Book Review of “Chutzpah & High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land” by Jessica Fishman.
In this memoir, Jessica Fishman details the trials and tribulations of making what we call “Aliyah” – literally meaning to “go up” to Israel. This reminds me of an old, old joke, which goes something like this (which is my rough translation from the Hebrew):
One day an angel comes to visit an elderly Jew. The angel tells the man that because he led a life of purity and righteousness, God decided to reward him by showing him both Heaven and Hell while he was still alive. The angel takes the man down to Hell first. There he sees people wildly running about, naked, drinking, and having orgies. The man looks at this and says, “Yes, this is truly Hell.” The angel then takes him to Heaven. There he sees vast rooms filled with rows upon rows of desks where hundreds of thousands of men are fervently praying and seriously studying Holy Scriptures. The man looks at this and says, “Yes, this is truly Heaven.” After this, the angel puts the man back on earth and disappears. Several years later, the man dies and the first thing he sees is the angel that had visited him. The angel says, “rabbi, since you know what heaven and hell are like, you now have the privilege of choosing where you wish to spend eternity.” The man thinks a bit and then tells the angel, “Well, to tell the truth, heaven looks just like my life on earth, so maybe I should go to hell.” The angel immediately transports the man to a burning inferno of a place where people are suffering and screaming and in horrible pain. “Wait,” says the man, “this isn’t anything like what I saw the first time I was here.” To this the angel replies, “Yes, of course. You were a tourist that time; now you’re a new immigrant!”
Yes, making Aliyah is nothing like coming to Israel as a tourist, and every new immigrant learns this very quickly. That said, everyone has different experiences, and the types of difficulties that Jessica had to face in her first 10 years of living in Israel will be quite a revelation, but only for readers who don’t know Israel that well. Most importantly, the biggest revelation will be that Israel is the only country in the world purports to have freedom of religion, but in truth, discriminates terribly against many of its Jews – in particular, against anyone who doesn’t practice Orthodox Judaism. I’m sure that exposing what we in Israel already know to the world was one point of Jessica writing this book. The other was obviously to go through a cathartic healing process, which must have worked since she was able to return to live in Israel again.
Regarding the quality of this book, I have to begin by saying that Fishman writes beautifully, with large dollops of humor interspersed throughout the easy flowing narrative, which will endear her to her readers. Mind you, some of the things I thought were funny might not make much sense to people who don’t know Israel, but I’m equally sure there is plenty here that will succeed in evoking at least a smile or giggle in anyone. This is relatively rare, especially when it comes to non-fiction that is so very personal, and even more so when you’re talking about a book that will probably have a very specific audience. Niche book or not, I certainly appreciated the writing here, and kudos to Fishman for that.
However, I did find some problems with the book. Despite the engaging style Fishman employed here, I was hoping for this to feel more like a work of fiction than a memoir. This is my personal yardstick for non-fiction books, and while that might seem unfair at one level, I think it is a valid measure. This is because a good work of fiction lays the story out in such a way that entices the reader, making them compelled to read on and find out what happens next. If a work of non-fiction can do the same thing, the subject of the book doesn’t really matter. In my opinion, there were a few things kept this book from achieving this.
The first was an inconsistent timeline. For example, there were pieces of past information that Fishman put early on in the book that would have been more effective if she had placed them closer to the events where they were relevant. I also felt that after the introduction, Fishman went too far into her past in the US and stayed there longer than needed. I really wanted to get to the Aliyah experience itself much quicker than Fishman gave it to us.
Another problem was an overuse of translations within the text. I would have preferred the use of italics on Hebrew transliterated phrases with a complete glossary at the end of the book. This would have contributed to a better flow of the text. An alternative to that would have been reserving the page footnotes for the language explanations, and then consolidating the rest of the footnotes as endnotes in the appendix. I may be overreacting to this, but the prose felt so smooth otherwise, it seemed a shame to trip it up with all those little speed bumps.
Finally, there were a few loose ends that Fishman didn’t clear up, that left me wondering what was going on with the people involved. Mind you, I’ve been living in Israel for nearly 40 years, and I know that sometimes Israelis simply do very incomprehensible things for no good reason whatsoever. Still, I personally would have tried to make some sense out of their actions, even if it was only conjecture and projection on my own part.
Despite these problems, I must repeat that I did enjoy this book overall. I believe Fishman is a very talented writer, and after reading this, I’m hoping that she’ll venture into fiction in the future, since her writing style would lend nicely to a humorous book about an ex-pat living in Israel. For all this, I think I’ll recommend it, with just a few reservations, and give it three and a half stars out of five.
“Chutzpah & High Heels” by Jessica Fishman is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for a fair review.