Tag Archives: exile

Leah Goldberg, Me, and the Search for a Title for my New Book

fields-of-exileThere’s a Jewish story you may know that includes the refrain: “You never know.” In one section of it, a young Jewish man living in czarist Russia falls off his horse, breaks his leg, and tells his father, “”hat bad luck I have.” His father merely replies, “You never know.” The next day the czar’s men arrive in this family’s village to round up young men to serve in the czar’s army but, because of this young man’s broken leg, they don’t take him. “What good luck!” he happily tells his father. But his father merely replies, “You never know.” And so on.

I thought of this story recently in connection with the process I went through to find a title for my new bookwhich is the first novel about anti–Israelism on campus, and came out last week in the USA. When my publisher, Dundurn Press, first offered to publish this novel, I already had a title for it: Exile. I loved this title and was very committed to it. I’d been calling my novel Exile for years, ever since I’d started writing it, and just as one talks to one’s baby using a specific name even while it’s still in utero, I was certain that Exile was my novel’s true name.

A little while later, though, Dundurn informed me that I’d have to change this title because they’d just published another book called Exile. I was distressed, and sure that I’d never find another title so perfect. Exile captured the essence of my novel: its protagonist is a young woman living in Toronto and experiencing herself as being “in exile” because she longs to be back in Jerusalem.

Having no choice, though, I began to consider alternative titles. After discarding numerous unsatisfactory options, I started reading Hebrew and Yiddish poetry on the theme of exile (both in the original and in translation), as well as essays about this kind of poetry. I eventually came across a book chapter from 1998, “Modernism and Exile: A View from the Margins” by Michael Gluzman, which contained Gluzman’s own translation of a then almost unknown Hebrew poem, written by Leah Goldberg at around age ten, called “Exile.” Here’s how it begins:

Exile
How difficult the word how many memories
of hatred and slavery
and because of it we have shed so many tears
exile
and yet, I’ll rejoice in the fields of exile…

As soon as I read the words fields of exile, I knew I had my title. I had a physical reaction to these words: something electric ran through my body.

The poem continues:

which are filled with oats and flax
the hot day and the cool evening
and the dead silence of night

the pale spring and the melting snow
the season which is neither summer nor autumn
when, in the garden, by some miracle
the green turns to gold.

I did not know at that time why I was so affected by the words and yet, I’ll rejoice in the fields of exile. In the subsequent weeks, though, it became clearer. According to Gluzman, Goldberg was rare among her contemporaries for refusing to conform to the simplistic negation of exile that was a central component of classic Zionist ideology. As Gluzman points out, although Goldberg’s poem “Exile” begins with a classic Zionist rejection of exile, it moves on to assert that even in exile there is beauty, and that this beauty can engender happiness.

The honesty of this poem and the stance that it represents resonated, and continues to resonate, profoundly with me. When I made aliya in the 1970s, willing, even eager, to adopt the “negation of exile” ideology surrounding me, one thing I could never quite negate—and the only thing I never stopped missing about the place I came from—was Canada’s natural landscape: its beautiful forests, rivers and lakes, which felt to me like home. Ever since then, wherever I’ve lived, the complexity of the concepts of “home” and “exile” has preoccupied me, and this complexity is central to my novel, Fields of Exile.

So what initially seemed like a piece of bad luck with my book’s title turned out to be just the opposite. Thanks to Leah Goldberg (and Michael Gluzman), I’ve ended up with a much more beautiful and evocative title – and a richer and more meaningful one – than I had before. As that wise old story says, You never know…

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on June 2, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Is History a Prison or a Home?

sliver-of-lightIn 1951 my family left the region in which they had lived since Nebuchadnezzar II took a bunch of Jews captive and brought them to Babylon in 587 BCE. My father was a toddler but my grandfather took part in the underground Zionist organization in Basra, Iraq that tried to convince people to leave their ancient homeland for another ancient homeland. It must have been difficult to convince a strong-rooted community to relocate to Israel/Palestine where Ashkenazim didn’t speak their language nor share their culture. The disturbances in 1941 scared many Jews into relocating. But two hundred deaths are not enough to account for a mass exodus of 125,000 people ten years after the incident.

Now, when I visit my Iraqi-Israeli family in a suburb of Tel Aviv, the memories of Mesopotamia are thin. Only aunt Frida’s pickled mangos, classical Arabic music, and foggy stories of a dead generation survived the twenty-three centuries between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

When I crossed the Tigris in 2009, I expected to cross back over in a few days. I posted on Facebook that “I was exploring my roots.” I felt jitters at the idea of being in Iraq: the place of my father’s birth; the cradle of civilization; the site of the war that I protested against in America. But my Facebook post was more metaphorical than real. I traveled to Kurdistan – a region untouched by the war – and my father was born in the opposite part of the country. Many Kurds don’t even speak my father’s native Arabic.

My first steps onto Iraqi soil were at night. I exited the taxi that took me over the border from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan into a hotel. The stairwell reeked of pickled mangos like aunt Frida’s dinner table.

A jovial hotel owner about my father’s age greeted my friends and I from the couch in the lobby. We sat down and chatted in English. Soon enough, he slapped my inner thigh – like only my father does – and told me his political opinions: George Bush was his hero for killing Saddam Hussein, and he admired the military might of Israel. What would have happened if Jews continued in Iraq for the last sixty years? We’ll never know.

Since Jews emigrated from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Morocco en masse, the only country in the Middle East with a sizeable Jews community (besides Israel) is Iran. That’s where I ended up because I took a hike beyond a waterfall located too near the Iranian border and ended up in Iranian prison under suspicion of espionage.

In Psalms the captives lament the detention of Nebuchadnezzar II and yearn for home. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Fifty years later the Persians conquered Babylonia and the Persians freed some Jews to return to their homeland.

It took me twenty-six months to make it out of Persian prison, but my family doesn’t have a homeland. My family has lived in Iraq, Israel, and in various corners of America. Yet, I recently received a little clue, which I cling to as if it were my destiny. When I recently moved to Brooklyn, the apartment I moved into – I learned after renting it – had belonged to my great grandmother for several decades. I’ll take any clue I can get.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy