The Written Israel [updated]

The Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and the Sabes Jewish Community Center (JCC) [update] are bringing three Israeli authors to Minneapolis in the coming months. I just came back from five months in Israel, and had the chance to get familiar with the work of all three. They all write eloquently and compellingly about an Israel that exists beyond the narrative of war and conflict, and the power of their stories creates a picture of a complex, but beautiful nation.
The first author in the series, Ron Leshem, writes about a country that asks their boys to become men, often overnight. His debut novel, Beaufort, takes place at a Lebanon outpost during the last days of the Second Lebanon War. Surrounded by death and fear, these green soldiers create friendships and memories that leap off the page with warmth, passion, despair, and a whole lot of gallows humor.*

*Leshem takes four whole pages to describe the slang used by the soldiers at the base. By my count there are forty-one ways to call someone gay in the Israeli Army, including personal favorites, “Scout leader” and “banana-straightener.” “Strawberry-pisser” is someone who’s scared, a “kebob” is a fat guy, a “mezuzah” is a girl that everyone kisses. And as for what a “Pringle” is I’ll leave that to your imagination.

As the story progresses Leshem transports the reader into the Beaufort base with these young soldiers. Their desires become our desires, their frustrations our frustrations. When Erez, Leshem’s narrator, rants about how the pencil pusher in Tel Aviv, drinking coffee on Sheinkin Street, cares more about his coffee than about the soldiers dying at Beaufort, we get angry at this insensitive Tel Aviv jerk. I, too, was angry at Mr. Coffee Drinker—until I looked up from my book and realized I was sitting on my porch in sunny Jerusalem, an empty bottle of Peach Nestea on the ground next to me.
Leshem takes the unimaginable and grounds it in the real. Whereas Meir Shalev, the next author in the series, takes the real and makes it magical.*  I read his book, A Pigeon and a Boy (recommended to me by the editor of this blog), in the first weeks of my time in Israel, and it soars like the pigeons it describes. The story follows two soft-spoken young men, one who trained pigeons for the Palmach during Israel’s War of Independence, and another who leads bird watching tours around present-day Israel. In less capable hands this novel would be a sappy allegory about the power of teenage love. But Shalev imbues the story with complexity, nuance, and luminous sentences that took Israel out of the history books and newscasts, and made the country a living thing waiting to be discovered and loved.

*This actually isn’t hyperbole. Shalev’s a magical realist.

From what I hear, Eshkol Nevo, the third author, writes with much the same magic; but I haven’t yet read any of his work. I did, however, attend an English language reading he gave and so got a small sampling of what his two novels are about. They seem to feature war less centrally than in the books by the other two authors. But even still, none of the books are really about war. Leshem wrote a coming-of-age story; Shalev wrote a love story.
Israel, too, isn’t about war. Yes, Israel deals with its consequences on a daily basis. But go to Tel Aviv and you’ll likely see a Sheinkin Street pencil pusher eating organic schnitzel before you see anyone that looks like a soldier. Go to Tzfat and hang out with Kabbalists and Chabadniks getting “high” on torah. Watch any Israeli movie from the 60s and 70s and you’ll see an Israel that defined itself by the sacrifices made in defense of the nation. But go to Israel today and see a nation that’s building bike paths for their active and environmentally conscious citizenry. Talk to Israelis that care more about who will win the next Kohav Nolad than about how the conflict will be solved. And you haven’t partied until you’re taking shots of Arak in the Mahane Yehuda Shuk at two in the morning with some random Israeli dudes playing Bob Marley on the stereo.
Israel’s got a top-flight basketball team, a cutting-edge (and massive) national museum and gallery, and some seriously talented storytellers, three of whom are coming to share their vision of Israel with us. Ron Leshem, Meir Shalev, and Eshkol Nevo represent a modern, maturing Israel. To really understand Israel you need to step foot on the actual land. Though if you come to this reading series, you’ll at least get close.

The Israeli Author Series is sponsored by the Israel Center of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation and the Sabes Jewish Community Center. Each reading starts at 7pm at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in St. Louis Park. Ron Leshem speaks on September 22nd, Meir Shalev comes on November 9th, and Eshkol Nevo comes on December 1st. Tickets are $12 for adults, and $10 for students and seniors. Contact the JCC box office for more information: 952.381.3499. Or email: [email protected].*

*I’m also MCing the first event so you should come and say hi!