It is one of the ironies of the Zionist revolution that the revival of Hebrew as a modern literary language in eighteenth-century Germany preceded the active resettlement of the Land of Israel by a century. Even once Tel Aviv had become the center of Hebrew literary life in the 1920s, there were still David Fogel in Vienna and Paris, Berl Pomerantz in Warsaw, Hayyim Lensky in Leningrad, and so on. In America between the two world wars, there were Hebrew newspapers and dozens of Hebrew writers. After 1948, some of the prominent Americans—including Simon Halkin, Israel Efros, and Abraham Regelson—immigrated to the new state, but many others, like the great poet Gabriel Preil, remained behind.
Of course, with the establishment of the State of Israel, it was inevitable that Hebrew literature would make its home there. But now that there is an Israeli diaspora, the return of serious Hebrew literature to Europe and especially America is also inevitable, largely an effect of the global economy rather than ideology. However, when Reuven Namdar, an Israeli who lives on the Upper West Side of New York City and isn’t planning on leaving, won the Sapir Prize for his novel Ha-bayit asher necherav (The Ruined House) last year, many in the literary establishment looked askance, and from now on residence in Israel will be a prerequisite for the prize. That’s too bad, since the presence of Hebrew writers abroad would seem to present opportunities for both Israeli culture and American Jewish culture that ought to be encouraged.
Counting the many hundreds of thousands of Israelis living outside Israel may be a demographer’s nightmare, but there is no doubt that the number is huge. Yet you can read far and wide in Israeli Hebrew literature and find next to no stories or novels that deal seriously with the Israeli dispersion. Here is an important subject in want of coverage, and who better than diaspora Hebrew writers to take it on? And while they’re at it, why not ask them to train their fictional lens on us American Jews and the way we live?
Which brings me to Maya Arad. Arad is the foremost Hebrew writer working outside Israel and one of the best novelists of her generation. She was born in 1971 and raised on Kibbutz Nahal Oz and in Rishon Lezion. After completing her army service, she studied at Tel Aviv University and went on to complete a doctorate in linguistics at the University of London. She lived and taught in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Geneva, Switzerland before moving to Palo Alto, where she is writer-in-residence in the Jewish studies program at Stanford University, at which her husband teaches the history of Greek science.
Arad made a splash in 2003 with her first book Makom acher ve’ir zarah (Another Place and a Foreign City), which tells the story of a young female soldier and her Canadian boyfriend, in rhymed verse on the model of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate. The novel was a best-seller and listed for none other than the Sapir Prize. Since then, Arad has written seven novels, and each is ambitious and experimental in its own way.
None of these novels has appeared in English yet. A drift away from Israel on the part of American Jews may help explain why so few titles of Israeli literature are appearing these days, as well as a general American indifference to reading fiction in translation. But I suspect that the real reason in Arad’s case is that her novels do not engage the big issues—war and peace, the founding and future of the state, and the enduring shadow of the Holocaust—with which we tend to identify great Israeli literature. Instead, Arad writes comedies of manners that examine the lives of the professional classes. Sheva midot ra’ot (Seven Moral Failings), for instance, is a wickedly observed campus novel about the competition for a tenure-track position at a university resembling Stanford. Each of its chapters is written under the sign of one of the medieval vices, such as sloth, pride, envy, and so on. Her 2009 novel Oman ha-sipur ha-katzar (Short Story Master) depicts the midlife crisis of a Hebrew writer who has been pegged as Israel’s master of the short story in an age when only novels deliver fame. Chashad leshitayon (Suspected Dementia) describes a crisis in the lives of a childless Israeli couple who had lived in Silicon Valley for 40 years. A young couple arrives from Tel Aviv speaking a very different kind of Hebrew and shakes up their carefully constructed American life.
This is minor literature in the sense that Jane Austen—a model for Arad—is minor because she focuses on human character rather than on the Napoleonic wars and the religious crisis of the Enlightenment. It is also no accident that the “big” Israeli writers (Oz, Yehoshua, Grossman) are men and Arad is a woman. Arad is actually not a “women’s writer”; she writes more about men than women, and matters of dress, food, and shelter are not preoccupations. But in a larger sense, she is focused on the domestic sphere. In her latest and most ambitious novel, Ha-almah mi-Kazan (Lady of Kazan), which appeared in the spring, Arad goes further and deeper than in any of her previous works by taking on the most major of the minor issues in Israeli life: family.
The centrality of having children is taken for granted in Israel. Young people still marry in their twenties and often rely on their parents to help with the burdens of child rearing. Parents and grandparents are never more than an hour or two away. From maternity leaves to maternity services to inexpensive preschools, the society encourages family life. And fertility medicine in Israel is among the most advanced, and accessible, in the world. Yet what’s taken for granted in Israel is demonstrably not so in France, Italy, Germany, and many other developed countries with similar policies. In Israel the fertility rate is 3.0, which means that there is on average an additional child beyond the two who will replace the parents. To be sure, the large size of haredi families skews the picture, yet even among secular Jews (including single women and gay couples) there is a pronounced tendency toward having more children.
