Fan­ny and Gabriel

  • Review
By – September 8, 2021

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.

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