2018-05-09 / Columns

Celebrate Israel 70 with great current Israeli literature


This year we celebrate Israel’s 70th birthday. Israeli authors enjoy international acclaim for their fiction and non-fiction. We gathered recently to discuss current Israeli literature.

AMY: A very popular recent novel from Israel, “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” by Sarit Yishai-Levi, is the story of four generations of women. Luna, the most beautiful woman in Jerusalem, has struggled to have a good relationship with her daughter Gabriela. Gabriela wants to better understand her mother, and explores the previous generations of women in the family. She discovers the family curse and shocking secrets. The story is set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, World War II, and the 1970s. There’s plenty of romance as well as history, and the story depicts the tension between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. Filming for the movie adaptation was scheduled to take place in Israel. I’m not sure where that stands, but judging from readers here, it would be a hit!

IRENE: Sharing stories about herself and the “other” is what the storyteller Noa Baum gives us in “A Land Twice Promised: An Israeli Woman’s Quest for Peace.” Baum grew up in Jerusalem under the long shadow of the Holocaust and the constant fears of national destruction. She moved to California, where she became a professional storyteller and tells the story of her friendship with Jumana, a Palestinian woman who also has stories about the struggles and lives of the “others.”’ Don’t miss this poignant and humanistic reflection on the importance of listening to each other’s stories. Her words attempt to convince us to hear each other’s hearts and live in peace.

IRENE: Also looking towards peace, Avraham Burg’s 2015 book, “In Days to Come: A New Hope for Israel,” is now available in English. A memoir of sorts, it offers a deeply personal and unique reflection on Israel’s history, Zionism, and Jewish identity. Avraham Burg belongs to one of the most prominent families in Israel. He worked with Shimon Peres, was a member of the Israeli Knesset, was the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the speaker of the Knesset. Today he is an outspoken and somewhat controversial spokesman for the left-wing movement within Israel and world Jewry.

MINNA: Looking towards the future, each of the chapters in “Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World” by Avi Jorisch details a different scientific or technological innovation from an Israeli citizen intent on tikkun olam (repairing the world). The author shares background information on each innovator as well as details of the medical, agricultural, or other achievement that makes our world a better place.

AMY: Moving from the scientific community to contemporary social issues, there’s a newly translated novel we’re recommending. Dorit Rabinyan has been a well-known writer in Israel for many years. Rabinyan’s fame increased when her prizewinning 2014 novel, based on her real-life romance with a Palestinian artist, was pulled from Israel’s approved list for high schoolers the following year, but the controversy led to the book’s sales doubling. Now the book has been translated into English with the title “All the Rivers.” In the story, Liat, who is of Iranian- Jewish descent, is a young translator who falls in love with Hilmi, a Palestinian painter. Though she loves Hilmi, Liat is tormented by the knowledge that this affair goes against her upbringing. Rabinyan has said that she strove to show these characters as individuals, not as emblematic of their respective national identities.

MINNA: The title of “An Egyptian Novel” seems out of place in a review of books about Israel, but this historical saga by Orly Castel-Bloom traces her own family history from Spain in 1492 through centuries in Egypt to contemporary Israel. Each chapter is its own story and the novel goes back and forth in time and place with a mix of fact and fiction. Translated from the Hebrew, this book won the Sapir Prize for Literature with its post-modern mixture of absurdity and despair.

MINNA: For kids celebrating Israel’s 70th; there are two new biographies for elementary school children that focus on an Israeli woman in the public eye. Gal Gadot was Miss Israel 2004, a combat instructor in the IDF, a model, an actress, and now Wonder Woman. She is featured in a Beacon Biography by Tamra Orr and a Gateway Biography written by Jill Sherman. Both books trace Gadot’s life from her childhood in Rosh Ha’ayin to her success in Hollywood.

For more information, contact us: Irene Afek at the Sanders Memorial Library of the Katz JCC (iafek@jfedsnj.org), Minna Siegel at Temple Beth Sholom (msiegel@tbsonline.org); and Amy Kaplan at Cong. Beth El (akaplan@bethelsnj.org). 

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