Off the shelf | Translations give access to inventive Israeli literature

Several months ago in this column, I bemoaned the fact that the vast majority of Israeli literature never sees translation into English. This is not a new problem — it took more than a half-century for Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon’s 1945 masterpiece “Only Yesterday,” considered by many to be the best novel ever written in Hebrew, to be published in English. But the result is that most of us have no means of experiencing books that play an important role in Israeli cultural and intellectual life.

Now, it feels very much as if my prayers have a listener on the other end, with the publication of Orly Castel-Bloom’s “Textile,” Alona Kimhi’s “Lily la Tigresse” and the three books discussed below, all translated beautifully into English.

In addition to fostering an un-derstanding of Israeli life that transcends the newspaper headlines, this particular group of books makes a good case for how inventive and challenging contemporary Hebrew literature often is — a fact made more remarkable when one considers how small the natural market is for Hebrew books.

“Some Day” marks the literary debut of Shemi Zarhin, one of the country’s most popular screenwriters and directors (“Aviva My Love,” “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi”).

At the center of this sprawling, earthy novel is Shlomi, a boy from a Sephardic background who falls for his self-destructive neighbor Ella, the daughter of Ashkenazi Holocaust survivors. All of the characters — and particularly Shlomi’s mother, Ruchama — are splendidly realized, as we get an intimate glimpse of their relationships, desires and frustrations (along with some extraordinary cooking).

Zarhin’s presentation of his hometown Tiberias is so vivid that the city feels like a character. The city is neglected in Israeli literature (and some of Zarhin’s characters would say justifiably so), so I particularly enjoyed the rich portrayal. It is buoyed by the book’s numerous magical realist touches, as when the city is overtaken by a powerful wind every Wednesday that lifts residents off their feet.

Also striking in the book, which takes place between 1969 and 1983, are its portrayals of the tensions between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, and of the varying attitudes of native Israelis toward survivors of the Holocaust.

“Some Day” is among the first releases from New Vessel Press, a new independent publisher displaying admirable chutzpah in entering the publishing world in its current state.

Dror Burstein, who teaches at both the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, is one of Israel’s least conventional writers, and his new book “Netanya” constitutes a daring defiance of genre. It is a demanding book, and one that I discovered quickly to be particularly ill-suited for my habit of reading on public transportation.

To begin with, although billed as a novel, it disposes of plot as we know it. The entire book consists of the narrator lying on a bench in Tel Aviv and observing the sky over the course of a single night. Having recently consumed books about space, he relates the great phenomena of the cosmos to events in his own life and family history. Cosmological observations illuminate family stories, and vice versa.

Although the heavy dose of astronomy left me feeling somewhat inadequate as a reader, the book does become more accessible as we become increasingly grounded in the narrator’s life and his affecting stories — in particular, his grandfather’s immigration to Israel, and the impact of his uncle’s death in the Yom Kippur War. The stories — which are accompanied by reproductions of documents and other artifacts — are presented as true accounts from the author’s own family (the title derives from his childhood in the Israeli coastal city), but Burstein seems to be calling attention to the blur between fact and imagination.

While less “out there” than “Netanya,” best-selling author Zeruya Shalev’s “The Remains of Love” is also notable for its innovative style. Its narrative voice is inhabited fluidly by multiple characters, with external narration drifting frequently into monologues that reveal the characters’ inner lives.

The novel is set in a Jerusalem hospital during the final days of Hemda Horowitz. As she lies dying, her thoughts move to the past — to the kibbutz where, a symbol of promise, she was the first child to be born; to her long-departed parents; and to the stages of her complicated relationship with her children.

At her bedside are her emotionally hobbled middle-age offspring, Dina and Avner, who reflect the long-term damage a parent can leave. The reductionist version is that Hemda has hurt Avner by smothering him with love, and Dina by not loving her enough.

Avner is a human rights lawyer who represents Arabs against the state, but, dwelling passively in an awful marriage, he is unable to defend his own needs. And Dina, a scholar of history, has responded to the lack of affection she received from her own mother by doting on her only child, Nitzan. However, with the teenage Nitzan beginning to turn away from her, Dina is now looking to adopt a Siberian orphan, at the risk of exacerbating Nitzan’s distancing act.

Shalev gives the reader a seat from which to witness Avner’s and Dina’s inner struggles. As we watch them grapple with their mother’s mixed legacy and the need for change in their lives, we think about our own ability to emerge from the destructive patterns that ensnare us.

“Some Day” by Shemi Zarhin (450 pages, New Vessel Press, $16.99)

“Netanya” by Dror Burstein (225 pages, Dalkey Archive Press, $15)

“The Remains of Love” by Zeruya Shalev (432 pages, Bloomsbury, $26)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.