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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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Poignant slice-of-life tales about Israeli people

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Recent publications by Etgar Keret, Shani Boianiju and Yossi Avni, to name a few, have demonstrated that these are exciting times for new Israeli writers.

We can now add Ayelet Tsabari to that list. And what’s even more exciting is that Tsabari is now living in Canada.

The author of a collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth (Harper Collins) is an Israeli of Yemeni descent. After serving in the Israel Defence Forces, she moved to Canada in 1998.

The 11 short stories collected for this book can be best described as poignant, slice-of-life, humane tales.

Her characters run the gamut from lovers, poets, soldiers and siblings, young and old, most of whom come from Tsabari’s own Mizrahi background.

The title of this book comes from British Columbia’s old slogan, but Tsabari obviously intends the best place on earth to reflect Israel.

In the title story, Naomi, an Israeli, is visiting her sister Tamar in Vancouver after separating from her husband. On the way from the airport to her sister’s home, she sees the province’s slogan “The Best Place on Earth,” on the cars’ licence plates.

According to whom, she scoffs? In her mind it can only be Israel, or specifically Jerusalem, a “place so laden with history it made tourists crazy.”

Mostly, though, the Israel in these stories is not the touristy Israel. It’s not Masada or the Western Wall. It’s suburban, residential Israel of Petah Tikva, or Ramat Gan and tawny three-storey apartment buildings with rows of laundry strung between windows.

Many of the characters young and old seem to be striving for some form of identity. Whether it’s Natalie, the hippie-dossit, one of those cool New Age Orthodox Jews “who found God but didn’t lose their chic,” or   Uri, a young Yemeni boy who wishes he was Ashkenazi, his skin lighter, his eyes blue. In another story, Lily is a teenage immigrant from Canada, struggling with her own sexuality.

Brit Milah, one of the best stories in this collection, not only focuses on immigrant identity but also cross-generational conflict.

Reuma Hamami is a Yemeni-Israeli arriving in Toronto from Israel to visit her daughter, Ofra, who moved to Canada and just had a son. Reuma is shocked when she learns Ofra has no intention of circumcising her son. “Religious or not,” her mother asserts, “it’s tradition.”

Throughout many stories the spectre of war and terrorism hangs around the character’s necks.  Only in an Israeli setting would a boy get shooed out of a falafel store because the owner wants to put on his gas mask and run to the shelter when a siren goes off.

In the opening story, Tikkun, a terrorist explosion in Mahane Yehuda Market brings two estranged lovers together.

In Warplanes, a young girl whose father died of a heart attack, wishes instead he died in the army like her friend’s war hero father. “There is no Remembrance Day for people who died of a weak heart,” she reflects.

Tsabari’s descriptions are colourful and vibrant. “Outside, Tel Aviv slaps me in the face. It’s hot, summer hot, too hot for May. The city breathes with the fixed rhythm of traffic lights: pause, anticipate, resume; pause, anticipate, resume. Across the street, cars wedged in traffic blow their horns at a minivan that is parked on the curb, blinking yellow.”

The stories paint pictures of people in a specific time and place. Often the conflicts within the stories are never resolved. Life for all these characters carries on.

Most of the themes in this book concern loss, identity, assimilation and coming-of-age – all universal themes but all with a very Israeli slant.  Not all the stories work as well, but all in all this is a great start from a promising writer.

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New Arrivals:  Toronto-based publisher/editor and frequent contributor to these pages, Bill Gladstone, has compiled 18 evocative articles by two noticeable historians of Toronto’s Jewish community.

Compiled from a variety of sources from major newspapers to society newsletters, the pieces in Only Yesterday, Collected Pieces on the Jews of Toronto by Benjamin Kayfetz and Stephen A. Speisman (Now and Then Books) focus on Toronto’s old downtown community — people of prominence, synagogues, Yiddish theatres and newspapers and the vanished “Ward” and Spadina neighbourhoods.

The stories are enhanced by photographs and illustrations including many rarely seen before photos.

For more information, visit  www.nowandthenbookstoronto.com.

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Humour is the most celebrated of all Jewish responses to modernity. In the delightful book No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Princeton University Press) Harvard professor Ruth Wisse evokes and applauds the genius of Jewish joking ­–­ as well as the brilliance of comic masterworks by writers like Heinrich Heine, Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Philip Roth.

Wisse broadly traces modern Jewish humour around the world, teasing out its implications as she explores memorable and telling examples from German, Yiddish, English, Russian and Hebrew.

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