Category Archives: Jewish and Gay— Books

“Prodigal Children in the House of G-d” by Yermiyahu Ahron Taub— A Personal Book, A Personal Review

Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “Prodigal Children in the House of G-d”, Austin Macauley Publishing, 2018.

A Personal Book, A Personal Review

Amos Lassen

Every few years, a book comes along that represents so much of my own personal feelings that it becomes one of those special volumes that sit on my desk so that I can refer to it often. This is such a book but it is even more than that—it is a symbol of friendship that grew out of my respect for Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s writing. First and foremost, Taub is a poet who I first met through his poetry as I slowly moved through his first four books. Then about four years ago he came to Boston for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and I not only had the chance to meet him and hear him read but he read at my Temple and wowed the congregants. Two more books of poetry came, one in Yiddish and then there was a translation of stories from Yiddish to English and now this collection of ten short stories.

“Prodigal Children in the House of G-d” is an exploration that takes us into the themes of family, community, and exile largely from ultra-Orthodox Jewish and/or queer perspectives (with that sentence, some of you already understand why this book is so important to me). There are no specific locations in the stories thus making them truly universal as they can be set anywhere. They are set in the present, or perhaps the past or the future—it does not matter. What does matter is how the characters deal with religious tradition as they take steps to reshape their lives and, in many cases, do so at great personal risk. We meet an elderly woman who lives alone and reflects on a love from long ago; we read of a trip that changes a mother and daughter forever and of a married Torah scholar who comes upon romance in an unexpected place.

As in traditional Orthodox Judaism the stories are separated by gender; there are five stories of daughters, five of sons yet they come together in amazing ways thus showing the oneness of both the Jewish and “other” communities. We sense the love with which Taub created his characters, they are part of the gentleness and sensitivity of the author himself and it would not surprise me to learn that the characters are different aspects of his own life. Like so many of us (and I do not mean just those who grew up in traditional Jewish homes), the characters question the lives they have inherited or chosen. Some have made good choices and others not so good. All of them are on journeys. 

With a background in poetry, it is no surprise that Taub’s prose is lyrical with each word carefully chosen. It is amazing to read what he is able to share in just a few words and/or sentences. 

In each story we have a look at a lonely soul dealing with the demands of ultra-Orthodox or other conservative tradition.  They are lesbians, heterosexuals, gay men and they struggle to live on their own terms. Taub uses a bit of psychological insight into the minds of his created characters and I was reminded of the way that Aviva Zornberg looks at Torah. There is always more than meets the eye. We are all aware of the gaps in the way parents see faith and in the way their children do but here it is sweet and tender. We see courage and we see love and respect but more than anything else we see the beauty of life and the beauty of words on a page. I debated with myself as I wrote this review whether or not to summarize each story but I realized that this would be a disservice to those who have yet to read them. Let me say that not only was I moved by what I read but I was also led to think about how others have dealt with the same issues that I dealt with and the place of religion, God and faith in my life. (A note on the spelling of the name G-d—many feel that we should only use the full name in prayer, hence the middle letter is deleted when not at prayer. I did this for many years but I no longer feel the need to do so since I have established my own relationship with the Divine).

Do not think that once you have finished reading the book that your relationship with the characters is over. They will stay with you. I read this over a month ago and I think about it every day. What I really found to be amazing is that everyone, regardless of religion and/or faith, will have something of him/herself here.

*A note on transliteration and pronunciation and a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms appear at the end of the book. The book includes two pairs of interlocking stories.

“Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” by Lillian Faderman— A Gay Icon

Faderman, Lillian. “Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death”, Yale University Press, 2018.

A Gay Icon

Amos Lassen

I did not know Harvey Milk (like everyone else claims— well, maybe not everybody, just those thousands who claim that they were at Stonewall and Woodstock, etc.). I was already living out of the country when he came to be known and he was gone before I returned to this country. What I do know about Milk comes from reading and the excellent films about him. I cannot think of anyone who I would rather have tell me the story of Harvey Milk than Lillian Faderman since I have enjoyed all of her books… and besides we are both Jewish and gay (but she is famous).

