States of upheaval

What if there were separate Israels for secular and Orthodox Jews?

restaurant 370 (photo credit: (Illustrative photo:
restaurant 370
(photo credit: (Illustrative photo:
Originally from Ottawa, Gila Green has set her debut novel King of the Class in Israel, but one that seems more unfamiliar than familiar. Her story, blending a number of genres – science fiction, magical realism, action thriller and Jewish drama – revolves around two particular families, but the futuristic setting that emerges strongly in the background is of equal interest.
Green suggests that, not too long from now, the State of Israel will undergo civil war and break off into two separate entities – Shalem, a religious state run along halachic guidelines, and Israel, a secular state that bans all kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv in its efforts to maintain its character. The two states are fairly hostile to each other, and special passes are required to cross the borders. Green also throws the Yovel artificial islands into the mix, built off the coast of Israel where both secular and religious Jews may live.
Thus, she imaginatively solves the problem of overcrowding on the mainland.
(The Arabs, for their part, are given Independent Gaza, and do not feature in the book.) Though the novel does not enter too deeply into the political and social movements behind the creation and maintenance of these states, which certainly would have been interesting to explore, we are given a sufficient picture of both the historical events behind them and the existing tensions, flaring up into occasional violence. At first blush it seems like a leap of fancy to divide modern Israel thus – most Israelis, one wants to argue, would not want to be sectioned off in such blackand- white social realities. Making such a leap is entirely legitimate, for one of sci-fi’s main purposes is to take existing situations to an absurd extreme, in order to make us think.
But on second thought, perhaps it is more realistic than we think, a kind of “1984-ish” mirror held up to our faces, as good satire is. Many Israelis already do live in isolated cantons (settlements, kibbutzim, suburban neighborhoods) ordered by religious stripe; moreover, life is full of surprises – no one would have predicted the assassination of an Israeli prime minister by a Jew. Israel has divided into two kingdoms in the past and might do so at some point in the future, if things spiral out of control.
In any event, it was enough to make this reader, for one, wonder where she would choose to live if forced to make a choice, and grateful that at least for now Israel is still one state, multicultural, with freedom of movement and belief.
The book’s female protagonist, Canadian Eve Vee, starts off secular, though currently studying in Shalem on a special visa. When her fiancé Manny becomes religious overnight, she is faced with breaking it off or embracing Orthodoxy herself. Her choices are heavily influenced by the unexpected appearance of what Green terms a “presoul”, Eve’s unborn son, a boy with iceblue eyes who tugs at her heart, informing her that he will not merit life if she does not marry Manny. Eventually they do marry and move to Yovel, living in a realistically depicted Anglo area.
The rest of the story deals with their talented son and the action-packed drama that unfolds around him, involving competitive children, kidnapping, comically malfunctioning robots, telepathy and murder. The page-turning second half of the novel moves much faster than the first, with the plot becoming increasingly colorful and feverish, keeping the reader wondering what new and even more bizarre twist will convey us to our – hopefully happy – terminal destination.
The book spans several literary octaves, from the profoundly tragic to the outrageously comic, from the sublime to the ridiculous. It moves with a delightful lack of self-consciousness from sensitive reflections on identity and relationships, tragedy and love, religion and freedom, to a smoking robot with a stun gun and a couple named Fuzzy and Ellie who become increasingly unhinged with every passing minute.
Of interest also is the complex attitude towards religion emerging via the characters. Some, such as Eve’s sister Jordannah, are fairly secular (though even she balks at Israel’s decision to move Yom Kippur to May 1!); others, such as Manny, fanatically religious. Although Green herself is religious, and her expertise in and appreciation of religious life saturate the pages, strongly present also is a critique of the varieties of Orthodox Jewish life and the narrowness and hypocrisy that can plague it. Even when the final page has been turned, we are not completely clear on our heroine’s true attitude towards religion or God. How much of it is an act put on for her husband, and how much for herself? She recites Psalms and dons the right clothing, but also allows herself minor infractions and major questions.
Perhaps, after all, this is a more lifelike portrait of a religious person than the pious stick figure we are often subjected to in novels. An individual who is three-dimensional, alive, feeling deeply and thinking critically in a complex reality that in the end, perhaps, is not so different from our own.