Saturday, September 27, 2014

Preserving the Souls of Children

To the End of the Land
David Grossman
Vintage Books (2010), 653 pp.
Transl.  from Hebrew, Jessica Cohen

 “How do you like our beautiful country; our terrible country?” asked Nurit. We had just completed a lap and a half of Israel, which is enough to recognize a remarkable number of the places mentioned in David Grossman’s novel, To the End of the Land. The novel captures what she meant. If you are interested in understanding the complex, and tragic nature of Zionism a half century after Israel became an occupier state, this is an indispensable book. If you are interested in great literature and closely observed details of the complex and intense role of motherhood, the emotional ups and downs of marriage, and the joy and pain of children as they grow up and away from you to become citizens, this is a highly recommended book. If you are interested in a finely crafted tale unfolding with mystery, suspense, and consummate skill over six hundred pages, this is a great read.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, they say has visited Israel almost every year since 1991. In 2010, the year Grossman’s novel was published in English, he issued a glowing review of Israel’s exceptional "start up nation" achievement. “Israel’s technological success,” he says, “is the fruition of the Zionist dream. … It was founded so Jews would have a safe place to come together and create things for the world.” Brooks believes this achievement is worth defending. His oldest son is currently serving in the IDF, which Brooks views as a noble coming of age experience.  “I think children need to take risks after they leave university, and that they need to do something difficult, that involves going beyond their personal limits. Serving in the IDF embodies all of these elements,” says Brooks. But what kind of coming of age is implied by signing on to a military apparatus whose job is to control 4.4 million people, who have no civil rights, and who don’t want you in the land? What happens to these sons and their families when they become old enough to “be nationalized?”

To the End of the Land revolves around Ofer, who has just completed his three year service in the IDF, and who is mobilized for a final spasm of the South Lebanon War.  He bails on joining his mother on a celebratory camping trip to the Galilee. Ora, the mother, panics. Her husband (Ilan) has left her and is off in South America with their eldest son (Adam). She is left terribly alone. She has just had a bitter day with Sami, her Arab driver, an old and intimate family friend; they are divided over the mobilization. It exposes rifts over “the situation.” Ora decides to go on the camping trip anyway.  If only she can hide from the news, not be home to receive the army’s messengers of death, maybe she can keep fate and her anxiety at bay.  Along the way she picks up Avram, Ofer’s birth father, an old lover whose body and spirit remain broken from torture he suffered as a prisoner during the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Avram has never met Ofer.  For weeks Ora and Avram wander the Israel Trail from the Lebanon border towards Jerusalem. Along the way Ora tells the story of her family, her marriage, her children, the pain, loss, and sadness served up by “this terrible country.”  "[T]his is why she brought Avram with her,” says Grossman.” “To give a name to all these things, and to tell him the story of Ofer's life, the story of his body and the story of his soul and the story of the things that happened to him."  In doing so she also tells the story of Israel, from a Jewish Israeli perspective, from the Six Day War through Operation Cast Lead, and its last iteration—Operation Protective Edge. The novel speaks to the essence of the nation and the soul of its children.

Ofer starts as a curious, hyper-empathetic child. He is horrified at the realization that the food on his plate is animals; he becomes vegetarian.  As the children grow up Ora works hard to protect them from “the situation.”  But it’s difficult.  Ofer early on becomes aware, and afraid, of the other. The Arabs. It’s not anything that happens. It’s just in the air.  Ora lacks convincing answers to Ofer’s innocent childish questions. “I would wake up with panic attack,” says Ora. "’Look at us. Aren't we like a little underground cell in the heart of the 'situation'?  And that is really what we were. For twenty years,” she tells Avram. She refers to the twenty happy years following the Yom Kippur war, after the birth of Adam and Ofer and before her children are taken from her and nationalized by the army.

Ofer, as a child, takes to sleeping with a monkey wrench in his bed “so he can beat up the Arabs when they come….” This comes in the midst of a long section describing the little phases and obsessions kids go through. It made me think of how 10 year olds “play doctor” before puberty hits and the sexual games begin in earnest.  As Ofer and Adam reach their “age of nationalization,” their beating up of the Arabs turns earnest.  A “slight whiff of anger” begins to emanate from Ofer, “repelling and belittling, especially toward anything and anyone who was not connected to the army." He abandons his vegetarianism and becomes a ravenous carnivore.  The cavalier manner in which her men speak of what they do at check points, in Hebron, in Lebanon eats at Ora.  Ofer’s unit, it appears, failed to catch a suicide bomber at a check point. Ilan says he is glad the terrorist blew himself up in Tel Aviv, not at the checkpoint.  Ofer is incensed: "But Dad, that's my job. I stand there precisely so they'll blow themselves up on me and not in Tel Aviv."   It’s the sentiment that enables Ofer to shape and use clubs, to shoot civilians at close range with rubber bullets, to forget about a naked old man held captive in a meat locker in Hebron. Through it all, Ora attempts to hold the line on his decency; Ofer tells her she doesn’t get it. 

