If You Want To Understand Israel, Read Its Literature
If you want to understand a people, read the stories it tells.
In the work of Israel’s fiction writers, we meet the real Israeli, the one behind the headlines, stripped of hasbara. We get to know Israeli soldiers and Palestinian suicide bombers, Jewish settlers, Arab university students, Holocaust survivors. Here, they collide, just as they might in real life, at a bus stop or supermarket.
“Imagining the other is not only an aesthetic tool,” Amos Oz said upon receiving the 2005 Goethe Prize. “It is, in my view, also a major moral imperative.”
To understand any country and its unique dilemmas, we must first learn to use our imaginations. Perhaps, through literary experience, we may better understand Israel’s richness and complexities.
Here are eleven works of fiction that help us do just that.
Khirbet Khizeh By S.Y. Yizhar, 1949
I read this slim volume in one sitting, somewhere on the floor in between the stacks of my university library, and the sparseness of its prose has stuck with me. In 1948, Yizhar Smilansky, haunted by the events he witnessed as a soldier in the 1948 war, described the demolition of a fictional Arab village from the perspective of a Jewish soldier — and published his novella under the pen name S.Y. Yizhar. Since its publication, the book has sparked controversies but has served an important role in Israeli literature, telling the story of Palestinian expulsions, an indelible mark on the history of the Jewish state’s birth: “What hadn’t they told us about refugees. Everything, everything was for the refugees, their welfare, their rescue … our refugees, naturally. Those we were driving out — that was a totally different matter. Wait. Two thousand years of exile. The whole story. Jews being killed. Europe. We were the masters now.”
By Assaf Gavron, 2014
An ambitious attempt to describe the contradictions of life in an Israeli outpost in the West Bank, Gavron’s novel takes place in Ma’aleh Hermesh C — a hilltop outpost which isn’t recognized by the government but which the military must protect — along with its wild cast of characters. Othniel Assis, a classic Jewish settlement leader, lives in a trailer with his family; he spends his days tending to goats, growing vegetables in the fields and finagling for his dream settlement. But when a Washington Post correspondent starts to expose the settlement as Israel’s Wild West, an international scandal erupts. Gavron’s characters — a hysterical religious settler women at protests; an American Jewish philanthropist named Sheldon Mamelstein — make for a story that is almost biblical in tone and scope: “He loved the hilltop, the winds, the ancient landscape; and he longed for the pioneering spirit of his youth — the sorties into Hebron and Kiryat Arba, the visits down south to Yamit before the Sinai town’s dramatic evacuation, the Sabbaths spent in settlements reeling from the barrage of Arab terror during the first intifada, the stormy protests against the Oslo accords, when he and his fellow demonstrators faced off against club-wielding riot police and water cannons.”
By Sayed Kashua, 2002
A long-time Haaretz columnist, writer and producer of the popular “Avoda Aravit” (Arab Labor) TV show, Kashua immigrated to the United States to teach writing at the University of Illinois. His debut novel, “Dancing Arabs,” is the coming-of-age story of a nameless Palestinian boy from Tira. He wins a scholarship to an elite Israeli boarding school and becomes an expert at faking identities, seamlessly switching from Arabic to accentless Hebrew until he becomes too much of an Arab in West Jerusalem and too much of an Israeli in his hometown of Tira: “The soldiers at the entrance to the village asked me to stop by the side of the road. Me they’re stopping? The youngest Arab ever to learn to pronounce a p? I have almost no accent. You can’t tell by looking at me. I’ve got sideburns and Coke-bottle sunglasses. Even the Arabs mistake me for a Jew. I even speak Hebrew with the housekeeping staff. It must be my wife, I think to myself. She’s somewhat Arab. Sometimes, when we go to a shopping mall or places like that, I hope people will assume she’s Moroccan or Iraqi, and that I’m a western Jew who likes eastern women.”
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid
By Shani Boianjiu, 2012
Boianjiu’s debut novel, published when she was 25, documents the mundane daily life of three female Israeli soldiers. High school friends Lea, Avishag and Yael — from a dull town in Israel’s periphery — are drafted into the army. Lea serves at a West Bank checkpoint; Avishag keeps watch on the Egyptian-Sinai border; Yael is a shooting instructor. To kill time, the three indulge in alcohol, drugs and sex, and fantasize about the enemy. The teenagers’ purposelessness makes this novel exhausting to read. Nevertheless, it’s is an unflinching glimpse into Israeli military culture.
