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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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From the Four Winds, by Haim Sabato, trans. Yaacob Dweck. New Milford: Toby Press, 2010.  160 pp.  $24.95.

After the publication of his first fictional work in 1997, Haim Sabato quickly emerged as a prominent writer in Israel and abroad. From the Four Winds, his fourth fictional work, revolves around the relationship between a narrator based on the author, who migrated from Egypt to Israel with his family as a youth in the late fifties, and a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who lives in the same neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem. As the novella’s title, taken from the prophet Ezekiel’s famed vision of the dry bones, hints, the text tells a tale of national revival. The developing bond between the two central figures and their descendants reflects the emergence of a Torah-based Israeli culture that seamlessly blends divergent religious traditions brought from Europe and the Middle East to enrich a spiritually impoverished nation and help it to blossom.

As an affirmation of the State of Israel’s ingathering of Jewish exiles, its offering of a new beginning to Holocaust survivors, and its promotion of Jewish values, From the Four Winds presents a highly favorable image of the State of Israel, something that helps explain the popularity of Sabato’s work. Nonetheless, Israeli historiography and many leading Hebrew literary works point to the marginalization of Oriental Jews and Holocaust survivors by Israel’s self-confident secular majority in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, as well as the cultural differences and tensions existing between these two groups. Sabato’s decision to refer only obliquely to these issues proves intentional. The head of the Birkat Moshe Yeshiva in Ma’ale Adumim, Sabato employs literature to advance a historical narrative that gives Israel’s National Religious community a preeminent position. Therefore he downplays secular Zionism’s role in the creation of the State of Israel and the cleavages separating Jewish ethnic groups one from another, and overstates Torah’s ability to unify Israeli Jews and the role played by religious Zionists in the defense of the state. In creating this alternative account of Israeli history, Sabato voices the growing self-confidence and assertiveness of religious Zionists, and his novella serves as useful source for historians interested in religion’s changing place in Israeli society.

Nonetheless, most readers of fiction turn to literature for aesthetic pleasure, and Sabato’s political agenda proves an artistic liability. From the Four Winds reads like hagiography and avoids narrative possibilities capable of engaging the reader. For example, despite reference to Farkash’s imprisonment in a Nazi labor camp, where he was forced to carry heavy beams across long distances in frigid conditions, this experience seems to have only affected him in a minimal way. No mention is made of it’s posing a challenge to his faith or placing his commitment to prayer, Torah study, or charity in question. Farkash’s superhuman devotion to charity, Torah study, and performance of good deeds make a deep impression on the narrator in his childhood, but Sabato fails to even hint at a connection between this behavior and Farkash’s Holocaust experience. Rather, when Farkash talks about himself he focuses upon the suffering that he underwent as an orphaned apprentice at the hands of a master baker and the difficulty that he has forgiving him for his seemingly irrational and sadistic behavior. The psychic importance that Sabato has Farkash assign to the baker proves striking and highly unrealistic. In many ways his primary motivation in depicting Farkash seems to be his desire to efface the image of the faithless Holocaust survivor unable to integrate into Israeli society, featured so prominently in the work of Aharon Appelfeld, Israel’s preeminent Holocaust writer. Verisimilitude proves less important than eliding the theological challenge posed by the Holocaust.

Although Israel currently boasts numerous religious Jewish poets, few devout prose stylists currently exist. This has lead to Sabato’s comparison with Nobel laureate Shmu’el Yosef Agnon, who also maintained a religious lifestyle. While they share a devotion to religious commandments, prayer, and Torah study, they shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as writers. While Agnon seamlessly integrated religious texts into his prose, textual citations gaudily adorn Sabato’s writing while doing little to enhance it. Furthermore Agnon never looked to sanitize his portrayals of religious Jews. Tensions between divergent Jewish streams, the hypocrisy of religious Jews, and the suffering of the devout often characterize Agnon’s portrayals of the religious Jewish world. The critical eye central to such portrayals even turned inward with Agnon’s literary personas exposing many of their author’s less flattering characteristics, such as in the novel A Guest for the Night. There, while exposing the author’s flaws, Agnon’s literary persona comes off as a complex figure struggling with similar problems to those of his readers. In From the Four Winds Sabato’s persona arrives as a young child to Israel. The problems he and his family face integrating into Israeli society could add poignancy to the portrayal of his emergence as a religious educator, but Sabato hesitates to meaningfully employ such material. For example, Sabato’s persona tells how his learned father, forced to work as a day laborer to support his family, proves unable to buy him a proper Purim costume. As a result, the son becomes an object of humiliation for other students at his religious school. Rather than presenting the dilemma of the father forced to choose between his son’s desire for acceptance and his need to support his family, the persona’s hatred of his father for making him the object of ridicule and the other students for picking on him, or the process whereby the persona came to understand why his father made the decision that he did, Sabato downplays the incident by explaining how a virtuous teacher complimented his persona’s costume to relieve his sense of humiliation. By removing his ideological blinders, Sabato has the opportunity to improve as a writer and earn comparison with Agnon. Those interested in fine literature can only hope he follows this path.

Philip Hollander

Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies

University of Wisconsin