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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Valley of Strength
By Shulamit Lapid
Translated by Philip Simpson
350 pages; $24.95
Between 1882 and 1903 some 25,000 Jews arrived in Ottoman-ruled Palestine, many of them fleeing persecution and pogroms in Eastern Europe. They comprised the early Jewish settlement movement, and their collective immigration came to be known as the First Aliya. In Valley of Strength, the first English rendition of Shulamit Lapid's 1982 novel Gai Oni, translated by Philip Simpson, the author examines this critical period in the nation's history, focusing on the experiences of one struggling young woman and her family on the early Yishuv.
This was a first novel for Lapid, who has since published numerous works, including novels, poetry, plays, short stories and children's books, and who is perhaps best known for her thrillers. When it was originally published, the novel earned Lapid (whose husband was the late politician Yosef [Tommy] Lapid) critical acclaim, and reviewers lauded its success as a convincing work of historical fiction, and an unapologetic feminist work.
Valley of Strength opens in 1882, and is focused on 16-year-old Fania Mandelstam, who has just arrived in Palestine from Ukraine, accompanied by her uncle Shura, her insane brother Lulik and her illegitimate infant daughter Tamara. They have come to fulfill Fania's father's lifelong dream, a dream cut short by the pogroms that ravaged their hometown of Elizavetgrad, leaving Fania doubly orphaned and pregnant by a rapist.
Before she can begin to make sense of her new surroundings, Fania receives a marriage proposal. The offer comes from Yehiel, a handsome widower and young father of two, who is a pioneer settler in the Arab village of Gai Oni (now Rosh Pina). Fania has no desire to marry, but the offer, she knows, is too good to refuse. She sees it as a pragmatic proposition: In exchange for caring for Yehiel's two young children, she'll get a roof over her head and some form of sustenance. It will be a marriage of convenience, unconsummated.
But what awaits her in Gai Oni is not quite what she had imagined. Poverty and hunger pervade the village; water is scarce and the land is utterly barren. Yet Fania is not deterred. Instead, she rolls up her sleeves, determined to contribute to the village - working the land, caring for the children, even coming up with various business schemes to bring in some money. Fania's business dealings take her into a realm usually reserved for men, and for this she draws the ire of many of the more traditionalist settlers of Gai Oni. But Fania refuses to submit to cultural and societal norms, and insists on taking control over her life and having a hand in shaping the destiny of the settlement.
Like Fania, Yehiel, too, is fiercely independent minded. He is proud, almost to a fault, at one point choosing to forgo his wages rather than compromise his dignity. Ultimately, it is these qualities that draw Yehiel and Fania to one another, and it's the unfolding love story between these two enigmatic characters that really drives the novel forward.
Soon after she moves in with Yehiel, Fania discovers, to her surprise, that she is falling in love with the man she has married. But the trauma of being raped continues to haunt her, and as she is afraid to disclose the true circumstances of her daughter's birth to Yehiel, it takes months before their marriage is consummated. Yehiel, for his part, is drawn to Fania because of the very traits - openness and free-spiritedness - that so threaten the stability of their relationship. The tragic love story ends abruptly when Yehiel succumbs to a bout of fever, dying before Fania is able to fully realize her love for him. By now, it seems as if all hope is lost.
And then along comes Sasha, a friend of the couple's, a widower who lost his wife and two young daughters in a pogrom. "I decided I would never raise another family," he tells Fania. But six years have passed, and he finally feels "ready to pick up the pieces, glue them together and start from the beginning." It's a marriage proposal, to which Fania replies: "That's what we Jews do, we start from the beginning. Again and again and again."
More than 25 years after its initial publication, the book continues to resonate as a compelling historical novel. By choosing a woman as the novel's central character, Lapid offers one of the few available female accounts (fictional or not) of the period, giving voice to the unheard women of the First Aliya. And yet, the novel sometimes comes off as an overly romanticized portrayal of the early settlement movement. For example, it glosses over the fact that about one half of the original settlers eventually chose to leave Palestine and seek a better life elsewhere - in America, other parts of the West or even back in Eastern Europe.
One senses a strong ideological bent behind this novel, whose central characters are portrayed as heroes of the Zionist endeavor - smart, sexy and strong-willed. Indeed, in an interview following the release of Havat Ha'olamim, Lapid's sequel to Valley of Strength, the author referred to a sense of duty driving her to defend the nation's history through her work, especially in light of post-Zionist criticism of Israel's past.
"This country is a miracle that happened to the Jewish nation," she said, pointing out that the early Jewish settlers came to Palestine despite being told that conditions were harsh and food was scarce. "To see these people as feudalists who oppressed others is simply not right."
To be fair, Lapid doesn't paint an entirely rosy picture of the early settlement movement, and her novel does provide a stinging critique of the rampant sexism that was pervasive at the time. But in the end, the novel's overarching message seems to be one of glorification of the past. Historical fiction may not be beholden to the rules of historical accuracy, but in its efforts to exalt the past, Lapid's novel ultimately fails to convey much of the complexity and nuance inherent to the story of our nation's early beginnings.
Shoshana Olidort is a freelance writer from New York, spending the year in Jerusalem.