“Galutnik: A Diaspora Jew. To many Israelis, the word also means coward, an eternal victim as opposed to the strong sabra Jew born in Israel.”
It is this tension that runs through Leah Kaminsky’s debut novel, about Dina from Melbourne who winds up living in the port city of Haifa after marrying Eitan. She’s a doctor, they have a son Shlomi, and she’s pregnant. She is also the child of Holocaust survivors and her late mother had a “just-in-case” suitcase packed in case they had to flee.
Her mother, who used to shop at the supermarket in Glenhuntly Road by day and trudge through the heavy snows of Bergen-Belsen by night, tells her that having children is “our best revenge against Hitler” and kept her ghosts muted by bottles of pills: blue for nerves, red for sleep and white to stop the tears.
Dina too has her suitcases in the Haifa flat, stacked atop the cupboard near her bed. She too carries baggage, “a heavy sack, filled with the dead, permanently hoisted over her shoulder”. And while she stares at the carobs, pine trees and bulbul birds, part of her sees the Australian magpies and lorikeets in the wattle trees. Very much a migrant experience, except most migrants seek out a better life and safety.
She is in Haifa with a bomb scare and must shove aside her fears and drop her Shlomi at school and attend to patients, including the “bent twig” of the embittered elderly German Jewish Mrs Susskind with her discount vouchers and Filipina carer and New York banker son – a caricature perhaps, but with some basis in reality. From the day he was born, Dina has felt as if Shlomi was “swaddled in battle fatigues”.
To outsiders, particularly Australians who she sees as “having polite, silent smiles” that “keep a grasp on any outburst”, the kind of drama in Dina’s head and the intemperance of her language may be alienating, as might the depiction of women such as Mrs Susskind. But Dina herself is alienated. She fears a bomb blast, and knows the political situation is out of control, but in the same moment laughs at herself over a cheese Danish.
She’s ashamed of the killing of three Palestinians by border police, and feels desperately sorry for an Iranian patient who was sent a bill for bullets used to execute her husband at Tehran’s Evin Prison.
She stares at an ultrasound wondering how to break the news of a “solid mass” to a woman awaiting the good news of a male heir. But then she panics when she spots an Arab worker at Shlomi’s school with a bulging pocket and reports him. It turns out he is the kids’ Toffee Man, and it is just an “arsenal of toffees”.
Kaminsky’s book is set in 2001, and things have only grown more polarised since then, and attitudes hardened. In that it paints a sympathetic picture of a compassionate Australian-Israeli haunted by ghosts of the Holocaust, some would condemn it as apologist. Others will find it confronting at other levels.
Dina has, in the end, to choose between Melbourne and Haifa. Which is more ferocious, love or terror? Is it better, for her, to be a “galutnik” or in the thick of things? Kaminsky’s book throws up some tough questions.
(This article first appeared in the SMH on 10/10/15)