Is God funny?
American-born former Israeli diplomat and Knesset member Michael Oren — a prolific, New York Times bestselling author and acclaimed historian (look him up on the internet; his biography is a mile long) allows a frustrated prophet to ask this question in his latest collection of short stories, The Night Archer. His characters are terrifying, tragic, passionate and yes, funny as hell.
Who would have thought that a man known for writing the most comprehensive historical tome of the 1967 Six Day War could write a tale with tenderness so poignant the back of your throat aches when you read it, and the next one so grim you sit up with surprise. But Oren also has a real spooky side, worthy of The Twilight Zone.
While we’re at it, however, fair warning: this is not a book for children. Seriously. Many of the stories contain graphic language, some of them contain violence and every now and then there is the occasional “adult scene” as well. There is a great deal of Jewish character angst, reflecting the struggles that complicate real lives more often than not.
As do many writers, Oren has given life to those struggles, but he has at least had the compassion to create them in fiction, rather than reveal them in fact.
The second tale, “Liberation”, makes a strong statement on the impact of public life on free will, all in the space of four paragraphs.
“Fame and admiration impounded him. . . Levitsky found himself at the head of Upper East Side guest lists, a speaker in constant demand. In a voice barely audible over the praise, he affirmed his gospel of rebirth. Perhaps, too, he began to believe it, or at least to forget the time when believing or not was an assertion of will.”
While transforming his personal tragedy into public education, the main character also transforms himself in the process. The tale — gritty, elegant, uncomfortable and brief as it is – does indeed drive the reader to examine the multifaceted nature of “liberation.”
As solemn as that tale was, however, one can just laugh with abandon at the paradox of role reversal in the short story, ‘What’s A Parent to Do?’ A true gem not to miss.
Anyone over the age of 50 will appreciate this little tribute to Jewish motherhood. Any woman over the age of 55 will offer a silent “high five” to the protagonist.
A third and final offering (there are dozens) is an interesting tale called “The Innkeeper’s Daughter.” When asked about this, Oren chuckled and said, “Strangely enough, that story relates to Israel.
“That story comes from a trip that I took with my wife last summer,” he went on. “We decided to do ‘the southern trip.’ This is before the upheaval in America, before Black Lives Matter, and we decided to do The Freedom Trail, starting in Georgia, from Atlanta. We went to Montgomery, we went to Selma, we went to – you know, all the places that Martin Luther King went – it was quite beautiful and very uplifting for us.
“And we ended up in a place called Asheville, and Asheville’s great fun, great music, and we stayed in The Country Inn, Oren said.
“And The Country Inn was run by who you’d think a country inn would be run by – a kindly old man in Birkenstocks and some whiskers, with his wife, who was wearing a plaid skirt, and there they were, they had people from all around the country, and all around the world visiting them in this inn.”
“And the inn looked like much like what you’d expect it to be, all these antiques. I said it in the story, it’s the childhood you’d like to remember you had, that you didn’t have. If you’re from Brooklyn, this is where you’d like to have it.
“And so the couple, the proprietor and his wife at breakfast went around to each table, and asked people where they came from, what they did, and they lingered for quite a long time at each table.
“And the table right next to us was a retired schoolteacher from Ohio and a man who managed a warehouse, and they got into a very deep and ardent discussion with this couple, and then they came over to us.
“And then they said, “Hellooo! Where are yooo from?”
“And we said, ‘We’re from Israel.’
“And then they moved on to the next table.”
“So that story,” he said, “is my revenge. That story is my revenge, on a pair of anti-Semitic innkeepers.”
Oren smiled again. “Isn’t that funny?”
“Can I write that?” I asked.
“I’m sure it’s fine,” he replied.
So folks, I heartily recommend reading The Night Archer, particularly to anyone who has ever had to contend with anti-Semitism but have been forced to remain calm or diplomatic at the time.
This story is for you.