Tales from the Crane Nation

A new collection of short stories set in the Holy Land is caught between its Israeli and its international ambitions.

There has always been a place in the Republic of Letters for a specific type of Israeli author: a liberal Zionist without any unseemly political baggage, able to play the role of the nation’s “conscience” for Western audiences. For many years this role was filled by the late Amos Oz and David Grossman. Now that liberal Zionism is increasingly viewed (fairly or not) as an anachronism and Israel seems more right-wing than ever, do they have any successors?

Enter Omer Friedlander, not yet 30, born in Jerusalem and raised in Tel Aviv but now living in New York and who writes in English. His debut short story collection, The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land (the title story is about an Israeli who sells bottles of Holy Land air to gullible tourists), comes with enthusiastic blurbs from the likes of Nicole Krauss, Kiran Desai, and Ha Jin.

In “Jaffa Oranges,” the collection’s first story, the author presents his bona fides for the vacancy. It is narrated by the Israeli-Jewish patriarch of a Jaffa orange concern. He is visited by a Palestinian woman from London, Lilah, who wants to learn more about her recently deceased grandfather, Khalil Haddad, childhood friend of the narrator. He proceeds to share memories of another time—the two of them stealing a camel, the two of them at a sweet shop, the two of them at a bar—before telling the reader: “I cannot tell her the truth, the reason that my grandchildren know nothing about Khalil. I cannot tell her I did a terrible, shameful thing at the end. He didn’t even know it was me.” In 1948, the narrator had burned down Khalil’s family orchard.

It is impossible to escape the idea that the events depicted in the story are a metaphor for the creation of the State of Israel: a terrible, hidden deed. It seems that the author first wants to make it clear that the creation of the State of Israel was a terrible crime, to legitimatize his credentials as a critical Israeli writer.

Because of this, “Jaffa Oranges” feels like a missed opportunity. Most Israelis don’t believe that the creation of the country was a crime, even if some of them are aware that it was accompanied by terrible deeds. This is harder to fictionalize than the morality tale that “Jaffa Oranges” presents: while 1948 was a catastrophe for the Palestinians, it was a liberation for the Jews, and it would have been a catastrophe for Jews had they lost. But could such a story be received enthusiastically?

Another story, “Checkpoint,” continues this theme. It is about a Machsom Watch (a group of Israeli women who monitor and document the conduct of soldiers and policemen at West Bank checkpoints) volunteer whose son was killed on army service. Still grieving, she gets into a fight with the soldiers while volunteering. Here the cliches seem to mask the author’s arms-length engagement with the material. The sun is “white hot” and later “blazing,” the “line is endlessly long and unbearably slow,” and there is an “endless cycle of violence.” The “jaded soldiers…do their jobs with the utmost boredom.” A “soldier yells out commands in broken Arabic, stumbling over the words like a schoolchild reciting a poem he can’t quite remember.” After clashing with the soldiers and a settler, the volunteer is driven home by one of the soldiers, resulting in another didactic exchange: “What if I had a son who wore overalls and smoked feisels with hash?” the bereaved mother asks. “An artist who didn’t go to the army. Someone who grew a beard and squatted in an abandoned building off Allenby Street, and constantly talked about that one time the bouncer let him into the Berghain in Berlin and ate masabacha in Abu Hassan every day and tried to speak in Arabic to all the staff. A son who would say things like The occupation corrupts us.

The didacticism aside, the problem here is that nothing here is new. One can’t solely blame the author for this. Everything that can be said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has already been said, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see authors reverting to these cliches and types. Other stories in the collection suffer from the same problem. “The Sand Collector” portrays a standard youthful orientalist romance in the Negev between an Israeli-Jewish girl and an Israeli-Bedouin boy (displaced, inevitably); “The Miniaturist” depicts life in the Ma’abarot following Israel’s establishment; “The Sephardi Survivor” has a delicious premise—a Sephardi boy who is jealous of his Ashkenazi classmates “for having grandparents who were Shoah survivors,” and their search for a survivor to bring to class on Memorial Day—but it is never quite fulfilled; “Jellyfish in Gaza” depicts PTSD among Israeli soldiers and resulting parenting problems.

