He Still Has His Moments

"Aliyato unefilato shel ha-Y" ("The Rise and Fall of the Y") by Yehonatan Gefen, Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan-Dvir Publishing, 283 pages, NIS 47.

Here is a scene no one wants to picture: Yehonatan Gefen and his love interest meet in a Tel Aviv hotel room. It is after midnight. Holocaust Remembrance Day has just ended. She has put her children to bed and come to him. He is on a "home visit" to Israel, will return to Boston in a few hours. This is their first time together, after a year of preparations. They take their clothes off and get into bed.

Boom! It is an explosion. An enormous one, nearby. They know it is a bombing. They feel guilty. They even talk about it, but she says terrorism cannot be allowed to win, and they continue. The newspapers will call it "the bombing at Mike's Place." Later, at the airport, Gefen throws up in the men's room.

There is a lot to be learned about Gefen - or rather about his poetics - from this story, part of a new collection of columns that appeared in Maariv over the last five years. Not that he has ever concealed much from his readers, and his long writing career has included some far wilder confessions. Yet this story, cleverly but not wisely titled "A Tale of Love and Repression" (for it is as far from Amos Oz's "Tale of Love and Darkness" as it can be), has a pathetic element to it that even a sympathetic reader cannot overlook.

The pathetic aspect is found not only in the piling up of symbolic details - Holocaust Day, a romantic rendezvous under impossible conditions, terrorism - moments so pregnant they render themselves obsolete. It also involves the way in which Gefen's identification with the collective - his perpetual use of the "we," or his "us lyricism" is meant to aggrandize his private moment of love, and at the same time to account for its failure.

As a columnist who lays himself bare on the butcher's table, Gefen is the individual longing for recognition, the one who speaks of his weaknesses, loneliness and fears with a professional, acquired candor. It is the always-charming, clueless Gefen who confesses to taking Hagigat, a recreational drug derived from kat leaves ("I swallowed it three months ago ... To this day it's done nothing to me"), talks about his depression ("Some years ago I was prescribed Prozac. I swallowed it for a year, and I indeed felt no pain ... I couldn't love and I couldn't write"), and admits his romantic failures ("After breaking up with a certain girlfriend, I found out... that a sizzling love letter from me was being distributed to her friends in an orderly fashion").

But to the same extent, as has always been the case, there is the Gefen who operates from within the (enlightened) Israeli "us," who wants to please even when he passes judgment. Gefen has never written of Israeliness, of its sins, from the outside looking in, as a man whose sense of alienation and distance allows him to be analytical. Not at all. He has always been deeply impressed by his own rebelliousness, among other things because he is a descendant of one of the most prominent families of the Zionist-Israeli ethos. His lover's wounds have always been the key to his success, amiability and acceptance, but they have also, to a large degree, been the source of his shallowness. "Yes, friends," he writes in another column, "Disengagement is disengagement. We've joined our generation's causes often enough, we've fought and dreamed, we've participated, we've contributed and been contributed, we've conquered and liberated. Isn't it time that we started living, loving, feeling and relaxing, at least until the next bombing?"

It is hard, of course, to fault Gefen; the columns gathered here were written in vicious days, the days of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, of the failed talks at Camp David, of the bombings. Anyone writing then in Israel, left-wing satirists included, struggled to cope with this reality. Still, what becomes increasingly clear in the course of the reading is that Gefen is wonderful when he jokes, and boring when he preaches.

In view of all this, his reaction to living in a place where he is truly foreign, in another country, would seem to be of some interest. As he recounts, personal circumstances sent him to live in the United States with his wife - now ex-wife - and their daughter. These were dramatic times in the United States, in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and although Gefen's columns are full of anti-Bush, pro-humanist fire and fervor, in the end they are not very interesting. Or very original. Anyone who denounces wars here will also denounce them there. What surprise is there, exactly, in Yehonatan Gefen's opposition to the war in Iraq?

Because the book's editor, Rafi Kenan, weeded through hundreds of columns (one per week, 52 weeks a year, for five years) to publish only a few dozen, there are some magic moments, especially when Gefen dons the sociologist's robes to describe what happened to him, and only him. The column about a fire in his apartment is very funny, a reminder of how talented and worthy of empathy Gefen can be when he is focused: "I've seen some rescue and firefighting operations, but I've never before seen so much force applied to so little danger ... When they were done with the operation ... I asked the fire chief politely: Why? It was only a pot roast that ran out of liquids. Why? `Since September 11 we take no chances.'"

Another nice column of the sociological kind, although it also contains little in the way of original insight, is "The Big Binge." What is nice about this piece is how Gefen's relaxed Israeli sloppiness clashes with his own book's pseudo-elegant editing. For as you can see, this is a thoroughly edited book, edited down to its particles, from the columns divided into seven thematic segments, along an axis of time and plot beginning in Israel and ending in the return from the United States, accompanied by an impressive logo of a hand holding a quill that looks like a carrot, not to mention dozens of creative titles, such as "Autumnal States." And so writes Gefen: "A great comedian, I forget who, once said: If only Mama Case had shared her sandwiches with Helen Carpenter, we'd have two living singers today." A very funny quote, only the name of the obese vocalist for The Mamas and the Papas was Mama Cass, while the skinny singer who died of anorexia was called Karen Carpenter.

Almost to the same extent that Gefen is incapable of real self-irony in his political columns, as a licensed representative of Israeli centrist-left protest, he has a healthy sense of humor when it comes to his own writing. In one of his better columns, he describes sitting in a hummus joint next to a woman who mistook him for author Yehoshua Kenaz; to get rid of her, he pretended to be another Israeli author, the high-brow Dan Tsalka. So that despite the collection's shortcomings, the weakness of Gefen's writing in recent years, the Hebrew that has become more heavily Anglicized than ever - he still has his moments. How can anyone fail to believe him when he declares in "Sex and the Sick City": "I've never loved a woman I wasn't physically attracted to, and with those I was physically attracted to I also really wanted to have children with. It's not something that the human race invented. Any ape will tell you the same."

If we ignore for a moment the crude use of evolutionary psychology, one can sense the honesty. And in a collection that is all decorated recycling, it is surprisingly coarse, and genuinely touching.