Harvey Milk was an elegant, eloquent and charismatic gentleman who had managed, practically on his own, to be elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Unfortunately for him and for us, he had not even been a full year in office when he was shot by a homophobic fellow supervisor. He was only 48-yeard-old and his death made him the most famous gay man of modern times. Milk was certainly influential and deeply loved and his loss of life was our loss of a very important friend. He had not set out to be a politician. He had been a teacher, a securities analyst, had worked on Broadway as a theater assistant and in politics for the election of Barry Goldwater.

Milk opened a camera store in San Francisco and soon became a leader in his community. He let go of organized religion and rejected Judaism yet remained “deeply influenced by the cultural values of his Jewish upbringing and his understanding of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust”. He decided to run for public office as a champion of the LGBT community, racial minorities, women, working people, the disabled and senior citizens— those who were marginalized in American life. He worked very hard to become a successful public figure with a distinct political voice.

This biography is part of the Yale “Jewish Lives” series and writer Faderman places emphasis on Milk’s Jewish cultural identity. He was twice an outsider— once for being gay and once for being Jewish. It is important to realize that his politics were influenced heavily by his family history and the basic tenets of Jewish liberalism just as they were by his sexual identity. Faderman did outstanding research to write this and then wrote the story in her beautiful prose, showing how his Jewish identity deeply informed his experiences and his politics.

Faderman introduces us to a Harvey Milk as part of the larger LGBT community so we actually get two histories here. We read of political contradictions, “human peculiarities” while gaining an analytic look at the LGBT movement overall thus making this a comprehensive history of gay rights.

“Of Men and Angels” by Michael Arditti— The Myth of Sodom

Arditti, Michael. “Of Men and Angels”, Arcadia, 2018.

The Myth of Sodom

Amos Lassen

The divine vengeance wreaked on the city of Sodom is one of the most enduring and influential myths of all time. Michael Arditti’s monumental work explores its creation, dissemination, and application in five key historical epochs. The characters that we meet here include exiled Jews, Babylonian temple prostitutes, a playwright, a Renaissance artist, a Bedouin escorting a Victorian canon and a Hollywood movie star with AIDS.

The novel extends over five historical periods, from the earliest days of the Hebrew Bible through to 1990s Los Angeles. Angels begin and end the book and these angels are guardians, messengers and intermediaries with distant deities and they hold the story together.

The story is centered the story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible about the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by fire and brimstone brought down by angels on God’s orders. Only Lot and his daughters are spared the destruction. This is a story we all know well.

Christianity argues that the fate of Sodom, and its neighboring city Gomorrah, was the result of its inhabitants “embracing” homosexuality. Thus the church condemns same-sex attraction is “the sin of Sodom”.

Arditti looks at how three millennia of homophobia has been based on how we read this text since the Bible tends to be unclear about what happened and its cause. The “sin of Sodom”, according to the words used in the Authorized Version of the Bible (authorized to whom?), is an absence of hospitality, over-attachment to other deities, or lack of trust in God. As A Jew, I have been taught that the sin of Sodom is the lack of hospitality and the fact that the stranger was not welcomed. There are strains of Judaism that focus on homosexuality as well. We also sometimes forget what happens after the destruction and I do not believe I have ever heard a sermon about Lot’s two daughters who fill their father with wine and sleep with him to propagate the race.

This is a novel about religious hypocrisy. Each of the five sections of the book tells the story of its victims. In the first section, we meet Jared, a young scribe who has been exiled with his fellow Jews to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. His job entails creating new written versions of the Genesis stories after the originals have been lost in the aftermath of battle. He really struggles to reconcile the teaching of Judaism on the sin of Sodom with his private exploration of a more tolerant attitude to human love in the city in which he is captive.

The second episode is set in mediaeval York where the Guild of Salters is acting out a Miracle Play telling about Lot’s wife who supposedly was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back on the destruction of Sodom. Simon Muskham whose faith leads him to take part enthusiastically in a re-enactment of Lot’s escape from Sodom as part of the city’s mystery plays, sees his same-sex attraction as a gift from God, an act of heresy that costs him at the hands of the church authorities.

