If a Place Can Make You Cry: Dis­patch­es from an Anx­ious State

  • Review
By – November 7, 2011
You may or not come to like Daniel Gordis upon read­ing If a Place Can Make You Cry, but you can­not help becom­ing engaged by the nar­ra­tive that unfolds in this diary of a fam­i­ly that moves to Israel in the hope­ful glow of Oslo, yet winds up in the unfor­giv­ing flames of the 2nd Intifa­da. There is more than enough here to trou­ble read­ers of every polit­i­cal stripe and to shake even the most cer­tain of ide­o­logues, but it is done with lit­tle anger, and more than a lit­tle poet­ry. The his­to­ry is com­pelling and imme­di­ate, and Gordis’ per­spec­tive is exquis­ite­ly placed. Like literature’s great diarists, the times have made a writer’s oppor­tu­ni­ty, and Gordis ris­es to the task.

We are long used to the upbeat tales of the Ingath­er­ing of the Exiles, where the worlds’ unfor­tu­nate Jews find free­dom and faith in the land of their ances­tors. This, how­ev­er, is not your father’s Zion­is­tic tale. This is the sto­ry of well-off some­what spoiled denizens of the West who leave com­fort, lib­er­al democ­ra­cy and diverse Judaisms and trade them for a nar­row and vio­lent Mid­dle East. And though there is some admit­ted long­ing for their six-bed­room home on a tree-lined street in Los Ange­les, there is no flinch­ing for the Gordis fam­i­ly. They have will­ing­ly and emphat­i­cal­ly trad­ed all that for a place at the table of those who make his­to­ry. 

But the tran­si­tion from Amer­i­can to Israeli coin­cid­ed with one of the most remark­able peri­ods in the remark­able his­to­ry of the Jew­ish State. At the begin­ning of the book, the read­er sens­es the almost gid­dy nature of Israel in the years when peace seemed close at hand; when Israel was gain­ing in accep­tance in Europe and the world. The Gordis fam­i­ly rev­els in the free­dom and sol­i­dar­i­ty of liv­ing a ful­ly Jew­ish life at a time when it seems as if their own chil­dren will not real­ly need to fight any more wars. And then, it all comes crash­ing down. Gordis and his wife are com­mit­ted to stay­ing put, but their joy at watch­ing their kids become Israeli turns to doubt about the right­ness of their course, and the effect it will inevitably have on them. 

The book is epis­to­lary in form, and owes much of its poignan­cy to the tem­po­rary nature of e‑mail. One can imag­ine the late night or ear­ly morn­ing still­ness in which Gordis types these reflec­tions on the moment, and the sense that the vio­lence of his emo­tions is sin­cere. These mis­sives to fam­i­ly and friends con­tain touch­ing details of fam­i­ly life. It is fas­ci­nat­ing to eaves­drop as they con­front the grand ques­tions of ide­ol­o­gy as they are real­ly formed — from a thou­sand dis­pos­able details. 

These inter­nal debates reflect many strug­gles. What does it mean to be a Jew today in the Dias­po­ra? What do the Left and the Right do now that their core beliefs have been crushed by the real­i­ty of Pales­tin­ian hatred? What deci­sions do par­ents have the right to make for their chil­dren? What is the right­ful place of Dias­po­ra Jews in the ongo­ing ques­tion of war and peace in Israel? And where will the future lead?

This is not a feel good book. Most read­ers will come away with at least part of their firm­ly held beliefs shak­en. Many Amer­i­can Jews will won­der how they can stay here. Some will won­der how any­one can stay there. But as the great Amer­i­can pam­phle­teer Thomas Paine put it dur­ing a sim­i­lar peri­od of Amer­i­can His­to­ry: These are times that try men’s souls. The sum­mer sol­dier and the sun­shine patri­ot will, in this cri­sis, shrink from the ser­vice of their coun­try; but he that stands now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” At least for now, Daniel Gordis has shown us how one new­ly Israeli patri­ot faces his times.
Jeff Bogursky reads a lot, writes a lit­tle and talks quite a bit. He is a media exec­u­tive and expert in dig­i­tal media.

Discussion Questions