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Israeli, and Israel, coming of age

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ISRAELI writer Haim Sabato’s newest novel, From the Four Winds creates a multi-textured story of survival and renewal based on families carried to Israel from the proverbial four corners of the earth by the force of hope.

It is a story told slowly, rich in the development of the protagonist and a more subtle development of the narrator, a child. While it is a family story of survival it also a coming-of-age book for Sabato himself and for the State of Israel, both “growing up” in the late 1950s.

Through the unfolding events of the plot, Sabato asks the reader to think about the purpose of the Jewish state, its survival and renewal.

What starts out as a Jerusalem story, replete with details of cyclamen fields and mysterious neighbors, soon becomes a story about a people spread out, whose fate affects Jews worldwide.

It is a story that goes back in time, only to live its climax in its retelling.

Through this novel, Sabato treats the questions of Jewish identity and continuity, what constitutes being a link in the chain, and what one Jew’s responsibility is to another. Sabato weaves these questions into a recurring theme, where the narrator, when perplexed, always reassures himself, “I didn’t ask. Everything needed to become clear of its own accord.”

A number of elements set this story apart from many others on the subject of Jewish nationality. Not only is the narrator in this novel a child, but the child is the boy that Sabato recreates from his own memory. While the book is not an autobiography, it has many autobiographical elements. In fact, the novel reminds me of Amos Oz’s Tale of Love and Darkness. Not only do both novels share this autobiographical element, but they are both narrated by young boys growing up in Jerusalem.

SABATO, who hails from a long line of Sephardic, Syrian-Egyptian rabbis, endows the narrator with the same lineage.

This helps set the stage for the differences the child notices between the newly arrived boisterous, Sephardic immigrants and the silent, Hungarian immigrants.

The windows of the Ashkenazic Jews are always closed, they speak in whispers, and there is a sadness that sits beyond the pupil of their eyes, that even a young Egyptian boy, grandson of Hakham Choueka, notices.

Yet, the Sephardic Jews have conflict about immigrating to Israel. Their souls are in Jerusalem, but their minds or hearts remain in the host country.

“I was a young boy but I distinctly remember the glow of their faces at the sound of the French language. Mother and her friends from Egypt had their hearts in Jerusalem but their spirits in Paris.”

Beit Mazmil, the Jerusalem neighborhood for immigrants that is the setting, is a hodgepodge of immigrants, rather than an organized attempt at absorption. The ever-vibrant pungent homes of his Sephardic tradition seem much happier than the melancholy Hungarian homes, but, still, something pulls the narrator to learn more about his newly named brothers.

One particular Ashkenazic Jew, Mr. Farkash, takes a liking to the boy. Their meeting foreshadows one of Sabato’s themes.

“Who are you boy?” he asked.

“A new immigrant,” I answered.

“We are all immigrants,” Farkash hurried to respond. “New immigrants, old immigrants, this land too, it is both old and new.”

Soon enough Farkash, the dominant protagonist, “adopts” the boy. Eventually the Holocaust survivor bestows the boy with three pledges for him to carry out. The pledges become the link in the Farkash family chain.

Finally, Sabato doesn’t set up this smorgasbord of questions without using the symbolism of Jewish texts.

In fact, the text that is constantly brought up from the talmudic tractate Bava Metzia has to do with “returning a lost item,” to be understood both figuratively and literally: returning the Jew to his rightful place, returning the land to its rightful owner, returning a promise kept to the next link in the chain.

Last Updated ( Friday, 05 February 2010 08:39 )  

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