When Friedlander lets go of these tropes, though, he begins to shine. “Scheherazade and Radio Station 97.2 FM” is a strange tale about three Israeli soldiers who end up in a radio station inhabited by a storytelling femme fatale, Scheherazade (the predictable name can be forgiven), during the First Lebanon War. “At gunpoint, she gave them a short tour of the facilities, acting like a gracious host, forced to put on a smile and escort a pack of wild children trailing mud through her elegant foyer and ransacking her home.” She tells the soldiers a story that leads to them discussing how they would prefer to die. One says on the toilet, another while having sex, while the last one prefers to die in his sleep. Events begin to take their inevitable course, but strangely and ambiguously, and throughout there is uncertainty as to who is in control: is the story about Scheherazade vs. the soldiers, or about the four of them vs. the environment of Beirut during the war? The soldiers want to escape, but does Scheherazade? Whose side are they on?

The most exemplary story in the collection is “High Heels.” This tells the story of Sroch, an urban climber and the son of a shoe-shop owner. His father’s most valued possession is a pair of high heels, reputed to have belonged to the Polish-Jewish ballerina Franceska Mann—the dancer who, it is claimed, killed a Nazi officer with the tip of her heel. Early in the story, we read how Sroch’s father, Shmulik, tells his wife about the importance of high heels throughout history: “During Sroch’s bar mitzvah celebrations in the Kotel, Shoshana complains that they’ve been standing around too long…and that the soles of her feet hurt tremendously, so Shmulik tells her about the ungodly Turkish invention, thirty-inch high heels, that required the wearer to use a long cane or a dedicated servant to keep him from tripping. His wife, barefoot, considers asking him for a divorce.”

While many of the stories in the collection are hard to place temporally—perhaps reflecting the fact that the author is based in the States—”High Heels” is the only story that properly addresses the Israeli present: “There are so many cranes on the skyline that the advertisements for construction work have invented a new nickname for Israel: Crane Nation.”

Sroch meets two other climbers, Monkey and Gecko, who lead him to ever riskier feats of urban climbing. He subsequently begins to take an interest in the heels belonging to Franceska Mann. This story maintains the strangeness and ambiguity of “Scheherazade,” while doing justice to the absurdities of life in the Crane Nation. An independent shoe-shop owner is a perfect symbol for old Tel Aviv; but instead of representing his son’s inevitable abandonment of the family lineage by having him become, say, a high-tech professional, the story takes him up into the skyline that will one day inevitably displace his father’s shop, with thrilling results.

Elsewhere, there are unnecessary problems throughout because the book is written in English. Too many tautologies and unnecessary explanations: “tzitzit tassels,” “pe’ot curls,” “shtreimel hats,” “mitpachat headscarf.” Do we really need the English words here? In the aforementioned “Checkpoint,” this even extends into the Arabic, with one soldier shouting at a Palestinian: “Tawaquf, stop!” while the volunteers protest the evictions in the clunky “Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem” rather than simply “Sheikh Jarrah.” Elsewhere, Yad Vashem is unnecessarily lengthened to “Yad Vashem Memorial Center for the Shoah” and a falafel-store owner is told “Don’t leave out the spicy mango amba sauce!” Surely “amba” would have sufficed. Why not trust the reader more?

When he abandons the political types and focuses on the imagination, the writing feels freer and less encumbered. The less overtly political stories, the ones that feel less like they are playing to the gallery, show a powerful imagination and a facility for words. The explanations covered in the paragraph above hint at a certain editorial slackness, which might not have manifested itself had the project been conceived without Western projections in mind. I can’t help wondering how different some of these stories might have looked had they been written originally in Hebrew. Friedlander certainly has the potential to develop into a fine Israeli writer, but he may have to abandon his ambitions to be a great American writer to do so.

*Omer Friedlander, The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land: Stories, Random House, 2022, pp. 256

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