Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Review of ‘Jerusalem Beach’ by Iddo Gefen

In the opening story of Jerusalem Beach by Iddo Gefen, translated by Daniella Zamir (Astra House, August 2021), an eighty-year-old man enlists in the Golani infantry brigade. His son is sure he has “lost his marbles.” Serving in the army at that age would “help death along.” The old man replies that he is “trying to outrun death.”

In this story, “The Geriatric Platoon,” the IDF has established “a unit for the elderly, mainly for show” and their service on the border is “just a game everyone’s playing.” But for the wayward, elderly soldier, service in the army is much more than a game. His worried son and grandson go into action to bring the old man home, and an incident on the border makes their mission more urgent than ever.

In the story’s subplot, the narrator is receiving a series of emails from his estranged mother. Will connections between family members be repaired by story’s end, or will tragedy drive them apart? This well-constructed story, partially epistolary in format, leaves readers eager to dive into the rest of the collection.

Thicket of dreams

Many of Gefen’s stories are otherworldly, although you wouldn’t classify them exactly as science fiction but rather narratives focused on memories and dreams. There is an interplanetary coming-of-age tale in “The Girl Who Lived Near the Sun”; dreams are monitored and built in “Debby’s Dream House”; and memories are shared in “How to Remember a Desert”; but two tender, very emotional stories make this collection a tour de force of new Israeli literature.

In “Exit,” a young girl wanders into the desert and “disappear[s] into the thicket of her dreams,” leading her mother to say, ‘’Something in her eyes has changed since we moved south."

The family’s move to the Negev has given the mother a chance to advance her career, while the father is stuck, working alone on developing an app for his start-up. Seeing how his wife was not relating to “her little girl falling apart before her very eyes,” the father realizes “she [had] shifted the responsibility for our daughter’s care over to me.”

As the young girl grows distant, withdrawing from the waking world while walking a fine line between memories and dreams, her anxious parents think that if they just understood what she was dreaming about, they could find a solution to her mysterious medical condition. Readers will sympathize with these helpless parents, hoping that the young girl will find a way out of her dreams and back into the arms of her caring family.

First memories

The dream-like title story, “The Jerusalem Beach,” is the most touching in the entire collection. An elderly woman is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Along with her caring husband, “they went looking for her first memory, snow on the beach in Jerusalem.” Her husband knows the memory, and the beach itself, are probably imaginary, but what wouldn’t one do to in hopes to help the woman you love?

The two arrive at the central bus station in Jerusalem, board the “miraculous” light rail train, and travel to the Machane Yehuda market. Jerusalem has changed immensely since his last visit decades before. Just like his wife, he, too, finds himself “lost in time and space.” Readers will be eager to learn if the snowy beach is a dream or a true memory “too precious to place in the hands of another, even of a loved one.”

When you read Gefen’s stories, 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.

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 he won the National Library of Israel “Pardes” Scholarship for young writers in 2019.


Originally published on The Times of Israel.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

From the Archive: What Reviewers Said About “The Virtual Kibbutz”

The Virtual Kibbutz – a collection of short stories – has been selected as a finalist in the Fiction – Short Stories category of the ForeWord Magazine 2003 Book of the Year Awards, honoring excellence in independent publishing.”

That press release was from April 2004, and while the book did not win the award, its nomination was yet another example of the positive response it received from readers, reviewers, and independent publishers.

Here is a small selection of what reviewers said about The Virtual Kibbutz, shortly after its publication:


“It is a lively collection of readable, imaginative short stories descriptive of kibbutz life … Shuman conveys both warmth and sadness in his stories, along with a sense of intimacy and a feeling of regret for the possible passing of a history of which he was a part. The stories are simple, but rich and informative, as they describe ordinary, individual, everyday living in a kibbutz.”  -- Akron Jewish News


“Shuman captures the realities of today’s kibbutz as members struggle to stay in sight of a rapidly changing society. What makes the book so engaging is that he treats it all with the language and imagery of an inspired storyteller.”  -- Hamilton Jewish News


The Virtual Kibbutz is … a must read for anyone interested in understanding the issues facing this uniquely Israeli institution. The underlying theme of the collection is change – as Israel evolves into a high tech capitalist economy, kibbutzim are struggling to stay true to their ideology while making social and economic changes to maintain their viability.” -- The Source, Israel Info-Access Magazine


