Keys to the Garden is an appropriate title for this eclectic collection of mizrahi short stories, poetry, novel excerpts and author interviews. As a key can unlock the door to reveal a hidden paradise, Ammiel Alacalay uses this anthology to provide readers in the West a glimpse into the imgination and experiences of a group of establihed writers who are not only unknown in North America, but are relatively unknown in their homeland of Irael.
Mizrahis (Israeli whose families immigrated from the Levant, Turkey, Iran, India and the Arab World), though a numerical majority, have continually been treated as a minority in Israeli society and their artistic and literary achievements have been overshadowed and marginalized by those in the mainstream. However, by translating selections of the works of Amira Hess, Ronny Someck, Samir Naqqash and the other talents represented in this volume, and presenting them in this anthology, Alcalay give them a voice and shows how their languge, conventions, assumptions, characterizations and references differ from the standard sort of Israeli writing that we have become accustomed to.
When one thinks of inter-ethnic conflict in Israel, one's mind automatically turns to Arab-Jewish tensions. Yet, within Israeli society itself, a sense of discord between mainstream Jews and mizrahis is also in evidence and this collection brings some of that to light. Tikva Levi's "We Live in Jessie Cohen..."'s reference to the ideological street name Zionism St. further develops the metaphor to describe her own situation: "We live inside Racism parallel to Holocaust awfully close to the graveyard." Sami Shalom Chetrit's poem about a rejected American corpse that had been sent to Israel for burial ("Who Is a Jew and What Kind of Jew") contains the acidic line, "if he is an Ashkenazic Jew, we will gladly bury him". This anthology is not meant to be a comprehensive collection of mizrahi literature but is meant to introduce a class of writing that has been absent for too long. While the sections themselves are not exhaustive, the reader is given a taste of the author's creativity and is referred to other works in the extensive biographical author sketches that precede each section. It is unfortunate that such an anthology is not yet available in Hebrew, as Chetrit laments in the book's final poem ("At an Auditorium of a Local University"): "When, for once, will our [mizrahi] translated poems be able to breathe in Hebrew?" Yet this remarkable collection of English translations is, at least, accesible in the English-speaking world and is a highly-reccommended addition for the collections of Jewish libraries, literature sections of public libraries and Middle East Studies collections of academic libraries. It will provide an excellent balance to any library's collection of Israeli litearture in translation.
Reviewed by Steven M. Bergson
This review originally appeared in Counterpoise, edited by Charles Willett.
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