Sex in the Old City


It’s kind of exciting to think about your ancestors having sex. Nomi Eve’s first novel, The Family Orchard, traces six generations of her own family, who emigrated from Russia to Jerusalem in the early 1900s. The novel begins with a vivid adultery between the author’s great-great-great-grandmother Esther and a baker, evidence of Eve’s particular gift for feeling her way into her ancestors’ skins. She describes how her great-grandfather Yochanon tormented students of the local yeshiva by inviting them to his house for lunch, where they were frustrated by the inaccessible charms of his daughters. The students “left lunch possessed, returning to the House of Study with wide eyes and clammy skin and bulges below their bellies with which many of them were unfamiliar.”

Sex transforms study. For Eve, the intimate scenes may be a way of “putting her own creative interpretation on the old rules,” something her ancestor Esther does in her personal life. The rules Eve interprets are narrative rather than religious: She inserts an actual genealogical history, written by her father, in boldface columns around the edges of her story. The tension between these two modes of storytelling suggests a parallel with the Torah and its accompanying commentary; her father’s genealogy is the primary text, and Eve’s novel speculates about and around it.

The backbone of facts that Eve’s father provides solves one of the classic problems facing historical novelists, allowing her to skip clunky details of politics and ancestry and focus on creating character. When she uses her father’s history as a crutch, however, her own observations feel unearned and the characters’ motivations remain obscure: “For whatever reason, Avra knew that she needed him, and something in Shimon’s gaze told her that he needed her too.”

Eve characterizes the book as “a series of subtly shifting life-sized pictures so that if you view them all, you are viewing one completed action, like a flip-book.” That structure allows detail and imagery to resonate among the generations: Eve’s father falls in love with her mother in the family’s Boston bakery, where the bakers’ hands, covered with flour, recall the hands of Esther’s Palestinian lover more than a century earlier. At the same time, the short, imagistic chapters break the characters’ motion into a series of poses; sometimes you can’t help wishing for the more absorbing magic of full-scale animation.

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