In Fanny and Gabriel, the title characters’ long, arduous, and incredible saga plays out against the historical backdrop of the twentieth century’s painful history. This significant novel is based on the turbulent lives of the author’s grandparents and was written shortly before Semel passed away. It has been translated from the original Hebrew.
Fanny and Gabriel’s story begins on the eve of WWI in a Romanian shtetl. A matchmaker has introduced the smitten Fanny to the practical Gabriel. They are quickly engaged, but Gabriel is conscripted into the army before they can marry. Gabriel despises every aspect of war and finds an opportunity to desert. He spends three years hiding with a widowed Russian peasant woman and her son, working her land, going to her church, and then leaving her at war’s end to return to his previous life.
He reappears to the faithful Fanny as an indifferent, haunted, and aloof man. They marry and have a son, Yitzhak. Gabriel decides his destiny lies in America and promises he will soon send for his wife and son to join him. The narrative follows self-absorbed and determined Gabriel’s ocean crossing, new beginnings, successes, womanizing, and failure to reunite his family.
Yitzhak, who grows up resenting his father, becomes a fervent Zionist and leader. He and Fanny survive the Holocaust, are placed in DP camps in Cyprus, make their way to Palestine on an illegal boat, experience austere pioneering kibbutz culture, and eventually settle in developing Tel Aviv. The engrossing epic finds Fanny, Gabriel, and Yitzhak meeting thirty years later with surprising intentions and results.
Nava Semel was an acclaimed Israeli author, playwright, and screenwriter. Her writing style, characters, and settings are filled with beautiful descriptive language and a sharp eye for details. She cleverly introduces and skillfully intertwines recurring themes and meaningful objects that add to the book’s layers. Semel employs a unique manner of speaking to the reader throughout the novel. She addresses and comments on her grandparents’ story in short pieces set apart from the main narrative where she shares her own insights, opinions, thoughts, emotions, and doubts. She interjects many captivating clues of the characters’ future lives as she writes Fanny and Gabriel’s fictional story with “blips of truth.” As enmeshed as readers will be in the characters’ personal lives, the historical events they live through are also grippingly recreated.
Semel offers a virtual primer of early Israeli life on the kibbutz and in the emerging cities. Yitzhak and Gabriel’s voices and debates showcase and clarify opinions and arguments on Zionism, socialism, and capitalism, as well as the benefits of the diaspora against the hope and dream of building a Jewish state.
Fanny and Gabriel is a treat for the senses, the mind, and the heart as it seeks to answer questions concerning redemption, suffering, and reward.
Renita Last is a member of the Nassau Region of Hadassah’s Executive Board. She has coordinated the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Programming and Health Coordinators and as a member of the Advocacy Committee.
She has volunteered as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County teaching the all- important lessons of the Holocaust and tolerance. A retired teacher of the Gifted and Talented, she loves participating in book clubs and writing projects.