In the stories of Israeli author Savyon Liebrecht, personal relationships can't help but become political. In "A Room on the Roof," an unnamed Jewish woman hires three Arab workers to build an addition onto her house while her husband is out of the country. So paralyzed is she by her fear of Arabs, she is unable to recognize the essential decency of these particular men; on the rare occasions when she is able to see past her own blind bigotry, the realization that her workmen are human beings with their own set of hopes, fears, and prejudices is so terrifying that she becomes even more strident in her intolerance.
Though a few of the stories in Apples from the Desert are directly concerned with interactions between Jews and Arabs, the collection is, in fact, more about how Israelis deal with each other. The Holocaust is the unmentioned elephant in the drawing room, for Liebrecht, herself the daughter of concentration camp survivors, is particularly interested in the impact that tragedy has had on the children of survivors. In "Hayuta's Engagement Party," everyone fears that Grandpa, a Holocaust survivor, will ruin this festive occasion (as he has many others) with his grim recitals of death-camp atrocities. The protagonist of "'What Am I Speaking, Chinese?' She Said to Him" returns to her childhood home in Poland in order to stage a sexual encounter in the same room where her parents--again Holocaust survivors--once argued about sex.
If the Holocaust is one theme running through most of these stories, the position of women in modern Israeli society is another. Many of the women--especially older ones--in Liebrecht's stories are in oppressive marriages with men who neglect, ridicule, and sometimes physically abuse them. In "Compassion," a Jewish woman who was hidden from the Nazis in a Catholic convent as a child marries an Arab man who eventually imprisons her and takes a younger wife. Victoria, the mother of a rebellious daughter in the collection's title story, only recognizes the depths of her own marital misery when she sees the loving relationship her child has formed outside the legal bonds of matrimony.
There is nothing subtle about Liebrecht's stories, and readers accustomed to the finely tuned ironies of an Ann Beattie or Alice Munro may find these stories a trifle emphatic. However, anyone interested in the literature coming out of Israel today will find Savyon Liebrecht's window on the land and the people illuminating, if sometimes uncomfortable reading.