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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Hebrew Teacher

Maya Arad

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To purchase The Hebrew Teacher

Title: The Hebrew Teacher
Author: Maya Arad
Genre: Novellas
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2024)
Length: 306 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: The Hebrew Teacher - US
The Hebrew Teacher - UK
The Hebrew Teacher - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Three Novellas
  • Hebrew title: המורה לעברית
  • Translated by Jessica Cohen

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Our Assessment:

B : solid variety, with some interesting shading

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Jewish Rev. of Books . Fall/2018 Michael Weingrad

  From the Reviews:
  • "The three novellas that make up her new book all concern Israelis who live in the United States and make their living in connection with academia or high tech. If this sounds like a narrow sociological vein to mine, all the more credit to Arad, who is one of the most talented Israeli novelists of her generation and who here offers profoundly moving and universal vistas of experience, sorrow, and humor by observing her local reality with humane intelligence. (...) (T)here is nothing tendentious about Arad’s stories. She touches, gently, on a range of sociological patterns -- the shaky status of Hebrew among the American children of her Israeli characters, for instance, and the looser, sometimes nonexistent family ties in America as compared with Israel -- but her purpose is not to offer critique but to observe her characters in their all-too-human complexity. (...) Arad’s stock-in-trade is a rare mix of intellect and warmth." - Michael Weingrad, Jewish Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Israeli-born Maya Arad has lived in the United States for some two decades while continuing to write fiction in Hebrew, and the three novellas collected in The Hebrew Teacher all explore aspects of the Jewish-Israeli expatriate experience in the US.

       The title-novella is narrated by Ilana -- born, like the state of Israel, in 1948, but having come to the US in 1971. For decades she has been teaching a beginners' Hebrew class at the Midwest university where her husband -- now retired -- had been professor of Jewish History.
       The novella opens with her typing: "It wasn't a very good time for Hebrew". She writes the sentence in English -- which, of course, doesn't work to quite the same effect it had in the original Hebrew edition, since everything here is *written* in English ... -- and her two languages are a reflection of the untethered state she finds herself in: throughout the two semesters of the story she has ambitions to write a memoir, yet: "still can't decide what language to write in. Hebrew is too far away. English too unobtainable".
       It isn't a good time for Hebrew at the university, as enrollment has been: "declining for almost two decades and had dropped even further in the past three years". As Ilana notes, the study of other languages also hasn't fared well -- but Hebrew does have the additional problem that: "Israel was a tough sell these days". This is also what much of the novella revolves around, as a new hire arrives on campus, Yoad Bergmnan-Harari, who is highly critical of the Israel of the times.
       With Yoad The Hebrew Teacher veers into political and academic satire; it is not purely that otherwise, but Yoad is close to caricature, from his seminar looking at 'Heidegger as a Jewish writer' to being a professor of literature who admits: "I hardly read any literature (as: "Literature for me is the material, not the instrument"). He is also militantly anti-Israeli, including confronting Ilana about an article she read with her Hebrew class about the most popular names for children in Israel:

     One short passage suggests that the popularity of the name Eitan, which was not even in the top ten last year, stems from the name of the operation in Gaza a year and a half ago, Tzuk Eitan -- Protective Edge.
     "But what's the problem ?" She fails to understand.
     "If I have to explain to you what the problem is, then we're both in trouble," Yoad decrees.
     "Seriously, I don't understand ..."
     "Just imagine," he says with dripping mockery, "that in German class on campus the teacher reads the students an innocent article about a historian who digs through archives and finds that in 1942 there was a jump in the number of German babies named Friedrich, as a result of Operation Barbarossa."
       If Yoad's politically über-correct triggering-concerns seem over the top, his criticism of the State of Israel nevertheless now reverberates, after the events of 7 October 2023 and its (still continuing) aftermath, much more strongly. Ilana and Yoad debate Operation Protective Edge again later, and while American readers likely mostly have only dim memories of it, the parallels to more recent events (and debate-points) remain tragically similar:
Yoad seems eager for a fight now. "Two thousand casualties on one side, seventy-two on the other. Five hundred children dead ... That government murders children in cold blood !"
     "Yoad ..." She cannot avoid the scolding tone, as if she's his teacher. "You're ignoring the context. It's not as if the government got up one day and started bombing Gaza. We withdrew, we gave them the Gaza Strip, for peace ..."
     "We gave them the Gaza Strip !" Yoad imitates her. "We put them under siege, is what we did. Two million people in prison. Under inhumane conditions."
     "We withdrew," she repeats, sticking to the facts -- surely he can't disagree. "And they fired at us ceaselessly !"
       The Hebrew Teacher is something of a comic campus novella, with the university administration fawning over Yoad at every turn, from when he applies for the position to when they feel there's a threat that he might leave for greener pastures, and with Yoad and Ilana repeatedly at complete odds. It can feel almost too cartoonish in that respect -- down to the she-should-have-seen-it-coming final twist to the story -- but Arad is a longtime-academic at an American university and may well not be exaggerating all that much .....
       There is more to The Hebrew Teacher than simply the conflict with Yoad, and that helps ground the story: Ilana is nearing retirement in any case, her children live elsewhere, her husband is already retired, she's thinking about the future and a change from the routine of the past decades -- and what mark she leaves behind. She wants to write her memoirs -- even taking a course in memoir-writing --, convinced that: "It will all be forgotten if she doesn't write it". She doesn't just want to write, she wants to be read: "She wants to remind people of things, after all, not just reminisce". So also the story does not conclude with her final clash with Yoad, but rather her making her choice -- itself such a weighty one -- of what language to write in, English or Hebrew, reflecting both who she now is as well as the world around her.

