Hebrew Fiction / Old-new hymns

The latest in a new generation of talented Mizrahi writers, Almog Behar presents in his first novel an ideal of cultural syncretism, portraying a young Jerusalem couple whose seder participants cross borders and religious boundaries.

Tchahle Vehezkel (Rachel and Ezekiel), by Almog Behar.
Keter Books (Hebrew), 260 pages, 89 NIS

Over the past decade, we have witnessed the meteoric rise of a second generation of Mizrahi writers, as evidenced by the impressive novels of Ronit Matalon, Sami Bardugo, Dudu Bossi, Shimon Adaf, Sara Shilo and others. With his fourth book and first novel, “Rachel and Ezekiel” (his previous works include two books of poetry and a short-story collection ), Almog Behar joins the ranks of these writers.

The book’s title reveals something about the author’s intellectual orientation; the Mizrahi nicknames in the Hebrew title (Tchahle for Rachel and Hezkel for Yehezkel, or Ezekiel ) and the fact that the title characters are married hints at the sort of lives the novel aspires to describe. The book centers on the relationship of the young Jerusalem couple, both of them bereft of living parents, and now expecting their first child.

The couple’s unofficial guardians, a rabbi named Ovadia and his wife Mazal, are older mirror images of the novel’s protagonists. The climax of the story comes at a Passover seder at Tchahle and Hezkel’s home, to which they have invited a Moldavian Jewish neighbor; Hezkel’s half brother, Ismael, and mother, Ana’em; and Mazal, Ovadia and Ovadia’s mother. The seder is organized as a multicultural event at which Mizrahi and Russian-speaking Jews, as well as Jews and Arabs, and the young and the old, sit together. And it is on this night that Ovadia and Mazal depart this world, not without having left their imprint on the young couple.

Jerusalem figures as one of the novel’s heroes, and Behar provides a description of the city “from the inside.” This is not an exotic glance at the tourists who frequently roam around the Nahlaot neighborhood, where the couple live; instead it is a detailed, expansive view that includes the city’s eastern side, including the neighborhood of Beit Safafa, where Ismael lives. For instance, when Hezkel is fired from his job, there is a colorful description of his journey to Saladin Street in search of work in the printing trade. As an aside, the narrative discloses that this is Hezkel’s first visit to this central East Jerusalem thoroughfare: “He had heard the name, ‘Saladin,’ but he had never come to this place.” In this way, Behar reveals much about the way residents from Jerusalem’s western and eastern (that is, Jewish and Arab ) sides are cut off from one another, about the way they orient themselves in the urban space, and about how life in the city becomes organized in symbolic enclaves.

This book aims to bust open these enclaves, but its political passages are founded on reality, rather than ideology. Here is the continuation of the passage about Hezkel’s wanderings in East Jerusalem: “And nobody could offer any form of work to his long outstretched arms. In one place they said we are about to go out of business, they don’t let us distribute our newspaper in Ramallah or Nablus; in another, that we are cutting back on staff, we couldn’t get a license to bring our journal to Hebron, and anyway, who has time today to read; and in a third that we are being shut down due to an order relayed by the military governor or the army judge or army minister, as we have written things that you’re not allowed to write, or our journalists are not allowed to leave Jerusalem – neither to the east or west, north or south, and who’s going to buy a newspaper whose news items relate exclusively to Jerusalem?” The author’s critical vision hides behind the coolly factual survey.

Variations of identity

Behar uses the title characters, especially Hezkel, to reinforce various attitudes and positions upheld in the book, and they embody variations of Mizrahi Jewish identity in the Israel of 2011, giving readers vibrant, colorful slices of contemporary reality. Hezkel’s outlook represents the political viewpoint (championed by the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition ) that decries the inequality between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews; religious traditionalism is exemplified by the pious Ovadia, whose name is a clear allusion to Shas’ spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Ismael is the representative of a political ideology that stresses similarities between Mizrahi-Jewish identity and Arab identity; that issue is also brought to the fore when Tchahle and Hezkel attend an event dedicated to Iraqi song (she is troubled to discover that he doesn’t understand the song’s lyrics in Arabic, and “is angrier with him at that moment than in all the other times when she was angry with him” ).

Both Hezkel and Tchahle find themselves trying to balance a desire for full intellectual autonomy with a readiness to be influenced. Their intellectual outlooks develop during the course of the novel. The harmony within multiplicity that Behar proposes is expressed on various levels; in one of the novel’s most powerful moments, Hezkel prays as a Jew in a Beit Safafa mosque, as though he is beseeching the heavens for theological unity.

The book sometimes seems to place a greater focus on political ideology than on the literary aspects of the plot or the characters. Some symbols of its literary commitment are manifest, though. For instance, during the course of the novel, Hezkel turns into a poet. He starts out having connections to a circle of poets who hang out at the Tmol Shilshom cafe in downtown Jerusalem. He reads poems by Erez Biton, a well-known Algerian-born Israeli poet, before he starts writing his own verse. Hezkel’s rise as a bona fide artist is clinched when his first work is published. The poem opens with the line “With my dead brother, I have traveled on a long road,” and this infuriates Hezkel’s half brother, who is very much alive.

When he is starting out, Hezkel wonders to himself: “Perhaps if I add lines that I heard during prayers, and religious verse that I remember, and spice them up with some of my own words, I will be able to write words in the form of a poem, and call them my own.” With these simple words, Hezkel identifies the DNA of Mizrahi poetics, and alludes to the type of writing exemplified by this book, writing that draws upon traditional Jewish liturgical poetry and religious sources.

The medley of secular and traditional prose characterizes Behar’s own work. His writing career began with texts that featured a long string of poetic quotations; and this novel too is influenced by the author’s interest in poetry.

Hezkel offers an alternative to the “reams of secular poetry,” lyrics that are attuned to synagogue melodies. He proposes poetic metier that adheres to its own, different set of rules. “I ask that you write a new piyut [liturgical poem] for the synagogue, for Passover,” Rabbi Ovadia says to Hezkel, when he learns that he has begun writing.

“Rachel and Ezekiel” is a rich cornucopia of images, ideas and echoes, and there is not enough space in this review to do justice to everything it offers. But I would like to note another characteristic of Mizrahi literature that unfolds richly in the novel, and that is the book’s status as an object. Almog Behar’s novel provides its own distinctive way of relating to printed matter that is called a “book”; this perspective views a book as being more like a sacred text than a secularized batch of printed pages. Hezkel deliberates about this perspective, as in a passage that describes his ruminations on a book written by the great Iraqi-born scholar of Arabic literature Sasson Somekh, to whom Behar has dedicated this book: “In the end he decided that the book by Somekh had a holy quality, and he placed it on top of a book that discusses Jewish law.”

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