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Elisha Porat ~ RETURN


Elisha Porat. The Messiah of LaGuardia. Alan Sacks, tr. Buffalo, N.Y. Mosaic. 1996. xii
176 pages. $14.95. ISBN 0-88962-614-6.

The Messiah of LaGuardia is a collection of six short stories originally written in Hebrew and now published in a competent English translation. Although the author, a recipient of Israel's Prime Minister's Prize for Literature, has published over a dozen volumes of poetry and prose, this is his first short-story collection to appear in English translation. Reviews of the original Hebrew version have been appropriately favorable, describing the contents as "six stories in the best of the realist tradition. ... It is apparent at first glance, however, that Elisha Porat has set out to do more ... elegant, purposeful writing."

Similarly, it is opined, these stories "will intrigue and touch the heart of every reader." In its English version too the volume is the setting of six gems: well-crafted, polished, beautifully evocative stories that testify to the author's mastery of his craft.

It was back in 1924 that Jacob Rabinowitz envisioned the development of Hebrew literature within the context of a modern culture in the making: "Literature will be different here, that is to say, it will not be Jewish in the conventional sense, but rather humanistic, encompassing many genres and shades. Even its Jewishness will be different, as befitting a Jewishness adapting itself to life here, and deriving from it. There will be negative manifestations as well, so that here and there will be constriction and retreat.

The base will broaden, the back will ache. Neither exultation nor bitterness is warranted: one must merely observe and understand." It could be no different, of course, because amazing cultural phenomena were in the borning, foremost among them being the creation of a language: modern, spoken Hebrew. This involved the conversion of an ancient written language from a sacred to a literary idiom, thence to a spoken language again, and from a spoken, contemporary language once more into the language of modern writing. The vocabulary, syntax, and structure of the language itself witness to the network of cultural and social--as well as linguistic--components of which it is fabricated.

Needless to say, Israeli authors did not create a literary culture ex nihilo: they brought their foreign and their Jewish substance with them, essences often in constant tension with their new circumstances and new lives. These writers gave artistic realization to the new realities in the new space they now occupied, with a love of the soil, the dignity of labor, the ideal of common weal, and the yearning for peace. Authentic Israeli culture, of which Porat's writing is indisputedly a significant part, is the product of wrestling with manifold personal and societal tensions, fears, confusions, and doubts, not the escape from them.

The term realism best describes Porat's posture, and his characters and plots reflect the realities of today's Israel and today's Israelis. For there exist decided sociological limits to the length of time that collective enthusiasms and ideals can be sustained as a central societal reality. The dream and struggle for a national revival and the excitement of creating a state and a society cannot be sustained indefinitely. And underpinning today's Israel is a growing sense of closure or completion in terms of the creative, heroic aspects of life: the state exists, the country is relatively secure, and the time seems propitious to cultivate one's own garden and to pursue individual paths to fulfillment.

In "The Messiah of LaGuardia" one meets a simple auto-body worker and reserve soldier who tries to save his country from itself. "At the Little Bridge Below Ufana" presents a poignant love triangle complicated by the mysterious military death of the husband. "The Three Stages of Perfection" portrays the efforts of a commune (kibbutz) member to enthuse his comrades with his own quixotic idealism. The protagonist in "The Guardian of the Fields" finds brief happiness with a foreign woman yet cannot transcend the traumas of his East European childhood and Israel combat youth. The principal figure in "The Farming Instructor" struggles to keep both his wife and his land. And "the aging poet" in the story of that same title behaves, alas, as so many of us do, and must reconsider and accept the realities.

In sum, brevitatis causa, Porat's collection of stories is engaging, poignant, sensitive, thought-provoking writing.

By Etan Levine, University of Haifa

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