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New Women’s Writing on Israel

These four very different writers have written four strong and interesting books about Israel: a saga, a black comedy, a poet’s portrait and an enemy’s plea.

Shimoni’s Lover by Jenifer Levin tells many stories at once: stories of Israeli men and the women around them, all living difficult lives. Their lives are impossible because of war, because of the inevitability of early death that comes with war, and because of the plague of heroism that haunts them from the time they can hold a gun. Levin portrays an Israel that’s full of difficult tests, tests which are hard and often impossible. Shimoni, the book’s dead hero, whose presence eerily underscores the novel, has his skin torn from his body in battle; Nadav, his younger brother, loses three fingers in war. Shimoni’s lover Miriam has a psychotic daughter who shakes with unexplained rage.

One of Levin’s main characters is an American woman named Josie who finds herself on kibbutz. Josie marries Rafi, Shimoni and Nadav’s brother and a kibbutznik who is nearly bisexual: that is, he prefers men but has women on occasion. Rafi wants America and Josie wants love. Each believes the other is the key to escaping who they are, and what they know to be true. This theme recurs throughout the book.

Winter in Jerusalem by Blanche D’Alpuget is very funny, and books about Israel, like books about religion or sex, are rarely that. She tells the story of Danielle Green, a screenwriter asked to rewrite Masada for the movies, a la Ben Hur. Her Hollywood boss, Bennie Kidron, a Globus-Golan Israeli man, is always on the telephone in big hotels. He’s both compelling and detestable. So is Danielle’s father, a Jerusalem professor who abandoned his family years before. With terrorists, heroes, scholars, leftists, artists and priests, D’Alpuget creates a full, compelling picture of Jerusalem, a picture she feels drawn to describe. D’Alpuget voices a sentiment echoed in all these books in one way or another:

I found home-people half-asleep after Israel and I didn’t feel like talking to them about what had happened to me there. I knew nobody who I thought would understand even as much of it as I did. I felt lost.

So does Lesley Hazleton, a British journalist who went to Israel in 1966 for a two-week vacation and stayed there 13 years. Unable to stay forever, unable to leave for good either, Hazleton reluctantly left Israel in 1979. But she never felt at home anywhere else. She decides to make one last visit in 1984. Very clearly, Hazleton explains the impossible connection she feels;

As the moon moved above me that first night back at Mishkenot, Jerusalem seemed like a passionate love affair that had lasted beyond its time but would not break. Everything that pulled me toward it had a dark side that pushed me away. I knew this, but it was hard to remember that dark side on this night, as the lone dog still howled and a faint breeze rose, rustling the berries of the Persian lilac tree.

Sana Hassan, an Egyptian journalist who grew up thinking of Jews as enemies, decided in a courageous and unusual gesture to see Zionism and Judaism up close. She went to Jerusalem too, planning to stay for just a few weeks, extending her stay several times until she felt she knew enough to leave. What she learned, she describes very movingly in Enemy in the Promised Land, her chronicle of her time there. Hassan disguises herself as a Jew. She works in factories, works on kibbutz, falls in love, and feels the intense pull of the state, a pull she finds hard to explain. This in spite of her sense of injustice, and the pain she sees all too often.

Read together, these four books form a unique narration of war and death, liberation, humor, oppression, betrayal and hope. The stories are told by an engaging female chorus, whose voices on Israel have been missing far too long.

Esther Cohen is a novelist whose first book. No Charge for Looking (Schocken) is a portrait of Nazareth. She’s the publisher of Adama Books in New York.