Homesick: A Novel
by Eshkol Nevo, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
(Dalkey Archive Press, 376 pp., paperback $15.95)
Eshkol Nevo’s debut novel, a bestseller in Israel now garnering international acclaim in translation, presents a distinctively young and fresh image of contemporary Israel. When young lovers Amir and Noa decide to live together, they choose an apartment in Maoz Ziyon—an easy commute for Amir, a psychology student at Tel Aviv University, and for Noa, who studies photography in Jerusalem. They move in and slowly try to figure out a shared life in their first shared home. These young people care about music, art, and sports, have doubts about their career choices, and alternately rejoice in and struggle with this new entity they call “Noaandamir.”
Set shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the novel notes the heavy political climate, with conflicts between religious and secular Jews and terrorist bombings making everyone reach for their cell phones to locate loved ones. But Nevo also does not want us to forget the normal parts of everyday life in Israel, the things that make Israel a vital society. Homesick is first and foremost a novel about relationships.
Amir and Noa befriend a variety of people in their new neighborhood, beginning with Moshe and Sima Zakian, in whose house they’ve rented an apartment (Moshe’s parents, elderly Kurdish Jews, live upstairs). The Zakians are a happily married couple, but soon they are quarreling bitterly, due to pressure from Moshe’s older brother, an Orthodox rabbi, over whether to send their children to a secular or religious school. Across the yard, another family is mourning the death of its elder son in Lebanon; the younger son, 10-year-old Yotam, escapes the silent sadness of his home with frequent visits to Amir and Noa’s apartment to play chess or watch soccer games with Amir.
Meanwhile, Saddiq, a middle-aged Palestinian construction worker, recognizes Moshe and Sima’s house as his childhood home and wonders how he can enter it to look for a family heirloom. He prowls around the neighborhood, at one point terrifying Sima’s mother-in-law, who drops her grocery bags in the street and runs. But when Saddiq subsequently breaks into the house, he is embraced with joy by Moshe’s aged father, Avram, who takes him for his firstborn son, a child who died shortly after his emigration from Kurdistan. As the family frantically summons the police, Saddiq and Avram share a tragicomic moment laden with overtones of “homesickness” for both.
By turns funny, poignant, and deeply humane, Homesick explores quintessential elements of the human psyche—longing, and the capacity of people to connect on an emotional level. This novel does not have a single narrator, but is written in a “polyphonic style,” where the characters tell their own stories in alternating, sequential monologues. It is also one of the first contemporary Israeli novels to include a Palestinian narrative voiced by a Palestinian character. Author Eshkol Nevo was awarded membership in Israel’s Cultural Excellence Foundation in 2008.
Wherever You Go: A Novel
by Joan Leegant
(W.W. Norton & Co, 252 pp., $23.95)
Politics is front and center in Joan Leegant’s novel about American Jews in Israel—three strangers who arrive with different agendas and whose paths intersect in Jerusalem. Yona Stern has come from New York to make peace with her older sister, Dena Ben-Tzion, who lives on a settlement over the Green Line with her husband and five children. Yona and Dena had quarreled over a personal matter, but the political situation makes Yona feel uneasy from the moment she descends from the bulletproof bus into the community called Givat Baruch. Dena, rigid and self-righteous, does not want a reconciliation and only speaks to Yona through her children.
Two other characters complete the triangle: Aaron Blinder dropped out of the college program that brought him to Israel and winds up at a desert agricultural and ideological training camp for one of the West Bank settlements. The only son of a famous writer of Holocaust novels, Aaron wants desperately to come out from under his father’s shadow and impress him with some deed of his own. Finally, Mark Greenglass, a sweet, sensitive man in his 30s who came to Jerusalem as a baal teshuva (newly Orthodox) years ago, is now considering a life outside of the yeshiva world. After a few weeks in New York with his parents, he returns to Jerusalem to teach at a Scandinavian art school for women—a school that Aaron and his two troubled friends are planning to blow up under the mistaken assumption that it is a front for Arab extremists.
The most articulate character (and most likely the author’s mouthpiece) is a native-born Israeli named Eyal, a new friend of Yona’s, who argues against the settlers’ movement. “They want a big life. Historical, theatrical,” he tells her. “Would I like us to have sovereignty over Bethlehem? Jericho? Sure…but we can’t have everything we want. That’s reality…. We have to find a way to move on. Both sides do.”
“Wherever you go…you take yourself with you,” the novel’s title suggests. Leegant has crafted a gripping story about the interplay between politics and religion in Israel—and what spiritual seekers with personal baggage bring to this volatile mix.
Devotion: A Memoir
by Dani Shapiro
(Harper, $24.99, 245 pp.)
As a child, Dani Shapiro loved to watch her father say the morning prayers in the den of their New Jersey home. “When my father wore the tefillin, closed his eyes, and davened, he was doing what he could to protect himself and those he loved,” she writes. In this heartfelt spiritual memoir, she confesses that, as a wife and mother entering her 40s, she herself had not yet found a way to live with her “heightened awareness of exactly how fragile it all is.” Having lost her father in a car crash and nursed her infant son through a life-threatening illness, Shapiro understands how tenuous life is and how little we can do to control it. When she stops to buy a mezuzah at a Judaica shop in Venice, Italy, she panics at the thought that she would need at least fourteen of them to protect all the rooms of her house.
While some would call this “anxiety,” Shapiro recognizes it as an existential crisis and a need to find “a deeper truth.” Towards that end, she makes a serious commitment to learn with three teachers: a yogi, a Buddhist teacher of meditation, and a rabbi. Building up a daily practice of yoga and meditation, initially to relieve anxiety, gives her new insights into her father’s experience of binding his tefil lin before reciting the morning prayers. “The tefillin were accoutrements of prayer, and the donning of them, a form of moving meditation,” she writes. “Maybe this simple, repetitive act gave my father courage, each morning, to face the day. Maybe it reminded him of who he was and what was important to him. And maybe, through his example, he taught me a lesson about the importance of a daily connection to that deeper place.”
The episodic account of her journey, her insights and reflections, are amusing, instructive, and enriching. Shapiro is not searching for a competing faith—her Judaism is deeply ingrained—but she endeavors to learn from everyone in an effort to find meaning. One of the goals of her quest is to figure out her own relationship to Judaism and its devotional practices, inspired in part by the questions of her young son. Mounting the Venetian mezuzah on her doorframe (her husband convinced her to just buy one), Shapiro reflects on her connection to the ritual: “I didn’t think the mezuzah was going to protect us,” she writes. “Still, here was a form, a ritual, a fulfillment of an ancestral commandment…. Another daily reminder—right there on the doorpost of our house—to stop for a moment. To take a breath. To pay attention and listen well.”
The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe
edited by Gershon Hundert
(first published by Yale University Press in 2008, available online in its entirety and free of charge
Devoted to the history and culture of Jews in Eastern Europe, this encyclopedia is an accessible resource for researchers, family historians, and interested browsers with more than 1,800 articles by leading scholars. Designed for easy navigation, the online edition is enhanced with audio recordings, video clips, interactive maps, and additional images from the archives of the YIVO Institute, the preeminent center for Eastern European Jewish research.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.
Books marked with this icon signify that they have been recommended for discussion groups—including Reform Movement-wide discussion on the “News & Views of Reform Jews” blog—as part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Jewish adult literacy initiative. Visit rj.org/books to see readers’ personal perspectives and to add your own.