The Loves of Judith: A Novel

Meir Shalev; Bar­bara Har­shav, trans.

  • Review
By – June 11, 2013

In pre-Israel Pales­tine of the 1930s, a deter­mined and soli­tary woman takes up res­i­dence in the cow­shed on the farm of the wid­ow­er Moshe Rabi­novitch. Judith beguiles not only Rabi­novitch but also the gen­tle canary breed­er, Jacob She­in­feld, and the coarse cat­tle deal­er, Glober­man. Their inter­con­nect­ed sto­ries in Meir Shalev’s 1994 nov­el are grad­u­al­ly revealed in the form of an extend­ed rem­i­nis­cence by Zayde, Judith’s son.

These pio­neers in Israel’s agri­cul­tur­al heart­land (the author’s birth­place) were not far removed from their Euro­pean roots or the Yid­dish lan­guage. Yet they made their lives amid the unfor­giv­ing ele­ments of the Jezreel Val­ley. Shalev nev­er lets you for­get the floods, the mud, the wind, the sun, the crows, the mul­ber­ry trees and pome­gran­ates, the hor­nets on the grapes, the cows and the chick­ens, the mice and the snakes, the cypress­es and euca­lyp­tus that were all around them.

It is also fer­tile ground for fables that are not quite real and not quite mag­i­cal. She­in­feld remem­bers when boys in the Ukraine of his child­hood would launch paper love boats” down the riv­er Kody­ma where girls would find them. Six­ty years lat­er, he adds, a woman knocked on the door of an eighty-year-old man named Nozdry­ov: she had been look­ing for him ever since she found his boat when they were young. And Nozdry­ov rec­og­nizes her from his dreams.

Oth­er tales sim­i­lar­ly lie just beyond the edge of plau­si­bil­i­ty. Rabinovitch’s son Oded dri­ves a car per­fect­ly at the age of eight the first time he gets behind the wheel. Judith keeps a beloved calf named Rachel that has both horns and an udder. Zayde has sev­er­al encoun­ters with the Angel of Death, who is con­found­ed by meet­ing a boy named Grand­fa­ther.”

Amid all these digres­sions the char­ac­ters’ pasts grad­u­al­ly come to light. Hus­bands and wives are part­ed by jeal­ousy or vin­dic­tive­ness or by fatal acci­dent as the cos­mos remains impas­sive, which per­haps explains the exis­ten­tial lone­li­ness of Judith and of the three men who look after her. As Judith often remarks, A naf­ka mina” – What’s the difference?”

This is the first paper­back edi­tion of this book, which first appeared in Eng­lish in 1999. Bar­bara Harshav’s resource­ful trans­la­tion is con­sis­tent­ly flu­id and evocative.

Discussion Questions