The Best Place on Earth: Stories

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9780812988932: The Best Place on Earth: Stories
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Reminiscent of the early work of Jhumpa Lahiri, Ayelet Tsabari’s award-winning debut collection of stories is global in scope yet intimate in feel, beautifully written, and emotionally powerful. From Israel to India to Canada, Tsabari’s indelible characters grapple with love, violence, faith, the slipperiness of identity, and the challenges of balancing old traditions with modern times.

These eleven spellbinding stories often focus on Israel’s Mizrahi Jews, featuring mothers and children, soldiers and bohemians, lovers and best friends, all searching for their place in the world. In “Tikkun,” a man crosses paths with his free-spirited ex-girlfriend—now a married Orthodox Jew—and minutes later barely escapes tragedy. In “Brit Milah,” a mother travels from Israel to visit her daughter in Canada and is stunned by her grandson’s upbringing. A young medic in the Israeli army bends the rules to potentially dangerous consequence in “Casualties.” After her mom passes away, a teenage girl comes to live with her aunt outside Tel Aviv and has her first experience with unrequited love in “Say It Again, Say Something Else.” And in the moving title story, two estranged sisters—one whose marriage is ending, the other whose relationship is just beginning—try to recapture the close bond they had as kids.

Absorbing, tender, and sharply observed, The Best Place on Earth infuses moments of sorrow with small moments of grace: a boy composes poetry in a bomb shelter, an old photo helps a girl make sense of her mother’s rootless past. Tsabari’s voice is gentle yet wise, illuminating the burdens of history, the strength of the heart, and our universal desire to belong.

Praise for The Best Place on Earth

“It’s impossible not to be awestruck by the depth and power rendered in Tsabari’s stories.”Elle

“Tsabari creates complex, conflicted, prickly people you'll want to get to know better.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“There’s remarkable scope in Ayelet Tsabari’s The Best Place on Earth, which interweaves stories of discrimination, loss, displacement, sex, death, religion, and a host of other issues. And yet, despite the range of viewpoints and the different facets of Israeli society explored, this is a collection that always stays intensely personal, the broader forces of history moving not merely across nations but within the souls of her beautifully conceived characters.”—Phil Klay, National Book Award–winning author of Redeployment

“With incredible compassion and a delicate touch, Ayelet Tsabari explores the heartbreak inherent in forming bonds, whether with another person or with a whole country. The Best Place on Earth, a complicated love song to Israel, is a sure-footed and stunningly skillful debut.”—Shelly Oria, author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0

“Powerful . . . brilliant . . . These stories . . . depict minorities so skillfully, with such a light and accurate touch.”The Daily Beast

“Highly recommended . . . Compelling and compassionate; [Tsabari’s stories] speak out from the heart of Israeli society and experiences. . . . The stories of The Best Place on Earth leave you wishing they wouldn’t end.”The Times of Israel

“This short story collection is a fiction debut for Tsabari, but it demonstrates that she is already a talented storyteller. . . . Her writing has an immediacy and power that invites readers into her characters’ psyches.”—Publishers Weekly

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About the Author:

Ayelet Tsabari was born in Israel to a large family of Yemeni descent. After serving in the Israeli army, she traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe, and now lives in Toronto, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto. The Best Place on Earth won the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. In addition to writing, she has worked as a photographer and journalist.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I’m just about to cross the street to Café Rimon when I see Natalie sitting on the shaded patio and my heart skips, trips and falls over itself. I stop walking, pull my squished cigarette pack out from the back pocket of my jeans, tap it and dig out a half--smoked cigarette. Then I lean against the stone wall behind me and light it.

Downtown Jerusalem is busy at midday. Cars creep along the congested street, music pouring out from their open windows. The narrow sidewalks—made narrower by the goods overflowing from the storefronts—are swarming with people, lugging bags from the Mahane Yehuda Market. Orthodox high-school girls in long skirts saunter by me, giggling when they pass three young soldiers with kippahs on their heads, M-16s slung over their shoulders. Across the street, a group of pink-faced tourists—probably Christian pilgrims who have disregarded the warnings against traveling to Israel in these dangerous times—take photos of themselves next to an unremarkable alley. Natalie is hidden and revealed in intervals, glimpsed in the gaps between the vehicles and faces, through bus windows, a choppy sequence of still images, like a stop-motion video.

