Israeli Street Names Familiar as Old Friends

Authors Batya Gur and Yael Hedaya colonize the literary landscapes of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, respectively, in novels deeply rooted in the geography of Israel today. Gur’s detective novel Murder on Bethlehem Road takes place in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, where the order of the streets (Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda) parallels the birth order of the twelve tribes. And Hedaya’s intimate domestic portrait Accidents is set in the cafes and apartments of downtown Tel Aviv, with its Bauhaus architecture and towering date palms. Reading these novels is like embarking on a guided tour of the neighborhoods of Israel’s two largest cities— except that you don’t need to put on sunblock before setting out.

Murder on Bethlehem Road is the latest in the popular series of detective novels featuring Michael Ohayon, the affable Moroccanborn Chief Superintendent of Jerusalem’s Special Crimes Unit. Ohayon is called to the attic of an old Arab house under renovation, where the body of a beautiful young woman is found brutally bludgeoned. She is identified as Zahara Bashari, the daughter of Yemenite immigrants who had been probing one of the worst scandals in Israeli history: the kidnapping of Yemenite babies during the early years of the State. Ohayon and the other members of his unit attempt to penetrate the closed circle of Zahara’s Baka neighborhood, from the illegal Arab worker born in Ramallah to the gay Australian lover of Zahara’s neighbor to the fat little girl named Nessia who mysteriously disappears with her dog shortly after the murder. As the detectives walk up and down the streets that intersect Bethlehem Road, Baka’s main artery, the neighborhood comes vividly to life: We see the abandoned old house at 8 Mordechai Hayehudi; the kiosk on Yehuda Street; and the synagogues on nearly every corner. (“What is this, like in Meah She’arim?” asks one of the detectives, when she and her partner stumble upon yet another mikvah.)

But it is not just the geographical reality that Gur explores in this novel; she also maps out the tensions that lie at the heart of the Israeli political landscape. Set during the Al Aqsa Intifada, this novel deals with the rift between Arabs and Israelis and, even more significantly, with the hostility between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. (“You don’t behave like a Moroccan,” the ever-professional Ohayon is told by the lawyer whom he interrogates about Zahara’s murder.) We learn, too, about the impact of the Holocaust on Israeli society, where children grew up in the fifties with constant hints of the horrors that took place “over there.” And we come to understand what it means to live “despite the dead,” in an age of riots and bombings and the dirty laundry that is inevitably aired among neighbors in close quarters. “What’s disgusting is this city, with all its filth. It’s all coming out now, and not just the garbage,” Michael’s lover remarks. “If you want a bit of beauty around here, you have to look upward, toward the sky, and not at the streets.” Yet, like David Grossman’s Someone to Run With, this is very much a novel of the streets—of the “Jerusalem of below” rather than the “heavenly Jerusalem.”

While part of Yael Hedaya’s Accidents takes place in Jerusalem’s German Colony, the book as a whole is very much a Tel Avivian. Hedaya tells the story of Yonatan Luria, a moderately-successful middle-aged author living in a small apartment with his pre-teen daughter Dana. Two years after his wife’s sudden death in a car accident, Yonatan is trying to get back to writing, and Dana is struggling to fit in at school. Through a mutual friend, Yonatan is introduced to Shira Klein, a bestselling novelist in her mid-thirties whose father is slowly dying of old age. With Dana cheering them on, Yonatan and Shira overcome their emotional scars and fall in love with one another.

Like Bethlehem Road Murder, Hedaya’s novel refers to the names of streets and junctions as if they are familiar old friends. It is not long before we can recognize Allenby Street, where Shira’s father’s architecture office used to be located; Shenkin Street, site of Yonatan and Dana’s favorite cafe; and the Ganot interchange, where the traffic eases up between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “It was not Sodom on her mind but Tel Aviv,” Hedaya writes of Shira. “How normal it seemed now, how like itself, persistent in its collective disregard of private suffering.” Through Yonatan and Shira’s eyes, we also come to appreciate the pulse of life among secular Israelis, who resent the presence of kashrut certificates instead of menus in restaurant windows, and who stay away from long skirts and hats lest they be mistaken for “the religious.”

Yael Hedaya continues to bring Israel to life through her writing; her latest novel, Eden, came out in Hebrew earlier this year. Batya Gur died tragically of cancer in May 2005 at the age of 57, yet one of her books still awaits translation into English. Though the road map that these novels lay out is very different from the one we may read about in the newspapers, the Israel they depict is no less real.