Monday, December 30, 2013

The Magnificent Synagogue of Sofia, Bulgaria

The Central Synagogue of Sofia is the pride of Bulgarian Jewry and the only Jewish house of worship in the Bulgarian capital. Jewish life in Sofia, home to some 2,000 Jews out of the country's 6,000, centers around the synagogue. During the two years my wife and I lived in Sofia we visited the synagogue many times.

On September 9, 2009, a ceremony was held at the Sofia Synagogue marking the 100th year anniversary of the building's dedication in 1909 by Bulgarian Tzar Ferdinand. The ceremony was attended by Bulgaria's president at the time, Georgi Parvanov.

On every occasion that friends and family members visited us in Bulgaria, we took them to see the magnificent synagogue. The synagogue made such an impression on me that I included one scene in the building in my novel.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Review of "Smokescreen"by Khaled Talib

In Smokescreen, a fast-paced espionage thriller by Khaled Talib, someone wants the prime minister of Israel dead. An innocent man will be blamed for the assassination.

Israel's leader has held secret talks with the Palestinians, including Hamas, and is willing to make serious concessions in exchange for peace. The historic announcement detailing the peace deal will be made in Singapore upon the prime minister's visit, and that is where the assassination will take place. Similar to conspiracy theories surrounding the killing of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, blame for the assassination will be placed on a patsy to divert attention from the real conspirators.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why I Prefer Editing a Novel to Writing One

Some authors start writing their novel with a detailed outline prepared in advance. These "planners" may have labored out a scene-by-scene plot before sitting down to write the first word of their book.

Other authors start writing with a general idea in their mind but with a willingness to allow the story to develop as they go. These "pantsers" may only know the basic idea of their book, or perhaps just its opening line.

Both types of authors work hard at completing the first draft of their manuscript but when they succeed in that, the field is leveled. Editing, the next stage, takes a hastily written manuscript (although the writing process can actually go on forever) and transforms it into a readable novel. Many writers abhor the editing process, but I actually enjoy editing a novel much more than I do writing one.

Here's an interesting fact about my writing process. I am preparing a detailed outline of my book after having completed the first draft.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Seinfeld's Kibbutz Days

An interesting part of Israel's history is often overlooked by historians. In 1971, future comedian Jerry Seinfeld, aged 17, volunteered on Kibbutz Sa'ar for a short period of time.  "I worked in the banana groves," Seinfeld later recollected. "I couldn't take it any longer! It was hard work; you guys work hard in Israel."

Seinfeld's experiences during his kibbutz days never made their way into the iconic television series that bore his name, but they did play a role in The Virtual Kibbutz, my collection of short stories detailing life on Israel's unique society. The book's opening story, "Searching for Seinfeld," was based on the true story of a newspaper reporter's search for Seinfeld's kibbutz past.

Monday, December 16, 2013

We Survived Jerusalem's Snowstorm of the Century

I know what snow is. I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, and experienced many blizzards in my childhood. My wife grew up in Ithaca, New York, which had very white winters as well. Living in Israel, we thought that we would escape harsh winters, yet we still have strong memories of the storm that struck the country in 1992, which blanketed our home in Moshav Neve Ilan with half a foot of snow and knocked out the electricity for three days. And then recently, we lived for two years in Bulgaria, where the winters are quite cold and snow is very common.

We didn't know that the worst snowstorm in some 150 years was heading our way. The first snow fell on Thursday morning, but then the storm struck in force overnight, knocking out our power and leaving us without heat as well. We assumed the electricity would go back on right away, but another night of heavy snow hit us.

We are just now recovering from four days without power and heating and beginning to deal with the severe damage caused to our house by a falling tree and a leaking roof.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Masada - The Legend and the Truth

On an isolated mountaintop overlooking the Dead Sea is Masada, a symbol of Jewish independence and freedom. With sheer rock cliffs dropping 450 meters, the nearly impregnable fortress is stunning when seen against the majestic starkness of the Judean Desert.

It was on Masada that a small garrison of Jewish rebels held out against the Roman conquest in the year 73 CE. Three years after the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, Eleazar Ben Ya'ir and some 960 others of the Sicarii Zealots resisted the siege of Roman governor Flavius Silva and the mighty Tenth Legion of the most powerful army on earth.

