While the novel slouches towards magic realism, the double voice enables the reader to maintain enough of a distance to create a tension. It is quite possible that Yitzhak is a visionary. It is equally possible that he is either deluded, or just masking his natural spirituality and adventurousness with a kind of overarching religiousness. This tension helps drive the novel forward.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Promised Land
By Ruhama Veltfort
1998, hc, 310pgs, rrp usd $23.95
Ruhama Veltfort’s debut novel The Promised Land traverses a wide terrain. Moving from the Jewish streets of Polish Przemysl in 1824, across the Atlantic ocean to New Orleans, and then across the US in unchartered Indian country to California during the pioneer era, the novel explores big concepts like exile, love, faith, and the notion of what it means to create a home. The book breaks a few first novel rules and does it well. Our two guides each have their own voice, and each voice differs signficantly. Chana is in the first person – the thin and impoverished daughter of a woman known as the village witch. Yitzhak is in the 3rd person, the intense lanky Rebbe who marries Chana and leads a small band of family and disciples across his country, continent, ocean and across the USA. The book is part historical and religious epic adventure, and part pioneering family saga.
Veltfort has published two books of poetry, and her poetic training shows in the way she carefully builds her characters, focusing on their inner worlds and perceptions, and tesing out a number of tensions. The reader feels the strain that both Yitzhak and Chana feel as they try to create a wholly new life while maintaining their religious traditions. Veltfort’s scholarship is faultless, and she provides significant and realistic detail on the spoken languages, the religious and social customs, from the setting and clothing to the types of traditions, foods, rituals, and prayers which are used in this now lost world of the Orthodox Polish shtetl.
Switching voice throughout the book could have been jarring and tricky in a lesser writer’s hands, but Veltfort manages the transitions smoothly. The chapters alternate between Yitzhak and Chana, and follow each other closely in time and place, although sometimes there are time based overlaps. These overlapping chapters add depth to the story as we view scenes from two separate angles, and work because they move in sync. Although the story follows this Jewish family, and focuses very minutely on their customs, prayers, and beliefs, there is never any confirmation that Yitzhak is anything other than an intense young man. While the novel slouches slightly towards magic realism, the double voice enables the reader to maintain enough of a distance to create a tension. It is quite possible that Yitzhak is a visionary. It is equally possible that he is either deluded, or just masking his natural spirituality and adventurousness with a kind of overarching religiousness. This tension helps drive the novel forward.
Other characters like the Yitzhak’s odd rhyming twin Feigl, her intense husband Asher, the fiddler Chaim Loeb, the unlikely disciple Mo, the robber baron type Cohn, or the sharp Madame Estella also add colour. Estella’s callousness towards her slaves, and the issues of emancipation, the war for Mexico, and the pioneer expansion westward are also plot points which help add interest to the story. The book is the story of a particular passage, and a particular people during a particular time and place, but it is also an internal journal, as Yitzhak and Chana become exiles, leaving a country which is rapidly changing and try to find a new home and sense of place. The book is true to the Orthodox Jewish customs, taking the reader through many Sabbath celebrations, and quoting whole prayers, its strength is in the mystical, spirituality of the main character’s vision, rather than their religious rituals:
But it was exquisite to lie under this tree. It was worth the mosquitoes. From across the meadow came the sound of spectral voices, singing in harmony. They sang in a strange language, not even Polish, an alien forbidden sound. Each note seemed to hold the light of the entire creation, Olem. Yitzhak shuddered with delight and fear. He rolled onto his stomach, pressing himself against the warm ground, feeling himself melt into the centre of the world, as the voices of those goyische angels floated around him.(17)
Later too, Yitzhak achieves a similar sense if ecstasy during a fundamentalist Christian revival meeting, and is shocked when he finally notices that the “brethren” are singing about Jesus. There are other touches of mysticism, such as Yitzhak’s occasional power to heal the dying, and his uncontrollable desire to speak the forbidden name of his god: “this song was new, he had never heard it until it burst from him, until he pronounced the unpronounceable name YaHuVeh God is one!“(230)
Chana too dabbles on the edge of a mystical ecstasy, albeit a more earthy female one which works as a kind of mirror to Yitzhak’s:
From dawn every day until the long after the sun set, we worked over those gigantic, fragrant, boiling kettles. There were mountains of cucumbers to be peeled and sliced, peas to shell, long green beans to cut, deep red tomatoes. And baskets and baskets of fruits to be peeled, pitted, cut, boiled. When I closed my eyes for a minute, the steam from the kettles became the mist over the sea, and I would see again that expanse, feel the rocking of the ship, and the openness of the sky. (133)
After such close concentration and small motions in the early part of the story, the ending tends to move forward in too much of a rush, and Chana’s last chapter (20) covers so much ground that it functions more as an epilogue than a natural part of the story. One wonders whether this could have made a good sequel, leaving the ending more open, although I suppose readers tend to like resolution. A sequel from Chaya’s daughter’s perspective perhaps is a natural follow up. In any case, this is an engrossing and very well written book. At one point in the book Yitzhak tells his small band of disciples and his wife a story: “The tzaddik knew the secret of bringing together the inner and outer worlds.” The same could be said of Veltfort.