(November 27, 2018 / JNS) Kidnapping the son of a Mossad agent is the catalyst of Jonnie Schnytzer’s debut suspense novel, The Way Back, and represents the needle he uses to thread a wide array of colorful characters and narratives, intimately disrobing contemporary Israel from her cloaked past.
“Amazing what a toss of a coin will do for a man.”
These words—from the Egyptian warlord Said Buraq Eskandrani to the story’s reluctant yet committed protagonist, David Hartbacher—send the latter on a search-and-rescue mission whose global expanse is matched only by its entangled and unpredictable plot. In many ways, David’s story corresponds with that of the State of Israel. Underlying both are haunting pains of old that fuel the soul, awakening from the ashes of agony the “eternal phoenix” that lies at the core of Jewish consciousness, committing to pushing forward, ceaselessly and relentlessly—no matter the amount of cynicism, self-flagellation or dry humor that plow this never-ending path.
At the end of the day, as the story goes, you truly “gotta be a little meshuga to make it here.”
Israel is portrayed in a manner stripped of romance, albeit full of tough, true love. In much the same fashion, Schnytzer’s novel unabashedly produces anti-Bond heroes one might dare call quintessential Jewish heroes. James Bond embodies the epitome of modern Western heroism—a courageous, debonair spy who likes his martinis shaken, not stirred. David Hartbacher couldn’t be positioned further away from this kind of heroism. While the name David is possibly homage to the king of old, his Yiddish surname, Hartbacher, is perhaps purposely not nearly as pleasant on the tongue as Bond. And yet, the word literally means “tough guy.” Thus, the Jewish hero is courageously stripped of what we have all come to accept and even yearn for as modern-day heroes. Could Hartbacher be an attempted antidote for our Bond-ophilia?
At one point in the story, David—an Israeli ex-con and once the retriever of lost Judaica extraordinaire—examines an antique hanukiyah. The old Judaic piece of silverwork is a precious possession in David’s family since the mid-17th century until it was lost in the Holocaust, only to be retrieved by our hero. David charmingly describes the piece as the “ugliest, most beautiful thing on earth.” These words seem to shine beyond the piece itself, emitting a graceful aura of realism around our hero as well.
This idea serves to further illuminate the State of Israel. One such spark reveals itself during an election campaign that occurs in the story’s background. Underdog politician Dina Solomon, a striking Israeli Knesset member of Ethiopian descent (and David’s ex) runs an election campaign with a motto that begs for a brutal truth—gone are the days when the Land of Israel enjoyed the powerful beauty endowed by burning desires, which knew no boundary, of an exiled Jewish people. Present-day Israel is tainted, imperfect and nowhere near as seductive as she once was, but that is only because, as Dina points out, today she is real. Today, she is ours.
Jonnie Schnytzer’s novel weaves together time and space to present a story based on the human soul in search of itself. Jerusalem, Cairo, Venice, Benghazi—all serve as the backdrop of David’s journey, where finding the kidnapped little boy, Joseph, may, in fact, offer David the redemption he seeks. The Way Back is about the relentless search for redemption, that of a kidnapped soul. It is about our desperate search for heroes and the eternal struggle to shatter the shackles of a burdensome past, while grappling with modern-day illusions.
Dr. Zohar Raviv is international vice president of education for Taglit-Birthright Israel.