Broken Promises: Israeli Lives

Igal Sarna

translated from the Hebrew by Haim Watzman
Atlantic Books 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010
In fourteen short biographical vignettes, Igal Sarna presents the stories of Israelis from a variety of backgrounds.

Several of the stories involve the unfolding of lives touched by the Holocaust. A son of Holocaust survivors eventually succumbs to his own inner demons. A student receives his doctorate sixty years late. A fifty year-old Polish orphan comes to Israel to find out if he is a Jewish baby given away in 1942. A survivor of the Ukrainian Holocaust, who was abandoned as a child and then fought as a child soldier, suffers from traumatic stress syndrome — along with the doctor treating him, who experienced his own horrors in a Syrian minefield in 1973.

Other stories revolve around military experiences. An orphan who has become a decorated paratrooper discovers that his mother is a Palestinian. An air-force pilot dies in captivity in Syria. And Sarna describes the fate of the tank company he served with for three years, caught unawares in the Sinai at the opening of the Yom Kippur War.

The other stories involve migrants and other marginalised communities. One Russian migrant runs into the desert when his prized car is damaged. Another drops out to become a manual labourer with an alcohol problem, but finds peace as a painter. A Bedouin boy kills his abusive father. A Brazilian migrant commits suicide. A ninety-year-old Kurdish migrant recreates in Jerusalem the life he had in Zaku. The child of a Bedouin mother and Jewish father fails to find a place for himself after a troubled childhood. And a victim of Syrian cruelty and thirty years of institutional abuse starts a slow recovery.

This is pitched at the level of newspaper journalism, but Sarna doesn't sensationalise his material. He goes behind the individuals and their headline fates to explore their backgrounds and lives and those of their friends and families. This takes us to all kinds of places, such as the camaraderie of military service, the role of honour in Bedouin society, and the quandaries of a German university trying to revoke a degree granted to a Jewish student in 1934.

The lives in Broken Promises are hardly typical — as the "Broken" suggests, they all centre on traumatic events — but they are unusual in such a range of different ways that they give something of a feel for the diversity of Israeli lives.

April 2010

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%T Broken Promises: Israeli Lives
%A Sarna, Igal
%M Hebrew
%F Watzman, Haim
%I Atlantic Books
%D 2002 [2000]
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 1843541068
%P 209pp