There’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 book, which 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:
How difficult the word how many memories
of hatred and slavery
and because of it we have shed so many tears
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.
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