'The Macho Man Who Only Wanted to Screw Women Is Dead' - at Least in Israeli Fiction

A crisis of masculinity never before seen in Israeli literature

Illustration.

“With every other girl I’ve ever been with, I questioned myself from the very start: Is this the woman I want to spend the rest of my life with? Every sentence, every joke, every gesture, every day and every minute, was obsessively and uncontrollably analyzed and burned into my memory in an attempt to compile a database that would help me reach a clear answer. But with you, Maya, I mean it, I didn’t notice any of that.”

– From “Getting Adam Married,” by Omer Barak

Something has happened to the male in Israeli literature in recent months. In light comedies, detective tales, as well as serious literature published here during the past year, we encounter male protagonists – portrayed by male authors – who are concerned with the personal and emotional, with relationships and home life. 

They are consumed with thoughts about parenthood or love or both, with dreams of a great romance that will stand the test of time. They are seriously pondering monogamy, and thinking about the women in their lives whom they love but maybe don’t really know as well as they should. They’re thinking about their families, and themselves, over which they’re about to lose control, and hoping to get a grip on things before it’s too late. In short, about all the kinds of things that hitherto were traditionally the domain of women writers of Hebrew literature.  

Thus, for example, in Yoav Shoten-Goshen’s debut novel, “Pa’am Ahat, Isha Ahat” (“One Woman, One Time”; Zmora-Bitan) published earlier this spring, we see the pleasant and familiar world of Ido, a well-established lawyer nearing 40, fall to pieces one evening when his wife Nurit confesses that she has cheated on him. Everything he thought was secure in his life is suddenly called into question. Overwhelmed with emotion and bursting with wounded feelings, he muses about revenge and about having a fling himself out of spite. 

One is tempted to recommend that Ido consider having a good talk with Eitan, the 42-year-old cab driver and amateur sleuth who is the hero of Assaf Gavron’s latest novel, “Shemona Esreh Malkot” (“The Eighteen Strokes”; Aliyat Gag Books). Eitan, whom everyone calls “Croc,” is a divorced father of one. 

Though busy trying to solve a historical mystery while snarfing peanuts and shawarma, he also spends quite a bit of time pondering matters of the heart. Has he missed out on his one true love? Will he ever experience a love that’s larger-than-life? His heart is filled with love for his young daughter, but the bedroom maneuvers he tries with the woman he genuinely desires culminate in a disappointing performance – for which he has only himself to blame. 

Boaz Gaon
Kobi Richter

Eliahu Baruch, hero of “Eliahu Mehapes Ahava” (“Eliahu’s Quest for Love”; Zmora Bitan), the new novel by Boaz Gaon, is a success by any external measure. He heads a thriving law firm, has a wife and children and influential relatives. What he lacks, however, is love, a truly great love. To avoid ending up like his father – who died murmuring the name of the woman for whom he long harbored an unrequited love – Eliahu is ready to embark on a major journey – geographic and also emotional, if necessary – and pay any price. Primarily, he is also prepared to have his relatives and loved ones pay the price for his realizing his fantasy. 

“The thing I waited for that night in London wasn’t sex. No. It was a steady female hand that would help me get up, after Sandra had shaken me like a woman shaking out a rug on the balcony. I needed a female ear, one in which I could say, in her mother tongue – whatever that might be – ‘I’ve fallen in love, for the first time since I was a little boy and I would trade my whole life for the chance to kiss this woman,’” he confesses.  

“I grew up on American and British literature,” says novelist Gaon, 46, a start-up entrepreneur and a former journalist and playwright, when asked about the male character at the center of his second novel. 

“Heroes like John Updike’s Harry Angstrom, all of Philip Roth’s conflicted characters, a lot of Jonathan Franzen’s protagonists – all of them in one sort of trouble or another, dealt with something that was always part of the male problem, let’s call it, which is the feeling that you’re programmed and expected to go as far as you can and have achievements to boast of, or what society defines as achievements. This pursuit of ‘success’ ultimately leads to a kind of violence that hurts the character as well as those around him. Eliahu comes from this kind of milieu and this attempt to create an Israeli version of this sort of male psychosis.”

Gaon’s Eliahu, like the aforementioned Ido and Croc, would surely find much to talk about with Adam Lapid, the hero of Omer Barak’s “Getting Adam Married” (“Lahutz Hatuna”; Modan Press). Lapid will soon be turning 30 and is obsessed with one thing: getting married. 

