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Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction
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winter 2004  
Vol. 33, No. 2

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

FoiglmanFoiglman by Aharon Megged, trans. from the Hebrew by Marganit Weinberger-Rotman (Toby Press, 277 pp., $19.95).

At 84, Aharon Megged is one of Israel's most celebrated novelists (winner of the 2003 Israel Prize for Literature) and cultural critics. His masterful novel, Foiglman (first published in Hebrew in 1987), explores major conflicts underlying Israeli society through characters that seem so real we can imagine them in our living rooms.

Zvi Arbel, a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University, leads a comfortable life with his wife Nora, a research biologist, and their grown son Yoav, a career army officer. As a historian, Zvi is devoted to studying European Jews and their responses to recurring cycles of massacres. Diaspora history holds little interest for Nora and Yoav, however, who regard Zvi's fixation with Jewish catastrophes as a sort of morose pathology. The family's domestic tranquillity is shattered when Shmuel Foiglman, a Yiddish poet living in Paris, contacts Zvi after reading his book on the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49. Suspecting he has found a kindred spirit, Foiglman enlists the professor's help in translating his poems and publishing his book in Hebrew--all in preparation for Foiglman's own move to Israel. After months of correspondence, Foiglman shows up one day on Zvi's doorstep in Tel Aviv and insinuates himself into the Arbels' life.

Nora resents Foiglman, his extended stays at their home, and eventually Zvi's monetary contributions to Foiglman's projects. Her antipathy to Foiglman soon extends to the Yiddish language itself. When Zvi brings home an album of Yiddish songs, Nora shouts, "Stop this mawkishness! It's driving me crazy!" and rips the needle off the record, signaling the growing estrangement in their marriage.

The conflict between Yiddish--the soft, sentimental bearer of so many sad memories--and Hebrew--the terse, masculine language of independence--echoes Israel's ambivalent relationship with the Jewish diaspora past. Foiglman, a Holocaust survivor who does not feel at home anywhere in the world, is a haunting and unwelcome reminder of Jewish powerlessness in this gripping and timely novel of contemporary Israel.

Click here to order Foiglman.

Natasha and Other StoriesNatasha and Other Stories
by David Bezmozgis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 147 pp., paperback $18).

David Bezmozgis, a 31-year-old Canadian writer, takes us inside the world of Russian Jewish immigrants--a community that he knows well, having emigrated with his parents from Latvia to Toronto in 1983 when he was six years old. Bezmozgis' narrator, Mark Berman, recalls painful and amusing episodes in the lives of newcomers to this North American city as they struggle to adjust to a new culture. "At least in Russia you know who to bribe," Mark quips.

In "An Animal to the Memory," Mark earns an unwanted reputation as "the toughest kid in Hebrew school" for his tendency to respond to classmates' taunts with his fists. When Mark disrupts a Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration, the rabbi sternly lectures him on "what it means to be a Jew"--totally oblivious to Mark's own sense of marginality as a newcomer to the school.

"Roman Berman, Massage Therapist" describes his father's struggle to make a living in a new country. According to Mark, his father Roman, a former sports trainer in Russia, was convinced that "if he got his office in just the right location, the old Polish Jews would surely follow." As Mark explains: "This was 1983, and as Russian Jews, recent immigrants, and political refugees, we were still a cause. We had good PR." But being "a cause" also has its downside, as the family discovers when the Bermans are invited to their first Sabbath dinner at a Canadian home. Hoping for new business contacts, they are instead treated like heroic martyrs--and leave feeling like humiliated recipients of their hosts' largesse.

In the culminating story, "Minyan," Mark describes the elderly residents in the B'nai B'rith senior housing project, where Mark's grandfather lives after the death of his wife. The apartment waiting list is long, but Zalman, the Romanian-born gabbai of the building's on-site synagogue, throws his weight behind those applicants willing to participate in the Shabbat minyan. It seems odd to Mark that Zalman should have so much trouble gathering a prayer quorum in a building full of Jews; but, as Zalman explains, many are atheists, primarily as a result of Stalin or Hitler. Nevertheless, Zalman fights valiantly for his minyan. "Who here didn't lose someone to the Nazis?" Zalman asks. "I lost my grandparents, three beautiful sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins. So what am I supposed to do, let the bastards win? Because who wins if a Jew doesn't go to synagogue? I'll tell you who: Hitler." The beautifully drawn characters in these stories give eloquent expression to the lives and struggles of Russian Jewish immigrants in North America.

Click here to order Natasha and Other Stories

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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