To the End of the Land
by David Grossman
(Vintage, 672 pp., paperback $15.95)
The Israel National Trail, a 600-mile path from Dan to Eilat, is a popular hike for Israelis who want to experience the natural terrains and diverse communities of their country. Recently divorced Ora, the emotional center of David Grossman’s new novel, had plans to hike the northern portion of the trail with her younger son, Ofer, to celebrate the completion of his army service. At the last moment, however, Ofer re-enlists in order to join his unit in a major military operation. Ora has a bad feeling about the mission and rebels in the only way she knows how—by making sure she would not be home to receive the “official notifiers” if they come to tell her that Ofer has been killed. Engaging in a form of magical thinking, she believes that by keeping her son constantly in mind, she can protect him from harm. Ora decides to go on the hike with Avram, Ofer’s biological father, and spend the week telling him about the son he never met.
With this novel, Grossman, one of Israel’s most distinguished writers, sets out to depict the personal landscape of family, children, and friendships in Israel against the background of ha-matsav, “the situation,” which is how Israelis refer to the existential anxiety of the political/military reality in which they live. But the matsav is not just in the background; it pervades all of Israeli life.
The three friends whose lives frame this novel—Ora, Avram, and Ilan— meet as teenagers during the 1967 war. Later, in the army, Avram and Ilan “draw straws” for Ora, the tall, statuesque redhead with whom they are both in love. In 1973, during the Yom Kippur War, Avram and Ilan serve as intelligence officers on the Sinai Peninsula. Ilan is the last one to hear Avram’s frantic radio transmissions before the Egyptians overrun his base.
Avram is captured and tortured in Egyptian prisons and returns to Israel broken in body and spirit. Ora and Ilan, now a couple, take care of him, taking turns visiting him in the hospital every day. In one of Ora’s desperate attempts to restore Avram’s will to live, she makes love to him and Ofer is conceived. So close are these friends that Ilan adopts Ofer and the couple raise him as their son, along with their first child, Adam. After years of rehab, Avram recovers enough to live on the margins of society as a waiter in small Jaffa café.
Twenty years later, her marriage to Ilan ended, Ora is hiking the Israel Trail with Avram. Silver-haired and middle-aged, Ora is still Ora—a talkative, nurturing “earth mother,” generous and self-centered, obsessive and unable to keep her thoughts to herself. She describes seemingly small episodes, going back and forth in time. She tells Avram about her happy family life and especially about Ofer—a child so sensitive that he became a vegetarian at age 4, when he discovered where “meat” came from, and at 10, cured his older brother Adam from obsessive-compulsive behavior by volunteering to do his bizarre rituals for him. Now, her gentle son is a soldier fighting—where?
Slowly, subtly, a larger portrait emerges in this exquisitely crafted novel in which every detail matters. On their hike, Ora’s telling meanders, as Avram discreetly tries to steer her around memorials to fallen soldiers that dot the land, and they repeatedly get lost. Only now and with great effort does Ora piece together the events that led to the collapse of her marriage and estrangement of her sons.
Ora recalls the moment when the matsav became too much for her. The family was having dinner at a restaurant to celebrate Adam’s birthday—Ofer was on leave from active duty—when the men started talking about their experiences as soldiers: “Ofer told them casually that the suicide bomber who had blown himself up two weeks earlier at the central bus station in Tel Aviv, killing four civilians, had probably passed through his roadblock—meaning, the roadblock his battalion was responsible for. […] Ilan swallowed and said, ‘You know what? I’m glad he blew himself up in Tel Aviv and not on you at the roadblock.’ Ofer was outraged: ‘But Dad, that’s my job! I stand there precisely so they’ll blow themselves up on me and not in Tel Aviv.’” Meanwhile Ora listens to their conversation in shock and horror. What was happening to her son? How could her country’s leaders require this sacrifice—from him, from her?—without at least trying to find another way? How could they accept the status quo that she can barely live with another minute?
Grossman began writing this novel in May 2003. It was almost complete when his younger son, Uri, was killed in the Second Lebanon War on August 12, 2006, just hours before a cease-fire was declared. The shadow of grief is inseparably linked to this novel that gives voice to every Israeli parent’s fears. Grossman’s literary masterpiece, hailed as one of the most important anti-war novels of our generation, makes its case with enormous power and clarity.
