The Great American Hebrew Novel

July 14, 2023 | Michael Weingrad
About the author: Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 

In her epistolary novel Shanim Tovot (“Good Years”), Maya Arad tells the story of Leah Zuckerman—an Israeli who, like herself, spends most of her adult life in northern California. Michael Weingrad reviews the book, which he finds “brilliant and moving.”

The great miracle of this novel is the way that slowly, naturally, over decades, it leads to the emergence of an older woman who can reflect with wisdom on her life and its failures and successes. Arad’s protagonist begins the book seeming shallow, flirtatious, and endlessly self-exculpatory, a little bit like an Israeli Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She certainly uses her sex appeal to get herself out of jams, jams that are often a result of that sex appeal in the first place.

But Arad brilliantly peels back layers of Leah’s character, showing her complexity and depth as well as the extent to which her reliance on the attention of men has been a means of defense and a response to trauma. By the end of the book, the details that we have accumulated along the way are reassembled and made clear for us by Leah herself, who now understands her own life: as a Holocaust survivor from Romania, an immigrant to Israel at the age of eight, a girl mocked for her foreign ways, a teenager preyed upon because of her looks, and, finally, as a would-be American trying to justify her existence to the Israeli schoolmates who may have been partly responsible for her exile in the first place.

Arad’s Leah Zuckerman is as American as Augie March or Huck Finn, repeatedly knocked down by life yet always confident that her fortune and happiness are around the corner. And she is deeply, richly Jewish, a wanderer and storyteller, who ultimately finds her life’s true meaning in her granddaughter. Shanim tovot is easily one of the best works of Jewish American fiction produced this century.

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