Book Review: Assaf Gavron paints a big picture from The Hilltop

The single tree bent by the wind on an arid field is the perfect cover for Assaf Gavron’s 2013 novel, published here in 2014 with Steven Cohen’s English Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 12.29.34 PMtranslation. On the face of it, brothers Gabi and Roni Kupper are the  main characters. On every page Israel’s land, politics, and people – Jewish and Palestinian, settlers and kibbutzniks, religious and secular – share equal billing.

After several years with little contact, Roni arrives at Gabi’s dilapidated trailer in a tiny West Bank settlement having escaped his fast track New York life wearing a Hugo Boss suit, with empty pockets and no plan. Roni barely recognizes his brother, Gabi, who has crafted a new life as a religious ascetic and changed his name. A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Gabi organizes his life around daily prayers and learning, and turning a small shed on the edge of the settlement into a home. Seemingly gone are the traumas that shaped his life as a child and young adult.

Mixing flashbacks and the present day, Gavron presents two different worlds: daily life in Ma’aleh Hermesh C and the difficult childhood that helped bring Gabi and Roni there.  The precarious survival of Ma’aleh Hermesh C. mirrors that of the State of Israel. Differing views within the community, threats from neighboring villages, governmental inconstancy, politics and nature itself make every day a battle. With a deft hand, balancing humor and sarcasm, Gavron brings more and more players into the decision: the IDF, the Palestinian olive growers, housing officials, water and electric authorities, Japanese businessmen, U.S. donors and diplomats. In a comic moment, some of the scenes are reminiscent of the folk tale “It Could Always Be Worse” where the each of the farm animals in turn moves into the crowded little house, complicating an already difficult family life.

The book is carefully placed in time. Gabi and Roni are growing up on a kibbutz as the movement is undergoing tremendous upheaval and realignment, away from the classic communal life.  As young adults, Gabi and Roni, separately, head to the U.S., each in search of a fresh start. Love returns Gabi home to Israel, the financial crisis chases Roni there. The present is shortly after the Second Intifada, when tearing down of unauthorized settlements was a policy choice along with the building of barriers.

The stories of Gabi and Roni and all the residents of Ma’aleh Hermesh C. capture individuals at their best and their worst. For the reader interested in what life in Israel is like beyond the headlines, Gavron provides a sense of the complexity and contradictions that make solving both domestic and international problems so daunting. Beyond this, Gavron reveals the beauty and promise of the land and the spirit of the people that make Israel so unique and this novel so timely and engaging.

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  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Israel
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Book Group Potential: Very good
  • Caveat: Limited scenes with child abuse and violence