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SPRING 2004  
Vol. 32, No. 3

By Bonny V. Fetterman
Please see the Study Guides for Significant Jewish Books

The Israelis The Israelis:
Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land

Written by Donna Rosenthal
(Free Press, 480 pp., $27)

"This is a book about ordinary people trying to live normal lives during abnormal times," writes journalist Donna Rosenthal, a former news producer for Israeli television and reporter for Israel Radio. "The Israelis in these pages are not politicians or generals or guests on Nightline." This in-depth portrait of Israeli society today--based on interviews with Israelis from all walks of life as well as different ethnic groups and religions--reveals a human face of Israel that is often lost behind the headlines.

Beginning with accounts of what it is like to live in "the world's most volatile neighborhood," Rosenthal moves on to the experiences of everyday life: the fortunes made in high-tech businesses that rival Silicon Valley; "mating and dating" in Israeli society; the experience of serving in an army that depends on reservists. "We know that without the army, there wouldn't be an Israel," a young soldier explains. "We can't afford to lose even one war or we'd lose our country."

No one is left out in this comprehensive portrait. Ashkenazim, Mizrahim (Jews from Arab lands), Russian immigrants (who now constitute 20% of the population) and Ethiopian Jews tell about their lives in Israel, as do Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), modern Orthodox, and non-Orthodox Jews (80% of Israeli Jews are non-Orthodox). Gay and lesbian Israelis describe what it is like to "come out" in this society. Rosenthal also plays close attention to the non-Jewish citizens of the Israeli state--Muslims, Bedouin, Druze, and Christian Arabs (many of whom feel as threatened by Islamic extremists as Jews). "Since the second intifada, relations between Jewish and Muslim Israelis have deteriorated," she reports, describing a range of opinions from the secular Israeli Arabs who make Israel their home but resent the symbols of the Jewish state to the Islamist sheiks in all-Muslim towns who are calling for the end of the Zionist state. She also comments on the prostitution and drug rings that have emerged with the intrusion of the Russian mafia.

Readers who know little about Israel as well as those who have visited many times can learn much from this intelligent and timely portrait. Despite its internal and external conflicts, Israel today, as Rosenthal reminds us, is a dynamic, democratic society in which an astounding array of cultures have thrived with extraordinary success.

Click here to order The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land

Fateless Fateless
Written by Imre Kertész,
trans. by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson
(Northwestern University Press, 191 pp., paperback $19.95).

Hungarian writer Imre Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. His autobiographical novel, Fateless--the first work in a trilogy that ends with Kaddish for a Child Not Born--presents an unusual perspective on the experience of internment in a concentration camp. The story is narrated by Gyorgy Koves, a bright but naive fourteen-year-old boy who is abducted from his home in Budapest and sent to successive camps--Auschwitz, Zeitz, and Buchenwald. A child from a broken home, the emotionally detached Gyorgy is accustomed to going along with the flow of events. Thus he takes his capture and internment step-by-step, simply describing experiences he does not quite understand as they occur. His innocence and emotional distance put the burden of response on the reader, who already knows the meaning of the debarking at Auschwitz, the "selections," and the nauseating smoke. When Gyorgy eventually realizes the meaning of a "death camp," he is already too ill and too starved to care.

As an assimilated Jew, Gyorgy does not know Yiddish and is appalled by the sight of emaciated Jews in prisoners' garb who care enough to warn him to say he is sixteen, not fourteen, to increase his chances of surviving the selections. When a rabbi recites Kaddish for three prisoners at a hanging they are forced to witness, Gyorgy momentarily regrets that he does not know the prayer. But for the most part, he feels that his Jewish identity is something imposed upon him from the outside. His anger emerges for the first time upon his return to Budapest after liberation, as both uncaring and well-meaning people try to tell him how to feel about an experience they cannot fathom.

"What I discovered in Auschwitz is the human condition, the end point of a great adventure, where the European traveler arrived after his two-thousand-year-old moral and cultural history," Kertész declared in his Nobel acceptance speech. "I consider this prize with which the Swedish Academy has seen fit to honor my work as an indication that Europe again needs the experience that witnesses to Auschwitz, to the Holocaust, were forced to acquire."

Click here to order Fateless.

Editor's note: The Union recommends two titles every quarter for book groups. A discussion guide is available on the Union for Reform Judaism's Significant Jewish Books Web site.

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.

First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
and a Benefit of Membership in a Union Congregation

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