Traveling today to Rosh Pina, a city in northern Israel with a world-class spa, an art colony, and winding picturesque roads, it is hard to imagine the terrain when Fania Mandelstam, 16, arrives at the end of the nineteenth century. Shulamit Lapid, in Valley of Strength (Toby Press, $24.95), vividly portrays the hardships and political struggles of the early Zionist pioneers in this 1982 classic Israeli novel, newly translated by Philip Simpson.
Fania, a beautiful, cultured girl from a respected Russian family, saw her world overturned in a pogrom; her parents were murdered and she was raped. She comes to Palestine accompanied by her uncle, her unwanted baby Tamara (the result of the rape) and her deranged brother Lulik, a victim of his experiences in the Russian army. They have come, at Fania’s urging, to fulfill her intellectual father’s dream of rebuilding the land. Her uncle has arranged a marriage for her to Yehiel Silas, a 26-year-old widower with two children. Fania asks her new husband about the place he is taking her, Gai Oni. “At the moment we are harvesting stones and weeds,” he announces.
In Gai Oni, disease, hunger and death are constants. Like Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, Fania declares that she will not go hungry again. And so this middle-class educated and cultured young woman learns to work in the fields pulling rocks, become a mother to Yehiel’s children, cook and clean and tend to the animals. She exchanges her Russian dress for Bedouin robes and rides through Arab land to deal in commerce, politics and even defense.
Yehiel, a Sephardi native of Safed, is at home with his Arab neighbors, and fiercely opposes any charitable help from philanthropists. Fania negotiates with big donors Rothschild and Hirsch and saves the family from starvation.
In this carefully researched book, often taught in Israeli high schools, Lapid describes the Zionist era of the 1880s, and the rival groups of the yishuv, such as the BILU, secular Russian Jewish idealists aspiring to settle and redeem Eretz Yisrael and re-establishing the Jewish State, the Templars (German Christians to whom many Jews sold their land and became tenants), and the religious Jews of Safed, who throw stones at Fania. The idealism of Yehiel, who literally cleared the land with his blood, and the determination and resourcefulness of Fania are emblematic of that era of Zionist struggle.
Molly Abramowitz is the author of Elie Wiesel, A Bibliography. She lives in Jerusalem and Maryland.