Isabel Rosen, the ebullient protagonist of Sivan Slapak’s debut collection of short stories, Here Is Still Here, shuttles between two worlds — Jerusalem and Montreal. Her journey, moreover, is linguistic in its Yiddish and Hebrew nuances and inflections that add an extra dimension to her prose and persona. This linguistic melange becomes inseparable from the emotional range of Isabel’s relationships to her friends and family.
Isabel has many lovers and languages. In a bar in Jerusalem with Ophir she notices that he’s reading Emily Dickinson, and he responds: “I like how she tells the truth.” To which she replies: “Slant.” With its Yiddish and Hebrew idioms, abbreviated gestures , and short-story actions, Slapak’s slant tells the truth about her characters. She precedes the Dickinson reference with a laconic description of Ophir: “He was thin and dark, with deep set, sleepy black eyes. Handsome, or at least a type I appreciated: brooding and a little underfed.” Overweight Isabel is attracted to him and wants to nourish him and the lisp of his Israeli accent: “swallowing my grin. I already knew what would happen next.” Isabel’s voracious appetite for life pervades each of the interconnected stories in this collection.
The slant of seduction: “it was an opportunity for him to run his cheek along the inside of my forearm, and for me to tilt in and meet him there.” Immediately after this episode Moti, another friend, shows up at the cafe: “he’d come in to lean on the high counter where I eat,” but he is unwelcome. Aside from these physical leanings, the stories feature historical and psychological slants. When sensitive Ophir writes a line of poetry (“We sip ghosts together in the old city”), he ecoes the epigraph to Here Is Still Here, Yosefa Raz’s “Arrange your ghosts — fluff them up.” Ghosts from the Holocaust appear in these short stories where the old city is Vilna as well as Jerusalem. In Isabel’s eyes and ears, “here” is still Montreal where her heart settles and arranges its ghosts after twenty years in Jerusalem.
Part 1 contains eight stories about Jerusalem, but her Montreal family always lurks in the background. Her intercity oscillation begins with “My last days in Jerusalem” and “I took the last bus from Tel Aviv” — the last comes first in Slapak’s reversed alphabet. The first story, “Exposing our Skins,” introduces Isabel’s relationship to Yosef, which consists of a handful of moments, one feature of the short story genre. Slapak’s stories are double exposures of dermal surfaces and desires, and hidden subcutaneous depths. When not lost in love, Isabel examines her relationships from a distance: “So as not to sink into the folly of creating a field of meaning where I learned there was no field, and no meaning.” She plays the field and pays the price, while Slapak’s style weighs the consequences.
Ghosts intervene between Isabel’s coquettish ways and Yosef’s charisma when the latter thinks about the Holocaust all the time. “I was reminded how quickly we reached for our overhanging shadows when we were together.” Isabel tries to escape Jerusalem, “this heartbreaking place,” but since her heart is also the place, she cannot fully escape, for she wears her heart on her sleeve in each city.
The next story, “Fartog and Farnakht,” suggests a daily routine, but also the role and rhythm of Yiddish in Israel. Isabel’s neither-here-nor-there existence is conveyed through a Yiddish-Hebrew oscillation. “Fartog: Dawn” opens with a long-distance telephone conversation between Isabel in Jerusalem and her younger sister Loren in Montreal. Isabel begins with “I slept with a superhero last week,” which fails to impress her suburban housewife sibling at the other end of the dangling line. Isabel refers to her “escapades” during a Purim party with costumes of Batman and Robin. From her Montreal past the Yiddish slant creates its own festive atmosphere. Her father raves in Yiddish: “You should see Loren! Like a movie star she looks!” His Yiddish is interspersed with English and vice versa, for even the title of this collection contains a Yiddish lilt and inflection of the here and now. Montreal’s and the Diaspora’s multilingualism is at play in Slapak’s comic moments. “He said movie star in English, either because he didn’t remember how to say it in Yiddish, or maybe to stress that he meant as in modern Hollywood movies,” as opposed to “a turn of the century heavy-heeled, zaftig actress from a grainy black-and-white Yiddish documentary.” Turning sentences and phrases, Slapak’s slapstick relishes the jingle of Yiddish with its zany syntax: “Not like me, is what I was thinking” and “I braced myself for the upcoming punch line.”
This language is inherited from her Bubbe. “Yiddish was there, just under the surface and as available as peeling the shell of a hard-boiled egg.” This “motley combination of languages” revolves around the kitchen sink: “Vot can I treat you? You vant I should gib you a bisl epes mit der kaveh? The little bit and bite vie with Isabel’s voracious appetite.
Missing her grandmother, Isabel frequents Klub Farnakht or the Evening Club in Jerusalem. If Yiddish slants language in one direction, then Hebrew tilts differently. “Most Israelis I was acquainted with did not think much of Yiddish. At best they saw it as a cute language made up of jokes.” Instead, “Hebrew, with its stoic force, took over.” With its inclusion of Arabic, Here Is Not Here exhibits a Semitic slant in its direct confrontation: “Chavera? B’seder lama lo?” A linguistic barrier intrudes between Isabel and Yosef: “Maybe it was our English that distanced; we communicated in what might be a fourth, fifth, or sixth language for him.” This multilingual Babel towers over Isabel’s love affair, Klub Farnakht’s motley crew, and “cross-cultural appreciation.”
Isabel’s here and now includes Hasidic tales from Jerusalem and Montreal, which add another dimension to these stories. To lose weight and improve cardiac performance, Isabel runs a marathon in Jerusalem — a race against time and for timing of Jewish phrases. In conversation with Moshe she qualifies everything with “but,” while he pronounces her name as “Is-a-BEL.” They are both expats getting accustomed to the city and to each other. “Moshe tossed out my grandmother’s Yiddish-inflected phrases with uncanny comic timing.” Slapak’s accent captures the tragicomedy of Isabel’s life and the bittersweet history of her community. She paces the Diaspora in Jerusalem. “And so, I ran a lot. I ran and I ran, ticking off kilometres and pounding out pain as I trained across the city, looking for an escape.” What makes Isabel run as she sheds pounds and tears? She enters an elaborate labyrinth of languages. “My routes were an elaborate web of ancient walls and religious quarters: synagogues, arches, churches, minarets; unfinished construction sites, newly set train tracks, quiet paths and greenery, roads full of rubble, thick traffic, layers of dirt, debris, and history, as is Jerusalem.” Her Jewish jogging is layered and all-encompassing.
Isabel leans into her running relationships and tilts her “fricatives and glossal stops” from her linguistics class. She concludes with a “Coda” of “Vilna-Montreal,” which sets down the words of her Bubbe Luba, who has the last word in so many languages — the Diaspora’s dance of the happy shades.
About the Author
Sivan Slapak lived in Jerusalem for twenty years before returning to Canada in 2013. Since then, her short fiction and essays have been published by The New Quarterly, Montreal Serai, and carte blanche and in collections published by Véhicule Press and Guernica Editions. She was selected as a finalist for the CBC Quebec Writing Competition, won the Peter Hinchcliffe Fiction Award once and was shortlisted twice. She lives in Montreal, where she works in the arts and culture sector. Here Is Still Here is her first book.
- Publisher : Linda Leith Publishing (March 16 2024)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 240 pages
- ISBN-10 : 177390146X
- ISBN-13 : 978-1773901466
Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.