He so badly wants to this, to wake up each morning next to the same woman, that he’s ready to do almost anything. He goes so far as to agree to a deal with a newspaper: They’ll pay for the wedding as long as he shows up with a bride within a short period of time and writes about it. 

“In 29 years and 351 days, my heart has never really leapt even once. I don’t want someone to whom I’ll stammer an awkward ‘I love you,’ but someone who, when I meet her, I’ll practically swallow my tongue and be rendered totally speechless. And maybe, with a little luck, she’ll feel the same way about me,” the hero tells us, demonstrating his rejection anxiety, basic insecurity and awkwardness.  

Making a splash

Omer Barak.
Rami Zarnegar

This character created by Barak, whose “feminine” yearnings have led critics to describe him as “pioneering,” is apparently just what today’s readers were looking for. The book has sold 18,500 copies in the last couple of months, a huge number in local terms. 

“It’s kind of amazing to me that the book is making such a splash,” says Barak, 33, a journalist at the mass-daily Yedioth Ahronoth. “The main protagonist is a guy with feelings who wants to wake up to the same woman each morning. He’s not such a remarkable fellow. He doesn’t have such grand ambitions, he just wants to get married. The fact that it has drawn so much attention just goes to show what a bad state males are in in Israeli literature. Generally speaking, you could say that 85 percent of it is about the occupation, the kibbutz or the Holocaust. I never found the kind of man who I am on the shelf, or felt there was a place for him.”

Like Boaz Gaon, Barak also cites literature from abroad as a source of inspiration for his newest effort, especially the kind of writing that reflects “the new masculinity.” 

Barak: “If you read foreign works, you see that ‘men’s lit’ has existed overseas for 25 years already, and thank God it’s finally arrived here, and big-time, even if each writer comes to it from his own direction. It’s a welcome trend. The men who were macho and wanted nothing but to screw women are dead. Maybe they never really existed.”

Israeli fiction does appear to be falling in line with an international phenomenon. Writers like Nicholas Sparks (“The Notebook,” “The Best of Me,” among many other titles); Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “High Fidelity”); Jonathan Ames and his perplexed male characters whose lives aren’t great success stories; Jem Lester (whose book “Shtum,” recently translated into Hebrew, is about the father of an autistic boy); and even Jonathan Safran Foer, whose most recent book, “Here I Am,” is (mainly) a lament for a relationship that has disintegrated – all of their work manifests the “new masculinity,” which features male characters who are more in tune with their feelings, and concerned with love, marriage and parenthood. 

“For many years, the discussion of identities has been very present in American literature, so that at this point it’s hard to talk about a solid or traditional concept of manhood,” says Maya Feldman, who among other things is editor of an international online project featuring short stories. 

“I can’t remember the last time I came across male American writing that didn’t try to tackle this subject. There’s a very interesting focus on fatherhood, for instance, from the male side, a complex viewpoint of male writers who grew up and had children at a time when this kind of modern discourse already existed, and they have different and more sophisticated ways of observing it.” 

In Hebrew literature, Feldman observes, this domesticity, and the rich inner, emotional worlds of male protagonists, are quite novel: “This sort of critical look at where the male stands is something that never existed at all in the Hebrew Israeli canon until now.”

Retired Tel Aviv University literary scholar and professor Menachem Peri says caution should be exercised before making generalizations about the male in Hebrew literature. “From [Yosef Haim] Brenner to [David] Grossman, Hebrew literature never sanctified the macho,” he notes, eager to correct the impression that the literary Israeli male has suddenly switched from a default macho type to a sensitive, emotional one. 

Assaf Gavron.
Moti Kikion

“Even Moshe Shamir’s Elik,” suggests Peri, referring to the 1951 novel “With His Own Hands: Elik’s Story,” in which Shamir wrote of his brother who fell in the War of Independence, “is that way. Shamir always had a military commander for a protagonist, alongside a more sensitive character.”  

It’s true that Hebrew literature has always had sensitive, damaged, conflicted men, men who’ve experienced crises – from the protagonists of books by writers from Brenner to Amos Oz: sensitive and suffering men and even some who lay bare their souls, as with the main characters in Yaakov Shabtai’s “Past Continuous.” But with these literary heroes, the personal was usually connected to something bigger: society, Zionism, Jewish nationhood. In other words, these characters were used to tell a larger socio-historic story. 