Rather than allow themselves to be captured and taken off into slavery in the far reaches of the Roman Empire, the Zealots decided that it was better to die at their own hands as free men. After listening to an impassioned speech by Ben Ya'ir, the Zealots drew lots and then took their own lives.

This makes for an amazing story, something that still resonates in Israel today when new army recruits swear in with the vow, "Masada will never fall again". But how much of the Masada story is actually true?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Review of the Novel “The Settler” by Orit Arfa

In 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proposed a “Disengagement plan” that would see the country unilaterally relinquish control over the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank in recognition that “there exists no Palestinian partner with whom to advance peacefully toward a settlement.” There were 9,000 Israeli residents living in 21 civilian Israeli communities in the Gaza Strip at the time. In August 2005, Israeli soldiers evicted these settlers and a month later, the last IDF troops withdrew from Gaza.

Orit Arfa's novel The Settler opens as soldiers are evicting the Dakar family, long-time Gush Katif residents and agricultural pioneers in their community. The scene is traumatic – a family of ordinary citizens who didn’t break any laws is being forcefully pulled out of their home – yet it is a scene that most Israelis avoided seeing, or thinking about. This harrowing experience leads Sarah Dakar, the family’s oldest daughter, to reevaluate everything she has held dear about Israel and its values.

“The very symbols we cherish as Zionists are now symbols of our oppression,” Sarah thinks, questioning why her family was being forced out of Gaza. “Did so many Israelis really not want us there?” It was self evident to Sarah and her family that “the land belonged to the Jews, that Gush Katif was a buffer zone, that Hamas terrorists would take over if [they] left.”

Sarah and her family believed that the government’s plan would never actually happen. “Settlers were out of touch with the reality around them, didn't believe the disengagement would happen.” And when it did, it was not ‘disengagement’, but rather an ‘expulsion’.

Statements like this repeat ad nauseum in Sarah’s mind, and in her conversations with the people she meets after fleeing from her parents’ home. The novel makes a half-hearted attempt to explain the other side – the government’s and the majority’s rationale in leaving Gush Katif – but this is always in the context of why the country made a wrong decision.

“Some rabbis even said that Gaza wasn't technically a part of biblical Israel, not like Judea and Samaria. I always liked to believe that the land of Israel was our birthright, promised to our forefathers, and Gush Katif was the embodiment of an ideal: a utopia of Torah observance that lived out the highest biblical value of settling and sowing the land of Israel.”

While her parents are left to deal with a temporary home, first in a Jerusalem hotel and then in a Nitzan ‘caravilla’, Sarah escapes to the big city. She abandons her religious values, one by one. She no longer observes the Sabbath, no longer eats kosher. After all, she rationalizes, if God has abandoned her and her family, what was the point in adhering to the traditions?

Sarah, now going by the name of Shachar, replaces Judaism with the nightclub life of Tel Aviv. Everything she sees is compared to her former observance of the traditions. “I look up to the DJ booth the same way people looked up to the ark of the Torah just hours ago: in search of transcendence.” Sarah/Shachar “has claimed the dance floor as her Holy Land.” Sarah wins a nightclub beauty pageant, leading her new friends to declare: “The settler has officially become a sexpot.”

But The Settler is not entirely the story of Sarah’s disengagement from Judaism, but rather the story of “a good girl gone bad to better”. Eventually she realizes that the nightclub that has come to replace her Gush Katif home is an illusion, without values or principles. She begins to search for her way back – back to her family and her traditions. And, she helps her boyfriend – the anti-religion, diehard peacenik nightclub owner -to see the error in his ways in how he relates to the Gaza withdrawal.

This book is a coming-of-age story that will not appeal to all readers. Despite the creation of a terrorist Hamas entity in the wake of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal, most Israelis have “buried it in [their] collective memory.” No matter how much she calls out for attention, not everyone will sympathize with Sarah Dakar when she recalls her former home: “It wasn't a ‘settlement,’ an ‘obstacle to peace,’ a ‘territory’. It was a home, a home worth fighting for back then – and now.”

Sarah cannot disengage from her traumatic past, but the rest of Israel has already moved on.

The author, Orit Arfa, a native of Los Angeles and now a resident of Ariel, is a Times of Israel blogger who previously wrote the nightlife section of the Jerusalem Post.

Originally published on The Times of Israel.