Solemnity and levity on the shore

A fictionalized Israeli beach town is home to acts of kindness and ritual as well as steamy affairs.

The burial house scenes are almost a backdrop for the novel’s often steamier sections (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The burial house scenes are almost a backdrop for the novel’s often steamier sections
The title of Diana Bletter’s first novel, A Remarkable Kindness, refers to its protagonists’ participation in the hevra kadisha – usually translated as “burial society” but in this book beautifully rendered as “burial circle” – in Peleg, a fictional seaside town between Acre and Nahariya (not unlike the author’s hometown, Shavei Zion).
The work of a hevra kadisha is traditionally referred to as hesed shel emet, true kindness, because the volunteers can expect nothing in return from the recipient of their care.
In addition to Israelis, the women in Bletter’s fictitious burial circle include American expats Aviva, Lauren and Emily.
Later they are joined by Rachel, an idealistic young volunteer from Wyoming.
Aviva raised her family in Peleg and is now bereft of her soldier-son and her husband. Lauren, a maternity nurse, arrived more recently as the shotgun wife of David, an Israeli doctor she met in her native Boston. Emily, Lauren’s zaftig friend from college, decides to relocate to Israel after her husband leaves her for a rail-thin dancer.
The notion of a novel about burial circle volunteers has much merit. Most people do not know how bodies are readied for their final resting place, and would be comforted to get a peek into the thoughtful and gentle rituals involved.
However, the burial-house scenes are almost a backdrop. This sometimes steamy book is more about the struggles of Aviva to go on after her losses, and the struggles of Lauren and Emily to adjust to life in a foreign land where people can be rude and missiles can send you running for shelter.
The author presents their lives as a series of vignettes from 2000 to 2006, not delving deeply enough to provide insight into what makes each character tick.
Readers who made aliya from the United States may find Lauren’s ambivalence resonant (“Sometimes I feel like I’m just waiting to go back”) and her stick-toitiveness admirable. Or they might lose patience with her kvetching and wonder when David will break down and buy his wife a one-way ticket back to Boston.
Earthy, spunky Emily has no such ambivalence.
As Lauren observes, “Emily...
blossomed in Peleg. Like an introduced tree – the avocado, for example – that took to Israel as if it had always been there, as if it weren’t an upstart, an émigré.”
Emily finds romance with a local farmer and they start a family. And then something – it is not clear what – goes terribly wrong and she ends up in the arms of an Arab coworker at the hotel where she mans the reception desk.
Aviva’s character is more fleshed out.
An English teacher, she tries for the sake of her two surviving sons to keep her head above the dark waters of grief. She introduces Lauren and Emily to the mother of a private student from a neighboring Arab village because she “thought it was important – crucial and vital, really – for her to have a Muslim woman as a friend, despite the religious discord, the clashes, and strife of the Middle East.” This introduces a thought-provoking element to the story.
When Rachel arrives in town, she befriends a broken Holocaust survivor and falls in love with Aviva’s son Yoni, just before Yoni goes to fight in the Second Lebanon War.
Early in the book, Aviva bumps into a lover from long ago, and Bletter hints about the two years they spent in Paris involved in some sort of espionage.
Curiously, the details of this mysterious past never materialize. Instead we follow along as Aviva takes a surfing lesson from one of her dead son’s friends and acquiesces to his advances after serving him a Friday night dinner.
On that same night, Peleg’s married mayor, Charlie Gilbert – another Anglo immigrant and burial-society member – seduces Gila, a local beekeeper and hevra kadisha volunteer, as her husband is away at a conference.
Perhaps the point here is that burial-circle volunteers are real people who cannot be expected to be paragons of piety and virtue despite their commendable willingness to perform “a remarkable kindness.”
Still, one would hope that the moral failings of the characters in this book do not represent the norm.
Bletter is at her best when she draws word pictures of the Mediterranean scenery.
Emily’s husband’s eyes are “the color of the sea. Not the morning sea, when the water was turquoise laced with jade, but the late-afternoon sea, when the sun hung low and the water took on a wistful shade of blue.” As they walk in Acre, “The moon was sliced in half and silvery bright and the sea slapped against the rocks.
The air was lukewarm and tender, a salty breeze lifting off the water.”
The seashore Bletter describes is probably the right setting in which to read A Remarkable Kindness. Consider it chick lit for your beach bag and you won’t be disappointed.