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Who Taught You to Dream?

An elegant translation brings an alternative narrative to life

In 1946, when iconic Israeli poet Lea Goldberg published her only novel, And This Is the Light [Vehu ha’or] (Toby Press, $24.95), the literary critics were far from impressed. Their main criticism was that the novel represented a private, very European coming-of-age story in a time of national turmoil. One of the critics even claimed that were the book not written in Hebrew he never could have guessed where and when it was written. Sixty-five years later, this novel, now translated into English, emerges as a complex and engaging work of its time.

And This Is the Light tells a moving and often somber story of a young Jewish woman who, in the summer of 1931, returns to her small hometown in Lithuania for a university vacation and falls for a friend of her father’s. Nora Krieger, 20, is shattered when she discovers Albert Arin is infatuated with another, more beautiful woman. Yet her fears run deeper than questions of beauty.

Throughout the novel, she is haunted by her father’s insanity, which erupted when he was tortured in World War I. “They locked him in an empty barn. And day after day, for ten straight days, they executed him, as it were…. And the man was broken, then, for the first time.” Now institutionalized, he comes home to spend time with his daughter. Constantly searching her own soul for hints of madness, Nora is torn between her fear of a harmful biological heritage and her love for her father. When she learns that Arin also suffers from mental illness she is devastated, and finds solace in her writing and her studies abroad.

Nora’s seemingly personal narrative introduces us to the world of a young, educated Jewish woman of the last century. Yet Goldberg ventures a step further when she decides to locate a young female protagonist at the center of this debut novel at the height of the national turbulence in Palestine. While her lit erary peers of the so-called Palmach generation were focused on creating in their works the image of the Sabra — the new anti-diasporic Jewish man, a son of the land — Goldberg’s heroine learns to grapple with her past rather than erase it: “Who taught you to dream the dream of your future, with a tremble, to pronounce the name of a little land on the shores of the Mediterranean, if not this town and its Jews?” By reiterating the tragic consequences of trying to erase the past, Goldberg ultimately subverts the Zionist foundation of rebirth. As Nili Scharf Gold points out in her introduction, “the novel’s seeming uncertainty that Zionism would succeed might have contributed to its cold reception.”

For today’s reader, And This is the Light is a bittersweet yet empowering coming-of-age story. Underscored by Goldberg’s own life story, this alternative biography of Jewish identity, intellectual quest, and emotional triumph is still very much a pertinent literary narrative. At last, Barbara Harshav’s elegant translation of Goldberg’s lyrical prose brings into English one of Israel’s most beloved poets and, in recent years, a prose writer to be admired too. 

Hadar Makov-Hasson received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Literature from New York University. She runs the Israeli department at The Deborah Harris Agency.