'Ascent of Eli Israel' takes readers into land of conflict

Jon Papernick arrived in Israel on Nov. 4, 1995, the day its dovish Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist.

A Toronto native on a grant from the Canadian Arts Council, Papernick spent the next 18 months in Israel, reporting for United Press International and collecting material for "The Ascent of Eli Israel."

In the book's seven short stories, readers peer into the kitchen windows of Jewish settlers, press their faces into the earth as bullets fly overhead, jump from their chairs to snap a photo of a bus bombing, and get caught up in the religious fervor that might lead a bereft New York Jew to slaughter a Palestinian youth.

Papernick puts photographs in motion and lets us follow this volatile region's inhabitants home at the end of their day. But he does so with the lilt of a bedtime story, offering readers the enjoyment of escaping into fiction while making them more aware of the realities confronting people in a conflicted world growing ever closer to our own.

His second story, "An Unwelcome Guest," is perhaps the most haunting. Yossi, a young Jewish settler living in Jerusalem's Muslim Quarter, gets up during the night to make tea and finds an old Arab man in his kitchen.

"Yossi did not wonder how the old man had crept past the soldiers in the street, nor did he wonder how he had found his way through the locked door," Papernick writes. He "knew that many people wandered the dreamy moonlit paths between sleep and prayer in this golden city of light and stone."

The Arab gently informs Yossi that the house belongs to him, that his father and son were both born in it.

"If this is your house what color are the tiles on the floor of my bedroom?" Yossi asks.

"The Jews are always changing things."

As Yossi's kitchen continues to fill with more Arabs, the old man challenges him to a serious game of backgammon, for the right to the house, "for the right to speak."

Other stories take us into the hearts and minds of a diverse cast of characters who populate this holy land at different moments during its recent history: a 12-year-old boy searching for his soldier father after the 1949 declaration of the Jewish state; two young Americans living in Jerusalem as the Oslo Accords collapse; an ailing rabbi who finally finds relief in a proselytizing Christian chiropractor; and a senile Holocaust survivor convinced that the Nazi secret police is still hunting her.

Though occasionally immature in his dialogue, Papernick manages to paint an array of convincing characters, and part of the grace of this book is that he knows where to stop.


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