If you want to understand Israelis, read this book...

We have an amazing library just down the street, housed in an old building from the Turkish period. It's just a few aisles of (mostly) paperback books, in Hebrew, English, and Russian (with a new Spanish section), and browsing its stacks is like looking through a friend's bookshelf. I get overwhelmed when I have to choose between all the many categories in a major library-- in our library, on the other hand, I always find a few books that I want (and have discovered the wonder of British chick lit). There's nothing fancy about our library, but that's part of why I love it: my library card consists of a number scrawled on a bookmark, and I've never been charged a late fee, even when I was pretty sure I was returning a few books a month late. I have to admit that I stick to the English books, but I often see translations written in spidery Hebrew above tricky words.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I borrowed Ask for a Convertible by Danit Brown from the library, and I've been meaning to recommend it to everyone I know ever since. In a series of beautifully-written (and funny) short stories about the same set of characters-- primarily a family who makes "yaridah" (moving out of Israel, the opposite of aliyah)-- Brown conveys the Israeli mentality better than any book I've read. Danit Brown (not to be confused with Dan Brown) is a close observer of both American and Israeli culture. I like to think that this book is what my blog would be if it became hyper-intelligent, self-aware, and moved back to the US. :)

The main character in the short stories is named Osnat, which is one of the names my husband and I joke we'll name our hypothetical future children so that they will never move to America. (As someone in the stories says, "What is it with Israelis being named after bodily fluids?") Osnat is transplanted from sun-baked Tel Aviv to cloudy Michigan at age 12. Through the course of the stories, she attempts to figure out where she belongs, even moving back to Tel Aviv as a young woman.

One of my favorite aspects of this book was the way Brown gets details right. She shows Osnat's mother attempting to find self-rising flour in Michigan-- I remember seeing self-rising flour on my post-yaridah Israeli mother-in-law's shelves, and now I realize this is what most Israelis use rather than plain flour and baking powder.  Brown conveys the gulf between the ways Americans and Israelis see Judaism and Israel. In one story, a burned-out driving instructor moves to an American small town and meets the town's one Jew and a staunch Christian. They end up in a coffee shop, and the Americans want to know what it's like in the Israeli army. The Israeli starts to tell them his arsenal of funny, raunchy stories about his time in the army, and the Americans grow increasingly confused and shocked at this image of the "holy land." Yet the Israeli is also burying the pain of a family member dying in a terrorist attack; this isn't the kind of thing he talks about, even though perhaps it's what the Americans would rather hear. I could also relate to the emotional strain of moving to a new country, whether that country is America or Israel. I have felt the plunge in IQ that comes with not being able to remember the word for "pants" in a clothing store and the slow process of finding friends and the different sound of Israeli apartments compared to American wood-frame houses.

One of the most thought-provoking stories was called "Your Own Private America." In it, Osnat struggles to be Israeli while all of the Israelis around her are looking for an idealized version of America. Here's an excerpt:
There was something about the way her aunt was always urging her to buy, buy, buy that made Osnat feel like the fat girl whose skinny friend kept encouraging her to eat and eat. "That's just how much stuff costs here," her aunt liked to say. Or, "Surely your parents can help you pay." It didn't matter that she had the same number of televisions and drove the same kind of car as Osnat's parents. There was simply no arguing with the spacious homes and glitzy automobiles you saw on TV. It was easier to believe in those than in the pasty, blubbery people who lived in trailer parks and sometimes came to blows on American talk shows. If one of these realities had to be rigged, then let it be the poor one.
I see this attitude so often in Israel. Israelis yearn for their "private Americas," despite the fact that most of my Israeli friends vacation in resorts while almost none of my American friends did. Israelis constantly use "cmo b'chul"-- like outside Israel-- as a sign something is truly nice, and they find it hard to believe that I honestly think quality of life is better here. Yet life is noisy and stressful in Israel, and as Osnat says, "America was nice, with its air conditioners and manicured lawns." This book put my fuzzy, conflicted feelings about the emotional distance between America and Israel into focus like no other book I've read.

One small disclaimer-- if you're easily offended by language or sexual content, you might not like this book, although to me it seemed pretty mild.  Also, this book risks keeping you up at night. I don't usually like short story collections, but this one pulled me through to the end.

Have you read Ask for a Convertible? Do you think you can relate?

P.S. I'll probably mess up the formula for choosing the links that appear below this post by writing this, but it strikes me that Danit Brown wrote about every one of the topics that appears below this post for me: getting an Israeli driver's license (and failing the test the first time, as an American), running into celebrities on the Israeli streets, and even experiencing a chamsin. No wonder I loved this book!


  1. Wow...this book sounds so great! Thanks for sharing-I'll be reading for sure.

  2. That sounds fantastic - I'll check our library for it. Thanks for letting us know!

  3. I'll be checking my library for it too. I love the sound of the library you are a member of. Is it private? Do you pay membership? Just curious.

  4. Shavua Tov Maya,
    I am an educator moving to Israel (possible aliyah) and would like to email you a question--possible to send me your email address?

  5. Our library is just the local community library, and membership is free. Check out your town's library and see if it offers English books!


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