Pride and politics

In an interview, Emuna Elon describes how she is putting culture on the Orthodox agenda.

emuna elon 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
emuna elon 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Readers of Emuna Elon's columns in Ma'ariv and Yediot Aharonot over the past 15 years might find her debut novel, If You Awaken Love, a striking, unlikely diversion from her political crusading. In her novel (read the review), political rhetoric is cooled and sympathies are spread over the political Left and Right alike.

If You Awaken Love is not a morality tale, but a love story, or rather, an unrequited love story. The heroine, Shlomtzion, is not a settler, but part of the Yeshivat Merkaz Harav milieu in the 1970s, the hothouse for the growing religious-Zionist movement after the Six Day War. Once her engagement to her teenage love, Yair, is nixed by the rosh yeshiva, the heartbroken Shlomtzion rebels against and questions that world.

"Everything that happens to her and everything she thinks, I know. It's all a part of me... I haven't lived as a secular person, but I've lived the possibility of that," Elon tells The Jerusalem Post over coffee at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem.

Elon is 52, soft-spoken but brimming with quiet, intense passion. Wisps of hair fall from her blue-and-white, flowery scarf. But her imagination reaches far beyond the rocky hills of her settlement of Beit El, north of Jerusalem, where she lives with her husband, MK Benny Elon.

"When asked how I took upon myself to describe the life of a secular person without living it, I answer that Shlomtzion, my heroine, is not secular, that she violates the laws of the Torah, but she remains religious in her way of thinking. It's obvious that she doesn't stop believing in God for one minute. Someone who doesn't believe in God doesn't bother to dedicate her life to defying Him."

And defy Him she does. On the rebound, Shlomtzion remarries a handsome, rugged army officer, Rosy, whom she divorces because of her lingering yet impossible love for Yair. Shlomtzion lives the single life in Tel Aviv as a successful interior designer, and her daughter with Rosy, Maya, emerges as the correction to Shlomtzion's soured relationship with Yair. Maya's engagement to religious Zionism and to Yair's son, Ariel, forces Shlomtzion to confront her former love and values. Arguments about the virtues and non-virtues of the Oslo Accords that take place at Shlomtzion's apartment and later at the fictitious settlement of Tirza (based on Beit El) constitute the few instances of Left-Right wrangling in the book.

"All of those leftist viewpoints are those I understand, and I feel them. I know what it is to believe in all these 'leftist' ideals because they're in me. I see myself as a right-winger who sees the complexity of the situation."

She considers the living conditions of Palestinian refugees, described briefly in the novel, a tragedy she can't ignore, but she doesn't believe uprooting settlements will solve their plight.

However, she won't say that outright in her novel, which bears no blatant political message or prescription. Elon is quick to tell me that "messer," or "message" in Hebrew, means "knife" in Yiddish, which can "cut" a work of literature. "A novel should try to express things, not to say what is wrong and what is right, not to put things in boxes, not to suggest how to solve the problems. A novel should only express how difficult it all is and how beautiful and impossible and painful and fulfilling."

AMONG THE early advocates of the book was, surprisingly, the staunch left-wing writer Amos Oz, with whom she had struck up a 16-year correspondence while studying literature under him at Ben-Gurion University. He introduced her novel to Keter, which published it in Hebrew in 2004. The friendship has fostered mutual understanding, but neither has backtracked on his or her political stance.

"This is the essence of the political conflict in Israel. We still have to survive here together, all of us. There are very deep and strong feelings of anger toward each other, but we're still in this together."

In her own political circles, Elon has received more understanding and encouragement than disapproval. Some fellow settlers have commented that her novel portrays too much sympathy for leftist viewpoints or Palestinian distress, but Elon is not deterred by such criticism. Readers may not become automatic settler supporters, but they might look upon settlers with increased empathy.

"An extreme leftist called me and said, 'I didn't know you fall in love.' If someone learns from one of my books that people in settlements are people who also fall in love, who have questions and problems about life, people who are complex and real, this is also an achievement. That is enough for me... We're not posters or banners. We hurt, we feel, we're alive."

For Elon, writing the novel served as a personal and professional awakening. While building her home in Beit El and working as a teacher of Judaism and literature as well as a political columnist, she didn't consider writing literature an effective, worthy or desirable endeavor for fashioning Israel according to religious-Zionist values.

"Somehow we were brought up to believe it's more important to study and write about Torah, to educate, to settle the land, to be involved in security missions in the army. Contemporary Israeli culture always took a backseat," she explains.

Elon and her husband established a printing press in 1987, which published seven of her children's books. Her mid-40s marked a turning point. "I felt that I reached an age in which I had to write literature. I could no longer push it off." Currently she dedicates most of her time to teaching and working on her second novel.

The 2005 disengagement gave an extra boost to this career switch. Since the evacuation, which continues to pain her, she has taken a break from political journalism.

"I felt that my voice couldn't be heard right now, and I didn't feel like continuing to write for a newspaper that supported [the disengagement]."

Now she views arts and culture as a legitimate, powerful and even desirable way for people of her political persuasion to influence society. "Sometimes I think maybe [the disengagement] would not have happened if we had 'settled' as much in culture as in the land."

SHE PUTS much of her faith in the younger generation, who are less shy about their creative pursuits. "Among our younger generation, there is a lot of involvement in literature, film, poetry."

Her son, for example, a filmmaker, is publishing a book of his short stories and her son-in-law is the literary editor at Makor Rishon and author of a soon-to-be-published book of poetry.

"The optimism, power and creativity of the youth are expressed in the novel in the form of the successful and loving relationship between Maya and Ariel," she says. "The younger generation in the settlements doesn't need the bombastic declarations we used when we were younger. They just live as proud Israeli Jews."

Toward the end of the novel, Maya and Ariel describe their vision for an idyllic, ecological settlement. Shlomtzion and Yair see their former selves in them, and Yair remarks: "When we were your age, we too wanted to fix the world." To which Ariel responds: "We don't want to fix the world," with Maya adding softly, "Only ourselves."

"This is the most optimistic saying of the book," says Elon. "That the future of Israel would look better because of the natural attitude of the youngsters who don't feel like they have to prove anything to anyone. They just want to live life because they want to live life. This is the real way of fixing the world, and eventually, of everyone fixing him or herself."