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April 24, 2009

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, APRIL 24, 2009 PAGE 17A [ ~7~LI,EY OF STREN(;TH LAPn) By Adam Kirsch NEW YORK (NEXT- BOOK) Over the past 10 years, the Toby Press, a small trade house founded by Mat- thew Miller, has become one of the leading American pub- lishers of Israeli fiction. While some of Israel's major writers have long been published by big American houses David Grossman, Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua Toby Press is making it possible for Eng- lish speakers to get a richer sense of the whole spectrum of Hebrew writing today. Toby's list includes classics of Israeli literature, like Bialik and Agnon, as well as new writers like Amir Gutfreund: it also publishes Jewish writ- ers from around the world, like the young Argentinean novelistMarcelo Birmajer.At a time when American publish- ers translate fewer and fewer books, this commitment to internationalism has made Toby Press an important and hopeful presence. """VaIrey ~Sf~'Sti-ehg~h," by~ Shulamit Lapid, is the lat- est Israeli title to appear from Toby Press, in a clear and elegant translation by Philip Simpson. While few American readers have heard of it. the book has become a kind of Israeli classic since it appeared in 1982. and no wonder: It is a quite delib- erate exercise in national mythmaking. Lapid, a prolific and ac- claimed writer born in Tel Aviv in 1934, sets out to dramatize the early years of Zionist settlement in un- apologetically heroic and sen- timental terms. Indeed. Fania Mandelstam. the heroine of "Valley of Strength," is a kind of Israeli Scarlett O'Hara. Like her American cousin. she is a dauntless, beautiful young woman who suffers through all her nation's trials but manages to survive them thanks to her courage and spirit. At one moment, Fania even vows that she'll never go hungry again: "No more! Nothing would ever scare her again and nothing divert her from her purpose. Not the east wind, not the snakes nor the hunger, northe hardwork. Shewas the monument to the slaughtered members of her family, and she had one objective in life: To survive. To go on living. In any way possible." Such a woman clearly carries her own "valley of strength" inside her; but the title of the novel is not just a metaphor. Gai Oni. the Hebrew nametranslated by the title phrase, is an ac- tualplace atiny, struggling settlement in the Galilee where Fania turns up at the ~Se~ifinirig Of the novel. Yet she is no Zionist pioneer, by conviction or training. She is, in fact. a rather spoiled bourgeois gift brought up m a well-to-do. Russophile family in Elizavetgrad. But in 1881, after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, a pogrom breaks out in the town. shattering the dream of assimilation in which she has lived. Fania's parents are murdered; her brother, Lulik, is driven mad; and she herself is raped. By the time the novel opens, she has made herway to Jaffawith her brother, uncle and baby daughter searching for refuge and a new life. She finds one. though not quite the one she expected, thanks to Yehiel Silas, the strong and silent farmer who spots her in Jaffa and quickly convinces her to join him at Gai Oni. Technically, the couple are married Silasisa young widower with two chil- dren, and he needs a woman around the house butFania is still too traumatized to be- come intimate with any man. She even conceals the truth about her baby, telling Yehiel that she is a widow rather than a rape victim. It does not take much read- erly foresight to guess that; in time. Fania will be healed by Yehiel's patient, manly atten- tions, and that her mistrust will blossom into passionate love. Much of the plot of "Valley of Strength" takes the form of roadblocks to that consummation, which Lapid postpones so that it will be all the sweeter when it comes. Yehiel is baffled by his young bride's resistance to his sexual advances. He becomes jealous when she makes friends with another matt. the poet Naph-. tall Herz Imber: then Fania becomes jealous when Rivka, the sister of Yehiel's first wife, gtarts insinuating herself into their household. Yet Fania virtuously resists the other men who throw themselves at her. seduced by her bronze curls and gypsy eyes not to mention her ability to play Chopin and read Tolstoy, rare graces in the Galilee. Finally, all the misunderstandings are cleared up, and in a passage that one can imagine Is- raeli adolescents dog-earing, Fania and Yehiel are united: "They now let the desire flow between them. guiding them tentatively