Quietly ahead of her time

In honor of International Women's Day, IJ takes a fresh look at Zelda Popkin's nearly forgotten novel of wartime Jerusalem, Quiet Street.

zelda popkin 88.298 (photo credit: )
zelda popkin 88.298
(photo credit: )
In October 1948, as Israel's War of Independence ended, American-Jewish writer Zelda Popkin left New York to visit her sister Helen Rossi Koussevitzky, a Palestine Post editor, living in Jerusalem. A widow, Popkin had worked in public relations and journalism but had remade herself after her husband's death into a writer of fiction. By the time she visited Israel, she had already written a series of successful detective novels featuring Mary Carner, a female detective, as well as several novels, including The Journey Home (1945), which focuses on the relationship between an American soldier returning from World War II and a young career woman and Walk Through the Valley (1949), the story of a woman who creates a new life for herself following the death of her husband. For half a year, Popkin lived in the Koussevitsky home on Rehov Abarbanel in Rehavia, soaking up the local atmosphere and thinking about the great moral questions of the Jewish people's fight for a national identity. The result of her visit is Quiet Street, a novel about the war told from the point of view of Jerusalem's many colorful characters, chief among them an American-Israeli homemaker living in Rehavia. The first American novel about the War of Independence, the book was not a commercial success and was reviewed negatively in the New York Times, among other publications. In a positive article entitled "A Forgotten Forerunner: Zelda Popkin's Novels of the Holocaust and the 1948 War," Popkin's grandson, history professor Jeremy Popkin, notes that the public embraced an American novel about the war, Leon Uris's Exodus, only a few years later. Exodus has a similar setting and some of the same themes, but Jeremy Popkin suggests that readers may not have been ready for Popkin's realistic version and preferred Uris's more idealized version of Jews who "seized control of their own destinies." Or perhaps it is because Popkin was a woman. As many feminist critics have discovered, many talented female writers were underrated during their own lives by a community of critics keen to preserve the literary hierarchy. In other cases, the visions of pioneer women writers were rejected by the establishment because they challenged patriarchal notions and frightened some traditional readers. Could Popkin's Quiet Street have suffered such a fate? Fifty-five years after it was first published, the book deserves a fresh look. Popkin wrote her book in an easy, almost conversational style of prose, remarkable for its realistic dialogue punctuated with Hebrew and English slang. Her former career in PR is evident in the seemingly effortless way she mixes historical fact with narrative detail. Her writing is nuanced. While she writes about the siege on Jerusalem, the bombings of Rehov Ben-Yehuda and the defeat of the Kfar Etzion convoy, she also describes the complex way in which homemaker Edith Hirsch interacts with her husband and the confusion their son, 11-year-old Teddy, feels when his best friend's father is killed as a spy for the British. "It really is an accurate picture of the events because she came and lived in Jerusalem. She learned the atmosphere of the people first-hand, not by relying on what somebody told her," explains Doni Koussevitzky, son of Popkin's sister Helen and the inspiration for the character of Teddy. Indeed, in writing about the personal lives of Jerusalem's residents as they react to the war, Popkin discovers civilian Israel, a world of relationships that is completely absent in war epics like Exodus. Military history is not absent from the text , but it, too, is told from a more character-driven angle. In one of the novel's many sub-plots, Al, an American fighter-pilot, returns to New York after his tour of duty in Europe. Depressed, in a search for meaning, he volunteers to fly for the fledgling Israel Air Force. Soon he falls in love with Dina, a kibbutznikit and soldier, whose tough idealism is a foil for Al's Yankee tolerance. The encounter represents the first of a series of similar encounters between Israeli women and American Jewish men in later American literature, a fact Jeremy Popkin points out in his article. Yet, Popkin's grandson does not mention that unlike Philip Roth and other writers who have attempted such scenes, Popkin preserves a dignity for its Jewish woman characters without turning them into models of perfection. Notable is the lack of stereotyping so favored by Uris or the bitter vitriol often released by Roth and Saul Bellow. Instead, we are treated to scenes in which both male and female characters are equal parts vulnerability and strength. The real heroes and heroines of the book are the characters who are open to learning from their mistakes, considering the morality of a given situation and sometimes changing their minds. Indeed, in addition to an arguably female perspective, Popkin's distinct call for diversity runs through the entire narrative, and her identity as a secular American Jew is apparent. Her novel is unabashedly proud of the strides of early Zionists, but at the same time she remains apprehensive with regard to any culture that seems to claim moral certainty. The American characters in the book serve as a kind of filter through which the Israeli experience can be digested. Young American women try to preserve normalcy for their children as they dodge bullets on Rehov Keren Kayemet Le'yisrael and occasionally talk about the shops they once frequented on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. Al, the jaded American volunteer who is largely unimpressed with the city's attractions, sits at a bar in wartime Tel Aviv, while homemaker Edith Hirsch remembers the quiet civility of life in Boston but rarely wavers from her decision to throw in her lot with other Israelis. This narrative technique may be due in part to the fact that Zelda was inspired by her sister's life while she was writing the book. Helen, a Yale graduate who began working in the advertising department of the Palestine Post, and then became an editor and creator of the now-defunct women's page, was an active member of the Rehavia community, with friends from all parts of the world. Yet, according to her son, she retained her English-language writing and aspects of her American culture. Koussevitsky remembers the day that his mother luckily missed the bombing of the Post's office, then located near Zion Square. The story of the bombing made its way in adapted form into Quiet Street, as did some highlights of editorials printed in the Post during that time period. Also lifted from Helen's real life is the depiction of the relationship between Rehavia neighbors. "Jerusalem at that time was so small. Everyone knew one another and people had friends outside their ethnicity or country of origin," Koussevitsky observes. By focusing on Jerusalem's diversity as a model for the new state, Popkin creates a literary image of Israel that seems almost as fresh today as it did so many years ago. After returning to the United States, Popkin went on to write other books, including the 1968 novel, Herman Had Two Daughters, which was made into a television movie and enjoyed brief critical success. Yet, today, few know Popkin's name and even many devotees of American Jewish fiction have never heard of Quiet Street. Perhaps her strong female characters, who are full participants in the missions of nation-building and history-making, were simply ahead of their time.