Israeli Paradise Lost And Found

Israeli paradise lost - and found?
In a first novel, veteran U.S. immigrant writer Fred Skolnik tries to pinpoint the moment when Israel lost its sense of purpose; has he found the way to regain that mission?
By Gerald Sorin

An Israeli since 1963, U.S.-born Fred Skolnik, editor-in-chief of the 22-volume second edition of the "Encyclopedia Judaica," has written his first novel. Set in Israel between the early days of the Lebanon War, in 1982 and the outbreak of the first intifada, in late 1987, "The Other Shore" is a multigenerational epic focusing on two families, the kibbutznik Shachars and the bourgeois Goldsteins.

Skolnik sees Itzik and Leah Shachar and their two sons, Yoav and Uri, as representative of an older, more idealistic Israel. They and many members of their community are in despair, constantly kvetching about national degeneration, and confused by the emergent materialism and hedonism of Israeli society. The Goldsteins, Eitan and Pnina and their son, Amnon, are offered up as typical of those who believe that if one is rich and getting richer, it's because "good luck comes to those who deserve it." They are wealthy, hypocritical, small-minded and corrupt, exactly the kind of family the kibbutzniks fear. The novel, with grim and compelling descriptions, opens strongly at the funeral of Uri, a casualty of the war, whom we get to know only through the memories of others. But much of the rest of the story disappoints. One soon senses that in most of the novel's protagonists are caricatures whom Skolnik has set up to demonstrate that the 1980s marked the final transformation of Israel from a socialist-Zionist society to one permeated by Western-style consumerism and its attendant vulgarities.
Okay, it's a novel, not a work of history, but it doesn't seem credible that so much could change so fast in six years, or that somehow the socialist-Zionist ideal died a sudden death, instead of having been challenged and fatally crippled over a longer period beginning much earlier. Among other things, there is no hint here of what life was like in an earlier Israel, in particular in the 1970s, when the Jewish state underwent significant changes in politics, economics and culture. Israel incurred enormous costs in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, followed by sky-rocketing inflation, the separation of Labor from the Histadrut, and a difficult if not futile struggle to achieve stability and unity.
There are other problems: Even though lots of things happen, including marriages, suicides, adultery and other forms of betrayal, even heated battles between the IDF and Palestinian stone-throwers in the West Bank, there is neither plot nor any real drama in this novel. We have "types" in abstract "ideological" conflict, but not the genuine drama of people or groups in interaction and contention with one another, each "right," and even admirable, in some way. Nothing, in short, to engage a reader or make him struggle.
Power hungry
What or who is there to choose among these people all of whom are, well … unlikeable? Eitan Goldstein is a power-hungry insurance broker who cuts corners, cheats on his taxes, and beds his secretaries, all of whom are hired primarily for their looks and sensuality. His wife, Pnina, also physically attractive and handy as an ornament for Eitan, gets his attention occasionally, but only when he is between secretaries.
Pnina is only possible as a fictional construction. From the very beginning, she has treated her loveless marriage as an investment. Nasty and elitist, she defines herself by what she owns and controls, toting up her wealth to the shekel on a regular basis. She displays the "right" paintings, and her dining room chairs are 22 inches from the table, exactly as they are at Buckingham Palace. She treats her Filipino maid with contempt, while Eitan, falsely self-described as "at heart a Labor man, who still believed in the old ideals," has no reaction. Skolnik's stereotypes might be amusing, if he, like Balzac or Proust, could convince us of satirical or ironic intent. He doesn't. Some of the "old idealism" perseveres among the kibbutzniks, but here too, mostly in theory. The most committed idealists are preachy, arrogant and rigid, involved either in sophomoric debates or taking votes on trivial things as if they really mattered. Even the larger questions about the "Zionist dream" or the future of the kibbutz movement or of Israel itself lead to old arguments "as empty and insubstantial as the air." No one at Kibbutz Ma'ayan Oz appears to be content. Though outwardly worried about an imperiled larger Israel, a society adrift in malaise, corruption and materialism, the kibbutzniks also realize that there is doubt and disillusionment - and even a discotheque-pub - among their own younger generation. And the older residents know in their bones that they have stumbled in their pursuit of coherence and meaning.
The moshav, which Skolnik depicts through Ishai, the energetic and apparently happy friend of a virtually emotionless Yoav, looks like a seam-showing synthesis between kibbutz and bourgeois life styles and values. This arrangement, too, fails to offer fulfillment of the "older ideals." Ishai, having newly increased his holdings, his farming equipment, and his Arab labor force, says he is a "big believer" in Jewish labor, but "one can't fight progress."
