Text size

Death is intertwined with just about every paragraph Assaf Inbari writes. "Going Home" - what a wonderful name for this book - is a work saturated with death. People die in infancy, people die in childhood, people die in the army, people die in accidents and disasters; they die of disease and they die of frustration, and they die for no reason at all.

In the Kibbutz Afikim that Inbari describes - and at Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov, which lies three kilometers away in the Jordan Valley, and is the place where I was raised from the age of 11 - the end always comes as it does in the biblical expression "fell and died": both as an unequivocal loss and as an ironic, Pushkinesque comment on the life that was previously lived.

"Aronchik went to the cemetery on his last day at the kibbutz," Inbari writes of one kibbutz member who left Afikim after the state's establishment. "Every time his son Shuka called him Dad, he would respond, 'He's not here.' 'He is here,' Shuka would answer, fighting for the right to call him Dad until his death at the age of 6."

Inbari doesn't provide too much information about the details that fill the time between birth and death, but he writes enough to let the readers fill in the blanks. He thus tries to recreate the kind of literary minimalism used in the Bible (as he and I learned from Benny Barkan, who taught Bible at the Jordan valley regional school we both attended and is mentioned in a line in the book), to the point where the book becomes a kind of distilled and intense precis.

Inbari's book takes me back to my own memories, because each of his passages describing sudden death reminds me of the way I heard stories told in Ashdot Yaakov. Afikim was founded by Russian immigrants and Ashdot Yaakov by Polish ones - and as Inbari writes, the Poles tend to add sugar to everything - but I am familiar with the emotional ambiguity, the almost inconceivable ideological dedication, and the internal contradictions that beset a society that is at once radical and vulnerable. I read "Going Home" as though it were my own diary.

As a literary endeavor, Inbari's book may pose challenges for those unfamiliar with kibbutz talk, which might lead readers to miss the irony in the contrast between his minimalist style and the poetic style of Beeri Hazak from Afikim, one of the Jordan Valley's most prominent fallen sons. It isn't pleasant to think critically about these poems, which tend toward a modest pathos, since they, like "Going Home," make conscious artistic usage of biblical allusions and are skillfully executed. Take the poem "Ribono shel Olam" ("Lord of the Universe"), in which Hazak uses a two-way radio on the battlefield as a metaphor for signals of divine existence and the divine spark in mankind ("Please boost the signal intensity"). Then there's the line familiar to just about every boy and girl in the Jordan Valley, which turns the optimistic verse in Psalms on its head: "My silent father ... because you sowed me in tears and shall reap me in sobs." But perhaps even those who were not raised in the grip of the culture of self-sacrifice or the repression that follows will also be able to sense the brilliance of Inbari's description of it, criticism of it and love for it.

Inbari hides his feelings and keeps them in check. Nonetheless, "Going Home" includes many moments of compassion, especially when Inbari writes about a figure he seems to like more than the others: the "slim and dark" Zvi Brenner, who arrived at Afikim shortly after emigrating from the United States, and served in the Haganah and as a guide to pro-Zionist British officer Orde Wingate. Brenner is a genuine hero who was tortured in a British jail in Acre, and then fought and was wounded while fighting for the British army during World War II; he returned to Afikim without winning any recognition. Inbari describes the disabled veteran dragging himself to the kibbutz's public bathroom, where he is nearly overtaken by a terrible thought, but decides to ignore it.