By Robin Jacobson.
With Israel’s 70th birthday approaching, this is a good time to read and celebrate Israeli authors. Over the past several years, Beth El’s Book Club has read some exceptional books by Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua, Meir Shalev, and Etgar Keret, each offering a window into the nuances of Israeli culture and history. But as this list suggests, Israeli authors translated into English tend to be men; this year, why not seek out the work of talented Israeli women? All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan is a sensitive novel about a complicated romance between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim. We Were the Future by Yael Neeman is a memoir of growing up on an Israeli kibbutz.
All the Rivers is set mostly in New York City during the winter of 2002-03. In that multicultural mecca where all relationships feel possible, two young people meet and fall in love. Liat, a Jewish woman from Tel Aviv, has a Fulbright fellowship to study translation. Hilmi is a talented Muslim artist from Ramallah. In Israel, this novel reaped both awards and controversy; for a time, the Israeli Ministry of Education banned the book from the national high school curriculum, concerned it would encourage Jewish-Muslim love affairs.
Ironically, the Jewish-Muslim romance depicted in the novel is so fraught that readers are unlikely to want a similar romance for themselves. Liat feels intense guilt over her relationship with Hilmi (the story is told from her point of view). She knows her family would be appalled by her love affair with a Muslim Arab (my parents would “hang me from the highest tree,” she says). She insists that the couple view their relationship as time limited, reminding Hilmi repeatedly that they will remain together only until her six-month visa expires. Then, she will return to Israel alone. This condition creates stress; one American friend asks Liat how she can love “with a stopwatch running.” Another stress is Liat’s determination to keep the romance a secret from all Israelis; when she spots an Israeli friend on the New York subway, she and Hilmi switch train cars to avoid recognition. Hilmi, in turn, finds Liat’s anxious behavior cowardly and hurtful.
Yael Neeman offers an insider’s perspective on the largely bygone traditional kibbutz community. Neeman grew up on Kibbutz Yehiam in northern Israel in the 1960s and ’70s, an experience she describes as part of a bold “socialist experiment” to restructure the traditional institutions of family and home. Neeman lived with her peer group “24 hours a day, from waking until sleeping, from the babies’ house to the end of twelfth grade,” years she remembers nostalgically as “dipped in gold.” Her parents lived on the kibbutz too, but her life was separate from theirs, except for one daily visit before dinner. Kibbutz life, says Neeman, was designed to detach children from “the oppressive weight of their parents,” who might be too indulgent or too controlling or both.
Although Neeman had a happy childhood, she readily acknowledges flaws in traditional kibbutz life, mostly in that it did not meet its aspirations to be an equalitarian society. Some members had desirable positions, while others did the laundry, peeled potatoes, or cleaned the showers and toilets. Housing children separately from their parents did not free women from childcare, as envisioned; typically, women worked in the children’s houses, taking care of other people’s children. We Were the Future is a fond, but candid, look back at a distinctive Israeli institution.