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Valley of strength

Valley of Strength, considered a classic amongst Israeli literature, is a book that the English-speaking public can finally access. Written by Shulamit Lapid, a central figure of the Israeli literary scene and an award-winning author, the book tells the story of Israel through a feminist lens. For Israel, this book is a sort of “coming of age.”

The story speaks of an idealized Israel, long before it became a state. It is also a story of a 16 year-old girl, who already must become a woman. And, finally, it is a story, that still remains Israel’s story today: The threading of a young man and woman, their fears, yearnings and all the Jewish history that throbs in their Jewish hearts that impassions them — despite soul-searing hardships — to build the Jewish state.

The history and idealism make it a novel of yesterday.

The love, fear and challenges, specifically faced by women, make it a modern story.

Fania Mandelstam is an educated, high school girl, loving the cultured, yet Jewish upbringing she is enjoying in the late 1800s in Russia. Her life descends into darkness on the day that the pogrom arrives on her family’s front door. She is raped on her parents’ bed by a Gentile. Her parents don’t come to her rescue from the room next door because, while she was being raped, they were murdered.

Valley of Strength, by Shulamit Lapid
translated by Philip Simpson
(Toby Press, 2009)

It is here that Fania’s real struggle for identity begins. Like so many Russian Jews who had embraced both Judaism and the enlightened Mother Russia, and then, after the pogroms, had to find a new place, a new “Jewish solution,” Fania now has to pack her bags and leave the country that turned its back on her, whose books and music she still loves.

She turns East, toward Jaffa, to that land that her father, the pious Jew, had always dreamed of.  Why hadn’t he gone to Israel all these years? He was waiting for his conscripted 12-year old son to return from the Russian army.

“‘If not this year, then next year. If not next year, then the year after. . . When Lulik returns, we shall all go to the Holy Land,’ her father said. Meanwhile, he used to sing the song, ‘I am the Lily of the Sharon, the rose of the valleys.’”

There is an additional struggle Fania has to deal with. The struggle of a single, orphaned, young girl in a male-dominated world. But the struggle that most informs her life is that of her rape. This struggle shapes the rest of her life, both her triumphs and tragedies.

Lulik, the conscripted brother, does finally make it home, but there is no home to speak of. He is “mad,” like many of the Jewish children who had been conscripted. The experience robbed him of his sanity. Fania feels responsible to nurture her brother, her single uncle, Shura, and her father’s dream: going to the Holy Land.

But there is one person she does not intend to care for: the baby growing inside her. That all changes when Fania gives birth to the baby in Constantinople, enroute to Palestine. She becomes attached to her baby, and adds her to her odd “brood” of mouths to feed.

The story opens with Fania riding an open, mule cart beside a man she doesn’t know, Yehiel Silas, whom she has just married, soon after her arrival in Jaffa. Seeing that his niece is “taken care of,” Shura, her uncle, remains in Jaffa, while Fania travels with Yehiel to his settlement.

Holding her baby on her lap, with her brother Lulik in the back of the wagon, Fania wonders what she has gotten herself into. But she also knows that no one would “take her,” with her brood, and her secret. Yehiel is told that the father of the baby was killed in the pogrom. Fania is convinced that Yehiel has married her out of necessity: he needs someone to take care of his two, young children since he has been widowed.

Therein lie the struggles and challenges that await the new, pioneering couple.

Together, with all their hopes for settling the land, and their inner fears and longings, they travel to Gai Oni, (“Valley of Strength”), a settlement in the Galilee. There, she will help him continue to build what he had already started to build, a broken and whole home, an Israel made of pain of love and of longing. A place where they will yearn to come home and, simultaneously, a place to run away from home.

Yehiel has agreed to Fania’s terms of the marriage; they will act married to the few courageous families settling Gai Oni, but inside their hearts and home, they both know that they are serving functional roles for one another. In this society, and in their circumstances, she needs a man, and he needs a wife.

They travel toward the settlement, the precursor to the town of modern-day Rosh Pinnah. The landscape is dotted with peonies, but mostly is covered with thorns, resembling much of what the couple will encounter: few moments of beauty in their very hard life.

Like so many Jews before her, and so many since, Fania wonders why she had thought the Jewish homeland would solve all of her problems.

“Why did she imagine that here in the Land of Israel her grief would be erased? What made her think that here all her problems would be solved? What had she hoped for, really?”

Once she settles into her role and place in Gai Oni, she learns that she has entered into a tribe with its own web, connected by blood, religion and politics.

She also learns that the land itself, even though so arid, so impossibly stubborn, is, simultaneously Yehiel’s love and adversary. Slowly, she learns that this Land of Israel can love you and kill you, embrace you and yet, not feed you.

Fania takes on the responsibility of feeding everyone, Lulik, her baby, Yehiel’s kids, visitors, and relatives. In her urgent quest to feed everyone she neglects to feed Yehiel, and her soul.

Or, perhaps, she learns that there are different ways to feed the soul, nurture the dreams and cultivate hope.

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