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The Desert God

Youval Shimoni’s novels are dense, difficult, and demanding—and they may be the greatest literature Israel has ever produced

Armin Rosen
February 13, 2023
Goni Riskin
‘If meaning lies anywhere for Shimoni, it is in the things that can’t be avoided’Goni Riskin
Goni Riskin
‘If meaning lies anywhere for Shimoni, it is in the things that can’t be avoided’Goni Riskin

I gripped my copy of the 2016 Dalkey Archive edition of Youval Shimoni’s A Room during the most prolonged and intense mortal terror I have ever experienced in my 14 years of living in New York City. I was on the L train early on a midweek afternoon in the spring of 2017, traveling east under the river between First Avenue in Manhattan and Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. There were maybe a dozen other riders, and in my memory each of us was silent and alone, with vast expanses of empty bench protecting against the physical and psychic nastiness of sharing a city with 8 million strangers. In my memory, I was the only young man.

A vagrant with a mountain bike and the build of a middle linebacker towered at the far end of the car. One of the great mysteries of New York City is its ability to attract, sustain, and perhaps even create a perpetually circulating population of subterranean lunatics, people with a quasi-mystical resistance to any attempt to “help” them and whose apparent role in society is to expose the flimsiness of human sanity and reason. As the train descended beyond the Lower East Side and crossed into the riverbed, the vagrant began screaming threats into a woman’s face and carrying on in uncannily eloquent detail about what he planned to do with the knife he had somewhere on his person. A word of objection from a nearby passenger only made the rantings louder and more severe, and the threats more florid and plausible.

He stalked from rider to rider. He lifted up the mountain bike, pump-faking it inches away from people’s faces. No one spoke anymore; even breathing felt dangerous. He had imposed a set of moral conditions—the only ones that mattered, since until we reached Bedford our entire universe existed within that train car—in which it would have been our fault alone if he exploded into even greater anger. A dilemma striking in its premodern character suddenly presented itself: If he started attacking a woman or an old man, really anyone else in the car, was death better for me than having to live with the dishonor of having done nothing to try to stop him? His hand clutching some unseeable object—or maybe clutching nothing, though in the moment it looked to me like he was hiding a box cutter inside a massive fist—he stalked over to the emergency brake cable and promised us he would pull it, stranding us with him under the water and under the earth. But he didn’t pull it. After the eternal passage of really no more than 45 additional seconds, the train eased to a blessed halt at Bedford, and I was shaken enough to do something no other subway incident has caused me to do, which is leave the train, leave the entire transit system, and try to steady myself back up in the sunlight.

I ordered a falafel at Oasis, which in those days was directly above one of the stairs to the Bedford stop. Moments later, still tremoring in panic, I saw the punchline or maybe the message to this story emerge from the anxious underworld: Out walked the lunatic in handcuffs with a broad smile on his face, sharing a laugh with the flanking police officers, as if they were all old friends. And maybe they were. These people were in the same business, namely the embodiment and suppression of antisocial extremes. They possessed an intimate participants’ knowledge of a grand and fearful human system. I, in contrast, knew very little about any extreme, since like most Americans I live in a world that has been constructed to conceal extremes. My environment has been built to hide all visible evidence of death and madness and other inconvenient pillars of existence.

It happened that the author whose book I had been limply clutching was someone with the rare ability to see things as they are. Life as an Israeli, and maybe also life as a Jew, had kept Youval Shimoni anchored to the human bedrock. In A Room, written in Hebrew in 1999, one character remembers a Tel Aviv left deserted by Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks during the first Gulf War. The streets are empty except for “a beggar,” who “lay like vermin on the concrete.” The character is seized with a mischievous, sadistic urge to rob the sleeping homeless man, or maybe set his shopping cart full of rags and boxes on fire. He unscrews its wheels instead, leaving the cart on its frame. The vagrant remains oblivious to the chaos around him, or perhaps he understands it perfectly. “The beggar didn’t even wake up: He continued to sleep and smile to himself in all his filth as if he held God by the balls.”

