Detail from the cover of "The Wolf Hunt" by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Detail from the cover of "The Wolf Hunt" by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Antisemitism haunts Israeli family in Silicon Valley in ‘The Wolf Hunt’

A man wearing a hoodie walks into a Reform synagogue in Silicon Valley, in one of the “greenest, quietest, safest cities in America.” It’s the first night of Rosh Hashanah, and the synagogue is packed.

The man is carrying a machete.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Photo/Tal Shahar)
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Photo/Tal Shahar)

The violence that opens Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s propulsive and psychologically complex new novel sends shockwaves through the local Jewish community, a mix of Americans and Israeli expats — not unlike the real Jewish community on the Peninsula.

“How could this happen here in Silicon Valley?” they whisper at the funeral of one of the attack’s victims.

Later, after an Israeli teen is suspected of drugging a classmate who dies at a party, a bloody Star of David and other antisemitic graffiti appear on the walls of their high school. (A reporter for the local “Jewish News” calls the teen’s mother to ask for her reaction.)

The specter of more antisemitic violence hangs over “The Wolf Hunt,” which was originally published in Hebrew last year and comes out in English on Aug. 15. The story centers on Lilach and Mikhael Shuster, an Israeli couple who have been living in America for 17 years, and their introverted 16-year-old son, Adam. Lilach organizes cultural programs at a retirement home, while her husband works at a tech company that designs weapons. They live comfortably in suburbia with their dog, Kelev (Hebrew for “dog”).

After the synagogue attack bursts their bubble of false security, Lilach encourages Adam to take a self-defense class taught by Uri, a former Israeli soldier who served in an elite combat unit and who may or may not be in the Mossad. Just as Adam is emerging from his shell, rumors begin to spread that he drugged Jamal, the teen who died at the party, as revenge for bullying him. Meanwhile, Uri insinuates himself into the Shuster family with unclear motives.

In a review, Publishers Weekly called “The Wolf Hunt” a “brainy suburban suspense novel” that is “both taut and timely.”

This is Gundar-Goshen’s fourth novel and her first set in the U.S. It is a very American novel in its examination of antisemitism, racial tensions and greed. But it is an unmistakably Israeli novel, too, highlighting the challenges that Israelis, especially Israeli women, face navigating life in an American society where “people told each other everything except the truth.”

Gundar-Goshen, 41, wrote a portion of the book in 2018 while living in San Francisco and teaching at San Francisco State University as a visiting artist.

“I had the privilege to be a complete outsider while writing it,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home in Tel Aviv. “The experience was very dear to my heart because I really felt like I’m bathing in the same water as my character.”

Lilach, whom Americans call “Leela” because they can’t pronounce the Hebrew ch sound, had reluctantly agreed to relocate to the States for her husband’s job. “How will you manage there with all those Americans?” her mother asked her, to which Lilach responded, “Americans are people.” “True, but a different kind of people.”

Gundar-Goshen, whose previous novels include “The Liar” and “Waking Lions,” said one of the biggest challenges she faced during her six-month stay in San Francisco was figuring out how to communicate with Americans.

“I thought that it should be easy for me because I’m quite fluent in English,” she said. “But what I didn’t know is that I speak English. I don’t speak American. And it’s not the same language.”

For example, she said, “Americans have a way to insult you without you even realizing that you’re being insulted until a few minutes pass.”

RELATED: SFSU visiting novelist Ayelet Gundar-Goshen tells Israel’s story through its arts

For the most part, though, Gundar-Goshen said life in San Francisco was very pleasant. She lived in an apartment in Noe Valley with her husband, screenwriter Yoav Shutan-Goshen, and their two daughters. (They have since welcomed a third child.) They took the girls to the Dolores Park playground every day after preschool. They made friends with other Israelis and regularly celebrated Shabbat with a family in Palo Alto. They did not encounter antisemitism. They were already back in Israel before the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh in October 2018.

In the novel, Lilach wrestles with her decision to let her child grow up in the States, especially after she learns he’s being bullied: “I told my mother that I wanted to raise Adam in a place that had no wars. Now I was afraid we’d been wrong. We’d thought we were protecting Adam from the Israeli insanity, but maybe we were actually exposing him to a different kind of insanity.”

Cover of "The Wolf Hunt"Unlike Lilach, Gundar-Goshen said she never considered staying in the States past the end of her residency at SFSU.

“I realized how ironic it is that for years, the ultimate dream of Jews was to come to Israel, to come to the Promised Land,” she said. “And today the ultimate dream of so many Israelis is to relocate to America. I think it’s really history’s irony.”

In addition to writing novels, Gundar-Goshen is a practicing clinical psychologist. In both careers, she said she is drawn to “the places where there’s a no entry sign.” “Whenever somebody tells me that I’m not allowed to talk about something, or that I should think twice before talking about something, I feel this is the one thing we have to talk about,” she said.

The collision of characters from different backgrounds and with different social statuses is a theme that runs through Gundar-Goshen’s work. In “Waking Lions,” an Israeli doctor accidentally kills an Eritrean migrant with his car. In “The Liar,” an Israeli teenager accuses an adult pop star of sexual assault.

Vered Weiss, a scholar who teaches Israeli literature, has assigned Gundar-Goshen’s work, including to students at SFSU when she taught there from 2019 to 2021. “Her work was very well received by American students,” Weiss, who is currently an Israel Institute teaching fellow at Michigan State University, told J. “‘Waking Lions’ and ‘Liar’ explored moral issues and invited readers to reconsider preconceived notions and convictions, and it sounds like her new novel follows this path.”

In “The Wolf Hunt,” Gundar-Goshen wades into the thorny subject of American race relations and, specifically, tensions between Jews and Black people. Both the synagogue killer and Adam’s bully, Jamal, are Black and from a poor neighborhood on the “east side.” The mother of a victim in the synagogue attack makes racist remarks in a television interview. When Lilach goes to Jamal’s house to speak with his mother, she sees a photograph of Louis Farrakhan, the antisemitic leader of the Nation of Islam, on his wall.

“Adam is dealing with his outsider-ness and his inferiority through belonging to this militaristic, Zionist group, and I think Jamal is dealing with his own feelings of loneliness, of being an outsider, through his affiliation with [the] Nation of Islam,” Gundar-Goshen said. “In that aspect, they’re very much alike.”

She added that she wanted to keep the reader wondering who is the “wolf” and who is the “lamb” in the story. “Jamal does bully Adam, but then again, Adam, who is the son of migrants, is far more part of the American dream than Jamal is because of the socio-economic gap between them,” she said. “That’s not violence the way bullying is violence. But, you know, economy is violence, it’s just organized violence.”

Gundar-Goshen still sees patients and is working on a new novel. But she said her most important job at the moment is participating in the mass protests against the judicial overhaul in Israel.

“I’m more optimistic now than I ever was in the last few years, because I feel like finally the Israeli civil society is waking up,” she said. “People are running to the street as if our house was on fire, and our house is on fire.”

Given the political turmoil in Israel, does any part of her miss America?

“I’m very much looking forward to coming for residency again,” she said, “but I know where my home is, and it’s right here in Israel.”

“The Wolf Hunt” by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Little, Brown and Company, 288 pages). Gundar-Goshen is scheduled to speak at Stanford in October.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.