Novelist probes Silicon Valley Israelis caught in bubble

When she was writing her first novel, Palo Alto-based clinical psychologist Noga Niv felt as if she were inside three bubbles: the Silicon Valley tech bubble that burst in the early 2000s; the bubble that envelops the Bay Area Israeli émigré community; and the writer’s bubble into which she retreated to explore issues of identity, family and creativity.

“Inside the Bubble” appeared in Israel in 2008. Newly translated into English from Niv’s original Hebrew, it is now available for a broader U.S. audience. The book, set during that period when the tech bubble was bursting, tells the story of five Israeli women in Silicon Valley whose bonds of friendship and sisterhood sustain them through the personal crises of homesickness, loneliness, parenting, infidelity and the struggle to hold onto their individuality when they feel sidelined by their husbands’ high-flying, high-tech careers.

Although her characters are composites, the Israeli-born Niv based the book on her own real-life experiences as well as those of her friends, acquaintances and patients. She consulted with Irvin Yalom, a Stanford University professor of psychiatry, to help her protect confidentiality by blending personal traits to create relatable personalities in this work of “bio-fiction.”

Noga Niv

Readers may be reminded of the work of Mary McCarthy and Rona Jaffe, both of whom wrote of close-knit groups of women in a previous generation, but Niv had never read either author before starting her novel 11 years ago.

Of the Israelis of Silicon Valley, Niv says: “Most don’t intend to stay their whole lives.” They tend to come “with a goal to achieve: a startup or the development of an idea.” Many also want to expose their children to the English language and to educational experiences outside Israel, but their ultimate objective is to return home, she says.

For Israeli immigrants, Niv says, “Arriving at Silicon Valley, for most of us — at least at the beginning — feels like a beautiful tourist experience. It is a lovely country, beautiful weather and landscape, nice and friendly people, good food. … Problems start only years later, when women are looking to preserve their professional identity or are faced with issues related to the identity of their children.”

Niv, 57, first came to the United States at age 25. Married for just a year, she and her husband settled in Los Angeles, where he was completing his post-doctoral studies, and where their daughter was born. The family moved permanently to the Bay Area from Israel in 1991, and Niv has been in practice since 1998, with a focus on treating eating disorders, anxiety and depression. Her daughter, now 32, lives in San Francisco, and Niv makes frequent trips back to Israel to visit her 27-year-old son, who moved to Israel at 18 and works in a Tel Aviv-based high-tech company.

A longing for Israel — and the feeling of being set apart from American culture — is a common theme among Niv’s characters, as well as among people she knows. “Mom, are we Israelis or Americans?” is a common question she hears in her community.

Her book’s narrator, a psychologist named Daniela, says, “I thought about the bonds we’d formed amongst ourselves, women living on a cultural island in the heart of California. We were all married to Israeli men who were constantly on the move worldwide.”

In her practice, Niv often finds herself helping couples come to a rapprochement when one spouse — usually the wife — wants to return to Israel, and the other wants to stay.

She dramatizes that dilemma in her book through the story’s central couple: Gabi, a painter and a loving wife and mother who has gained more and more weight — and more self-consciousness — with every childbirth, and her childhood sweetheart, Danny, who loves his wife but wolfishly beds women all over the globe.

Daniela’s and Gabi’s personal struggles, and those of their three closest friends — a volatile former actress involved in a three-way love triangle, one half of a newly rich power couple, and a pianist who reconnects with an old crush through Hevre, an early Israeli version of Facebook — are the heart of the novel.

“I chose to write about five women, partly because I have experienced a weekend out in the Sierras with four of my women friends and based the beginning of the novel on that experience,” Niv says. “But unconsciously I believe that the number five represents a community. From my angle, I described a community of men and women where men are working crazy hours around the clock and around the globe, when women are raising the children and are faced with issues, and that the global village cannot provide them with an easy answer.”

Daniela, whom Niv calls the “observer” of the book, ties the multiple storylines together by bringing her psychological insights to her friends’, and her own, issues. “She is not my self-portrait,” says Niv, but someone “who looks outside the bubble at American society.”

Readers in Niv’s Silicon Valley community and beyond have told her of their deep identification with Gabi’s struggle to hold on to her creativity and self-respect, and with her increasing urgency to reconnect with her family back in Israel. But in the new American edition, Niv also dramatizes a real-life reader response when she adds a scolding letter Daniela receives from the high-powered friend offended by the realistic account of all their lives.

Niv’s tours of other Israeli communities in the United States to promote her book have made her realize that “we are really blessed” in Silicon Valley, she says. The  community “is vibrant and active,” with “great leadership that takes care of the cultural and social life.”

Noga Niv will discuss her novel at 5 p.m. Aug. 23 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Free.