The Dalkey Archive edition of A Room, translated by Michael Sharp, arrived in the Tablet offices sometime near the beginning of 2017. I had never heard of the novel or its author before. “Hailed from publication as one of the finest novels ever written in Hebrew,” read the back cover, “A Room is a monumental, subversive classic of contemporary fiction.” Amoz Oz blurbed it as “a book that is both terrible and terrific.”

“From a distance the fire could already be seen,” reads its opening line. It was “as if all the stars … had been spread by a fire such as this, in which a man is burning.”

I am not sure I really understood A Room when I read it almost five years ago, although I nurture the view, or maybe just the self-exculpatory hope, that the 597-page novel doesn’t really require its readers to understand it. Some long novels are puzzle boxes: You’re meant to notice that a cloud crossing over the sun in one scene of Ulysses is described again from a different character’s perspective several dozen pages later. Others are oriented toward a mystery whose irrelevance illustrates some larger point, MacGuffins like the identity of the killers in 2666 or the purpose of rocket 00000 in Gravity’s Rainbow.

In A Room, written in 1999, the book itself is the mystery. Its three segments overlap thematically but not narratively; each of them contains something about artistic creation, time’s erasure of human works, the atavistic call of a higher power, and the earthly and spiritual anxieties that make Israeli society so energetic and so at odds with itself. A Room was brain-rewiring stuff for me, a book that stretched what a long work of fiction could be and could do. It made no sense and it also made perfect sense; it was humane yet unsentimental, it had no gimmicks and no obvious answers—or maybe experience would only divulge the answers in the years after I put the book down. Or maybe, in my case, the answers would come from Shimoni himself.

I am not infrequently in Israel, which is not a very big place, and the best thing about journalism is that you have a ready-made excuse to try to meet nearly anyone. Yes, Shimoni has developed the impossible reputation of being a literary hermit in a country where everyone knows everyone else’s business. He almost never gives interviews these days. Publicly available photos of him are limited to a couple professional headshots. He is not a public intellectual or a public figure, even in Israel. In America he’s almost totally unknown. Shimoni is important, but he will never be popular, however much Amos Oz liked him.

Shimoni is the one contemporary writer who actually succeeds in capturing the dissonances of Jewish existence, something he does without moralism, neuroticism, triumphalism, or self-scorn.

But as a part-time professor at Tel Aviv University and an editor at one of the city’s major publishers, he was probably always somewhere within a one- or two-hour drive of wherever I was during my trips to Israel. Like Gaddis or Pynchon or Bolaño, Shimoni writes novels whose daunting length and complexity surrounds an elusive inner core of pure and often terrifying insight. Unlike those three, Shimoni is a living person with a publicly available email address.

I have no idea why he agreed to meet me in Tel Aviv back in September, at the offices of Am Oved, the publishing house where he is a senior editor. It is possible the success of my interview request had something to do with the upcoming release of Michael Sharp’s English translation of Kav HaMalach, The Salt Line, a 1,069-page novel published in Hebrew in 2016 whose action takes place over a centurylong period and spans czarist Russia, modern-day Israel, and early 20th-century India. Maybe Shimoni wanted at least a little English-language press, and there weren’t any other writers for North American publications cold-messaging him that particular week.

I do not know if he believed everything he told me, or how much he expected me to believe it. I don’t know how much I trust any artist when they’re asked to talk about their own work, particularly novelists, who are engaged in the most solitary and thus the most mysterious of creative disciplines. Shimoni’s books, like his muted public persona, carry a heavy atmosphere of misdirection. He is the one contemporary writer who actually succeeds in capturing the dissonances of Jewish existence, something he does without moralism, neuroticism, triumphalism, or self-scorn. But he succeeds by hiding what he’s really doing, encoding the Jewish element of his work within elaborate and confounding narrative systems.

