Book Review: The Ambassador

For all my love of time travel and exploration of whether or not we could or should alter the past, I’m surprised I don’t read more fiction in the category of alternative history. Perhaps I will now, after reading The Ambassador (The Toby Press), a novel by the late Ambassador Yehuda Avner and award-winning novelist Matt Rees.

Set mostly in the late 1930s with World War II as its backdrop, The Ambassador imagines the impacts on Europe’s Jews had Israel been established in 1937, as opposed to 1948, when the Peel Commission recommended to the British cabinet to establish a Jewish state. The novel’s main character is Dan Lavi, a young diplomat sent by Ben Gurion to Germany to serve as the fledgling nation’s first ambassador to Berlin. Dan’s there with his wife Anna (an American) and Shmulik, who masquerades as part of the diplomatic team, but is really in Berlin on behalf of the Mossad.

The characters, their dialogue, and even the actions they take that veer from historical events come off realistic and plausible. I was caught up in Dan’s conflict once in Berlin as he struggles between proper diplomacy and his clear distaste for Nazi politics.

“The words of the Old Man, Ben-Gurion’s nasal Polish accent echoed in Dan’s mind, the order delivered in between reports from Shmulik on the first maneuvers of the War of Independence.

You will sup with the Devil, Dan. You will do everything the Devil requires. Whatever it takes, you will maintain the transfer of Jews from Germany to Israel.'”

The transfer of Jews from Germany is, in fact, Dan’s primary goal in Berlin. He is there, as he argues repeatedly, to “secure as many Jewish lives as we can.” He does so by working with and catering to the ego of Sturmbannfuhrer Adolph Eichmann, who serves (in this alternative reality) as head of the “Central Office for Jewish Emigration” offering Israeli visas to Europe’s Jews under the controversial “Transfer Agreement.” In this 1938 Berlin, Jews are permitted to leave the country, hundreds per day, for Israel. The Israeli Embassy’s main purpose is administrative, filling out and processing applications of families requesting exit. On the side, however, Shmulik and his Mossad team are investigating rumors of a “final solution” for the Jews, and recommending plans of action to Ben Gurion.

Most interesting to me — especially as a fan of time travel — was watching the story unfold and witnessing how some decisions in this alternative reality led the Jews to the exact same fate they met in our current reality, and how other actions managed to transform a people’s destiny. Less interesting to me were a few brief distracting side stories (based on some historical truth) of lost love and family secrets; though not distracting enough to take away from the main plot.

Any fiction pertaining to the Holocaust is potentially contentious. Still today, there are debates about who, if anyone, has the right to construct fictional tales set in or during the Holocaust. In the preface to The Ambassador, Avner writes “I fought in the war that established Israel. I worked decades in the highest circles of the Israeli government with every Prime Minister up to Rabin’s second term and as Ambassador to Britain and Australia.” One wonders if Avner is not attempting to stave off those critics of Holocaust fiction with this list of credentials. Whether or not he was, it certainly lends credibility to the story and his right to tell it.

“I sat among the crowd commemorating Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, as then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres addressed us. More precisely, he apologized to them. The ones taken by Hitler. ‘We were 10 years too late,’ he said.

And I thought, ‘What if we hadn’t been.'”

The Ambassador will be available in bookstores September 1, 2015.

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This review was made possible by The Toby Press with an Advanced Reader’s Copy.

 

 

 

How to be a happy fool

The Buddha never said this, but it’s the noise of parenthood that propels me to appreciate the quiet. This is probably the greatest lesson I’ve learned so far in the 11 and a half years I’ve been mothering.  This is also why I wouldn’t use time travel to go back and change being a parent because these little butterflies that look almost nothing like me have had an active and passive role in shaping me; both the parts I like and the parts I don’t. (For the record, I’d use time travel to visit late 19th century Vienna like in The Little Book or watch my husband play in a park in Herzliya when he was a child.)

They don’t tell you before conception that noise is an occupational hazard of parenting, especially when you are me or you are my husband, both of us easily startled. It should be obvious, I know, but nothing is obvious until it sleeps with its stinky feet flush up against your nose. (The Buddha didn’t say this either.)

To appreciate the quiet, I arranged for an overnight away last week during one of Tel Aviv’s loudest nights to celebrate my husband’s milestone 40th birthday. Dan Panorama Tel Aviv made it easy to find quiet by upgrading our room in the hotel to a VIP suite on the 17th floor far away from the characteristic Thursday night noise and with an incredible view of the sea.

view from dan panorama tel aviv

Knowing in advance it was my husband’s birthday, they also sent us up a complimentary bottle of wine and other goodies (travel tip: always tell the hotel when you are celebrating a special occasion. They want you to feel special.)

Taking advantage of Tel Aviv’s annual White Night, we headed over to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to explore. Nothing like a few hours of mindless meandering and contemplative staring to help you completely forget you have children (also helps that I completely trust my kids in the care of their grandparents.) We spent a lot of time in David Nipo’s “I Returned and Saw Under the Sun” exhibit of figurative-realist paintings; astounded by how real his figurative-realistic paintings come across. It was difficult not to touch the canvas to confirm the images were created from paint and not photography.

The next morning after a fantastically enormous Israeli breakfast buffet, my husband wanted to ride bikes. I wasn’t so eager because we were in the middle of a heat wave — even at 9 am near the beach the air felt oppressive. But I humored him and was glad in the end.

Husband on Bike. Photo by Jen Maidenberg

Husband on Bike. Photo by Jen Maidenberg

We rode up the beach and then through city streets, stopping at a vintage shop where I bought a record (which I can’t play) and a set of books on tape (which I can) and then headed back through the city to the Dan Panorama to clean up before checking out.

