For weeks, many of us “Diaspora Jews” have kept ourselves neck-deep in news from the Middle East: jumping out of bed to check the front page, keeping the television on all night, refreshing Web sites for the latest headlines. Of course, our new routine pales in comparison to what it could be — dashing into bombs shelters, being forced from our homes, arranging funerals. Still, it is a change, one that many of us experience in the form of this anxiety-propelled, bottomless need for information.
But information does not necessarily breed understanding. This is especially true for us: We are here and not there, and the distance is a complicating factor. Even those who have planted themselves firmly on one side of the political spectrum or another have been struck by new, different, often uncomfortable thoughts. (“How can I accept the killing of innocent Lebanese civilians, even by Israel?” one asks, while another wonders whether he should up the ante of his support by joining the Israeli army.) Behind these questions is the desire to get a better hold on the exact contours of one’s individual relationship to the State of Israel — not necessarily by figuring out one’s politics as much as by plumbing one’s emotional connection.
The answers to these questions cannot be found on CNN (thankfully). For this, we might be more successfully aided by fiction. One should read Israeli writers, of course — Agnon, Amichai , A.B. Yehoshua, Aharon Appelfeld, Orly Castel-Bloom, Etgar Keret. But the more appropriate template may come from fellow Americans, writers who, by exploring the Diaspora Jew’s relationship to Israel, have gone down this road before.
One of the best of these books is “The Counterlife,” Philip Roth’s 1986 masterpiece. Less a linear tale than five riffs revolving around the same set of characters, the book acts as a kind of narrative kaleidoscope on Jewish identity — with each slight shift of perspective, a whole new picture emerges (think “Sliding Doors,” but smarter). The structure is designed to put the author’s famed alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, face to face with characters who challenge his identity as a Jew — vis-à-vis signature Roth topics (sex, family, psychoanalysis, sex, assimilation, sex) as well as broader ones: the Holocaust, antisemitism and, most evocatively here, Israel. Nathan’s good, moderate, American values are challenged — from his resistance to religious ritual and distaste for the political right (“We do not wish to crush the Arab,” a settler leader explains, “we simply will not allow him to crush us”), to his subtle romanticization of Israeli life. “Whenever I meet you American-Jewish intellectuals,” says his friend Shuki, a wearied Israeli journalist, “with your non-Jewish wives and your good Jewish brains, well-bred, smooth, soft-spoken men, educated men who know how to order in a good restaurant, and to appreciate a good wine, and to listen courteously to another point of view, I think exactly that: We are the excitable, ghettoized, jittery little Jews of the Diaspora, and you are the Jews with all the confidence and cultivation that comes of feeling at home where you are.” The book is not exclusively about Israel, but it was these sections that moved me. And it is these that I’ve found myself rereading over the past weeks.
“The Counterlife” is only one of many, many books about Israel by Americans. We have listed five more below, but this is only a start. If you know of a title of a work of fiction that should be on this list, please send the suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org. The full list will be published in the August 25 edition.
“Yehuda” by Meyer Levin (1931)
“Exodus” by Leon Uris (1958)
“Damascus Gate” by Robert Stone (1998)
“The Family Orchard” by Nomi Eve (2000)
“The Task of This Translator” by Todd Hasak-Lowy (2005)