The mysteries that emanate from the ancient Judean wastes inflame Shimoni’s sensibilities and connect his novels to the deeper facts of existence—the God that the slumbering vagrant grips by the balls in the midst of a rocket attack is a Jewish one. And on the deepest of all facts of existence, the rapid approach of the void, he spoke without any apparent evasion, as if he drew from some hidden, unnameable source of consolation for his own coming disappearance. At more than one point in a nearly two-hour interview, Shimoni told me without a tinge of regret that he did not expect his works to be read forever, or even for all that much longer. If there is some element of eternity in existence, Shimoni, who once aspired to be a filmmaker and a painter, isn’t positive that it resides in art, though he was careful not to theorize about where or what it might be. “Kafka wanted his works to be burned,” Shimoni said, “but Flaubert wanted his to be buried with him, the way they did in Egypt. They buried their treasures with them in order that they will last forever. But I don’t believe in it.”

Shimoni’s office was bare-walled, almost spartan, no distinctive furniture or literary artifacts on conspicuous view. The 68-year-old novelist was athletically thin, short-shaven, dressed in a dark pair of jeans and a generic black shirt. For much of the interview he kept his forearms flat against his desk and leaned slightly forward, graying shocks of short hair framing a nearly fixed expression that could have been quizzical or curious or slightly confused. He spoke in what seemed like a series of slow and watery almost-whispers—he would begin sentences in English, finish them in Hebrew, and sometimes not finish them at all. On the Christ narrative’s importance to Christianity, he mused, “without the story the religion has not been …”—and then he snapped a finger and switched languages—“lo hayita masoret.” Sharp, his South African-born translator and our interpreter for the interview, jumped in: “… wouldn’t have come about.” Sharp is from that species of dextrous and solid retirement-aged men that is ubiquitous across the whole breadth of Israel, which is to say he’s as unassuming as a lot of the more consequential literary obsessives turn out to be. For most of his life, Sharp was a radio journalist, not a professional translator—he began producing an English version of A Room, almost as a hobby, and sent part of it to Shimoni.

Meeting Shimoni furnished additional proof that the writing of novels is an activity of almost monastic self-isolation. But writers are sustained through their contact with real life, a process that, I am now sure, continues even when there’s a journalist in the room. “The motives of artists are always kind of interesting to me,” I nervously put it to Shimoni at one point, impatient to coax something out of him, and also vaguely ashamed of my own impatience. “Because: Why become an artist instead of a critic or instead of anything else?” “It’s a question you have asked yourself?” Shimoni immediately replied in English, a slight smile in his voice, already knowing the answer.

Am Oved’s offices are a block off of Rothschild, in a part of central Tel Aviv where the city rapidly alternates between grand boulevards, gardenlike side streets, and dust-choked archipelagos of construction work. The need for office space and housing is unlimited in the bourgeois epicenter of the country’s ever more prosperous and increasingly anxious Jewish population. The light rail is always only about a year away from actually opening. Independence Hall, a short walk from Am Oved, is in the midst of a total overhaul, with only a scaffolded frame of narrow concrete marking the birthplace of the State of Israel.

Am Oved is another half-built monument. It was founded in 1942 as the publishing arm of the Histadrut, the coalition of unions that acted as an adjunct to the Labor Party, the dominant political force for the first 25 years of Israel’s existence—Berl Katznelson was its first editor-in-chief. “The union used to give workers a subscription to Am Oved and on Jewish holidays they would get a gift,” Shimoni recalled.

Am Oved means “working people” in English. In the early years of the state, Hebrew literature was promoted through the country’s still-powerful industrial masses, as if Israel could only plausibly exist if its workers were reading fiction and poetry in their new and ancient native tongue. Such romantically populist views of a national literature’s role in the world’s only Jewish state are gone now, Shimoni hinted to me. Reading in Israel is “on a very steep decline, a really worrying kind of decline,” while “in general, the written word of the last 100 years has become weaker and weaker and weaker.” Shimoni was born in Jerusalem in 1955, the grandson of the poet David Shimoni, laureate of the Bialik Prize and the Israel Prize in the 1940s and ’50s. He was famous, Sharp said. “In his time,” Shimoni added.

