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Book Review

Forging Ties and Leaving a Mystery

THE LOVES OF JUDITH;\o7 by Meir Shalev; Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav; (Ecco Press; $25, 320 pages)\f7

May 25, 1999|JO-ANN MORT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Some say that the purpose of every story is to give order to reality. . . . Others say that every story comes into the world only to answer questions . . . my story isn't a story of the Garden of Eden, but a small, true story," says Zayde Rabinovitch, this novel's narrator. Yet this is a novel that leaves us, provocatively, with more questions than answers.

Zayde, Yiddish for grandfather, was orphaned as a young boy when his mother, Judith, died in 1949, just a year after Israel's founding. Judith's first husband left for America and took their daughter with him after discovering Judith pregnant (with Zayde) by another man. Judith never told three men who among them--if any--might be Zayde's father.

So each of them adopted Zayde: Moshe Rabinovitch, a farmer who gave Zayde his name, his farm and his cow shed for a home; Jacob Sheinfeld, a canary breeder who left him an expensive house; and Globerman, the cattle dealer from whom he inherited a "kniple" of money. There are other eccentric characters, including an albino who keeps a notebook filled with train schedules to cities in Europe where Jews lived before the Holocaust.

Shalev's popularity in Israel has been said to reflect a yearning for the state's early innocence and Ashkenazic (East European Jewish ancestry) influence, but the edge Shalev brings to Israel's infancy belies that yearning as something more complex. As Jacob Sheinfeld tells Zayde, the dove (which represents peace and could even represent Israel's image of itself as a moral nation) is "the one bird I can't stand. It stands with an olive branch in its mouth, the symbol of peace for the whole world, but at home they just murder each other . . . Crows do things like that sometimes, but the crow, on the other hand, doesn't brag that he's the symbol of peace."

Just as the pre-Holocaust world is lost to these characters, so is the agricultural life portrayed in this novel lost in a contemporary, high-tech Israel.

The novel takes us through four meals that Jacob serves Zayde over three decades, beginning when Zayde is 12. Each time, he reveals more personal history to Zayde, reflecting on Zayde's childhood growing up in the cow shed with Judith and the romantic interest Judith held for the three men who each think they could be Zayde's father. Only after the fourth meal is served--actually by a delivery man who brings the food along with a prepared menu to Zayde, who is living in Jacob's house after Jacob's death--does Zayde reveal that he knows at least a portion of the truth behind the mystery of who is his father.

Shalev, a novelist and journalist sometimes called Israel's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, weaves fanciful ideas into his novels. For instance, he creates a bull who nonetheless gives milk after Judith names the animal for her missing daughter Rachel. His writing is primal and sensual, similar to Marquez, but he is also authentically Israeli, drawing on the Bible and, here, the Apocrypha, where the story of Judith first appeared, and on national travails. Jacob, for instance, complains about the difficult life the early kibbutz settlers had, trying to build an agricultural economy--"Is this a life for a Jew?" he asks. At times, the book grows too dense with imagery, but mostly, it is an affectionate and fanciful tale.

As much as this is a love story, it is also a story of nation building. Like Judith in the Apocrypha who risked her life to save her people, Zayde's mother uses her wiles to cement disparate souls together--by giving each man part ownership of her son.

As Zayde tell us, "Since I had no choice, I was convinced that my name protected me against death and I became a child who knew no fear." As much as anything else, this is a parable about inheritance, stake-claiming and defying the odds. It is also about the old Eastern European Jewish world dying, the birth of the early farmer Israeli pioneers and an indestructible Israel that, just like Zayde, still has questions about its identity.

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