Judas, by Amos Oz

Shmuel Ash is the kind of person who either irritates or arouses parental feelings in just about everyone he meets. He’s an obsessive academic fascinated by betrayers and the stories society tells about them and woefully underprepared for living independently. When we first meet him in Amos Oz’s slow-moving novel, Judas, his former girlfriend has married someone else and his parents’ bankruptcy cuts his university studies short. Only a chance sighting of a job offer on a college notice board saves him from homelessness. This job turns out to be just the kind of opportunity that pushes Shmuel out of the nest of complacency and, just maybe, into adult flight.

The job is a strange one. Shmuel is paid in room, board, and a little stipend to take care of an elderly, argumentative pedant for several hours every evening. He has few actual duties—make sure the old man eats, feed the fish, close the blinds—and is mostly there just to keep Gershom Wald while Wald’s daughter-in-law works. In his free time, he nurses a growing attraction to Atalia, the daughter-in-law (who everyone warns him about) and thinks about two betrayers: Judas Iscariot and Shealtiel Abravanel (Atalia’s father).

There is a slight plot to Judas, but the novel is more about the dialogues between Shmuel and the other characters about the centuries-old conflict between Christians and Jews, the roles of Judas and Shealtiel, Jewish views of Jesus and Judas, futility, and grief. Shmuel fascination with historic betrayers seems to come from his ideas that they were dreamers. He argues that Judas’ betrayal was necessary—and born out of genuine belief in Jesus’s divinity—because, without it, there wouldn’t have been a crucifixion. Without the crucifixion, there couldn’t have been a resurrection. And without a resurrection, Christianity might have withered on the vine. As for Shealtiel Abravanel, this fictional character argued against David Ben-Gurion and other Zionists against the creation of a Jewish State. Abravanel favored co-existence between Jews and Muslims. Unlike Judas, however, Abravanel failed. We’ll never know what his betrayal of Zionism might have wrought.

Because this book is primarily dialogue in the form of long speeches, this book is slow going. It took me a full week to get to the end. Readers who like more philosophical books might like this one.

The Last Million, by David Nasaw

World War II did not end on V-E and V-J Days. Hostilities ceased on those days but the war churned up so many lives that it would take more than a decade to find new homes for the more than a million displaced persons in David Nasaw’s new book, The Last Million. Nasaw chronicles the struggles and political wrangling over what happened to people who, after the war, had no homes to go return to or couldn’t go home because of violent antisemitism or the growing strength of the Soviet Union in the Eastern Bloc or who would face prosecution for war crimes and collaboration in their nation of origin. This thoroughly researched book covers everything from just before the end of the war to when the last displaced persons camp in 1957.

After the war, Germany saw waves of people coming in from concentration camps and from newly Communist countries stretching from Estonia to Ukraine. Among these displaced people were liberated Jews, people who couldn’t return because of the Soviet Union, expelled Volksdeutsche, and people running from allied justice. Nasaw bounced back and forth from each of these groups as the Allies wrangle over their fates. Nasaw’s account—fully documented with quotes from Allied personnel and politicians and DPs—reveals a series of almost insurmountable problems that kept DPs in the camps for far to long.

The biggest problem is widespread antisemitism. After the war, no one wanted to take in Jewish DPs. Although the Allies would house, feed, and treat the medical ailments of the displaced persons, none of the Allied leaders seemed willing to able to bring Jewish people into their countries. American President Truman knew that Congress wouldn’t change immigration laws to allow Jews or people from now Communist countries in. Prime Minister Attlee’s government was later willing to cherry-pick non-Jewish DPs to do jobs Britons didn’t want to do. Jewish people often couldn’t go back to their homes. Not only were their communities obliterated, but they faced new pogroms by people who were happy to have seen the Jews gone forever.

The next big problem faced by Jewish DPs was the question of Palestine. Attlee had to walk a tight rope between keeping peace with Arabs in Palestine by limiting Jewish immigration as much as possible and Allied pressure to send Jewish people there. Many (but not all) surviving Jewish people wanted to go to Palestine to create a Jewish state, but Palestine was already inhabited by people whose families had been there for generations.