There is probably no better place to contemplate the larger arc of Hebrew literature than the Am Oved offices. Hebrew is the language of the Bible and the language of a war-prone nation of traumatized immigrants that has only existed for 75 years. Hebrew writers are both the inheritors of an ancient tradition and the creators of an entirely new culture and identity, which would be a hard predicament for any author, even in a society much less bizarre than that of Israel.

The challenge of producing work that could be true to reality while also establishing an entirely new culture on the fly was too daunting even for leading writers in Hebrew to adequately handle. In the early 20th century, Yosef Haim Brenner, a formal experimenter, pioneer of Hebrew prose, and the namesake for one of Israel’s leading literary prizes, was plainly uncomfortable with the religious trappings of the accelerating Jewish return to Zion. When Israel finally became a settled enough reality to produce its own distinctly national themes and literary voice, its writers found that there were places they still had difficulty going. Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous, published in 1977, is a frenetic and moving elegy to the Israel of the founding generation, still my favorite of the relatively few Israeli novels I’ve read in translation. But it is a story told through that generation’s disappointments and regrets, and the book’s humanity barely rescues it from its own overwhelming pessimism. Belief in a higher national destiny or some potential redemption, never mind belief in Hashem, barely figures into the novel, which ends in a quest for transcendence that’s thwarted by suicide.

Then there’s David Grossman’s See Under: Love, a magical-realist Holocaust fantasy from 1986—which might be an accurate reflection of how Jews both inside and outside the country once tended to view the place—and a towering folly of an experiment. But there is real warmth in its extravagance: The novel imagines the Jewish people facing its 20th-century predicament from a state of childlike hope and innocence, and it becomes an affecting if also bewildering saga about the hope of a less tortured future. These days, the Israeli writers who get famous internationally tend toward hard irony and harsh social criticism, a mode that conveys seriousness to the outside world without obligating authors to look far beyond their immediate circumstances.

At all phases of Hebrew literature there is a distinct unease with the language’s religious inheritance, and with the redemptive promise that burned through every letter of the Lashon HaKodesh even after it became a means for ordering coffee. Hebrew writers, even the poets who consciously echoed the form and rhythm of biblical and liturgical prosody, believed they were producing secular culture for secular readers in a secular society. Religion was a dark temptation or an anachronism, or maybe just irrelevant. Of course the tension between the madness of looking too hard at Hashem and the absurdity of not looking at all has been there since just about the beginning: “You will see my back,” God tells Moses, “but my face you will not see.” Expressing true things is difficult for artists and thinkers working within an unavoidably Jewish idiom. It was hard for Moses; what hope did Grossman or Shabtai or Amos Oz have?

Shimoni has come close to finding a solution to this dilemma, even if his success has left him relatively unread and firmly convinced of his own coming obsolescence. His novels tend to deal with the uncanny convergence of forces within a single group of people living in a narrow strip of land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and its ramifications across time and space. Shimoni mounts no awkward attempts to avoid the spiritual implications of his art. He knows he cannot write his way out of Judaism, and that chosenness and tribal belonging are realities just as insurmountable as madness and death. And because of this awareness, the Jewish condition can become Shimoni’s medium, through which nearly every other possible story can be told.

Take, for example, Shimoni’s latest novel, the still-untranslated MiBad LaKarka’it Hashkufa (“Beyond the Transparent Bottom”). The book is about Christopher Columbus’ dream of funding an expedition to conquer Jerusalem for the king of Spain using plunder from his adventures in the Indies. Shimoni didn’t invent this, he told me. Columbus’ journals, a fictitious version of which form the second half of the novel, really do refer to a future crusade that he’d pay for through his American conquests. “In his later years he went a bit crazy,” Shimoni explained. The novel is built around a link between the European arrival in the New World, which is a precipitating event for the eventual founding of the United States, and a major historical figure’s quasi-messianic fantasies about the lands that would become the State of Israel some 450 years later.

