THE PROMISED LAND by Ruhama Veltfort


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First-novelist Veltfort, a San Francisco-based poet and editor, offers a meandering tale of Jewish life in the shtetls of Poland and America in the 1840s. Alternating between the first-person recollections of Chana, virtually an orphan, raised in servitude, and third-person narration telling of her eventual husband, the pious Hasid Yitzhak, Veltfort strings together a series of dramatic events that take the couple from the pogrom-threatened world of 1830s Poland to the new world. Yitzhak is the outcast son of a prominent Hasidic rabbi, a lost soul who finds a true connection to holiness only when he joins the circle of his father's sworn enemy, Shmuel Salomon. After Salomon's death, he takes to the road as an itinerant peddler, meeting and befriending Chana. Eventually, the two marry and, with a small set of followers, escape the dangers of an anti-Semitic and plague-ridden Europe. In the story's second half, they find America a perilous and peculiar place, with threats of assimilation and death by violence never far away. Veltfort's old world is evoked with echoes of the Brothers Singer, I.L. Peretz, and other Yiddish writers; it's an often enchanting fictional milieu that combines both the ecstasies of the wonder-working rebbes and various demons and witches with the very real threat of pogroms, poverty, and plague. The new world, however, is rather attenuated, a string of set-pieces that seem linked only by Yitzhak's visions. Moreover, while Chana's unadorned, straightforward peasant-girl voice in the first section is strong and distinctive, that certainty of tone is lost when the focus shifts. Eventually, Chana's narration becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the third-person voice. After a promising start, a disappointing finish.

Pub Date: Nov. 3rd, 1998
Page count: 300pp
Publisher: Milkweed