One begins to think we may be heading toward settler society as the only context within which there is devotion, commitment, a true sense of duty (the black-hat world of Jerusalem is never mentioned ). Yoav, who "did not really have a political opinion about the Jewish settlements" or anything else for that matter, says of Gush Emunim, "don't knock them," and even Amnon Goldstein, the secular lawyer practicing in Tel Aviv, refers to the settlers as the only people who have a "sense of national purpose," but we never get to see the settlers themselves in this novel.
'There is no point'
No one in Skolnik's story seems to be capable of articulating the purpose of life. Yoav tries: One must "practice self-denial for the common good, for no one in particular as it were." Do people other than academics really talk this way? More important, the phrase "no one in particular" may help explain Yoav's flatness, his lack of emotion, his final verdict on life: "There is no point."
Then there is Zaretsky, a writer and a kind of performance-artist, Skolnik's most interesting creation, who could easily be a character in a Beckett play, stage directions and all. He lives to build a following and to get even for perceived insults and rejection. But in one scene, he drops the name Kirilov, a reference to Dostoevsky's "Demons," in which Kirilov, an intellectually nimble devil's advocate, neither described nor quoted here by Skolnik, insists only half-playfully that life, given its apparent absurdity, cannot be lived or loved on its own terms, and that only fear of death provides any meaning. Kirilov is not surprised when his interlocutor says, "If it is all the same whether to live or not to live, everyone will kill himself and that's perhaps the only change that will come about."
It is apparent, however, that Skolnik, unlike Kirilov, Zaretsky and Yoav, believes change is possible and that there is "a point." Amnon, though strangely described as "alert and unthinking," does go from being someone who, in the course of a conversation with Uri's beautiful widow, Ariela, about the decline of moral standards, could think to himself, she "was the great prize, worth cheating for, worth anything," to becoming a man of God. Well, sort of. After marrying Ariela, who remains unknown to us except as some kind of automaton, Amnon discovers, by happenstance, the power of regularly withdrawing from the profane, the peace of meditation, and finally the deep satisfaction of prayer and ritual.
All along the way, with Ariela following, mute and compliant, Amnon asks questions like: Is there a God? Does he provide "meaning," or do we have to? Clearly, Amnon wants God to do all the thinking and the "meaning-making." Exit the beautiful couple on their way to synagogue. And there the story ends, pointing up Skolnik's unconvincing and rather absurd vision of Israel's redemption - the emergence of a modern Orthodoxy with a national purpose, the Zionist dream restored, like a second martini, this time with a twist.
There is something terribly wrong here. Throughout the novel there are intimations of Amnon's having had something to do with Uri's death, that in battle he perhaps did not do all he could have to save his fellow soldier. Soon after Uri's funeral, Amnon is chatting up Ariela as if proffering sympathy. Even before Uri's death, Amnon had dreamed about a naked Ariela and now is relieved that during their growing "courtship" (his word ), Ariela doesn't want to talk about Uri. Amnon had "feared he would have to explain himself, tell her where he had been [and] what he had been doing" in battle. This thought and other symptoms of apparent guilt appear several times in the novel. What did Amnon do or not do alongside his comrade-in-arms in the critical fire-fight? The question is not dealt with in the last quarter of this 600 page book, after Amnon "finds" God. Had Skolnik built his novel with Ariela, Amnon and the ghost of Uri at the center, and especially if he had left the haunting question unanswered, he might have written a truly gripping tale. But to end this novel by depicting the married couple as the pathway to salvation for Israel, a conclusion pitched positively, even sentimentally, without acknowledging the lacuna makes no sense.
Skolnik, who may have been inspired by S.Y. Agnon's "Only Yesterday," which examines the trials and tribulations and the loss of idealism in the post-pioneer generation of the early 20th century, tries to portray the struggles of a heterogeneous post-Zionist Israel. Although by now a tired theme in Israeli literature, it is one certainly worth exploring with an new and imaginative take. But in too many ways, one of them fatal - the disappearance of the story within the story - this noble effort has gone awry.

Gerald Sorin, Distinguished University Professor of American and Jewish studies at the State University of New York, New Paltz, is author of "Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent," now available in paperback.

The Other Shore by Fred Skolnik. Aqueous Books, 620 pages, $21

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