“I recommend the book to anyone who has spent time on a kibbutz, anyone interested in learning more about the very unique society of the kibbutz, or anyone who enjoys reading about Israel in general. I found the stories fun and enlightening.” -- Judaism site


“The Virtual Kibbutz gives one an insider’s look into the most personal aspects of kibbutz life. And one is left kvelling at the accomplishments of our fellow Jews in the face of nearly insurmountable odds … Each narrative is a distinct unit, with each story just the right length to read on a commute or before bedtime. If you like reading true yet Hamish stories which leave you with a smile in your heart, then this book should be on your ‘must read’ list.” – JewishIndy

Buy The Virtual Kibbutz here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Not all Israeli Netflix dramas are good. Case in point: Hit & Run

Israel has been very successful exporting television shows in recent years. Two shows that enjoyed huge success in their American adaptations are the HBO psychotherapy drama “In Treatment” (based on the Israeli series
BeTipul); and the Showtime counterterrorism thriller “Homeland” (based on the Israeli series Hatufim).

In the age of streaming services, Israel has seen trans-Atlantic transports of original content in Hebrew. The most surprisingly successful show has been “Shtisel”. The third season about a Haredi family living in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem is now available on Netflix.

Another Netflix success story is “Fauda”, which very realistically tells the story of “a top Israeli agent [who] comes out of retirement to hunt for a Palestinian fighter he thought he'd killed, setting a chaotic chain of events into motion.” In Israel, this series is possibly too close to home for comfort, but it has attracted a huge international audience.

One could assume that the creators of “Fauda”—Avi Issacharoff (Middle East commentator for The Times of Israel) and Lior Raz (who also stars in the series)—have a Midas touch, and anything with their name in the credits would be golden.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.

“Hit & Run” premiered recently on Netflix and the 9-episode series is listed as one of the top 10 shows in Israel today. The show relates the story of a “man searching for the truth behind his wife's death” only to be “caught up in a dangerous web of secrets and intrigue stretching from New York to Tel Aviv.”

There are many problems with this show. Although Israeli viewers will enjoy identifying local Tel Aviv scenery, the plot has so many holes that one can’t help but be amazed that someone dared to write a script like this. (While Issacharoff and Raz are listed as creators, they only wrote the first episode).

The main problem with “Hit & Run” though, is its main character. Lior Raz may have been good, and believable, as the star of “Fauda” but here is grotesquely out of place. Looking like a terrorist on the hunt, we can’t help but cringe every time he appears. A man we are supposed to have sympathy for goes on a killing rage and seems to enjoy it. When this travel agent-turned-avenger gets locked up and beaten to the core, we can’t help but cheer. Keep him in jail and out of our living rooms!

No spoilers here. I won’t give away the ending because after a few episodes, you’ll wonder what’s the point? You might make it to end of the ninth episode, but this could be in hopes that the main character will be killed off, thereby preventing a second season.


Originally published on The Times of Israel

Photo credit: Netflix official site

Friday, August 20, 2021

Review of ‘Isaac's Beacon’ by David L. Robbins

The novel Isaac's Beacon by David L. Robbins (Wicked Son, August 2021) is a sweeping historical epic based on the actual events of Israel’s founding, but it doesn’t sugarcoat the tale in the tradition of Exodus and Cast a Giant Shadow. There are no striking, blue-eyed movie stars here, but rather complex, flawed protagonists forced to find their way amidst the challenges and struggles of pre-state Israel’s most tumultuous years.

Eva escapes wartime Vienna and crosses the Mediterranean on a refugee ship only to be interned in the Atlit detention camp, before rebuilding her life as Rivkah in Gush Etzion. Hugo lingers between living and dying in Buchenwald, where he is rescued by an American reporter named Vince. Upon their arrival in Palestine, Vince discovers it is more important to play a role in the historic events occurring around him than to report their story.

Told from the perspective of Irgun fighters, this is a candid account of bombings and hangings, of sitting on death row in a British prison, and navigating one’s way through minefields. The events are portrayed with careful adherence to historical accuracy, a sign of the author’s meticulous research.

