If Meir Shalev’s beautiful The Loves of Judith is Israel’s soul, then Pamela Peled’s For the Love of God and Virgins is the face Israel puts forward to the world, and Shani Boianjui’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is the guts of that country — hidden, ugly even, but vital.
Peled is a South African-Israeli who in real life is annoyed by comparisons of apartheid South Africa and Israel. In “For the Love of God and Virgins” (Miriam’s Legacy, paper, $18) so is her protagonist, Jennifer Moran. Widowed at a young age, Jennifer has raised her daughter to adulthood in a suburb of Jerusalem where she attempts to convey the finer points of English grammar to Israeli high schoolers.
With the outbreak of the second Intifada, she becomes frustrated by the skewed English-language news reported from Israel. Turning her ire on British TV correspondent David Sanders, Jennifer engineers a meeting, meant to be a diatribe, but finds herself instead in the grip of political intrigue and danger as the relationship becomes very personal.
Peled weaves actual events into her fictional account, although she explains in her introduction that she changed some dates to make them work with the plot. Both author and character are united in the efforts to bring factual information about Israel to the world.
“For the Love” is the most traditional of these three novels, told in a straightforward, chronological fashion. Well-written, funny and poignant, it’s so enjoyable that we can overlook a few glaring editorial errors. The author is a teacher and a Shakespeare expert who lectures all over Israel and the world.
Inside of all of us is a remarkable collection of organs. They are not pretty, and to see them involves cutting through flesh and spilling blood, but they keep us alive. Some of the more uncomfortable parts of “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid” (Hogarth, cloth, $24) are like glimpsing the awful parts that lie inside.
Shani Boianjiu is a talented young Israeli author whose work has already been published in The New Yorker. Boianjiu went to Harvard to study writing following her mandatory military service, the inspiration for this book.
The novel follows Avishag, Lea, and Yael, who have grown up together in a dusty, isolated village in northern Israel. Their lives are marked by the same tedium and ennui teenagers find in small towns around the world. Graduation and army induction mark a major change for all of them.
Boinajiu’s book moves back and forth in time, weaving in the waxing and waning of the girls’ friendships and the changes that come over them as they serve their country. Some sections of the book read like separate short stories, but the friends come together in the end under grueling circumstances.
Army service brings almost the same level of ennui and tedium as they had at home, only this time they are in uniform, carrying guns, and sometimes have power over others. Service brings absurdities that contribute a little humor to the book, besides, but also requires them to bear witness to some shattering events that bring light to the social ills of Israel (and the rest of the world). Through her vivid writing, Boinajiu explores the psychological effects on her characters, reminding us that Israel is a country like any other, facing harsh issues of immigration, human trafficking and sex abuse in the military.
Originally published in the 1990s, Schocken has re-released Meir Shalev’s delightful, mystical and poetic novel, “The Loves of Judith” (paper, $15.95). In the vein of Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” this whimsical story is set in a small northern Israeli village populated by bemusing and idiosyncratic characters from the Old Country — a piece, certainly, of Israel’s soul.
Our narrator is a boy named Zayde, “grandfather,” so called by his mother Judith to confuse the Angel of Death. Zayde grows up thinking he is immune to fatalities.
He’s also a boy with three fathers, Rabinovitch, Sheinfeld, and Globerman, and Zayde has inherited a characteristic from each.
Zayde’s whimsical view of the world and his fascination with birds enchants. Doves cooed when he was born, clever crows fascinate him, and on a hot summer night “the darkness of the village surrounded them with the silence of owls’ wings.”
The overriding theme of this book, full of Yiddish language, lore, and the superstitions of Eastern European culture, is “a mensh trakht un Gott lakht” — a man plans, and God laughs. As the book takes us from the 1930s to the 1960s, and as Zayde tries to piece the story of his genesis together, plans certainly go awry. Perhaps God laughs a bit, and cries, too.