“Jerusalem as a Second Language” by Rochelle Distelheim. Ashburn, Va.: Aubade Publishing, 2020. 283 pages. $17.95.
If Rochelle Distelheim paints an accurate portrait, the Jews who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s were a far different breed of people from those I knew when I lived in the Jewish state.
In the 1970s and ’80s, most Soviet immigrants were Zionists. Sure, they experienced discrimination in their home country, and their standard of living there was low. They wanted to get out, but the main impetus for leaving was a strong commitment to live in the Jewish state.
Not so the Zalinikov family, the protagonists in this novel — and other Russian immigrants whom readers naturally will assume they represent. They have no interest whatsoever in living in Israel. Anti-Semitism drove them out of their Russian homeland. No passion for Zion here. Before making aliyah in 1998, they had tried to immigrate to the United States, but their request was rejected.
Manya the wife/mother muses about Americans. “I thought about their …newspapers and magazines and universities and theaters and concert halls and bookstores; how safe everything looked, how far from the Palestinian tragedy, and army service. And I thought, if there is a God, and if [her religious husband] Yuri is so holy, so pure, whywhywhy had he and [daughter] Galina and I not been chosen to go to America.”
In Israel, they daydream of their privileged life in Russia where as members of the elite — Yuri was a mathematician and researcher at St. Petersburg University — they enjoyed perks unknown to the vast majority of their fellow citizens.
Yuri said he wanted go to Israel to “live like a Jew” but only after his Jewishness and Russians’ anti-Semitism cost him his job and the good life. Besides, his definition of a Jewish life was to become an ultra-Orthodox Jew, a lifestyle he could have followed much more comfortably in Monsey, N.Y., or Baltimore.
Yes, Israel, like any place this side of heaven, has its problems but not to the extent that Distelheim describes. “This country is like no other. It takes you in, and yet, you are never in as a sabra is in. It takes you in, and then it breaks your heart,” Manya says.
Everywhere, human nature dictates that natives are more “in” than those who come from abroad. So, Israel “breaks your heart” because it is like every other country? I don’t get it.
Or, she writes that Israel is surrounded by enemies and yet tries to normalize life — “weddings, circumcisions, babies, concerts, museums, zoos, lectures, carnivals.”
Of course, Israelis like any people, could not survive by dwelling on the dangers they face and not having weddings, circumcisions, etc.
Despite these problems, there was one bit of dialogue in the book that was quintessentially Israeli, painfully authentic. The family was a victim of a suicide bomber. After the explosion, Manya, who had been on the way to the ladies room, had run toward the scene of the blast — risky because sometimes, terrorists set off more than one bomb at the same site. The doctor who bandaged her criticized her for not being more careful. She replied: “Doctor, please understand. This was my first suicide bombing. I’ll do better the next time.”
She certainly got that right. Unfortunately, that was the exception.
Distelheim died in June, at 92. “Jerusalem as a Second Language” was her second novel. Her first, “Sadie In Love,” was published in 2018. In the novel under review, the use of foreign words and phrases calls into question Distelheim’s credibility. As this book deals with Russian Jewish immigrants in Israel, she peppers her prose with words and phrases from Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian.
Unfortunately, she makes several mistakes. She refers to Uri’s rabbi as the Reb or Reb Turrowtaub. The word “Reb” is an honorific and does not mean “rabbi.”
At least twice, Distelheim notes that a character is an “olim.” Olim is the plural of oleh (male) and olah (female) immigrant.
And she does not understand the Orthodox lifestyle. Her husband’s rabbi drinks coffee all over the city, when in fact haredi Orthodox Jews would be leery of eating or drinking even in a kosher eatery outside their communities — they would suspect that the rules of kashrut might not be strictly adhered to — no less in the Arab part of town.
And her husband’s rabbi shakes her hand many times in the book. Orthodox men do not shake hands with women not in their families.
None of those errors is huge, many would not even have been detected by non-Hebrew speakers or those not familiar with Orthodox Judaism.
But taken together, they cause a credibility problem.
Aaron Leibel’s memoir, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s,” is slated to be published by Chickadee Prince Books early next year.