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The Messiah of LaGuardia
Book Review by Jack Fischel

The Messiah of LaGuardia,
by Elisha Porat
translated from Hebrew by Alan Sacks
Mosaic Press, Oakville, ON, Canada.
Buffalo, NY. 180 pp. 1996.
Paperback $ 14.95.

"The six stories in this volume provide an excellent introduction to Elisha Porat's work".

The Messiah of LaGuardia was written by one of Israel's most well read writers, but one little known to American readers.

Since 1973, Elisha Porat, the winner of the 1996 Prime Minister Literature Prize, has written more than a dozen works of fiction and poetry in Hebrew.The six stories in Messiah of LaGuardia provide an excellent introduction to his work for the American reading public, thanks to a fine translation by Alan Sacks, a Philadelphia assistant District Attorney.

The title story concerns an Israeli who believes Israel's war in Lebanon is a disastrous mistake. Called back to active duty, Ben Niflay decides to save the nation by proclaiming his messiahship. He sincerely believes that the country will rally behind his message. He expects that the reserves called up for active duty will refuse to board in trucks leaving for Lebanon.

This does not occur and Niflay realizes that "He had made a mistake; he had thought that the whole city would join with him. He had thought that the streets would turn black with a mass of humanity, that all the soldiers in the arena's giant parking lot...would scatter through the yards, cheering and singing, celebrating wildly, leaping for joy at their freedom".

Having failed to gain the support of the people and the soldiers, Niflay readies himself for martyrdom, with the realization that his country is not yet ready for this particular messiah.

"At the Little Bridge Below Ufana" is a triangular love story involving a woman, her Syrian ambush. The story revolves around Ayalla, the young widow, and her determination to learn whether everything was done to prevent the ambush, and around Goel's guilt about the opportunity his friend's death has provided him in his pursuit of Ayalla, whom he has always loved.

In "The Three Stages of Perfection", the anti-intellectual aspect of Kibbutz life is examined. The story centers around Kibbutznik, Zikhri Ben-Yehuda, who bears the same last name as the father of modern Hebrew,Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Yet the story's Ben-Yehuda finds only indifference among his fellow Kibbutzniks in regard to his love of the Hebrew language.

Loss of Idealism

Porat seems to lament the loss of Zionist idealism and the lack of ideology
among the generation of kibbutzniks portrayed in the story. Ben-Yehuda eventually becomes anoutcast because no one will take his passion for the language seriously. The story's ill-fated ending symbolizes the passing of generation that combined nation-building with a love of authentic hebrew culture.

The saddest of all the short stories is "Guardian of the Fields". Yehuda Etrogi is a character who fled Europe on the eve of the Holocaustfor Palestine, in order to build a new life. He fought in Israel's War of Independence, which left him emotionally scarred, and his childhood memories of fire and pogroms in Eastern Europe will not leave him.

Etrogi works as a guard on a Kibbutz, but he is basically a loner. His companions are his dogs and his horse. one day, a foreign female volunteer comes to the Kibbutz and strikes up a friendship with him. For a time, he finds happiness in the relationship. But when the woman leaves the Kibbutz, Etrogi finds himself in even greater isolation and despair. The story's ending is as sad as it is inevitable, given what we had learned about this man's life.

In "The Farming Instructor", we meet Shabtai Hermony, a 50-year-old agricultural inspector and army veteran. He marries a young woman and has a child. When they both disappear, he sets out in search of them. Eventually, he located someone who appears to be his wife. But at the moment of reconciliation, Hermony becomes a victim of a terrorist explosion.

The first five of Porat's stories are devoid of humor. But there is a great humor in "The Aging Poet", the story of a middle-age poet, Yinon Yehudai, who has grown tired of his wife and falls in love with a young American. She has been sent to Israel by her parents because her mother "likes to keep informed about all the modern religious movements".

The story works because many of us are familiar with the phenomenon of young American-Jewish women going to Israel and winding up in serious relationships with Israelis. Although the young woman, Patricia, is portrayed as something of a twit, she nevertheless serves Porat's thesis that Israel requires the influx of fresh ideas from the Diaspora if it is so.

Jack Fischel teaches in a Millersville University, Philadelphia.



A World of Violent Definition
Book Review by Leonard Deutcman

The Messiah of LaGuardia,
by Elisha Porat
translated from Hebrew by Alan Sacks
Mosaic Press, Oakville, ON, Canada.
Buffalo, NY. 180 pp. 1996.
Paperback $ 14.95.