Hank Greenberg: The Hero Who Didn’t Want to Be One
by Mark Kurlansky
(Jewish Lives Series, Yale University Press, 164 pp., $25)
Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers is widely considered the third most important hitter in baseball history, after Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig; he almost beat Babe Ruth’s record for most home runs in a season (with 58 home runs to the Babe’s 60), played on five All-Star teams, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. But throughout his career in the 1930s and 40s, he had to contend with antisemitic taunts on a daily basis from players and spectators. He quickly learned to ignore them and focus on winning instead—advice he later shared with Jackie Robinson, the first African-American on a professional baseball team. Mark Kurlansky, author of this biography in Yale’s new “Jewish Lives” series, regards the 6'4" slugger as a giant for his moral stature both on the field and off.
Greenberg was not the first Jew to play in the major leagues or the only one, but he was the first Jewish superstar in professional baseball. When he decided not to play on Yom Kippur during a pennant race in 1934 and walked into Detroit’s Shaarey Zedek synagogue instead, the congregation gave him a standing ovation. In Detroit, where Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin spewed out virulent antisemitism, Greenberg’s stand of solidarity with the Jewish community was never forgotten. “After Yom Kippur, the Tiger first baseman came to be seen as a muscular six-foot-four-inch bulwark against anti-Semitism,” Kurlansky writes. “Fans and reporters started to ignore the real Hank Greenberg in favor of this image of the mythic super-Jew, the deeply religious man who also played baseball very well.”
In truth, 23-year-old Greenberg struggled over the decision of whether or not to play on Yom Kippur. Only ten days earlier, on Rosh Hashanah, he had hit two home runs, for which the Detroit Free Press thanked him with a banner in Hebrew, “LeShanah Tovah, Hank!” But playing on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar was different; rabbis were consulted and even his father weighed in by telling the press, “Henry [Hank] would never play on Yom Kippur!” With all eyes on the most visible Jew in America, in the most antisemitic decade in U.S. history, Greenberg took his place with the Jews.
The irony is that Greenberg was not religious, although he grew up in an Orthodox home in the Bronx, and was never comfortable being cast in the role of a Jewish hero. At age 19 he left New York University after one semester to play professional baseball over the objections of his parents, who regarded baseball players as “bums.” Baseball, as Greenberg recalled in an interview for the American Jewish Committee’s oral history project, was his ticket out of the Bronx and the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of his youth. The son of immigrant parents, Greenberg wanted to “become American as quickly as possible” and pursue the American Dream of financial success and integration in a “wider world” through sports.
The emphasis on debunking the myth of Hank Greenberg as a religious Jew seems somewhat belabored in this biography, but Kurlansky does ably characterize Greenberg’s discomfort with the “super Jew” image. “In a different decade he probably would have been just a great ballplayer, which was all he ever wanted to be,” Kurlansky writes, but Hank was a Jewish superstar in the 1930s when Jews needed a hero. “When Greenberg’s very Jewish face appeared on a Wheaties box,” Kurlansky notes, “it seemed to American Jews that a barrier had been lifted.”
Later in life, Greenberg recognized that “this special role for Jews was a positive thing,” Kurlansky writes. In his posthumously published autobiography, Greenberg himself offered this assessment of his place in history: “It’s a strange thing. When I was playing I resented being singled out as a Jewish ballplayer, period. I’m not sure why or when I changed, because I’m still not a particularly religious person. Lately, though, I find myself wanting to be remembered not only as a great ballplayer, but even more as a great Jewish ballplayer. I realize now, more than I used to, how important a part I played in the lives of a generation of Jewish kids who grew up in the thirties.”
Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza
by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole
(Nextbook/Schocken, 284 pp., $26.95)
While Europe in the Middle Ages was characterized by an agrarian feudal economy, in the same period, the mostly Muslim-controlled lands surrounding the Mediterranean thrived on trade—from Spain to North Africa, Palestine, Persia, Yemen, and India. Ninety percent of the world’s Jews lived in Mediterranean communities, keeping in touch with each other and playing an active part in this maritime trade, whose hub was Fustat, the oldest part of Cairo. All this goes to explain why the late 19th-century discovery of the Cairo Geniza—an attic room filled with documents in the Ben Ezra Synagogue—excited generations of historians for over a century. The story of medieval Jewry largely took place here—leaving footprints in “ten centuries’ worth of one Middle Eastern Jewish community’s detritus,” according to Jerusalem-based authors Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole.
