Nissim Levov, an Israeli, had arrived in America to study and to forget, but every day he would perform the same ritual. He would light a match and hold his finger over the flame while he forced himself to remember the gruesome death of his best friend, who had been trapped in a burning tank on the battlefield where they had fought side by side.
Yossi Levov, Nissim's half-brother, had been living in Philadelphia with his wife and daughter when the 1973 war broke out. He wanted to go back to Israel, to fight with his unit, but as the days and weeks passed and the Israeli Consulate didn't call, he finally realized that he had missed the war.
"Somedays he felt guilty for being alive. . . . At least in dying he would have felt blameless."
Both Nissim and Yossi are "Yordim," as the book is titled, a Hebrew word which means "those who leave Israel." As used today among Israelis, the label yordim carries a derisive, offensive connotation. It implies abandonment, disloyalty, even betrayal of "the promised land." Today the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Israelis to foreign lands--especially America--is a painful subject for Israelis abroad and at home. While Israel struggles to attract as many new immigrants as possible from America, native Israelis queue up impatiently outside the American Consulate in Tel Aviv, hoping, praying, aspiring and conniving to get a visa to the "Land of Promise."
What is it they seek? Economic opportunity? Adventure? Professional advancement? Or is it escape from the endless wars, the harsh economic sanctions, the over-familiarity of their family and their history?
Author Micha Lev, an American who lived in Israel for five years, has written a compelling novel about the yearnings and disappointments of Israelis living in America. The protagonists, Nissim, the war hero, and Yossi, the opportunist, are two-way cultural mirrors as they reflect and are reflected by America.
As Nissim writes to a friend back home: "America is everything and nothing you imagine. . . . It is funny to me to watch how Americans live. They skimp on time and money, trying to save them in wasteful ways. They go through the newspaper for an hour and clip out coupons that will save them 10 cents on a bar of soap. They drive from store to store for 'sales' and spend more money on gasoline than they save on what they're buying. They buy frozen dinners at the supermarket so they don't have to waste time cooking. Then they go home and waste the whole night eating their dinner in front of the TV set. Sometimes I think that too much time can be harder to handle than too little, too much freedom harder to handle than not enough."
For most Israelis, America offers the best and the worst of life. On the one hand, the size and opportunity of America: work, the promise of wealth, fast, fancy cars, seamless ribbons of concrete winding in and out of endless shopping malls, gargantuan parking lots, rows and rows of dog food in the supermarkets and "have a nice day" on everyone's lips. On the other hand, the isolation: neighbors living side by side for years, never exchanging a word; a woman is stabbed in the streets, her neighbors hide behind their window shades, and her assailant returns to stab her again!
In Israel, a young man burns to death in a tank defending his family and his homeland. In America, an Israeli selling doughnuts is gunned down casually by an impatient junkie. Isn't there a message in this absurdity, Lev's characters ask themselves, as they consider their life in America.
Written like a screenplay, Lev's novel cuts back and forth in parallel action between the protagonists, a well-established film technique to create suspense and urgency. You can almost sense the author's premeditation in preparing a novel which could be transformed overnight to a Hollywood film or a TV miniseries.
The dramatic sequences also seem too contrived at times, but as we follow Nissim and Yossi through their private labyrinth of desire and guilt, freedom and constraint, we have a new opportunity to examine America at her best and her worst.