||A Review of: Cuckoo
by Sharon Abron Drache
A Jewish voice split simultaneously between three worlds, Europe,
Israel and North America, is the mish-mash that best describes Avner
Mandelman's nine stories in his second collection of short fiction,
a sequel to Talking to the Enemy, winner of the Jewish Book Award
for fiction. "Mish-mash" is also the title of the
concluding story in Cuckoo, and like the previous eight, it reveals
a staggering number of veiled complexities in both the religious
and secular lives of Israeli citizens.
Born in Israel in 1947, Mandelman served in his native country's
air force from 1965 to 1968, before emigrating from Israel, which
he refers to in his fiction as the motherland. Since 1972, he has
lived in Paris, San Francisco and Toronto, his current home.
Mandelman's mix of old and new worlds calls to mind the fiction of
Isaac Bashevis Singer and Philip Roth, while the Mandelman voice
also resembles Ms. Orley Castel-Bloom's, whose Human Parts (2003),
was hailed as the first post al-Aksa intifada novel.
Like Castel-Bloom, Mandelman zeroes in on a specific time period,
parachuting readers into Israel during the years leading up to and
immediately following both the 1948 War of Independence and 1967
Six Day War, with the bonus of the ripened point of view of a writer
in his fifties looking back at the 1950s and 60s. The one exception
is the lead story, "Cuckoo", which begins in 1968 and
leaps to 1992.
In several stories, the protagonist is a young boy under the age
of 13, just old enough to learn that the adult world he is about
to enter is frought with intrigue. Whether Jews are Sephardi or
Ashkenazi, whether they were born in Israel, or whether they emigrated
from Holocaust-ravaged Europe and/or from Arab countries, counts
for a huge difference in their Jewish/Israeli social status. Featured
most frequently are a multitude of characters whose parents and/or
grandparents have immigrated to Israel from either Yemen or Poland.
Intermarriage between these Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews results in
a continuous series of discoveries about how different their two
cultures are. In one story, Yemenites are referred to as black Jews,
an attitude that reveals a rigid racism.
Peace among Jews of diverse backgrounds is an important issue for
Mandelman, ranking almost as important as peace with the Palestinians.
Two stories, "Take-Down", and "Paper-Bride"-the
former, a gritty account of a 1966 take-down mission, (take-down
is a technical word for killing made to look like a natural death).
An Israeli Defense Force's patrolman is tailed by his fellow soldiers
to make sure he performs as required.
"Paper-Bride" deals with the years prior to the 1948 War
of Independence when the British did not give out many immigration
certificates. Mandelman writes: "So many young Jews from
Palestine grabbed their chance, took the boat to Poland, and for
good money (evil tongues say for other things also) made fictitious
marriages with poor desperate Jewish girls who had nothing, and
wanted to leave Poland no matter how. A paper marriage cost less
than a ticket to America, and certainly less than a dowry."
But before and after these new immigrants arrive in Israel, many
unexpected complications happen as life proceeds voraciously with
unavoidable attractions between men and women, whether they are
married or not. This fast-paced tale has a stylistic habit that
also occurs in other stories, and which the publisher's editors
must have decided contributes to Mandelman's authenticity, but this
reviewer found annoying-the persistent use at a story break of a
phrase such as: "What can I say?" "So, why am I
telling you all this?" "Now as you probably know"
"Now, let me tell you this was really something." Without
this vernacular, Mandelman's stories could be more amazing than
they already are.
The title story, "Cuckoo", was nominated for the 2003
Journey prize. It begins like this: "My cousin Yochanan who
lost an eye in the Six day War left Israel in 1968, and went to
America to make money. He stayed on Wall Street 22 years, working,
as they say, like a donkey, and so he never had time to get married.
Or, maybe he didn't want to; because he had lots of offers, including
a beauty queen (New Jersey, 1987) and two El-Al stewardesses, he
was afraid they were all after his money, which maybe was true,
because in the meantime he had become a partner at Lowenstein
Brothers, and was worth maybe four or five million dollars, plus
his partnership interest."
This run-on summary, which could be called a mish-mash, echoes Old
Testament narrative, the legalistic Talmud, as well as the wondrous
legends of the Jewish people, referred to as Aggadot. Not bad for
the beginning of a 2003 Jewish Canadian story highlighting the 20th
century Jewish diaspora experience while focusing on Israel, the
Jewish people's ancestral home, and which Mandelman refers to as
the Jewish people's motherland.
A word about Mandelman's Ottawa-based publisher, Oberon Press,
founded by Michael Macklem in Ottawa in 1966, and initially run out
of his home. In 37 years, Oberon has published 603 new Canadian
titles. Michael still designs the books, as he has since day one,
and they are still printed at Coach House in Toronto.
Congratulations to Oberon for the company's continued dedication
to producing books of substance that are equally lovely to touch
and look at.