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

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

"The Volcano" - short story

“You need to come home. Now.”

“I hear you,” I reply, holding the phone at a distance. Maya’s voice comes across the line at a higher decibel level than usual. “Are you sure you’re feeling contractions?”

“Daniel!” It is nearly a shout. “I know what this is and I know that you have to be on the next flight.”

“Alright,” I say, wondering if this isn’t another case of false labor, like the symptoms that sent us to the hospital prematurely just two weeks ago. “I will order my ticket for tonight.”

“I don’t know if I can last that long!”

It is early afternoon so there’s plenty of time to make a reservation. There is no doubt in my mind that there will be an empty seat on the plane. Not many people fly from Sofia to Tel Aviv in the middle of the week.

After ending the conversation with an ‘I love you’ on her side and an “I love you, too’ from me, I turn back to my laptop and regard an Inbox filled with urgent emails awaiting my attention. Contracts to review, shipments that are late, and complaints about delayed payments. It is not easy managing an international firm with offices in both Israel and Bulgaria. Maya complains about my frequent flights to Sofia, and how that leaves her alone in our Tel Aviv apartment dealing with the pregnancy on her own. Luckily there have been no complications in the past nine months but as this will be our first child—a boy—it is natural for her to be concerned. Especially during the last trimester.

Maya understands why I work part of the time overseas, I tell myself. Why I fly back and forth every other week. She realizes how important it is to have my company succeed. It is a startup, admittedly, but one with huge potential. Succeeding in this business will ensure our financial future. I am not suggesting that we leave Israel, or that we relocate to Sofia, even temporarily, as many other Israelis have done, but that I split my management duties working out of two offices.

While I know that Maya supports me in this venture, and that she backs me every step of the way, what has really bothered her is the fact that I set up our second office in Bulgaria. Why Bulgaria? she asked me, repeatedly, when I told her of the plan. Of all the countries to choose from, why had I chosen an East European country with a communist past and a far from stellar record as a member of the European Union. ‘Silicon Valley, I can understand,’ she had said to me. ‘England would even be acceptable.’

Bulgaria is only a two-hour flight from Israel, I told her. The country offers excellent conditions for our second office, I explained. A highly educated, multiple language-speaking workforce. A modern internet infrastructure. Low labor costs and reasonable corporate tax requirements. In short, we could get everything we needed in Sofia at a much cheaper price than what we would have to pay in the United States or elsewhere.

While Maya had eventually acquiesced to my decision, things were apparently different now that we are on the verge of starting our family—something we have planned since the day we got married. Maya is more emotional than usual, more judgmental. More prone to criticize my business decisions when they interfere in our personal lives.

When I informed Maya that I would have to make one additional flight to Bulgaria before the birth, she was both upset and somewhat disappointed in me. I calmed her down with reassurances that I would be home well before her due date. There was absolutely no way I could miss a planned meeting with prospective investors in Sofia. I really had to go, I told her. That was four days ago.

Sunday, August 6, 2023

What Readers Are Saying About "Tales of the Tel Aviv Ticket Inspector"

Readers of my short story "Tales of the Tel Aviv Ticket Inspector" have posted their feedback on social media and in messages to me, and I'd like to share their words. I hope you have a chance to read the story!

Tales of the Tel Aviv Ticket Inspector

Published in June 2023, DoubleSpeak

"This is brilliant. It says so much about the love of a job, the love of a city and the tapestry of its people, and most of all, the love of a spouse--beyond health and measure. I felt Avshalom's internal wrestling, the loss he faced in giving up that simple (yet deeply rich) job as a driver... to face the beauty and banality of a life of lentil soup and "everything the same as always." Yes, even after a brush with death. Thank you for this most worthwhile and enriching piece."

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"Incredibly touching"

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"Well written of course! Love seeing the world through the eyes of your characters!"

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"I really enjoyed this, Ellis. Seamlessly written. The bittersweet ending hit the high notes"

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I hope you have a chance to read "Tales of the Tel Aviv Ticket Inspector".