From the cover of "An Egyptian Novel"
From the cover of "An Egyptian Novel"

New tales of Jewish families in Ireland, England, Middle East

With much attention awarded to immigration-related issues in recent months, many of us have considered increasingly the Jewish immigrant experience in the United States, particularly since it reflects many of our families’ histories. It was in that light that I enjoyed reading three recent novels that focus on the experience of Jewish immigrants in three other nations.

LIT-shelf-foldsAlthough the most celebrated of all Irish novels, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” features a Jewish protagonist, the representation of Jews in Irish literature over the ensuing century has been decidedly less pronounced. In her novel Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan,” published in January, Ruth Gilligan, a non-Jewish journalist and fiction writer, offers an ambitious picture of Irish-Jewish relations over time.

The novel is divided into three sections. In the first, a Lithuanian Jewish family immigrates quite accidentally (they think they are headed for New York) to Cork at the beginning of the 20th century. Their encounter with their new and very foreign home is reflected through the eyes of Ruth, a child. The second segment, which takes place a half-century later, concerns a young Jewish man who has become mute following a trauma and has since been institutionalized. And the final sequence, taking place in the present day, follows Aisling, a gentile Irish writer, who finds herself attracted to a Jewish man and contemplates the question of whether to convert to Judaism.

The book brings up many questions, some particular to Irish identity. For example, with the vast majority of people in Ireland identifying as Catholic, and with a complicated relationship between church and state, an often perceived equation of Irishness and Catholicism can impede a sense of belonging for religious minorities.

It fascinates me that the book commences with foreign Jews adjusting with varying success to the ways of the Irish, and ends with an Irish Catholic woman as an outsider negotiating her relationship to Jews and Jewishness. And the fact that Aisling does so in London (where Gilligan herself lives) makes us especially conscious that, as Jews have been a traveling people, so are the Irish. Mass emigration has been a significant dimension of Irish life for centuries.

LIT-shelf-orlyOrly Castel-Bloom’s “An Egyptian Novel” spins the tale of an extended family that relocates from Egypt to Israel in the middle of the 20th century. The book earned Castel-Bloom the Sapir Prize, Israel’s highest literary honor, in 2015 and now has been ably translated into English by Todd Hasak-Lowy. It is much more accessible than some of the author’s other works (Castel-Bloom is sometimes cited as Israel’s preeminent postmodern novelist), but, with characters featuring names like the Oldest Daughter and the Only Daughter, it remains characteristically idiosyncratic.

The novel follows members of a family from Egypt on a left-wing kibbutz (from which they are booted off for an ideological faux pas), in Tel Aviv and on a return visit to Egypt. But it also moves far back in history, or mythic history, illustrating how the protagonists are purported to have descended, on one side, from brothers who left Spain in 1492 and sailed to Gaza, and, on the other side, from a family that, unswayed by Moses’ salesmanship, elected to remain in Egypt rather than venture into the desert with their fellow Israelites.

There is much humor throughout, albeit primarily of the biting, ironic and absurdist variety. The author’s relationship to the subject matter may reflect how close to the bone it is. Castel-Bloom’s parents emigrated from Egypt to Israel during the period depicted in the novel, and the characters’ surname (Kastil, denoting their Castilian origins) clearly evokes her own.

LITshelf-shtumJem Lester’s 3-month-old debut novel, Shtum (the Yiddish term for being silent), is an affecting account of an English family coping with the challenge of raising a mute child with severe autism.

Convinced that their son Jonah will require admission a residential care facility, Ben (the narrator) and Emma Jewell embark on the application process. Believing that their chances of getting Jonah into a superior facility will increase if he is not presently being cared for in a stable household, they agree to a ruse in which they will live as if their marriage has dissolved in hopes of receiving a more generous offer for Jonah’s state-supported care.

Ben and Jonah move in with Ben’s cancer-stricken father, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary. Meanwhile, overwhelmed, Emma withdraws from both her childrearing responsibilities and from Ben. As the couple’s fictitious separation becomes quite real, Ben is sandwiched between caring for both Jonah and his father, while contending with his failing career, Emma‘s divorce attorney and the bureaucratic nightmare of getting Jonah into a suitable state-licensed institution.

Despite the heaviness of this scenario, the book is laced with humor. But it remains the least romanticized account of the experience of caring for a child with severe autism I have read (and is informed, in part, by the author’s own life as a father to a son with autism). Nor is the protagonist spared. Ben is portrayed as a man unequal to the circumstances facing him. Ambivalent, ineffective and poor at communicating (a central theme in the book), he takes refuge in alcohol, which makes him all the less fit to contend with his challenges.

But the characters grow over the course of the book, and it is a novel that rewards sticking to the end.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

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