Wednesday, September 27, 2023

"The Man Who Fell Asleep Everywhere" - short story

When I first met the elderly man, he was sitting on the supermarket floor, leaning back against the laundry detergents in the cleaning supplies aisle. Thinking he had passed out, I bent down to shake him into consciousness. But then I noticed something strange. He was snoring.

"Should I call the manager?" asked an acne-faced stock boy who appeared out of nowhere, a look of innocent inexperience in his eyes. "Or an ambulance?"

"Wait a minute. Let me see if I can wake him up."

The man on the floor opened his right eye, and his left eye followed. A smile formed on his lips. "Sorry about that," he apologized.

"I thought you had fainted!"

"Oh, no, I don't faint," he replied. "I just fall asleep. Help me to my feet."

He was about seventy, I guessed, and quite frail. He reached to the air freshener shelf for balance as he stood up. His glasses had dropped from his face, but they were held close to his chest by an eyeglass chain. His hair was thick, white, and wild. He introduced himself as Martin.

"I'll be okay," he said as he hobbled toward his shopping cart. I noticed it was empty except for a carton of slim milk, a container of low-fat goat yoghurt, an assortment of apples and oranges, and a large jar of dill pickles.

"Can I get you some water? Or maybe coffee to wake you up?" I said, holding him steady.

"Coffee would be nice," he admitted.

We abandoned our shopping carts, to the displeasure of the stock boy, and I led Martin to the coffee counter at the far side of the supermarket. "Sit here," I instructed him, pointing at a small table.

Read the rest of the story on The Bookends Review.

Photo by Sander Sammy on Unsplash

Friday, September 22, 2023

Nodding in Hebrew

I have a confession to make. After living 50 years in Israel, my Hebrew is still not up to par. I watch the nightly newscast on television and read an article or two in the weekend newspapers, but most of my life is in English. I work in an English-speaking environment and I talk with my wife and my children in English (with my granddaughters, I do speak Hebrew). My creative writing is in English (this article, for example), and I read for pleasure in English.

Recently, I made an exception to my reading habits. I read Mrs. Lilienblum's Cloud Factory, the debut novel of the award-winning Israeli author Iddo Gefen, in Hebrew. I had previously enjoyed his short story collection, Jerusalem Beach, a book that won the $100,000 2023 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. I couldn't wait for his novel to be published in English (sometime next year?), so I read it in Hebrew, the language in which it was written.

Mrs. Lilienblum's Cloud Factory is thoroughly enjoyable, very witty, with fully developed characters and an amazing plot. I highly recommend reading it in any language.

Another confession to make. There was an occasional word or two in the book with which I was not familiar. I did understand the meaning of those words in the context of how they were used and if I chose to do so, I could simply skim those sentences without losing the essential beauty of the writing. In one case, however, I really wanted to know a word's meaning as it was used repeatedly in the text.


To nod. How could I not know the translation of such a simple word?

As I continued to read, I couldn't get that particular word out of my mind. To my surprise, it appears in every chapter of the book, sometimes more than once. In present tense, in past tense. He nodded; we nodded.




The author will have to excuse me, but possibly the word was overused? Reading in bed at night (another confession to make – I usually read on my tablet but in this case, I was actually reading a paperback), I said the word aloud every time I came across it in the book. This annoyed my wife. She is now reading the book herself, also noticing the excessive nodding taking place.

I finished reading Mrs. Lilienblum's Cloud Factory and uncharacteristically, dived right into another book in Hebrew. Eshkol Nevo's excellent new short story collection is entitled לב רעב in Hebrew, which translates as 'Hungry Heart', based on the song by Bruce Springsteen. For some reason, the first page of the book suggests that it will be published in the future in its English edition as Attachments.

To my surprise, I came across a familiar word.


In some of the stories, the word appears more than once. In different tenses, in gender feminine, or in plural. I nodded. She nodded. We nodded.

After reading two Israeli books in their native language, both of which I highly recommend, I have learned one thing about Hebrew literature. Your characters must be nodding as much as possible if you want readers to enjoy your writing.


Originally posted on The Times of Israel

Related article:

Friday, September 15, 2023

Shana Tova!

To friends and family near and far, blessings of health and happiness for the Jewish New Year. Shana Tova!

(Pictured: a pomegranate from our tree)

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

"Deep Sleep" - short story

Pete was having problems sleeping at night. Insomnia ruled as he tossed and turned, his mind rehashing the day’s troubles. Endless traffic jams. Pressures in the office. The demands of his boss. The nasty looks and biting comments of his wife. The unpaid bills, the unfiled tax returns, the threats of his mother-in-law to visit.