In The Messiah of LaGuardia, the first collection of short stories by Israeli writer Elisha Porat to be translated into English, we see men whose lives have been fractured, who have found -- in a manner often surprising to themselves -- little spiritual fulfillment in helping to build the State of Israel, and little pleasure or comfort in sex, love, or friendship. The narratives themselves, like their characters, are fractured, sewn together by rhetorical, leading questions that suggest, but never supply, answers. For Porat, 1996 Winner of Israel's prestigious Prime Minister's Prize for Literature, "truth" is an illusion of distance, which dissolves into unanswered and, perhaps, unanswerable questions as we approach it. Although this grim paradox is particularly troubling to Jews because it arises out of the idealistic project of building the modern Jewish state, Porat's concerns go beyond the historical.

In the collection's title story, Ben Niflay, an Army reservist called up to Lebanon in 1984, refuses to join his unit at the staging area and winds his way toward the madness of sniping from atop a building on LaGuardia Street in Tel Aviv. We enter his thoughts, projections of a dreaded future (a boring bus ride to the front with a fatuous reporter) and memories of the past. We watch him imaging himself speaking from atop the building, leading the Jewish people to peace and to the accomplishment of "everything that could have come in his life but hadn't." We see him drag his young family with him to the roof and set up his arsenal; we watch the police snipers get into position.

But as the story approaches its climax, the narrative is supplanted by a summary of a newspaper story. The news story is surprisingly somber, wholly unlike the reporter. It splits into parallel narratives, one which follows Niflay's convoy as it is attacked, while the other, a poem entitled, "The Messiah of LaGuardia", describes the police snipers as they overcome Niflay. Neither narrative reveals what finally happens to their protagonists: the convoy take "casualties, it's still not clear how many"; and, as for the Messiah of LaGuardia, "What happened next is unknown". We are left with two incomplete newspaper accounts and come away from them knowing that, despite having been in his thoughts, we have not come to know Ben Niflay.

Porat returns to several of the title story's concerns -- whether we can understand the world around us and fashion happiness in such a world --throughout the collection. In "At the Little Bridge Below Ufana", Goel Zikhrony, a 31 year old bachelor, cannot explain how Kobi, his best friend, was killed in an inconsequential Syrian ambush in 1969, even though Zikhrony fought and was wounded in the same battle. Ayalla, Kobi's widow, who in grief has become Zikhrony's lover, demands an explanation, but he accepts that he will never understand the turns and mistakes of the battle, or how his life changed for the better because of it, or how Kobi will share Ayalla's and his bed despite, and because, of Kobi's death.

In "The Three Stages of Perfection", Zikhri Ben-Yehuda stands between a past he struggles to remember and forget and a present that seems unreal. We enter his thoughts and learn of his childhood in Poland, his alienation from the other members of his Kibbutz, his passion for, or perhaps obsession with, semitic etymology. We learn of his position at the factory, and his eccentric philosophy of work safety through which, he believes, he has found both purity and transcendence. His life, empty of material gain and social standing, is, in his vocabulary, as "spotless" as the factory floor should be. Yet he fails when he tries to explain this to his Porat's protagonists, whether celibate, faithfully married, or adulterers, are all men without women.Yehuda Etrogi, who emigrated to Israel before the Holocaust and was a hero of the elite Palmach during the War of Independence, lives alone guarding distrustful kibbutzim in the "Guardian of the Fields". Clara, a young volunteer, briefly enters and leaves his life without explanation.

The title character of "The Farming Instructor", who has dedicated his life to improving farming techniques, marries at age 55, only to see his young wife abandon him and their infant daughter, also without explanation.

Yinon Yehudai, title character of "The Aging Poet", escorts his mistress, a young American translator, around Tel Aviv, trying to find a place for a tryst which she will not let take place. Ben Niflay's wife is "poor", "wretched", an object of pity, not passion; Ayalla satisfies Goel Zikhrony's sexual desire but troubles him with questions about her husband's death; Zikhri Ben Yehuda's sexual biography is little more than memories of a flirtation of his youth. In the desert where Porat's characters live, women are, like "truth" as best a mirage of happiness and respite.

Porat's characters are the builders of modern Israel -- the farmer, the kibbutz factory worker, the citizen soldier. Yet the world they have helped to build is unconcerned with their existence, indifferent to their happiness. The portrait that Porat paints of this world is disturbing, particularly to American-Jews raised on Exodus (the one with Paul Newman, not Moses), the myth of Alyah -- that through the heroic struggle of rebuilding Israel all personal, political and spiritual needs unite and are fulfilled.

