A Good Place for the Night (Pcrsca, $14.00), the latest collection of stories by acclaimed Israeli author Savyon Liebrecht, explores the meaning of place for Israelis living both at home and abroad in an age of airplanes, cell phones, and atomic bombs. In “Munich,” an Israeli journalist covering the trial of a Nazi war criminal eats dinner in a cheap Muslim-owned Middle Eastern restaurant in Munich, where he sees, on television, a German volunteer in a Jerusalem hospital treating Israelis who have been injured in a suicide bombing carried out by a Muslim. The violence back home hits even closer when the restaurant becomes the target of neo-Nazi rage and the journalist, like all of Liebrecht’s protagonists, realizes that he can no longer feel at home. Several of these stories end with an unexpected O. Heney-esque revelation that casts their characters in a startling new light. In “Kibbutz,” for instance, a young Israeli man returns to the kibbutz where he was raised to force the woman who nurtured and mentored him to confront a terrible truth—a truth that only becomes clear to the reader in the story’s final pages.
The crowning capital of this collection is “Jerusalem,” in which Idit, the heroine of an earlier story, is driving back from the airport in a rental car after nine years spent working as an architect in Hiroshima. As Idit anticipates her reunion with her lover, who whispers sweet nothings into her cell phone, Liebrecht juxtaposes Idit’s return journey with italicized accounts of an ancient Jewish woman’s ascent to the Temple to pray for a child on the eve of the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Suddenly, Idit realizes that she must pull over to the roadside: “Idit’s eyes were drawn to the nice little jug of oil, a childish paper cut-out blazing on the car’s dashboard. It evoked a memory of her class decorations committee meeting before Hanukkah, and of the smell of cut crepe paper and glue mixed with the thick, tempting aroma of steamy donuts….She suddenly remembered that it was dangerous to keep driving when the oil indicator was on, and she cried out in alarm, ‘Something’s wrong with the car!'” An army van pulls over beside her, and Idit is terrified to find that instead of the IDF soldier she expects, a Palestinian in civilian clothes comes walking towards her vehicle with a “metallic light, like a hidden blade, glittering momentarily in his hand.” At that moment, Idit’s story is thrown into historical relief as the story flashes back to the Jewish woman of antiquity who stands watching the Temple burn, “the light of the flames.. .tearing the heavens like swords of fire.” The ancient woman feels a palpable connection to her home even as it is consumed by flames before her eyes, whereas Idit, who is returning to that same home, finds herself suddenly alienated from it. Here Liebrecht masterfully interweaves emotional and historical realities to show just how high the stakes have always been in a city that is the locus of so much longing.
A Good Place for the Night closes with the title story about a post-apocalyptic world in which only five people—an Israeli woman, an American man, a small boy, a nun, and an itinerant Pole—have survived a sudden nuclear catastrophe. The Israeli woman, Gila, is haunted by nightmares about deformity and destruction: “She woke up at night in a bloodbath, her two girls had drowned right before her eyes and she herself, handless, had tried to get them out by pushing and poking at them with her head, then had dived in after them, kicking her feet to raise them up, but they sank into the dark water… and she watched with desperate eyes as their hips, their shoulders, their faces, the ribbons in their long hair vanished.” Here, too, Liebrecht dramatizes the sense of fear and unsettledness that may be, in her eyes, a necessary feature of the identity of every Israeli, regardless of how close to home they find themselves.
Ilana Kurshan works as a freelance editor and literary agent in Jerusalem.