“Treasure” and “trash” are indeed in the eyes of the beholder, as Hoffman and Cole dramatically show us in their history of Geniza scholarship. Rabbi Solomon Schechter, a lecturer in Talmud at Cambridge University, was less the “discoverer” of the Cairo Geniza than the first scholar to appreciate what this cache represented. Librarians, dealers, and dilettantes had known about this stash of documents since the 1880s; but in 1896, when two Scottish sisters showed Schechter a manuscript fragment they had purchased during their Middle Eastern travels, he immediately recognized verses from “The Wisdom of Ben Sira”—a Hebrew text from the 2nd century B.C.E. that had been lost since the 10th century and was only available in Greek and Syriac translations.
Schechter had the vision to realize what this trove of documents—left behind by the descendants of Jews from Palestine who had settled in Fustat—could mean to the study of Judaism. Moreover, he took it upon himself to go to Egypt, pack up more than 190,000 fragments covered with dust and debris he called “genizahschmutz,” and ship them to Cambridge’s Library for other scholars to sort and study.
Hoffman and Cole draw us into the excitement of discovery that makes a historian’s heart beat faster as they tell the stories of the lesser-known researchers who followed Schechter. Identifying and assembling fragments like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle, dedicated scholars were able to reconstruct the works of historical figures known only by legend: great liturgical poets, such as Yannai, who wrote the prayer book used by Palestinian Jews; Karaite writers Anan ben David and Yaakov al-Kirkisani, who challenged rabbinic authority in the 9th and 10th centuries; and freethinker Hiwi al-Balkhi, who questioned and received 31 replies from Saadia Gaon, the greatest Jewish leader of his time.
One of the most ambitious scholarly projects involving the Cairo Geniza was initiated by Salman Schocken, owner of a chain of department stores in Germany and a patron of literary arts who had a special interest in recovering “a national Jewish literature.” In 1930 he founded the Schocken Institute for the Study of Hebrew Poetry in Berlin, moving it to Jerusalem in 1933, after the Nazis came to power. There, an extraordinary succession of scholars combed through photostats of Geniza fragments from libraries all over the world to amass the most complete collection of Jewish medieval poetry ever gathered—what Hoffman and Cole call “an entire literature embodying the middle millennium of Jewish poetry’s 3000-year history.”
Jewish poetry was written mainly for worship until the mid-10th century, but the new Andalusian Hebrew poetry, influenced by Arabic poetry, often dealt with secular themes. Geniza scholars shed light on the founding father of Andalusian poetry, the Moroccan-born poet Dunash ben Labrat—and, in a remarkable act of forensic sleuthing, also identified the only known poem by a woman in this period: Dunash’s wife, who penned a moving farewell to her husband upon the eve of his forced departure. These verses are beautifully rendered in Peter Cole’s translations.
The Cairo Geniza contained all kinds of materials written in Hebrew script—not just poetry and sacred texts, but also business letters, court depositions, marriage contracts, bills of divorce, and personal letters written in the everyday language of Judeo-Arabic. Shelomo Dov Goitein, a scholar of Islamic history at the Hebrew University in the late 1940s, was captivated by the Geniza documents relating to the everyday lives of medieval Jews. “The historical figures who interested him most—shopkeepers and scribes, beggars and brides—were those whose lives emerged from the fragments that earlier scholars had brushed aside,” the authors write.
“Goitein’s approach was intensely democratic,” comment Hoffman and Cole. “He understood from the very start of his work with the documents, it was precisely those fragments of a more humdrum-seeming daily nature […] that would allow him to bring the Mediterranean world of the High Middle Ages alive on the page, in all its quotidian glory.” His magisterial 5-volume study, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World, published over a 20-year period from 1967 to 1988, is a groundbreaking work of social history.Hoffman and Cole have created a unique dual portrait of the discoveries and the scholars whose particular interests enabled them to see “treasure” where others saw “trash.” I found myself wanting to re-read so many portions that I sorely missed an index, and felt frustrated flipping pages for photos captions buried in the back. In a book as rich in fascinating and unfamiliar material as this one, some reader-friendly aids from the Nextbook series would have been greatly appreciated.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.