Inherited Ambivalence

An Israeli-American transplant struggles for a sense of home.

All of the characters in the connected stories by Danit Brown in Ask for a Convertible (Pantheon Books, $22.95), struggle to find an identity and a home for themselves. Chief among them is Osnat Greenberg, a hybrid Israeli-American whose dry and often hilarious voice guides us through most of this debut collection.

Osnat is 13 when her Israeli mother and American father move her from the shores of Tel Aviv to the suburbs of Michigan, where compared to her “pastywhite” American classmates, she feels “small, brown and fragile,” and her name sounds too much like another word for mucus. Osnat’s estrangement deepens with each story, and is never really put to rest even when she returns to Israel, which turns out not to be the paradise she has imagined. The book follows her through two decades, but the reader gets the sense that Osnat won’t be feeling like an insider, anywhere, any time soon.

This is not entirely surprising given that her father, Marvin, hated living in Israel just about as much as her mother, Efrat, hates being in America — not an easy combination for a child to negotiate. When Efrat isn’t on the phone with her sister in Israel, she walks around in a perpetual state of despair. The threat of her returning home casts a dark shadow over the first half of these stories, and it is Osnat who ends up suffering. Her ears are always tuned to her parents’ bedroom where she overhears her mother crying or fighting with her father.

How much of Osnat’s inability to integrate into American life stems from her own longing for her birthplace, and how much from her eagerness to identify with her mother’s pain? Brown’s insightful portrait of a mother-daughter relationship bruised by a difficult move is one of several sophisticated threads that make this book more than just another immigrant narrative.

Osnat tries to carve out her own path — she moves away from home, dates a series of men named Chris, participates in Hands Across America — but succeeding may mean losing the singular bond she shares with her mother who she fears will “accuse her of becoming one of them.”

These stories’ strength and originality lie in Brown’s ability to capture the specifics and the nuances of the Israeli immigrant experience, which is so often qualified by a sense of impermanence. Brown perceptively shows how a child can inherit her parents’ ambivalence, even mistaking it for her own.

Osnat is not the only one in these stories who struggles to fit in. Harriet, an American from Indiana, spends her childhood trying to prepare for a second Holocaust, and her 20s looking for an Israeli husband to taker her to Israel. This cast of equally lost characters, each struggling to find his or her place in the world, serves to convince us, to quote Efrat’s words to her daughter, that “home isn’t just about place.”

Michal Lando is a writer in Tel Aviv. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post and the Forward.