For the sixty-six years of its existence, Israel has been a hotbed of political strife and economic struggle, and the subject of passionate discussion about what the country should and should not be. The difference between the grand dream of Israel and the often problematic contemporary reality is a main subject of Who Will Die Last, a collection of short stories by David Ehrlich, who owns a popular bookstore café in Jerusalem called T’mol Shilshom.
The bookstore’s name comes from the title of a novel by Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Israel’s 1966 Nobel Prizewinner in Literature; T’mol Shilshom means “yesterday and the day before yesterday.” Interestingly, the past—yesterday and the day before it—also marks Ehrlich’s writing. Ehrlich, who has published two collections of short fiction in Hebrew, frequently explores the tensions between the old generation of idealists, including penniless Holocaust survivors who helped establish Israel, and today’s newer personalities—real-estate speculators, hi-tech kingpins, and young people who take extended trips after the army, trying to get as far away from Israel as cheaply as possible.
Some of the strongest stories here read as fables or allegories. In one memorable story, titled “The Store” and translated by Naomi Seidman, a couple with no children who live in a picturesque village die, apparently with no heirs. This couple is the old Israel—people who lived in the same modest home all their lives. The villagers excitedly discuss what should be done with the house and plot. Should it become a library? A synagogue? A small museum? Then a relative the village has never heard of arrives, proves that he has the rights, and sells it for the unimaginable sum of half a million dollars. The new buyers, a couple, then make the house into an antiques emporium; they put up a billboard on the highway to advertise, and the tiny village is overrun by tourists with money to spend. In despair, the villagers call the couple who recently moved in. They get nowhere. They put a note under their door. When these tactics don’t work, the villagers throw lit matches at the home. They did not mean to kill the residents, but of course, the couple dies, and all the antiques go up in flames. The police investigate and conclude that it must have been Arabs committing arson. There have, they say, been several cases of it nearby.
It’s hard to read this story without thinking of the failed tactics of the peace process, where the negotiations sometimes seem as absurd and pointless as a note under a door. So, too, is the frustration with the tendency of some in Israeli society to blame Arabs. It should be stated that the majority of Israel’s voters favor a two-state solution, but that has not changed the impasse.
Politics are not the only problem Ehrlich chronicles. He also describes people’s helplessness in the face of gentrification. The cost of Israeli real estate is now so high that the International Monetary Fund has warned that it is 25 percent above sustainable levels; in 2011, nearly 400,000 people crowded Rothschild Boulevard, a main thoroughfare in Tel Aviv, to protest the cost of living. Since then, housing prices have soared higher. Not surprisingly, many people—especially the young—are frustrated at the lack of progress on both the political and economic front. That frustration often translates into extended trips abroad, or even moving abroad entirely. In “Stars,” translated by Shalom Goldman, a young Israeli man in London finds a British lover and seems to be making himself a new life, until he is trailed by an Israeli real-estate investor who shows up and tries to get him to sell his ancestral home—the home of his parents and grandparents—in Jerusalem. “Stars” begins with a moving and hilarious sequence in which Steven, the lover, tries to teach the narrator to say “no”—moving the mouth and the lips just so:
He’s teaching me to say "No” because he is sick of all the Israelis in the living room. We haven’t yet returned from the couple that was here last week, and already there’s a call from some people that I don’t know—but they know my brother Amir.
The passage captures the way Israelis tend to feel comfortable dropping in on acquaintances, and it also offers a window into the lives of Israeli expatriates. Ehrlich, too, lived abroad, but he eventually returned to Israel, opening a café, as the narrator in “Stars” does. These stories show the longing for Israel, with all its problems. So while there is critique here of contemporary Israel, there is also a love of place.
This book is unusual because it is the work of thirteen translators—too many, apparently, to credit on the cover. The editor, Ken Frieden, who directs the Judaic Studies program at Syracuse University, writes in his introduction that “in my editing I have not tried to smooth out rough edges or to craft the stories to sound the same, because they are narrated by many distinctive characters with dissimilar voices…the diversity of translators corresponds indirectly to the many voices in David Ehrlich’s fiction.” While Ehrlich’s stories do contain multiple voices, for an English reader, there are big differences in word choice and style from story to story—and sometimes those jumps are jarring. For instance, the first story in the book, “To the Limit,” translated by Charlie Buckholtz, about two drivers attempting to pass each other on the highway that is another allegory of the peace process, contains the phrase “pissed me off” several times; that kind of language is far different from the fable-like diction of “The Store,” translated by Naomi Seidman. On the other hand, there is something coffeeshop-like—communal, welcoming, open—about having so many translators work on a book.
And it’s easy to see the appeal of even the tiniest two-page stories here for translators. Though some stories in the book are stronger than others, nearly all are about people whose past struggles to fit their present—a rich and universal subject. Because the setting is Israel, these struggles can escalate into matters of life and death. Sometimes, as the title hauntingly indicates, Ehrlich’s characters triumph by simply dying last.
Aviya Kushner's writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, The Wilson Quarterly, Partisan Review, Poets & Writers, and A Public Space. She has worked as a travel columnist for The International Jerusalem Post and as a poetry columnist for BarnesandNoble.com. Her first book, The Grammar of God, about her experience of reading the Bible in English after an entire life of reading it in Hebrew, is forthcoming from Spiegel & Grau. She teaches at Columbia College Chicago.
Who Will Die Last
By David Ehrlich, edited by Ken Frieden
Translated from the Hebrew
Syracuse University Press, May 15, 2013
$19.95 paperback, ISBN-10: 081561019X