exaggerated and physical demonstrations of love, such as curling up in her grandmother’s lap. Matlon exposes the discomfort of the Ashkenazi confronting the more emotional temperament of the Sephardi. It is this thin, unarticulated veil of cultural difference that is perhaps the reason that Maggi closed the door to the Israeli wedding.
“Can you,” Margi writes in a poem, “return me to your forgotten home?” It is to her grandmother’s lap, the “forgotten home,” that she yearns to return.
And it is her grandmother, singing at the closed door, partly in Arabic and partly in Hebrew, who finally persuades Margi to turn the key of the bedroom door.
It’s an interesting coincidence (or perhaps, it isn’t a coincidence) that two of Israel’s most prominent women writers come from Egyptian-Jewish backgrounds. Ronit Matlon and Orly Castel-Bloom, both in their 50s, demonstrate an ironic stance, a humorous, critical angle of vision. In an interview in Ha’aretz, Matlon related how she refused to go to a school that discriminated against her as a Sephardi. She learned the power of saying “No.”
ORLY CASTEL-BLOOM also bases her most recent novel, “An Egyptian Novel,” on the history of her Sephardi family. It has all the basic elements of her own family’s saga, but Castel-Bloom embellishes and expands upon their story, zigzagging through history to create a legendary tale of an idiosyncratic tribe. As in her past novels, Castel-Bloom carries things to an absurd end, and one never knows what to believe, when fact so closely borders fiction.
Her father’s family, the Kastiels, traced their ancestry to the Spanish Inquisition.
Castel-Bloom challenges the myths of Jewish solidarity, relating how the family fled to Portugal, only to discover that their fellow Jews there sought their expulsion. Seven brothers found their way to Egypt where the family settled. After the Jewish state was established, two descendants, Charlie and Vida Kastiel, came on aliya to Kibbutz Ein Shemer as part of a socialist Hashomer Hatzair gar’in or core group. Rigidly faithful to Soviet policy, the Egyptian gar’in supported the verdicts of the Prague Trials of the early 1950s, which purged prominent Jews from the Czech communist party. And to their astonishment, they found themselves labelled as Stalinists and expelled from the kibbutz.
Castel-Bloom traces this second expulsion of the family from kibbutz to the Tel Aviv area, where the Kastiel clan, Charlie and his wife Vivian (Castel-Bloom’s parents) and Vida and his wife Edel, become bourgeois Israelis. Ostensibly, she is portraying the disintegration of a family chain, the Ecclesiastic end of ideals. But when the elderly Vida is dying in hospital, unable to breathe for himself, Castel-Bloom also extols their idealistic beginnings. “Doctor, do you know that this man was one of the builders of the land? One of the greatest.
There aren’t many like these that remain.
He paved roads…with his own hands he … planted and harvested, drove tractors, managed 17 branches of Bank Discount – and remained honest, a man of integrity.”
As often happens, Castel-Bloom parodies the clichés of Zionism, yet does not dismiss its ideals. The energy of her writing, her humor, her affection for the family all offset her cynicism.
While most Israeli novels tell of Jews who have been exiled from other countries and come to Israel, Maya Arad, an Israeli-born writer writing in Hebrew and living in the US, follows Jewish destiny on its journey from Israel to the New World. A sharp observer, she captures the vestiges of Israeliness in these new Americans.
In her most recent novel, “Behind the Mountain,” Zohar Bar, a lecturer in English literature at a small California college, is invited to give some lectures on the detective novel at the estate of a wealthy Israeli couple in the Sierras over a Thanksgiving weekend. They have gathered a sundry group of acquaintances, mostly divorcees.
The very disconnectedness of these people, coming together on what is the quintessential American family holiday, points up the sense of displacement of these Israelis.
The host, Yuvi, the CEO of a hi-tech company, has achieved unexpected success with the help of a brilliant but socially inept and unlucky brother-in-law, who feels cheated of what he believes is his rightful share of the wealth Yuvi has amassed. Yuvi’s personal life, however, has been overshadowed by a freak climbing accident, which injured Orna, his first wife. Dependent on pain medication as a result, she eventually dies of an overdose in suspicious circumstances.
A young Russian woman named Yulia, whom Orna helped in her adjustment to life in Israel, is suspected of having had an affair with Yuvi, marrying him after Orna dies.