While the bombing of the King David Hotel is well known, not everyone is familiar with the failed attempt to blow up British military headquarters at Citrus House in Tel Aviv. The sinking of the Patria refugee ship was a real, tragic event, as were the fierce attacks on convoys supplying the settlements of Gush Etzion. It will surprise readers to learn that American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein performed with the Palestine Philharmonic at Ein Harod; this concert took place in May 1947.

Most troubling to read are the pages depicting the events at Deir Yassin in April 1948. Fighters from the Irgun and Lehi killed at least 100 Palestinian Arabs in what can be rightfully be called a massacre. The horror of what transpired in that village is described in precise, painful detail.

The title of the book is a bit strange. The Gush Etzion kibbutz where Rivkah makes her home, where Vince takes up arms in defense of the Jewish cause, and where Hugo finds refuge from Irgun violence, is Masu'ot Yitzhak, an actual kibbutz destroyed in the War of Independence (and later established as a moshav shitufi near Ashkelon). The name’s literal translation is Isaac’s Beacon, but that hardly sounds like something that would appear on a map of Israel.

“There is going to be a Jewish state,” says one of the Irgun leaders in the last days of the British Mandate. “It will be born in bitterness and battle.” The novel Isaac’s Beacon relates the tale of Israel’s birth in bitterness and battle without sparing the reader any of the blood, sweat, and tears of the brave fighters who made it possible.

New York Times best-selling author David L. Robbins is the author of 15 novels and four professionally produced plays. Many of his books are historical, depicting the battles and conflicts of World War Two. In 2018, Robbins was named one of two most influential literary artists in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Originally published on The Times of Israel.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

"After the War" - a short story in 101 words

The recent flare up of hostilities between Israel and Gaza in May saddened me. Actually it was more than a flare up - it was a war. More than 4,000 rockets fired into Israel, Israeli airstrikes at military targets in Gaza. At least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and 39 women. Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and 16-year-old girl, were killed. And there was extensive property damage on both sides. All this in 11 days.

I imagined what the Gaza border looked like in the days after the fighting, the latest round in a never-ending conflict. I wrote about my feelings in a very short story totaling 101 words. The story was submitted to the 101 Words website, but it was rejected (as was a previous submission). 

"It would benefit from some action - apart from the bird soaring - some conflict - a problem," the rejection said.

I feel my very short story describes a very painful conflict, an ongoing problem. You be the judge.

After the War

The white bird rose from the rubble and caught the wind. It lifted above the debris, the widespread destruction. What was once a home was now fragments of cement, pulverized tiles, severed wires. Broken furniture, charred books, abandoned toys. From above, the ruins appeared miniature, unreal. The bird flew across open fields, dusty trails, and barbed wire. And then more wreckage, further devastation. Far below lay the remains of another family's house, their scattered possessions and damaged furnishings. Their shattered dreams. No lives were lost in these two homes, not this time, but painful memories would last forever on both sides.

Photo by sun hx on Unsplash.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Farewell Shaare Zion

Some of my strongest memories from growing up in Sioux City, Iowa, have their origin in one specific building. Shaare Zion Synagogue. The synagogue was torn down this week.

My parents were very active members of the synagogue, and that is where I celebrated my bar mitzvah. I was president of Junior Congregation in the months before my family made aliyah and moved to Israel.

I remember the balcony overlooking the pulpit and getting into trouble as a young boy for making noise up there while the congregation was praying down below. I remember Sunday school classes; there were only six of us in our class. I remember bringing Jodie and our one-year-old daughter to see the synagogue on our trip to the States in 1981. I gave a short talk about our lives on a kibbutz and we joined a small group for an Oneg Shabbat.

I remember fondly the congregation's spiritual leaders. Rabbi Hyman Rabinowitz (the synagogue's first rabbi in 1925!) made aliyah and we visited him frequently in Jerusalem. Rabbi Philip Silverstein was the rabbi after him. Rabbi David Zisenwine, who also made aliyah and was a close friend of my family in Israel, and Cantor Harry Sterling both played such an important part of my upbringing, especially as I prepared for my bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Rabinowitz officiated at my brit milah; Rabbis Rabinowitz and Zisenwine attended my wedding.