That is surely a cause for celebration and a sign of the society’s fundamental confidence in itself. But it obscures the difficult situation of men and women who do not marry or who do not have children. When a norm is so pervasive, standing outside it can be painful, especially during the many holidays that punctuate the Israeli calendar.
Idit, the 39-year-old heroine of Maya Arad’s new novel, is a woman who might have been better off without children. When she visits Anat, her friend and fellow high-school teacher, she pretends to admire her boys but really finds them uncouth little monsters who soak up all of their mother’s attention. When she goes to the bathroom, she is secretly insulted to find the sink full of toys. She is similarly impatient with her elderly mother, and her only sibling is a brother in Toronto, with whom she shares nothing. She has dated very little except for an affair with a married professor in graduate school. The right man has not come along, and she has never bestirred herself to seek a relationship. Instead, she has constructed a life of refined gratifications: reading English novels, eating healthily—no flour, sugar, or caffeine—and teaching English literature to Tel Aviv girls who have been similarly smitten by Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice.
Idit’s complacency begins to unravel when Anat introduces her to Michael, a friend of her husband’s. Michael has acceded to the wishes of his Russian parents to become a doctor, and the long years of training and his native shyness have left him single too. Michael is not attracted to Idit, and he resents being an unwitting party in the ruse of the blind date. But Idit is convinced that Michael is the man of her dreams, and she mobilizes all her wiles to bind him to her, including getting him to sleep with her and believing herself pregnant. Although she fails—Michael goes off to a two-year medical fellowship in Boston—the desire to have a child is triggered, and, despite unremitting waves of insult and humiliation, Idit does not rest until she has one.
The real motives that initiate this maternal ordeal are a potent mixture of the social and the literary. She realizes, once she finally wakes up to the fact, that there is simply no way to make a tolerable life within Israeli society without having children. There is no reasonable construction of womanhood that is not defined by caring for children and following them through the stages of life. Idit might well have taken steps to meet a man and have a child, as other women do, if it weren’t for a fantasy life abetted by her immersion in literature. Her adolescence has been shaped by reading Jane Austen and the Brontës and identifying with spirited and intelligent, if not beautiful, women who have had the courage not to settle and instead to wait patiently for a man who is equal to them. She staunchly rejects being fixed up by friends or co-workers because she has a script in her mind:
She will meet him entirely by chance. In a museum. Walking on the shore. In the health food store, by the granola and whole grains with the fabric bags they have both brought from home. Or at a bookstore. This was her preferred scenario.
She extends this mode of thinking to her visions of herself as a mother. Her children will not be glued to the TV and computer games, and they will not be impolite and unruly, like most Israeli children. Their vacation time will be spent doing puzzles, taking nature walks, and cooking together. And there will be no toys in the bathroom sink.
Alas, no sensitive stranger emerges from among the organic produce aisles, and, of course, no engaging, well-behaved, but mysteriously parentless children do either. Idit assesses her situation and, after a brief and disheartening experiment with online dating, she comes to terms with the fact that if she wants a child she will have to take matters into her own hands. Thus begins a series of extraordinary measures, each less desirable than the one that came before it. She proposes to a gay friend that they co-parent a child only to be told that his partner wouldn’t hear of it. She finds an eager and likeable gay man only to discover that he has HIV. She answers ads from unappealing older men who want to father a child without the responsibilities of marriage. She is interviewed by the parents of a brilliant young man who had his sperm frozen before he died of leukemia. (They reject her when they find out her age.) When she finally reconciles herself to the anonymity of a sperm bank, she discovers that, despite all her healthy living, she has entered early menopause and only prolonged hormone treatments will yield a chance of fertility. For a woman who has lived on the luxury of her expectations, each of these failures is experienced as an unjust insult.
Unbroken, Idit pushes on to the ultimate frontier: adoption. A savvy user of online forums, she discovers that Russia is one of the few countries that permits adoption by single women, and soon she is registered with an Israeli agency specializing in placements from Russian orphanages. Suddenly the call comes, and before she knows it she finds herself in wintry Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, east of Moscow on the Volga. What she sees in the state orphanages requires the tone of the novel to pivot from comic irony to moral seriousness. The endless wards of abandoned children, starved for touch and gazing through affectless eyes, establish an ethical ground zero that ridicules the desires of women to obtain a plaything to palliate their own aloneness.
