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Book Review: David Ehrlich's Collection of Short Stories

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This is the tenth in a series of reviews of books on Middle Eastern affairs. Dr. Gail Weigl, an APN volunteer and a professor of art history, reviewed David Ehrlich's new collection of short stories.

David Ehrlich, Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel, edited by Ken Frieden (Syracuse University Press, 2013). 147 pages. $19.95

Sardonic, witty, poignant, resigned, this extraordinary collection of short stories is a welcome addition to the canon of Israeli literature in translation.

One in the series, "Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music, and Art," published by Syracuse University Press, Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel is to be patiently savored, as the author takes us from the industrial neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the border with Lebanon, from the Utah desert to anonymous villages and apartments, where he delicately exposes the minds and hearts of soldiers, expatriates, farmers, scholars, immigrants, and even of God Himself.

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Of considerable importance to the tone of the stories is the faithful translation of David Ehrlich's Hebrew under the guidance of Ken Frieden, who acknowledges in his Preface the difficulties of translating Ehrlich's distinctive Hebrew style into comparable English. This is of considerable concern, for central to the strength of this collection is the understated, almost laconic narrative voice, as the protagonist of each story recalls, recounts, and ruminates with a cool, distancing detachment. This avoidance of hyperbole is critical to the impact of each story, as is the uniformity of tone; it contributes to the observing aloneness of the characters throughout, even when they are interacting with one another. The language is so spare, it must be exquisitely calibrated, so that every seemingly benign observation, every simple and straightforward description must be attended to, considered, and digested. One thinks of Willy Loman's cry, "Attention must be paid."

Whether through physical or emotional isolation, aloneness and loneliness are the most pervasive but by no means the only powerful leitmotif of these stories. Equally eloquent themes include the inevitable destruction that results from failure to compromise or negotiate; alienation from one's history and identity; the cynical certainly of the status quo in Israel; the tyranny of memory; and most keenly, the shame, exhilaration, confusion, disillusion and self-deception experienced by homosexual men.

While certain themes might be extracted from the collected stories, however, to do so risks failing to do justice to their individual complexity. Just as the reader might begin to categorize a particular story as about "alienation," another (and yet another) dimension emerges. To take just one example, "On Reserve" begins with an amused, almost jocular description of the absurdity, camaraderie, and siren song of power embodied in military service, but gradually shifts into a story about identity, how it begins, festers, becomes equated with freedom from identity until reality encroaches and with it, unanticipated confusion and misery. Trenchant glimpses into human behavior, often marked by wry humor, capture simple, true observations that don't shout their cleverness. One imagines Hemingway would have admired a writer who describes God as "an old spiritual hippy, moving about ...as if he were hanging from an invisible string" ("On the Porch," p. 71). No matter how quirky the premise-- as in "The Life and Death of Frank 22," where the alter-ego is systematically created, then destroyed because of identification with one's "other self," or, in "How the World is Run," where a nameless and arbitrary guiding hand has replaced the God who "...doesn't work here anymore" (p. 62) -- the characters and their circumstances are rendered believable by the sheer force of unforced and distancing language.

As noted in the subtitle of Who Will Die Last, however, Ehrlich's concern with identity fundamentally stands as a metaphor for modern Israeli life. Even in stories which on the surface are concerned only with individual lives, as in, "Utterly Nameless, " or "Tuesday and Thursday Mornings", Ehrlich's subject is Israel's existential dilemma. From the opening salvo of "To the Limit," with its irrational, exhilarating competition between two drivers, to the bittersweet "Lilly," exposing the intransigence that rips communities apart, the author explores every permutation of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Israeli conflicts, without once openly alluding to either. From immigration ("Vadim") to the imbecilic power of bureaucracy ("Green island," "How the World is Run"); from the certainty of a unique Israeli talent for worst-case scenarios ("The National Library") to the world of the homosexual hiding from public standards that must not be violated ("That Boy"); from the ironic certainty of the military status-quo ("The Sol Popovitch War") to the inability to act in the face of "...constant tension between what is desired, what is important, what is possible, and what is" (Utterly Nameless", p. 86); from the exile who cannot excise Israel from his being ("It's All Right", "Stars") to the entrenched isolationist ("The Store"), Israel is Ehrlich's subject.

Though brief--the longest stories are less than 20 pages, the shortest a few paragraphs--these are not stories to be read lightly. Written without a shred of sanctimony, often with an extraordinary combination of irony and humanity, even when creating scenarios of head-scratching obscurantism ("Sushi", "At the Port"), Ehrlich expresses an ironic yet sensitive acceptance of humanity in all its disarray and self-deception. The title story, "Who Will Die Last," with its juxtaposition of three cartons of cottage cheese, "all I have been through," and an idea for a story, summarizes the perplexing, amusing, humane, and challenging experience of this stunning commentary on contemporary Israeli life.


APN's Ori Nir interviews David Ehrlich.

To listen to a Tablet Magazine interview with David Ehrlich.

To visit the Facebook page of Ehrlich's Tmol Shilshom bookstore café in Jerusalem.

To visit Tmol Shilshom's web site.

To read a New York Jewish Week story about Tmol Shilshom.