Port­land Zion­ists Unite!: And Oth­er Stories

By – November 4, 2019

The Star of David, with each of its six points, a fist in an open hand and one olive branch wait­ing to be grasped, is the cov­er for this provoca­tive and engag­ing col­lec­tion. It invites us in to read six sto­ries and to con­sid­er and recon­sid­er the authen­tic Zionist.

We may think we already know the six sto­ry­tellers and their desire for a strong, life­long com­mit­ment to a just and peace­ful Israel and a mean­ing­ful Jew­ish life in Amer­i­ca. How­ev­er, each character’s jour­ney to a mind­set and con­vic­tion about the cur­rent Israeli polit­i­cal con­flicts in the region and how best to engage is as impor­tant and rel­e­vant as ever.

Eric Flamm has deft­ly jux­ta­posed per­son­al expe­ri­ences, life his­to­ries, deci­sions, fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships and Israel as a real but nev­er­the­less exis­ten­tial con­cept of the Jew­ish homeland.

The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Port­land, Ore­gon is the per­fect set­ting for a dis­cus­sion of con­tem­po­rary Zion­ism. The author con­trasts the lib­er­al atmos­phere and beau­ti­ful, revered nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment with the high­ly volatile debate about polit­i­cal expression.

In 1995, Yoni Tager, a Long Island native, vol­un­teers for the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) with all the pas­sion of youth and yearn­ing to val­i­date his fam­i­ly sto­ry. On patrol in Hebron with his bud­dy, South African émi­gré David Ostrov, he thinks, I instinc­tive­ly felt he (David) shared my grow­ing con­tempt and increduli­ty that what we were doing had any endur­ing val­ue to the IDF, to Israel, to any­body.” The events of that day will be for­ma­tive and become the cat­a­lyst for the sto­ries that follow.

Fast for­ward to May 2014 and the next sto­ry set in Port­land. Sarah Gut­man is chair­woman of the fed­er­a­tion com­mu­ni­ty com­mit­tee. She believes the fed­er­a­tion is a con­sen­sus orga­ni­za­tion” with broad goals to fight anti­semitism and unwa­ver­ing sup­port for Israel. The com­mu­ni­ty com­mit­tee has tried to silence now long-time Port­land res­i­dent, Yoni, by allow­ing him to observe but deny­ing him mem­ber­ship. He thinks they oppose his polit­i­cal views: more pre­cise­ly, his mis­un­der­stand­ing of the nature and needs of the mod­ern state of Israel.” How­ev­er, Sarah calls on him. Burst­ing with emo­tion, Yoni says, When you talk about your mis­sion (the fed­er­a­tion) to stop the hate, con­sid­er not using the words crit­ics of Israel’. A per­son can sup­port Israel and still have legit­i­mate criticisms”.

The kalei­do­scope spins back and forth in time. We see through the lens of David, son of a wealthy South African, who moves to Israel as apartheid comes to an end.

Yehu­da Alka­na, a sabra,along with his IDF friends, cel­e­brates the com­ple­tion of mil­i­tary ser­vice with a trip to Thai­land. They meet up with oth­er Jews and Israelis and each inter­ac­tion dri­ves him to con­tem­plate his iden­ti­ty, pri­or­i­ties, and ideals.

Aaron Slovitz, a young Port­land syn­a­gogue admin­is­tra­tor, seek­ing a more affil­i­at­ed Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, is crushed by the design­ing Rabbi’s views and leadership.

Final­ly, we meet Gary. His moth­er was Jew­ish but he nev­er knew any oth­er Jews. After meet­ing some in the diverse Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, includ­ing Yoni, Gary begins to con­sid­er what iden­ti­fy­ing as Jew­ish would be like. In time, he reflects on Yoni’s tale of his own evolved self — no mat­ter what, be the best per­son you can be and advo­cate for peace.

Flamm’s kalei­do­scope makes a full rota­tion. His­to­ry tells us it con­tin­ues turning.

Pen­ny Metsch, MLS, for­mer­ly a school librar­i­an on Long Island and in New York City, now focus­es on ear­ly lit­er­a­cy pro­grams in Hobo­ken, NJ.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Eric Flamm

  1. How has read­ing this book influ­enced your per­spec­tive on Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty? Israel? Do you see your­self more entrenched in your point of view or more open to oth­er opinions?

  2. Which sto­ry, nar­ra­tor or pas­sage res­onat­ed with you? Why did those instances stand out? What con­cepts about Israel are impor­tant to your con­struc­tion of Jew­ish identity?

  3. What is the main effect of hav­ing sev­er­al dif­fer­ent first-per­son nar­ra­tors? What ele­ments does it add to address­ing issues of iden­ti­ty and the US-Israel relationship?

  4. In Bat­she­va On the Roof the author likens David Ostrov to a mod­ern Uri­ah the Hit­tite – how does this com­par­i­son suc­ceed or fail? Do you feel Amer­i­cans’ pen­chant for cel­e­brat­ing Israeli mil­i­tary prowess dis­torts the lens through which we view Israel?

  5. In Com­mu­nist Par­ty Crash­er the Jew­ish Fed­er­a­tion con­spired to keep out oppos­ing points of view about Israel. Do you agree this was nec­es­sary? Did Sarah Gutman’s expe­ri­ence with Pales­tin­ian ter­ror­ism jus­ti­fy her treat­ment of Yoni Tager?

  6. In The Mount the dis­cus­sion of Israel is depict­ed as high­ly polar­ized and fraught with mis­un­der­stand­ing. Was it appro­pri­ate for the rab­bi to take such a high-pro­file stance against the Boy­cott, Divest and Sanc­tion Israel move­ment (BDS)? What con­sid­er­a­tion, if any, should be shown to the con­gre­gant, Joe Roz­man (pg. 118), who sup­port­ed BDS?

  7. In Guardians of Cool, a cen­tral theme is the cor­ro­sive effect mil­i­tary rule has on both the ruled and the those tasked with car­ry­ing out the orders. Do you feel US dis­cus­sion of Israel’s poli­cies takes ade­quate account of the cost Israelis are pay­ing, both eco­nom­i­cal­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, for hav­ing to main­tain the sta­tus quo of West Bank settlement?

  8. Also, in Guardians of Cool, Yehu­da Alka­na acute­ly feels the divide in Israeli soci­ety between the Ashke­nazi and Sephar­di. Why do you think Flamm includ­ed these details?

  9. How does this pas­sage man­i­fest itself through­out the book: No longer were the Jews, Israelis, and IDF of the same body and mind, breath­ing the same air. These things had become nuanced and removed from one anoth­er, like three cir­cles of a Venn dia­gram mov­ing in oppo­si­tion, where the point in com­mon grew small­er each day.”

  10. In the last sto­ry, Gary is relieved to let Israel be for­got­ten. Does this ring true with your expe­ri­ence that the young are less like­ly to know or care about Israel?

  11. Do you think Port­land Zion­ists Unite! is a fit­ting title for this col­lec­tion of sto­ries? What would you suggest?

  12. Dis­cuss the stages of aware­ness Yoni Tager under­goes as his char­ac­ter devel­ops through the course of the stories.