The year 1994 was tumultuous and optimistic in Israel. The peace process reached its peak – as did suicide bombings intent on thwarting it. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union flooded the country. In many kibbutzim, another revolution was taking place: privatization.
It is with this backdrop that Jessamyn Hope opens her debut novel, Safekeeping.
This story of a medieval brooch and five eclectic characters who come together on a fictional kibbutz is an enjoyable flashback to that fateful year.
Adam, a 26-year-old drug addict from New York City, travels to Sadot Hadar to give a valuable heirloom to his late grandfather’s lost love. The intricate jewel is fabled to have been in his family for 700 years. His grandfather Zayde, the man who raised him, had lived on the kibbutz for three years in the 1940s, after surviving the Holocaust. The novel flashes back to that period intermittently.
Zayde had given his kibbutz lover the brooch back then, but she refused it.
Zayde held onto it all of his life, never even giving it to his wife, Adam’s grandmother.
Yet, the only evidence Adam has of the ill-fated affair is a letter written in German, Yiddish and Hebrew in 1947, addressed only to “Dagmar.” Rattled by the circumstances of his grandfather’s death, Adam believes that finding the brooch’s destined owner and returning it to her will make things right. The mission thus takes on great magnitude. It’s not just about the jewel and finding Dagmar; it’s Adam’s last-ditch attempt to stay clean and repent for his misdeeds. “He couldn’t f--- this up. This was his last chance.”
After signing up as a volunteer, Adam meets a vivid array of prototypical characters on Sadot Hadar. There’s Ulya, the “fake Jew” from Belorussia, who is both cold-hearted and fiery as “lava.” After her shifts at the kibbutz’s cheese factory, she dons tight clothes and thick eye-liner.
Ulya pursues an affair with Farid, an Arab field worker, to bide time while she plots her way to Manhattan. Her lifelong dream of living amid New York’s glamour and skyscrapers is based on a meticulously preserved magazine spread about the city that she has kept for 10 years. In fact, she immigrated to Israel primarily because she thought it would get her closer to New York.
Ulya shares a room with Claudette, a reclusive and purportedly mentally ill Quebecois orphan. She has OCD and cowers at human interaction. Needless to say, her time on the tight-knit kibbutz is a profound, life-changing experience.
Ofir is the native kibbutznik who fantasizes about performing his piano compositions in the world’s top concert halls.
His dreams are interrupted by military service in the West Bank.
Finally, we meet Ziva, the embittered, firebrand kibbutz pioneer, who is known to be exceptionally rude – even by Israeli standards. Ziva refuses to stop working despite her failing health, intent on dying in the fields.
At first, the characters are one-dimensional.
They represent Israel’s standard social subgroups. Until about halfway through, the plot feels stagnant and predictable.
Too much is revealed too soon.
But thanks to Hope’s readable and descriptive prose as well as her ability to develop the characters to an endearing depth (even if a bit late), we get swept up in the saga of the brooch and the troubled souls gravitating around it. Details such as Claudette’s account of an acquaintance’s suicide with a Steinberg bag are precise and add color. At one of the book’s turning points, Hope touches perfectly on the discordant freedoms and shackles of the kibbutz: the extreme lack of privacy, combined with the kibbutzniks’ overwhelming sense of freedom. Despite ongoing violence and terrorism, the characters walk the fields around Sadot Hadar at night fearlessly – as if the world belongs to them.
At the same time, I wanted to read more about the kibbutz. Israelis and those who have lived on kibbutzim may take what Hope writes for granted, but the wider world will want to know more about what makes this Israeli social experiment so unique.
That being said, it was pleasant to return to a more naïve and optimistic Israel from the not-so-distant past. It was a time when kibbutz volunteers received calls on a public phone and wrote real letters.
“This was 1994, after all. Everything was so high tech… He pictured his name and face streaming out of a million fax machines.”
The good-hearted yet misguided Adam is Safekeeping’s fullest, most satisfying character. His vices and brash moves, born out of his love for Zayde and his burning desire to accomplish his goal, are realistic and understandable.
Ofir is another well-rounded character.
He represents the dissonance of life in Israel.
In one harrowing scene in the West Bank, amid some clichés, Hope nails this incomprehensible irony when Ofir says, “It was strange living next door to the other side of the world.”
The other characters, too, evolve as the novel progresses and become more well-rounded. Nevertheless, there are some holes in the plot. I would have liked to know more about Claudette’s traumatic past, for example, and the epic love story at the center of the novel, which is recounted in very short snippets.
The second half of the novel reads quickly.
Even though we know what’s going to happen, the details of the characters’ interactions and the brooch’s journey through Jewish history are compelling.
One of Hope’s biggest feats with Safekeeping is the balance she strikes between the protagonists’ complex personal stories and the dramatic events taking place in the background. A fateful moment in the older generation’s love story climaxes as the UN votes to found Israel in 1947.
As the 1994 storyline ends, the kibbutz votes on whether to privatize and Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat are announced as winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s hard to pull that off without too much pathos, but Hope succeeds.
While Safekeeping does not provide any surprises or new insights, it is a pleasurable and engulfing read, especially if you like to reminisce about a simpler, more innocent Israel and meet fascinating, well-crafted characters.