The third section moves to the late 15th century in Florence where Sandro Botticelli paints the Destruction of Sodom, as the city is caught up in the religious fervor of Friar Savonorola’s revolutionary Puritanism, and the conflict between the Renaissance’s depiction of the human body and the strict sexual morality of Christian orthodoxy.

In the fourth section, we begin in Egypt with the story of an English Anglican priest who while visiting the Holy Land is determined to locate the ruins of Sodom. His narrow and very English self-assurance and self-righteousness is undermined by his companion, his nephew who has been in the employ of the East India Company. He witnessed the horrors of mutiny and has bitter and sad memories but what the hook is here is that he is an unrepentant “sodomite” and his stories easily disturb the parson’s narrow understanding.

The last section in set in Hollywood, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It begins with an entry from a mock-Wikipedia about the film “Flesh and Brimstone” that has been condemned by religious groups for its revisionist interpretation of the biblical stories of Abraham, Lot and Sodom. Nonetheless, the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including one for actor Frank Archer in his last screen appearance. Archer had been a star for several decades and he was a closeted gay who could not be open about his sexuality and his relationship with his Russian-émigré lover Gene. Rumors that Frank is gay began to circulate after Gene’s death. Frank is HIV positive and his appearance in the film was courageous. This was at a time when an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence.

One of the problems of writing about five different periods is that the story could feel “fragmented, repetitive, or didactic”, but Arditti is such a fine storyteller that this is a challenging and exciting read. Quite basically, “Of Men and Angels” is an unstinting look at the biblical roots of gay persecution but it is also so much more. We feel Arditti’s position, that those who have engaged and those that engage in gay sex have been subjected is revolting attitudes and punishments over time.

Arditti combines education and research with his art of storytelling to give us a walk through Judaeo-Christian and Islamic history. 
He maintains “that the rules and legends these traditions have bequeathed are tainted by falsification, intimidation or opportunistic lies.”


The angel Gabriel introduces each of the five episodes that question what actually happened at Sodom. 
What had the men of that town done to cause God to decree its destruction? Why were angels sent there and what was their essential identity? Why did Lot protect them to the extent of offering his daughters in their place to his menacing neighbors? What about the incest of Lot’s daughters’ with him after they have fled? Why does Lot’s wife look back at the town when she had been warned not to? These are not new questions and most of us have asked them many times.

The dilemmas of the five main characters are concerned with whether or not homosexuality is a sin, a crime, against nature, tolerated, celebrated or concealed. We are reminded of ideologies that have caused gay baiting, hating and martyrdom. Religion and its tales have been complicit in oppression, along with men’s paranoia and weakness. What Arditti depicts here are innocent expressions of natural urges, impetuous moments of pursuit of pleasure and/or compensation for what might otherwise be a “thankless and punishing existence.” We feel the author’s zeal in retelling history from a point of view that will comfort those who feel that they have been prey to unmerited criticism, or worse, for too long. Arditti’s intellectual understanding of his subject is sharp, disturbing yet satisfying. I am in total awe of the man and his novel.

“Book of Hats” by Dov Zeller— Transmasculine in the 1930s

Zeller, Dov. “Book of Hats”, Tiny Golem Press, 2018.

Transmasculine in the 1930s

Amos Lassen

It is without question that the LGBTQI community has come a long way recently and while we have always had representative gay and lesbian literature, we have not had a great deal from transpeople but that is also changing. Quite by across Tiny Golem press which is located right here in Massachusetts and is dedicated to publishing “books that represent queer, gender diverse and chronically ill/disabled characters and voices”. Dov Zeller is a writer at Tiny Golem and already has two books published by the press. I have already reviewed the first book, “The Right Thing to Do at the Time” and you can find that review here on this site. The second book, “Book of Hats” will be published in June.