Lastly, Volksdeutsche, former SS soldiers, former concentration camp guards, and others who had committed or been involved in war crimes destroyed their documents or lied about where they’d been during the war to hid under the cover of being a displaced person so that they wouldn’t face summary justice if they’d gone home. It infuriated me to see that so many of these people slipped through the screening process and have their visas approved for the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and other countries.

Nasaw’s The Last Million contains so much more than what I’ve written here. My summary certainly doesn’t capture Nasaw’s gift with research and use of quotes to bring personalities to the page. I found myself shocked, saddened, cheered, and frustrated by the events recounted in The Last Million. I also feel like Nasaw gave me a graduate course in the history of displaced people. This book is among the best nonfiction I have ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Children in Schauenstein DP camp, c. 1946 (Image via Wikicommons)

Against the Loveless World, by Susan Abulhawa

Trigger warning for rape and anti-Semitism.

Everything is political. Some of us are lucky enough that we’re insulated from a lot of the politics. Money and privilege are our safety nets. So, given the awful choices that Nahr has to make in the incendiary Against the Loveless World, by Susan Abulhawa, lead her to become a freedom fighter—or a terrorist, depending on your point of view. Nahr comes from a family of Palestinian refugees who lost most of their land and have been making do in Kuwait, at least until Iraq invades and they find themselves in the middle of an active war zone. As a Palestinian, she is looked down on by other Arabs. She’s been taught to hate the Jews who stole her country. And on top of all of this, her family of mostly women has had to scrap and save for every bit of money. Nahr never had a safety net, with plenty of reasons to grow up angry at the world.

Against the Loveless World unfolds over roughly forty years. When we meet Nahr, she’s in a high-tech prison in Israel. We’re not told until much later why Nahr is in prison or how she got from Kuwait to Israel. To find that out, we go back to Nahr’s adolescence in Kuwait. After expulsion from Israel (which Palestinians call the Nakba, the disaster or catastrophe), Kuwait took in thousands of refugees as guest workers. Nahr falls into sex work because it’s the only way to get enough money to send her brother to university and to support her family. Her terrible experiences with men who take advantage of what they view as paid for and bought add to her simmering rage at the world.

After the first Iraq War, Nahr and her family flee to Amman, Jordan, where she is offered the opportunity to reconnect with her Palestinian heritage. This opportunity also brings her into the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, a bloody forever war between two sides who both believe they have a claim on the same territory and who have committed atrocities against each other. I’ve heard the story of Israel from the Israeli side, as a triumph of the Jewish people after the Holocaust. I can’t recall ever having heard the story from the Palestinian side. I definitely haven’t heard the story told with such fury as Nahr tells it. As Nahr tells us about her life and how she ended up in prison, she doesn’t talk so much about history as she does about Palestinian culture, food, art, and dancing—especially the dancing—and about how remaining Palestinians are holding on to what they have left of their ancestral land and holdings. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Nahr and her family. The difficulty in reading this book is that, as an outsider with some small knowledge of the history, I couldn’t take sides. I could understand Nahr’s actions, but I couldn’t approve of them.

Against the Loveless World is an incredible, but difficult, book to read. It contains so much controversy and hardship that I was grateful for Nahr’s happiest memories. But like so many other difficult books, it’s very much worth readers’ wile to read it. It presents a very human history that we in America don’t hear much, one that we need to hear to fully comprehend the mire of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. It’s also worthwhile because it can show those of us who live comfortable lives what it might be like if we were unlucky enough to be born without a state and without the safety money can provide.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Displaced Persons, by Ghita Schwarz

I remember learning about the Holocaust in American history classes when I was a high schooler and through fiction. The story always seemed to end with the liberation of the concentration camps. When I got older, I learned about the Nuremberg Trials. After that, I learned that—as is usual with history—the real story is a lot more complicated. Displaced Persons, by Ghita Schwarz, takes place in the messiness, sorrow, and hardship that followed the end of World War II in Europe. The title comes from the name given to people, mostly Jewish Holocaust survivors, who were now “stateless.” For a variety of reasons, they couldn’t go back to their homes. They had to somehow find the strength and wherewithal to make new lives.