Suddenly, a one-year-old baby girl, listless and underweight, is placed in Idit’s arms—she has never even held a baby before—and she is told to embrace her daughter. Idit panics. Even though she knows that the medical problems of children offered for adoption are routinely exaggerated in order to justify their being taken out of the country, and even though she knows that the symptoms she has observed in the child are likely the result of the institutional conditions rather than genetic or organic issues, she cannot handle it. She leaves Russia weighed down by the knowledge that her decision has condemned the little girl, like so many others, to lifelong neglect in state institutions.
A few months after returning to Tel Aviv, Idit gets another chance. She is summoned to another provincial Russian city and offered a boy for adoption. And this time, even though there is not much more certainty about the boy’s health, she does not flinch, and she finds herself returning to Israel as a mother.
Lev, as she calls the boy, is a bundle of restless impulses with manifold behavior problems. She wrestles him in and out of strollers during the first long, torpid Tel Aviv summer, as she is reduced to tears by attempting to take care of the most basic necessities of life. She has no family and no support system; she doesn’t drive a car and doesn’t even own a car seat. When Lev gets a little older and is invited to birthday parties of other children, his problems with impulse control create scenes of searing humiliation. Blessed with the “gift” of a child, Idit feels herself more deeply abandoned and sinned against by the world than ever.
In the hands of a lesser novelist, Idit’s comic-tragic ups and downs might come off as just another schematic morality tale about the way we live now. Arad’s steepest challenge is to take the edge off our temptation to judge Idit for her self-delusion. She succeeds in this by making her own voice invisible and locating the narrative very close to her heroine’s own consciousness. Take, for example, the description of Idit’s rage at Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice in the midst of her search for a sperm donor.
From the corner of her eye she caught sight of the neglected volume. How much had she adored that book when she was a girl! . . . Idit had read it slowly, with effort and the use of a dictionary. She was fourteen then, younger than Lydia, the youngest of the Bennet children. Now she read it with the eyes of a grown-up woman who was almost the age of Mrs. Bennet, Jane’s mother. How pathetic the book seemed to her now. Country girls giggling at balls and scheming to catch a young squire. “Jane!”, she exclaimed with disgust, addressing the writer by her first name as if she knew her. Idit felt anger toward her for all the inflated expectations she had encouraged in women over the last two centuries, and in herself as well: One can live in an out-of-the-way village, grow up in a poor and eccentric family, and decline any option that is not the very best. For in the end, a handsome and rich eligible bachelor will ride into the neighborhood and fall in love with you at first sight:
In the shadow of this faith, Idit spent her teens, and then her twenties and her thirties. It will happen. One need only wait patiently and not compromise. Even now it was hard for her to detach herself from her trust in novels, despite knowing it false. But here is the truth: At the age of 40 she is reduced to surfing the internet to find a man willing to impregnate her with his sperm in order to produce a child they can share.
The nice irony of the passage lies in Idit’s believing that her disavowal of the novel is a sign of newfound maturity, when she is really shifting responsibility for her situation away from herself. A great work of literature that had nurtured her earlier life is now demonized as the font of seductive untruth. The mocking epiphany comes at the end: Idit still cannot truly wean herself from the mystique of those novels, and she is condemned to experience daily the chasm between literature and her life.
A writer cannot be this intimate with the inner landscape of her heroine’s illusions and humiliations without creating a sense of understanding that is deeper than the folly being described. We are fascinated rather than put off by Idit’s dogged and self-punishing quest for getting something from the world because Arad has enabled us to connect with her character’s deepest motives. Arad’s Hebrew prose is extraordinarily precise both in the descriptions of Idit’s experiences and in the pitch-perfect, up-to-the-minute dialogue. This discipline extends to the construction of the plot. Although this is a long book, there is little that is extraneous, and I felt almost hypnotically compelled to consume the story as if the moral drama unfolding in it made the rest of my life far less urgent.
That compulsion is rewarded by a qualified happy ending. Idit soon comes to terms with the fact that she cannot raise a growing boy in her tiny Tel Aviv apartment. She settles in a village in the south, where Lev can run around and visit the animals in the nearby moshav. She learns to drive, buys a car, and teaches basic English courses in a community college. Most importantly, she begins to accept the vast differences between Lev’s temperament and her own and to discover a genuine affection for her child.
In her misreading of the novels she loved, Idit believed that good things would come to the heroine who sat and waited and refused to compromise. She forgot the part about experience and suffering leading to knowledge and acceptance of the possible. Her ordeal restores the missing piece, and the mix of wisdom and renunciation with which the novel concludes seems entirely convincing. Now that Arad has written an illuminating novel about family in Israel, one hopes that she will train the marvelous instrument of her craft upon the lives of the Jews among whom she lives today. Arad has depicted American Jews in earlier novels but only glancingly (and somewhat satirically). There remains a vast and inviting canvas for her abundant gifts.
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What does it mean to say that books have lives?