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Transplants, in Israel and America

The title of this intelligent collection of short stories by Naama Goldstein, The Place Will Comfort You (Scribner, $22), is ironic. The place referred to is the land of Israel, to which one does not merely immigrate, but to which one “ascends.” And one does not simply decide to leave, but to “descend.” Appropriately, these are also the book’s two section headings. The phrase in Hebrew is also the traditional one addressed to someone in mourning, using the ritual name of God as “place”: “Hamakom yenahem etkhem….”

The irony is apparent in the very first story, “The Conduct for Consoling.” A trio of third grade girls pays a shiva call to a classmate whose mother has just died. As instructed, one of the girls uses the title phrase as her parting gesture. The “orphan,” though, is not comforted by these words. She immerses herself in other words: a detailed description of the American features of the narrator’s birthday party. The narrator is confused and then pleased that her family’s oddness is seen as better than the native fare. The tension between oddness and attractiveness, between misunderstanding and belonging, binds these eight stories.

In the first five, an American family “ascends” to Israel to become a part of the realization of the Zionist dream of return. They live as Israelis do, but remain American: “It is as if you were raised somewhere very different then put down here,” the narrator of “Pickled Sprouts” laments. “You’ve been raised on mac and cheese,” whereas everyone else is eating schnitzel and chopped salad for lunch. The mostly female protagonists inhabit this awkward space between cultures. While uneasy, they are also enriched by it.

In “Anatevka Tender,” the first story of the “and Descending” section, an American mother leaves Israel with her two sons and moves to a Maryland suburb. Her eldest is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from a tour of active duty in Lebanon. After pages of chuckling and identifying with linguistic and cultural mistranslations, in this story the national divide between Israel and the U.S. is no longer a matter of interpretation, but one of real substance. The place will not comfort this family. It plagues them. And as Americans, they feel they have options; to “descend” but to be spared the horrors of war.

Goldstein’s protagonists are lost in translation, both in Israel and in the United States. There is no easy comfort to be found in her richly written stories, only the important and intriguing questions of identity, expectation, and belonging.

Miriam Sivan, a former New Yorker, lives in northern Israel and teaches at the University of Haifa. Her short stories have appeared in Lilith and elsewhere, and she is currently working on a novel.