Fathers and Sons

By Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi

Published August 18, 2006, issue of August 18, 2006.
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Uri Grossman, the 20-year-old son of Israeli novelist David Grossman, died on Saturday after a missile hit his tank in southern Lebanon.

Imagine, if you can, that Uri Grossman had been a character in his father’s fiction. He may or may not have had a long and happy life. After all, many of the characters in David Grossman’s Hebrew narratives are preadolescents or adolescents struggling with demons of one sort or another. Their demons and their struggles land them in an abandoned refrigerator in a field, or in a “white room” in Yad Vashem or in a drug-dealing center for runaway kids in Jerusalem — with just the slightest hint of a possible way out.

But what Uri would have had is an unmistakably private life, a life not determined by what Israelis call “ha-matzav” (the Situation) — the fatalistic term that has supplanted what used to be called the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For the average student of literature, the exploration of the private landscape of the soul may seem like the most obvious of fictional acts; indeed, it is the very definition of the novel. But in the context of Israeli literature, interiority amounts to an act of sedition. What right do we have to a private life when the public struggle is so compelling?

Of course the sedition can also be liberating, exemplary in a way, and has confirmed David Grossman as a moral beacon for a large number of grateful readers. It is a quiet sedition, in keeping with Grossman’s quiet mien.

Not that he has ever avoided speaking truth to power. His 1987 series of reports on the West Bank, “The Yellow Wind,” was the book that removed the blinders from Israeli eyes and forced readers to see the condition of the Palestinians in the period just preceding the first intifada. (At that point, it was not a physical wall but a wall of indifference that had made the Palestinians invisible to most Israelis.) As essayist and columnist, Grossman has been a consistent and intrepid warrior for peace. Ever engaged in the debates of the hour, ever the interpreter of the deep subtexts of those debates, he has seemed to be just one step ahead of his time. He gave us “Sleeping on a Wire” (1993), about Israeli Arabs, and “Death as a Way of Life” (2003), about the matzav. He added his signature to the 2003 Geneva Initiative.

Grossman’s path, to the left of most of Israel’s public intellectuals, winds through endless lectures, petitions and interviews. His first two novels, “The Smile of the Lamb” (1983) and “See Under: Love” (1986), tackled aspects of the grand narratives that drive collective beliefs and behaviors in Israel — the Occupation and the ravages and legacies of the Holocaust, respectively.

But then, Grossman went underground — or so it seemed. The characters in his next novels, while still recognizably situated in Israel and in Hebrew, were somehow shielded from — granted a moratorium from — the Situation. This was deliberate. As Grossman told a student audience at Duke University in the spring of 2005, many Israelis and Palestinians are no longer individual human beings but “victims of their own tragic history.” A society that lives in a state of prolonged conflict becomes so obsessed with survival that it forgets to live: “Now you are just surviving so that later you can live,” he said. “To be a more efficient survivor, a person needs to kill parts of his soul…. He persuades himself that when peace and serenity arrive, he will be able to redeem the part of his soul that fear took away from him.” It is this endangered part of the soul that the writer takes charge of — like a person who shelters a dozen people in his cellar during wartime. Writing his last book during the worst days of the second intifada, Grossman never foregrounds that battle. “I have created for myself a kind of freedom of movement. I am no longer a victim.”

For some of Grossman’s comrades in arms in the Peace Camp, this withdrawal into the private realm felt like a form of betrayal — as if the author were exhibiting through his characters the very blindness of which he had implicitly accused Israelis in “The Yellow Wind.” But this was his most radical political act, an affirmation of the world as it should be: not the messianic world at the end of time, but a world in which personal neuroses are not overwhelmed by public neuroses. Even Jerusalem, the most messianic of cities, becomes, in “Someone To Run With” (2000), the underbelly of a vibrant city of commerce and crime, destitution and despair, love and compassion. Rather than betraying the peace movement, Grossman elevates it by showing us that we would know what to do with peace if we had it.

In many of these narratives, one can detect traces of the author’s struggle to protect the innocence of his characters, much the way a parent tries to safeguard the innocence of his child; to protect the child not from life (that which “happens”) but from being engulfed by the grand national epic so that he may zigzag through life on his own terms.

The fact that so many of Grossman’s characters are actually children and that some of his books were written specifically for children makes the effort to protect them more urgent. In “See Under: Love,” the author goes to the extremes of creating a child, Kazik, who lives his entire life — from infancy through childhood to adolescence, adulthood and old age — in 24 hours. This heroic, counter-historical act is meant to serve one purpose, encapsulated in the last lines of the novel: “All of us prayed,” the storyteller says, “for one thing: that he might end his life knowing nothing of war…. We asked so little: for a man to live in this world from birth to death and know nothing of war.”

And so: How to absorb that David Grossman could not grant his own son what he could grant his fictive sons: a private realm in which to live out his own destiny? Uri’s life was cut short with all his promise and ambition intact. He wanted to travel. He wanted to act. He wanted to grow and to have a family of his own. His life was enfolded into the public story of this generation’s war. With imagination and compassion, Grossman had protected his characters from public violence for all our sakes. What he could not do — not alone — was protect his own son from that.

Yehi zikhro barukh.

Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi is a professor of comparative Jewish literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was a visiting professor at Duke University (2004-2006). Her latest publication is “Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination” (University of California Press, 2000).

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