A fantasy made in Israel
By definition, fantasy writing in Hebrew is a stretch. Most treasured masterpieces that make it onto Israeli bookshelves, like "The Chronicles of Narnia" series, "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and more, are translated.
So the author of "The Journey to the Kingdom of Oridor" (published by Arieh Nir), Michal Aharoni Regev, has written almost in a vacuum.
Aharoni Regev is a religious woman, was formerly an elementary school principal (Yavneh Hadati in Ra'anana), has 11 grandchildren and lives in Elkana in the West Bank.
Her success in inventing a convincing world in Hebrew based on an imagined mythology is an impressive achievement. She has concocted a flowing plot that combines encounters with wondrous beings, magical forces and a struggle between the forces of purity and evil and has invented two imaginary languages spoken by rival peoples.
Some of the terms that she creates rely on her familiarity with traditional Jewish texts. For example, the Symbat River has its origin in the ancient Sambatyon river. According to Jewish legend the Ten Tribes were exiled to an unknown land beyond the turbulent river, whose waters would only calm on Shabbat.
The story begins when three school-age siblings, two boys and a girl, go out for an afternoon ramble on the Mountain of the Winds, a desolate area outside their home.
On the way, they meet a wise and elderly creature named Ashdagon, who leads them to a magic castle. There, he invites them to rescue the Kingdom of Oridor for the sake of his countrymen, the Oridorites.
During the journey, they find themselves embroiled in a titanic struggle between the Oridorites and their enemies the Demlotzparites. They emerge from the journey with insights into the nature of dreams and the inner forces that impel them, and since Aharoni Regev is an educator, they also discover the power of friendship and cooperation. The didactic message is kept at a low volume, though.
Aharoni Regev says that after husband died she felt "a strong inner need to write. I didn't know that I would write a fantasy," she says. "I made up a story."
Why did you write for children?
"I am still a child myself and I love to imagine things," she says.
Author Yehuda Atlas has a prosaic answer to as to why fantasy literature has not flourished in Israel: the lack of mystery.
"We didn't grow up in a place where there are kings and queens," he says. "You can't find enchanted castles here, never mind forests. A real forest with bears and deer is essential to fantasy. Instead of enchanted castles and mysterious buildings that might conceal secrets and wondrous creatures within - we have buildings with plastic turrets."
Of Aharoni Regev's book, Atlas says: "A well-written book of fantasy in Hebrew is definitely something new."
Aharoni Regev says it took her nearly 30 years to complete the book. She wrote the first version when she was a young mother and abandoned the draft in a drawer upon completion.
Years later she could not find the manuscript and sat down to write it again. Today she is writing another book, the life story of Donna Gracia, the Jewish stateswoman and philanthropist who help Marranos in Spain and throughout Europe during the Inquisition.
Aharoni Regev grew up in a religious Zionist family in Ramat Gan. Her father, Yaakov Aharoni, was a member of the Irgun (the pre-state underground militia) and eventually a member of the Ramat Gan city council.
He was also an amateur author who published a number of little-noticed novels. She remembers him sitting at his desk for hours on end and she says that sight provided her with the inspiration to write.
Every Saturday evening they would visit friends from the Irgun in Tel Aviv, Eliza and Menachem Begin and sometimes poet Uri Zvi Greenberg. The Begin home was like a cultural and literary salon.
"I was an absolutely still audience when they read aloud, Greenberg's 'The Streets of the River,' with pathos," she says. "I was enchanted. Those meetings shaped me. Those people were imbued with a sense of mission."
Her own book is devoid of religious or other ideology. She attributes her attraction to other worlds to the rich world of imagination she developed during her unusual childhood. When she was 9 years old, the family went to live in Istanbul, where her father was a Jewish Agency emissary. Thus she grew up in a luxurious apartment on the Bosphorus, isolated from her friends and family in Israel.
She was first enrolled at the Alliance School and then at a Catholic school and in both places she was forced to conceal her Jewish identity.
"I learned to hide the fact that I was Israeli," she says. "I felt as though I were a Marrano in Spain. I felt the fear of being a Jew."
The many moves were not easy; during her childhood she attended a total of 10 different schools.
"I found refuge I books and imagination," she says. "That is the material from which fantasy is produced."