Book Discussion: Homesick
by Peter Shapiro
Read the review of this book in RJ magazine
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If you appreciate the literary style and works of Amos Oz you will enjoy Homesick by Eshkol Nevo. The narrative’s locale is Mevasseret, a suburb of Jerusalem. In 1947 it was abandoned by the Arabs who were fearful of suffering the same fate as the Arabs massacred at Deir Yassin. It was the fall of 1995, Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated and there were ongoing hostilities in Lebanon. The principal characters all resided in or were in some way connected to Mevasseret.
The title Homesick is appropriate since the principal characters yearn to return to their homes or metaphorically to what we refer to as “the good old days”. The question that ran though my mind while reading this novel was, “Is the title to Thomas Wolfe’s book You Can’t Go Home Again correct”? The novel’s protagonists are similar to those in the Torah, likeable but flawed. Nevo structured his narrative so that it, like the Torah, could be read on two levels. One is p’shat, the literal meaning of the text, the other d’rash, the lesson of the text for our times. Without divulging the endings of the protagonists’ journeys let me describe their homes, both physical and metaphoric, as well as the obstacles that if removed might have alleviated their homesickness.
Moshe and Sima Zakian had been married for eight years and have two children. Moshe had an Orthodox upbringing, his brother in Tiberias is a revered rabbi and the other siblings and their families live in Bnei Brak. As a child Sima had a troublesome experience with Orthodoxy and considers herself a secular Jew. For Moshe’s sake Sima observed an Orthodox life style in their home. A seemingly irreconcilable clash of wills arose when their eldest child was to start kindergarten. Moshe, under pressure from his family, wanted Liron to attend a yeshiva even although Sima had enrolled him in a secular school. They could not metaphorically return home until their differences on religious practice were resolved.
The p’shat suggests a discussion of how the Zakians can accommodate diverse approaches to religious living. The d’rash narrowly extends the conversation to interfaith marriages. On a broader scale the d’rash suggests an analysis of how the Orthodox and secular Jews accommodate each other on matters of personal status such as officiating at marriages, who is a Jew, and conversion.
In 1947 Saddiq and his family fled Mevasseret with no more than the clothes on their backs. His mother took the deed to their house and its key which she always wore around her neck. She managed to hide a family heirloom in the home. Saddiq lived across the “Green Line” and worked as a day laborer in Mevasseret. He discovered that the Zakians now occupy his old home. When he attempted to retrieve the heirloom a bizarre chain of events resulted in his being arrested.
The focus of our discussion can be narrowly limited to the difficulty of one person who attempts to establish title to his ancestral home and if successful what rights might accrue to him. The narrative begs consideration of the universal questions of the Arabs’ “right of return” and what benefits they might receive.
Amir, a psychology student and Noa, who is studying photography, move into an apartment next to the Zakians. They become disillusioned with their career paths and with each other. Their lives become entangled with Sima’s and that of Yotam, a neighbor’s child. Noa decides a temporary separation would be in their best interests. Amir and Noa soon discover that it is difficult to live with and without each other.
The p’shat suggests an analysis of the causes and possible solutions to Amir and Noa’s problem. A deeper conversation would involve the causes and possible resolutions of the tensions among and between the various streams of Judaism, primarily in Israel but also in the Diaspora.
Reuven and Nechama, Yotam’s parents, are sitting shivah for their eldest son Gidi who was killed in a skirmish along the Lebanon border. Their grief is unbearable. Nechama will not leave their home nor cook or clean. She built a shrine to Gidi in the living room. Reuven tries unsuccessfully to escape in his work. Hanging over their heads and exacerbating their grief is the unspoken sense that Reuven was to a degree responsible for Gidi’s death because he strenuously encouraged him to join a unit that engaged in dangerous missions. Another casualty was Yotam who was all but neglected by his parents. His school work suffered, he failed to do assignments and refused to participate in class discussions. Amir is the only person with whom Yotam could interact, discuss his problems, and come to terms with his grief.
The p’shat fosters a discussion about the death of a child, its affect on one family and how its members can gain closure and resume a normal life. The d’rash begs a conversation about the war’s survivors, not only the combatants, their families, and the civilian populations on every side of the conflict. This conversation relates to hostilities in the Middle East and also those engaged in by the United States.
Eshkol Nevo challenged the reader to answer the question of whether his protagonists or we as a people can go home physically or metaphorically to a place we remember and long for, or in the alternative, to create that space.
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