July 16, 2008
Shut up and read this book review
Levey's experiences are so amusing, the uninitiated might think he made them up. As anyone who has spent considerable time in Israel knows, though, he didn't need to.
Consider the Zionist dream of Jews living as "normal" people in a "normal" country. Then consider Gregory Levey's hilarious and unexpectedly touching memoir, "Shut Up, I'm Talking: And Other Diplomatic Lessons I Learned in the Israeli Government." You'll soon wonder, "What were Herzl and Ben-Gurion smoking?"
"Shut Up" is a sitcom involving weapons of mass destruction. It's a historic tragedy featuring acne and sheep. It has car-chase scenes better than "The Fast and the Furious." Yes, it's Israeli diplomacy dissected -- funny bone by funny bone -- all by a nice Jewish boy from Toronto.
Levey's is a classic tale of a fish out of water, a stranger in a strange land, a North American Diaspora "Can I do your taxes?" kind of Jew forced to fend for himself among the Israeli "Hold my Uzi while I take a leak" kind of Jews.
If you still cleave to your memories of the Israel of "Exodus," the Six-Day War and the Raid on Entebbe, "Shut Up" will shatter those illusions. But Levey strikes with a Nerf hammer. He is no ideologue. He is barely even political. Rather, he is a Jewish Chauncey Gardiner, but a lot funnier and smarter.
Being there, in New York, a 25-year-old Canadian Jewish day school graduate in his second year of law school, Levey applied for a posted internship at the Israeli consulate in New York. He is then offered (because they don't offer internships) a job as a speechwriter -- first at the U.N. Mission and later in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. Levey's internship application is motivated less by Zionist zeal, however, than a burning desire to escape the tedium of studying corporate tax law and the like.
Levey's adventures in speechwriting over the next two and a half years take him from signing-up for a U.N. salsa dancing club, to responding to such weighty accusations that the "occupation" is causing higher levels of acne among Palestinian teenagers, to writing speeches for Prime Minister Sharon in defense of his Disengagement plan for Gaza and more. The intifada boils on, Arafat dies, the barrier and withdrawal from Gaza controversies rage, Hamas comes to power and Sharon goes into a coma. In other words, a typical few years in the life of Israel before its 60th birthday parties begin.
Through Levey's wide eyes, Israel is a great many things, some wonderful, but "normal" is not one of them. There's a taxi driver who kicks him out of the taxi because he doesn't understand a joke; the petty bureaucrat who spits sunflower seed shells on him; the foreign minister who greets him in only underwear; and the spokesman for the prime minister, who gives an interview to CNN while speeding through traffic -- via the sidewalks when "necessary" -- with ABBA's "Dancing Queen" playing in the background, slowing only to yell at pedestrians who cross his path.
And people wonder why Israel does not have a better image in the world?
Levey's experiences are so amusing, the uninitiated might think he made them up. As anyone who has spent considerable time in Israel knows, though, he didn't need to. Levey's cast of characters merely exemplifies the saying, "Jews are just like other people -- only more so." And that goes doubly for Israelis. Normal people in a normal country? Feh. Never.
Levey's parents emigrated from South Africa and cast their lot with Canadians -- "polite people who had opinions about nothing," rather than Israelis -- "ill-mannered people who had opinions about everything."
This culture clash fuels the book's hilarity, although I doubt most Israelis would see the humor: "So you're 25, not an Israeli citizen and have to cast Israel's vote on weapons of mass destruction at the U.N. What's the big deal? Improvise," they'd say.
In a strange and serious way, "Shut Up, I'm Talking" is of a piece with the movie "Munich." It is a critique that Israel is no place for a nice Jewish boy. Perhaps different standards apply to Israelis and Diaspora Jews, or perhaps it is the difference between writing non-fiction and fiction about real events. Unlike "Munich," though, it's hard to be offended by Levey. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner imposed their Westside/ Eastside Diaspora disillusionment onto a Mossad agent risking his life in an important mission for the state. Levey, by contrast, never intended to represent Israel. He is adrift, an everyman treading water, trying only to find meaning and humor in his surreal surroundings. When his Zionist experiment ends, Levey leaves Israel and reflects that he felt he "had finally come home" upon landing in New York. And he's from Canada. Although sad, somehow, there is a sweetness about it.
Of course, the laughs won't stop farbissiners from kvetching that "Shut Up" is a shande fur de goyim, an insulting betrayal of Israel. In talking with him, Levey said he wishes perhaps that he featured more instances of the good of Israel, the random acts of kindness, the compassionate one-family feel of the place. Understandably, he did not think it served his narrative; after all, it's not news when a plane lands safely. Levey also reports that he has received dozens of sympathetic e-mails from Anglo American immigrants in Israel. If the book does not offend that group of people, whom should it offend?
Like every great Jewish joke, "Shut Up" not only makes us laugh at ourselves, but tells us some deeper truth. Taken seriously, "Shut Up" could be a one-man independent government inquiry to fix what's wrong with Israel's Foreign Ministry. It could clear the noxious atmosphere at the United Nations. It could inspire Israelis to be more considerate of one another. It might even make Israel an attractive place for nice Jewish boys from North America.
It is a dream Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion would enjoy.
Jon E. Drucker is a nice Jewish boy who practices law in Los Angeles.