towards the rapids." The love story in "Valley of Strength," then. is conven- tional. What is surprising is that many of Fania's other trials, too, sound familiar. even though there have been few novels about the Ordeals of Jewish farmers in the Otto- man empire. That is because. the reader discovers, the life of a pioneer woman is much the same whether she is in Galilee or Nebraska. Like the heroine of many a Western, Fania must learn to cook and clean, towork in the fields and tend the animals, to nurse the children when they are sick. even to deal with hostile no- mads (Bedouins, in this case, rather than Indians). When she finally transforms herself from into a self-sufficient Pal- estinian woman, she marks the change by swapping her fancy old clothes for a Bed- ouin's native costume: "The sooner she becomes like one of the Bedouin women, so much the better. These are the clothes that suit this country. I'm not a Russian high school student any more, I'm a Jewish Bedouin." What makes "Valley of Strength" an interesting and even educational book, despite its formulaic plot and characters, is the way Lapid translates this coming-of-age story to a Zionist context. She sets Fan.ia in a meticulously researched historical set- ting, making her the reader's guide through the social and physical landscape of 1880s Palestine. A number of real people make appearances in the book--Naphtali Herz Imber, for instance, was the Hebrew poet who wrote the lyrics to "Hatikvah." More important, Lapid shows the reader the bitter ideological and economic rivalries that made the first Yishuv such a minefield. Fania meets the idealistic, impractical young pioneers of BILU, one of the earliest Russian Zion- ist groups (one of the men makes a pass at her); she gets rocks thrown at her by the Orthodox Jews of Safed, who see the farmers of Gai Oni as heretics; she negotiates with Jewish philanthropists like Rothschild and Hirsch, whose largesse always comes with strings attached. Indeed, from the perspec- tive of modern Israeli politics (the book was first published in 1982), it is noteworthy how Lapid emphasizes the tensions among Jews, and downplays the tensions be- tween Jews and Arabs. Yehiel is a native of Pales- tine. a Sephardi Jew who is at ease with his Arab neighbors. (Gai Oni. in fact, is just the Hebrew name for the Arab village of Jaoni.) The Jew- ish and Arab~ farmers make common cause against their real enemies, the marauding Bedouins and the rapacious Turkish government. The only people Yehiel really hates are the Jews of Safed, who live on donations from pious Jews in Europe and who see the Zionist settlers as a threat to their entitlements. The Jewish overseer in charge of distributing charitable funds to the farmers of Gai Oni is represented as a tyrant and a womanizer (he, too. throws himself at Fania). It is not until a boatload of Romanian Jewish settlers arrives and renames the vil- lage Rosh Pinnah that the destinies of Gai Oni's Jews and Arabs begin to diverge. When Yehiel urges one of the Romanians to hire Arab work- ers to help build his house, the newcomer arrogantly refuses: "They're going to have to leave the place. This land belongs to us now, and the village is ours too. They've already proved what they're capable of. We're going to turn this place into a fertile garden." Yet "Valley of Strength" is not finally a novel about the ambiguities of the Zionist project. It is a hymn to the strength and self-sacrifice of pioneers like Yehiel. who redeemed the land with their blood; and it is a paean to early feminists like Fania. who held their own in aworld run by men. Any reader who is alive to the drama and grandeur of Zionism will be moved, at times against his will, by Lapid's lush pageant of a novel. Adam Kirsch is the author of "Benjamin Disraeli," a new biography in Nextbook's Jewish Encounters series. Reprinted from, a new read on Jewish culture. By Michelle Mostovy- Eisenberg Jewish Exponent PHILADELPHIA (JTA) Nearly 40 years after it was last used, a tiny synagogue at the historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia has been restored and is now open to the public. Believed to the first prison synagogue built in the United States. the chapel at Eastern State was built circa 1924 at the urging of Alfred Fleisher. a Jewish businessman and philanthropistwhowas presi- dent of the prison's board of trustees from 1924 until 1928. Fleisher promoted and attended all of the Jewish holiday services held at East- ern State. But after the prison was abandoned in 1971. the facil- ity and its synagogue stood