This Month Anne Reads:
“Sister Hills” by Nathan Englander, from his collection of short stories “What we Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.”
This is a heart-flipping horror story about us, about everything Jews hold dear. It is a prophesy in the Amos and Jeremiah sense, and it is a diagnosis in the Memorial Sloan Kettering sense. And I can’t forget it. I keep telling it to other people like the Ancient Mariner stopping the wedding guest.
Two religious families move to opposite hills outside the Green Line above a Palestinian village. They intend to start a settlement and establish Jewish possession of the land that they believe was granted to them by God himself in a contract made with the Jewish people far back at the beginning of the story.
The first day after they arrive, war breaks out and the father and three sons from one family leave to take up arms in Israel’s battle for survival. That night, Yehudit, the young mother from the other family, whose husband has also left for the war, comes to the small shack of her friend, Rena, holding her sick baby daughter. The fever will not break and the child seems near death. Yehudit asks Rena to buy the baby in hopes that the angel of death will not be able to find her if she becomes someone else’s child. This is an Old World belief from a time long before penicillin. Rena agrees to buy the baby. As was done in the Pale a century before, the mothers sign a contract. The child’s fever breaks in the morning. There is a large oak tree in front of the shack. Rena tries to cut it down, but a young Palestinian boy comes to tell her that it is his tree and if she fells it, she will be cursed. Rena’s husband is killed in the war.
Rena loses two of her sons in other wars, and her last son, who has moved to Haifa and is gay, is killed in an auto accident. Rena claims possession of Aheret, the baby she once bought, who is now 27 years old. The rabbis who are consulted rule in favor of Rena’s possession. Rena argues very persuasively: “It is not far from here…where Esau returned from the hunt, tired and hungry, and traded away his birthright for a bowl of red lentils. It is among these very hills where Abraham, our father, took a heifer, three years old, and a goat, three years old, and a ram, three years old, and a turtle dove, three years old, and a young pigeon and split them all, but for those birds, and left them for the vultures in a covenant with God, which gives us the right to this land…So…these contracts, with God and man, written down nowhere, only remembered, do they still hold?”
The rabbis side with Rena because contracts must be honored, with God, with tradition. The reasoning here is absolutely right and humanly very wrong.
Aheret becomes Rena’s reluctant attendant and slave. Later, when Rena is cutting down another tree she suffers a heart attack. Aheret tries to claim her freedom in return for calling an ambulance. But Rena refuses and is confined to a wheelchair as a result. Aheret, lonely for her real mother, must take care of the bitter invalid into the distant and dismal future.
This sad, awful story is a parable of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank based on a thousands-of-years-old contract with God, and the tragedy that befalls both mothers in this story follows naturally from of the immorality at the base of their actions. They have taken what is not theirs and in the process lost their moral way. At the end of the story, the settlement has become a modern suburb for nonreligious people and there is Wi-Fi everywhere.
Modern Israel is the apparent victor, but the land is cursed, and we the readers understand that the story is not over, not yet.
The tragedy here is evenhanded. One mother loses her daughter, the other loses her husband and all her sons. The wars keep coming. The Palestinian loses his tree and his land. One mother is bitter and has lost her ability to love. The baby who did not die in the beginning of her life does die a soul death later and becomes dried and old caring for the woman who has stolen her life.
Here in a few pages is the entire Passion story, not the one about Jesus, but the one about Zionism and its irrational excess and also about its real need to defend itself, its tragic losses in wars and terrorist attacks. Rena’s sons and husband were killed in just wars, ones they did not start. It is not a simple polemic about politics but a tale about the results of a kind of religious, nationalistic triumphalism that can exclude the dignity and rights of others.
It is fitting that a tree plays such an active part in this story since so many of us American Jews gathered our pennies to plant a tree in the homeland. The trees we planted made us proud, but now our pride, like the tree in front of Rena’s home, has been cut down and someone still mourns that tree.
When the state of Israel was founded, Zionism was exuberantly confident. The dream was to create a safe world for the Jews who had wandered abroad and suffered so deeply. Zionism was the cause of the righteous and the strong and the optimistic. It overflowed with ideals of justice and decency. Jews of all kinds were encouraged and uplifted with the hope it brought to us all. But time has shown that we were too quick to think we had triumphed over the enemy. They attacked from without and from within, our own extremists planned to take more than was given by the peoples of the world, insisting on our ancient claim to the entire land, even the villages and towns and orchards that the other people considered their own.
Some among us claimed there were no Palestinians, just riffraff from other Arab countries. Some among us mourned our own dead but did not notice the deaths of our neighbors. Some among us to this day keep faith with those who wished to reject the partition and lay claim to the entire acreage.
Now the argument between Jews and Palestinians, Jews and Jews, is past the stage of easy resolution. Now the bitterness between the peoples and the crimes they commit is mounting and the hatred is as thick as ever. The solution recedes over the horizon’s edge and those of us who once had such hope wait for history’s next terrible turn.
This is what Nathan Englander was writing about. He saw the suffering of all involved. Rena loses her family. Yehudit loses her daughter. Aheret loses the possibility of a man’s love and her hope of having children. Israel loses its soul. The Palestinians lose their ancient land and its tree. The curse falls on all of them.
Writers are not politicians. They read the emotions of those whose lives are bent and twisted by those politicians. They look for the story of the mind and the heart beneath the headlines. They don’t change anything. A story this powerful should probably be banned. Thank God Jews don’t ban books. We just carry them around wherever we go forever — if there is a forever.
Nathan Englander is a writer who reminds me why writers are jailed and even executed. Such a fate is a compliment if also a disaster.
With this beautifully written tale, heart-stopping in its dramatic turns, believable at all levels, Englander leaves us in pain. Is it fair for a writer to do this?
As long as the world is the way it is, it is more than fair to tell a tale that reminds of us how it is and how it came to be.
Anne Roiphe, the author of eighteen books of fiction and not-fiction has also worked as a journalist and columnist on political and Jewish issues.
This article, part of a 12-part series, is sponsored by the Posen Foundation.