Book review: Life in Israel

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Sometimes when I see several novels by Israeli authors on my to-read stack, I think, “Perfect – I can combine them in one review.” Sometimes, the books have similar themes; sometimes they don’t. In the case of the three novels reviewed below, there is an additional connection: the main character in each lived through a trauma that changed the course of his or her life. Readers should beware that these works, which explore the human psyche, are not particularly cheerful. However, they are all well-written and filled with insights about human nature.

“The English Teacher”
Is it possible to live a life that’s a lie and yet feel true love for the person you’re betraying? In “The English Teacher” by Yiftach Reicher Atir (Penguin Books), former Mossad agent Rachel Goldschmitt believes that while spying for Israel in an unnamed Arab country, her connection to one of her students really was a love affair, even though nothing she told him about herself was true. Unfortunately, after her British father dies, Rachel discovers among his papers something about Mossad that causes her to regret past decisions. Rachel quickly disappears without getting permission from the agency, something forbidden to anyone who spied for Israel. Her retired handler, Ehud, is recruited to help the agency find Rachel – to learn why she has disappeared and prevent her from giving still-classified information to Israel’s enemies.
“The English Teacher” is less a thriller than a psychological drama. The storytelling is passive at times, especially when Ehud speaks of his relationship to Rachel and the training she underwent. However, when the author focuses on Rachel’s feelings and actions, the story becomes far more interesting. These sections offer great insight into how a person lives a life that doesn’t belong to them – about the temperament of a spy and learning to accept the deception that becomes second nature. The difficult, and sometimes horrific, acts that were required as part of the job help explain not only why Rachel behaves as she does, but created an ending with an emotional impact that came as a surprise.

“A Horse Walks Into a Bar”
Biographies of comedians often show how these men and women used humor to protect themselves against a harsh and difficult world. That is an accurate description of Dov Greenstein, an Israeli comedian performing stand-up in a small town in Israel. While most of the audience is expecting jokes, one listener – former District Court Justice Avishai Lazar – expects something else to occur. Lazar, who narrates David Grossman’s “A Horse Walks Into a Bar” (Alfred A. Knopf), was specifically invited to the event by Greenstein because they knew each other years before. The evening quickly turns from stand-up to memoir as Greenstein tells the story of his life: his Holocaust survivor mother, his overbearing father and the bullying he received at home and during his week at a military camp – the same camp attended by Lazar. Greenstein’s revelations lead Lazar not only to a better understanding of the comedian’s past, but to re-evaluate his own life.
Grossman’s novel is emotionally intense. While it contains some funny jokes, they are interspersed with revelations that make the audience cringe – especially when Greenstein bares his soul to the crowd. These emotional outpourings open a similar wellspring in Lazar, who sees how barren his life has become since his wife died. Parts of the ending were confusing; I reread one section three times and am still not certain I understand exactly what happened. The novel’s conclusion can be seen as either thoroughly depressing or slightly hopeful, depending on whether or not one believes human connections can defeat despair.

“Two She-Bears”
Stories of Israeli pioneers usually focus on their heroic actions. Not so in Meir Shalev’s “Two She-Bears” (Schocken Books), which tells the story of two generations of the Tavori family and their lives on a moshav (a community of farmers). When Ruth Tavori narrates the sad story of her young son’s death and her estrangement from her husband, she also hints about what occurred on the moshav decades earlier. That tale – about her grandfather and grandmother – is told in the third person and its details are slowly revealed throughout the course of the novel. Both narrators circle around their stories, which portray the characters in their best and worst lights. Shalev fills his novel with biblical allusions, which fits a work that includes murder and adultery. Yet, redemption comes in unexpected ways, as does the need to decide which actions should be forgiven and which are beyond atonement.
Although the first person narration is well-done, the story drags at times as it circles around and around the same events. Most of the author’s revelations are unpleasant, particularly about the events that occurred during the moshav’s early years. However, Shalev writes beautiful prose and the plot does contain several interesting surprises.