Reviews & Interviews
For the Love of God and Virgins, Pamela Peled
This book is a first novel by Pamela Peled, an Israeli author who grew up in South Africa during the apartheid years. Her early years have obviously contributed hugely to her social conscience and moral thinking and strongly influence the novel.
The story, which can loosely be classified as a “love story”, is told against the background of the second Intifada in Israel. The heroine, Jennifer, is a South African Israeli aged about 40 plus, an English teacher with a wry sense of humour about English grammar and the trials of teaching it to Israeli students. She is also a specialist in the works of William Shakespeare, his language, life and times, and quotes frequently, amusingly and very appropriately, from his plays and sonnets to illustrate points and feelings.
The description of Jennifer’s early life in Israel is poignant, conjuring up pictures of student life in Israel in the more straitened times of the seventies. She paints a vivid portrait of life in Jerusalem where she lives, describing the smells, tastes and the unique beauty of the city and its amazing architecture.
Jennifer meets and marries Eli (here mixing fact with fiction as Eli was a real person) and is widowed when her young husband is killed by Egyptian terrorists. Left with a baby daughter to bring up on her own and with no family in Israel, her affluent South African parents make Aliyah in order to help her. With the loss of both her parents from cancer, this further sorrow leaves Jennifer emotionally bereft. Only by immersing herself in her teaching career does she survive.
After her daughter grows up and moves away Jennifer lives alone with the TV and chocolate for company. Angry at world events and uninformed reporters, she is moved to address the situation by accosting the handsome reporter of a popular TV news station to provide him with “facts”, incensed by what she perceives as his inaccurate views on the Israeli situation.
The story of Jennifer’s romance with, and subsequent marriage to, the reporter (David) and their shared awareness of Israel’s bad press fill the majority of the novel. Her pointed comments on the social injustices of her South African upbringing compared to divisions in Israeli society are honest and intelligent. She highlights the cavalier attitude (including that of her own brother and cousin) that many Diaspora Jews have towards Israel and mocks the “fear” that tourists have in coming to Israel for holidays.
Jennifer and David decide to write a book exposing the media bias against Israel -‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good story’. This is met by an uproar from the Arab press internationally, and a Fatwa is issued against David. There is also strong opposition from David’s boss in London not to “rock the boat”.
Jennifer becomes the subject of one of her own nightmares when David is kidnapped in Gaza. (I will not tell you the outcome of the story - you need to read the book for yourselves.)
In the last section of the book (which is the part I found the most interesting) Jennifer rails against the widespread misinformation and warped international understanding of the whole Arab/Israeli problem, and in her efforts to galvanise support to free her husband she is persuaded to give a talk in London explaining the Israeli view on terror and its effects on Israeli life.
As Jennifer outlines her desire for peace and normality in a cogent and reasoned way, the description of how her talk in London is infiltrated by hostile Arabs who heckle her and try to shout her down is all too reminiscent of many such meetings around the world.
The book is a good read with a strong underlying message. The “facts” quoted are accurate and pretty damming of so-called “independent” reporting and the integrity of the press.
Although For the Love of God and Virgins is a work of fiction it relates a story with which we can all identify and sympathise. Perhaps it may influence people with undecided views about Israel and her intentions towards, and thoughts about, her Arab neighbours…
I believe this book makes for uncomfortable reading by many critics of Israel and especially, I hope, for “self- hating” Jews!
Rosalind Boxer, You & US Weekly, Women's View, Features, Posted November 29, 2011
Peled is particularly good at describing women’s vulnerabilities and strengths in a way that most of us can identify with it!
Pamela Peled, whom ESRA members will know as an active volunteer writer for the magazine and a member of the editorial board, has written a spirited novel with a number of themes. Its main focus is the second-time-around love story of two people whose similarities – particularly their shared experience of losing a spouse in a terror attack – manage to overcome their differences. But alongside the love element, Peled has interwoven strands that illuminate, inter alia, what it’s like to live in Israel, what South African apartheid was like (and why she is convinced Israel isn’t an apartheid state), how some clueless Americans, who have no idea what Israel is like, react comically to the Israeli reality, and above all, how, as she sees, it, Israel is misunderstood by the world – particularly by the world’s media. At the book’s heart is Peled’s passionate belief in Israel’s case.