The Messiah of LaGuardia, however, is not simply, or even principally, social commentary. Although his stories are grounded in the history of modern Israel, and particularly, its many wars, Porat, psychologist and historian, has the novelist's eye: like his Czech counterpart, Milan Kundera, he is as interested in how the universal articulate the spiritual, as in how politics fails to articulate the spiritual, as in how politics shapes the individual. If there is any spiritual fulfillment in The Messiah of La Guardia, it comes from the author's respect for the unknowable in a world of violent definitions.

Leonard Deutchman, is a lawyer and a prosecutor in the office of the District Attorney of Philadelphia.
"Midstream", February/March 1998.



"THE LANGUAGE OF THE STORY IS AN ELUSIVE MEDIUM"

AN INTERVIEW WITH ELISHA PORAT ON HIS BOOK:

"THE MESSIAH OF LA GUARDIA"

BY
LEA SNIR, "ITON 77."

QU.

On the cover of your last book "THE MESSIAH OF LA GUARDIA", a soldier, the whole of him shouting, is drawn. What connects this illustration to the book?

A.

This picture is part of the tragic experience hinted at the title of the book named after the last story, an "enlisted" protest=story. At the end of the Lebanon War it was reported that soldiers refused to serve in Lebanon. Part of the cases ended in tragedies. In this I saw the essence of the tragedy of our time. From a certain viewpoint, this story influenced the other stories in the book. I consider them as "Little Israeli Tragedies"; half of them ending as tragedies to all intents and purposes.

QU.

The protagonist of your six stories are characterized by their deviations and by a feeling of failure, which brings five of them to the solution of Death. What steers them towards the choice of such an end?

A.

Contrary to Ben Nifley, the frustrated car=mechanic who joins the reserves, to become a "drafted" hero, the other protagonist are not "enlisted". In them the human side gets the better of the ideological out line of the story, as it were. Part of them simply become relatives whose destiny moves the heart. Their life is a sad one, it's a life of failure and big hopes are shattered because of their miserable existence. But in their inner selves, in spite of their deviation, the protagonist have remained captive of their initial concepts. The outlook of their youth about justice and human warmth is throbbing inside them as well as an attitude in which there's no violence. With this feeling they have leave the world. some of them leave the world arousing a shudder: one is lost in a fire, another one hangs himself and a third one is killed whilst looking for his wife, etc... One cannot but ask: what kind of world is this, to be left in such a way... If you read carefully, you see that in each of the characters there is a messianic base, precisely because the dark world surrounding them arouses in them a desire to redeem and to improve. They think that in such way the world around them and their own world may change. Somehow it seems to them that they see more and know more about some "hidden God" or a concealed "possibility for happiness" which has only to be brought to light. But reality proves them wrong and apparently their existence cannot stand up to it.

QU.

The names of the protagonist in the stories have a strange sound and one can easily see that they are to serve some conceptual tendency of the story. Could you hint at it? Could you decipher a bit of the code in them?

A.

All the names are a modern metamorphosis of all the Messiah's names; and even if it seems that the hero's name has been especially adapted to the story, like Goel Zichroni's in the story "On the small bridge under the Uphana" - which can be explained by the fact the redeems the name of his dead friend and also commemorates it by his marriage to Ayala - it is basically one of the names of the future Messiah. The story had to be organized very carefully and exactly, so that the Messiah's name would not seem unfit to the texture of the story. In the process of writing a strange thing happened to me. The name and the hero had become one entity during the writing, an inseparable one. The name of the Messiah which should have been conspicuous because of its strangeness, became entirely assimilated to the man's image. For example: Ben Niflay, which is supposed to be one of the strange names "Our righteous Messiah" (Mashiah Tzidkeinu", and suddenly during the writing - sequence I found in it a kind of jumbled modern Jewish name - South American or Anglo Saxon. The woman=soldier at the entrance gate of Lebanon was also astonished for a moment, but it did not cross her mind that he was a man with a false name.

QU.

Would it be true to say that somehow all your protagonist are not what they seem to be?

A.

True, and this not only because they are too weak to redeem their loved ones, and not only because of their oddness seen as an extreme deviation by those who surround them, but because there is something false in their very existence; and because of blood and flesh trying to enter the image of the Messiah, which is "false from its outset" and therefore has to end in disaster.

QU.

You spoke about a Messianic foundation in the book, but there's also a poetical base in the stories?

