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Book Review : Prosaic Ups and Downs of the Palestine Settlers

June 03, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

After the Holidays by Yehoshua Kenaz (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $16.95; 194 pp.)

"After the Holidays" is a people story composed to frighten ghosts. Their strident lives in a Palestine settlement, set during World War I, trouble us as the world of the living is said to trouble spirits and call them back to haunt it.

Readers, we drift ghostlike among the choked and passionate members of the Haim family; drawn by their turbulence and unable to grasp them. Kenaz, a young Israeli writer, summons us up and leaves us unexorcised.

It is a story of deceptive simplicity. The aggressive and enterprising Haim arrives from Europe with his weepy wife, Bracha, and his two outwardly docile and inwardly raging daughters, Batsheva and Riva.

Haim buys an orange grove, prospers, moves into a bigger house. Bracha dies, still repining. A second wife, Chasida, is taken. The daughters, who are growing older with fragmentary and unappeased love lives, harass her. Haim dies; soon Chasida dies. Riva, barren, goes to a sanitarium. Batsheva, also barren, grows old in the solitary house.

It could almost be a musical; a "Fiddler on the Roof" in a minor key and placed not in the Diaspora, but in the land whose promise has many years and much bloodshed ahead of it. There is a musical rhythm to the passion and foreboding of these seemingly pat and ordinary personages.

Time is their mine field; mortality is their agony. All of them rage, in their different ways, not just against the dying of the light but against the slightest leaf or shadow that stipples it. As they go about their businesses, their intrigues and their quarrels in this rural hamlet, they brandish their dooms, like badges they are forced to wear.

Hailing the prosaic ups and downs of the Haims, Kenaz is writing about their souls; the underground passions and presentiments that erupt in unexpected moments.

Haim, goaded by his daughters' mockery and by Bracha's self-martyrdom--she stops breathing at intervals throughout the night and the whole family wakes up to listen to the silences--takes in a filthy, half-mad holy man. Batsheva has a passionate affair with a bank clerk, which her father soon breaks up because he considers the young man insufficiently religious.

Other lives loom up erratically. Baruch, the hard-working, dim-witted overseer, works Haim's orange grove, saves money to get married; but none of the village women will have him. He assaults an Arab girl he spots herding goats in a field; later, her relatives murder him.

Borochov, a teacher and would-be poet, marries the very proper and diligent Hadassah. They are desperately but correctly in love; their wedding is a scene painted on a cookie tin.

And then, Kenaz lets time blow through. On their wedding night, Borochov and Hadassah stand by their open window. "The cool night breeze filled the room with the intoxicating scent of the jasmine and the sound of the ram's horn blowing in the Yemenite quarter," Kenaz writes. "The season of love was over."

A year or two later, Borochov, who never does write the poem he dreams of and who is trapped in domesticity, walks over to the Haims', finds Batsheva alone, and makes love to her.

The lovemaking is never repeated. It has no consequences other than to serve as one more strand in the nighttime fabric of the settlement's daytime life.

Kenaz is after the nighttime. He takes the striving and stridence of the Haims and lets precariousness do its work on their souls. There is a Chekhovian note there; Haim's grand house buckles and decays. The ground heaves under it.

"After the Holidays," the book's title is also the phrase the villagers use to set some large future event or effort. But in that part of the world, the time after the Jewish holy days is the rainy season.

That history would prove the life of the settlers in the old Palestine to be precarious is plain enough. Skillfully, imperceptively and musically, Kenaz has allowed this to invest the febrile schemes of his characters with a hint of derangement.

The author, one surmises, is not writing simply of the past. Precariousness is still there; it still rains after the holidays in Israel's nation of active and uneasy spirits.

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