Because the novel is built around that link, it can also be built around something even bigger. Columbus, Shimoni says, is “almost fanatically religious,” and sees himself as “a missionary, bringing Christ to the pagan world.” In the novel, his counterpoint, or perhaps his parallel, is Tobias, a teenage converso, a Jewish-born believer in no religion at all who runs away from home after his father rats out their neighbors for secretly practicing Judaism. The first half of the novel consists of the fictional Tobias’ account of Columbus’ voyages. Shimoni told me he is interested in “the juxtaposition of somebody without faith and someone with a lot of faith—the dynamic between these two forces.”

This dynamic exists everywhere, across all of time and space. Nearly everything is pulled between opposed sources of meaning, all of reality being an unresolvable standoff between the tangible and the immanent, the high and the low. This dynamic is especially conspicuous in Israel, a place whose two largest cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, are archetypal spiritual opposites. The two forces converge in Jerusalem, which has an earthly and a heavenly version according to certain strains of traditional Jewish belief, which see the existing city as an achingly inadequate mirror to a perfected and invisible higher realm. And they exist within Shimoni himself, a writer whose power comes from his inevitable failure to escape what he knows is inescapable.

Until Sharp’s translation of A Room appeared in 2016, Shimoni’s most well-known novel existed as a rumor among the small community of cutting-edge, literary-minded Hebrew speakers, who hailed it as Israel’s defining contribution to postmodern fiction. “Basically it’s about art,” Shimoni explained to me.

In A Room’s first section, titled “The Lamp,” a unit filming an instructional video for the IDF awaits the arrival of investigators from the army—they inadvertently filmed, or perhaps merely witnessed, a deadly accident in which a pilot has burned to death. The group is a cross-section of Jewish Israeli society, with its members representing various points in the country’s ethnic, religious, and class spectrum. The perspective switches rapidly, settling on each character just long enough for the reader to grasp some poignantly fleeting vision of their dreams, loves, resentments, and past lives.

Numerous books have been written about Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and it’s not that “The Lamp” isn’t one of them. Any long narrative about something being consumed by fire in the wilderness of Eretz Yisrael with klal Yisrael gathered is bound to conjure images of the korbanot or the akeda for some readers, by which I mean me. I was met with an almost piercing stare when I suggested all this to Shimoni. “Judaism doesn’t play that role for me as it plays with, you know,” he claimed, leaving the thought unfinished in English, or maybe just leaving me to puzzle over it. Jerusalem looms, as it always must, but the first 381 pages of A Room are also the great novel of Kiryat Moskin or Rishon L’Tziyon, an account of the Israel that exists between and beyond the holy sites and spiritual abstractions, the only book I’ve encountered that shows any deep interest in where the soldiers who get off the bus in the middle of nowhere are going, what they’re thinking, where they come from, and who they really are. (“And when you see the soldiers on the bus, what do you feel?,” Shimoni asked me later in the conversation. “Good question,” I stalled, before launching into a panicked monologue. “A lot of different things …”)

The protagonist of the second section, titled “The Drawer,” is an Israeli art student in Paris who hires two homeless people and breaks into a morgue in order to pose a modern version of Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ, a strikingly de-sacralized work from 1480 in which the dead son of God is depicted “as a normal man,” says Shimoni, with his flesh discolored and his bare feet stretching into the foreground. Remarkably, Shimoni had not seen Mantegna’s painting in person when he wrote “The Drawer,” meaning he dedicated nearly 200 pages of narrative to an artwork he knew only from books. But he had in fact lived in Paris for a year at a time in his life when he wanted to be a painter, and his first novel, 1990’s The Flight of the Dove, takes place in the city.

Shimoni knows he cannot write his way out of Judaism, and that chosenness and tribal belonging are realities just as insurmountable as madness and death.

