“Only connect!”— Literature (and life’s) purpose according to E. M. Forster. In the thirteen stories that make up Jerusalem Beach: Stories, Iddo Gefen does precisely this. The winner of this year’s Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, Gefen’s book is the first Hebrew work of fiction to receive this award. Translated skillfully into English by Danielle Zamir, the stories mostly take place in Israel with many details idiosyncratic to the country: the army (draft, reserve duty, wars), the physical locations, the family ties. Yet for the most part, the stories’ themes are universal: old age, love, longing, entrapment, and above all, a desire to connect. The stories are poignant, filled with a love of humanity – its frailties and follies. And while the language is both utterly accessible and direct, its characters and their circumstances are quirky and individualistic. From Hadera to inter-galactic settings, whether grounded in realism or flying in the fantastic, the human heart beats the same.
The opening story, “The Geriatric Platoon,” uses the ruse of a geriatric army unit for men nostalgic for their lost prowess and agency to meditate on Israel’s culture of militarism. The old man who enlists in this unit, recently widowed, is floundering. Close to his son and grandson, still he feels lost and without purpose. In high school his grandson Yuli was eager to show his soldierly mettle. Now, years after fighting in the 1982 Lebanon War, he is waylaid by PTSD. He stays home and does nothing. Yuli’s mother says that “wars are not a national issue. It was always a personal matter, perhaps more personal than anything else in the world.” She should know. It has wrecked her son, it has wrecked her husband and her marriage, and now it has caused her old father-in-law to risk his life. The story is ultimately about the price paid by three generations of Israeli men.
The title story, “Jerusalem Beach” also has a focus on the elderly. A couple travel to Jerusalem so that the wife, suffering from dementia, can once again experience the snow that magically descended one day in the Jerusalem of her childhood. Told from the point of view of the husband who wants his wife to fulfill this dream, they make snow angels in the sand of an empty lot. It is a gesture filled with love and kindness.
In “101.3 FM,” an old broken radio broadcasts people’s thoughts. The young man tasked with fixing it, postpones doing so, for this ‘power’ allows him to enter into a romantic relationship with a woman (since he knows for certain she is interested). It also enables him to deal more assertively with his boss. In short it becomes a crutch until it becomes a liability.
A similar foray into the minds of others to keep them close – the loss of other people is a constant anxiety in Gefen’s cast of characters – is seen in “Debby’s Dream House” about a company that builds dreams and nightmares. Israel’s Ministry of Health is a big client, especially of nightmares, for they claim choreographed nightmares help people think they are working through their problems (read war related PTSD). The narrator uses his role as a nightmare builder to manipulate his girlfriend’s, Debby, fears so she won’t leave him. He feels guilty that his stories cause her to suffer, but he justifies it with the higher goal of holding on to love and connection. Similarly, in “How to Remember a Desert,” a memory-sharing machine becomes the technological solution to advancing intimacy and merging between people.
The desire to connect is also seen in “The Girl Who Lived Near the Sun.” The young male narrator is on the usual (Israeli) post-army trip. Taking place sometime in the future, the trajectory of his voyage is inter-galactic (not today’s South Asia/America). The young traveler resists his parents’ pressure to return home to become a psychological engineer (or more specifically, the reengineering of trauma). Instead, He goes to live with a woman on a planet she has bought – the smallest and closest one to the sun. With intimations of The Little Prince, they bond after a rocky start.
And in the last story of the collection, “Flies and Porcupines,” the themes of love, connection, loss, trauma, and memory all come together in an understated but devasting way. It is told from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy whose older brother teaches him to catch time in a bottle. The story ends when he uses his bottled time to relive earlier moments when his brother – who has since been killed in the army -- is alive. The boy wants his family to join him and escape “being stuck in one still moment.”
Peculiar instruments, machines, locations, and time frames do not eclipse the emotional and psychological journeys that fill Gefen’s stories. They accompany them in a literary voice that is both warm and shattering. In Howard’s End Forster wrote: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” Gefen does this. With his characters. With his readers. With his country.
Miryam Sivan's collection of short stories, SNAFU & Other Stories, was published in 2014, and her novel, Make it Concrete, was a Finalist in the First Novel category of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, 2020. A new novel, Love Match, is due to come out in 2024. Sivan has published short fiction in numerous journals in the US and UK and teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa.
by Iddo Gefen
Astra Publishing House, 298 pp.
Reveiwed by Miryam Sivan