Settling in for the long haul
Byline: Miriam Shaviv
Date: Friday, November 29, 2002
Storm of Terror: A Hebron Mother's Diary by June Leavitt
One of the major fault lines running between the Israeli Right and Left is over whether the settlers are Israel's truest Zionists, performing an invaluable service by maintaining the territorial integrity of the Land of Israel, or irresponsible fanatics, willfully ignoring political realities at the expense of other Israelis.
In Storm of Terror, June Leavitt, an American-born mother of five, neatly points up this dilemma.
On the one hand, she clearly belongs to our best and brightest, not to mention bravest. Her slim volume, an account of life in Hebron (Kiryat Arba, to be exact) between the outbreak of the current violence in September 2000 and February 2002, is a truly powerful work, beautifully constructed and written.
The bulk of the book is comprised of elegies to Israelis killed in the intifada. Entire entries, sometimes three or four in a row, consist of nothing more than a list of that day's victims - often neighbors and friends of Leavitt's - and their stories. Leavitt's occasional mad rushes to account for the safety of her own children, and her bouts of depression wondering when the terror will end, pass as mental relief.
As awful as this sounds, the book is extremely readable, even magnetic. Leavitt has an excellent feel for rhythm, and her writing borders on the poetic. Her sense of ongoing worry and unrest could not be more powerfully conveyed.
So when, on the very last page, Leavitt's children explain why they choose to live in Israel despite the hardships, and her husband says he thinks 'we'll be happy here yet,' it is hard - especially for an olah who has felt similar emotions about living in Israel in general - not to feel a burst of sympathy and pride.
On the other hand, Leavitt lends a Romantic slant to the suffering which is extremely disturbing. She intersperses her narrative with disapproving stories of her wealthy Long Island childhood, as if to say that her life had no meaning without trouble.
As she explicitly says, 'I believe that the suffering we are all going through will destroy our old selves, will make us more evolved, will crack and crush that in us which is not good enough. I believe that the Messiah is not a person, outside of us, but is a noble state of mind possible in each and every one of us, a state of mind which must be attained, too often through pain.'
Firstly, this is not really a Jewish response. She seems to find death and suffering ennobling; they are not.
More importantly, Leavitt's elevation of Hebron and of the daily terror to the status of the sublime is selfish. Leavitt may be improving herself, but her presence in Hebron has implications for thousands of others, be they Israelis on the other side of the Green Line, Jews in the Diaspora, or her Arab neighbors. She never even acknowledges this.
In a sense, Leavitt uses her poetry as a cloak to hide from confronting these very real questions. She tries so hard to recreate her emotional state and create atmosphere that she has no room to discuss the existential issues which some of her readers may have found even more interesting.
It also prevents her from giving true insight into the characters of her children and neighbors, who become bit players, or giving a real sense of the sights and smells of Hebron.
This is a shame, because the interesting raw material practically leaps off her pages. Leavitt herself sounds like a fascinating character, of whom we know too little. Although she seems to believe that the Land of Israel is God-given to the Jews (a traditional Orthodox approach), she occasionally mentions consulting her tarot cards and pendulum, and at one point even quotes 'Jesus the Jew.'
A note at the end of the book, revealing that she is 'now... a secular Jew,' only deepens the mystery. When did her religious transformation happen? Surely it is connected to her experiences in Hebron? What is it like to live in such a religiously charged location, having dropped religion? We would love to know.
Similarly, Leavitt's family simply begs for more attention. Early on in the book, Leavitt describes a fascinating clash between her 'ultra-Orthodox and fanatically right-wing' daughter Miriam, demonstrating in Hebron, and her secular daughter Estie, a soldier stationed by the Tomb of Patriarchs.
'A woman soldier grabbed Miriam's arm. Miriam resisted. When the soldier raised her arm to hit Miriam, Estie screamed, 'Don't touch her! She's my sister!'
'Just whose side are you on?' her comrade-in-arms shouted back.'
Telling us more about incidents such as these could have helped Leavitt make a better case for the settlers, and provide a more three-dimensional portrait of their lives. As the debate about the settlers' character is still ongoing, her failure to do so is a colossal missed opportunity.
|© 2010 Miriam Shaviv | Design by Danny Bermant|