On the Bookshelf
New fiction from Israel
Even a week after Passover has ended, gorging on hametz still sounds delightful. Bruce and Eric Bromberg’s Blue Ribbon Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, April) offers an inspiringly broad range of leavened and kitniyot-infused dishes, as the entrepreneurial brothers draw upon their experiences designing menus for venues as varied as a brasserie, a bakery, sushi bars, and a high-class bowling alley. The Brombergs’ eclecticism leads their recipes to be “a little French, a little Jewish, a little Asian, and very New York,” as New York itself phrased it—just don’t expect adherence to strict kashrut: While they have lovingly updated grandmotherly staples like chopped liver, brisket, and matzo ball soup, the Brombergs embrace trayf no less enthusiastically.
Last week’s record-setting temperatures made New York feel a little like Eilat—an appropriate welcome for a group of Israeli novelists releasing new books in English this spring. Of them, Aharon Appelfeld is the only one of whose work is already widely read in English. Blooms of Darkness (Schocken, March) returns to the subject of the Holocaust, like Appelfeld’s classics Badenheim 1939 and The Age of Wonders, and particularly to a child’s perspective on the war. In this case, Appelfeld focuses on a young boy sheltered by a prostitute in occupied Ukraine, who finds they have something in common: “Whores and Jews are always persecuted.”
Three other Israeli authors, Alex Epstein, Eshkol Nevo, and Assaf Gavron, debut in English this spring, and all three will be touring the United States in support of their books.
Blue Has No South (Clockroot, April) is a critically acclaimed collection of very short stories by Alex Epstein, a writer based in Tel Aviv (and not the Canadian who script-doctored Bon Cop, Bad Cop, or the follower of Ayn Rand who comes up first in a Google search for the name). Born in Leningrad—a year before Gary Shteyngart, if you’re keeping track—this Epstein writes miniature Hebrew prose poems that call to mind mid-career Leonard Michaels more than they do the almost equally brief tales of Epstein’s countryman, Tablet Contributing Editor Etgar Keret.
Eshkol Nevo’s Homesick (Dalkey Archive, April) meanwhile spent more than a year on the Israeli bestseller lists after its publication in 2004. A first novel by a grandson of the third Israeli Prime Minister—and the first entry in Dalkey’s new series of translations of Hebrew literature—the book chronicles the quotidian lives of six distinctive residents of a village outside Jerusalem, including Jews of all kinds—religious, secular, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi—and a Palestinian construction worker. Like Israelis more generally, they share little except a tendency toward nostalgic yearning, and, importantly, the land on which they live.
Finally, Assaf Gavron’s Almost Dead (HarperCollins, April) follows the intertwining fates of a white-collar Israeli, who miraculously survives a brutal series of suicide bombings, and a somewhat reluctant Palestinian bomber. As you might expect from Gavron—the man who translated Portnoy’s Complaint and Pulp Fiction, as well as both of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels, into Hebrew—the newly translated novel treats the horror of terrorist murder through the lens of dark comedy.
Though he was born in Oregon and has written mostly about American politics and history—his books include the recent Pulitzer Prize winner American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer—Kai Bird spent many of his childhood and young adult years in the Middle East, observing the conflicts firsthand. As he describes in his new memoir-cum-history, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978 (Scribner, April), Bird grew up in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, the son of an American diplomat, and later married a daughter of Holocaust survivors. Conflicts in the Middle East have never been abstract for him, then: His first girlfriend, for an example, was held hostage on an airplane hijacked in order to bargain for the freedom of the Black Septemberist Leila Khaled.
Bird wound up in the Middle East as a kid thanks, quite directly, to the diplomatic and strategic engagements analyzed by military historian Geoffrey Wawro in Quicksand: America’s Pursuit of Power in the Middle East (Penguin, April). The author of academic studies of confusing 19th-century conflicts—particularly the 1866 Austro-Prussian War and the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War—and a regular host on the History Channel, Wawro emphasizes America’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel as the keys to its failures in the region and brings to his chronicle of Middle Eastern politics and military conflict precisely what Bird fruitfully does not: disinterestedness.
Drawing upon an impressive range of primary sources in six languages, Yaron Harel’s Syrian Jewry in Transition, 1840–1880 (Littman, February) tells a much less familiar story about how the interactions between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East have been indelibly marked by the influence of Western governments and culture. Harel recounts, for example, how the Alliance Israélite Universelle reached out to the Jewish communities in Damascus, Aleppo, and elsewhere, and why Syrian Jews ended up emigrating in such large numbers from a country in which they had achieved a great deal of financial success. In the process, he demonstrates once more that the Middle East is even more complicated than contemporary headlines suggest.