Embedded in the mystery itself are painful Israeli memories, particularly Yulia’s memory of her mother’s struggle as a Russian immigrant. But Israel exists in the Sierras in other ways as well. Ironically, the estate remains quite primitive, and the guests are asked to take turns in the kitchen and dining room. The hosts can easily afford servants, but they yearn to return to the basic Israeli sense of self, the idealism and simplicity of the kibbutz.
Although the language of the novel is quite nondescript, the structure is inventive.
Bar lectures the Israeli guests on the structure of the detective story, ostensibly to add some culture to the ski weekend. At the same time, he attempts to solve the mystery of who gave Orna her overdose. The elements of the detective story can help him solve the murder, but Bar himself does not always realize the significance of his literary analyses in a real murder situation.
There is also a subplot in which Bar feels his life is in danger. Strange objects mysteriously appear in his room, and he is almost killed skiing. But what would be the motive for killing him? Bar mines his analyses of detective fiction, in order to discover who is threatening him.
Arad makes use of her perceptions of Israelis, as they obsessively strive to succeed in the American hi-tech world with all the baggage they bring from Israel to their self-imposed exile in the US, in order to unravel the mystery.
While Arad portrays Israelis self-exiled to America, Dror Burstein, a novelist and poet, reworks the story of the collapse of the Kingdom of Judah and Jewish forced exile to Babylonia in the 6th century BC after the destruction of the First Temple, in his sixth novel “Mud.” In his brilliant narrative, though, it is Israeli society of today, Jerusalem urban light rail and all, albeit ruled by kings of the House of Judah, which is menaced by Babylon.
The novel is part of a recent trend to envision Israel and its future in apocalyptic terms, hurdling toward another destruction of Jerusalem. It comes on the heels of Yishai Sarid’s 2015 apocalyptic prize-winning novel, “The Third,” about a modern-day rebuilding of the Third Temple, but it is also part of a growing worldwide sense of the breakdown of civilization.
The protagonists are two friends, Jeremiah and Matanya, both belonging to an avant-garde poets’ circle in Jerusalem.
Burstein, a very versatile and complex writer, seems to be comparing two types of literary inspiration. Jeremiah is prophetic, receives the Word from outside himself, and is merely the conduit for the Muse or God.
Suddenly, he finds himself declaring that the Babylonians are growing in strength, and that they will destroy Judah, despite King Jehoiakim consoling the people with empty promises of a “historic compromise.”
Meanwhile Matanya, who is also the king’s younger son, recreates himself as an Assyrian, tattooing his body with words in that language.
breaks out from the historical framework into the phantasmagoric. Matanya’s older brother Yehoyakim ascends the throne, but comes to a grotesque end, drowning in the largest vat of hummus imaginable. His son, Yehoyachin, the king-elect, a pianist in Vienna, turns down the kingship.
The mixture of past and present is usually very effective in highlighting today’s political madness, to the extent that one cannot help laughing out loud at the absurdity of it all. But once in a while it can become kitsch. The King of Babylonia, fascinated by Matanya’s Assyrian tattoos, crowns him king, and bestows upon him the name, Tzidkiyahu.
But alliances with Egypt and refusal to pay taxes bring about the first exile of Jews to Babylonia. Burstein slyly describes how the Babylonian officers gather the poets from their beds, while the members of the Van Leer Institute, the Psychoanalytic Institute, the Spinoza Institute board trains with books in their suitcases. The houses empty out.
But the whimsy is dissipated in the horror of the siege of the Temple and suffering of the people, similar to Jeremiah’s description in Lamentations. Siege brings starvation.
People are reduced to eating cats and dogs.
Mothers feed on children. The Babylonian general lights matches, guzzles wine, and watches the Temple burn.
Jeremiah is thrown into a great mud pit, only to be saved by King Tzidkiyahu.
Half dead, Jeremiah begs him to surrender.
“Save your people, your land. You don’t count, I don’t count, anymore.” But Tzidkiyahu is too much of a coward, plans his own escape, mouths the pathetic clichés Israelis know only too well. “This is a war for our house. And there is in Egypt a new king… and he loves me… I have assurances from him…” Jews have regained sovereignty, yet ironically the works in this overview reflect various forms of exile, whether it’s Margi’s self- exile from Israeli society, or Jews exiled through persecution, or today’s voluntary exile in America. Burstein returns to the paradigmatic, forced exile that Jeremiah prophesied, and its causes. The corruption, the evil, which Burstein describes so well, even amusingly, exists today as in the past.
It is present in the streets of Jerusalem and in the Knesset. We feel ourselves drowning in the mud, sinking in the mire of the title of his book.