“Book of Hats” is about hats and fashion and Ida Velikowsky. Ida’s family has a long career in fashion and they are quite respected as mavens and in fact they have their own holy book that contains what they have learned wherever they have sojourned. Ida loved studying that book with her father and its magic makes her feel good. However, Ida is a transmasculine kid at a time in history where such a thing was unheard of and certainly only spoken of in whispers. She feels guilt and even feels responsible for her parents having withdrawn into themselves. Ida finds the situation to be too much to bear and leaves home for New York, hoping to find a community where she will be accepted for who she is. Even though she does find this community, she still feels as if she is a stranger to herself and she has real issues with intimacy that remain with her wherever she is and whoever she is with. Because she is separated from her family does not help the situation. Then one night she receives a phone call from her brother who has been lost to her for a long time. She has a chance for a reunion and if this happens you will only know by reading the book.

This is a big book coming in at 450 plus pages and the story continues even after you close the covers of the book. We also have an extra bonus of questions for book clubs that can also serve as a reading guide for an individual. I have deliberately not gone deeply into the plot or written about the characters and this is deliberate yet I must mention the Jewish themes here as well. I find that when I do write a book review, I tend to give away too much plot information and I do not want to spoil the experience of a good read and Dov Zeller is a story master and a good writer.

We are so much in need of books like this and I really hope that Dov Zeller is opening the door for other to follow him through even though he is a tough act to follow.

“Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live” by Sacha Lamb— A Fairy Tale


Lamb, Sacha. “Avi Cantor Has Six Months to Live”, Book Smugglers Publishing , 2017.

A Fairy Tale

Amos Lassen

When Avi sees that he has only six months to live written on a bathroom mirror, he is confused. He does not understand what these words could mean and whether this is the work of the bullies at school and meant to be a prediction of what is to come. I hesitate to call this a novel since it is only 70 pages long, yet in those 70 pages are the makings of a novel.

Avi is having a difficult time but things begin to look better with the arrival of Ian, the new guy at school who seems to notice Avi and pay attention to him. All of us either know someone like Avi or actually see ourselves in him. Anyone who has ever been bullied or been depressed will recognize in Avi some of what they also went through. However, there is something else and that is that Avi is transgender. We are very aware of the he feels. Avi does not want us to see the sad side of his life and he comes across as an optimist despite what he has to deal with. He feels these issues inside and sees Ian as the bright side of his days. He is so well adjusted and accepted by all.

To tackle a subject such as this is risky but Sacha Lamb also brings is religion by sharing Avi’s Jewishness and also shows us Ian as a young man raised by two moms. We rarely get stories that include experiences of trans boyhood that are unobtrusive and natural and, for me, that is what makes this such a good read.

Avi Cantor is a high-school student in mid-transition. We read about a new bullying technique that is complicated and difficult to deal with. But this is not a story about bullying but about self-loathing. It’s both heartbreaking and life- affirming. Avi’s relationship with Ian and his family might not fix everything but it gives hope. The prose is beautiful and the story is important.

We see how as class, religion, and society make us who we are and while I cannot share much of the plot with you for fearing of ruining what the story has to say, let me just mention that this is a powerful little book that needs to be read. It is genuine and sincere with likeable characters and gay trans boys in love and choosing life and love when despair and alienation are the alternatives.

“The Right Thing To Do at the Time” by Dov Zeller”— Itche and Ari

Zeller, Dov. “The Right Thing to Do at the Time”, Tiny Golem, 2016.

Itche and Ari

Amos Lassen

Ari Wexler is a trans guy in his late twenties who barely making it financially. Music has always been his pleasure as well as his meal ticket but these days his band practically has to pay to play a gig. As if that is not enough, Ari works at a clerk a music library but now that his beloved boss and friend has left, it has become unbearable. Then there is his love (or perhaps better said, his lack of love life) has caused him to considering just doing away with romance. He does however have a best friend, , Itche Mattes and the two of them have always managed to survive rough periods in the past. Now Together they’ve gotten through hard times before. Ari has begun to think that perhaps their friendship could just be a sign that they were meant to live together “happily ever after.” That thought evaporated soon enough when a famous actress comes to town and swept Itche off his feet and causing their relationship to cool off and Ari to despair. Then when an interesting music project becomes available to him, Ari has to decide if he should take the risk and leave what he knows and perhaps find what he is looking for.

