Two weighty, hot button political issues—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and equal rights for same-sex couples—intersect with the personal story of a family’s harrowing tragedy in Judith Frank’s second novel All I Love And Know. Like her 2004 debut, Crybaby Butch, this book also centers on grief, here manifesting in the mourning experienced by various family members of a young married couple, Joel and Ilana, who are killed in a café bombing while living in Jerusalem. And its author is no stranger to the subject: “Grief has been a big part of my life, mostly stemming from my father’s death,” Frank says.
In fact, Frank’s autobiography not only inspired All I Love and Know, but also directly influenced the novel’s plot. In the opening chapter, Joel’s twin brother Daniel and his partner Matt travel to Israel from their home in Northampton, Massachusetts upon hearing the news of the bombing. After a tense but peaceable legal dispute with Ilana’s Holocaust-survivor parents, they return to the states as the guardians of Daniel’s young orphaned niece and nephew, Gal and Noam. The verdict initiates the couple’s unexpected foray into parenthood, one that ultimately tests each man’s resilience as well as the stability of their relationship.
The sources of the novel’s structure are not hard to find in the novelist’s own life: Frank lives with her same-sex partner and adopted children in New England, and her twin sister lives in Israel with her husband and daughters. “The book is based on my life, and then taken to extremes,” she reveals.
Having lived in Israel from her adolescence through college, the author contends with the same questions that Matt and Daniel face regarding the violent, embittered peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. “On the one hand, there are Israelis I love, and things that I love about Israel,” she says. “But at the same time, it seems to me to be a huge historical tragedy that the Jewish people came into their own only by oppressing another people.”
In addition to this moral difficulty, Frank also continues to grapple with the tensions between Israelis and American Jews in both her fiction and in her own life. “The question that Israelis often have is, ‘How dare you criticize when you’re not here?’ ” Frank explains. “When my sister called me on 9/11, she said the extremely unhelpful, ‘Now you can see how we feel all the time.’ It’s hard for me to forgive her for that one.”
Similarly, amidst Daniel’s anguish over Joel’s death, the character nonetheless recalls the disputes he too once had with his twin over Israeli-Palestinian politics, arguing from the irreconcilable perspectives of one facing the conflict directly in everyday life, and another viewing the scenario at a distance. “My education in Israeli politics began when I left Israel,” Frank recalls. “In Israel, the truth is that most of the time we were very shielded from any kind of political violence or contact with Palestinian life. So when I started to write this novel, I wanted to suggest that there are things that you can see when you’re far away from a situation that you can’t see when you’re close up.”
Despite their differences, however, Frank insists that she and her sister continue to maintain a close, supportive relationship today, as evidenced by her twin’s reaction to the new novel. “My sister has read and loved this book from the beginning,” she says. “We are gentle with each other, but the hypothetical question I was asking with this novel was, ‘What if we weren’t?’
“This novel is based on a fantasy of my twin sister dying,” she bluntly adds, “and she has been extremely good-natured about that.”
This decades-long geopolitical conflict is not the only societal concern the already suffering characters must confront. The validity and endurance of Matt and Daniel’s relationship, as well as their ability to successfully parent, are constantly called into question because of their gender. The two political issues are brought head-to-head in one of the most significant quarrels between the couple, which concerns the past death of Matt’s friend Jay due to AIDS. “Gay rights often seems like an extremely trivial thing compared to, say, Israel’s struggle for survival,” Frank suggests. “In Daniel’s mind, Jay’s death doesn’t count as dignified, because he didn’t die in a world-historical conflict; he died as a result of a sex act. So one of the questions I wanted to ask with this novel was, ‘Whose death is important? How do we decide which political struggles are important and dignified?’ ”
But these “world-historical” concerns hardly constitute the entire force of Frank’s powerful prose: Some of the most affecting passages concern the individual characters’ intimate and idiosyncratic responses to the adversities they face—from surviving the Holocaust in the case of Ilana’s parents, to 6-year-old Gal’s sudden, often violent eruptions of fear and anger following her parents’ disappearance and her displacement from Israel to America. “I love political stories that are refracted through domestic life; I knew I wanted to do that,” Frank says.
Anticipating a certain degree of negative reaction to All I Love and Know from the American Jewish community in particular, Frank offers a defense: “One of the things that novels do is expand your capacity for empathy—for getting into the frame of mind of people who are unlike you. I’m hoping that this novel works that way. I really wanted to make my Israeli characters fully human; I’m hoping that they are human enough and compelling enough so that the book feels challenging and not like lock-down.”
Lauren Christensen is an Assistant Editor at Vanity Fair.