Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s  debut novel “One Night, Markovitch” (2012) is worth your time.
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s debut novel “One Night, Markovitch” (2012) is worth your time.

11 stellar Israeli novels that cry out to be read

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As we mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, I remain awed that a small country with a reconstructed language should produce a literature that is so rich. Below is a sampling of 11 varied titles that give a taste of Israeli literature at its best.

1. “Only Yesterday,” S.Y. Agnon

In my experience, Americans rarely read S.Y. Agnon, the only Hebrew writer to have received the Nobel Prize, which is a shame. Although his short stories are the place to begin, my favorite work is his monumental “Only Yesterday” (1945), which follows a young man from an East European shtetl to the land of Israel at the dawn of the 20th century. Its most memorable modernist touch is an extraordinary section narrated by a stray dog.

2. “Khirbet Khizeh,” S. Yizhar

Cover of "Khirbet Khizeh" by S. YizharS. Yizhar’s “Khirbet Khizeh” (1949) is among the most challenging books addressing the birth of the State of Israel. Drawn from the author’s experience as an intelligence officer in 1948, the novella depicts its narrator’s participation in the expulsion of Arabs from a village during the conflict. It’s the sort of book that is easier to avoid than to read (and, despite its being taught in Israeli schools, a half-century passed before it was translated into English), but it is an important one for facing fearlessly the difficult aspects of the War of Independence.

3. “A Trumpet in the Wadi,” Sami Michael

Baghdad-born Sami Michael’s novel “A Trumpet in the Wadi” (1987) sensitively portrays an Arab family in Haifa whose daughter, an Arabic speaker who is enamored of Hebrew culture, falls in love with the Russian Jewish emigrant who rents the apartment above them. Their romance is a touchpoint both for the possibilities of reconciliation and for the explosive dimensions of Palestinian and Jewish allegiances.

4. “Mr. Mani,” A.B. Yehoshua

Cover of "Mr. Mani" by A.B. YehoshuaA.B. Yehoshua’s novel “Mr. Mani” (1990) is a modern Israeli classic, moving back in time from the 1980s to the 1840s through the generations of a Sephardic family. The story unfolds in a most unconventional manner, through a series of conversations in which the reader is privy to only one side. Navigating the book poses a challenge, but one that is worthwhile.

5. “Thirst: The Desert Trilogy,” Shulamith Hareven

Shulamith Hareven’s “Thirst: The Desert Trilogy” (1996) is a collection of three powerful novellas set in the biblical era. With the struggles of the early Israelites sometimes paralleling those of the young State of Israel, the challenges of faith, justice and morality faced by the characters in the unforgiving desert take on added resonance.

6. “Dancing Arabs,” Sayed Kashua

dancing arabs sayed kashuaSayed Kashua is the most prominent Arab author in Israel, although he has been living and teaching in Chicago since 2014. Composed in Hebrew, his books reflect his experience straddling Israel’s Jewish and Arab worlds, while often feeling alienated from both. His debut novel, “Dancing Arabs” (2002), is a semi-autobiographical account of a Palestinian boy who wins a prestigious scholarship to a Jewish high school but slips into a bitter malaise as an adult.

7. “Homesick,” Eshkol Nevo

The narration in Eshkol Nevo’s “Homesick” (2004) alternates between the voices of a number of people attached to homes in a town on the outskirts of Jerusalem. They include Avram, whose son has been killed in a military operation in Lebanon, and Palestinian laborer Saadiq, who recognizes Avram’s house as the one his family fled in 1948 when the town was an Arab village. It is a powerful novel that captures the complexities of Israeli society.

8. “A Pigeon and a Boy,” Meir Shalev

Cover of "A Pigeon and a Boy" by Meir ShalevPart of Meir Shalev’s novel “A Pigeon and a Boy” (2006) is set in 1948, following a young homing pigeon handler who is called into service during the War of Independence. Shalev intertwines that story with a contemporary narrative of a middle-aged tour guide whose marriage is on the rocks, and who falls in love with a woman from his childhood. The two tales converge in a meeting of past and present.

9. “Between Friends,” Amos Oz

One of my favorite books by Amos Oz, “Between Friends” (2014, reprint), ranks among the best works of literature set on a kibbutz. It consists of eight interlinked stories set on fictional Kibbutz Yekhat in the late 1950s. These intimate character studies, rendered in restrained prose, focus largely on the kibbutzniks’ melancholy, loneliness and unfulfilled dreams. The book’s title is, in fact, a play on words, as the Hebrew word chaver means not only “friend,” but “comrade,” or a kibbutz member. And the question of whether these comrades are friends is a salient one. We glimpse occasions of mutual support, but we see plenty of betrayals, as the collective aspirations of the community meet the desire of its members for individual fulfillment.

10. “One Night Markovitch,” Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

cover of "One Night, Markovitch" by Ayelet Gundar-GoshenAyelet Gundar-Goshen’s unusual debut “One Night Markovitch” (2012) is a biting and often comical account based on a true historical episode, in which Jewish men traveled from British Mandate Palestine to Europe to rescue Jewish women by marrying them and bringing them back, thereby getting around limits on immigration. These were sham marriages from which the women were released upon arrival. However, in the novel, one of these men is unwilling to let go of his bride, and he lives in hope that his desire for her will be requited.

11. “The Best Place on Earth,” Ayelet Tsabari

Among my favorite writers representing Mizrachi Jews in fiction is Ayelet Tsabari, an Israeli from a Yemenite background who now teaches at the University of Toronto. Written in English, her prize-winning debut collection of stories, “The Best Place on Earth” (2016), focuses on the experience of young Israelis with roots in the Arab world. Also worth mentioning is a powerful story entitled “Invisible,” which sympathetically depicts the plight of a Filipina caretaker who, having overstayed her visa, is now working illegally for an elderly Yemenite woman.

Now go read.

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.