I detected shades of Jane Austen here (yes men read Austen too) and the reader finds himself guessing how this will turn out. There is a good deal here about friendship and love and the definitions of those terms. There is also great dialogue and a lot of humor.

Itche and Ari are New Yorkers who first met at Jewish summer camp when they were young. They have been best friends a each seems to understand the other in ways that no one else can. Ari is isn’t completely accepted by his family, a fate that many transgender people have to deal with and Itche has dreams of wooing a Jewish Hollywood actress who accepts her Judaism and has ties to the Jewish community. Writer Dov Zeller also includes a good deal about the Jewish community (so you see I am not the only person who includes Judaism into whatever I write).

We read about love in its many faces and aspects and as we do, we realize that we are getting close to the characters and having a very fun read. Zeller has created an unforgettable character in Ari and for me, at least, it was very special as I have a transgender nephew and have heard similar stories although not related as eloquently as here. I also love how LGBT sexuality, friendship and romance take center stage. As most of you know, I read a lot but I must say that it has been a while since I have read anything as fresh as this. I did not want it to end but there is good news in that Zeller has two new books coming out soon.

Like Austen, Zeller looks at the human condition as it operates with a wave to Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig and to Jewish history. There is something very Jewish here and Jewish readers will realize it immediately. That doesn’t mean that non-Jewish readers will not enjoy the read; they just might miss some on the cheekiness for lack of a batter word). There is even Jewishness in the sexuality here. Like I said the wit and humor or great, the prose is excellent and even the surprise footnotes are fun. I just wonder why I have not heard of Dov Zeller before (especially since we both live in Massachusetts).

“Itche and Ari” by Dov Zeller— Making a Choice

Zeller, Dov. “Itche & Ari”, Tiny Golem, 2016.

Making a Choice

Amos Lassen

Ari Wexler is a trans guy in his late twenties who barely making it financially. Music has always been his pleasure as well as his meal ticket but these days his band practically has to pay to play a gig. As if that is not enough, Ari works at a clerk a music library but now that his beloved boss and friend has left, it has become unbearable. Then there is his love (or perhaps better said, his lack of love life) has caused him to considering just doing away with romance. He does however have a best friend, , Itche Mattes and the two of them have always managed to survive rough periods in the past. Now Together they’ve gotten through hard times before. Ari has begun to think that perhaps their friendship could just be a sign that they were meant to live together “happily ever after.” That thought evaporated soon enough when a famous actress comes to town and swept Itche off his feet and causing their relationship to cool off and Ari to despair. Then when an interesting music project becomes available to him, Ari has to decide if he should take the risk and leave what he knows and perhaps find what he is looking for.

I detected shades of Jane Austen here (yes men read Austen too) and the reader finds himself guessing how this will turn out. There is a good deal here about friendship and love and the definitions of those terms. There is also great dialogue and a lot of humor.

Itche and Ari are New Yorkers who first met at Jewish summer camp when they were young. They have been best friends a each seems to understand the other in ways that no one else can. Ari is isn’t completely accepted by his family, a fate that many transgender people have to deal with and Itche has dreams of wooing a Jewish Hollywood actress who accepts her Judaism and has ties to the Jewish community. Writer Dov Zeller also includes a good deal about the Jewish community (so you see I am not the only person who includes Judaism into whatever I write).

We read about love in its many faces and aspects and as we do, we realize that we are getting close to the characters and having a very fun read. Zeller has created an unforgettable character in Ari and for me, at least, it was very special as I have a transgender nephew and have heard similar stories although not related as eloquently as here. I also love how LGBT sexuality, friendship and romance take center stage. As most of you know, I read a lot but I must say that it has been a while since I have read anything as fresh as this. I did not want it to end but there is good news in that Zeller has two new books coming out soon.