It’s been seven years since I last saw her. After we broke up—and by broke up, I mean she ripped my heart out of my chest and stomped on it with both feet—she sort of disappeared. She lost touch with all of the friends we had back then. No one knew where she lived or what she was up to. No one ever ran into her. She was just gone.

I flick my cigarette butt on the asphalt, my eyes trying to register what they see, my brain slow to compute. At first I try to convince myself that it doesn’t mean what I think it means. Of course she would look different. She’s thirty-five now, no longer the twentysomething Natalie from my memories, with the thick black curls she used to braid with shells and beads, the flimsy wrap skirts she had brought from India, the tie-dyed halter tops that exposed her delicate, jutting shoulder blades. There must be a perfectly good reason—other than the obvious—why she’d be covering her hair, wearing a skirt down to her ankles and a long--sleeved shirt on a summer day. Orthodox women don’t usually wear glittery and bohemian-looking scarves like that as a head scarf, don’t let strands of hair fall out on the sides. They definitely don’t look that smoking hot in clothes designed to make them invisible to men like me.

A part of me wants to walk away, pretend I haven’t seen her, keep my memory of her undisturbed. But then a businessman jaywalks into traffic while speaking loudly into his phone, setting off a series of honks and yells, and Natalie looks up at the commotion, and her gaze wanders over and fixes on me. I’ve been staring for so long that I’ve almost forgotten she can see me too. Her face broadens in surprise, then brightens. She extends her arm for a wave. I cross the street, wishing I had shaved this morning.

“Lior.” She stands up, her eyes glinting like two spoons. We don’t hug, the space between us thick with past embraces, with a history of touching.

“Wow, Natalie, you’re . . .”

“Dossit,” she completes my sentence, smiling as if she’s swallowed sunshine.

“This is huge,” I say, and she laughs. I quickly give her the once-over: her skirt is embroidered with flowers at the hem, her shirt is a vintage tunic with a floral print. Of course, she’s a hippie-dossit: one of those cool New Age -Orthodox Jews—often former Tel Avivians—who found God but didn’t lose their chic. “Wow.” I stroke the stubble on my chin. “I had no idea.”

“Seven years now. Baruch Hashem.” She gazes up. God bless.

“Seven years,” I repeat. Right after we broke up.

“If you’re shocked now you should have seen me then.” She laughs again. “I was much stricter in the beginning. I had myself covered from head to toe.”

“No kidding,” I say. My mind is struggling to reconstruct the past seven years, replace the set of imaginary lives I’d created for her in my head. An ashram in the desert, a commune in the Galilee, a temple in India. Never this.

“Your hair,” she says with a quick jerk of her chin.

“Yeah.” I rub my shaved head, the smooth patch in the middle I’m grateful she can’t see. “All gone.”

“You look good like that.”

“And you’re married.” I gesture at the head scarf.

“Yes.” Her smile seems to fade a little. “Remember Gadi?”

I frown.

“Sure you do. He was in my Judaism class in university.”

Natalie used to complain about being forced to take Judaism classes as a part of the curriculum at Bar-Ilan University. Gadi—an American who had moved from New York to find his inner Jew—came over to our house a couple of times to help her study.

“We’ve been married for six years now.”

“Wow.” It’s like she’s dug her fingernail into a scab, unearthing an old wound. Fucking Gadi. I knew he was trying to get into her pants. Natalie said I was crazy.

“It was after we broke up,” she quickly adds.

I nod and smile because I don’t know what else to do. “And kids? You probably have a troop by now.” By the way her face crumbles, tightens around the lips, I know I’ve asked the wrong question. “Sorry,” I say.

Her tan cheeks turn burgundy. “It’s okay.”

We both look away. I use the opportunity to scan the patio, which I would have done earlier had I not been distracted. A couple holding hands over a half-eaten Greek salad, a young mother rocking a stroller with one hand while flipping through a magazine with the other, an old man bent over a notebook, two female soldiers sharing a cigarette. One of them glances at me, sizing me up. We are all trained to identify potential threats.

