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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Recently, our shul hosted a Singles Shabbaton and I sat next to a young woman who confided that this was the 10th Shabbaton she had attended this year and she had still not met anyone interesting. I couldn’t help thinking of Yael Unterman’s compelling and beautifully written debut collection of stories about “love and longing,” which discusses the predicaments of this dating culture with insight and poignancy.

Fortunately, for the reader, you don’t have to be single or female or even Jewish to be able to relate to the characters’ search for that which is often “hidden.” We can all understand how difficult it is to figure out how to be the person we really want to be. Many can recognize the frustrations involved in the search for a soul mate to complete us. Readers will understand a character’s desire for that closer sibling relationship or the need for a fulfilling friendship and will totally connect to the yearning for a deeper connection to spirituality and to the Land of Israel.

In this deftly written collection of stories ,Yael Unterman touches on all of these quests as she details the interlinked lives of several 20- to 30-year-olds searching for love, identity, and meaning in their lives. Most of the stories take place in Israel where we get to know a group of men and women as they gravitate from America, England, and South Africa to Jerusalem’s vibrant singles scene. Ms.Unterman writes both with humor and pathos about the challenge of being an immigrant in a new land which is in the throes of the second intifada, all the while living away from family and friends and attempting to learn a culture and seek personal and spiritual gratification. A tall order, indeed.

The stories themselves contain much that is familiar, but they delight in their surrealistic twists. The first in the collection sets the book’s ironic tone. We read about date number 88 for Shari, which she later recounts in full and painful detail to her outspoken best friend Emma, an immigrant from England. We later catch a fuller glimpse of a darkly funny Emma in her sarcastic blog about the singles scene entitled, Katamonsta. As we read on, we meet twins Binyamin Zev (formerly Matt) and brother Adam, who could not be more different yet still are deeply loyal to each other despite their very different life styles. The reader learns a life lesson from Karin who walks around Jerusalem collecting single, lost gloves; finally recognizing her own inability to “glove someone, ” to become part of a pair, due to her inability to share her deepest feelings. Immanual, a spiritual, religious figure, cannot learn to forgive Sarah for her past. Hannah gets pelted in the synagogue (or does she really?) for being a feminist and daring to worship with her very own Arba Minim.

What is most clever about these stories that speak about relationships is that they do not provide us with an obligatory happy ending. The one account that tries to take us to some kind of resolution in the character’s lives, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” is written in play form, with its actors speaking and acting artificially in what is supposed to be the “happily ever after” part of their drama.. In fact, in the last narrative in the collection, set in the year 2029, Unterman imagines a dystopian future where the Gedolim decree that singles must join a Mega Shidduch Mart website to search for their bashert. There are mandatory parties the young men and women must attend and there are ghettoes set aside exclusively for singles. Individuals can be blacklisted on the dating site by some negative reviewer or prior date, as happens to Hudi. Even in the future, it seems, some things just don’t change.

Yael Unterman was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Manchester England. She returned to Israel at the age of 18 and is well known there as a poet, author, actress, and teacher. Her first book was Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar, which was short listed for the National Jewish Book Award in 2009. The Hidden of Things is her first work of fiction. I certainly hope it won’t be her last.

The Hidden of things is available as an e-book and in paperback.

Estelle Glass, a Teaneck resident, is a retired educator who is now happily writing her own essays.

Reviewed by Estelle Glass