The Strange Adventures of Remarkable Jews in Contemporary Israel

This book’s opening quote is telling: “I fear the Almighty and respect his works,” says Oom Schalk in HC Bosman’s Makapan’s Caves, “but I could never understand why He made the Kaffir and the rinderpest.”

Some 60 years later, there are some people, including Jews, who wonder why the Almighty made Jews, although one has to concede that people have been wondering about this particular subject from the proverbial get-go, notwithstanding that He is alleged somehow to be intimately related to us. People also seem to wonder these days why the Almighty made Israel.

Think about it. You can buy scores of excellent guide-books to Israel and/or the Holy Land and also more than a few travel guides to Palestine. But what you don’t easily find is a shrewd guide to the zeitgeist of Israel today.

There have been a couple of (non-fiction) attempts that I can think of. Much fuss was made in the US about Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism (Henry Holt, 2012) but I thought it pretty tedious; and much fuss has been made world-wide of Ha’aretz’s journalist Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land (Spiegel&Grau, 2013), which is a fine book but too mawkish for my jaded palate.

So, let us put our hands together for The Ingathering of the Exiles: The Strange Adventures of Remarkable Jews in Contemporary Israel by Roy Isacowitz.

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The book’s a biting satire. In the finest Jewish tradition – Lenny Bruce and Mordecai Richler spring to mind – Isacowitz mocks much that is pretentious among (us) Jews and Israelis, by taking a very unromantic look at how certain remarkable Jews would fare in modern Israel. (Ingathering of the Exiles, kibbutz galuyyot, a key phrase for the Jewish Agency since 1948, refers to the return of Jewish exiles to the Promised Land.)

The 13 remarkable Jews – the ones in the book who have the weird, upsetting and sad adventures in Israel -are Moses, Anne Frank, Trotsky, Kafka, Spinoza, Josephus, Dreyfus, Ethel Rosenberg, Freud, Shabtai Tzvi, Bugsy Siegel, Christ and God. I daresay, as I suggested above, that there are those who would argue, some quite strenuously, that God is not exclusively Jewish. But this is a discussion for another day.

Anne Frank gets feted by the Israeli government as a holocaust survivor – which leaves her feeling a bit bewildered, as reflected in her wonderfully apt SMSs to her sister (typically girlish – we mostly forget she was just a young girl who would be just as cutesy on her I-Phone as your daughter or mine were she alive today – beautifully captured by Isacowitz). Trotsky gets pissed off with the young Russian/Israeli computer nerds who want to market the Socialist revolution as a computer and video game.

Spinoza, working as a lecturer at a right-wing, religious Israeli university in the shtachim (occupied territories), gets into trouble for allegedly denigrating the (the Mkhulu) Boss and someone offs him … The point is that the whole chapter on Spinoza is a quasi-formal report by a forensic auditor…

“We forensic auditors are a suspicious bunch – and most of the time we have reason to be. …I’m not satisfied with the finding that [Spinoza’s] death was accidental and I believe that there is reason to suspect that the university was involved in foul play. Or, if not the university, then one or more of the shadowy groups that pull the strings in the occupied territories… OK. I have a day job to get back to. The Spinoza saga is intriguing, but it was only a small hiccup… An estimated five million dollars was poured into the spontaneous combustion lab, which was researching natural phenomena that might have been responsible for the burning bush incident. …”

An important point here: each chapter, each remarkable Jew, is dealt with differently. “Moses” is a straight-forward, wry story – tones of Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemingway – about the sad, somewhat ineffectual putz who finally gets to the holy land and finds it pretty disappointing after all.

“Anne Frank” consists of the SMSs of a gushy teenage girl. “Kafka” is a Wikipedia report on this guy who immolates himself and his flat in Tel-Aviv and about the manuscript he leaves behind. “Josephus” is a Q&A (as well call it in the journo business) in a pretentious literary magazine – because, as you might know, Yosef Ben Matityahu, Titus Flavius Josephus, one of the most important historians who ever lived, was accused of being a sell-out, an impimpi, and probably was.

So: different kinds of takes (formats) on 13 different remarkable Jews, each one very, very funny – in a bittere gelechte (Yiddish: cynical or sad laughter/joke) kind of way. And below each one subtends (a word I’ve always wanted to use in a review) a great deal of research and insight into each of the protagonists.

I know a little only about Dreyfus (read the Robert Harris book), Anne Frank, Ethel Rosenberg, Shabtai Tzvi, and Bugsy Siegel (saw the movie with Warren Beatty); but I know a helluva lot, if I may say so, about Moses, Trotsky, Kafka, Spinoza, Josephus, Freud, Christ and God (well, the bits of his career that have been written up) – and, as I said, Isacowitz has certainly done his homework.

My favourite two pieces are on Christ and God. During an archaeological dig, Christ is discovered alive and well in the cave in which he was immured after crucifixion – and of course the Israeli authorities, once it is established that it is Jesus from 2000 or so years ago, go into a flat spin and, as might be expected, behave very badly indeed. It is an extraordinarily sad and touching story.

God, on the other hand, is a rambunctiously unpleasant old critter, living in an old age home called Beit Protea in Tel-Aviv. It actually exists, by the way; it was set up by South Africans who went to Israel, along with the SA Zionist Federation, as a final home for elderly and frail former South Africans in Israel. I know of someone pretty famous (in South Africa) whom Isacowitz used to visit there – but I presume God is not based on him. God is way too unpleasant and cavalier.

When – in this Runyonesque piece – the interviewer asks God why he allowed the Holocaust to happen (which is the sort of question that philosophers and theologians ask), and voices all the reasons that are given as possible ones for God having allowed such appalling horror, God tells him not to be such a fat-bottom: he explains that he lost six million people in a card game – with his nemesis (you know, that other guy, no names no pack drill, who’s also in Beit Protea by the way, but is in frail care and doesn’t remember anything).

“I exited Beit Protea into the gentle spring sunshine. I’d found God, but I wasn’t sure what good it had done me. Was I any the wiser for having chatted with God? Did I have the answers to the Big Questions? … No, I didn’t, and it’s unlikely that I ever would.”

You should read this book. It’s first-class.

Jeremy Gordin