Wherever You Go, a new novel by Joan Leegant (Norton, $23.95), offers a vivid and accurate depiction of Anglo Jerusalem, particularly the diverse group of Americans who pass through the city or make it their home. In alternating chapters, Leegant focuses on three characters: Yona Stern is a 30-year-old American who comes to Israel to try to make amends with her older sister Dena, a zealous and uncompromising mother of five who lives in a West Bank settlement. Then there is Mark Greenglass, a teacher of Jewish studies undergoing a crisis of faith as he splits his time between Jerusalem (where he lives) and New York (where he earns most of his money). And finally, Aaron Blinder is an unstable college dropout involved in Adamah, an organization housed on a former kibbutz, whose members are united by their conviction that, “there was no line, green, blue, purple, or any other color, because the land was all theirs.”
The lives of these three intersect on Emek Refaim, “the Valley of the Ghosts,” a busy street lined with Arab-style buildings housing shops and cafes that cater to a largely American clientele. It is here that Yona runs into a high school classmate at Holy Bagel: “Yona? Yona Stern? Oh my God!”; and it is here that she sips Boz (mud-black coffee) in art galleries and finds her way into the apartment of a former boyfriend, thanks to a neighbor who becomes her new flame. It is on this street, too, that Mark Greenglass is offered a teaching position at the Olive Branch International College, an institution founded by the Scandinavian governments and enclosed by a tranquil garden. It is also here that Aaron Blinder and his friends from Adamah plot a terrifyingly misguided mission that is to alter the destinies of all of all three.
Leegant’s novel is strongest in those sections featuring the aptly-named Yona (dove, in Hebrew) and her efforts to extend the olive branch of peace to her estranged sister. Against Dena’s wishes, Yona makes several trips by bus and “tremp” (hitchhiking) to visit her sister and atone for stealing away Dena’s boyfriend 10 years earlier. By the end of the story, Yona, who initially describes herself as a “soft American, no appetite for zealotry,” realizes the lengths to which she is willing to go to defend her principles; and Dena (whose name is Hebrew for judgment) is challenged to yield some of her staunch idealism for what is perhaps a higher end. In contrast to Yona, whom the reader yearns to know better, Mark and especially Aaron are less fully realized; Aaron’s story ultimately strains the limits of credibility and becomes little more than a flimsy plot device to bring these three narratives together. One cannot help wondering if it is the publishing industry’s insistence that “short stories do not sell” that inspired Leegant to attempt to braid together these three tales in a “greater novel” set in “Greater Israel.”
Still, Leegant is to be applauded for showing us Israeli society as seen from the outside, a perspective she knows all too well: “The country was addicted, broadcasts an astounding 36 times a day, always introduced with those insistent beeps. Beep beep beep beep, kol Yisrael m’Yerushalayim! The voice of Israel from Jerusalem! As if everything were always an emergency. The finance minister indicted. A shooting outside a synagogue in Paris. A fact-finding visit from former American president Jimmy Carter.” With Leegant as our newscaster and narrator, we would all do well to tune in.