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The Washington Post Book World

Reviewed by Judy Doenges

Sunday, January 12, 2003; Page BW10


Risa Miller's first novel, Welcome to Heavenly Heights is a story of community. In Israel's West Bank, several orthodox Jewish families from America have settled to make aliyah, a return to the land. Among them are Tova and her husband, Mike, who leave their upper-middle-class life in Baltimore for an apartment in Heavenly Heights, hard by the Jordanian border. Tova and Mike and their three children immerse themselves in the lives of the complex's other residents and attempt to adjust to ever-circling army helicopters and bomb searches.


Miller depicts their marginal existence in remarkable prose: The blue Judean sky is like "an eye restraining itself from tears." Miller's fine writing contrasts the emigrants' religious rituals with the stark life outside their homes. There's devotion in almost every moment of the settlers' days; even starting life over in Israel is a sign of religious dedication.


To Miller's credit, the settlers are not homogeneous. Tova's closest friend, Debra, was raised in Appalachia on country music and stories of her absent Jewish father. Now Debra sings twangy versions of spiritual songs. Fiery Sandy has only one child, which makes her an anomaly in the building, and she has difficulty seeing her son for the troubled child he is. Mr. Stanetsky, a Holocaust survivor, is the building's mortgage godfather, a rich immigrant who subsidizes the settlers' payments.


The novel doesn't have a plot per se; instead it charts the settlers' emotional and spiritual adjustments to Israel and to their perceived roles as pioneers. However, what Miller's novel lacks in action is more than made up for by her memorable portraits of people out of sync with both the country they've left behind and with the political reality of their new home.


Judy Doenges is the author of "What She Left Me"; she teaches at Colorado State University.


Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company BOOKS; `Heights' puts human face on Israeli conflict

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