       The second novella, A Visit (Scenes), is presented in short chapters shifting back and forth with their focus on different family members as Miriam comes from Israel to visit her son Yoram and his family, wife Maya and two-year-old son Yonatan, in Palo Alto. Miriam is desperate for a sense of family, thrilled to be a grandmother and eager to be with the grandchild she is so proud of, even though she doesn't know him at all. Her visit comes almost out of the blue -- she just gave her son two week's warning -- and her presence immediately jars with the everyday routine that they keep to even when she is there: Yonatan off at pre-school, Yoram busy at his job, and Maya trying to work on her dissertation -- working at home for now, where Miriam's presence is a major distraction: as she complains to a friend: "It's just that she's there ...".
       Yoram was brilliant student, and he came to the US and launched a successful start-up -- but he was pushed out of it and poured all the money he made with it into a second venture that failed and now he's a mere employee. It bruised -- or devastated -- his ego, and now, nearly fifty, he feels -- and acts -- over the hill.
       While Miriam struggles to play the role she'd like -- the grandmother of a close-knit family -- she does connect with a woman she met on the flight over, Malka, who is also visiting her family and is welcomed much more warmly by her relatives. The contrast between the cold atmosphere in Yoram and Maya's household and the good times Miriam has with easygoing Malka's family couldn't be more stark.
       Miriam tries not to be too pushy, but she's disappointed that she isn't able to play the role she imagines for herself. Her son and daughter-in-law simply treat the idea of family differently -- and the tension of their own disappointments, which Miriam was not aware of, are also reflected in how they lead their lives.

       The last novella, Make New Friends, centers on yet another Israeli expatriate in the US, Efrat, a lab director at Stanford, married to professor of biology Benny. They have two children, and Efrat is particularly concerned about twelve-year-old Libby, who has always had difficulty making friends and seems to be suffering increasingly in the complicated tween-age of her middle school years. On the one hand, Efrat wishes Libby were more independent, going out with friends; on the other, she clings to the idea of family and doing things together and doesn't want to let go of control of her daughter. After Libby does refuse to go an outing with her parents and young brother, staying home by herself instead, Efrat regrets not having had another child:
     "Let's say we had another one, three or four years younger than Yotam. We could have gone out today with the two of them. It wouldn't have felt so ..."
       Husband Benny is more realistic, and accepting of Libby's behavior -- and he's the one pushing to allow her to have a smartphone, like all her classmates. Efrat has been resisting the idea, explaining to a friend:
     "But if I give her a phone she'll never get off it !"
     Roni laughs. "Efrat, what planet are you living on ? That ship sailed long ago. This is our world. You want a kid without a smartphone ? Join an ultra-Orthodox sect."
       Efrat half gives in, allowing Libby to use her phone -- which also lets Efrat keep tabs on what Libby is doing, and also brings with it the temptation to interfere more .....
       If Benny is all laissez-faire in his parenting approach, Efrat has trouble trying not to nudge and lead and push Libby in the directions she thinks are best. She tries not to be too obvious about, but she can't help herself.
       It's mostly a story about the typical difficulties of being the parent of an adolescent in the present-day, and the awkward ways Efrat tries to handle it, but Arad does also allow Efrat a bit of growth of her own, as she comes to realize that her own friendships -- and lack thereof -- say something about her own behavior.

       Among the common threads in the novellas is the wish to preserve memory over actual experience. Ilana wants to write her memoirs; Miriam is thrilled when Malka's daughter-in-law prepares a photo album of pictures of her and Yonatam and Yoram -- "She clutches the album. Now she'll have something to show all her friends and neighbors"; and Libby's classmates are constantly posting pictures of what they do together on their social media accounts. Documentation -- posed proof -- seems more important than the experience itself: if it is not memorialized, in words or images, then it is somehow less real and meaningful.
       Arad's main characters, especially in the latter two novellas, try and want too much, wanting their world -- and their familial relationships -- to be different than the ones they actually find themselves in. They're realistically human, in that way -- indeed, arguably these are characters many readers can relate to -- but it makes for somewhat limited fiction. Arad presents domestic life quite well in the latter two stories, with the Israeli-American color -- not pushed too strongly, but evident throughout -- an appealing layer to the whole collection. Each story also touches on contemporary issues, from politics and academia in the title story to life and work in Silicon Valley in the second and adolescents' obsession with social media in the third.
       Arad presents various facets of contemporary life -- with some poignant shading -- quite entertainingly in these novellas, but the stories do feel a bit simple and obvious as well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 January 2024

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The Hebrew Teacher: Reviews: Maya Arad: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hebrew-writing author Maya Arad (מאיה ערד) was born in 1971. She lives in the US.

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© 2024 the complete review

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