“So what are you doing in Jerusalem?” Natalie asks.

“House-sitting in Ein Kerem.”

“Alone?”

“Yeah.” I slide my hands into my pockets and hike up my jeans. “My girlfriend stayed in Tel Aviv. Listen, can I join you?”

“Actually, I was just leaving.”

“It’s a public place,” I say. “It’s not like we’re in a closed room or anything.”

She glances around the patio, checks her phone and finally says, “Why not? A cup of coffee. It’s been so long.”

I slide into the chair opposite her and she heads to the washroom. I follow her with my gaze, the outline of her hips against her skirt. Shelly, the young waitress-slash-film student whom I met here earlier this week shakes her head at me with a smile.

Natalie and I were twenty-two when we met. We had both just moved to Tel Aviv, me from the suburbs, her from a kibbutz in the Galilee. We worked at the same bar on Sheinkin—back when Sheinkin was the place to be—saving money for the big trip after the army. We fell in love like you do in your twenties, drowning into each other, blending until the boundaries of our selves blurred.
It was the nineties: the Gulf War was over, Rabin was elected prime minister and everyone thought peace was possible, and that soon we’d be partying in Beirut, eating hummus in Damascus and driving along the Mediterranean coast to Turkey. Tel Aviv was just gaining a reputation for being a party capital—ir lelo hafsaka—the city that never stops, and magazines in London and New York began covering its nightlife, including it on lists for the best clubs, the best beaches. Natalie and I rented an apartment on Shalom Aleichem, not too far from the beach, with old painted tile floors and a rounded white balcony, which we decorated with furniture we found by dumpsters. We smoked sandy grass from Egypt in bongs that we had bought at a twenty-four-hour kiosk, had sex in the washrooms of bars, and sat at a beach restaurant at four in the morning drinking hot water with mint leaves and eating hummus between swims in the dark, velvety waters of the Mediterranean. On weekends we hitched rides to trance parties in forests and did ecstasy, and on holidays we went to Sinai, slept in a straw hut by the sea and played backgammon with the Bedouins. We felt like we were a part of a generation, and that life had been made just for us and we’d never be sick and never grow old and nothing bad would ever happen to us. Now, more than a decade later, Rabin is dead after being assassinated at a peace rally; suicide bombers explode in buses and cafés; our friends have all moved to the suburbs, bought apartments and had kids; Natalie is a married Orthodox and I’m unemployed and dating a twenty-four-year-old.

We order coffee. Cappuccino for her, Turkish for me. I try not to stare but it’s hard. Her face is the same, heart-shaped and smiling—her default expression—and her skin flawless, tiny wrinkles just starting by her eyes. Maybe it’s my staring but she seems restless; she fiddles with everything on the table, her eyes darting around the patio. She checks her messages. “Gadi is in New York till tomorrow,” she says. “His mom is not doing so well.”

“Sorry,” I say. “Why didn’t you go? I’d kill to get out of here right now.”

“Work,” she says. “Couldn’t get out of school. How about you? Still in computers?”

“Actually, the company just folded.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Whatever.” I flick my lighter on and off. “Maybe I’ll move to New Zealand or something.”

She laughs. “And do what?”

“I don’t know, herd sheep?”

She waves her hand. “You love it here.”

“Not as much as I used to.”

She studies the table. I squint up at the stone balconies hunched over the street, their wooden shutters crooked and blackened with car exhaust. I realize that things have changed, that there are certain topics we better not talk about, things we’d probably never agree on. Our fathers’ right to this land, for one, which rules out both politics and religion, since in this country the two are joined in a suffocating embrace. But then again, we almost never talked about these things when we were together. We were pseudo-hippies; we wanted everyone to get along so we wouldn’t feel guilty for the terrible things that were happening in the world while we made love not war.

Sometimes it’s better not to know; it can make you crazy. On the way here I saw people huddling around the TV screen at a convenience store, the air around them rigid with alarm. Mouths open, heads shaking, tongues clucking. A pigua in Haifa, they said. Nine dead. I didn’t bother to stop. The only advantage to knowing that there was a suicide bombing earlier today is that it makes me feel safer now. It’s a warped logic, based in fear. You take what you can.