Night after night, Pete couldn’t get the sleep he needed. He rolled back and forth, thrashing out unintentionally at his wife, interrupting her dreams and recoiling from her sharp elbowed jabs in his ribs.

She was sympathetic to his predicament, up to a point. “See a doctor,” she insisted. “He’ll write you a prescription for something.”

“I don’t want to get addicted to sleeping pills!”

Pete was willing to try anything, except for pills. He went for late night jogs; drank a glass of red wine before bedtime. He avoided his cell phone and instead read until his eyes were blurry. He listened to meditation tracks, to whales, to waves hitting the shore. His mind numbed but nothing worked. He still couldn’t sleep.

In the mornings he rolled out of bed red-eyed and struggled to his feet. Splitting headaches and aching muscles followed him to the bathroom. A cold shower did little to cleanse him of the night’s struggles. One cup of coffee, and then another one. Nothing could refresh him for the demands of the new day.

“Take care of yourself!” his wife demanded, offering no suggestions what he should try next.

“Maybe we need a new mattress,” he said.

Read the rest of the story in Meat For Tea - The Valley Review. Volume 17, Issue 3, Page 9.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Review of 'From Southerner to Settler' by Susannah Schild

I subscribe to the Hiking the Holyland newsletter because I love hiking. There are many pleasant trails, and some challenging ones, not far from my home in the Jerusalem Hills and I discovered many new ones through the colorful blog posts on the Hiking the Holyland website. Created by Susannah Schild in 2018, the site documents hikes all around the country with its mission of sharing Israel's beauty and history with the world.

Schild has just published her first book - From Southerner to Settler: Unexpected Lessons from the Land of Israel (June 2023). The book is not a hiking guide, but rather the story of Schild's aliyah and her love for family, Judaism, and Israel. With a strong emphasis on nature, the book also relates the origins of Hiking the Holyland.

The author left her home in New Orleans and moved to Israel with her husband and two small children in 2003. "We were here," she writes. "We had made it. We were home. In the place where we had vowed we would raise our children and live out our future."

Looking for a place where they could live as religious Jews, the family first settled in Ramat Beit Shemesh, but it didn't go well. Confronted with Ultra-Orthodox extremism, they left and found a warmer welcome in Neve Daniel, south of Jerusalem. In the Gush Etzion community they built their house, from the ground up, and planted a garden, something the author says gave her "a deep love for the land."

"The move to Israel was entirely worth every sacrifice that was required," she relates. "We were living the Jewish dream, quite literally. A people united as a family and a nation in the Holy Land."

Religious Judaism plays an integral, indispensable role in Schild's life, and this is repeatedly emphasized in the book. This may seem excessive to secular readers, but one can respect the openness and honesty with which she shares her convictions and faith. For the author, "the living Torah is here for all to experience, especially our children. This is what it's really like to live as a religious Jew in our homeland."

In these troubled times in Israel, the author focuses on the positive. She wonders if she can succeed in presenting to her family "the beauty of Israel, the inspiration, the camaraderie of the Jewish people, and the feeling of being at home, all bound up together and served on a silver platter."

For the author, hiking is much more than a way to enjoy the nice weather and nature. It is "an opportunity to really to get to know Israel, the physical land of our forefathers and to understand its hidden messages … a deeper understanding of our Torah, our most precious treasure."

Schild shares not only her love for hiking, but so much more. One respects her world of faith, optimism, and love for the land, as told in this very readable, personal tale of her journey from the American south to Gush Etzion.

Susannah Schild, born and raised in New Orleans, moved to Israel in 2003 with her husband and two small kids. Many years and a few children later, she discovered the quiet and inner peace that comes from being in nature. She is a The Timesof Israel blogger and lives right outside of Jerusalem in Gush Etzion. From Southerner to Settler is her first book.

Originally posted on The Times of Israel.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Review of 'The Rebel's Niece' by Shimon Avish

Imagine it's the year 70 and you're trapped in Jerusalem's Temple compound as the Romans besiege the city. Is it better to surrender and live your lives as slaves, or fight to the death because you believe that is what God commanded you to do?

This is the dilemma facing the protagonists of The Rebel's Niece by Shimon Avish (MarbleStone Press, August 2023), the second of the author's novels about significant events in ancient Jewish history.

