Into the Heart of the Settler World
Friedman, Ina, Moment
Wherever You Go
By Joan Leegant W.W. Norton
2010, $23.95, pp. 253
In her debut novel (preceded in 2003 by the story collection An Hour in Paradise), Joan Leegant has fashioned a hybrid work that begins as a sensitive exploration of the emotional plights of three troubled but otherwise disparate American Jews who happen to be in Israel and slowly evolves into a kind of action thriller in which their lives intersect. The Israeli setting is initially incidental, as the plot focuses on each protagonist's deeply flawed familial relationships and consequent feelings of alienation, inadequacy and guilt. Yet as the story proceeds, far from using Israel merely as a backdrop, Leegant tackles one of the most sensitive problems plaguing its society: the extremism of a certain brand of Israeli settlers in the West Bank--and the appeal their hyper-nationalist views and vigilante style hold for a certain stripe of American Jew.
The story opens with Yona Stern, a 30-year-old assistant in a New York art gallery, arriving in Israel to mend fences with her estranged older sister, Dena. A decade earlier, after their relationship was rent during an earlier stay in Israel, Dena married a firebrand settler leader and cut herself off completely from her only sibling. Yona, back in New York, meanwhile gave herself over to a series of arid affairs with married men, falling into the pattern of "a bad girl making sure she never got more than what she deserved."
Mark Greenglass, the book's most sympathetic and complex character, is a 36-year-old bachelor who has been living in Jerusalem for three years, teaching newly religious American youngsters. He became a practicing Orthodox Jew a decade earlier as a means of climbing out of the drug-dominated life he shared with a girlfriend who proved unable to escape addiction. As he travels to New York for a brief but lucrative teaching gig, his relationship with his shallow, secular parents remains strained, even as Greenglass loses his passion and commitment to religious practice. Just before returning to Israel, he abandons his Orthodox lifestyle, accepts a job teaching a Judaism course at a small, Scandinavian-run arts college for women in Jerusalem, and once again embarks on a new life.
At the same time Aaron Blinder, a 21-year-old college student, has dropped out of a semester-abroad program in Jerusalem and found his way to Adamah, a deserted kibbutz taken over by a radical settler ideologue, Naftali Shroeder, and turned into a base for recruiting young-Israelis and Diaspora Jews to settle in the West Bank. Abandoned by his mother in childhood, the strikingly immature Blinder is seething with anger toward his self-absorbed father--the author of bestsellers about the Holocaust in which Jews ultimately prevail over their persecutors--and also craves the validation of father-figure Shroeder. Blinder's mind is so addled by childish fantasies that he derides the Israeli army's measures to ensure the security of West Bank settlers as born of a cowardly "shtetl mentality" and advocates "direct action" by civilians to defend themselves against threats--real or imagined--from their Palestinian neighbors. …