Displaced Persons is told in three acts. In the first act, Pavel Mandl wheels and deals to build capital while at the same time creating a make-shift family with two fellow survivors. Chaim is an angry teenager who will not talk about about what happened to him. Fela Berlinka is mourning her lost husband and child and is too sad to go her own way. This act covers the years immediately after the war before jumping to act two, which covers 1960 to 1973. Pavel, Chaim, and Fela are now in America. In this act, Chaim does his best to completely start over and forget everything that happened between 1939 and 1945. Pavel, however, tries to raise his new family with Fela along the lines of his pre-war Polish family. He is religious. He sends his children to Hebrew School and insists that they always clean their plates. Fela falls somewhere between the two extremes. She remembers, although it causes her pain, but she also moves forward with her life. The last act runs from 1989 to 2000, as other survivors begin to succumb to old age. Their children have questions about their experiences and all three of our main characters have to decide, once and for all, if they will speak of what happened to them or stay silent forever.

The best thing about Displaced Persons is the way it captures a spectrum of emotion—survivor’s guilt, intense grief, implacable anger—without belaboring the root causes of all of those emotions. There’s no need to underline why these characters have so much to cope with, psychologically and physically. I also appreciated the fact that there were so many emotional responses. Displaced Persons stands out from other recent Holocaust fiction in that way. I so often see the Holocaust being used as a setting for inspirational stories about the triumph of the human will and that bothers me a lot. Displaced Persons reminds us that nothing about the Holocaust and its aftermath is simple or homogenous. It’s not an easy read, of course, but one that has important things to say to those of us who were born decades after the liberation of the concentration camps.

One Night, Markovitch, by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

23269042Though it takes place during World War II and the founding of Israel, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s, One Night, Markovitchrevolves around questions of love and loneliness. In this novel, three men struggle to explain and obtain what they really want in life. Zeev loves his wife, but he also wants to be a manly hero. Ephraim loves Zeev’s wife, but cannot have her. And Markovitch himself wants the love of his own wife, but she can’t love him because he refused to let her go. I wonder if the book would have read differently before #MeToo, if I would have been more forgiving of these men. As it is, I have no tolerance for men who behave as though women owe them something because the men had feelings for their chosen women.

Markovitch and Zeev are members of the Irgun, under the direction of Ephraim (who is almost always referred to as the deputy commander). Zeev is better known as a philanderer than a fighter and Markovitch is only used as a smuggler because his face is so unremarkable. But when Markovitch and Zeev run afoul of a butcher in their kibbutz, they beg the deputy commander to send them on a mission. Thus, they are dispatched to Europe to help Jewish women escape to Palestine. The scheme is that they marry quickly, because the British will let couples in, and then get divorces as soon as they land in Tel Aviv. Zeev holds up his end of the bargain. Markovitch, who married the devastatingly beautiful Bella, does not.

Markovitch hopes that Bella will someday forgive him for what he did. As the years roll on, this seems less and less likely. One Night, Markovitch drifts through time. The war in Europe seems like a vague nightmare off in the distance. Zeev and Markovitch do get caught up in the fighting in 1948. Most of the novel, however, is surprisingly domestic given how violent things were at the time. We see babies born and children grow while Zeev, Markovitch, and Ephraim wrestle with their feelings and the women they feel things about. The three men act almost as models about how people can respond to unrequited love. Ephraim soldiers on, a mostly perfect stoic fighter for Israel. Zeev cracks after making a terrible mistake and runs away from his wife’s love. And then there’s Markovitch, stubbornly waiting for an angry woman to fall in love with him.

I’m not sure what to make of One Night, Markovitch other than to say that it’s the opposite of what a romance author would do with the marriage of convenience trope. Where a romance author would have the two leads fall madly in love with each other before the curtain drops, a literary author seems almost bound to go in the other direction. Everyone in this book is miserable and there is no happily ever after. I appreciate that. Markovitch is clearly in the wrong and he should have given Bella her freedom. But because I spent almost 400 pages watching everyone mope around the Israeli desert, I’m mostly left with feelings of uneasiness and frustration. If that’s what this book meant to accomplish, it achieved its goal. If I’m meant to sympathize with the characters in this book, it left me cold.

