June 25, 2009
Over the past 10 years, the Toby Press, a small trade house founded by Matthew Miller, has become one of the leading American publishers of Israeli fiction. While some of Israel’s major writers have long been published by big American houses — David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua — Toby Press is making it possible for English speakers to get a richer sense of the whole spectrum of Hebrew writing today. Toby’s list includes classics of Israeli literature, like Bialik and Agnon, as well as new writers like Amir Gutfreund. At a time when American publishers translate fewer and fewer books, this commitment to internationalism has made Toby Press an important and hopeful presence.
Valley of Strength, by Shulamit Lapid, is the latest Israeli title, in a clear and elegant translation by Philip Simpson. While few American readers have heard of it, the book has become a kind of Israeli classic since it appeared in 1982, and no wonder: It is a quite deliberate exercise in national mythmaking. Lapid, a prolific and acclaimed writer born in Tel Aviv in 1934, sets out to dramatize the early years of Zionist settlement in unapologetically heroic and sentimental terms. Indeed, Fania Mandelstam, the heroine of Valley of Strength, is a kind of Israeli Scarlett O’Hara. Like her American cousin, she is a dauntless, beautiful young woman who suffers through all her nation’s trials but manages to survive them thanks to her courage and spirit. (At one point, Fania even vows that she’ll never go hungry again.)
Such a woman clearly carries her own “valley of strength” inside her; but the title of the novel is not just a metaphor. Gai Oni, the Hebrew name translated by the title phrase, is an actual place — a tiny, struggling settlement in the Galilee where Fania turns up at the beginning of the novel. Yet she is no Zionist pioneer, by conviction or training. She is, in fact, a rather spoiled bourgeois girl brought up in a well-to-do, Russophile family in Elizavetgrad. But in 1881, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, a pogrom breaks out in the town, shattering the dream of assimilation in which she has lived. Fania’s parents are murdered; her brother, Lulik; is driven mad, and she herself is raped. By the time the novel opens, she has made her way to Jaffa with her brother, uncle, and baby daughter, searching for refuge and a new life.
She finds one, though not quite the one she expected, thanks to Yehiel Silas, the strong and silent farmer who spots her in Jaffa and quickly convinces her to join him at Gai Oni. Technically, the couple are married — Silas is a young widower with two children, and he needs a woman around the house — but Fania is still too traumatized to become intimate with any man. She even conceals the truth about her baby, telling Yehiel that she is a widow rather than a rape victim.
Hymn to the pioneers
It does not take much readerly foresight to guess that, in time, Fania will be healed by Yehiel’s patient and manly attentions, and that her mistrust will blossom into passionate love. Much of the plot of Valley of Strength takes the form of roadblocks to that consummation, which Lapid postpones so that it will be all the sweeter when it comes. Yehiel is baffled by his young bride’s resistance to his sexual advances. He becomes jealous when she makes friends with another man, the poet Naphtali Herz Imber; then Fania becomes jealous when Rivka, the sister of Yehiel’s first wife, starts insinuating herself into their household.
Yet Fania virtuously resists the other men who throw themselves at her, seduced by her bronze curls and gypsy eyes — not to mention her ability to play Chopin and read Tolstoy, rare graces in the Galilee. Finally, all the misunderstandings are cleared up and Fania and Yehiel are united.
The love story in Valley of Strength, then, is conventional. What is surprising is that many of Fania’s other trials, too, sound familiar, even though there have been few novels about the ordeals of Jewish farmers in the Ottoman empire. That is because, the reader discovers, the life of a pioneer woman is much the same whether she is in the Galilee or Nebraska. Like the heroine of many a Western, Fania must learn to cook and clean, to work in the fields and tend the animals, to nurse the children when they are sick, even to deal with hostile nomads. When she finally transforms herself into a self-sufficient yishuv woman, she marks the change by swapping her fancy old clothes for a Bedouin’s native costume.
What makes Valley of Strength an interesting and even educational book is the way Lapid translates this coming-of-age story to a Zionist context. She sets Fania in a meticulously researched historical setting, making her the reader’s guide through the social and physical landscape of 1880s Palestine. A number of real people make appearances in the book — Imber, for instance, was the Hebrew poet who wrote the lyrics to “Hatikva.” More importantly, Lapid shows the reader the bitter ideological and economic rivalries that made the first yishuv such a minefield.
Indeed, from the perspective of modern Israeli politics (the book was first published in 1982), it is noteworthy how Lapid emphasizes the tensions among Jews and downplays the tensions between Jews and Arabs. Yehiel is a native of Palestine, a Sephardi Jew who is at ease with his Arab neighbors. The Jewish and Arab farmers make common cause against their real enemies, the marauding Bedouins and the rapacious Turkish government. The only people Yehiel really hates are the Jews of Safed, who live on donations from pious Jews in Europe and who see the Zionist settlers as a threat to their entitlements.
It is not until a boatload of Romanian-Jewish settlers arrives and renames the village Rosh Pina that the destinies of Gai Oni’s Jews and Arabs begin to diverge. When Yehiel urges one of the Romanians to hire Arab workers to help build his house, the newcomer arrogantly refuses.
Yet Valley of Strength is not finally a novel about the ambiguities of the Zionist project. It is a hymn to the strength and self-sacrifice of pioneers like Yehiel, who redeemed the land with their blood, and it is a paean to early feminists like Fania, who held their own in a world run by men. Any reader who is alive to the drama and grandeur of Zionism will be moved, at times against his or her will, by Lapid’s lush pageant of a novel.
Adam Kirsch is the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters series. Reprinted from Nextbook.org, a new read on Jewish culture.