Yardenne Greenspan on Contemporary Israeli Literature

We should be busy making peace, or even making war. We should be concerned with our national security, with making this country a safer place, but we can't even catch our breaths long enough to think about these important issues. To be concerned with our future, we have to get a grip on our present, and sometimes that is almost impossible when we're not sure when and where we'll be tomorrow.

Israel's contemporary young writers seem more concerned with the minutia of everyday life than with the big picture stuff—the reality that people outside of Israel see and hear on the news and have become accustomed to equating with all that Israel means. They are worried about keeping a job, paying the rent, sending their children to school. The protagonist of Strong in Russia, a novel by Ran Dovrat, calculates that saving up for the cost of a house in a nice city, a two-hour commute from his job, would require him and his wife to starve to death. In India Express by Sarai Shavit, Mali goes so far as to attempt a drug deal in India in order to make a better life for her family. Young Israeli protagonists dream of buying a house and building a career. They dream of peace and well-being, but only inasmuch as it pertains to their own families and homes. More than anything though, they dream of escape, of leaving all this behind and starting afresh elsewhere. They dream of places like Argentina, Alaska, New York, India, Norway. Places they perceive to be mentally and physically far away; lacking in trouble, or at least in the kind of trouble they've been dealing with their entire lives. They want fresh air, open spaces, crisp weather. They are tired of fighting.

But instead they are stuck in their own limited worlds. In Shemi Zarhin's Some Day, the four members of a family in northern Israel are trapped in their psyches, detached from the world, yearning for another existence, dreaming separately of their childhoods in Buenos Aires, imaginary lives as ill poets in northern settlements, and the practically imaginary—for them—hills of Rio de Janeiro. In Izhar Har Lev's The Rate of Iceberg Melting, the protagonist and storyteller fantasizes about packing up his family and moving to Alaska, where his son can run around in a field and suicide bombs are mere fiction. A recently dismissed insurance agent, he is painfully aware of every little danger threatening his family's fragile lives. To him, Alaska becomes a monumental safe haven, a heaven-on-earth—even an aphrodisiac.

But escape is not a real option. Like their writers, who are trapped in Hebrew and destined to traverse the Earth through it rather than out of it, their great talents meant for this small land, these protagonists are stuck in their mediocre existences, either unable or not fully willing to find a way out.

And even when they do, these escapes don't work out very well. Robert in Some Day returns from Argentina with money and diamonds, only to find out later that his departure brought violence and death and left him bearing the responsibility for a dark secret. In The Hilltop, brothers Roni and Gabi both try their luck in New York City, only to be pulled back by the power of money, either the pursuit or lack thereof, into the vicious cycle of life in Israel. The protagonist of Falafel Oslo, by Amir Ben David, is murdered when he unintentionally brings the Jewish-Muslim conflict, in the form of a falafel stand, with him into that tranquil European city. It seems that even when a departure is possible, it is doomed to fail not only those who attempt it, but their loved ones as well. No matter what happens, they are pulled back to their homes with a destructive, voracious force that leaves them withered.

When they aren't trying to get away, these protagonists are busy worrying about their children. Not only are they concerned about their inability to give them a healthy and safe future, that life in a state of imbalance will cancel out any chance these kids have at an independent and happy life; these parents' concerns are much more basic—they don't know their children and they don't understand them. Like kids the world over, Israeli children are strangers to their parents. They live in an advanced and fast-paced technological world, or sometimes in worlds that only exist in their own minds. Whatever the case, they either don't need or never receive guidance from their parents. Their parents couldn't see them, even if they wanted to.

In the case of The Hilltop and The Rate of Iceberg Melting, kids are merely present in their homes while their true lives are lived in cyberspace. Noomi in The Rate of Iceberg Melting is wholly invested in his World of Warcraft quest, blocking out any outside interruptions such as school, friendships and food. Yakir in The Hilltop, a young settler, creates a settler character for himself on Second Life and proceeds to blow up virtual mosques and spam Arab users with graphics of Stars of David—his own private effort at terrorizing his neighbors to the east. Shlomi and Hilik, the two brothers in Some Day, lose themselves in the culinary and literary arts, respectively. Their parents are way too preoccupied with the lingering effects of their own childhood traumas, and are unable to see their children's strife for what it really is. When tragedies hit, the children have nowhere to turn.

The Sequoia Children, by Gon Ben Ari, perhaps demonstrates the farthest children can veer from their parents. In this novel, children born in or after the year 2000 are given a drug that increases their life expectancy to one thousand years. These kids not only differ from their parents for the obvious reasons of time and technological advances. They are, in fact, leading completely separate lives that abide by a different set of rules and time constraints.

Rather than being a part of the "fear-of-missing-out" generation, these kids have years to spare and no need to choose between one activity and another. Their major fear is that of missing out on centuries of life, and so they refrain from danger as much as they can, maintaining an extremely cautious and action-less existence in order to be able to keep at it for years to come. They live in an Israel with no war or military, and with very tame politics. To their parents, these children might as well be aliens. They have almost no shared national experience, and the only word that makes them all cringe is "holocaust."

This defeatism, this cynicism, this self-involvement all bring to mind some intriguing questions: are peace, equality and welfare more likely to exist when people are concerned with their family's wellbeing? Is the anxiety of survival perhaps a helpful tool in promoting tranquility? Or, rather, is this focus on the personal, rather than the social and political space, what causes us Israelis to get stuck in the loop we've learned to look at as life?