My review of David Ehrlich’s short story collections is longer than the shortest story in the book. This is a slim volume which despite its brevity, gives readers a realistic, touching and memorable view of different aspects of Israeli life.
Although the stories of Who Will Die Last barely fill 150 pages, one shouldn’t attempt to finish them in one sitting. Each story has to be digested by itself; each one lingers pleasantly after completion. Some of the stories, barely a page or two long, are just right at that length, while others introduce us to characters we wish to know further and situations that we wish would last longer.
The opening story is a fast drive up the length of Israel. “To the Limit” addresses a nasty driver who passes other cars on the right, prompting spiteful responses. While this sort of road rage could happen anywhere in the world, only in Israel can drivers speed and “hit the northern border [where] the country ended.” And like the drivers in this speedy tale, you end up at its conclusion realizing “it would never be this good again.”
One story that could have been vastly improved if it had run a bit longer was “It’s All Right.” We meet Oren, who has left Israel to live in Moab, Utah, of all places. In his desert home, Oren receives regular letters from his parents, filled with detailed portraits of the weather back home and the family garden. The story builds up to Mom and Dad’s visit to Utah, and when they arrive, it is barely for one entire paragraph, not a sentence more. At the airport departure terminal they “don’t say anything important, worn out by each other but not wanting to take leave of each other, stuck in a fixed trap.” The reader feels that he was left out of an important element of what just happened.
My favorite story in the book was “On Reserve,” which tells of the annual stint of ‘miluim’ so familiar to Israeli men. ”You sit with the guys on recon as if at a campfire, huddling together around the flickering lights of the communications equipment, telling stories. You see everybody covered in dust, just like you… and you start to love it a little.” The unnamed protagonist who tells the story always spends the night before his reserve duty in a Nahariya hotel, and his one-night-stand encounters there take both him, and us, by surprise. He heads to his army duty with “his own Intifada” raging inside, yet, he looks forward to the annual reserves and who he will next meet on the beach.
Twenty-one stories in total make up the pages of Who Will Die Last, and these stories were translated from Hebrew into English by a number of very talented translators. The author of the book, David Ehrlich, is well known in Israeli literary circles. Not only has Ehrlich published two collections of short stories in Hebrew, but he owns the bookstore café Tmol Shilshom in Jerusalem. The café has become a favorite venue for literary events, including readings by Israel’s eminent authors. A complimentary word must be given to Ken Frieden, who edited the entire collection and excelled in the noble task of introducing readers to Ehrlich’s vision, concise style and subtlety.
As Frieden concludes in his introduction to Who Will Die Last, “If you know Israel well, it will return to you in these stories with a kind of alienated majesty. If you have never visited Israel or the Middle East, let this be your introduction to an enigmatic country that is as magical as it is haunted by harsh realities.”
Just like those racing drivers in the opening story, you come away from reading Who Will Die Last with a very good feeling deep inside.