Natalie grabs a packet of brown sugar, rips the edge of it and dumps its contents into her cappuccino. She then spoons the sugary foam into her mouth just as it starts to melt. No stirring. I sip my coffee and hold back a smile. Some things never change.

“So why are you really in Jerusalem?” she asks, pulling the polished spoon out from between her dark lips.

I lean back in my seat. “How much time do you have?”

It has been a rough few months. Since the second intifada started, the entire country has been going through a midlife crisis: the economy crashed, the high-tech bubble burst, the hotels on the seawall emptied, their windows dark. When I was a teenager, the city was full of tourists; my friends and I used to hit on them on beaches, offering to help when we saw them carrying backpacks on street corners, fingers to maps.

While I avoided reading the newspapers or watching the news, carefully constructing a bubble in which I could function without losing my mind, my girlfriend, Efrat, pored over every page, was glued to the screen, the cold blue light washing over her face. She stopped using public transit, rarely went out, stayed away from the crowded, open Carmel Market, shopping instead at a smaller, pricier mini-market, where the produce wasn’t as fresh but where no suicide bomber would waste his ammunition. It was as though she was in a perpetual state of waiting—for the next news flash, the next bomb to explode, the next series of phone calls to friends and family to make sure no one had been hurt. On top of it all, the anxiety medication she had been prescribed reduced her sex drive to nil. When she refused to go out with me in the evenings, I went by myself, finding reasons to stay out later, pushing her out of my bubble—my safe zone—the gap between us widening.

Then, on my way back from my parents’ place I ran over a kitten. I was driving south on the right lane of Ayalon Highway, under bridges and overpasses, when I saw the little bugger—its eyes like tiny headlights—coming out of nowhere into my lane, as if on a suicide mission. I came to a screeching stop, turned my distress lights on and stepped outside. The kitten was splayed on the asphalt, not much bigger than my palm, mouth open in mid-scream, the blood still red and warm underneath it, its insides purple and pink and brown. He probably belonged to no one, another stray that would eat from garbage cans and one day impregnate another cat and make a litter of redundant kitties no one would ever give a shit about. But seeing it there, its blood soaking into the asphalt, something broke in me.

I drove home sobbing; the city’s skyline loomed ahead, giant ads with skinny models draped on the sides of buildings. The radio played sad songs because there had been two attacks that day. I was sniffling and howling, snot and tears running down my chin. When I walked through the door, eyes red, face wet and wrinkled, Efrat jumped off the couch, a hand over her mouth. “Oh my God. What happened?”

“I ran over a kitten,” I said, and saying it aloud made me burst into another series of ugly, unmanly sobs.

“A kitten?” She stared at me, confused, then she tried touching me, saying, “I’m so sorry, baby,” but I shook her off, shuffled into my office, played video games till two in the morning and smoked all of our grass.

I spent the following week in my sweatpants. I smoked too much pot, watched TV, slept into the afternoon. Outside our apartment, life went on, the city carried on its incessant buzzing, while I was frozen inside. Something was wrong. I realized that every step in our relationship had been initiated by Efrat, as if she was holding the road map and I was just tagging along. She asked to be monogamous; she suggested we move in together. I started to wonder: Now what? Was I supposed to be an adult? To know what I wanted? To marry Efrat? Have children? And some nights—I don’t tell Natalie this part—I thought of her. Over the years, in her absence, she had become mythical. Every woman I’d ever dated was required to fill her enormous shoes, and failed.

A friend was going away to India and needed someone to watch his house in Ein Kerem, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem—more like a village, really—where artists lived in old Arabic stone houses covered with vines. It was the end of summer, and Tel Aviv was steeped in its own juices, smelling of ripe garbage and swathed in dust and sand. Even the nights were sticky, offering no reprieve. I had been dreaming about getting away, wishing I could afford a flight somewhere. Anywhere. Jerusalem, with its dry air and cooler nights, was the closest thing to Europe.

Natalie is listening to everything without saying a word, nodding in the right ...

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