Joining the wave

The connection to the big historic story was also a part of the marketing strategy for these books. Essayist Orna Coussin pointed this out with regard to some of the most prominent books of the early 2000s, citing titles like Ron Leshem’s “Beaufort” (2005), which was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film; Nir Baram’s “The Remaker of Dreams” (2006); Amir Gutfreund’s “The World, a Moment Later” (2006); and Meir Shalev’s “A Pigeon and a Boy” (2006).  

The jacket for Gutfreund’s book suggested that he had written the “shadow book of the official Zionist lexicon.” Baram is described as having written “about the place of the Zionist dream within the capitalist whirlwind.” And Leshem’s book was said by his publisher to “echo with the blunt and courageous voice of an entire generation.” Does something about the deliberate “greatness” of this literature detract from its emotional immediacy, wondered Coussin.  

Since the 1980s, this aloofness has been countered by a wave of literature by women writers, including but not limited to Zeruya Shalev and Orly Castel-Bloom, that deals with all that is missing from the male literature. The men, meanwhile, says Yigal Schwartz, professor of literature at Ben-Gurion University, “wrote biographies in which they continued to link the personal story with the national story. When Amos Oz wrote ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness,’ he was essentially saying, ‘I am Amos Oz – the State of Israel.’ Women don’t merge the personal self with the national self.”  

Nitsa Ben-Ari, a professor of translation studies at Tel Aviv University, agrees. 

“While men were writing about ideological matters, women were writing about daily life between husband and wife,” says Ben-Ari. “That’s what Zeruya Shalev did in ‘Love Life,’ or Lea Eini, who wove in words from the street when no one else dared to do that, and replaced that odd and embarrassing repertoire of words from the Bible or the Jewish sources that no one could manage a sex scene with. Amos Oz and his contemporaries were unable to write that sort of erotica and emotion without it sounding pathetic.”

But now a whole series of novels written by men are joining this wave, all of them are focused on the domestic and the personal.

“In the past two decades, the mainstream of Israeli literature has dealt with the family, both from the male and the female side,” says literary critic Omri Herzog, who calls the genre “domestic literature.”

Herzog says the current trend expresses the bewilderment of modern man: “Women need less protection from men than in the past. At the same time, the narrative of the one great ‘soulmate’ has been weakened and replaced by serial monogamy, with a chapter two and chapter three – new relationships to replace a relationship that fails to satisfy emotional needs. All of these changes are confusing to some extent, particularly to men, because it’s always the minorities that define cultural changes, and those who hold the power have to adapt. Literature is one of the most fertile areas for expressing this confusion.” 

“The current literary trend is a sign that attests to a shift in the balance of powers,” says Shoten-Goshen, 37, a screenwriter and playwright for whom “One Woman, One Time” is his first novel. 

“Gender roles relate to the world as if to a piano: Men are only allowed to play the white keys and women are only allowed to play the black keys,” he explains. “From the time they’re born, men and women are told, ‘The other keys are not for you.’ If a man touches the keys of emotion, family and parenthood, he’s considered ‘feminine,’ but it’s becoming increasingly clear what an arbitrary division this is.” 

“The Eighteen Strokes” is the eighth book by Assaf Gavron, 48, who doesn’t buy the putative connection between this trend and current reality. 

“I don’t accept that talking about love or parenthood is entering into a female domain, and comes out of a new egalitarianism or feminism,” he says. “I admit that in this book I was interested in the personal rather than the national,” as compared with his previous book, “The Hilltop,” which Gavron set in a fictional settlement. 

“Men have always loved, have always been parents Dostoevsky wrote about family and parenthood too. The ‘big’ issues interest me sometimes and sometimes I write about them, but I think that this question of what is love, what is it able to survive, does it stand a chance, can one miss out on it, etc. – is a much bigger subject than Israeliness or patriotism or war and peace. Israeliness is something that relates to Israelis, while love is something that affects everyone, something that everyone has to contend with. 

“If that’s what women have been depicting in their literature,” Gavron says, “then I’m happy to cross the fence and come over to their side, in the literary sense. To me, looking at love is just as intriguing as trying to crack the code of Israeliness.”