Some are confident that decency is misplaced. Ora and Avram run into a group of Orthodox Nationalist settlers on the trail. They get to speaking of the current operation, and Ofer’s deployment:  “God curse the Arabs,” says a young woman. “With everything we gave them they still want more, all they think about is killing us, for Esau hated Yaakov, and Ora with a very broad smile suggested that today they not talk about politics. The difficult girl furrowed her brow in surprise: ‘that's politics? That's the truth! It's from the Torah!’"  

And in the end, Ora is not sure if she’s not fighting a losing battle for the soul of her children. She thinks she has an ace up her sleeve with Ofer, her absolute certainty as a mother that Ofer could not hurt a human being, because if that happened Ofer’s life would never be the same. “Quite simply, and irrefutably, he would have no life after that. But when she took a step back and looked at him, at the strength of his body, at that skull, she wasn’t even certain about that.”
And this lack of confidence suffuses “the situation.”

The novel opens with Ora, Ilan, and Avram as 16 year olds in an isolation ward in a Tel Aviv hospital. They are gravely ill with a contagion. Everyone has abandoned them and they are left to discover each other early in the Six Day War. They hear triumphal radio Cairo broadcasts leaving them to wonder whether the war is lost.  Similarly, Avram in his cell between tortures during the Yom Kippur war reads false newspaper reports about executions of fifteen mayors from Haifa and the surrounding area.  When he returns from his ordeal, the very existence of the state looks provisional and unreal to him:  "’Look at them. They walk down the street, they talk they shout, read newspapers, go to the grocery store sit in caf├ęs’ -- he went on for several minutes describing everything he saw through the car window—‘but why do I keep thinking it's all one big act? That it's all to convince themselves that this place is truly real.’" Ora and Avram run into memorials to fallen soldiers along their trail: “where will all this end?” wonders Ora. “There’s not enough room for all the dead.” When she drops off Ofer at the mustering station, he whispers in her ear: “If something happens to me—I want you to leave the country…. Promise me you’ll leave the country.”  And as she and Avram get their conditioning on the trail, the very land looks provisional. “When we looked down on the Hula Valley and it was so beautiful with the fields in all those colors, I rallied that its always like this for me with this land …Every encounter I have with it is also a bit of a farewell.”  

The presence of “the other” in the land shows up in the map of hostile surrounding countries; it’s there in the tension between Ora and Sami, her driver and long time friend as they drop off Ofer at the mustering station; it’s reflected in the people they meet near Arab villages on their trip; it shows up in their very flesh as Avram has schizophrenic visions of an Arab in his body; and ultimately it’s reflected in the land itself.

“Listen,” Ora says and holds his hand. “To what?” “To the path. I’m telling you, paths in Israel have a sound I haven’t heard anywhere else.” …. “It’s a good thing they all have the right sounds in Hebrew. How would you possibly describe these sounds in English or Italian? Maybe they can only be accurately pronounced in Hebrew.” “Do you mean these paths speak Hebrew? Are you saying language springeth out of the earth?” And he runs with the idea that words had sprouted up from this dirt, crawled out of cracks in the arid, furrowed earth, burst from the wrath of hamsin winds with briars and brambles and thorns , leaped up like locusts and grasshoppers. Ora listens to his flow of speech. Deep inside, a fossilized minnow stirs

its tail and a wavelet tickles at her waist. “I wonder what it’s like in Arabic,” she says. “After all, it’s their landscape too, and they have rhonchial consonants too, that sound like your throat is choking on the dryness.”

In the end, unlike David Brooks’s son, and unlike those start-up nation capitalists with half a foot in Palo Alto, Ora has no place else to go. “’But in any case,’ she says quietly, ‘if I do, it won’t be just the country.’” She is stuck in this beautiful, terrible land, fighting to preserve the souls of her children.

The Israel Trail


  1. I am surprised that you have no comments. My guess is that you have fallen into the hole, that it is not fair game to say anything critical of Israel in a public setting. In this case it is anything that might be considered critical of Israel. I guess the alternative is that everyone was too busy enjoying autumn or they think you are D squared.

  2. The review tells of another war to preserve the souls of children that are compelled, by the dangerous situation they are in ,to act in ways they never dreamed of . What a human dilemma -kill or be killed. And after you kill you feel you have lost part of yourself anyway.