Jacob Abolafia in LA Review of Books:
At the very center of his mid-career masterpiece The Counterlife, Philip Roth depicts an argument between the novel’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, and its protagonist, his brother Henry, who has ended up living on a hillside in the West Bank, the follower of a Kahane-like radical named Lippman. Henry, furious at his brother over the portrayal of his family in a revealing Portnoy-like novel, exits the novel with the assertion that “What matters isn’t Momma and Poppa and the kitchen table, it isn’t any of that crap you write about—it’s who runs Judea!” What Roth recognized, and pursued even further in the opera buffa of Operation Shylock, is that parallel to the existence of desire, repression, lust, and fulfillment (painted and repainted in different textures and under different lighting in each his novels) runs a second track of American Jewish experience. Certain solutions to the problems his characters faced, certain urges they might have been asked (and failed) to master, would have led them not to a bedroom in New Jersey, but to a hilltop in Samaria. Roth’s great breakthrough was to suggest that the Americans in the “moonscape” of an Israeli settlement were not an alien species (as Israelis in American fiction from Bellow to Joshua Cohen can tend to be) – they were the actualization of a potential that every member of their generation shared. By studying the American Jew in Israel, Roth is really studying the nature of the American Jew in America. This is an important point, and one missed by Roth’s lesser epigones. The move to Israel is not an existential escape – it is an existential response to the fundamental forces at work in American Jewish life.
It comes as a small revelation, then, that the characters (interviewees, strictly speaking) in Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s indispensable new book City on a Hilltop do in fact often sound as if they have stepped right out of a Roth novel. Hirschhorn’s study of American Jews and the Israeli settlement movement follows dozens of Henry Zuckermans as they leave the suburban homes of their dentist and salesman fathers for a land that God, and sometimes a Jewish Agency brochure, has shown them. Hirschhorn rightly insists that the subject of her research is not merely an Israeli subculture, but the inner nature and development of an entire cohort of American Jews. This makes City on a Hilltop required reading not only for those interested in how American Jews could end up there and why they would do those things, but for anyone seeking to understand the existential and political character of twentieth-century Jewish life.