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.