IN her first novel, Wherever You Go, Joan Leegant attempts to address an aspect of Jewish contemporary life — American religious Judaism and extremism in Israel — that has not yet gotten a full literary analysis.
Through separate stories of three main characters, Leegant brings a number of questions to the fore:
What function does Israel play for American Jewry in 2010? How can a Jewish state attempt to be a Democratic Jewish state with all the obstacles inherent in that oxymoron? Do prescribed ideologies and religions really work?
These questions, and more, come to life as the reader hears the secular Israeli perspective vs. the religious ideology of Greater Israel through the voices of Yona, Mark and Aaron. While none of the characters know each other, Leegant weaves their lives together as the plot crescendos.
All three leave the US for Israel, escaping personal turmoil, inner conflict, broken relationships, hoping that Israel will provide the answer. Well, gone are the novels where Israel sweeps everyone off their feet and into the golden Jerusalem sunset. Leegant’s work is of an entirely different kind of Israel, an unexpected answer.
The novel opens with Yona Stern, 30, as she arrives in Israel after a 10-year estrangement from her sister Dena. With her parents long gone, Dena being her only sister, Yona hopes to repair their relationship.
In contrast to her sister’s passionate, focused life, Yona feels her life has been a bunch of dead-ends; single in New York City in relationships, and working at a snooty gallery instead of becoming the artist she once wanted to be.
However, Yona’s time in Israel surprises her, where she is able to see her sister Dena’s not so perfect life: exhausted mother of five, married to a religious ideologue on a West Bank settlement, passion turned to stone-cold focus, sacrificing every physical comfort for the greater cause of settling all of Israel.
Yona also begins to understand why she’s made a far from perfect life for herself. Personal happiness has eluded her because she has punished herself for an act she committed long ago.
Then there is Mark Greenglass, a Talmud scholar who was a former druggie, saved by religious Judaism in the last moment right when the drugs were about to consign him to a permanent abyss.
While Mark has been a genuine ba’al teshuva-returnee for the past 12 years, enjoying a scholarly reputation among the rabbis and Judaism students in Jerusalem where he lives, he has a father back in New York who is very disappointed in his progeny.
Greenglass arrives in New York on a teaching stint, a featured scholar at Discovery-like seminars. Aside from his disappointed father, Greenglass now faces an emptiness he has not known in a long time. The spiritual Judaism that had once saved him was now leaving him lost, in a crisis.
At first Greenglass is able to maintain many of the religious trappings — white shirt, yarmulke, thrice daily prayers — but slowly they begin to slide as he continues to question his life, his future, his past.
Finally, there is Aaron Blinder, a seeming disappointment from the start. Never had a career in school, constantly disappointing his famous Holocaust-novelist father, and never amounting to much socially either.
Aaron follows a girl to Israel for a semester abroad, hoping to pursue a relationship. Upon arrival in Jerusalem, she dumps him, and soon after Aaron asks to be thrown out of the program. Aaron finds himself in a small settlement among violent Israelis, the fringe of the settler movement. Among this small crowd are other lost American like Aaron, whom he befriends.
It is at this outpost that Aaron finally feels like he is finding his purpose, splitting from his father, whom he believes has milked Nazism in the terror- and violence-filled novels he writes.
Aaron also believes that he has finally found G-d.
“He could feel, even, the hand of something greater at work. He was never a big believer . . . because that was the wrong G-d. An eviscerated G-d, Or a G-d of follow-the-rules. But that wasn’t the real G-d . . . the Israelite G-d in whose midst he now lived . . .the real G-d was here, in this place . . . the Alm-ghty Avenger . . . ”
However, all of this ideology puts him on a dangerous path, which brings the plot to a climax and brings the three characters together in a not-so predictable circumstance.
HOW does each character resolve their conflicts? Leegant leaves that for the reader to figure out. She does not provide many answers, although she seems to suggest that genuine spirituality comes in the The Moment when something big is experienced, not necessarily through daily laws and rituals.
Leegant seems to suggest that the usefulness and contribution of any young American in Israel is no longer a standard or truth to uphold as an ideal. Gone are the novels that idealize students who come to Israel to discover Judaism and who sacrifice creature comforts or maybe even more to settle the land. Leegant wants to show her readers how American students can be loose cannons, individuals with a lot of unresolved conflict, who can land up in the wrong group and weaken the Jewish state.
Furthermore, she challenges the overall relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews; the ones who give their money vs. the ones who give their blood, and the irony that each group believes it is fulfilling or able to fulfill its Jewish destiny through the other.
This subject she tackles rather well, considering that she has never lived in Israel.
While she is a visiting writer at Bar Ilan University, and has had long stays in Israel, her non-residency shows up in subtleties and nuances of the characters or ideologies that one can only truly understand by living in Israel.
From a literary perspective, clearly the voices of Yona and Mark are the stronger ones, almost making each of them a protagonist. The story of Aaron is weaker, not nearly so realistic.
Yet Leegant’s ability to create each character into an almost “short story” of its own (she is the author of an award-winning collection An Hour in Paradise) helps create the realistic picture of Israel’s current ideological dilemmas. While it was a page turner, a little humor could have added another dimension to the read.
Copyright © 2010 by the Intermountain Jewish News