A Young Playwright’s Strange Trip

Nonfiction

By Eryn Loeb

Published July 24, 2008, issue of August 01, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Ambivalence: Adventures in 
Israel and Palestine

By Jonathan Garfinkel
W. W. Norton, 358 pages, $25.95.

Jonathan Garfinkel’s new book, “Ambivalence: Adventures in Israel and Palestine,” is, in a broad sense, the story of one man and his philosophical, spiritual and romantic crises. Pretty quickly, though, it’s revealed to be about the mostly predictable things that happen when a guy tries to work through his mixed-up feelings in an especially mixed-up place.

When we first meet Garfinkel, he’s trying to figure out where he stands in relation to the faith with which he was raised. A Canadian now in his early 30s, he attended a Zionist day school and grew up with a solid Jewish education, one grounded in history, Hebrew and an unyielding support for Israel. When he reaches adulthood, things become less clear-cut. He ambivalently attends synagogue with his girlfriend (about whom he is ambivalent), and they ambivalently discuss going to Israel together. Neither has ever been.

Instead, Garfinkel decides to venture there by himself, in pursuit of a playwright residency. And so, a plan: He will find a true story and turn it into a play, thereby enhancing his understanding of what’s happening in the country and maybe even offering others some insight, too. A Palestinian woman he met back in Toronto told him about a Jerusalem house she once lived in that was shared, tensely, by an Arab family and a Jewish family. Garfinkel quickly decides that this will be his story, one that encapsulates the region’s long-standing historical tension and will surely make a killer play.

It would be hard to find a better metaphor for the tensions between Arabs and Israelis than the one upon which Garfinkel stumbled. But the story of the house is not nearly as straightforwardly symbolic as he would like it to be (even when, after much earnest investigation, the dwelling turns out to stand as a rare concrete example of the Palestinian right of return). As an Israeli theater director says when Garfinkel tells him about it, “It’s interesting, but where do you go from there?”

Garfinkel’s desire to find a compelling story here is understandable, even noble. Who among us wouldn’t like to find an example of the conflict in microcosm and use it to puzzle out exactly where everything went so horribly wrong? But it’s troubling to watch him attempt to squeeze what he’s seeing and hearing into a theatrical framework, and it doesn’t help that his nonfiction writing is hampered by plaintive dramatics: “I leave Ruthie’s. Walk quickly, something’s chasing me, can’t get rid of it. I head to the old city. Lose myself in the stone corridors. Don’t want to know where I am but I know exactly where I’m going.”

It’s unfortunate that Garfinkel’s experiences make for such a frustrating read, because his self-conscious ambivalence is a welcome approach to exploring the region’s conflict. The issues involved beg for a nuanced view, and an admission of uncertainty is as good a place to start as any. In Garfinkel’s case, though, it’s inseparable from a rather relentless naiveté. He’s concerned about authenticity, and craves an off-the-beaten-track experience. “I want real things to happen,” he writes. “Stuff not found in guidebooks, tour groups or media images.” Well-intentioned travelers have always sought these things, and while Garfinkel is aware of what he calls “the folly” of his journey — “I have to decode objects before me, create meaning out of what I do not know” — this occasional self-awareness only gets him so far.

The book’s final section finds him returning to Israel some time after his original trip, hoping to discover answers to questions he hasn’t been able to shake. While it’s more focused than what came before, this part of the story is no more satisfying. It’s also saddled with the specter of the improbably named Mrs. Blintzkrieg, introduced early on as Garfinkel’s childhood teacher. She’s a familiar figure, the ultimate embodiment of stereotypical Jewish guilt. An imagined version of this woman follows him everywhere, chastising him for his need to question Israel’s heroic narrative. Alas, instead of serving as an honest expression of his crisis of faith, the character is the distracting extreme of Garfinkel’s tendency toward what he refers to in an author’s note as “exaggeration tinged with magic realism.” The result is a book that feels strangely disjointed, defeated by the state of mind that brought it into being in the first place.

Eryn Loeb, a writer living in New York, is associate editor of Nextbook.org.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.