Like Austen, Zeller looks at the human condition as it operates with a wave to Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig and to Jewish history. There is something very Jewish here and Jewish readers will realize it immediately. That doesn’t mean that non-Jewish readers will not enjoy the read; they just might miss some on the cheekiness for lack of a batter word). There is even Jewishness in the sexuality here. Like I said the wit and humor or great, the prose is excellent and even the surprise footnotes are fun. I just wonder why I have not heard of Dov Zeller before (especially since we both live in Massachusetts).

“Sadness is a White Bird” by Moriel Rothman-Zecher— A Coming-of-Age Love Triangle

 

Rothman-Zecher, Moriel. “Sadness Is a White Bird: A Novel”, Atria Books, 2018.

A Coming-of-Age Love Triangle

Amos Lassen

Jonathan is a young man who is preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country. We begin in an Israeli military jail, where Jonathan remembers clearly the series of events that led him there. It all began two years earlier when after spending several years in Pennsylvania, Jonathan moves back to Israel and is ready “to fight to preserve and defend the Jewish state”. His grandfather was a Salonican Jew whose community was erased by the Nazis and he was one of the pioneers to help establish Israel. Jonathan is conflicted about the possibility of having to monitor the occupied Palestinian territories and this becomes a very deep concern when he meets Nimreen and Laith, the twin daughter and son of his mother’s friend.

From that meeting, the three become inseparable as they wandered the streets on weekends, had new adventures and laughed together. They shared so much from joints on the beach, trading snippets of poems, intimate secrets and family histories, resentments, and dreams. In effect, they created their own family. With his draft date rapidly approaching, Jonathan wrestled with the question of what it means to be proud of your heritage and loyal to your people, while also loving those outside of your own biological and tribal family. Then the day that put Jonathan in prison came and his relationship with the twins was changed forever.

This novel looks at one guy as he tries to find his place in the world and who found, along the way, love. In the process, we gain a look at identity formation, both personal and collective. As I read, I was reminded of so many of my own life experiences. As young people we become very aware of the changes in the world that we want to make. We establish our own set of values and beauty and see what we want to see.

The story is told through letters written by Jonathan whose grandfather convinced him of the honor and duty that cones with the defense of Israel. Jonathan becomes devoted to his grandfather’s dreams of recapturing some of that which he lost when they were forced to leave Palestine. At the same time he is became friends with Palestinian Arabs, Laith and Nimreen.

Laith and his twin sister, Nimreen, became Jonathan’s voices of the other side of the political divide. Their relationship becomes strained because of ideologies and Jonathan is sure that he must follow what his grandfather told him to do. Laith and Nimreen feel that their view of the situation is right.

Jonathan tells the story through his letters, thoughts, journal entries that he writes to Laith, his friend he feels he’s lost along the way as he sits in an Iranian military jail cell. How he got there and everything else about his life is told in flashback.

This is so much more than a coming-of-age story— it also shows the dangers and ravages of war and this is also a love story of a kind. We sense Jonathan’s spirit, thoughts and feelings and the see the effect that the Israeli/Palestinian has on his relationship with Laith and Nimreen. Beautifully written and honest and sincere there is, of course, a message here.

“Candies from Heaven” by Gil Hovav— Stories to Eat By

Hovav, Gil. “Candies from Heaven”, translated by Ira Moskowitz, Toad Publishing, 2017.

Stories to Eat By

Amos Lassen

Gil Hovav is one of Israel’s natural cultural treasures. He is a wonderful storyteller. In “Candies from Heaven” we get a wonderful sampling of stories as well as recipes that help us enjoy the food for thought.

Hovav is not only a masterful storyteller he is a born raconteur. His family is unforgettable— colorful uncles, aunts, and other family members that we meet through the stories that use food as a lemotif. The stories are actually autobiographical accounts of growing up in Jerusalem in the 60s and 70s and they read like short stories in the great tradition of Sholem Aleichem—-they are related with “great wisdom, tenderness, insight, and wit as tart as a bowl of Yemenite pickles.” The recipes include sweet sour chorba tomato soup and his Aunt Levana’s eggplant and feta bourekas. It is great fun to read intimate details about someone else—- it is almost as if we are pulled into the family. We really see the diverse cultural mix that was the foundation of Israel.

