Ed Morgan, University of Toronto Law School: Complexities of Modern Israel

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September 19, 2006

“Surprised? Of course I was surprised,” says Israeli writer Etgar Keret in his short story Fatso. Keret, who in his mid-30’s has been dubbed a new generation’s Amos Oz, specializes in telling Kafka-like tales where the line between reality and fantasy is stretched thin.

But, of course, in Israel of the twenty-first century, one doesn’t have to look for drama. One of Keret’s stories, Surprise Egg, relates how victims of suicide bombings are always taken to Tel Aviv’s Forensic Institute for an autopsy, as if they were a FabergJ egg inside of which waited a gem or surprise. The seemingly pointless exercise bears fruit, if it can be put that way, in the case of a woman victim who is found to have been riddled not only with the shards and shrapnel of the terrorist’s bomb, but by previously undiagnosed tumors. Had she not been on the bus at the unfortunate time of the blast, she would have been dead in a week from cancer.

The question for the pathologist is whether or not to tell the dead woman’s husband about his find. On one hand, it might relieve the husband from tormenting himself with fateful questions like “if only she hadn’t gone to work that day”, or “if only I’d driven her.” On the other hand, the news might make her tragic death even more horrible: “a death experienced twice over,” says Keret, “as if someone up there wanted to make absolutely sure… What is cancer, [the pathologist] thought to himself, if not a terrorist attack from above?”

In the end, the difference both does and doesn’t matter. “The woman’s dead, her husband’s a widower, her children are orphans, that’s what matters, that’s what’s sad, and all the rest is nonsense,” the pathologist tells himself. But then, the story closes with the loving husband sitting in his empty kitchen, contemplating the enormity of his loss. “If only she hadn’t gone to work that day”, he thinks, ironically repeating the very thought he was supposed to avoid by not knowing the truth. “If only I’d driven her. She’d still be alive now, sitting here in the kitchen with me.”

Both observations ring true. Man’s intervention brought death to the wife and grief to the husband; God’s put sadness in abeyance, bringing a moment of love to them both.

Which brings us back to the initial surprise in Keret’s Fatso story. A young man has begun to fall in love with a girl he has been dating, although strangely she is only available for lunches and afternoon matinJ es. He is shocked when she eventually reveals that she transforms every night into “a heavy, hairy man, with no neck, with a gold ring on his pinky.”

Time, however, heels all wounds. The narrator ends up enjoying the company of both, making passionate love with the woman in the afternoon and carousing in bars, shouting at girls, and watching soccer on T.V. all night with the man.

Are we surprised at the complexities of contemporary Israel? Can the same country one month leave tenderly cultivated greenhouses intact for its adversaries in Gaza to thrive, and the next destroy infrastructure and entire neighborhoods so that its adversaries in Lebanon do not? Israel is a land of peaceful science and military industry, an exporter of tulips and of tanks, a place of spiritual renewal and of state power. This Rosh HaShanah, like every Rosh HaShanah, we review and rekindle our love for the country in all its many guises.

“And so it goes,” Etgar Keret tells us of his character and, by inference, of the Jewish state. “Every night you fall asleep with him struggling to stay awake for the Argentinean finals, and in the morning, there she is, the beautiful, forgiving woman who you love, too, till it hurts.”

Shana tova.

Ed Morgan is the national president of Canadian Jewish Congress. He is a member of SPME and coordinator of the University of Toronto SPME Chapter.

Ed Morgan, University of Toronto Law School: Complexities of Modern Israel

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