Two Sisters: Three Opinions: A Review

The Divine Comic by Leslie Simon (Spuyten Duyvil)

Two Jewish sisters. Close but troubled, because of the fundamental difference of opinion that rocks the foundation of their relationship and relationships in other Jewish families. The treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government.

The Divine Comic by Leslie Simon, in a relatively short novel, manages to address both kinds of relationships--the personal and the political--while the narrator works through her feelings with some help from a dear departed friend, Danny, and one of her heroes – Emma Goldman. Simon lightens the tone of the book by inserting the thoughts of these two wise and cajoling ghosts. Danny and Emma not only provide levity but also help the narrator understand her own thinking.

Though not religious, the narrator’s sister believes in the State of Israel while the narrator herself is much less certain. So throughout the book the narrator and, toward the end of the book, her sister, struggle with how to accept their Judaism, the concept of Zionism and Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and yet oppose the State of Israel, primarily because of the way the State treats the Palestinians who live in Israel and in lands Israel confiscated in the Six-Day War.

This novel arrives at a perfect time. 

American Jews have been unswervingly loyal to Israel since the State declared its independence in 1948. Though Reform Jews were much less enamored of Zionism in its early years at the turn of the last century, the Holocaust won most of them over to Zionism, and their support extended through the Six-Day War in 1967 and the ensuing Occupation. Over the last 35 years, however, the Palestinian intifadas, the failure of the Oslo Accords, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) have led to vigorous debates in some Jewish families and have even fractured some long-standing friendships among Jews. Strict loyalty to the State of Israel, never of course questioned in the Jewish establishment, was rarely disturbed in most Jewish circles despite the sometimes contentious dialogue. But recently more American Jews have been experiencing serious unease, especially younger Jews, as reported by Marc Tracy in “Generation Exodus” (The New York Times Magazine, November 7, 2021):

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Released in May, [the Pew Research] survey found that 82 percent of American Jews said that supporting Israel was essential or important to “what being Jewish means to them.” The same number also identified as liberal or moderate and a large majority said they leaned Democratic. Yet, among Jews under 30, Pew found lower emotional attachment to Israel, lower approval for Netanyahu and higher support for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, as have other recent studies.

The sisters in The Divine Comic are not young, but their ongoing disagreement over Israel reflects the current heightening of the dialogue in the American Jewish community. In fact, to preserve family peace, Israel was off their Passover table as a topic of discussion.

The two sisters would have benefited from a sermon given over the 2021 High Holy Days by my rabbi, Amy Schwartzman. Rabbi Schwartzman did an amazing job of breaking down Jewish sentiment about the current state of affairs in Israel. She described four categories: 

  • Over here, we have the ‘troubled‐committed’ – who are distressed by some of Israel’s actions but remain supportive. 
  • Then there are the ‘troubled‐uncommitted’ – who are similarly distressed and have withdrawn their support. 
  • Then there are the ‘untroubled‐uncommitted’‐ who have no appreciation for the need for a Jewish state at all, and certainly have no sympathy for Israel and its challenges. 
  • Finally, we have the ‘untroubled‐committed’ – those who feel Israel’s actions are essentially always justified by threats or security concerns and support Israel without question or anguish.

Throughout the book, the narrator struggles with which of these categories she might fit into, perhaps not into any of them. But after a trip to Israel, I would suggest that her opinions adjust somewhat and that she might be able to reconcile her Jewish heritage with some recognition of the State of Israel as a legitimate state. At the same time, her concern about the treatment of the Palestinians is confirmed. On the other hand, her sister starts out at the beginning of the book more in the last category, but by the end of the book she, too, would adjust her views and fall more into the first category. Thus, as the story evolves, the two sisters, who start out with diametrically opposing views on the State of Israel, adjust their views and become closer to one another. 

I like to imagine the two of them attending a series of seminars on Israel and Palestine that ran the last three Sundays in October at my synagogue Rodef Shalom, a Reform congregation, in Falls Church, Virginia. The three-part series, called “The Israeli-Palestinian Dilemma: Moving Beyond Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong,” offered keynotes, panels, cultural performances, and workshops for five hours each week. 

The virtual audience numbered over 400. Topics included “dueling historical narratives,” “facts on the ground,” and “voices on the ground.” The second Sunday offered break-out discussion sessions where audience members could choose from a wide array of speakers from Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem; a Palestinian citizen of Israel, a settler, a left-of-center Israeli, and a right-of-center Israeli. 

We heard about ways forward and obstacles to getting there. Speakers presented a range of potential futures: from a right-wing non-democratic apartheid state to a left-wing bi-national secular state. Some spoke about the potential for a modified two-state solution, a confederation. Instead of two states with hard borders, a confederation would offer all inhabitants–Palestinians and Israelis–full access to all of the lands, where Jerusalem would be a shared open city. Palestinians would not have to give up a “right of return,” though there would be limits and phases. Settlers wouldn’t be forced to evacuate, but they would have to live under Palestinian sovereignty. A confederation would promote economic development and full security coordination. Cultural exchanges, building on the ongoing work of Israeli-Palestinian research institutes, Arab-Jewish integrated schools, music groups, and environmental and linguistic projects, would encourage a shared society.

