Imperfect Homes

New works in translation by Israeli women writers

Real estate and its associated aspirations lie at the heart of both Eden, by Yael Hedaya, and Every House Needs a Balcony, by Rina Frank. Hedaya provides a searing portrayal of a contemporary bourgeois bedroom community built alongside a decaying Israeli agricultural settlement. Frank documents a Romanian family’s struggle to establish roots in Haifa shortly after the founding of the State. As competing pressures — economic, biological, political, romantic — threaten their closely guarded hopes and dreams, the characters in these works strain to turn their undesirable or problematic houses into homes.

Yael Hedaya is a name best known to American audiences because they see it running in the credits that follow HBO’s compelling series “In Treatment”; she wrote many of the original scripts for B’Tipul, the show’s Israeli precursor. But Hedaya’s novels deserve our attention as well. The very title of Eden (Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2010) hints that the community portrayed in the novel will be anything but ideal; indeed, dystopia is perhaps not strong enough a word for the dysfunction and small tragedies that batter Eden’s weary inhabitants. Hedaya adroitly portrays this moshav, founded in the 1950s by Hungarian and Polish immigrants, as a graying cluster of older residents gradually infiltrated by nouveau-riche Israelis and their designer houses. “Now Eden comprised three distinct classes: upper, lower, and elderly,” comments Dafna, who grew up in Eden and mourns the place’s transformation from “rich, rebellious wildness” into “a real estate amusement park.” Something is clearly rotten in this supposed rural paradise: the houses leak from poor construction; thieves are sneaking in at night; the dogs are being poisoned. More worrisome, someone has molested a neighborhood child.

Not content merely to satirize the urban Israeli’s search for a more bucolic existence, Hedaya plunges deep into the emotional lives of the families populating Eden. While Dafna and her husband Eli undergo years of exhausting infertility treatments, the separated couple Alona and Mark co-parent their two young children and somewhat tenuously live in different houses. Mark’s teenaged daughter from a previous marriage, Roni, arrives from America and finds an outlet in her flings with older men, as well as in poetry. The voices of Reuven and Nechama, two of Eden’s elderly residents, chime in occasionally as well. Hedaya wrings simple but profound emotional truths from the complexly intertwined lives of her characters. Here is Alona contemplating how being a parent has changed her: “Her life before the children had been one long sentence dotted with commas … a syntax of wanderings.” Frustrated by work and feeling distanced from Eli, Dafna thinks, “How strange it was that not loving was so simple. Far simpler than loving.” Jessica Cohen’s fluid translation brilliantly conveys the bracing directness of Hedaya’s prose.

The adults in Hedaya’s anti-Eden often behave like children, while the children exhibit a jaded fatigue far beyond their years. Rina Frank also toggles between childhood and adulthood in her novel, Every House Needs a Balcony (HarperCollins, 2010). Frank divides the book into two alternating narratives: the first presents first-person, seemingly autobiographical reminiscences told by a girl named Rina (like the book’s author), while the other describes the relationship between an Israeli woman only known as “she” and a Spaniard called “the man.” By far the more convincing, the first voice tells of immigrant living conditions, identity issues, and the city of Haifa. Rina’s parents, Moscu and Bianca, struggle to raise their two daughters in the Wadi Salib neighborhood of Haifa; they walk “with a heaviness typical of people who are no longer expecting anything.” As with Hedaya’s novel, here too, real estate is paramount: a family’s house serves as a metaphor for their overall wellbeing, as well as an indicator of broader social dynamics. Rina emphasizes the role that balconies played for the poor residents of Wadi Salib, where “all the buildings had balconies, one balcony facing the other, with no difference between the outside and the inside… . Your entire life was laid out there on the balcony, illustrated in the piles of bedclothes hung out daily on the banister for airing… . For us, the balcony was our television, and what we saw was real life, played out with authentic actors in real time.” The family’s far-reaching view from the balcony to the water and up the coastline hints at their paradoxical relationship to their adopted homeland. They are establishing roots here, yet always glancing outwards to a less restrictive existence.

The balcony is also the place where Yosefa (nicknamed Sefi), Rina’s wise and authoritative older sister, claims to have had a vision of God and angels. Through her many “commandments,” including “don’t roll your R’s, so as not to emphasize that you are Romanian,” Yosefa strives to acculturate and help her sister blend in as well. Indeed, the relationship between the two sisters, “playing, inventing stories, and jabbering our childhood gibber,” set against the backdrop of the new Israeli state, feels like the true heart of this book. Unfortunately, the intervening chapters depicting “the man” and “she” — whom we soon understand to be Rina, all grown up and negotiating a stormy romantic relationship — interrupt this touching narrative. As the book draws to a close, Rina demands and gets the new apartment she had been craving; she presides over a month of renovations, and marvels at the difference made by knocking down walls and retiling. Not surprisingly, the new and improved space does not translate into happiness.

Frank’s novel evokes the Jewish state in its infancy, while Hedaya portrays the Israel of today. In both of these works, the walls of domestic space contain the intimacies and tragedies of family life. Though the country’s political and military situation is never far from their focus, the authors suggest that deep distrust of the other could be what threatens the foundations of home, and homeland, most of all.

Hannah S. Pressman is a doctoral candidate in modern Hebrew literature at New York University and an affiliate instructor in Jewish Studies at the University of Washington.