The Possibility of Exile

A new collection of short stories, half of them set in Israel and the other half in the US, feature characters that – to paraphrase Medieval poet Yehuda Halevi – are pulled to the West while their hearts remain in the East.

“There are many kinds of exile,” asserts Murad, protagonist of the opening story of Joan Leegant’s Displaced Persons, her new collection of short stories. Each of the fourteen stories, half of them set in Israel and the other half in the United States, explores what it means to be in exile: exile from family, from one’s homeland, from a sense of identity or one’s core principles, or from more than one of these at the same time. The recurring themes of Jewish life, the Holocaust, and intergenerational relationships also help in putting the stories in the collection in dialogue with one another.

Leegant spent five years as a visiting professor in the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Program at Bar-Ilan University (disclosure: I am currently enrolled on the program.) During her time in Israel, she also taught English to African refugees and asylum seekers. Many of the stories were first published, some in slightly altered form, around that period in various literary journals and anthologies, and it’s easy to see how her experiences informed her fiction; several of the protagonists are academics on sabbatical in Israel, and many of the female protagonists share a background similar to her own—highly educated American Jews living on the East Coast of the United States.  Even the title story, “Displaced Persons,” is narrated by a female American expat who is teaching English to refugees in Tel Aviv. At the same time, while it’s clear that her experiences in each location informed her writing, the book does read like traditional fiction, rather than memoir or a blended genre like autofiction where the question of what is “real” and what is “imagined” is always in the background.

Whether immigrants, locals, tourists or refugees, all of the characters in the collection are in some type of exile. Paraphrasing Yehuda Halevi, the medieval Jewish poet and philosopher, while Leegant’s characters seem to be pulled to the West, their hearts remain in the East. This tension between East and West is both literal (New York vs. California; Israel vs. the US, Jerusalem vs. Tel Aviv) and metaphorical: old versus new, tradition versus modernity, children versus parents. Leegant depicts their complex lives with empathy: we can identify with the cheated wife in one story and the mistress in another, with the rebel teen and with the know-it-all adult, with the annoying tourist and the opportunistic locals. And despite the abundance of darkness—including disturbing incidents of violence and sexual assault—the stories also feature many comedic moments, and for some of the protagonists, more than a hint of redemption.

At their strongest, the stories embody—and shatter, only to sometimes rebuild—the misconceptions and stereotypes that abound in one’s encounter with “the other.” Leegant is willing to confront the stereotypes; to reveal the contradictions in her characters, even at the expense of perhaps proving the stereotypes right. In “Beautiful Souls,” two American girls in search of adventure while touring Jerusalem get lost in the Old City. Their interactions with Israeli soldiers and Arab patrons in a local café shatter the idealized façade represented by their newly religious parents. In “Remittances,” the condescension, even suspicious attitude of Israelis towards Russian immigrants is on full display in each of the short interactions between a cleaning lady and her employer, challenging the reader to examine their own preconceptions.

Some of the stories are written in third person, some in first person; all flow easily, thanks to Leegant’s skillful use of dialogue. To her credit, the locations of her stories do not overshadow the characters, and even the least glamorous of locations—bus stops, offices, stairways, a family car—move the plot forward. And while the author includes a heterogenic cast of characters in terms of ethnicity, gender, and age, she seems to focus mostly on those she can represent accurately, presumably based on firsthand experience. As such, Israeli social groups are not represented equally in the narratives: most of the Jews portrayed are Ashkenazi and secular.

There are, however, a few references in the book that, in the eyes of a native Israeli (or a longtime immigrant like me), raise questions around plausibility. In “Wonder Women,” a mother mentions that elementary schools are closed for Rosh Hashanah—something so obvious to Israelis that it stands out for having been mentioned at all. The teenaged stepdaughter of the character then adds that her school is also closed for the holiday.  Even though the author seems to have injected the reference as a way of illustrating family dynamics, and considering that the stepdaughter grew up in the US and that these school holidays might not be obvious to non-Jewish audiences, the mere mention feels out of place in the all-Israeli context of the story.  In “The Eleventh Happiest Country,” a thirty-something character mentions Nescafé as the powdery instant coffee that his father grew up drinking. I suspect that the character was probably referring to the locally produced cafe na’mes: Nescafé, a trademark of Nestlé, only hit supermarket shelves in Israel in the late 1990s. In the same story, a different character—a former actor who has recently returned to religion—is depicted eating at non-kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv. Although the behavior is rationalized the first time it happens (he’s only ordering coffee), the other instances seem less believable if—as the reader will probably assume—the character is donning a black kippa (the text does not explicitly mention his dress code), as such identifying with a group that closely monitors the way one presents oneself in public. I don’t know whether these details are oversights on the author’s part, or whether they resulted from my misinterpretation of the characters and their situations—but they briefly threw me out of the story.

These occasional misgivings aside, I remain convinced that her observations come from deep sense of curiosity and a commitment to represent the complexity of Israeli society—not the clumsy use of localisms to sprinkle exoticism onto her fiction.

Many of the stories were written a decade ago or more. Interestingly, though, they already point a finger at the tensions that rose to the surface in the past 18 months and, particularly, following the events since October 7th: conflicts between generations, ethnic groups, political and religious ideologies, social strata, and between and Israel and the Diaspora. One wonders what the characters in Displaced Persons would have made of the current events; their voices almost beg us to imagine the discussions on holiday tables, the questions on family WhatsApp chats and the clashing reactions in the campuses on both sides of the Atlantic where many of the characters study or teach.

In a time where hundreds of thousands of Israelis are literally displaced from their homes, when the country’s sense of identity is easily dismissed by much of the world, and when this sense of identity is being fiercely debated inside its divided self, Displaced Persons provides much more than a welcome break from the headlines. It lets us think about the lives of others with nuance and compassion. In an age of cancel culture and echo chambers, it keeps alive the hope that, wherever we are, we can still learn to listen to voices different from our own.

Displaced Persons, by Joan Leegant. New American Press, pp. 316, ISBN 978 1941561324.

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