Journeying to Jerusalem in Dreams and Reality

When she is just a young girl, Gittel, the heroine of Trail of Miracles by Smadar Herzfeld (Amazon Crossing, $10.77), sets out with her little brother to reach Jerusalem. They walk from their home- town in the Ukraine past rivers, fields, and apple trees, until they are startled by a goose and taken in by kind peas- ants, who fetch a wagon and send them back home. But the dream of reaching Jerusalem remains with Gittel for several more decades, until ultimately she abandons her two sons after her husband’s death and makes that dream a reality.

This novel, which moves back and forth in time, charts another journey too, for Gittel starts out as the daughter of a renowned Torah scholar, and then, overnight, she is taken at the age of 12 by the emissaries of the great Hasidic Maggid, Dov Ber of Mezeritch, a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, to be wed to the Maggid’s sickly and reclusive son Avraham. Gittel feels no connection to her husband, though she develops a strong bond with her father-in-law the Maggid, who understands and at times even intuits her dreams and visions.

Much of this novel takes place in a dreamscape and in an imagined reality. Gittel dreams of a gathering of venerable elders who threaten to take her husband’s life, and she has visions of the Maggid following the great rebbe’s death. Through it all, she dreams of returning to her hometown, where her father taught her to read and write and study Torah. “My saintly father had always derided dreams, calling them drops of burning oil from the cauldron of hell where limbs of the wicked were roasted,” Gittel relates. “Of course this saddened me, for I loved my dreams, but I learned to keep them to myself, rolling them around my mind like small, secret marbles, until they became transparent and clear to me.”

Gittel herself exists in a dream of sorts, since she is at once the daughter- in-law of the Maggid and the great- grandmother of the novel’s narrator— the “I” who appears only in the opening and closing chapters, and who describes herself as “an insignificant novelist of whom only a few have heard” living in Jerusalem—as does Smadar Herzfeld. Herzfeld’s novel was originally self-published in Hebrew by 62, a boutique publishing house that Herzfeld founded to publish books on women and religion. Lyrically translated into English by Aloma Halter, this slim volume at times reads more like poetry than prose, with its evocations of the wagons and chicken coops in an 18th-century Ukrainian village and of the pious poverty of the washerwoman that Gittel becomes when she finally reaches Jerusalem, where she declares, quoting the sages, that the air makes you wise. Gittel finds companionship about the women of Jerusalem, though these peripheral characters appear only briefly in the novel’s opening pages, and then they disappear like a fleeting dream. The reader can’t help wishing they lingered a bit longer, so that they might seem more real, but that does not seem to be what the narrator is after: “My words are the words of a dream,” Gittel tells us. “They fly like wild bees from place to place, trailing drops of honey, hovering aimlessly in the blue air.”

Ilana Kurshan’s memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, has just been published.