 

“The Diamond Setter” by Moshe Sakal— Inspired by True Events

Sakal, Moshe. “The Diamond Setter”, translated by Jessica Cohen, Other Press, 2018.

Inspired by True Events

Amos Lassen

 “The Diamond Setter” traces a complex web of love triangles, homoerotic tensions, and family secrets across generations and locations. We get a new look at life in the Middle East as it really is. Written by Moshe Sakal this is his first novel to be translated into English. The story is related by characters whose lives intertwine and revolve around a rare diamond.

In his first novel to be translated into English, Israeli writer Sakal uses elements of his own biography and weaves them into a story that is part mystery, part family history, and part myth. Tom narrates the story that starts when he begins an apprenticeship in his uncle Menashe’s jewelry shop in Tel Aviv. A customer comes into the shop with what she claims belongs to Menashe: a long-lost blue diamond known as “Sabakh.” Tom and his boyfriend, Honi, become involved with a young man from Damascus named Fareed, who may be connected to the diamond in some way. From this point, the story moves backwards as the characters’ lives are traced back through their respective family trees and into the history of the Middle East. We learn about the mysterious diamond and the lives it’s touched as it is set against the backdrop of the founding of the State of Israel and the deepening conflict that developed at that time. Sakal plays with boundaries while reality and fiction come together when Tom discusses the book he’s writing (also called “The Diamond Setter”) as the story progresses.

As the mystery of the diamond unfolds, characters’ lives cross in unexpected ways and we are reminded that we are all connected to each other in some way.

There is a fascinating obsession with property here. The question of who will inherit Israel when the time comes is never answered. We never really understand the meaning of the word “inherit”. On opposing sides are Menashe Salomon, the moral jeweler with an intricate history of its own and Amiram Kadosh, Menashe’s scheming, money-driven landlord who plans to renovate the building where the jewelry shop is and turn it into a boutique hotel. Between the two is a large cast of characters that includes respective children, friends, intimates, confidents, and forbears, some of whom the two men actually have in common.

This story is about Israel today as she is in her most liberated and existence. complex, acculturated, even liberated format. This is about Israel without looking at war, religion, disagreement, etc and t is sort of like a state of little America where there is a constant flow of cultures and languages. Several of the men and women here are gay or bisexual, and little is made of it and even the older characters have no problem with sexuality. The past is constant throughout and it provides solace and grounding. and grudges and arguing. The symbol of the past is “Sabakh,” the blue diamond. It had once been given to Gracia, a beautiful, talented, great aunt of Menashe’s, by a Turkish sultan as a reward for her singing. The diamond’s journeys and the subsequent “curse” attached to it become a major theme in the novel. Eventually it comes to Fareed, a handsome young Syrian who met Rami on Grindr. Rami introduces Fareed to Honi, another young gay man whose father is Amiram Kadosh, and from there the story begins to move. Fareed will return the diamond to its rightful owner and we will learn about the intertwining destinies of almost all of the many characters.

What we really see is a portrait of modern Israel that is good and positive. We read about the movement to equalize wealth and opportunity, and that understands that Israel cannot exist without its Palestinians and their own history and culture. It is all about economic justice and this is quite a different Israel than the one I lived in.

Fareed came to Tel Aviv with the intention of returning the diamond to its rightful owner and is soon swept up in Tel Aviv’s vibrant gay scene, and a turbulent protest movement. He falls in love with both an Israeli soldier and his boyfriend and shares the story of his family’s past that turns out to be a tale of forbidden love beginning in the 1930s that connects Fareed and the jeweler.

Writer Sakal presents us with a wonderful mosaic of characters, locales, and cultures that allow us to look beyond the present military conflicts. This is a fascinating look at the Middle East through the intergenerational lives and loves of its characters.