"A writer of enormous talent...This is master writing by a wonderful talent." -- Moment Magazine, December 2002
"Open this book carefully. You will close it changed." -- Dara Horn, Author of In The Image and The World to Come.
"Who by Fire, Who by Blood is a thinking man's thriller - smart, relentless, impossible to put down." -- Jennifer Haigh, Bestselling author of Baker Towers and Mrs. Kimble.
Jon Papernick made his debut as a fiction writer with The Ascent of Eli Israel, a collection of short stories set in Israel that reconfigure his experience as a journalist. What one notices first of all is a feeling for everything that is unnerving, even disorienting, about daily life in contemporary Israel. As a line from the late poet Yehuda Amichai would have it, the three languages of the Holy City are Hebrew, Arabic, and death. In The Ascent Papernick gives all three an evenhanded consideration as he charts the stories of American Jews who have made aliya and who now find themselves intermingled with Israelis and Palestinians -- each group with a separate but equal sense of Israel's blood-soaked history. Who by Blood, Who by Fire will only increase an already widespread feeling that Papernick is one of the few Jewish-American writers able to write about Jewish extremism as it is fueled by religious fervor and Zionism's ultra-right wing. The novel's title comes from Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), founder of the Jewish Legion and, later, the militant Irgun, who wrote that "Judea fell in blood and fire, and in blood and fire Judea will rise again." Blood and history are what energize this disturbing novel, as its protagonist, Matthew Stone, an alienated young man, gradually comes to terms with a grandfather who was a hit man for Meyer Lansky and who, like Lansky, donated considerable sums of money to the militant Irgun; a father who dishonored himself as a judge but who also heavily funded the activities of Jewish terrorists; and finally Judaism itself. Papernick turns what might have been a dry-as-dust "novel of ideas" into a page-turner -- part thriller, part love story, part psychological profile. Granted, there are sections that ring hollow (Papernick writes about blacks with a heavy hand and a leaden ear) and there will surely be those who will take him to task for obsessing about the pendulous breasts of Matthew's girlfriend, but when it comes to describing yeshiva boys in the grips of chillingly right-wing Zionism: "It is our duty and obligation to history" -- the rabbi intones in his Rosh Hashana sermon -- "to fight those who seek our destruction. We have a blood tie to the land and cannot give up one grain of sand, one blade of grass, as we stand on the threshold of Redemption. The secular government seeks instant Redemption in the eyes of the worldâ¦but this sort of capitulation will ultimately bring tragedy and death not seen since the dark days of Auschwitz." When Matthew's father dies, he honors his memory by reciting Kaddish, poring over boxes of his books, and wearing his judicial robes: "He realized that his guilt fell away as he came closer to his father. He wore the Judge's robe, draped lightly over his skin, and as he read, he felt the unusual sensation of channeling the very spirit of his father"¦. He discovered, as he read, that his father had been tracking the pattern of victimization that brought tragedy and ruin to the Jews throughout their tortured history. And as he read, he realized that his father was prescribing solutions posthumously to the tragic events that had already occurred: a savior out of step and out of time."The result of Matthew's meditations draws him into a search for the missing numbers that will unlock a hidden bank account (gematria, Jewish number theory, and bingo eventually do the trick) and, later, into a plot to assassinate dozens of Palestinian leaders at a Brooklyn rally.Papernick proves himself a masterful storyteller as his complicated plot plays itself out in ways that balance religious faith with religious zealotry. No doubt a journalist would write an opinion piece sharply condemning those who rationalize the murder of political opponents along with innocent bystanders. But Papernick is a novelist; his job is to put believable characters into motion and to observe how things turn out. My hunch is that he is as appalled as are most of us by the prospect of Jewish terrorism, but as journalist who worked in Israel for some years, he knows that it has happened before, and that it is, alas, likely to happen again. -- Sandford Pinsker, New Jersey Jewish News, October 18, 2007