Grossman’s writing seems most assured in the passages describing the precarious, affectionate, and angry relations between Ora and the Palestinian driver Sami, who “is obliged to be at their service around the clock, whenever they need him,” leaving his home at three in the morning to fetch her teenage sons from parties. The relationship between them is as coded as a pas de deux, and is perhaps the most conventional relationship in the novel. Ora and family have been to Sami’s house in his village for family celebrations, but following the etiquette of social inequality, we see no reciprocal invitation. Sami is courtly and, with Ora, mockingly bitter: “half of Kiryat Anavim’s lands belong to my family,” he reminds her. Ora, for her part, wants to be magnanimous, “a gentle person.” “She would say, with a charming shrug, ‘only when it’s all over, the whole story, will we really know who was right and who was wrong, isn’t that so?’”
These passages are oddly reminiscent of American Civil War literature in Ora’s need to be justified and simultaneously enjoy her privileges: as Scarlett O’Hara says, “Uncle Peter is one of our family; drive on, Peter.” Like the black coachman’s, the Palestinian chauffeur’s driving is an emblem of the limits of his freedom; he can move, but only where ordered. As Uncle Peter must transport his owners, so Sami is summoned to transport Ora’s soldier son, Ofer, to join his unit in an “operation” against his own people.
Ora’s privilege within the novel extends to her freedom to repeat ranting soliloquies about Arabs:
Them and their lousy honor, and their never-ending insults, and their revenge, and their settling scores over every little word anyone has ever said to them since Creation, and all the world always owes them something, and everyone’s always guilty in their eyes!
It is unimaginable that Grossman would dare to allow the Palestinian character the same freedom in his thoughts about Jews, but in this and other passages, with steely candor, he reveals the pervasive intensity of the societal hostility to Arabs. Ora remembers sitting in Sami’s taxi while airport policemen hustled him off for a session of abuse, calling him a “shitty Arab.” On Ora’s hike, she stops in a guesthouse run by a group of fanatics who rapturously curse Arabs as an eternal enemy ordained by God before they offer a hot lunch.
Ora’s sons have absorbed this almost dogmatic enmity; Ofer screams and stomps, “Make them go away! Back to their own homes! Why did they even come here?” Ora describes the incident, saying that she gave her son a “seminar” on the conflict, but that is a scene Grossman doesn’t write. It is a missed opportunity to do more than just record these emotions, but to reflect on their meanings, purposes, origins, just as understanding explicitly where the family lives would add nuance to Ofer’s outbursts. Still, Grossman traces an unmistakable pattern; each of these tirades is delivered by a privileged or powerful person. The heroine herself, so vigilant over her own family’s situation, is quite complacent about Sami’s loss.
The finest scene in the novel, and the one in which Ora touches a freedom to be found nowhere else, takes place, paradoxically, in a secret clinic for illegal Palestinian workers, held in a Jewish elementary school auditorium. Sami has extracted a favor from Ora in exchange for being ordered to chauffeur her son to join his combat unit. Ora must help Sami negotiate a checkpoint in order to take a sick child for treatment. In a Rembrandtian nocturnal scene, Ora enters the auditorium of the “silent and dark” school, “illuminated only by the moon and the streetlamp.” As her eyes grow accustomed to the darkness, she makes out portraits of Israeli government figures on the wall, and gradually grows able to see human beings in the room:
Shadowy figures of men, women, and children dressed in rags, silent, submissive, dusted with refugee ash…. Ora freezes in terror. They’re coming back, she thinks…. She is convinced that her motion has made real the nightmare that always flickers in the distance.
Despite her terror, she observes in the darkness many vignettes of humanity and grace. Families are eating dinners warmed on portable stoves, people are sleeping on desks and chairs, “a man kneels down to bandage the foot of a man sitting on a chair…. From other rooms she hears stifled moans of pain and murmurs of comfort.” The child Ora has helped through the checkpoint is breastfed by a stranger—and Ora, a stranger, too, has protected this child who comes from a world beyond her clan. It is a moment suddenly charged with moral possibility.
Much less familiar than the painful relationships between Palestinians and Israelis are the effects on family life of living in an intensely military, Spartan society. When her second son is born, Ora says “emphatically” to his foster father, as he gazes on the child in its cradle, “I’ve made another soldier for the IDF [the Israeli army.]” The young sons play with a “sad phantom army” of plastic soldiers, while the parents give the toddler Ofer toy guns and ammunition belts, beginning the “meticulous daily construction of a brave fighter, erected on the fragile scaffolding of little Ofer.” Ora looks forward to Ofer’s return to civilian life, but she reflects “that they don’t really come back. Not like they were before. And that the boy he used to be had been lost to her forever the moment he was nationalized.”
