Scapegoat by Eli Amir: A Book Review

Have you ever been in a culture different than the one of your birth? Did the people of that culture try to get you to be more like them? What if they took care of you, fed you, clothed you, sheltered you, gave you work, but you still missed home?

In the book Scapegoat by Eli Amir, Nuri, a teenage boy from Iraq who has lived with his family in a ma’abara (a transit camp for Jewish refugees to Israel in the 1950’s, 80% originally from Middle-Eastern countries) chooses to join a program on a kibbutz, along with other immigrant teens. His job on the kibbutz is shoveling manure under the supervision of a kibbutznik who has a PhD in manure (yes, there is humor in this book that is partly autobiographical). Not only does he get on the job training in farming, he also gets lessons in Zionism and socialism. The teens are renamed when they enter the kibbutz — Jamil becomes Yoram; Fawzi is changed to Ilana. Nuri unwillingly becomes a leader within his group of teens, and too often he has to bounce between the strong opinions of the kibbutz leaders and the counter opinions of the obstinate teens.

One of the most compelling scenes in the novel is regarding music: classical music favored by the kibbutzniks and Jewish music loved by teens from Baghdad. One of the kibbutzniks declares: “Do something about your bloody little Arabs. Their caterwauling is unbearable.” One of the kibbutzniks tries to teach Nuri some classical music:

Yishai stuck the mouth-organ in his mouth, sucked and blew into it, and his two hands silently touching each other emitted a rhythmic humming sound. He played something unfamiliar to me and when he finished he said: ‘That’s a bit of Mozart’s “Little Night Music”.’
“Who’s he?”
‘”A composer. A genius.”
“What’s a composer?” I asked shyly.

There are a few mentions of the Holocaust. Olga, one of the adults in the Ahuza transit camp, has a tattoo of numbers on her arm. Nuri has never seen such a thing. He can’t imagine why someone would tattoo numbers. Later in the book, Dolek, the doctor of manure, relates tales of European anti-semitism. He tells Nuri a heartbreaking story of witnessing a rabbi attacked on a train, and how Dolek felt powerless to help him.

The last chapter in the book explains why it has the Hebrew name, Tarnegol Kaparot, as there is a chicken involved that is supposed to be waved overhead before Yom Kippur. The main character brings his mother a chicken from the kibbutz; oddly, he doesn’t realize that she will reject it because it is not kosher. I suspect the English name of the book, Scapegoat, is to provide a title that is more understandable to readers and still relates somewhat to Yom Kippur. Although one could perhaps argue the main character was a scapegoat.

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