Award-winning Israeli author takes on antisemitism in the U.S.
Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s fifth novel, The Wolf Hunt, is set in California and explores the contrast between being an Israeli Jew versus an American Jew, and ways to combat antisemitism
A few years ago, when Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen dropped her daughter off at preschool for the first time, she remembers closely scanning the faces of the other young children, wondering if any of them would bully her child.
“I was actually looking at all the 5-year-olds as if they were potential wolves,” Gundar-Goshen, whose fifth novel, The Wolf Hunt, will be released in English next month, admitted to Jewish Insider in a recent interview.
“Then I realized that all the other parents were actually doing the same – they were looking around at all the kids, wondering who might be the mean girl that will crush [their] daughter with nasty words, or which boy will turn out to be the class bully.”
Gundar-Goshen, 41, said that after she’d left the preschool, walking home through the streets of Tel Aviv, she stopped for a second and asked herself: “Wait a minute, how come all the parents have the same fear of another child being the wolf and harming their little cub? How come none of us considered for a moment the possibility that our child could potentially be the wolf?”
“It was a very shocking moment for me because I think, as a mother, you always see your child as this cub that you have to protect,” she explained. “You don’t think of your child as a potential wolf and someone that you have to protect others from.”
Gundar-Goshen, a professional clinical psychologist whose previous novels garnered critical acclaim worldwide, as well as a slew of literary prizes – including Israel’s prestigious Sapir and Wingate prizes – tackles that question and broader topics dealing with Jewish and Israeli identity in The Wolf Hunt.
Unlike her other novels, this one is set in the United States, in Silicon Valley to be exact, and explores the contrast between being an Israeli Jew versus an American Jew, what it’s like to be part of that immigrant community and the best way to stand up to racism and antisemitism. For many Israelis, Gundar-Goshen observed, the answer is clear: fighting back.
“After Waking Lions was published, I was invited to do a residency in San Francisco,” explained the author, referring to her 2014 New York Times-noted novel, which won her the Wingate Prize for Fiction.
“It wasn’t my first time visiting the U.S., but it was my first time living there and as a Jew and an Israeli, I found it fascinating,” Gundar-Goshen recalled. “There was this feeling that I was escaping the Israeli madness, leaving the Middle East and the balagan [craziness] behind. I had raised my kids in Israel until then and I looked at the kids in San Francisco and thought wow, they don’t even know what a missile siren sounds like, they are not in this constant state of alert like we are in Israel.”
“I feel very connected to Israel and I wanted to stay in Israel, but I was still wondering about the price of this choice,” she added.
As time went on, however, Gundar-Goshen observed the difficulties of being a Jew in the U.S. from her home in San Francisco. A rise in antisemitic attacks, including the deadly Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, made her realize that “you have the Israeli madness, on the one hand, and you have the antisemitism madness in America on the other hand.”
“I started thinking about a mother who is so obsessed with keeping her child safe, and I asked the question of whether we really have that option in a world that doesn’t offer us any sort of control,” she said.
In The Wolf Hunt, the book’s protagonist, Lilach, has a happy life in the heart of Silicon Valley with a successful, smart husband, Mikhael, and a wholesome, if a little reserved, son, Adam, who was raised in the U.S. After a brutal attack on a local synagogue, Lilach and Mikhael encourage Adam to sign up for self-defense classes taught by a former Israeli Special Forces officer. Just as Adam begins to gain more confidence, tragedy strikes again when an African American boy in his grade dies at a house party. As more details surface about the death, rumors begin to circulate that it might not have been an accident, and Adam and his new friends are increasingly viewed with suspicion, igniting racial tensions. Lilach, who was always very close to her son, also begins to question Adam’s behavior and everything she thought she knew about him.
“My training as a psychologist was very crucial for this novel, because it’s the story of a mother, who’s trying to understand how much she knows her own child,” described Gundar-Goshen, who is chief psychologist at Shalvata, a mental health hospital in central Israel.
“She asks how well she really knows her son and what he is capable of,” she continues, explaining Lilach’s actions: “How well do I know the other? How well do I know myself? Could it be that I am choosing to be blind to certain elements in my child in order to continue loving him unconditionally as a mother? Could it be that I am choosing to be blind to certain elements of my child? Could it be that I’ve chosen to be blind to certain elements in myself?”
Gundar-Goshen continues: “There are lies we tell ourselves about who we are, about the family we’ve raised, and about how much we’re willing to face the truth about ourselves, and our loved ones – [These] are the questions that I face every day in my work at the clinic, as well as in my writing desk.”
In a previous role at the hospital, Gundar-Goshen said she worked in a closed ward for teenagers suffering from various types of mental health disorders and, she told JI. Her time in the hospital proved relevant for writing The Wolf Hunt.
“The parents are always so shocked when they see their kids hospitalized, because they feel like they deal with their child every day, but they understand nothing,” she explained. “You’re living with someone in the same house, you meet him for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but then he closes the door and you know nothing about what’s going on behind that door or what’s going through his mind.”
“The parents are so often the last to know,” Gundar-Goshen adds. “Not because they’re not good parents, but I think something happens as kids grow up. They become like the biggest mystery in our life.”
Another central theme of the book is the rising antisemitism in the U.S, but unlike with other novels, Gundar-Goshen tackles it from the perspective of an Israeli immigrant family who has escaped the pressures of their homeland.
“It’s really fascinating because they [the Israeli immigrants in the U.S.] don’t really mix with the local Jewish community,” she noted, adding that religion was not something her family had thought about too deeply while living in Israel.
“When you are in America, it is a completely different feeling to being in Israel,” said Gundar-Goshen. “When I lived in Israel, I didn’t have to think about my Jewishness because it was in the oxygen I breathe; then, in the U.S., for the first time in my life, I had to think about maintaining my Jewish identity.”
Writing The Wolf Hunt, the author said she tried to think about this idea on a political and social level and ask the metaphorical question: “Where do I feel most at home?”
“If you never wondered or stopped to doubt and you stayed in the same place, the same village, for five generations, then maybe you are free of these questions,” Gundar-Goshen theorized. “But if you choose to live your life in a different country than the one you were born in, and if you choose to relocate, I think you’re bound to ask those questions; it’s like the path less traveled, what would have happened if I took the other road?”
“I think this question becomes stronger when you have kids because part of being a parent is searching for a safe place for your babies,” she said. “In that sense, when you are Jewish there is always this question of where is it safe, where is it quiet, what price am I willing to pay in order to keep my Jewish identity? Should I silence it, or should I wear it with pride?”
“I think it’s a universal question of parenthood, but I think for a Jewish parent this question is even more extreme,” Gundar-Goshen concluded.