Blumenthal, Rena. “The Book of Israela”, Resource Publications, 2018.
Then and Now
In Rabbi Rena Blumenthal’s, “The Book of Israela”, we meet Kobi Benami in Jerusalem of 2002 at the height of the second intifada. He is a middle-aged psychologist whose life is falling apart. He has been thrown out of his house by his wife who is tired of his philandering and his daughter has refused to speak to him. The new clinic director has put him on probation for his indifferent work habits. Life, for Kobi, is not particularly good right now. Just at this time, he gets a new patient named Israela, a woman with quite a story that is filled with strange biblical references. Her husband, Y, is questionable— he may or may not exist. She hasn’t seen him in months and she is being stalked by “his prophet-like emissaries who span a wide spectrum of Israeli society–Orthodox to secular, right-wing settlers to left-wing urban elites”. They are held together by their condemnation of her, her devotion to Y and her ties to The Outstretched Arm, a sinister organization that Y supposedly runs.
Kobi soon finds himself as part of a surreal encounter with the anthropomorphized story of ancient Israel. He becomes preoccupied with questions about the nature and existence of Y and because of this, is forced to confront his own dysfunctional life patterns, his family’s past, and the war that rages around him.
Kobi becomes our narrator and he gives us a strange and honest portrait of contemporary Israel that is dealing with Abrahamic monotheism. The ancient prophets (or possibly just several crazy people) follow and haunt Kobi because of Israela.
Kobi has no faith and his story is told as a biblical metaphor about God’s relationship with Israel. We read of Jewish historical and mythical experiences and these bring us close the hapless psychologist whose life becomes one of turmoil. We meet two men who are totally different— Kobi and an American Orthodox rabbi but both of whose lives force them to look at and analyze their pasts so that they can find new ways to face their futures.
Kobi’s problems are caused by his own doings. The story is set at a time when because of intifada, many look to the clinic for help and the number of suicide bombers is increasing. Kobi has little or no interest in his patients until Israela, whose story he finds fascinating, even though he is sure that she is delusional. Her claim to be married to an older man, Y, who controls a powerful, but little known, organization seems suspect. She says Y loves her, but Kobi suspects that she is an abused wife.
When emissaries from Y find Kobi and explain their understanding of Y and Israela’s relationship, things change. These emissaries include an extreme right-wing settler and a leftist who believes Israel has mistreated the Palestinians, believe that Y has Israela’s best interests at heart, even though she has betrayed him.
I immediately realized that what I was reading were biblical stories retold and I find these to be very clever. In recognizing the original stories, we see an extra level to what is being told here. (However, it is indeed possible to read this with no knowledge of the Bible).
I find it fascinating in that I was totally ready to dislike Kobi, I changed my mind as I read even though his behavior left a great deal to be desired. When I read that he was the son of Holocaust survivors, his actions are put into perspective yet this does not excuse him. I must admit that there were several times during which I debated whether or not to continue reading— there were simply too many open situations for which I could see no forthcoming solutions but I decided to continue hoping that all would come together. As it is, I found this to be a satisfying read but one I had to work at. In fact, I am sure that there are aspects of the book that I missed and when time permits, I will read it again (something I rarely do).
Reading a variety of perspectives on life in Israel today combined with social commentary through and biblical illusions can be great fun. It is Israela who makes this all possible by opening the story that drives Kobi and the rest of the plot. It took a while but I realized the genius that is between the lines of the text.