Sabras in Outer Space

Exquisitely crafted so that the smallest details give us worlds, Iddo Gefen's short stories combine a preoccupation with spirituality and the incursion of advanced technology into our most personal, sensitive areas.

As a Ph.D. student in Cognitive Psychology at Columbia University, the Israeli Iddo Gefen researches the effects of storytelling on the human mind: specifically, the relationship between narrative understanding, human memory, and decision-making. Jerusalem Beach, Gefen’s debut collection of short stories, is nothing if not a study of the mind in relation to other minds, dreams, memories and the world we create together. Other words for this synthesis might be compassion, tenderness, and connection. Originally published in Hebrew in 2017, Jerusalem Beach (in Daniella Zamir’s impeccable translation) won the 2023 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

Jerusalem Beach’s thirteen stories are crafted so exquisitely that the smallest details give us worlds. Gefen is frequently compared to the iconic Etgar Keret. Both writers showcase Ramat Gan, a sort of time capsule of a by-gone Tel Aviv; a remnant of an earlier Israel, possibly because it is where the parents and grandparents of today’s Tel Avivis live. Both Keret and Gefen are kind, curious, even tender, and unafraid of the more absurd aspects of the human psyche.

And finally, both writers tap into the most common and pervasive preoccupations of liberal, secular, middle-class Israeli society, as well as its secret fears and insecurities.

For example, in Gefen’s “Exit,” a characteristically Tel Aviv young family—a husband who has, so far, failed as a high-tech start-up guy, his corporate wife, and their asthmatic daughter (named Shira, of course)—move South. Shira deals with her parents’ dreams and ambitions literally; she develops a condition whereby she transfers her life over to dreams, and begins to spend her days asleep.  The plot turns, in part, on Shira’s father’s secret suspicion of “the other”—here a Bedouin, the long-term hired goat herder of the property.

Other stories showcase a preoccupation with spirituality, the quest for something larger than the self through meditation and the dream industry. Many of the stories combine these themes with the incursion of advanced technology into our most personal, sensitive areas: dream-creation services, memory-sharing devices, radios you can tune to the frequency of other people’s thoughts. “The Girl Who Lived Near the Sun” combines the Israeli love of travel with the financial constraints of the housing market. Thus, a Petah Tikvah woman buys a tiny planet near the sun “for a song,” creating there a micro farm of nine prickly-pear cactuses (the original Hebrew uses their better-known name, “sabras”) whose fruit sales to earth cover her financial needs.

This last story, taking place simultaneously on different planets, on which time passes at different rates, allows for a graphic blending of temporalities. In fact, Jerusalem Beach is notable for the feeling that all the characters, accompanied by their memories, dreams, and anticipated futures, contain multiple versions of themselves leading simultaneous lives.

Paralleling this rich array of temporalities and versions of a single life is a notable range in the ages of the protagonists of Gefen’s stories. “The Geriatric Platoon,” the opening story of the collection, features (as does the title story) a geriatric main character:

GRANDPA ENLISTED IN the Golani infantry brigade at the age of eighty. This was six months ago, a little after Grandma Miriam had suffered a stroke in the shower and died on the spot. A month and a half later, he packed a bag, stuffing it with four undershirts, five pairs of underwear, a flashlight, two cans of sardines, a biography of Moshe Sharett, and anti-chafing cream. He also added a sweater. Not because he thought he might be cold, but because he continued to fear the woman he had loved even after she had passed away. Then he canceled his subscription to the Lev Cinema, paid his debt to the butcher and called Frankel to tell him he was quitting the Friday morning gang, and they should invite Yoske Cohen to take his place.

This story is narrated by Yuli, the grandson, who had, three or four years earlier, fought with the elite Egoz unit in the harrowing 2006 Battle of Maroun al-Ras. It is taken for granted the reader will know about this battle; the protagonist’s laconic attitude toward it tips everyone off that he was seriously involved. The Battle of Maroun al-Ras was the first ground battle of the Second Lebanon War, and the bloodiest in the history of the Egoz unit, which had been ambushed by Hizbollah fighters. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the speaker has not been able to move on from it

Three generations of men, marked hard by war, slowly come to reveal their secrets and vulnerabilities to one another with exquisite pacing that renders each as fully human. In fact, Yuli’s absent mother, whom he refers to as Alma, was also marked by war. Her father was killed in action when Alma was eight, and her mother died shortly after. Yuli’s parents met during Alma’s military service, when Yuli’s father was a reservist. Only Alma, who unintentionally sets the story’s denouement in place years before the war, is rendered two dimensionally (literally—she appears only on paper in this story), via emotional emails to Yuli that go unanswered and unacknowledged (but which are embedded in the text for us to read). Alma signs her emails formally, with first and last name; this is only the most obvious demonstration of emotional distance in this family that cares for one another but doesn’t know how to show it, or who are all caught in their own traumas. Alma brings up one of the collection’s central questions—who is meant to be looking after whom? As a family, a generation, a country.

“Flies and Porcupines” is an odd, inauspicious title for the profound story that ends this collection. As I write this review on the evening of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, when nearly the entire state gathers in town squares with bereaved families and city councils to remember the fallen soldiers, victims of terrorism, and our hostages, it feels like the most quintessentially Israeli story of all.  The concept is simple: a little brother tries to catch time. His older brother teaches him the technique he honed while on guard duty in the army. Time becomes a physical thing—not a concept—with volition and heft. It is something that, when you place it in a jar, it tries to escape.  And the book (and story) end like this: “And with all that time we’d have with you, maybe we’d finally start living, instead of staying stuck forever in one still moment.”

It is tempting to end on a wise observation about moving on past the trauma and grief of the last year into a more humane, kinder, promising future. The truth is, stories are not necessarily able or meant to change political and economic structures or to end war, even as it helps heal our trauma, story-telling animals that we are. Instead, I will end on an anecdote lifted from Iddo Gefen’s Instagram feed from last June, before the war.  While waiting for a theater performance to begin on Broadway, Gefen assumes the woman sitting next to him is asking him to lower his voice when she asks what language he and his friend are speaking. When the interlocutor tells Gefen that her son learned Hebrew, Russian, German, even a little Yiddish. Gefen assumes she simply wants to brag about her son. He asks her why he didn’t complete his history Ph.D. The elderly woman remarks that he died of a disease that came on suddenly. And then she adds:

“Maybe you can speak a little more in Hebrew? It reminds me of him.”

So we spoke in Hebrew. I don’t even remember about what. I just remember the eyes of that elderly woman, closed as she listens to words in a foreign language she doesn’t understand.

And I, who thought I already knew Americans, am still learning about human beings. (

Jerusalem Beach: Stories, by Iddo Gefen, tn. Daniella Zamir

Astra House, pp. 304

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