Written by Pnina Moed Kass
Graphia, 2004, 186 pp.
It is Sunday, April 9th in modern-day Israel and within four days no one’s life will ever be the same again. Narrated in “real time,” the novel takes the reader on an hour-by-hour journey through the characters’ minds as they connect through love and violence. The winner of the Sydney Taylor award given by the Association of Jewish Libraries, this novel tackles the most Jewish of literary themes, how to go on living with the specter of the Holocaust still looming sixty years after the fact.
In this young adult novel, themes of fate and suffering infuse the plot, which follows a teenage German volunteer kibbutz worker through his flight from Germany and his anti-Semitic girlfriend, to a bus that is blown up by a suicide bomber, and finally to an Israeli hospital where he heals from his trauma, thanks, in great part, to a kindly Holocaust survivor. While there are other main characters, it is interesting that most of the story revolves around a gentile and his suffering. Told from multiple perspectives, the reader follows the trajectory of the bombing, from the police’s botched investigation of the wrong terrorist through the horror of the bombing to the healing of the victims. Real Time’s plot is crowded with stock Jewish novel characters: the Holocaust survivor, the German boy attempting to alleviate Holocaust guilt, the idealistic Zionists who have escaped persecution in their “home” lands, and, especially, the two teenage suicide bombers (one to vilify and one to empathize with). Real Time is a gripping time bomb of a novel with an ending that is as predictable as it is satisfying.
This novel is satisfying, because it doesn’t challenge children’s literature discourse about Jews wherein the only option is to be a victim. I write this based on recent experiences researching children’s books available in the United States that feature Jewish characters. In the majority of the books, including Sydney Taylor winners, the Holocaust is almost the main character. If the text isn’t set around the Holocaust, then it includes Holocaust survivors. There are novels that almost deviate from this formula such as Confessions of a Closet Catholic (Sarah Littman, 2006), a story of an average Jewish girl who is grappling with her faith. I write “almost” because what ultimately sways her back towards Judaism is her guilt towards her Holocaust survivor grandmother. The protagonist realizes that turning away from Judaism is akin to trivializing her Grandmother’s suffering. It seems that Jews cannot be written about without the background of genocide. This is analogous to almost all texts featuring African Americans being about slavery. It isn’t that history isn’t important, it is. However, the issue is the need to contextualize Jews in a range of settings, which includes but goes beyond the Holocaust. The Holocaust is not the story of all Jews either. For the most part Jews living in Arab countries remained untouched by genocide. It is also important to note that the impetus for the creation of Israel was Zionism, not the Holocaust.
The true main character of this novel is Israel itself. To set the novel in and around a kibbutz close to Jerusalem, Kass writes a modern story that is mired in the past. For Israelis, Tel Aviv is the epitome of modern Israel and kibbutzim are relics of the Zionist fervor of the mid 20th century (only 5% of Israelis live on Kibbutzim today). While the action presumably takes place in 2004, there is little in the novel to give a modern feel to the story. Israel is portrayed, once again in children’s literature, as a land of aging survivors, fresh-faced Zionists, and young Arabs who cannot wait to martyr themselves for Islam. Clearly, Real Time does not reflect the diversity of people who live in Israel, but plays into the stereotypes many people hold about the “Holy Land.” This is problematic as Israel and Israelis, like all nations, are not a monolith and what it means to be an Israeli is as nuanced as what it means to be an American. Israelis can be Orthodox Jews or secular, liberals or conservatives, pro-Palestinian or rabid nationalists. Some Israeli youth spend their days studying the Torah while others spend their nights looking for the hottest nightclubs. To tell the reader that all people who come to Israel have a secret reason, a reason that is intimately related to religion or a continuing Diaspora, Kass paints a very narrow, black and white picture of a modern nation.
Pnina Moed Kass is a Belgian woman who has spent her adult life in America and Israel. This is her first Y.A. book. While not an Israeli citizen, during her 35 years living there, Ms. Kass has taught school as well as published books in Hebrew. Ms. Kass is, for all intents and purposes, an Israeli author who has written a book in English, published in the United States whose intended audience is American young adults. The book may also be specifically intended for Jewish youth as there is specific Jewish content (prayers in Hebrew, Jewish customs, and assumed historical knowledge about the Holocaust and the birth of Israel) that are inserted seamlessly into the story with no accompanying explanations.
The 2004 winner of the Sydney Taylor Award, an award given by Jewish librarians to celebrate Jewish literature, Real Time was lauded by the chair of the committee as, “A stunning portrait of modern Israeli life. It is both frightening and hopeful, drawing readers into the complexity of life in the Middle East without offering easy answers.” Booklist, on the other hand, took exception to Kass’s portrayal of Arabs in their review. “The brief, first-person Palestinian perspectives are flat and distant, with little sense of the Palestinian experience: the Arab doctor is perfect, and the teenage suicide bomber and his mentor are ignorant, poor, filled with hate, and trying to be martyrs.” In an interview about Real Time, Ms. Kass states, “This is not a novel that suggests or implies solutions or deals with ideology, politics, or right and wrong. My overwhelming desire was to tell the story behind the headlines and sound bites. Its theme is the universality of the dreams and ambitions of ordinary people, wherever they are from and whatever age” (http://www.answers.com/topic/pnina-moed-kass).
Real Time is a text that is rich with Jewish history and culture. The text could be used with older readers in a Social Studies class or Modern History course where the content would need to be scaffolded with primary source materials and with other books about Palestinian youth such as Tasting the Sky (Ibtisam Barakat, 2007) or Habibi (Naomi Shihab Nye, 1999) as a way to counteract Kass’ stereotypical portrayal of Palestinians. The Book Thief (Marcus Zuzak, 2007) would add a different perspective to Germans during World Two. I am still looking for a book about a “typical” Jewish young person to add to the textset.
Melissa Wilson, University of Texas at San Antonio, San Antonio, TX
WOW Review, Volume II, Issue 3 by World of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/ii-3/