Eternal Life, by Dara Horn

35667296What is a human life worth? For a mother like Rachel, the protagonist of Dara Horn’s Eternal Life, the life of her son is worth everything she can give. But, in her rush to save her son, Rachel neglects to read the fine print when she gives up her death so that her son will survive a terrible illness. Ever since that day two thousand years ago, Rachel has been wandering the earth raising family after family, wondering if it was really worth it.

The first hints that not all is right with Rachel come when she refers to her very many sons and daughters, more than a woman could ever have in one lifetime. Then there are all the languages she knows and occupations she’s held over the centuries. Above all else, there’s her deep fatigue and questions about what she’s really living for. For Rachel, death would be a chance to rest once and for all.

We meet Rachel as she’s coming to the realization that the time has come for her to do her disappearing act. As far as her children and grandchildren are aware, she’s in her eighties. She looks decades younger though, and the fact that she’s not about to shuffle off her mortal coil any time soon is about to become awkward. In the past, it was easier to start over somewhere else. Now it requires so much documentation to set up a life that it’s almost impossible to help. The only other person with Rachel’s predicament, Elazar, offers to help, but she still hasn’t forgiven him for the time Elazar got her first husband killed.

Eternal Life moves back and forth between the present and Rachel and Elazar’s first life in Jerusalem a few decades before the destruction of the Second Temple. Horn has a gift for bringing that time and place back to life, though that is partially due to Rachel’s vibrance as a character. I honestly wish this book had been longer, because not only does it only touch on Jewish history, but it also asks interesting questions about whether there should be limits to what parents do for their children. Rachel might make the same choice again, but is it worth creating and leaving family after family to save the life of one mortal child? Thankfully, we learn Rachel’s answer in the end…but you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out what it is because I’m not going to give it away here.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 23 January 2018.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander

There are a lot of people trying to escape in Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth. In some cases, characters are trying to escape problems of their own making. In others, they’re trapped by someone else’s will. Watching these characters run as fast as they can and, mostly, get nowhere was a simultaneously frustrating and educational reading experience.

There is one man at the center of this novel: the General. The General is never given any other name but we know that he is a major figure in recent Israeli history and politics. After he suffers a stroke, his mind drifts through his past victories (as he would call them) and his sorrows. The General’s exploits include the Qibya Massacre and the Sabra and Shatila Massacres. As we learn more about the General, we also learn about the plight of Prisoner Z, the irritations of his reluctant guard, the stubbornness of the General’s almost-like-family-assistant, and—later in the novel—a waitress and a mapmaker who got caught in the ripples of the General’s actions.

This book might have been a thriller, but it has a more literary feel. The plots move slowly and focus more on what the characters’ feel. There’s also a very hazy feeling to the scenes that made me feel like I was drifting with the General as he recalled his life or with Prisoner Z, who is slowly losing his mind in his prison cell somewhere in the Negev desert. This haziness and focus on emotional development creates an experience where I ended up thinking more about the unintended consequences of the General’s and Prisoner Z’s actions than about the original actions.

The theme of unintended consequences is reiterated by the waitress, the mapmaker, and Prisoner Z. The history of Israel and Palestine, even before Israel became a state, is full of tit for tat retaliation. An action was later avenged, which then itself had to be revenged by the original actor. For more than fifty years, Israelis and Palestinians have been killing each other. People are avenging and fighting over things that happened before they were even born at this point, including some of the characters in Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Over and over in this book, characters have the opportunity to meet each other in the middle—literally and metaphorically—only to fail to reach detente.

Which leads me back to my original observation that the characters in this book are all attempting to escape something. They are invariably trying to feel the consequences of Israel and Palestine’s long conflict, as embodied by the General. And they can’t do it. They can’t escape because their entire world is built on perpetuating the fighting.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth is a book that I didn’t understand at first. (I have my doubts that I actually got what these stories are trying to tell me.) Only later did the various plots and scenes started to make sense. This is the kind of novel that one has to sleep on (though I did appreciate the waitress’ role very much as I was reading). This is a sneaky novel.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 September 2017.

Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan

Some Palestinians refer to 1948 as al-Nakbah, “the Catastrophe.” That was the year Israel became a state and Palestinians were pushed off of their land to make room. Hala Alyan uses 1948 as the starting point for her novel, Salt Houses. Through chapters narrated by members of one Palestinian family from 1948 to 2014, Alyan shows us what looking back and being rootless can do to a family. And through this family, we can see the effects of losing a homeland on an entire people: the Palestinian diaspora.

Note: I am well aware of the fraught political nature of Israeli and Palestinian history. I will only discuss this in the context of the novel. Further, I would appreciate if readers and commenters only use this space to discuss the book—not the politics.

Salt Houses opens in the early 1960s as Salma, the matriarch of a small family in Nablus, is reading her daughter’s fortune in tea leaves. What she sees in the cup shocks and dismays her. She knows that Alia will have a tough life. So she refuses to tell Alia what she sees. From 1963, the novel jumps to 1965 and Salma’s son, Mustafa. Then on to the 1970s and Alia and her husband. Over the next decades, we will meet Alia’s children and their children. We will go from the former Palestine to Kuwait; Amman, Jordan; Beirut, Lebanon; and Paris.

At one point in the novel, about halfway through, one of the family muses on how nostalgia can be a disease. Throughout the book, characters regret and grow angry over the things they’ve lost. There was always a better time, in another place, that they can’t go back to. Sometimes, that better place and time was in Haifa, Israel, or Nablus or Amman. Sometimes it’s before a beloved family member died. Over time, the family loses their roots. The younger generation grow further and further away from their elders, who can remember their old homeland.

While most of the conflicts in Salt Houses are emotional ones (particularly between mothers and daughters who are so similar they can’t get along), politics and religion are present in the story. Two of the male members of the family are tempted to join terrorist organizations to regain what was taken from them. Terrorism is a shadowy force in the novel, mostly occurring off the page or between chapters. We really only learn of the fallout. The Islam that these two male characters, Mustafa and Abdullah, practice is less important for comfort or understanding as it is a vehicle and justification (through radical imams) for violence.

Alyan is savvy in that she provides more than one view of Islam. For those two men, Islam is spun as a way to take back power—something that is very attractive to men who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they’ve been abused and robbed by the state of Israel. For the women, however, especially Salma and her granddaughter, Riham, we get to see Islam as a personal comfort. Truth to tell, we see more of the women’s belief than the men’s. Through Salma and Riham, Islam becomes a way to talk to god, to see order in the world, and to comfort believers when life is hard. We see the Islam that American media rarely shows.

Not all of the characters in Salt Houses are appealing. One in particular drove me nuts when she showed up on the page. Rather, this book is a subtle depiction of politics, religion, nostalgia, and belonging. I say subtle because many of these topics crept up on me. Now that I’ve finished the book, I find myself thinking about them more–which is always a sign of a good book to me.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 May 2017.

City of Secrets, by Stewart O’Nan

Questioning the effectiveness of and motivations for terrorism usually isn’t hard. Our media and politicians and most people on the street would condemn acts of terror as soon as word broke. But what if we can sympathize with the terrorists? In City of Secrets, Stewart O’Nan asks us to consider the point of view of terrorists. In this case, the terrorists are members of the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Stern Gang—groups that repeatedly attacked British soldiers and Palestinian civilians in their fight to create a Jewish homeland. City of Secrets is narrated by Brand, a Latvian Holocaust survivor loosely affiliated with the Haganah, in the months before the King David Hotel bombing.

Brand is a recent immigrant to Palestine. (Israel wouldn’t exist as a nation for a few years yet.) He lost his entire family in a Nazi massacre and spent an unknown number of years in a concentration camp. As City of Secrets progresses, we learn a bit more about Brand’s past. We know that he suffers a heavy burden of self-imposed guilt. He feels guilty for surviving and he feels guilty for not doing anything when he saw a sort-of friend brutally killed by a Nazi camp guard.

