An Israeli Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock 1

‘Sherlock Homes’ is often used as a synonym for a detective. This fictional character, created by the Scottish author Arthur Conan Doyle, became so popular that it has come to represent the solving of crimes through brilliant deduction. The first thriller appeared in 1887, and nearly sixty books followed it. The popularity of Doyle’s books led to the creation of a model detective, a prototype, often appearing in thrillers both past and present. A loner, always working by himself, he trusts his loyal assistant doctor Watson and no one else. He is a wise man of extraordinary deductive skills. He tends to be melancholic, and is always a bachelor. Highly educated, a man of infinite patience, a heavy smoker, especially when he is about to solve a crime; at this point he also cannot eat. Tall, keen on personal cleanliness, he yet has piles of unorganized papers covering his room.

Batya Gur (1947-2005), an extremely successful Israeli detective stories writer, is often referred to as ‘the Israeli Agatha Christie’. A literature teacher who began writing thrillers, her books depict various segments of Israeli society. Each crime scene illuminates one piece of the complex Israeli puzzle: Ashkenazi-Sephardi relations, the changing nature of the kibbutz, the Arab-Israeli conflict etc. Her profound insights invite the readers to return to the books even after they know who the killer is.

The protagonist of all her thrillers is superintendent Michael Ohayon of the Israeli police. He bears a striking similarity to the original character of Sherlock: a man of profound wisdom and unique deductive skills, working with only two assistants and no one else. When questioning people he listens with infinite patience. Tall and attractive, he is divorced and a father of a boy. A heavy smoker, when he nearly solves a crime he can hardly eat. Always clean-shaven, even when working for days outside the police station, yet his disorganized office, full of piles of papers, is the subject of endless jokes. Ohayon is also highly educated. After completing a Masters degree in history at the Hebrew University he got a doctorate scholarship from Cambridge University. But since he divorced his wife at that time and didn’t wish to be separated from his son, he gave up this opportunity and joined the police.

No doubt Gur used the literary prototype of Sherlock Holmes and implanted it in an Israeli context. Yet within this transformation from a London detective to an Israeli one, she articulated her profound observations on Israeli society. We don’t know much about this Israeli detective, but his name immediately evokes a set of associations: Ohayon is a typical Sephardi surname. We learn that he immigrated with his family from North Africa at the age of three. He later studied history, majoring in medieval European studies. He divorced his wife, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. It was not a marriage of love to begin with, and had been born out of empathy with the suffering of her parents.

The first book, The Saturday Morning Murder, published in 1988, takes place in the offices of the Psychoanalytical Society in Jerusalem, the heart of the Ashkenazi elite. A body was found and superintendent Ohayon is called to investigate it. Thus, along with the suspense and the speculations, Gur discusses Ashkenazi-Sephardi relations at that time.

After years of Israel struggling with ethnic tensions, Gur depicts an impressive, successful Sephardi man. No longer uneducated and poor or unable to integrate into the Israeli elite, Ohayon is an example of the very opposite. He is smart, known for his deductive skills, educated – completely remote from early literary Sephardi protagonists who illustrated the poor condition of their community and the discrimination against them.

Ohayon, it should be pointed out, has no inferiority complex, and no negative feelings towards Ashkenazi Israelis. He finds the head of the Psychoanalytical Society, Prof. Hildesheimer (could one have picked a more Ashkenazi name?!) impressive and interesting; he is touched by the professor’s tears over the murder of his favorite student and colleague. Ohayon doesn’t feel inferior because he isn’t inferior in any way. And the psychoanalysts, in return, acknowledge his ability to comprehend their theoretical arguments.

But if Ohayon is to represent a different Sephardi, one wonders in what way is he the emblem of Sephardi culture? He has neither a big embracing family nor habits typical of immigrants from North Africa. He does not perceive himself as Sephardi, and doesn’t study Sephardi culture: his Masters degree is in European history.

Ashkenazi-Sephardi relations are still an emotional issue in Israel. Some Sephardi Jews are very different from Michael Ohayon. But Gur illustrates the path to diffusing the problem. Education—a western one, taught at universities—would decrease the social gaps. Only the adoption of western thought and knowledge would counterbalance any discrimination against immigrants form Africa.

Michael Ohayon is a protagonist created with love. Gur often said that had she been given an opportunity to live her life again as a different person, she would have chosen to be Michael Ohayon. The charms of this Israeli detective are overpowering.

A brilliant read for detective stories fans, and those wishing to have a deeper understanding of Israel.

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