Being Israeli:The Novels of Eshkol Nevo

By Robin Jacobson. 

In the two years since our daughter Minna made aliyah, my husband and I have been captivated by her tales of life in Israel. But there is one odd motif that repeats in her stories. Many of Minna’s new friends and acquaintances are into yoga, meditation retreats, overseas travel to sparsely populated destinations, and wilderness hiking – all for the stated purpose of “escaping Israeli stress.” Maybe Minna randomly encountered a cluster of people sensitive to stress?  Another possibility, suggested by the novels of Eshkol Nevo, is that Israel abounds with stressed-out people. Nevo’s poignant and humorous books are full of Israeli characters who fiercely love their homeland yet are sometimes overwhelmed by the tension and complexity of Israeli life.

Born in Jerusalem in 1971, Eshkol Nevo is named for his grandfather, Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister. Four of Nevo’s bestselling novels have been translated into English:  Homesick (2008); World Cup Wishes (2010); Neuland (2014); and Three Floors Up (2017). Only Homesick and Three Floors Up are described below, but all four excellent novels are available in our library. Try one!

Homesick

Set in 1995, during the tumultuous time preceding and following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Homesick weaves together the stories and perspectives of neighbors living in a hilltop village outside Jerusalem. We first meet two students, Amir (studying psychology) and his girlfriend Noa (studying photography) while they are trying to locate an advertised rental apartment. Due to faulty directions, they wind up in the wrong apartment with a family sitting shiva for their son, an Israeli soldier killed in Lebanon. Feeling it would be rude to leave, Amir and Noa sit quietly with the mourners for an hour, never mentioning that they are there by mistake. This awkward sweetness is typical of Nevo’s characters.

Amir and Noa end up renting an apartment in a nearby house. Different personality types, they struggle to adjust to living together. Their neighbors have troubles too. Sima and Moshe, the owners of the house, argue over a religious versus secular education for their children. Yotam, the forlorn 10-year-old brother of the soldier killed in Lebanon, roams the neighborhood hoping for attention from his grieving parents. Meanwhile, Saddiq, a Palestinian construction laborer, becomes obsessed with Sima and Moshe’s house, which was owned by his parents before the 1948 War of Independence. Nevo, in an interview, said that he originally titled this book “Osmosis,” because he wanted to show the way events in Israeli society – political change, military conflicts, terrorist attacks – seep into private life.

Three Floors Up

This novel takes the form of three loosely linked stories about the residents of an apartment house in a Tel Aviv suburb. The three narrators are flawed, lonely people confessing to mistakes they made as a parent or a spouse. Nevo says that the novel’s themes include the “dark sides of parenthood” and the “conflict between parenthood and couplehood.”  These themes play out against the backdrop of widespread social justice protests in Tel Aviv in 2011.

Arnon, on the first floor, is obsessed by the idea that an elderly babysitter may have molested his young daughter. Hani, on the second floor, is an exhausted stay-at-home mom who impulsively agrees to hide her ne’er-do-well brother-in-law, Eviatar, from loan sharks, but after he leaves wonders whether she just imagined the incident. And Devora, a recently widowed, retired judge on the third floor, leaves messages on her late husband’s answering machine, updating him on her new life decisions, which include reconciling with their estranged son.