A young woman finds inner strength in a desert that would become Israel.
Israeli novelist Lapid offers English-language audiences a grim historical set in the late 1870s, with a fiery Baltic heroine at its center. Originally published in Hebrew in 1982, it follows the plights and rare joys of Fania Mandelstam, a Ukrainian survivor of a violent pogrom, who flees to a settlement in Galilee. “There was a kind of insanity in this journey to the Land of Israel; she, a 16-year-old girl, saddled with an elderly uncle, a lunatic brother, and a baby. If she were to read of such a foursome in a novel, she would seriously doubt the good taste of the writer,” Lapid offers. To protect her wounded relations, Fania enters into marriage with Yehiel Silas, a widowed settler with two children. The story covers seven years of their lives in the remote settlement of Gai Oni, a backwater desert and forerunner to the town of Rosh Pinnah. Fania makes for a lively protagonist, donning regional garb to ride alone through the desert, pistol by her side. Far from docile, she struggles to support Yehiel’s burgeoning farm and defend her community, and enters the business world to operate her own trade in pharmaceuticals and help launch a cigarette factory. She also has strong words for her husband and her community, even as she grows to love them both. “So you men are going to sit, while we stand outside like Bedouin women and wait for you to eat your fill and throw us the scraps?” she asks during a summit between Jews and Arabs over a legal dispute. The story loses pace at times when its focus leaves Fania, but Lapid’s lush saga should appeal to readers interested in Jewish lore or pioneer fiction.
A confrontational meditation on feminism and Israel’s place in history.