Four of the most prominent American Jewish novelists—all roughly the same age—have recently published books either set in Israel or in whose plot Israel and Israelis play a major role plot. Two others have published a collection of essays about Israel. To Matti Friedman, it seems that “something’s going on.”
The Israel of each of these novelists is different, of course, but there are similarities. Two recount watching an Israeli war on TV from America and the strong emotions this elicits; two make reference to King David; two have hamsa keychains; two have the Mossad; all have soldiers; and all use a little Hebrew. Perhaps most tellingly, two feature American characters with Israeli second cousins—at first, Jews in America and Israel were siblings divided by European wars, then they were first cousins, but now they’re only second cousins, a generational fact that might explain the fraying connection as much as anything else. None of these novels is fully at home in Israel—they’re more like Mars orbiters than rovers. They’re not permanently on the ground. . . .
In all four novels Israel is the scene of strange and exciting events, if not outright enchantment, but the idea that magic is possible [there] is most present in [Nicole] Krauss’s Forest Dark. (Home, on the other hand, is where the novels set jobs, divorces, affairs, and bar mitzvahs.) . . . Many of the characters in these novels turn to Israel to shore up American lives that feel short on meaning, even if we’re not meant to take that turn entirely seriously.
Jewish American writers of a few decades ago might have poked around the strange Jewish country in the Middle East, but they knew that the real literary action for them was back home. The novelists of 2017 don’t seem so sure. . . . If you’re not a recent arrival from the Soviet Union, you’re not likely to have funny mannerisms, an ethnic chip on your shoulder, or much interesting history of your own. [Shtetl] nostalgia is stale, and with everyone in the suburbs, there is no American Jewish street. The broader American culture seems to offer little cohesion for a writer to either embrace or rebel against. So where do you go?
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access