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November 14, 2003 - Image 68

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-11-14

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in the North__Am_erican Literary Imagination

Joan Leegant


few years ago I showed a writer friend a

town, they had to survive the transitions."

draft of a story I was working on. The

Of course, not all North American writers are as

story, set in the present, centered on a 70-

restrained as Miller when it comes to the fervent poli-

year-old Jerusalemite who'd left Europe some

tics that drive such immigrants to places inside the

fifty-five years earlier. My friend, who was Jewish but

Green Line. It is precisely this fervor, portrayed in rich

had never been to Israel, said she liked the story, but

satirical detail, that forms the backbone of Tova Reich's

the character didn't seem Israeli, at least not like the

raucous 1995 novel, The Jewish War. Here we follow

Israelis she'd seen around L.A., where she lived. With

the story of Yehuda HaGoel of Hebron, formerly Jerry

his old-fashioned reserve and German-tinged Hebrew,

Goldberg of the Bronx, from his illegal arrival in the

he seemed more like someone out of Singer or

Holy Land in 1967 inside an already-occupied coffin to

Malamud, she said; more European than anything

his Wild-West style leadership of a secessionist sect,

else. Were there Israelis like that? she wondered.

with explosive results. Likewise, in a more somber

I took the compliments for what they were; told her

tone, Jon Papernick, in the title story of his 2001 col-

that, yes, there were Israelis like that, and continued to

lection, The Ascent of Eli Israel, gives us a similar

hone my story. But my friend's question raises curious

fanatic-in-the-making. Eli Israel is a washed-up for-

questions: just whom do North Americans write about

mer TV producer/alcoholic/womanizer who finds

when they write about contemporary Israel? What

himself following in the footsteps of the likes of the

kinds of Jews, what kinds of Israelis? What side — or

deceased Baruch Goldstein and unwittingly moving

sides — of Israel? And, finally, why might we be writing

into violence and cruelty. One needn't look far to guess

about Israel and its inhabitants the way we do?

why such stories are now making themselves heard:

Photo by Jun Webber

Not surprisingly, one of the main foci of recent fic-

ever since Goldstein, there has been a widespread per-

Joan Leegant's collection of

tion about Israel by North American writers is the

ception in Israel, whether true or not, that it is the

stories, An Hour in Paradise,

immigrant experience, particularly that of North

Americans who are spearheading much of the boiling-

was published by W.W.

Americans, perhaps because many of the writers them-

over nationalism in the West Bank. Of course, Israel as

Norton in August. It has

selves lived in Israel and either attempted the same or

the repository of highly charged Jewish longing is not

been selected by Barnes &

knew others who did. This is the central concern of

new; it has been inspiring dreams of glory of all stripes

Noble for their Discover Great

Risa Miller's 2002 novel, Wekome to Heavenly Heights,

for centuries. In my own story, "Seekers in the Holy

New Writers Program and

which illuminates the lives of a group of English speak-

Land," from my collection An Hour in Paradise, a disen-

will be featured in Barnes &

ers who live together in a certain Building Four in a new

chanted young American comes to Safed looking not for

Nobles stores nationwide this

complex on the West Bank. While politics and the 'sit-

messianic redemption but a short cut to religious ecstasy, a

fall. Leegant teaches writing

uation' are never far from the surface, the book's

Kabbalistically-induced spiritual high.

at Harvard University.

primary interest is the acculturation of an intimate cir-

But it is not only North American immigrants who

cle of friends, mostly wives and mothers who hail from

interest North American writers. In her hypnotic 1998

places like Cumberland, Kentucky and Hartford,

Pushcart Prize-winning story, "Women Dreaming of

Connecticut, and the grinding dailiness of their strug-

Jerusalem," Rachel Kadish turns the spotlight onto

gles: children who aren't adjusting, marriages under

Russian and Ethiopian women attempting to live togeth-

stress, even the confusing foreign foodstuffs and the

er in the Jerusalem Battered Women's Shelter. Kadish

rampant head lice. Implied here is that while the "big"

catalogues their miserable incompatibility — their fights

issues of idealism and destiny matter, it's the everyday

over the kitchen, their personal standoffs, their refusal to

that must be endured. As one character sharply

let their children play with the children of the other fil-

observes, "...noble outpost in Judea or penthouse in

tered, in part; through the eyes of an American volunteer,



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