Wherever You Go
By Joan Leegant
W.W. Norton 272 pages, $23.95
Finally, a novel about Israel by an American Jew that’s written well and without sentimentality. Joan Leegant’s “Wherever You Go” is unafraid to address the pivotal but ambiguous role that Israel plays in providing an identity for certain types of American Jews. Israel, in this novel, neither burnishes nor tarnishes outsiders through its touch, but provides a specific physical setting, whose glow is, in turn, both toxic and lovely.
One of the novel’s main characters says of her family that, “It looked good from the outside, didn’t it.” This familial feeling is one that American Jews have had about Israel since its founding despite most of the time having viewed it from “the outside.” Leegant’s talent is in showing an Israel where Americans and their ideologies do more harm than good, and where Israelis bear no resemblance to the ardently virtuous archetypes from the era of Leon Uris’s “Exodus.” Leegant’s characters acknowledge the beauty and passion as well as the deep flaws of any human creation, including the Jewish state. There have been many important novels in English about Israel; Leegant’s is certainly among them.
Leegant, the author of an award-winning collection of short stories, “An Hour in Paradise” (W.W. Norton, 2004), has lived, studied and taught in Israel, both as a young woman at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and currently as visiting writer in the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan University. Her extended stays in Israel have allowed Leegant to create characters that are believable to any reader who has visited modern Israel.
Leegant presents many of the American types who spend time in Israel: from settlers who feel they belong only when someone in their families has “shed blood” for the place, to the misfit boy who can’t please his successful father. There is the descendant of Holocaust survivors turned hopeless drug addict and her boyfriend, the drug addict turned rabbi and popular teacher of Torah. Cameo appearances include an American Jewish writer of popular Jewish novels that tug at the guilty heartstrings of American Jews; a young, quasi-closeted gay man who will do anything to keep his beloved near him, and the unhappy young wife of an Orthodox rabbi, who, having married too young, has lowered her expectations of life. For these characters, being in a new place mostly does not change their inner traumas, much as they yearn for that transformation.
A welcome aspect of the novel is the interplay of the personal and the political: a constant theme of life in Israel. In the novel, a state investigator of a bombing says, “Not every violent event here is political. Sometimes it’s strictly a personal problem. We have to be thorough.” This type of attitude summarizes the author’s careful understanding of her characters and the land they inhabit. Nothing is obvious, and none of the characters is without failings in the realistic and nuanced terrain they inhabit.
Yet the characterizations at times suffer from being too compressed. Moving between the stories of three separate individuals — Yona Stern, Mark Greenglass and Aaron Blinder — the structure of “Wherever You Go” can be hard to follow. Just when a reader becomes absorbed in one character’s story, the novel cuts to another. A few of the novel’s plot twists seem implausible, too. It’s too quick and too easy for a beautiful and talented character to descend into a life of squalor as a drug addict. It’s too convenient for Yona’s sister, Dena, to somehow bypass the bureaucratic morass and remarry in Israel a month after her husband has an affair.
Among the finest moments in “Wherever You Go” are the ones that satirize American Jewish use of Israel and the harm it can ultimately do. The father of misfit Aaron Blinder is a successful writer of novels the narrator describes as “emotionally inflammatory” and harmful to suggestive young Jews “looking for a violent cause to which to attach themselves.” Eventually, the father is forced to reap the harvest of the ideas he has sowed. There are a number of bitingly funny scenes in the book; one of the best occurs when a group of Jews from Cleveland come to the settlement they help support financially, where Yona’s sister lives. They refuse to see the irony in their support of fervent settlers whose rhetoric of sacrifice is at odds with their commitment to Diaspora creature comforts.
Leegant describes another unhealthy relationship in the novel as, “One-sided. Abnormally dependent.” These words could equally well apply to the relationship many American Jews have with an Israel that is idealized rather than actual. Indeed, Mark Greenglass, the character who leaves the world of ideals, is the one who finds the greatest redemption. “Wherever You Go” warns of the danger of “an adventure fantasy where the good guys wear cowboy hats and the bad guys have black moustaches and capes,” and Leegant heeds her own warning. Hers is a world of grays, where the characters both make grave mistakes and find provisional redemption.