Five Seasons By A.B. Yehoshua, 1987
It takes a brilliant wordsmith to create a literary masterpiece out of an uncomplicated character. In this quietly powerful novel, Yehoshua tells the simple life story of Molkho, an ordinary, middle-aged Israeli bureaucrat who copes with the death of his wife by embarking on a series of romantic misadventures across Israel and Europe: “He was convinced that he had managed to refine the instant of her passing (her passing? he wasn’t sure the word was right) into something clear and vivid containing not only thought and feeling but also sound and light, such as the maroon glow of the small electric heater, the greenish radiance of the numbers on the digital clock, the yellow shaft of light from the bathroom that cast large shadows in the hallway, and perhaps, too, the color of the sky, a pinkish ivory set off by the deep obscurity around it.”
By S.Y. Agnon, 1970
Israel’s only Nobel-Prize for Literature winner, the Orthodox, Galician-born Agnon arrived in Jaffa in 1908. Agnon was a deeply Jewish writer — discussing rituals and weaving in biblical allusions throughout his stories. Those qualities might make his novels (such as “Only Yesterday”) difficult reading for a newcomer to his work (and may explain why his books are less frequently read in Israel today). This collection serves as a perfect introduction to his world — one dominated by Jewish tradition, piety, and a search for home.
Suddenly a Knock on the Door By Etgar Keret, 2012
Keret is known for his short, fantastical stories — and this collection is particularly absurd and delightful. In “Tell Me A Story,” a writer is held up at gunpoint and forced to make up a story. In “Unzipping,” a woman finds a zipper under her sleeping lover’s tongue; when she pulls it, her lover “opens up” and she finds another man inside him. She then realizes she has a zipper under her own tongue and ponders whether to unzip herself, too. Throughout, Keret captures what Steve Almond, writing for The New York Times, called “the chaotic inner life” of Israelis — less the public dilemmas of a nation and more the private existential questions that Israelis face today.
Apples from the Desert
By Savyon Liebrecht, 1986
Born in Munich to Holocaust survivor parents in 1948, Liebrecht arrived in Israel a year later but the inherited memories of her parents never left her. Her collection, “Apples from the Desert,” features unforgettable characters and scenes: A Holocaust survivor shears off her four-year old granddaughter’s locks because that was what they did in the camps; a Jewish woman hires Arab laborers to build her an addition while her husband is away on business, and begins to wonder at the mistrust she has been trained to feel about Palestinians; an Orthodox Jerusalemite woman goes to visit her rebellious daughter, who has left religion to live with her boyfriend on a secular kibbutz. You could call Liebrecht the Israeli Alice Munro. A master of the short story, she explores Jewish women’s experiences, Holocaust survivor trauma and tensions between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians. “The very subjects which trouble you and inspire you and haunt you as a person, are those which are — in all sorts of disguises — going to reveal themselves in your work,” she once said in an interview.
By Haim Sabato, 2010
As a religious Mizrahi author in a literary market dominated by secular Ashkenazi writers, Sabato is key to understanding millions of underrepresented Israelis. The author is a rare combination: the head of a yeshiva who writes best-selling novels on the side. In “From the Four Winds,” Sabato offers a window into the life of new immigrants to Israel in the 1950s. The autobiographical work is set in the Beit Mazmil maabara (transit camp) for recent olim (now the leafy Kiryat Yovel neighborhood in west Jerusalem) and narrated by a young boy who recently arrived with his family from Egypt. The narrative focuses on the boy’s friendship with a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who tells him about surviving the camps. Sabato’s work is revered in the national religious community as an optimistic portrait of the Zionist narrative.
By David Grossman, 2010
In this heartbreaking story of war from a mother’s perspective, Ora, an Israeli woman, bids goodbye to her son Ofer, who has reenlisted in the army for a major Gaza offensive, and has a premonition that he will die in battle. Determined to avoid waiting for the inevitable bad news, she invites her former lover Avram to join her for a hike in the Galilee. This searing work was published only five years after one of Grossman’s sons was killed in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.
By Amos Oz, 2002
It’s not exactly a novel, but it’s not a memoir either. It’s a tale. Or, as several Israeli booksellers have described it to me, “the modern-day Bible of Israeli literature.” It tells Oz’s coming-of-age story against the backdrop of the State of Israel’s birth. Like no other author, he paints a painful portrait of Jewish immigrants to Palestine, and their unrequited love affair with Europe: “They mostly read books in German or English, and presumably they dreamed in Yiddish. But the only language they taught me was Hebrew. Maybe they feared that a knowledge of languages would expose me too to the blandishments of Europe, that wonderful, murderous continent.” The 560-page tome tackles post-Holocaust memory, the guilt of survivors, the fluidity of space — and perhaps most evocatively, the nature of Jerusalem, its role in a nation’s imagination versus the “brooding city” that it is in reality. For Oz, Jerusalem is a symbol of shattered dreams, and his meditations on immigration, nationalism and disillusionment in a 70-year-old nation remain remarkably current.
What books would you add to this list? I’d love to hear from you; email me at [email protected].
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Forward’s life editor. Follow her at @avitalrachel