The main thrust of City of Secrets is Brand’s work with the Haganah. His day job is driving a taxi, but it’s really a cover. He drives for other members of his cell on missions (small bombings, acts of sabotage, etc.). His enthusiasm for the work waxes and wanes over the course of the book. At first, he’s excited. Brand feels good fighting against someone; it assuages his feelings of guilt for doing nothing during the way. But then he starts to see the costs of the Haganah’s actions in pain and blood and starts to wonder if it’s worth the stain on his soul.

City of Secrets is a brief novel, almost too brief for the big questions it tackles. I honestly wish it would have been longer, so that the characters had more time to develop and so that I could learn more about the place and the time. I would also have liked more time to think about the question of terrorism. These days, we automatically condemn it—but we Westerners are the targets. The descendents of the people who joined and fought with the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Stern Gang are America’s allies in the Middle East. From the point of view of history, they could be considered freedom fighters. Is terrorism just a matter of perspective and time? City of Secrets pushes us towards the question, but then leaves us hanging.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 26 April 2016.

The Best Place on Earth, by Ayelet Tsabari

When I request books from NetGalley and Edelweiss, I ask for things that interest me. Then I put them on a list and sort them by date so that my review will appear closer to the publication date. Every now and then, I will be sent a book months before its publication. By the time I get around to reading it, I may have forgotten why I asked for it in the first place. Due to the vagaries of my interests and my self-imposed restrictions on when I read things, I get some strange juxtapositions. I finished and reviewed Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies yesterday and today I’m reading a collection of short stories about Yemeni and Mizrahi Jews in Israel and Canada, Ayelet Tsabari’s The Best Place on Earth. Tsabari’s stories are probably the best palate cleanser I could have chosen if I’d remembered the publisher’s description. Dumb luck is on my side this weekend.

The stories in The Best Place on Earth revolve around themes of tradition, loneliness, and identity. Unlike many stories about the Jewish experience, these ones do not revolve around religious practices in the main. Instead, Tsabari’s stories examine culture. The younger generations are expected to carry on the traditions of their parents and ancestors, but many of the characters in this book are seeking new ways of living. The conflicts come when they break away from their parents’ expectations. It can be lonely to break away, even if one has a partner, because no one can guide a person on their quest to figure out who they are.

“Brit Milah” – Reuma has traveled across the world to spend time with her daughter after the birth of her grandson. Reuma and her daughter used to fight like cats and dogs, but her grandson is a chance to reconnect. She has packed foods and spices from home to bring to Canada. She has strong hopes for this visit, but she and her daughter start to clash (though politely) almost immediately. The crisis comes when Reuma learns her daughter has no plans to circumcise her son.

“Invisible” – The main character of this story is one of the few non-Jewish characters in The Best Place on Earth. Rosalynn is the Filipina care-taker of an elderly Yemini Jewish woman. She doesn’t have papers anymore, so she keeps a low profile. Her days are spent listening to the old woman’s stories about life in Yemen and her near forced conversion to Islam as well as caring for the woman’s physical needs. When a traumatized Israeli vet moves into the shed behind the house, Rosalynn starts to come out of her shell. (This story is one of the sweetest in the whole collection.)

“Below Sea Level” – Most of the stories in The Best Place on Earth are about mothers and daughters. “Below Sea Level” is about a son and his father. David’s father was a career soldier in the Israeli Defence Force. For years, David’s father gave him grief for his lack of physical prowess and his sensitivity. The last straw was when David ducked out of his compulsory service. Now, years later, David has returned with his girlfriend to visit his father. Revelations about his father’s health may have made it possible for the two to find a way to heal their relationship.

I’m usually irritated by “finding oneself” stories because they so often reek of selfishness and indulgence. I never felt that in Tsabari’s stories, perhaps because what the parents here represent stagnation and/or continued war with Arabs. Why preserve a way of life if it means not only sublimating oneself to assimilate or to continue fighting in a never-ending war? Tsabari’s stories are not openly critical of Israeli policies. Rather, there’s a subtle theme of dissatisfaction that I picked up on. Neither are the stories particularly earth-shaking, but they provide plenty of food for thought.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 8 March 2016.