These are themes that clearly have some personal resonance. Like her heroine, Jennifer Moran, Peled is a former South African who came to Israel as a 17-year-old, studied at the Hebrew University, became a teacher and adores Shakespeare. She also knows very well what it is like to lose someone dear to her: her former roommate, Eli Meron, was murdered by terrorists in Sinai and she has dedicated the book to him.
Peled has a fine eye for telling detail; beginning with her description of student life in Jerusalem in the ‘70s (can there really have been a time when student parking lots were all but empty?). Those of us who were around then will smile at the recollections – goats grazing between buildings, asimonim phone coins, sunflower seeds spit on the floor in old-style cinemas with wooden seats.
Anecdotes too are telling, particularly those that show how near to the surface is knee-jerk animosity towards Israel. At one point, Jennifer is playing computer bridge with an anonymous partner. He plays badly; she points out his mistaken bid. His reaction: “Typical Israeli!” (I would be willing to bet that anecdote was taken from life.) In another incident, English actress Susanna York puts on a one-man show in Israel and dedicates it to, of all people, Mordechai Vanunu. Jennifer goes backstage and gives her hell, to little effect. “A person has to do what a person has to do,” is York’s response.
The plot concerns Jennifer’s life over a period of several decades, with Israel’s various tribulations in the background, told with humor and emotional depth. After her husband Eli is killed, leaving her with a daughter, Jennifer withdraws from emotional involvement. Then the Intifada breaks out and a British journalist, David Saunders, reports on the action from the King David Hotel. His reference to the “cycle of violence” with its inference that the death and destruction spread by suicide bombers is balanced by the Israeli response so infuriates her that she is stirred out of her apathy to head for the hotel to confront him – and bursts into tears. This strikes a chord, since Saunders lost his wife in the Twin Towers disaster. There follow the ups and downs of a developing relationship culminating in marriage. Peled is particularly good at describing women’s vulnerabilities and strengths in a way that most of us can identify with.
The couple settles in Jerusalem with their combined families and begins writing a book which is intended to tell the world about biased media coverage of Israel. The first chapter is published and unleashes a flurry of antagonism, which results in – well, I won’t reveal the climax.
If the book has, perhaps, a difficulty, it is that Peled’s passionate defense of Israel’s position and her abhorrence of the world’s bias, while admirable, leads her to a black and white viewpoint. It might have been strengthened by an acknowledgement that Israel also is not perfect, and that sometimes critical reporting, when true, can have a beneficial effect.
“For the Love of God and Virgins” begins and ends with references to Shakespeare.
Why? In part, of course, because Peled knows well the works of that great author, whose genius spans centuries and civilizations, but also because Shakespeare himself, in many of his plays exemplifies how it is possible for the written word to pervert reality. As she points out, for example, Richard III was in fact a decent king. Shakespeare chose to make him out to be a monster because he wanted to flatter Elizabeth I, and so he has remained in the world’s perception. As David puts it, Shakespeare was “the king of spin.”
Carol Novis, Israel’s ESRA Magazine. Novis, a Canadian journalist living in Israel since 1976, teaches journalistic editing at Biet Berl College
You will Enjoy it!
The book’s cover, combined with the authors fascination with Shakespeare and the book’s first eight pages, belie its wonderful story. The author, Pamela Peled, was raised in South Africa and moved to Israel and the book is about a woman named “Jen” who did the same.
With the arrival of Jen’s new flat mate, Eli, in 1979 (p.9), the story “soars.” Having started it late at night, I couldn’t put it down; finally and reluctantly I closed the cover at the end of the third chapter but only because of the late hour.
Peled says of the lobby of the King David Hotel that “an aura of coping pervades the space.” This book is about various kinds and levels of coping and love in addition to the author and heroine’s deep love of Israel. It is about the love of those in the heroine’s close circle and coping with the intense “ups” and “downs” that are pervasive throughout the life of Israelis but are especially pervasive throughout Jerusalem: It has been so since Israel’s rebirth in 1948.
The book ends on a satisfying ‘high note’ providing a good read as well as leaving you with an intense feeling for and some understanding of life in Jerusalem, especially if you have never been there; if you have been to Jerusalem, I suspect it will leave you with a feeling of having visited home. Either way, you will enjoy it!