This fictional account of the traumatic years of the Roman conquest puts you straight into the action from the very first page. Sarah, a mother of two and niece of the messianic rebel leader Yochanan, flees her Galilean village along with her husband, Jacob, ahead of the Roman invasion. She begins to question Yochanan's leadership when he sends many of the villagers to certain death and forges ahead to Jerusalem, supposedly following God's instructions.

The family sets up their tent in the Temple, knowing that the Romans are getting closer every day. But along with preparations for the ultimate battle, Yochanan clashes with the other resistance leaders. Why were the Jews fighting each other instead of saving themselves to fight the Romans? Sarah wonders. The novel offers no clear-cut answer.

The Rebel's Niece devotes much attention to the daily lives of its protagonists. Sarah and the other women are more concerned with sleeping arrangements, babysitting, and meal times than with the looming destruction.

Still, the battles described in the book are bloody and assumedly historically accurate, based on the author's exhaustive research. The construction of the siege engines, the pounding of the battering rams, and the breaching of the city's walls are very clearly and colorfully depicted.

What is most surprising to learn is that the Romans were not invincible. The Jews were equal in battle, if not in numbers. Perhaps if there hadn't been so much infighting and baseless hatred, Jerusalem would not have been conquered and the Second Temple would not have been destroyed. When the city fell, the Jews lost their holiest site but many would survive to fight another day. The author's previous novel was aptly titled Masada: Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Overall, The Rebel's Niece is a compelling, thrilling account of one of the most significant events in ancient Jewish history. The author promises three more novels in the series and readers can look forward to realistic accounts of those events as well.

Shimon Avish, a former soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces and a founder of a kibbutz in southern Israel, writes about significant events in ancient Jewish history. His work draws on his adventures in soldiering, farming, product design, cabinet making, political science, international business consulting, and living in the U.S., Canada, and Israel. He completed his doctoral degree in political science at Columbia University and was a Fulbright-Hays Fellow.

Originally posted on The Times of Israel.

Related story:

Review of ‘Masada: Thou Shalt Not Kill’ by Shimon Avish

Saturday, August 26, 2023

"The Tiger" - short story

“There’s a tiger in the playground!”

“That’s nice, Shmuel.”

“No really, Imma. It was coming toward me, but I didn’t run. I wasn’t scared at all!”

“That sounds very exciting! You’re so brave! Now, go wash up and call your brothers. It’s almost time for Havdalah.”

The tiger was like an enormous cat wearing a mask. A colorful Purim mask. Amber eyes stared at him as the large animal swayed back and forth with feline grace, its tail whisking in its wake. Its ears stood at attention; its paws were huge. Shmuel couldn’t see, but he could imagine, the beast’s razor-sharp teeth, and the thin white whiskers under its triangular pink nose. Such a pretty face!

The tiger crept past the swings and skirted the slide, slowly approaching. Shmuel stood half hidden by the jungle gym. No one else was around to witness this magnificent creature’s passage across the silent playground. He was by himself, but he was not afraid. He was curious, nothing more than that!

“Shmuel has such an imagination,” Shmuel’s mother said to Shmuel’s father when he returned from shul.

“He should put his imagination aside and concentrate on his studies.”

“He’s just a boy.”

“Boys should be studying. Instead, he ran off to the park to play with his friends. Where are the children? We want to start.”

The tiger had vertical stripes, just like the stripes on his pajamas. Just like the stripes on Yermi’s pajamas, and on Moshe’s pajamas. They all had matching striped pajamas, but their stripes were blue and white. The tiger’s stripes were flaming orange and coal black. The stripes on its belly were white and black, but those were harder to see in the twilight.

What would it be like to stand next to the tiger, to touch its fur? Would it be soft? Rough? Would the animal run away from him like the wild cats outside his building that fled at his approach? What would the tiger do?

Shmuel’s father set the spice box on the Havdalah tray. He picked it up and lit the braided candle, and handed it to Shmuel's older sister. He filled the wine goblet to the brim, lifted it, and cupped it in his right hand. And then he began to sing.

Shmuel closed his eyes when he was offered the aromatic spices. He sniffed, maybe louder than he should, then opened his eyes as he passed the spice box to Yermi. A thought crossed his mind. What did the tiger smell like? Did it have an unpleasant odor or did it smell like a dog? Maybe a wet dog. Or a cow? Shmuel had once petted a calf and a small lamb, and baby rabbits, too. Did the tiger smell like them, or did wild animals have their own scent?

“Shmuel, pay attention,” his mother whispered.

