The light shines on

Lea Goldberg’s only novel is published in English for the first time, in honor of the centennial of her birth.

Lea Goldberg 521 (photo credit: Garda Schwerin)
Lea Goldberg 521
(photo credit: Garda Schwerin)
And This Is the Light is part autobiography, part romantic fiction, part psychological thriller and wholly Lea Goldberg. But this is not the Goldberg most readers are used to.
Goldberg is best known for her poems (many of which have provided the lyrics of classic Hebrew songs) and for her perennially popular children’s stories – including Ayeh Pluto? (Where’s Pluto?) and Dira Lehaskir (Apartment for Rent), which have been translated into many languages. This story, published in 1946 under the title Vehu Ha’or, is her only novel, and was indeed one of the first novels by a woman to be published in Hebrew.
The Toby Press released this version, lovingly translated by Barbara Harshav, to mark the centennial of Goldberg’s birth. The introduction and afterword by Nili Scharf Gold help provide context for the novel, written when Goldberg took a break from poetry and was clearly trying to come to terms with the incomprehensible scope of the Holocaust.
And This Is the Light is at once an intensively personal novel and the narrative of a generation. It tackles Jewish themes, but portrays universal emotions.
The story depicts three months in the life of 20-year-old Nora Krieger, who returns from her studies in Berlin to her small (and small-minded) village in Lithuania. Her dreams of presenting her new, mature self fade as nightmares, illness and bad memories return. Frustrated by the company of the people with whom she grew up, she falls in love with Albert Arin, a mysterious old friend of her father who turns up out of the blue from America. Later, it becomes clear that despite their long walks in the woods and philosophical conversations, Arin is drawn to the beautiful friend of his own daughter, not Nora.
The plot has several twists, many of which feel like a knife being turned in a deep wound. This is a good read, but not an easy one.
On the way to understanding the depths of Nora’s feelings and fears, the reader discovers that her father was driven mad when he was tortured during World War I.
The theme of insanity suffuses And This Is the Light as Nora struggles not only with trying to come to terms with her relationship to her father, but also with her own searing doubts as to how much of his madness is the result of circumstance and how much hereditary. She cannot escape her father, her past, her Jewish identity or her angst.
The fate of the fictional father is not fiction.
In 1919, returning as World War I refugees to their hometown, the Goldbergs were stopped by a Lithuanian border patrol, which was convinced that her father was a “Bolshevik spy.” He was locked up in an empty barn, and every day, for more than a week, the guards would prepare him for execution, canceling it at the last moment. By the time he was released, he was suffering from what is today known as post-traumatic stress disorder but in those days was not known, or spoken of, by any name.
In And This Is the Light, Nora recalls her Prussian professor of history who would sometimes “prove the ‘deep logic of human history’… Deep logic when a man’s fate is determined because of yellow shoes [the cause of the father’s arrest].”
The novel works on many levels: as a historical record of a world that no longer exists; as the narrative of a young student struggling to find her own identity and true love; and as the story of strong, and not-so-strong, women. It is also a social comment on the devastating effects of mental illness, not just to the primary sufferers, but to their families. In her darkest moments, Nora/Goldberg recalls the explanation of a German doctor that mental illness is just like any other illness, making the stigma attached all the more tragic.
Powered by tension and emotion, the writing jumps from style to style.
The last pages of the relatively short novel are marked by a strikingly different tone. Having discovered the truth about Arin, Nora wants to fall asleep but can’t.
“She turned on the light, picked up a book on the bedside table. A Selection of Hebrew Poetry. Nora opened the book with no specific intention, and her eyes fell on the bifurcated lines of Rabbi Moses ben Jacob ben Ezra [a medieval Hebrew poet]. Somewhere, in the middle of the poem, were lines that, for some reason, she didn’t connect with what went before:
“It is the light that goes on glowing through my youth, And glows yet brighter as I grow old.

It must be the substance of God’s light, For otherwise it would be fading As my years and strength decline.
“Detached and cut off from the logical connection of the religious poem, those lines referred inadvertently to what she was thinking, was afraid of, dreaded, and expected.”
GOLDBERG WAS born in East Prussia in 1911, was raised in Lithuania, and received her further education, including a PhD in Semitic languages, from Bonn University, but she managed to leave Germany for British Mandate-period Palestine in 1935. She became a wellestablished figure in the Tel Aviv cultural milieu, where she worked as a theater critic, editor and translator, before founding and heading the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Comparative Literature, a position she held for some 20 years. She was posthumously awarded the Israel Prize for Literature in 1970, a few months after her death.
The centennial of her birth is being celebrated by many events, and next year her image will appear on Bank of Israelissued banknotes, an obvious sign of her lasting influence. The Toby Press, which also publishes a translation of Goldberg’s Selected Poetry and Drama, should be commended for making her novel finally available to English speakers.
And This Is the Light illuminates many aspects of the multifaceted woman and writer who is so much a part of the Hebrew-speaking cultural landscape. It is also a sensitive, poignant story worth reading in its own right.