In 2004, Joan Leegant published a collection of short stories, “An Hour In Paradise,” that earned well-merited plaudits for her. Now, she has written her first novel and it should embellish her reputation.
The scene for the new book, “Wherever You Go,” is Israel, which is well known to Leegant since she studied there. Also, beginning in 2007, she has been spending half the year teaching writing at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
Making good use of her knowledge about Israel and especially about Americans who spend time there, she has fashioned a thought-provoking and credible story.
To her credit, Leegant does not deal with the Jerusalem Syndrome, which has attracted considerable attention by impacting individuals who are so overwhelmed by the encounter with Jerusalem that they psychotically see themselves as biblical personalities or as emissaries from God. Instead, she features three different characters who are profoundly affected by being in Israel but certainly not to the point of becoming mentally ill.
Yona Stern is a 30-year old woman who is returning to Israel after a 10-year lapse to visit her estranged sister. Mark Greenglass is a teacher who attributes his salvation from drug addiction to his embrace of Orthodoxy and his settling in Jerusalem. Aaron Blinder, son of a famous Jewish writer, has dropped out of the semester-abroad program that brought him to Jerusalem and is now involved with a right-wing group that is determined to expand Israeli settlements on the West Bank. These people are unknown to each other and have nothing to do with each other until a violent explosion unexpectedly and dramatically brings them together.
The lives and experiences of the characters are set forth episodically and fitfully as Leegant suddenly shifts from one to the other, requiring her readers to remember where she left off. Those who are patient will be rewarded by well-rounded portraits of complicated individuals each of whom is unique but with some features that typify young Americans in Israel.
Yona’s sister, Dena, lives in a militant West Bank settlement, near Hebron, with her second husband and her five children. Their community is named Givat Baruch, ostensibly for a young member of the Irgun who was hanged by the British in 1947 but really for Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli-American physician who killed thirty Muslims praying in the Cave of the Patriarchs before being killed himself. The troubled relationship between Yona and Dena is a story by itself just as is the case with the experiences of the other two protagonists.
Mark Greenglass’s ambivalence about his spirituality is painstakingly and painfully explored as he visits his parents in New York and seeks out his one-time friend, Regina, with whom he shared an addiction to drugs. Failing to find her, he returns to Jerusalem where he is eventually affected by the explosion that altered his life.
Aaron wants to impress the leader of his group and his foolish effort to do so results in the fiery event that tragically brings Leegant’s three protagonists side by side. She twists the strands of their experiences together, examining the profound impact of life in Israel on these individuals. Her inconclusive ending may irritate some readers while others will recognize the authenticity of her depicting life as failing to dot every “i” and cross every “t.” The uncertainty she describe is enigmatic but ultimately realistic, lending the special power of validity to her story.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)