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Relationships can be a source of strength and a solace. Matt learned that when he gave up his druggy friends in New York for the older Daniel in Northampton, Massachusetts. But tragedy tests couples, regardless of how established they are. The death of Daniel’s twin brother and his wife in a café bombing in Jerusalem was devastating. But after gaining custody of their two young children, Matt and Daniel have no choice but to carry on. Judith Frank’s All I Love And Know is a quick-witted and moving novel that acutely explores the ways in which families mourn, the toll death takes on relationships and the resilience that allows people to survive–all against the backdrop of a uniquely tempered portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The story begins on the plane to Tel Aviv with Matt reflecting on events of the past days. While the narrative is shared throughout the novel with Daniel and his niece Gal, it is through the non-Jewish Matt that the reader experiences the first few weeks in Israel. Doubly an outsider, Matt is looking in on an extended family grappling with horrific loss and a Jewish nation reacting to yet another act of terror. Emotions swirling, he is heartbroken by the deaths of those he loved, yet firm in his belief that the Israeli occupation spurs the cycle of killing. He understands that grief can bring out the worst in people, yet is indignant at the family’s refusal to acknowledge the sacrifices he’s making for them.
Daniel gives a eulogy in which he says that his brother Joel and sister-in-law Ilana would not have wanted their deaths to be used as justification for retaliatory violence. In situations as complex as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is easier and far more comfortable to live without ambiguity: either Israel is a beacon of democracy and morality threatened by Palestinian terrorism, or the Palestinians are the innocent victims of oppressive Israeli imperialism. It is much more troubling to accept that wrong exists on both sides and, in doing so, Frank has gifted a brave and important piece of literature.
The novel takes a clever approach to the wider conflict by having different characters serve as the embodiment of different perceptions. Matt holds quite severe opinions of Israel as an occupying force, going so far as to liken Hebrew to Afrikaans, the language associated with apartheid in South Africa. In contrast, Yaakov and Malka, the Auschwitz-surviving parents of Ilana, revere the country for renewing the Jewish strength that had been lost for thousands of years. Frank introduces us to victims of terror who see peace and mutual support as the only way forward, as well as people who bombard Daniel with hate mail for publicly saying he can understand the man who killed his brother. By seeing the extremes to which the Palestinian people have been pushed, Daniel epitomizes the internal struggle of liberal Jews who understand why Israel is so important and yet are pained by the humanitarian crisis in the Occupied Territories. By presenting a spectrum of views and not passing judgment herself, Frank allows the reader to understand that neither side has a monopoly on justice, and that there are faults and good in both.
Such an understanding similarly permeates the other main focus of the novel: Matt and Daniel’s relationship. While the Middle East situation could easily have overshadowed it, Frank’s portrayal of their love is so authentic that it easily carries the narrative. Neither man expected to end up with the other, but after four years, their lives have become one. It was never questioned that Matt would go with the family to Israel or that he would take up the burden of raising Gal and her brother Noam with Daniel. Not a legal member of the family, Matt is most spectacularly thrown into a new world of foreign custody battles, diaper changes and sleepless nights. Daniel’s grief not only blinds him to Matt’s efforts, it also leaves him hollow of feeling. Matt is left to pick up the slack, all the while knowing that Daniel’s volatile mood swings could lash him at any moment as the result of the slightest perceived mistake.
There is an inherent self-consciousness in relationships, which is exacerbated when the couple is different – whether gay, bi-racial, or raising traumatized foreign children. This often leads people to censor both their actions and their speech, always keeping in mind what others will think. Crucially, Frank makes sure that the reader knows every single thought that passes through her main characters, regardless of how unsettling. On the plane to Tel Aviv, Matt wonders if he and Daniel will ever have sex again like they used to, and then finds himself riddled by the guilt of such a selfish thought in light of recent events. It’s the same inner dialogue that occurs when Daniel and Matt tell people that they’re raising the children of suicide attack victims. Both note the almost cinematic quality of what they’re saying, anticipating extreme reactions and expecting sympathy and praise – and they feel guilty for these feelings they can’t control.
All I Love And Know addresses such a wide range of issues – including gay parenting, monogamy, mourning, the Middle East, and even Israel’s conflicting approach to Holocaust survivors and victims of terror – under which a lesser writer surely would have buckled. Yet, by combining her personal experiences living in both Israel and the United States with intensive research, Frank presents a narrative that captures the endlessly complex and overlapping nature of life’s many aspects, while providing a clear and digestible understanding of each dimension in itself.
Frank expertly conveys the emotions felt by her characters, the suspense and the pain as well as the joy. It can make for an exhausting read, and a hard one at times, because it forces us to recognize the ugliness and prejudices inherent in us all. But her light prose ensures that the text is not bogged down, with dashes of humor carrying the reader through. In the end, it’s a story of our shared humanity, and the struggles we all endure before learning what’s truly important. It’s also a must read for anyone who thinks they know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or who wants to learn. In the end, Frank tells us that despite living in a world of so much hurt, love and beauty can always be found, and it can always triumph.
All I Love And Know
By Judith Frank
Hardcover, 9780062302879, 422 pp.