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With all the handwringing about the declining relationship of American Jews to Israel, I sometimes find it striking that literature is rarely part of the discussion. I feel strongly that the work of Israeli writers can be one of our strongest sources of connection, and one that survives the vicissitudes of politics and policy.
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen is one of few Israeli writers under the age of 40 to have made a strong impression outside the nation, including in a semester-long course she taught at San Francisco State University last year. The international success of her novel “Waking Lions” is owed in part to the broad resonance of its plot centered on the population of undocumented African workers in Israel. But it is also due to the fact that Gundar-Goshen, trained as a psychologist, has proven an astute analyst of human behavior both in “Waking Lions” and in her debut, often funny historical novel “One Night, Markovitch.”
Her new novel “The Liar” focuses on miserable teenager Nofar, who dreams of having a boyfriend, but who barely has any friendships at all and trails her more conventionally attractive sister Maya in securing the attention of others (including her parents).
Nofar is spending the summer working in an ice cream shop when a frustrated customer — who turns out to be Avishai Milner, a winner on an “American Idol”-style television program whose 15 minutes of fame have elapsed — unleashes an unjustifiable verbal attack focused on her appearance. Devastated, Nofar runs off in tears while still holding Milner’s change, and he follows her into an alley. Her screams attract a crowd and the police, and before long she has, in the heat of the moment, given the nod to their assumption that Milner had attempted to assault her sexually. Because of Milner’s stature, the case blows up in the media, and Nofar suddenly has the eyes of her nation and her classmates on her. And she has her first boyfriend, albeit one who emerges out of an attempt to blackmail her.
Nofar’s life has improved, but at the cost of carrying an enormous dilemma. If she continues to lie, a man will be wrongly convicted of sexual assault — even though he is horrible in other respects. And if she reveals the truth, her life will not simply return to its former unhappy state, but she will become vilified for her actions.
The questions expand with the increasing number of lies surfacing elsewhere. For example, Nofar’s hapless boyfriend pretends to apply for an elite military unit in order to gain the affection of his father, a career soldier. And in a parallel plot, a Moroccan-born woman assumes the identity and life of her friend, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, after her friend dies.
What unites these stories is that the lies actually bring their purveyors love and respect otherwise missing from their lives. They momentarily overturn a system, whether within a family or within a nation, that has landed the characters at the bottom.
As the weight of ethical responsibility — or the sheer practical challenge of maintaining a web of interdependent lies — forces the characters to reconsider their mendacity, the reader joins in the questioning. Is the value of truth an absolute? In what cases can a lie be justified? These questions affect our personal lives and are now prominent in our political culture. Gundar-Goshen gives us much to consider.
Ronit Matalon’s novel “And the Bride Closed the Door” presents a decidedly different picture of a young woman in crisis. Hours before 500 guests are to show up to her wedding, Margie locks herself in her mother’s bedroom and announces, “Not getting married.”
Remarkably different from Matalon’s other works, the novel plays a bit like a screwball farce, with each character choosing a different strategy to attempt to resolve the situation. Meanwhile, Margie barely communicates, except for slipping her transcription of a poem by the iconic Israeli poet Leah Goldberg under the door, but with its title altered from “The Prodigal Son” to “The Prodigal Daughter” and its language changed from masculine to feminine. (Hebrew nouns and verb forms are gendered.) The family members are left to interpret the meaning of her gesture.
The apartment becomes something of a microcosm of Israel, reflected in Margie’s Mizrachi family, the groom’s Ashkenazi family, and the Arabs who have brought a ladder from the Palestinian Authority. Fascinatingly, the closest thing to a breakthrough comes when Margie’s grandmother, who has appeared to be on the verge of dementia, sings the Arabic lyrics of popular Lebanese singer Fairuz through the door. For Matalon, who was born to two immigrants from Egypt and advocated for Mizrachi Jews in Israel, this restoration of harmony with cultural roots in the Arab world likely had special meaning.
This was Matalon’s final novel, for which she received the coveted Brenner Prize the day before she tragically died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 58. In the acceptance speech read by her daughter, Matalon noted that “there is something sad yet a little bit funny in the fact that I, just like my locked-in bride, am not attending this ‘wedding.’ ” Her absence is indeed deeply felt, and we are fortunate to have the literary legacy she left behind.