Longing and Loss: Peering at Israeli’s Women’s Lives

Miriyam Glazer’s erudite introductory essay to her anthology dreaming the Actual: Contemporary Fiction and Poetry by Israeli Women Writers (State University of New York Press, $24.95) is as compelling as the literary selections. Glazer argues that in the last decade Israeli literature has shed the dominance of a secular male Ashkenazi viewpoint to embrace a polyphony of ethnic and religious voices. Like Israeli society, Israeli art has broken out of a straightlaced monochromatic national consciousness. Women writers, long marginalized as presenting a “personal” secondary voice, have taken center stage in the literary mainstream.

The writers Glazer has chosen range across a wide cultural spectrum—observant, newly immigrant, Arab, Sephardic, urban and rural. As diverse as Israel itself, these voices articulate birth themes of the new homeland, the place of Jewish tradition, and above all the pervasiveness of wars shadowing daily life.

The stories of the thirteen prose writers of varying ages and backgrounds are suffused with longing and loss. Yehudit Handel’s heartbreaking “Apples in Honey” draws with delicate strokes a war widow’s pain through her yearly graveside visit. She bedecks herself with bracelets, the anniversary presents of a brief marriage cut short by death. “For our tenth anniversary he said he would bring me one with garnets. . . it will get longer, every year this will get longer, the bracelets will get short and the counting will get longer . . . They don’t close a cemetery, she said.”

In Mira Magen’s “Gerbera Daisies at Half Price” a woman who has left her secular husband behind to live with her child in an observant neighborhood is still conflicted about the decision. Her otherness as a single woman in an ultra-religious environment is confirmed by a startling erotic encounter with a male neighbor. Another story in which a sexual interlude with a stranger is used to reveal the isolation of the protagonist is Savyon Liebrecht’s “It’s Greek to You. She Said to Him” which explores a grown-up daughter’s attempt to understand her mother’s coldness, frigidity and anger by acting them out in a visit to her now empty childhood apartment.

By accepting money in return for sexual favors with her neighbor, the protagonist in “If Nella Could Do It” by Shulamith Gilboa saves up enough to escape what she feels is the drudgery of rural domestic life. Her dubious achievement is to become the cunning proprietor of a tawdry clothing store selling “artificial silk . . . various percentages of polyester.”

An interesting section is devoted to stories originally written in Russian by new Russian immigrants. In Dina Rubin’s “Monologue of a Life Model,” a former electrical engineer earns her living in Israel by posing in the nude. Cynical, defensive, and scraping to get along, she refuses to become beholden to anybody. Rebuffing a taxi driver’s overtures she asserts, “I have no intention of feeding your local folklore with a story about Russian prostitutes.” But once alone, her bravado drains out of her: “All in all, I’m only thirty nine, and I guess I’ve still got my figure. But I feel like I’m three hundred and eighty.”

In “Schlaffstunde”, a stunning story by Yehudit Katzir, two cousins weave a forbidden relationship of fantasy and love while their grandparents take their afternoon naps. But just as nightmares of the Holocaust interrupt their grandmother’s sleep and death claims the uncle who discovers their sexual entanglement, their idyll is shattered as well. Meeting many years later at a family funeral, the woman’s feelings for her cousin remain, while he, accompanied by his young wife, is emotionally and physically out of reach.

“War insinuates itself in every pore” writes poet Maya Bejerano, in an oft-repeated theme of the poetry which comprises half the volume. In “Gaza, Undated” Rachel Tzvia Back describes the pain of an Arab woman whose house the Israelis have razed: With no tears you have seen her,/ dry like stone, like tile and alone./ We tore her house down and she may not rebuild/ . . After the rains, this mound will .settle, sink/ in on itself and forget what it was./ But she will not forget.

Writing of Jaffa in 1948, Hamutal Bar Yosef’s Arab and Jewish girls do business trading bubble gum for bread across the border fence: “and the flies on her pus-filled eyes settle on mine, in the meantime/ import, export, a first taste of tourism.” In another of her poems a mother grieves for her fallen son: “. . . and how is it I never knitted even one sweater for you?”

The ironic minimalist words of Arab/Israeli poet Nideaa Khoury speak volumes: “In the land of milk and honey/whenever they pick unripe dates/ and children in their dawn/ the pain dries/ like curdled milk “.

Yet many of the poems are not linked specifically to Israel. Agi Mishol’s “Shopping” explores infidelity when a woman meets her lover in the supermarket: “I hugged you/ and you hugged a watermelon./ I loved you and you didn’t/ know what to do/ with the watermelon . . . “

Contrasts between Israeli and Western culture may be inferred from language itself Yona Volach examines the gendering quality of Hebrew: “English has all the sexual options/ Every I is really/ every possible sex/ . . Hebrew is a sex-maniac/She wants to know who’s speaking/ whose image whose picture/exactly what the whole Torah forbids:/ looking at sex/ Hebrew peeks through a keyhole . . . “

And as part of a section of American Israeli poets writing in English, Karen Alkalay-Gut retraces her mother’s anguish upon learning of her daughter’s impending move away from her to Israel: “she could endure no more losses.”

Glazer, a scholar of literature who has lived and worked in both countries, aims to initiate a nuanced conversation between American and Israeli cultures. But even for a reader familiar with Israel, the range of voices makes it hard to imagine a generalized dialogue. The intense personal directness of the poems allow them to transcend the local and convey a universalist voice. In contrast, the stories in this volume are permeated with stifled love, twisted childhoods, misunderstandings, loneliness, and frustration. Largely lacking in humor, irony, fulfillment or joy, they paint a painful picture not of women in general, but of how women writers view their situation in the modem state of Israel.

Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and writer living in Israel, is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.