Two Jews in a room, three opinions. You could say. We do love to talk, but I would argue that a lot of us are also pretty good listeners. And these seminars taught me that we have a lot to learn as long as we are willing to listen.

Two sisters on a fire escape, with their opinions. That’s where The Divine Comic comes to a kind of conclusion (there are bonus sections–Element, Dream, Coda–after all, this is a Jewish story). 

So the novel, in a splendid feat of imagination that takes us into a small family’s wrestling with who’s right and who’s wrong about Israel, accomplishes what my temple’s broad, thoughtful seminars did–it gets us to listen. It welcomes the witnesses to the sisters’ struggle (we, the readers) to the conversation, the debate, the dialogue. This wrestling match, gone mainstream now, and very public.

The Divine Comic closes without suggesting that the two sisters have resolved all of their underlying issues, but the reader can’t help but feel that progress in their relationship is made. The key here is that their relationship was built on solid ground from the beginning, which brings me to another theme that runs through much of the book and encircles the more prominent themes. It plays out in the thoughts the narrator has remembering her mother and her mother’s family. 

It exists as a third theme of the book–dealing with your upbringing and how it “fits” into your daily life. This theme reminds me of a line in a new book by the Canadian mystery writer, Louise Penny: “Long dead and buried in another town/My mother isn’t finished with me yet.”

This is a perfect depiction of how the narrator recalls the memory of her own mother. The narrator also tries to figure out which family members–long departed–whose views of Judaism and the State of Israel she agrees with. Throughout the book she recalls the views of these family members–grandparents and her own parents–and tries to settle on her own views without turning against the views of her extended family. In the end, resolving this matter helps resolve some of the outstanding issues between the two sisters regarding Judaism and the State of Israel.

Thinking about those family relations, the elders, who in this family’s case were certainly not all Zionists, brings me back to Marc Tracy’s “Generation Exodus,” which appeared in the Sunday Times the week directly after my temple’s seminars concluded. After reporting on how American Jews under 30 exhibit less emotional attachment for Israel, lower approval for Netanyahu, and higher support for BDS, he adds the following parenthetical caveat: “Some argue that such findings obscure American Jews’ tendency to age into pro-Israel sentiments”.

It may no longer be as simple as that. Yes, the narrator is startled by the feelings of “belonging” that she experiences during a trip she makes to Israel in the early 90s, prior to Oslo, but when we encounter her 15 years later, she hasn’t aged into a less critical view of the Israeli government. On the other hand, she has learned to listen. And that’s the profound element of this book.

One of the passages in The Divine Comic that sticks with me is the one where the narrator ruminates on how an Israeli Jew she meets in Jerusalem chides her for coming to Israel, like many Americans on the left, with their “preconceived ideas”:

…I got a laugh out of her when I pointed out how only two Jews could get involved in this kind of debate. It’s sport. We question, we argue, we theorize. We take pleasure in proving our case. And Americans, if they don’t live in New York or Chicago, or even Los Angeles, and aren’t used to us, call us loud and obnoxious, too intense. They tell us we talk too fast, too much. So we assimilate when we can, bury our oral habits and become as American as we may. In Israel I could be a Jew. In probably no other place, except New York, and, of course, Chicago [where the narrator lives] could I feel so at home. But is it the land, or the community of Jews? Do we need guns for this or merely tradition, literature, associations, acceptance. A way of talking.

(157)

And, as I said before, a willingness to listen.

At the end of Tracy’s piece on the outspokenness of a significant group of young American Jews unhappy with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, he references the Reform Judaism tradition associated with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, a defender of American Judaism as “a religion that elevated concern with social justice in the most worldly sense”. That tradition is known as “prophetic Judaism” because it focused on the prophets Amos, Isaiah, and Micah, whose lessons are reflected in contemporary liberation struggles. That tradition is also part of the American Jewish spiritual renewal movement, of which Tikkun has been a prominent leader for over 30 years.

Rabbi Wise, unlike other Reform leaders of a century ago, who disavowed political Zionism, proclaiming “America is our Zion”, was an early supporter of Zionism. Two Jews, three opinions. Two sisters, grappling. All of us, yearning for a just world.

The Divine Comic is a tremendous read because it forces the reader to think about their own views about the critical issues tackled in the book–namely how do you, as a reader, relate to your own siblings, and especially if you are Jewish (and you need not be to thoroughly enjoy this book), how do you feel about your relationship to the State of Israel? And then there’s the theme about your upbringing and how your views as an adult fit with the views you grew up with and those of beloved departed family members. Can you still love and respect them even if you don’t share their views?

The Divine Comic has a lot packed into its brief 200 pages and leaves the reader with a lot to think about. That’s what makes it such a good read–quick to digest but not quick to forget.

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