Her voice was not angry, and he couldn’t help but smile at her. What would she think if she saw the tiger? He was sure Yermi and Moshe would run away, frightened, but maybe his sister wouldn’t fear the large animal, just like him. Would he see the tiger tomorrow? Maybe it would be in the playground again when he went to school!

As his father poured the wine onto the tray and extinguished the flame, Shmuel remembered the tiger glancing at him one last time before slinking into the darkness. And then it was gone, leaving no trace of its having crossed the playground.

Shavua tov!” his father said, before launching into a medley of Psalms to mark the end of the holy Shabbat and the start of the new week.

Later, after eating a light Melaveh Malkah meal, it was time for bed. Shmuel got into his pajamas, the very same striped pajamas he had thought about when he saw the tiger in the playground. He brushed his teeth, climbed into bed, and laughed at something Yermi said. Moshe lay down in his crib, and his mother tucked them all in. And then his father came into the room and hugged each of them in turn. The three boys recited the Shema together, and the light was switched off.

“Pleasant dreams,” Shmuel’s mother whispered. And to Shmuel, she added, “Don’t worry, no tigers will come.”

“I’m not worried, Imma!”

“That’s right. You’re so brave!”

When she came into the dining room, her husband had already returned to his Saturday night studies. She regarded him silently, loving him more every time he stroked his beard, every time he nodded, every time he adjusted his kippa. She moved a chair into its place, but he didn’t look up.

“I’m turning on the radio to see if anything happened over Shabbat.”

“What could possibly happen? There’s only politics and security issues in this country.”

“Shh!” she said. The news broadcast had already begun.

“Jerusalem District Police commander Moshe Barzani said this is the first time anything like this has happened at the Biblical Zoo,” the announcer said. And then Barzani’s voice could be heard. “Security forces and police are on the streets in nearby neighborhoods, conducting an intensive search for the tiger that escaped from the zoo earlier this evening.” The announcer broke in to state that Barzani assured the public that they would soon catch the tiger. “And now, on to other news,” he continued in his calm, reassuring voice.

Shmuel’s mother looked up at her husband, but he hadn’t been paying attention to the radio. Instead, he was rocking back and forth, concentrating on the holy texts. She didn’t want to interrupt him. She would tell him later.

She went to her sons’ room and looked in. Like his younger brothers, Shmuel was fast asleep, lost in his dreams. She pulled up his blanket and kissed him on his forehead. He didn’t wake up.

Originally published on JewTh!nk

Photo by A G on Unsplash

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Review of Iddo Gefen’s ‘Mrs. Lilienblum’s Cloud Factory’

Just three months ago, Israeli author Iddo Gefen won the $100,000 2023 Sami RohrPrize for Jewish Literature for his debut short story collection Jerusalem Beach (Astra House, August 2021). Daniella Zamir was recognized for her translation, for which she received a quarter of the prize money.

This talented author has outdone himself with his debut novel, Mrs. Lilienblum's Cloud Factory (Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, July 2023). The book is due to be published by Astra House in 2024, but I couldn't wait for the English edition and just finished reading it in its original Hebrew.

The book opens with Sarai Lilienblum sitting in the middle of the Big Crater in Israel's south, wearing a Bordeaux bathrobe and drinking a martini. She had been missing for days and no one in her family knew where she was, or how she got to the crater. And Sarai isn't explaining anything.

We soon learn about Sarai's latest invention, a machine that can manufacture clouds and intense rainfall and possibly solve the climate crisis. That possibility depends not only on the interactions between Sarai and her family, but on the very nature of Israel's startup culture.

The novel is very witty, with fully developed characters and an amazing plot.

"When you read Gefen’s stories," I wrote in my review of Jerusalem Beach, "with their diverse characters, and cross-genre themes of memories and dreams, you never know what you’re going to get. But one thing you do know. Each story is going to be very enjoyable to read."

The same is true for Mrs. Lilienblum's Cloud Factory, a tour de force by a very talented author whose mark on the Israeli literary scene is just getting started. The book is a pleasure to read and highly recommended.

Iddo Gefen is an author and neurocognitive researcher at the Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab at the Sagol Brain Institute. He leads an innovative study to diagnose aspects of Parkinson’s disease using storytelling and augmented reality. Jerusalem Beach, his first book, received the Israeli Minister of Culture’s Award in 2017, and the 2023 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Originally posted on The Times of Israel.

Related articles:

‘Jerusalem Beach’ by Iddo Gefen Is Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Finalist  

Review of ‘Jerusalem Beach’ by Iddo Gefen