in near ruin. a haunting, ghostly maze of crumbling cell blocks. empty guard towers and dark corridors. Restoration began in the 1980s, and the prison opened for daily tours in 1994, draw- ing 190,000 visitors last year. The synagogue, however, remained forgotten, even as work began to preserve other parts of the site. "Entering the synagogue for the first time, I was struck by the romance of its ruinous state," wrote Laura lqass, an architectural conservatorwho researched the synagogue's history. "Years of neglect and water infiltration had resulted in severe deterioration of the space. Wood elements were splintered and rotted. Plaster was detaching from the walls. Almost all of the ceiling had collapsed. Yet evidence of the room's past use stood out in defiance of this ruin." The synagogue's fortunes began to change in 2002 when Cindy Wanerman. now president of the prison's board of directors, spotted the syna- gogue on the prison map and was taken to see it. Wanerman said that when she first saw the room. it reminded her of the bombed-out synagogues in Poland from World War II. After consulting a rabbi. Wanerman explained that as a Jew. she felt an obliga- tion to help take care of the abandoned synagogue, where "decay has taken a toll." She set to work raising funds, and since 2004 helped bring in the $280,000 needed to restore the synagogue. Many of those who donated. she noted, were descendants of the .prison's chaplains, rabbis or volunteers, or other members of the local Jewish community. "God gave me ajob,"Waner- man, a member of Temple Sinai in Dresher, Pa., said of her efforts. "It just had to get done. We would have lost this place if we didn't do this now. Because of the condition itwas in. we couldn't wait 10 years." Earlier this month, the prison synagogue was opened to the public after months of intense restoration work. A dedication ceremony was scheduled for what is now known as the Alfred W. Fleisher Memorial Syna- gogue; the ceremony was slated to include the affixing of a mezUzah to the syna- gogue's outside door frame. Rabbi Jonathan Gerard, Jewish chaplain at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. was expected to speak abou.t counseling inmates in a maximum- security prison. "Standing in the syna- gogue today, I feel a tremen- dous sense of accomplish- ment." Mass wrote. "And I feel fortunate to have played a role in a collaborative effort to honor this site and share it with others." Religion was an important component of life at Eastern State, according to Sean Kel- ley, program director at the site. He noted that prison records show that as early as 1837, a rabbi had visited Jew- ish inmates to offer spiritual guidance. Although Eastern State didn't hold many Jewish inmates, he reported--at its peak, there were nomore than 80 Jews in a prison that held roughly; 1,500 inmates, but usually it hovered at about 20 "there was always some Jewish life here in the building." Originally a handful of Jewish prisoners gathered at the small emergency hos- pital for services that were offered for Passover, Yom now open to the Eastern State Penitentiary Conservators at the Eastern State Penitentiary synagogue pieced back all of the ark materials except one column base and the cabinet backs. Kippur and other holidays; weekly Shabbat services were added later. Fleisher eventually got a formal synagogue built more than 100 years after the prison had opened. The synagogue the length of four adjoining cells--was built off a cell- block in a space that had served as individual exercise units in the days of solitary confinement. "It's a very, very small room," Kelley said of the 34-foot-by-15-foot room. which he called "a precious little space." Much of the history of the synagogue was uncovered by Mass, who led an excavation of the room as part of her 2004 graduate thesis in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research into the history and building materials has been used to determine what the restored thesis topic is being restored. It's very exciting." Rabbi Martin Rubenstein, the prison's last Jewish chap- lain, told The New York Times that the synagogue helped inmates.feel connected to their families and their Jewish traditions. "it was important," Ruben- stein told the Times, "for them to feel that the community synagogue should look like. was. still there and that we "It felt important to me to were there to help them." do a topic that was Jewish," Michelle Mostovy-Eisen- said the native New Yorker. be{gisastaffwriterfortheJew- "I'm very fortunate that iny ish Exponent in Philadelphia.