Tuesday, March 29, 2022

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

Who knows what really transpired at Masada, the desert fortress that today serves as a symbol of Jewish heroism and Israeli national pride? Did its residents listen to an impassioned speech by their Sicarii rebel leader, Eleazer Ben Yair, and choose to commit suicide rather than fall into Roman slavery? Or are there other explanations for their story?

These questions and possible answers are raised in Masada: Thou Shalt Not Kill by Shimon Avish (MarbleStone Press, January 2022), first in a planned fiction series themed around significant events in ancient Jewish history.

What little we know of the Roman assault on Masada and its aftermath comes from the writings of Jewish military commander turned historian Flavius Josephus, who was not present at Masada in the year 73. It is said that Josephus learned of the siege from the eyewitness account of two women and five children who survived the mass suicide. It is likely that Josephus, later a Roman citizen, embellished his story so that it would find favor in the eyes of his hosts.

The lack of convincing archaeological evidence to support the idea of mass suicide gives a novelist ample opportunity to create their own version of historical events. In this novel, while mostly following the accepted timeline of events, the author provides an alternative explanation to what happened on Masada during the Roman siege.

The narrative follows the story of 18-year-old Daniel, son of a Temple priest, who is abducted by Sicarii assassins and taken to the Masada fortress which they captured during the Jewish-Roman war that led to the destruction of the Second Temple. On Masada, Daniel is assigned menial tasks of clearing rocks and tending to crops, while at the same time falling in love with Judith, sister of one of the rebels stationed at the fortress.

Daniel grows into a leadership role, eventually challenging the authoritarian rule of Eleazer Ben Yair. After the Masada rebels attack and massacre the residents of nearby Ein Gedi, and because of a lack of enough food to support their community, Daniel decides to lead a large group of residents away from Masada and into exile.

As the Romans begin their siege, and Eleazer Ben Yair calls for mass suicide, Daniel must find the way to utilize his strength, character, and resolve to stay alive.

While the novel’s dialogue tends to sound as if it was spoken by modern day characters, the book will appeal to readers of historical novels, especially to those fascinated by the legend of the nearly unassailable Masada fortress.

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. Masada: Thou Shalt Not Kill is his first novel.

Originally published on The Times of Israel.


Sunday, March 13, 2022

Review of ‘The Other End of the Sea’ by Alison Glick

The first description of Israel in The Other End of the Sea by Alison Glick (Interlink Books, November 2021) is harsh. “A sandy yellow-colored structure, three stories tall, with a few high-placed windows. It was farther back from the road than nearby buildings. A whitewashed concrete wall, topped with a spiral of barbed wire surrounded it.”

“That is Ashkelon prison,” says Zayn Majdalawi. “Where I was held as a political prisoner.” He is speaking to Becky Klein, a “nice Jewish girl from the Midwest” who had previously studied in a six-month ulpan program on a kibbutz and returned to the region as a teacher at a Quaker-run school in Ramallah. After visiting Gaza, she crosses back into Israel in a 7-passenger taxi along with Zayn, a Palestinian “who had not let the devasting, scarring events of his life so far narrow his vision of the future.”

Descriptions of Israel do not get any better in the novel. While visitors feel the “warmth of Gaza” and Palestinian gardens are “verdant and intricate with bushes of fragrant basil, plain earthy potatoes, and showy trees of lemon and almond,” Israel is a land of “truncheon-wielding troops [crushing] the bones of victims,” during the first Intifada.

Although this novel’s background is the Israeli occupation, and exposure to the struggle for Palestinian rights gives Becky a “new view of the world,” it transcends political commentary and can be read as a cross-cultural love story. Becky’s first visit to Gaza “was like the blossoming of a romance,” but her real romance is with Zayn, the man she falls in love with and marries in a shotgun wedding.

Marriage to Zayn, Becky quickly learns, is not what she had originally imagined. A few days after the wedding, he resumes sleeping elsewhere. He continues to distance himself from his wife, but whether this is because of the cultural gap between a Muslim and a Jew, or because of his fear of being captured by the IDF, is not clear. "I love you," Zayn says into Becky's hair, in a rare moment of outward affection, but he quickly adds, "Take care of yourself," and departs.

With Zayn constantly on the run, Becky follows her husband to the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, to Tunisia, and then back to Gaza. “What would I do here without Zayn?” Becky asks herself. “I came to this land without knowing him, but he had become an anchor, an interlocutor, a translator of all things Gazan and more. Could I be here without him?”

The Other End of the Sea reads more like a memoir than a novel. Eloquently written, it is full of vivid, detail-filled recollections; tourist-oriented descriptions of places and customs; and brief mentions of “memorable instances.” Yet, more than anything else, it is a bittersweet love story which questions whether it is possible to follow one’s love across the most heartbreaking cultural divides.

Alison Glick lived for a short time on a kibbutz and in a town near Haifa. Her experiences opened her eyes to the realities of Palestinians living under Israeli control. After studying Middle East History at Temple University, she lived in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Yarmouk Camp in Syria for six years, working as a teacher, human rights researcher, and freelance writer. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, the Arab Studies Quarterly, and Mondoweiss. The Other End of the Sea is her first novel. She is based in Philadelphia.

Originally posted on The Times of Israel.

Friday, March 4, 2022

My Inspiration When I Write

I look up and I see the mountains. Fog dances in the valley as a shepherd takes his flock of sheep out to pasture. A cow bell can be heard as the morning mist lifts. I see the red-tiled roofs of houses and barns; some of them seem about to collapse. This is Gela, a village in the Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria. And I view it in an enlarged photograph that hangs on the wall above my desk as I write.

The scenic view of Gela was captured by Maya Karkalicheva, a Bulgarian mountain photographer. Her photos have frequently brought back memories of my visit to Gela in 2015.

Following my return from a two-year stay in Bulgaria in 2011, I wrote almost exclusively about the country. My Bulgarian adventures led to the publication of my two novels and a collection of short stories that will one day soon, I hope, be published.

Although my fiction is no longer set in Bulgaria, I still take pleasure in looking up and seeing the green mountainsides of the Rhodopes. Gela village, the warm hospitality of its residents, the tasty local cuisine, and the crisp morning air - all of these continue to inspire me as I write.