Unsettling romance

Emuna Elon's novel is both a love story and a commentary on the gap between the religious Right and secular Left.

emuna elon book 88 298 (photo credit: )
emuna elon book 88 298
(photo credit: )
If You Awaken Love By Emuna Elon Toby Press 229 pages; $14.95 Reading Emuna Elon's novel If You Awaken Love is like sitting in on a psychoanalysis. Bit by tortured bit, the narrator, Shlomtzion, reveals the traumas of her youth, and how they are interwoven with her present distress. By writing as if she is directly addressing either her daughter or her ex-lover, in turn, the narrator involves the reader immediately and maintains a sense of intimacy throughout.

The story is absorbing, and it moves along at a brisk pace. It is an extended dramatic monologue that never loses its grip upon the reader.

Shlomtzion introduces herself as the product of a loveless marriage between her self-centered, intellectual father, a successful academic and an unscrupulous womanizer, and her self-effacing, browbeaten mother, an unappreciated and frequently betrayed wife. Parallel to this, she describes all the women of her family as having been either jilted or unhappily married. Her own childhood sweetheart ultimately jilts her, too. Yair Berman, the love of her life, is a yeshiva student who eventually becomes a rabbi. Shlomtzion and Yair spend their youth together, studying the Bible and planning to build a better world by founding an idealistic community.

Shlomtzion describes the enthusiasm and religious zeal of her youth as intimately bound up with her blossoming love for Yair. But she is never to experience the fulfillment of her youthful dreams. Following Yair's breakup with her, she spends the next 20 years fleeing from everything she has ever known or wanted. She rejects the religious lifestyle and builds a successful career as an architect.

This storyline is a pleasant and convenient vehicle for comparing religious and secular philosophy and lifestyle. The novel opens with Shlomtzion's strong rejection of the religious lifestyle and philosophy, and the reader easily sympathizes with the heartbroken woman, who was rejected by Yair on the advice of the rosh yeshiva. Yet Shlomtzion's many reminiscences of the biblical landscape of her youth - as well as biblical passages and prayers - are lovingly portrayed. (Even the title of the book is a biblical quotation.) This undersong eventually persuades the reader to reconsider the Orthodox position from a more sympathetic point of view.

In a highly unusual turn of events, Shlomtzion finds herself unable to escape her past. Her newly religious daughter, Maya (the child of a brief, failed marriage), announces that she is going to be married to Ariel Berman. Unknown to Maya, Ariel is none other than the son of Yair, who married Shlomtzion's best friend, Leah, soon after breaking off with her. Only in minuscule Israel might such a coincidence be considered plausible.

The denouement shows Shlomtzion to be made of a stronger material than most of us. For the sake of her daughter - the one and only person with whom she has an uncompromised emotional connection - Shlomtzion is willing to do anything. That includes swallowing her wounded pride to spend a Shabbat with Yair and Leah and their children in their settlement on the other side of the Green Line.

Elon's conclusion is surprising in many ways. Firstly, she reveals that Shlomtzion is not alone in her heartbreak, after all. In destroying Shlomtzion's happiness, Yair has similarly sealed his own fate, and that of Leah. And even more surprising is the maturity with which Shlomtzion behaves. Not many women would be capable of such selflessness. She truly deserves her name: "Wellbeing of Zion."

But the greatest surprise of the novel is the even-handedness with which Elon, the wife of MK Benny Elon and a Beit El resident since 1982, handles the religious and the secular perspectives.

Despite what one must assume to be her political agenda, Elon's narrative comes across as incredibly impartial and sincere. I recommend the book to anybody seeking to bridge the abyss between Israel's left-wing secular and right-wing religious. It's as good a starting point as any that I am aware of.