Yaakov Shabtai, , trans. from the Hebrew by Dalya Bilu. . Overlook, $24.95 (239pp) ISBN 978-1-58567-340-7

At their best, the stories in this collection by Shabtai (1934–1981) are masterful, ironically drawn character studies evoking the Israeli frontier spirit under the British mandate while capturing the shift from old world religiosity to new world secularism. Originally published in Hebrew in 1972, the collection is bookended by two linked stories chronicling the deaths of the narrator's grandparents and with them the loss of Jewish traditions. In "Adoshem," the narrator skips bar mitzvah classes despite his fear of his grandfather, an ancient, dour man wont "to break into the prayers which poured through his thin lips as indifferently as falling grain." With "Departure," Shabtai lovingly catalogues a grandmother's meager possessions: "She lived with her belongings in great economy and intimacy, reserving to each its proper place and time and use, like objects in the performance of a rite." Several other linked stories feature the narrator's uncles, energetic men in the grip of ideals and passions (Zionism, communism, socialism, entrepreneurialism). Uncle Shmuel moves his family to a farming collective and sinks his assets into "semi-automatic henhouses." Uncle Fink juggles four women and embezzles money to build a circus. In the title story, Uncle Peretz devotes himself to the Party and a tortured love affair. Though there are several weaker stories, this oblique chronicle of Israel's inception warrants its place in the Hebrew literary canon. (Sept.)