On this planet full of people seeking acceptance, maybe no one searches harder than those of the Jewish faith. For them, as in Mishpacha Family, a debut novel by Rebecca Tomasis (2010, Proverse Hong Kong, 300 pages, HK$98), no matter where the search begins, it often leads to Israel.
“And thus Israel became much more than the biblical land of milk and honey and became for each of us the place where our own individual dreams would come true.”
Joint winner of the inaugural Proverse Prize (along with Instant Messages by Laura Solomon), Mishpacha Family winds together the varied stories of four Jewish women who merge into an unconventional family – as wives of the same man – in modern Israel. Despite the 21st-century circumstances, with iPods and jet travel, the justification for polygamy comes from “ancient” practices.
“The idea for the family which is the subject of Michpacha Family began in Israel on Independence Day 2007,” Tomasis recalls. “I attended a large party to celebrate the day in a park in Tel Aviv. At the park were a group of women with a large number of children. The children all looked vaguely similar but the women not at all – although two of them may have been sisters. Later a man turned up whom the children gathered around as if he was the father of all of them. I assumed this to be the case, and the story started from there.”
Each spiritually needy, the heroines have diverse origins, Beruriah in Yemen, Dana in Russia, Rachel in the United States and Amelia in a rich Tel Aviv suburb. Emotional fragility leads them to surprising conclusions. “There's something to be said for arranged marriages…. It saves the pain of kissing the frogs… saves the pain of being used and then spat out.”
Together, these women forge strength. “In the Family we were safe, untouched by crime and danger.” It's less about love than survival. “I didn't love him; I was no fool.”
Confusions and conflicts hamper the women. Delicately, the author probes their motivations, thoughts and reactions until readers understand these complex characters rather well. Despite weaknesses, they share a stubborn arrogance. “We all, as Jews, have a lot to live up to. We are the direct descendents of Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. We are the chosen people, and so that's a responsibility we bear and enjoy everyday….”
Regional turmoil serves as a backdrop. Sometimes bombs explode in public places, and Dana loses a brother that way.
“He just went to dance and never came back. They say wrong place, wrong time. But for Anton there was no other place he could be but Israel. He was a young, Jewish male going to meet his new girlfriend at a nightclub – what was so wrong with that?
His killer was no older than him. In another city, another country, another time, another place, they would have gone to school together, played football together, been eating ice cream together. But in this place at this time – one of them strapped himself with explosives, joined the line snaking into a nightclub and blew it up into the sky.”
Tragically, after enduring long persecution, even attempted genocide, the Jewish people in their own nation show little hesitation to abuse and heap injustice onto Palestinian neighbors. Alas, this aspect of Israel’s reality receives scant attention. Adding a Palestinian character or two might have created a more balanced book.
How complex are Israelis' problems? “People think… that the main issue we have to face is making peace with the Palestinians. But that isn't true…. We have to make peace with each other first.”
Frequent references remind about all that tragic Jewish history. “…we were the persecuted, the oppressed – you couldn't pick a year in history when we hadn’t been the ones picked on, beaten up and killed in our droves.”
The characters contemplate and discuss misdeeds against them. “I know what they have in Israel – electricity and shops and proper houses and a Jew can walk around like a free man. He doesn't have to hide behind a gun, or sleep on the floor with the goats.” Yet, oddly, little in the way of such discrimination actually happens on these pages.
Starting almost too slowly, the author tells of her heroines' histories. Simply arriving in Israel fails to solve their problems. One woman confides: “To me, Israel was a strange land. A strange land where Jewish women had jobs and fought in wars and openly took birth control…” Another “had thought Israel was going to be the solution to my confusion – not another cause of it. I felt let down by this so-called Jewish country. I felt like I'd been the victim of false advertising.”
It's a land of big contrasts: “…half the population didn't seem to be acting Jewish (except on Shabbat and holidays) while the other half was so Jewish, it was scary.”
Even daily life has its flaws. “Tel Aviv is dusty in the summer. The heat brings out all the smells of the city – the dust, the rubbish, food cooking. Parts of the city look as if the street cleaners have been on strike for a very long time; other parts look as if they have never even seen a street cleaner.”
People possess regrettable, but typical, shortcomings. “…we lived in a society that viewed adultery as a common if not necessary trait of a successful man. Generals did it, politicians did it. What kind of successful, powerful man didn't?”
When the four women, unlikely “sisters”, come together in the same household, interest deepens and the pace quickens. Then the novel gains momentum.
Astonishingly, the leading man, despite impressive skills to lure wives and procreate, plays only a tiny role. He rarely appears except as a topic in conversations. “He's old enough to be your father! – No, your grandfather! – What is wrong with you? HE'S OLD, HE'S UGLY, HE'S SLEEPING WITH OTHER WOMEN, HE'S USING YOU….” But the wives think differently. “How could you compare him to other men? He is gentle and kind and loves us all equally.”
Born in the United Arab Emirates, Tomasis moved to Hong Kong as a child. She enjoys watching human behavior and has “a particular interest in the Middle East and its fascinating culture, history and people”.
Long before the final pages, readers start to expect that Tomasis may write about Israel and its people again. That's a welcome prospect, especially if she decides to pay more attention to the Arabs next door.
Approval rating: 61 per cent.
For more information: http://www.proversepublishing.com
(February 9, 2011)