Shaare Zion's colorful history

My father wrote a book called A History of the Sioux City Jewish Community 1869-1969. The book, although listed on Amazon, is long out-of-print. Among other things in the community's storied past, the book relates part of Shaare Zion Synagogue's colorful history.

"New Synagogue to Be Erected" declared a headline in the Sioux City Journal on March 22, 1923. The article reported that plans for the erection of the synagogue, costing $125,000, had been announced by members of the Modern Orthodox Hebrew Church. The 60 founding members of the synagogue had struggled for nine years to get the building constructed, according to the article. It was only starting April 18, 1926, that the first funds were raised for the construction, and the cornerstone was ceremoniously laid on May 1, 1927.

In his book, my father quoted extensively from the newspaper's account of the synagogue's dedication on September 11, 1927. "The eight scrolls of Shaare Zion Temple were deposited in the new $100,000 edifice at 16th and Douglas Street, and the temple was dedicated late Sunday afternoon. The last rays of the sun's light filtering through the stained glass windows of the synagogue, illuminating the starred blue dome over the ark, made the significant rites deeply impressive to the crowd which had gathered for the occasion."

Unsafe for use and occupancy

Fast forward many, many decades. The Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church purchased the building in 1994, and it was later owned by Ciudad Cristiana Ministerio Nueva Jerusalem. According to the Sioux City Journal, "due to declining membership … the church could not afford to fix leaks in the roof and make necessary repairs."

In May 2021, the Sioux City Council determined that the structure was unsafe for use or occupancy.  The city put out bids for the demolition project, including removal of debris and site work.

As can be seen in these photographs, the demolition has taken place and Shaare Zion Synagogue is no more, except in my memories and in the history of Sioux City's Jewish community.

Shaare Zion Synagogue, as I remember it

Images shared by George Lindblade of Sioux City Gifts on Facebook.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

"Three Women in Sofia" - short story


I remember meeting Milena the day I rode on one of Sofia’s rusty orange trams for the first time. I remember boarding, searching for somewhere to validate my ticket. The ticket was a thin piece of paper, I recall, no bigger than the wrapper of a stick of gum. I turned it over, searching in vain for a barcode. Should I show it to the driver at the front of the carriage? Maybe it had been enough to purchase the ticket at the stand? Perhaps, but that didn’t make sense.

“There,” someone called out.

A middle-aged, slightly frumpy woman sitting near the door pointed to a small box on a metal pole. Confused, I approached the pole.

“You must to punch it,” she instructed me, making me grin at her broken English. “There to put!"

I inserted the ticket in a narrow slit, and applied pressure on the handle, looking at the woman for her approval. When I removed the ticket, I saw it was marked by a barely discernible indentation.

“Good,” the woman said.

How did she know to speak to me in English? Was it so obvious that I was a foreigner who didn’t speak her language? Was it my clothes? During those years I rarely changed out of faded jeans and a Spartans T-shirt. Was this the clue that gave me away?

Read the rest of this story on Literary Yard.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

"Sozopol" - short story

When she approached me in the hotel lobby, I was reviewing my notes for the presentation I would be giving the next day. My laptop was open on the glass-topped coffee table and twenty-three PowerPoint slides alternated on the screen as I clicked through them repeatedly. I had given this presentation before, many times, but now I was nervous for some inexplicable reason. I was prepared, but on the other hand, I was skeptical of how my talk would be received.

“I am a big fan of your books!”

I looked up to find a young woman standing at my side. She was tall, with a slim figure, and jet-black hair. She had a pleasant face; barely visible eyebrows topped her almond-shaped eyes; and her lips were curled into an inviting smile. Quite attractive, actually. Her English carried an Eastern European accent, a sign that she was a local woman. I had seen her before, somewhere, but no full recognition took hold. After a moment’s hesitation, I responded to her compliment with a simple, “Thank you. Have we met?”

“I attended this morning’s session!” she said excitedly.

Of course, she was an attendee of the seminar! I had spotted her in the mixed audience—Bulgarians and participants from outside the country, like me. “It was quite an interesting discussion,” I said. “And you are...?”

“Desislava,” she said, extending her hand and sitting down uninvited on a lounge chair. “But you can call me Desi.”

Read the rest of the story on The Write Launch.