I noticed as I was dressing that I was dressing for life with children. The previous afternoon I wore my strapless dress with nothing underneath (nothing but underwear, dirty mind!) I wasn’t worried about having to bend down to pick up a crying child, nor was I concerned said child would want to grab me, as my children often do, without thinking what gravity will do to a strapless dress when it meets with a tiny clutched  fist.

I can’t say I didn’t want more — more time dressed like the woman who didn’t need to worry about the elements. More time meandering off schedule. More time listening without paying attention. I wanted more.

But as the Buddha did say: “A fool is happy until his mischief turns against him.”

There is a time for mischief (for desire, the Buddha might or might not say) and there is a time for responsibility.

I hope that in my next parenting chapter, I learn better how to blend the two … and more often.

jen and avi reflection june 2014

Because I believe it’s at the intersection of noise and quiet that we are most joyful.

Even those of us easily startled.

 

Nostalgia sounds like …

“There’s an echo in the wind

Makes me wonder where I’ve been”

 

The closest appliance to a time travel machine I’ve ever owned arrived in my mailbox today.

walkman

I sold my yellow Sony edition at a yard sale over a decade ago. This one is a gift from a friend who knows how desperate I’ve been for a portal back.

I popped in some AA batteries I had on hand (thank GOD) and chose a tape from the black vinyl portable cassette holder; a mixed tape whose destruction wouldn’t crush me if the Walkman accidentally ate it. SIDE B was a mix I copied in high school from my friend Rachel, kicked off by I Don’t Like Mondays, a song I used to blast in my car on the way to senior year of high school (not just on Mondays). SIDE A was the soundtrack to St. Elmo’s Fire.

I pulled out the cassette tape from its plastic case and popped it in the Walkman without much care.

I pressed play.

WHOOSH.

I wasn’t planning on going anywhere. I didn’t pack or leave a note. I just wanted to make sure the thing worked.

“All the years I’ve left behind

Faded pictures in my mind …”

WHOOSH.

I didn’t think I was going anywhere just yet, so I was pretty surprised to find myself in Thurston Hall at GWU in 1993; pretty surprised to see myself lying on a twin bed watching St. Elmo’s Fire on my white combination 18 inch TV/VHS player with Dayle and Erin and Stacia and Linnea. I know the power of music, and yet I was surprised that a collection of music I presumed held no emotional attachment over me, could suddenly sweep me back.

“So, we can be young and innocent
When nothing mattered but the moment we were in
Let’s shut our eyes and pretend
And maybe once again we can be young and innocent”

WHOOSH

I really didn’t think I was going anywhere yet.  Truth is, I wasn’t really thinking.

In that moment, I was just crying.

Tears of astonishment. Tears of gratitude.

To be swept away. To be 19 again. For Just A Moment.

Between us, there are books

It’s not difficult to spot us.

Those of us in love with old books.

We have shelves full of them.

We smuggle them into our homes despite the eye rolling of our spouses, our parents, our roommates.

We tolerate repetitive sneezing due to dust and the mildew and the ancient tree pollen lurking beneath pages 204 and 205 of the worn book of poetry; for the last time it was opened was beneath an olive tree in the rain.

We can be spotted inside libraries caressing the faded red jacket cover of a 1930s edition of Alice in Wonderland, both in awe that this edition is in our hands and moved by the many hands it has passed through.

Hands now wrinkled, hands now dead and buried, hands that have held wonders of their own in the years since they last held Alice’s.

old edition of Alice

We weep at inscriptions:

To John, Love Grandma

To my beloved wife on our 5th wedding anniversary

To the 8th grade graduates of Merrick Long Island Hebrew Academy. Mazel Tov!

We rescue old books from the recycling plant or, worse yet, from the dump.

We hold on to them in case of the apocalypse or hand them over to crafty friends to offer them a secondhand chance at life as a kitschy framed work of art for sale on etsy or as an IPAD cover, a final project for graphic design school.

Sometimes you hear us sighing in a used book store.

Sometimes we get lost in a used bookstore.

Sometimes we get caught longing for a used book store. Someone asks us, “What were you thinking about just then?” And we answer, “I was looking at your canvas tote bag from The Strand and wishing I was there right now.”

Truth be told: If I could be anywhere right now, I would be inside a used book store.

I would be sneezing my brains out. I would desperately need to use the bathroom (book stores have done this to me since I was 7.) I would lose track of time and part with lots of money, but this is where I would choose to be on any given day.

Even on a beach day.

I suppose TV had a hand in this, what with Charmed and Buffy and farther back even still, Friday the 13th The Series.

I suppose that movies had a hand in this, what with The Neverending Story and The Ninth Gate.

I suppose books themselves have had a hand in this, too. By becoming old. By becoming rare. By becoming obsolete in a way. By carrying in their spines the secrets of a thousand and one human beings.

I don’t know why, exactly, I have such a strong affection for old books, but I imagine it’s wrapped in my curious regard for the passing of time.

It’s a way to touch the past.

It’s a way to relate to people who I will never have the chance to speak to or behold.

It’s time travel of a sort. It is. Stop saying it isn’t.

Old books make me weep for the people who once read them.

For the person who will read it after me. Whom, I hope, might weep for me, too.

Might remember me, the ghost of me … with fondness.

For, despite the space and time between us, we both once turned this book over; swiped the top corner with a damp pointer finger; placed it spread open wide on a night stand or flat sandwiching a clean white tissue inside.

Times passes. We pass.

But between us, there are books.