Kol Mi She'ahava (Anybody She Loved), by Edna Noy Hasifriah Hahadashah/Hakibbutz Hameuchad (Hebrew), 280 pages, NIS 89
Isser Naimand, the Jewish-Hungarian Holocaust survivor who is one of the central characters in Edna Noy's debut novel, "Anybody She Loved," is employed in a workshop that repairs broken telephones. From many points of view, this occupation symbolizes the breakdown in communications between him and the world and the malfunction in which he lives, along with his wife, Marie; his brother Laszlo and Laszlo's wife, Gizi; his brother-in-law Sandor; and an old friend from Hungary, Cilag, who, in 1957, has just extricated herself from the clutches of the Communist regime and arrived in Israel.
But like many symbols and images in this tender novel, which is brimming with compassion and dignity, understanding and good will, the broken telephone, too, is a symbol that does not altogether cover everything it wants to stand for. This is because although Isser is indeed quiet and usually lets his wife have her way at the expense of his own wishes, he is also an active participant in the life they have created for themselves in Haifa, as part of a small community of survivors from Hungary who get together to play Rummikub in the evenings.
It's a community of survivors who offer support to one another, whether by speaking or remaining silent, telling about what befell them and who they have lost, keeping close even when they are in conflict.
Isser and Marie have a treasure - their only child, "the girl who will remain," as her father says: red-haired Ziva, smart, beloved and protected. They decide to show her photographs of family members who are no longer alive and to tell her something about their past, but not too much.
"We have a girl whom we have to raise in a normal way," Marie, a clever woman bursting with initiative, tells Cilag. Isser's old friend comforted him in the days after the liberation, when he lay down on the rail line where he last saw his wife and their two children, all of whom were murdered, and did not want to get up again. Marie, whose marriage to Isser was arranged after the war, is a lioness of a mother, protecting Ziva at all costs, to the point of finding various jobs in the schools her daughter attends so she can keep watch over her at all times.
Even though Ziva is the natural focal point of the novel, which takes place the year she turns 7 - the same year Cilag enters her world and threatens to disrupt the order that the small family has achieved through enormous effort - the book seems to want to distance itself as much as possible from the girl's point of view.
Instead, the focus is on Cilag, the outsider and Hungarian speaker, the emissary from the intolerable world that the small community of expatriate Holocaust survivors wants to keep Ziva from knowing in full. Cilag lost her daughter in a transport, but she has never been able to accept her death and has never stopped looking for her.
Cilag is drawn to Ziva's radiant skin, and it is through the older woman's desire to talk to her and the fantasies Cilag has about the child that the central plot of the novel unfolds, culminating in a confrontation between Cilag and Marie.
In contrast to Mumik, the boy in whose basement the monster of the Holocaust sprang up in David Grossman's novel "See Under: Love" - a work that in an act of literary daring described and captured a permanent mental state of cruelty and compassion, of enduring trauma and anger - Ziva is portrayed as successfully containing her parents' experience. She is not afraid of Cilag, either, despite the woman's melancholy, anomalous exterior, and her past. Because Ziva reads reality the way it is and seemingly does not misinterpret it - the way children often do - "Anybody She Loved" acquires a certain commemorative heft. As such, it is written with great caution and faithfulness, particularly with regard to the main characters. Nothing bad is said about them, nothing that can be taken ambivalently, nothing that can bring about injury to others, even unwittingly, and above all, nothing that the characters themselves do not acknowledge or are incapable of explaining.
Accordingly, both Cilag and other characters are able to analyze not only their motives but also the Israeli social consciousness of the 1950s, which is their milieu ("We fill the children's heads with heroic stories from the days of the Bible and the creation of the state, all in order to strengthen them from within," Marie explains to Cilag). In this sense, an anachronistic thread runs through the novel, in which the characters express insights that seem to belong to a later era than the one in which they are living.
What is therefore conspicuously missing from this novel, which in every other sense is highly readable, is a degree of gravity. All the other qualities and virtues are here in abundance: interest, empathy, awareness of the characters' suffering, and emotional warmth. "Her biography is our autobiography," Marie says when she and Isser are discussing what to tell Ziva. Indeed, large sections of the novel are a hybrid of biography and autobiography, including beautiful, very touching scenes, such as the one in which Ziva is chosen in school to play the biblical Jephte's daughter, a human victim.
"Well, what kind of fahzer izh he what putsh daughter's life in big danger like thizh?" Marie asks her daughter half-admonishingly and half-amazedly in her Ephraim Kishon-like accent (in Hebrew), in which "h" and "ch" are charmingly interchangeable, all the while sewing the girl's costume.
Here, too - as in the case of the shop for broken telephones - in the absence of a more critical sensibility, the complex story of Jephte's daughter (Judges 11), which encapsulates so many themes, loses something of its heft, as Isser and Marie are aware of the analogy that has been foisted on them and work to deconstruct it until it is refuted. Marie, with her healthy logic, offers quite a systematic doctrine on the question of the relations between man and his god. Isser, who at night is wracked by nightmares over the death of his children, from which there is no surcease, faints during the school play, and it is difficult to see where the analogy between him and Jephte lies, or whether there is one in the first place.
Still, on second reading, it is possible that something of the complexity of the biblical story enters the act of the writing and commemoration entailed in "Anybody She Loved." In the Bible, Jephte's daughter, out of love for her father, encourages him to fulfill his rash vow and sacrifice her. In this sense, there is a certain resemblance between her and Ziva, in that both transform themselves from passive to active: the one who comes to her father from the hills and chooses to accept her fate, and the one who - as Noy explains in the acknowledgments - took up a pen.
Tal Niv the editor of the English-language edition of the Haaretz Magazine.
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