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Boston Herald - Boston, Mass.
Jessica Ullian, Feb 2, 2003



Lately, the voices that come from Israel speak only of politics and violence, tumultuous elections and attacks on settlements. Risa Miller, a Brookline resident and first-time novelist, provides a welcome shift in focusin her book, "Welcome to Heavenly Heights."


Heavenly Heights is Miller's fictional Jewish settlement in the West Bank. Here the author places resident American families that have relocated to Israel. Each has done so to make aliyah - which translates as "going up" and refers to the Jewish duty to return to Israel. These settlers' day-to-day struggles with adjustment and a sense of obligation to their faith make up the stuff of the novel.


"Welcome to Heavenly Heights" is apolemical, and this gives it strength. Miller does not discuss the rights of Israelis or Palestinians, and she neither excuses nor defends the presence of settlements. The story focuses simply on Tova, an Orthodox Jewish woman from Baltimore whose husband, Michael, suggests they move to Jerusalem. Tova is unenthusiastic but agrees to it because she knows making aliyah is something she ought to do.


The other American families living in Heavenly Heights have their own stories, but they all share the sense of responsibility that is ever-present as they go about their lives. Tova struggles to learn conversational Hebrew, her neighbor Debra has financial troubles and the family downstairs can't control their rebellious son. There is none of the religious fervor or nationalism that appears in news stories about Jewish settlers. In Miller's eyes, the residents of Heavenly Heights are merely ordinary people, bound to their locale by faith.


Miller has not, however, created a community that is ignorant of the outside world. There is the constant threat of violence, evidenced by suspicious packages found on trash cans and the occasional sound of nearby bombings. Friends and relatives appear throughout the novel, often showily praising the settlers for bravery and just as frequently criticizing them for fanaticism. It is to Miller's credit that she does not use these moments of adversity to prove her characters' strengths; instead, her people roll with the criticism, consciously beginning to think of themselves as belonging because they do not find their lives so strange.


"Welcome to Heavenly Heights" is not the first novel to put a human face on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Miller's determination to show nothing more than a human face sets her work apart. Instead of rhetoric and dispute over the ownership of Jerusalem, there are neighborly conversations and trips to the supermarket. Although the warring and violence exist, they are not the center of life for Tova and her family. From the interior of Heavenly Heights, Miller effectively turns some perceptions of Israel inside out.

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