If You Awaken Love (translated from Hebrew by David Hazony, Toby Press, $14.95) is a stunning debut by Emuna Elon, the author of several children’s books and short stories, and the wife of Knesset Member Benny Elon. The protagonist and narrator, Shlomtzion Drore, takes the reader along with her as she muses on the strange happenings in her life. At first we think she is presenting a one-on-one discourse with her daughter Maya, then one with Yair, the love of her life; soon we realize that she is rewinding the events in her own mind, sort of peeling the onion, in an attempt to find resolution and peace.
When the book opens, Shlomtzion is a secular successful interior designer in Tel Aviv. She is the daughter of the pompous Professor Avraham Dror of the Hebrew University Biblical Studies department, a philanderer who kept her mother in a condition of near servitude. She has to look to the memories of her grandmother Rochel for the love that didn’t come from home.
Shlomtzion’s life was shattered a generation earlier when, as an intensely religious girl (a lifestyle she chose on her own) living in Jerusalem, her “intended” Yair, on the advice of the head of his yeshiva, refused to marry her. The effect was devastating “Since then, to this very day, I have not enjoyed a single moment of joy, nor a moment of inner peace, nor a moment without burning injury of your having rejected me.”
In their teens Shlomtzion and Yair were involved in fervent study, mitzvot (good deeds) and much contemplation. The window onto yeshiva life and study is riveting. Shlomtzion is revolted by the material world; Yair brings her to the yeshiva, now empty of students, and shows her in a volume called Lights that the great Rabbi Kook, former chief rabbi of Israel, had similar thoughts. “’When the soul yearns for the clearer light, then the world becomes reviled in its eyes. It expands and grows so much into the world’s limited expanse, that the whole world, with all its material and spiritual treasures, seems to it like merely a house of anguish, its air no longer breathable.’”What prompts all the soul-searching in the present? Maya, the daughter of Shlomtzion’s short-lived marriage, who has become religious, comes home to Tel Aviv and tells her mother that she is to be married to the son of the now Rabbi Yair Berman. Shlomtzion now has a mirror image to contemplate. “Is it really true that one can never escape the wretchedness dictated by heredity? Must fate really always come around and strike in each and every generation?” She now must confront her former love to plan the wedding and try to work through the mistakes of her life, including those with her father and with God. From the Six Day War to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Emuna Elon writes more than a love story: the political, social and religious atmosphere in Israel is integrated into her narrative.
Molly Abramowitz is a writer and reviewer dividing her time between Silver Spring, MD and Jerusalem.