A.

The three poems inserted in the book are from my poetry books. The elegy spoken by daughter of Committee's head in the story "The Agricultural Guide", is a poem called "Humility" in the collection of my poems, "Hushnia, the Mosque"; the poem "The Messiah of La Guardia" was printed at the end of the Lebanon War in the "Yediot Ahronot" newspaper and later on included in my poetry collection, "Poem, Memory". The third poem, "Variations", was also printed, but not in the same language as here, in the collection "Hushnia, the Mosque". All the poems have been changed somewhat to adapt them to the stories. I needed the poems as a supporting exterior structure, because they seemed to me to bestow an additional, enlarging and deepening viewpoint to what is told. So for instance, in the poem "The elegy and the Lament" the combination "The pride of the modest", is most important in my opinion, because in the entire miserable and mocked at image of the Agriculture Guide there is a kind of "Noble tone", which hovers above the foggy noise of life below him. In the poem I called it: "Pride of the Modest", because we know how sharp such a pride can be.

QU.

What the code for the "Messiah of La Guardia"?

A.

Here, the rifle and the red fuses forebode the tragic end of the false Messiah, who causes unhappiness to his widow and orphans. In fact this poem is a document of the cruel persecution of the police-snipers, who as an activated force have no other choice either. This "Israeli Tragedy" has simply no technical possibility for a pleasant end.

QU.

In the six stories of the book a "Rashumon" structure is quite distinct. How did this poetical distinction help you?

A.

There is no such thing as a perfect story. There are only different versions of various protagonists. Their different way of looking at things forms sometimes a contrast and sometimes improves. I don't believe things to happen in one order and in unique sequence. there are many ways to absorb reality and the explanation of life's meaning. Therefore every one of the stories is more or less penetrated by a "Rashumon" element. In all of them it stirs at the bottom; sometimes by a little deed which is not performed and by this determines the fate of the protagonist; and sometimes because the redeeming trial is there but only exists in the imagination of the writer=reader. The protagonist is then rescued or at least a candidate for it. Nowadays this is also something.

QU.

The protagonists of your stories are not only compelled by some higher power. But it seems it as if their struggle against it is performed with the knowledge that they will anyway have to give up. Is not there a paradox in this?

A.

As it were, a happier life full of saviors and meaningful is waiting them. All of them miss it, either compelled by exterior powers or forced by a basic tragedy impressed upon them. Sometimes I had the feeling that they in general do not want another life, and that they went to their sad end out of free choice, as if there were no other possibilities in the world. This is a feeling which swings me back to the days of my childhood, when as an excited child I ran to the movie=screen to rescue the passengers of the carriage riding into the fire; as if that small deed, that little interference, that small shifting of the evil direction could have saved, when in reality there is no such thing. There is no salvage of things predestined.

The Messiah of LaGuardia
By Elisha Porat

Definitely one of the finest short story collections available by a single writer offered in English translation. I will warn you though, definitely have a huge box of tissues before you start reading this collection. The Messiah of LaGuardia is a series of short stories, many of which are based around characters whose lives are somehow intertwined with various wars. From Ben Niflay, whose subconscious begins to break apart as he faces yet another deployment to the war in Lebanon, to survivors of wars who find their futures entangled with the emptiness and nightmares of their pasts. I personally enjoyed all of the stories, however if I were to pick a favorite I think it would be "At the Little Bridge Below Ufana." It is the story of a soldier named Goel who loses his best friend Kobi during a fierce battle that takes place at the time of the War of Attrition. Goel, unable to save his friend who is trapped beneath his vehicle, returns home to comfort Kobi’s widow Ayalla whom Goel has always been in love with. However, despite his opportunity to now have a prominent position in Ayalla’s life, he finds the circumstances of Kobi’s death constantly coming up in their conversations and serving as an impenetrable barrier to a closer intimacy between them, a barrier that will remain eternal. The emotional power of this story is overwhelming and really stays with you.

What makes Porat’s writing so wonderful is his use of emotional imagery. There is little to no concentration on external circumstances or settings as most all settings are on various Kibbutzim. He concentrates on the internal conflicts of his characters with such accuracy that the sheer realism of it all will draw you so deeply into these peoples lives that you end up crying with them.

Really a beautiful collection that truly stays with you long after reading it. I definitely recommend this collection and if you like it as well, be sure to check out my links page. We are fortunate that Mr. Porat’s short stories and poetry can be found on many internet sites, so be sure to check them out for yourself.