Solette N. Gelberg, King City ON, 11/27/10 - Gelberg has served as Vice-Chair of the Board of Governors of the University of Guelph, as Executive Director of the Canadian Educational Standards Institute, and on the Council of the Ontario College of Teachers, and has a strong interest in contemporary political culture
Veterans: Play it again, Pam
Pam Peled’s book examining the way Israel is treated by the world media is soon to be published.
Pam Peled, whose first novel For the Love of God and Virgins is just about to be published, is passionate about Israel. Born in South Africa, she came alone to this country at 17 and when she hears it described as “an apartheid state” she is furious and saddened.
“I grew up in apartheid and ran away from it, so I can speak with authority and refute these accusations,” says the petite mother of three daughters who lives in Kfar Saba.
In fact it’s the totally distorted version of Israel presented in the world’s media that is the theme of her book. In a way Peled feels that she has been writing her book for decades; the catalyst was the murder of her former flatmate, Eli Miron, who was one of nine Israelis killed in Sinai in 1988.
“I was living in Jerusalem working as an English teacher and he was the perfect flatmate.
He was an archeologist and tour guide and he was murdered leading a group of tourists to Egypt,” she says.
In the book the narrator is married to Eli; his death transforms the young, pregnant woman into a grieving widow. In reality Pam is happily married to Martin, but many elements in the book are based on her own life.
MAKING ALIYA She grew up in a strongly Zionist family, which in her parents’ world didn’t actually mean coming to live in Israel. As soon as she finished high school, she registered at the English department of the Hebrew University and moved to the student dormitories on Mount Scopus to begin her studies.
“The English department was world class,” she says.
It was here she developed an admiration for Shakespeare which was later to serve her well as inspiration for her doctoral thesis at Bar- Ilan University. Pam’s novel opens with the line: “William Shakespeare is buried in Jerusalem.” He is too, although there is obviously an unexpected twist.
LIFE SINCE ALIYA Even before completing her bachelor’s degree she began teaching English and has been doing that ever since. She married Martin from England in 1985, and their three daughters are now 23, 22 and 20.
Several years ago an American publisher brought out her first book, a nonfiction look at life through literature called How to Have a Husband and Live with your Lover (at the same time). Thrilled to become a published writer, she was horrified when the (Jewish) publisher told her she wanted to use her book to advertise other in-house publications on conspiracy theories (for example a book “proving” that Shimon Peres was behind Yitzhak Rabin’s murder) and she decided she could not be a part of this and let the book go.
This time her book is published by a small independent Canadian publisher, MLP (Miriam’s Legacy Publishing), an imprint of Mantua Publishers. As well as examining the way Israel is treated by the world media, the novel is an exciting and very personal account of living here and a gripping love story. The title alludes to the war cry often chanted by terrorists as they prepare to die and the hope that adoring virgins will reward them in heaven.
“There is so much of me in the book that it really didn’t take me long to write,” she says.
Like her, the protagonist is South African, loves Shakespeare, teaches English and is a feminist. She also plays a handy game of tennis and is less good at bridge. “Everything that I do informed my writing,” she explains. “In the ’90s I took groups of tourists to Stratford-on-Avon and lectured on the plays; some scenes from my book are set in this picturesque town. I teach Shakespeare and feminism at Beit Berl College and those subjects are in the book. At the IDC I teach in the communications and government departments – so I deal with those issues as well.”
OTHER WORK Recently she has found another outlet for her Shakespeare passion, lecturing about the Bard on cruise ships. In exchange for her knowledge, she and her husband get a luxury cruise, all expenses paid. “I see the cruise as an opportunity to explain about Israel,” she says.
“Many of the passengers are educated and retired, but lots have never met an Israeli. So I mention Shylock, for instance, and focus on how topical The Merchant of Venice still is. All these centuries later the Jew is still on the outside.
I examine what keeps the Jew or the black or the woman so firmly ‘the other.’ This is what makes literature so compelling.”
She also works on a voluntary basis for the English Speaking Residents’ Association magazine, a glossy bimonthly publication reaching thousands of Anglos, and she feels that her work as a reporter spills over into her novel.
BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL “I’m just so happy to live in a vibrant country where I feel I belong. I like not being ‘the other.’”
Gloria Deutsch, The Jewish Post, 10/22/2010 16:18
Order your copy of For the Love of God and Virgins today!