When I read “The Drawer,” I thought the Israeli artist’s quixotic efforts to paint Christ as a human being were an extended meditation on how Jesus haunts the Jewish people, about how we live as outsiders in a world whose values and metaphysics are those of our antithesis, who of course, in a characteristically Jewish mash of contradictions, lived and died as one of us. (From The Tree of Life, the Polish-born. Yiddish-language novelist Chava Rosenfarb’s trilogy of life in the Lodz ghetto: “Sometimes it occurs to me that they torture us not because we killed Christ, but because we have given them Christ, and because we remind them too much of him.”) When I put this theory to Shimoni, he responded, only half-plausibly, “The story of Christianity interests me a lot, not necessarily Judaism and Christianity in relation to each other. … It’s more Jesus as a character, his own personal story, than the principles of Christianity.”

The third section is a 13-page found text called “The Throne,” a Borgesian document recounting a civilization that seems to have destroyed itself in the process of trying to depict its god. The king wins a war to end all wars; his “high priest” (kohen, in the Hebrew text) then draws a picture of their god that is so perfect that the entire kingdom joins together to recreate it on a mountain, and then on an entire mountain range. Create what, though? The high priest keeps changing his mind. Maybe his drawing wasn’t perfect, but blasphemous. Perhaps the god should be depicted standing, or reclining, or maybe just evoked through his physical absence, through a massive empty chair—or maybe the god can only be shown as a gigantic sphere, a mega-object which, according to one legend, eventually dislodges and crushes everything in its path, including the centers of power that created it, “the winter capital and the summer capital.” Maybe the god was expressed as a much smaller sphere, or maybe as a single speck of dust.

In all three parts of A Room, art reaches its limits as soon as it hits the unavoidable facts of reality, the ones that had burst into view for me on that subway car under the East River, and which Shimoni seemed to grasp so firmly. What is a film, a painting, a statue—or, for that matter, a novel—when confronted with fire, death, God, time? Shimoni shared the suspiciously unremarkable information that Borges was a direct influence on the third section of A Room. And yet the novel’s conclusion, like “The Lamp” and “The Drawer,” draws inspiration from much closer to home. “The Throne” is the story of an ancient collective project meant to link the nation to the heavens by anchoring both of them at a specific point on Earth, a holy mountain that will bring higher redemption but whose shape and purpose are never fully decided. Judaism is just such a project, and so, in some simultaneously hopeful and dangerous sense, is the State of Israel.

“An entire kingdom was involved in the labor,” we learn in the opening paragraph of “The Throne,” recalling—for me, at least, although Shimoni might object—how every Israelite was commanded to contribute to the building of the altar and the Temple, the places and objects where God, art, and nation would merge. But, Shimoni writes a few lines earlier, “No trace remains, not of their undertakings nor of the mountain they ordained for their yearnings.”

“All the books of his, basically, they always end with some sort of death—or a hint of death,” Sharp noted. “They are not happy books,” Shimoni agreed, his face momentarily threatening to arch into a grin. “That’s why they don’t have many readers.”

Not happy in the conventional sense, at least. Something must endure against time’s merciless effacement of human effort, or else we would live in world completely shorn of continuity, one in which the connections between an IDF filmmaking team and an expat art student and an ancient high priest couldn’t possibly form the basis of anything, never mind a 600-page literary masterpiece. A Room, like the Bible, uses the story of the Jews to illustrate that we don’t live in a world of total meaninglessness and discontinuity. In the Bible, it is Hashem that imposes order on the chaos of existence. The connective tissue of meaning in Shimoni’s work is harder to identify.

