Convertible driven by serious mother issues

What’s the deal with Israeli mothers? That may sound like the beginning of a standup routine, yet it’s anything but a joke.

Israeli mothers are getting a curiously bad rap these days — at least in the world of modern adult fiction. Two recently published books — “The Book of Dahlia” by Elisa Albert, and now “Ask for a Convertible” by Danit Brown — have given us what seems to be the new Israeli mother stereotype: a beautiful, stormy, hot-blooded woman who is prone to bouts of depression, unable to assimilate into American society (should she even try), and willing to abandon her children and run back to Israel at the drop of a hat.

If Albert and Brown are any indication, Israeli women, like wild horses, just aren’t meant to be tamed. I’m not sure I buy it — all the Israeli moms I grew up with in East Coast suburbia seemed perfectly content and dedicated to their husbands and kids.

Of course, happy people don’t usually make for good fiction. That’s not to say that “Ask for a Convertible” is full of miserable characters — just lost ones.

The book — Brown’s first — is ostensibly a collection of short stories, most of them featuring a different main character. But in an interesting twist, all the stories somehow lead back to one central character, Osnat Greenberg.

When “Convert-ible” begins, Osnat is a preteen moving from Tel Aviv to Ann Arbor, Mich., with her tempestuous Israeli mother and her American father, a professor. Much of her early life in Michigan is spent trying to keep her mother from leaving the family, and stepping in when she senses her parents are about to fight.

Throughout the book, we see snapshots of Osnat’s life as she grows up: her non-Jewish boyfriend, her move back to Israel, her subsequent return to America. Brown allows us into Osnat’s life just one small moment — sometimes only a few hours — at a time.

Another protagonist is Harriet, introduced as a secondary character in the story “Running.” Harriet comes back later in the book, celebrating her first Rosh Hashanah after her parents’ divorce, and later still as the co-worker and “surrogate daughter” of Osnat’s mother, Efrat.

Osnat’s parents each get their own stories, as does an Israeli man named Noam, who briefly pops up again in the Chicago suburb Osnat moves to after college, then again after she moves to Israel.

This being a book about Jews, the stories are filled with fairly predictable themes: intermarriage, Jewish mother-inspired guilt, an obsession with the Holocaust, feeling torn between two worlds. When Osnat goes to visit her non-Jewish boyfriend’s family for Christmas, it doesn’t take long for the utterly imaginable to happen.

Aside from one story inexplicably written in the ultra-annoying second person, Brown’s writing is crisp, clear and straightforward. Not all of the characters are compelling, though — Harriet, for example, works much better as a secondary character, and Noam could be skipped altogether. In fact, the story tends to drag when Osnat’s not in the picture.

That’s not to say that Osnat is particularly compelling herself, but there’s something about her stories that make them truly effervescent. A fantastic supporting cast — Osnat’s over-eager father and her friend Jeannie, who makes a memorable trip to visit Osnat in Israel, are among the best parts of the book — helps to diffuse Osnat’s tendency for self-pity. And Brown gives Osnat’s stories all the best settings — including Hands Across America and the aforementioned Christmas story, which is probably the best in the book.

Then, of course, there’s the Israeli mother issue. To her credit, Brown eventually gives us a story from Efrat’s perspective (oddly, the only story written in the first person) that makes her seem a little more human. Still, I worry about this negative portrayal of Israeli mothers, and hope it isn’t the start of a trend.

“Ask for a Convertible” isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but when it’s good, it’s very, very good. And Danit Brown, it seems, will make a fine addition to the pantheon of hip, young Jewish writers.

“Ask for a Convertible” by Danit Brown (302 pages, Pantheon Books, $22.95)