Book Reviews: Evacuation, Errant and Stone.Bread.Salt

Peter Lawson reads some near-poetic prose — and actual poetry.


As the United Kingdom proceeds tortuously to leave the European Union, and domestic “anti-Zionism” demonises the Jewish national home, it is a liberating pleasure to read books written by French Israeli citizens.

In Raphaël Jerusalmy’s novel Evacuation, beautifully translated from the French by Penny Hueston, there are two principal narratives. In the first, Naor, his girlfriend Yäel and grandfather Saba (Hebrew for grandfather) are hiding in Tel Aviv during a bombardment of the city, when all the inhabitants have been ordered by the military to evacuate north.

The parallel narrative looks forward in time; the war is over and Naor is recounting their days in Tel Aviv to his mother during a road journey back to the city. Meanwhile, in another related narrative, Naor is shooting a film on his smart-phone called — you guessed it — Evacuation.

If this sounds postmodern and complicated, that is far from the experience of what is in effect Jerusalmy’s paean of love to Tel Aviv: “A city that seems to go out of its way not to be beautiful. So that you become attached to the people who live there, not to its bricks and mortar.”

Evacuation explores secular Israeli identity through one city, Tel Aviv, and its relationship to Judaism and Jewish tradition. Israelis enjoy life in this “sanctuary” and “refuge” — “whether they’re Jewish or not“, a city where “you refuse to define yourself according to a conflict”. Ultimately, this marvellous novel succeeds in evoking such self-definition.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, the poet Gabriel Levin has written another erudite, modernist and intellectually stimulating volume, Errant. Levin, born in France but raised in the United States, writes in English. Occasionally, Hebrew and French words appear but Levin is principally a master of the English lexicon.

As the title suggests, this is a book about wandering, and specifically the discursive trope of the “wandering Jew”. Levin’s note to his technically dazzling villanelle, After Avraham Ibn Ezra, explains that the medieval poet fled Spain in 1140, “wandering from one country to another — Italy, Provence, Northern France, England”. To err is also, of course, to be mistaken, while The Vision of Er refers to Plato’s Republic and words that “had wandered//into my mind”.

Using this poetic conceit, Levin links the diasporic with the Israeli. His prose poem on “the great Hebrew writer Haim Yosef Brenner” depicts Brenner as a “vagabond” teaching Hebrew to “small Jewish farming settlements” during the early days of the Yishuv: wandering while shaping the Jewish national home. In sum, Errant suggests a synthesis between Zionism and the Jewish peripatetic tradition.

Stone. Bread. Salt transports us to more familiar Anglo-American poetic territory. Norbert Hirschhorn also draws on the Bible and an Ashkenazi tradition of yiddishkeit to produce wise and witty verse. Various rebbes are quoted to powerful effect, in poems merging the folkloric with a minimalistic intensity; for example, “The Kotzker Rebbe once asked some learned men, Where does God live?/ The men, surprised, replied, Why God lives everywhere, and throughout./ No, he lives wherever we let him in.’

This is creative religious poetry. As Hirschhorn explains in the preface, it voices his “journey to rediscover my Jewishness”. The poet identifies this journey through “the Hebrew word tshuva… It means return, but also repentence”. Another key concept for Hirschhorn is Tikkun — healing, restoration”. To follow this ethical path, he counsels us to “care for yourself,/ care for the one who has wronged you”.

Accordingly, there are poems concerning Lebanon and Syria, some of which are translated from the Arabic with their author Fouad M. Fouad.

There is even a poem about Donald Trump, which gives the lie to Trump’s claim that “Nobody reads the Bible more than me”. Hirschhorn quotes from Jeremiah, Micah, Habakkuk and Nahum to show prophetic judgments on tyrants, which Trump seems to have overlooked.

Like Jerusalmy and Levin, Hirschhorn explores Jewishness beyond the discourses of antisemitism and “anti-zionism”, celebrating the “life/ between one darkness and another darkness”.


Peter Lawson is an Honorary Associate and Associate lecturer at the Open University

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