If meaning lies anywhere for Shimoni, it is in the things that can’t be avoided. The first part of A Room, he explained, grew out of a contrast he had observed between his homeland and the Far East, the kind of distant and wide-open place Israelis immediately flee to as soon as the claustrophobic ordeal of their army service concludes. At one point in adulthood, Shimoni spent an extended period in northern India, an experience that helped shape The Salt Line. Before doing his annual IDF reserve duty one year—“as I got older they sent me to a reserve unit that does filming,” he said—Shimoni traveled to “an island called Ko Pha-ngan in Thailand, where the most dangerous thing was if a coconut fell on you. There was nothing there, basically. After spending time in that kind of atmosphere”—the soul-stifling atmosphere of a Thai beach resort—“I was called up to milium and found myself in a room with all these various kinds of reservists who at that point seemed much more exotic than the place I had come from, these various characters in one room. Looking at all these different kinds of characters, I started wondering what each one had behind them, what they’d brought from their past, and how they would all connect together.”

Shimoni is stuck in a world in which a room of Israelis on miluim is a bottomless mystery, while a Thai island offers a random assortment of people on a pretty beach. He could have been some other writer if he had stayed in Paris or India or Thailand, or if he had gone for easy polemic or straightforward critique—he could have been less mystical, less fatalistic, less difficult, less withdrawn, less unknown to the world. But the road always led back to Jerusalem, to the tragedy and wonder of having to face what will always be there, regardless of what one might want.

I think A Room left such an intense impression on me because it is a novel about the things that can’t be wished away, written by someone who was grappling with them, rather than celebrating, mourning, or evading them entirely. The road leads back to Jerusalem for me, too. I work for a Jewish magazine and find myself at shul with a frequency that might once have felt strange for someone in breach of as many mitzvahs as I am. More importantly, the notion of tzaddikim rising from their graves to light Shabbat candles or kohanim being struck dead in the Kodesh Kodeshin no longer seem fanciful. Art and happiness and America now feel fleeting in a way that Judaism does not. To be stuck in Jerusalem is often far from comforting, since art and happiness and America are among the greatest things in existence. The earthly Jerusalem can bring on a similar queasiness. “There is stress in this country that you don’t find in almost any other place in the world,” Shimoni told me, in English. This was an excellent topic for a novelist, I replied. “The stress is part of what makes this place amazing in a way,” I said. “You think so?,” Shimoni asked me. Yes, I replied. “You enjoy it?” he continued. “Or do you suffer from it?” Both, I told him: “There are moments where I really enjoy it and then two seconds later I suffer from it.”

In Israel it is possible for me to feel the full range of emotions in a single instant—connection, alienation, love, fear, ecstasy, regret—without being certain where any of it really comes from. It emanates from somewhere too deep for me to be able to repress it through any rational process. Perhaps I am feeling the shock of a cosmic power crossing through a psyche in constant battle with its own smallness. I’ve experienced this onslaught of unbidden feeling outside of Israel, too, plenty of times. It has happened on the really good or bad or aimless days in New York, a place where madness and possibility couldn’t exist without one another. It has happened during especially meaningful time spent with family and friends. I’ve felt it on acid and at funerals. I’ve felt it at prayer, though only rarely. I feel it whether I want to or not, whether I like it or not.

“There are people who live near volcanoes,” Shimoni told me in English when the conversation turned to life in Israel, a place that could erupt into open conflict or turn into a quasi-theocracy and that might not last another 50 or 100 years. “People live in dangerous spots … and they don’t leave their place. They were born there, their people are there, and their friends are there, and they can’t imagine themselves living in any other place, even if it’s very dangerous.”

This was not the first time Shimoni had likened Israel to a volcano. “He distanced himself from them and his life with and without them and from the country in which he lived,” one of the reservists in “The Lamp” remembers of his own wanderings through Asia. With the benefit of distance, Israel was revealed to be “a country in which war was like lava that erupts once every decade,” with “inhabitants like those children at the foot of Mount Pinatubo, who know nothing other than the basalt landscape.” The key words in this passage are “know nothing other than.” Shimoni is an inhabitant of the Judean volcano. He knows nothing other than it, nothing other than the truths it imposes, its terrors and revelations. His achievement is to show us that we live right alongside him.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.

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