Israel is a country founded on the idea of immigration—the return of Jews from around the world to their historic homeland. The very word used for such immigration, Aliyah, or ascent, constitutes a value judgment, combining the ancient religious imperative to settle the Land of Israel with a modern political implication that only in Israel can Jews live fully and freely. It follows that the phenomenon of yeridah—emigration or “descent” from Israel to other countries—is problematic for Zionism, as the negative connotation of the very word suggests. Yet the fact is that emigration has always been a feature of Israeli history. Estimates of the exact number of Israelis living abroad range from 300,000 to 700,000, or 5 to 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. Of these, the majority live in the United States and Canada.
Israeli literature has grappled extensively with the experience and meaning of aliyah, starting perhaps with S.Y. Agnon’s 1945 novel of baffled immigration, Only Yesterday. But how does an Israeli write about the experience of leaving Israel behind? The Best Place on Earth, the debut collection of stories by the Canadian-Israeli writer Ayelet Tsabari, gives a suggestive answer to this question. Tsabari’s book was originally published by a Canadian press; after winning the Sami Rohr Prize for fiction, it has now been issued by Random House in the United States.
Really, Tsabari offers a whole series of answers, since each story in the book comes at the question of Israeliness from a slightly different angle. Several of the characters we meet are, like the author, expats in Canada; others are spiritual seekers trying to find themselves in India. But even the ones who stay in Israel are haunted by a sense of belonging elsewhere. Tsabari writes about Yemeni immigrants who cherish the old customs (her own background is Yemeni), a Filipina nurse who sends money home to her daughter, and a girl who is homesick for the Sinai settlement where she grew up, now part of Egypt. To be Israeli, she suggests, is to feel the tug of war between Israel and abroad, no matter where you live. In such a young country, virtually everyone can call somewhere else home.
Where to find “the best place on earth,” then, is an open question for Tsabari. In the title story, Naomi, an Israeli visiting her sister Tamar near Vancouver, sees the phrase on a Canadian license plate: “Beautiful British Columbia. The Best Place on Earth.” Tamar, who has found love and peace in her Canadian life, is inclined to agree. But Naomi experiences a series of shocks, seeing how her sister has adapted to her new environment. She is in love with a non-Jewish man; her home has no mezuzot or other Jewish symbols; she won’t eat the Yemeni dishes they grew up loving, since she has become a vegetarian.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about Israeliness, in this story, is how easily it falls away. Meanwhile, Naomi herself remains dedicated to another “most beautiful place on earth,” Jerusalem, which Tsabari describes in a series of picture-postcard images: “like at sunset, when the sun reflected crimson and gold on the limestone, and the Dome of the Rock shone like a rare amber in the middle of the city. Or on a winter night, when it snowed and everything was briefly muted and still, the sharp edges softened.” Even the stressful aspects of life in Jerusalem can be exhilarating, addicting: “She was so used to living in a constant state of urgency, verging on emergency. … Yet she couldn’t fathom living anywhere else.”
“The Best Place on Earth” is last in the book, and its summary of Tsabari’s themes feels a little blunt and direct. The sisters’ conflict ends in an emotional reconciliation, suggesting that there is room enough in the world for both those who stay at home and those who leave. It is, in fact, a continuing temptation for Tsabari to wrap up her stories’ conflicts in a neat bow, with love overcoming division. The same thing happens in “Brit Milah,” where an aging Yemeni mother, Reuma, visits her daughter in Canada, in order to meet her newborn grandson. Here again the different weather provides a metaphor for culture shock: “Toronto was covered with patches of white, which from the air looked to Reuma as though erased, as though parts of the city were missing.” But the real shock comes when she discovers that her grandson has not been circumcised, a break with tradition that Reuma cannot bring herself to countenance—until she can. Like Tevye with his rebellious daughters, she ends up allowing love to triumph over strictness, and the story ends with the grandmother taking her grandson in her arms, “the weight of his little body against her familiar and comforting.”
If Canada represents a world of relaxation and acceptance for Tsabari, the stories set in Israel tend to be harsher and more emotionally tense. Often, it is a character’s encounter with the army, the ultimate national institution, that provokes a private dissent or rebellion from Israeliness. This does not make the rebel automatically heroic: In “Casualties,” the narrator is a bored, flighty young woman who supplements her army salary by selling forged medical leave forms, or gimelim. Her boyfriend, Oren, is serving in Gaza, and every time she talks to him he seems more miserable and desperate. The two of them are both misfits in their own way, but Oren’s neediness repels the narrator, until at last her crime and his dread intersect in an unexpected fashion. Here there is no resolution, just a demonstration that the martial rigor of Zionism comes at a high price—which is itself a classic theme of Israeli literature.
Most interesting are the stories in which Tsabari looks at expatriates themselves with a critical eye. “The Poets in the Kitchen Window” is set during the first Gulf War, as Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles fall on Tel Aviv. Here the main character is a boy, Uri, who is about the same age Tsabari herself must have been during the war, and she writes vividly about the experience of bombardment: the sirens, the gas masks, rushing to the safe room or shelter. But the focus of Uri’s anger and confusion is not the war; it is his older sister, Yasmin, who has just come home after years of wandering in India. Yasmin, who calls herself by an Indian name (“Tanmayo”) and spouts the self-serving cliches of self-realization (“Sometimes people have to help themselves before they can help others”), is a keenly satirical portrait of the Israeli in India, trying to leave behind her country and its dilemmas. Uri, who has no choice but to stay home, turns to poetry to capture his conflicted emotions, while Yasmin simply outruns them; and there is no doubt where our sympathies are meant to lie.
The protagonists in Tsabari’s stories are mostly younger people, in their teens and twenties, for whom questions of identity present themselves in the form of love and sex. Tsabari’s people seldom talk explicitly about politics and almost never about religion; rather, the themes of these stories are embodied in action and character. A dark-skinned Israeli girl goes to India and half-pretends to be Indian, until her boyfriend—an actual Indian, but one raised in London—reflects back to her just how far she is from being a native. A young man, weak and timid, who avoided army service brings his Canadian girlfriend back to Israel then fears he may lose her to his father, a tough Sabra IDF officer. A girl who was raised fatherless realizes that her actual father was not a European tourist, as her mother told her, but an Arab neighbor.
In each case, Tsabari shows that Israeliness is not an answer but a question, one that must be continually posed even when it seems to have been left behind. In this sense, Tsabari’s stories are in the main tradition of Jewish literature, which is similarly obsessed with the meaning of identity, the way it is inherited, and how it shapes and misshapes the soul. To read Tsabari is to see Israeliness, which was intended as a remedy for the ills of Diasporic Jewishness, turn into a new kind of Diasporic identity. It is a fascinating transformation, and The Best Place on Earth may be the herald of a whole new genre of Jewish literature.
To read more of Adam Kirsch’s book reviews for Tablet magazine, click here.