As the boys grow older, the charm of the anecdotes of their childhood erodes; they grow unmistakably thuggish. Their feelings for Ilan alter; age renders him a mere civilian, while they treat Ora with affectionate contempt, as a naive, deluded bleeding heart who has never seen combat, calling her a “skirt.” (Grossman notably chooses not to explore Ora’s own military experience, apart from an anecdote of lovemaking with her future husband, an intelligence officer, when both are in the army. Her rank or role as a soldier is left unclear.) Ora watches uneasily as Ofer, a gifted carpenter, uses his skills to make a club, “the most efficient weapon in our situation.” Ora does not question her son about its uses. We only see him testing its strength on his own palm.
Like Ora, the reader is shielded from her sons’ real violence, which for her is rhetorical. The boys share jokes at family dinners about shooting Palestinians: Adam says, “shoot between their nipples,” and Ofer responds laughingly that he shot the man-shaped dummy in the stomach instead of the knees during his last target practice, excusing his misfire to the officer, “But, sir, won’t he go down this way, too?” Ofer half convinces his mother at lunch that “they had to come down on them once and for all, even if it obviously would not eliminate them completely.”
At another family reunion, Ofer describes how “one of our guys shot three boys throwing stones…broke their legs, one each, very elegantly,” and his brother suggests in passing, “Maybe you should aim so they’ll never have any children.” Ora is deeply upset by this conversation, and tries to “save her child” from the “barbarian” he has become, by making an ineffectual plea that he not “try to hurt someone intentionally.” She is presented as a dissenting voice, but her protestations are easily dismissed by her kin as ladylike and unrealistic, emerging from a self-serving moral vanity, a need to feel she is a fine person. That effect is heightened because Ora is the lone mother of the book; we can’t contrast her reactions with other women’s—a mother who might applaud her sons’ brutality, a mother ostracized for dissent, a mother more ruthless than her children. We don’t see a world in which Ora’s disapproval means taking risks. In order for her objections to have authority, she would have to examine how she herself is implicated in what her children have become. Placing Ora and Avram on the Israel trail and filtering the story through Ora’s memories alone send both characters and readers off on a holiday from the society and the militarized state.
Ora herself, to soothe her child’s fears of Arabs, takes Ofer to an Armored Corps site where he plays, entranced, on tanks, both ancient and new. She helps him climb up the turret of one; “he ran his fingers in awe over tracks, firing platforms, equipment chambers.” She encourages him, saying, “there’s lots more, we have loads of these,” conducting him into a kind of macabre nursery with a limitless supply of toys. She delivers her son to the army long before she takes him to battle in a taxicab. The scene with the tanks has an uneasy dreamlike quality; we see only Ora and Ofer, seemingly silhouettes on a giant screen that serves both to shield and to project reality. Are there other little boys and mothers who play here? What about little girls? We never see one in the book—Ora’s only playmate is a fleeting presence, killed in a car accident before the book opens. It is as if we were to see Dickens’s Gradgrind family of Hard Times without any daughters, without the bank, the pubs, the School of Facts, and the community itself.
An essay of David Grossman’s reveals how much this novel avoids in its portrait of Israeli children and parents. Grossman recounts:
About two decades ago when my oldest son was three, his preschool commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day, as it did every year. My son did not understand much of what he was told…. “Dad, what are Nazis? What did they do? Why did they do it?” And I did not want to tell him…. I felt that if I told him…something in the purity of my three-year-old son would be polluted, that from the moment such possibilities of cruelty were formulated in his childlike, innocent consciousness, he would never again be the same child. He would no longer be a child at all.2
Nevertheless, the Holocaust commemoration in Israel is staged as a nationwide public obligation, announced by siren blasts audible in every part of the country. Every citizen must stand motionless at the signal. Traffic is stopped for people to get out of their cars. Nursery school teachers are obliged to teach their charges about the Nazis to explain the adults’ behavior. Paradoxically, it is Grossman’s nonfiction work that gives us the more acute insight into Israeli childhood.
The novel gives no description of this rite of passage, but an essay by the chairman of the Early Childhood Department of Efrata Teacher’s College offers an admiring account of a model approach in the classroom. The kindergarten teacher explains that when Hitler
saw the Jews did not have a country of their own, he decided to kill them all. She emphasizes that the only place Jews can be safe is in the state of Israel, and asks the children “to think about those murdered…old people, babies, and children like you.” She dismissed the likelihood that this information might induce fear, insisting that the children are “not frightened very much” by what she chose to tell them.
2 "Individual Language and Mass Language," in Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics, translated by Jessica Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), p. 72. ↩
“Individual Language and Mass Language,” in Writing in the Dark: Essays on Literature and Politics, translated by Jessica Cohen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), p. 72. ↩