Naive, this naked truth

By

Mor Altshuler

"Bamidron: Roman Eretz-Yisraeli" (On the Decline) by Nechama Pochatchevsky, edited by Ora-Nechama Asael and Azmon Yaniv (Pochatchevsky), Sifrei Iton 77 (2004), 236 pages

Have I written? No! There has been no leisure - the hard work hasswallowedup literature, and what has been printed - I do not knowhow and when itcame from my pen. If, once I am settled in the dwelling of eternity someonehas the desire to gather into a volume what theyfind in these pages ... Iwould ask that the work be given into trusty hands that will want to dealwith works that are not finished. - N.P" (The literary testament of the Hebrew word "Nefesh"- soul), the penname of Nechama Feinstin-Pohatchevsky, was written shortlybefore her death in 1934 and found among the yellowing papers in her sonAsael's bookcase.


Nefesh, a pioneer and farmer from the First Aliyah (waveof immigrationof Jews to Palestine, in the 1880s), was known for her publicstruggles -  particularly for women's rights, well before the word "feminism" arrived from the United States. During World War I she was electedtohead the committee of the moshava (cooperative farming village)of RishonLetzion, but she relinquished the position because of "theemergency".


Nevertheless, she continued her public activities and her writing. Eversince her stormy youth in Russia, when she fell in love witha son ofRussian nobles, she wrote in Hebrew and although during her lifetime shepublished short stories and articles, she was never ableto publish the bulkof her work. Today, 70 years later, the "trustyhands" for which she hopedfound them: Her great-grandchildren - themselves writers - have publishedthe work that bears the subtitle: "A Land of Israel Novel".


The hero ofthe novel is Haim Salzburg, an enthusiastic Zionist of the First Aliyah, whocomes to the Land of Israel with a certain amountof capital and loses it ina failed investment. With what remains, he buys land in a moshava and hopesto establish himself as a farmer. When he fails at that, he sells the landand becomes a simple dairyman, barely eking out a living to support hishousehold. His wife, whocomes from a wealthy family in the Diaspora, isneurasthenic, but Salzburg does not have the money to send her abroad for acure, andif he sells a cow in order to pay for her trip, the source of hisincome will be destroyed.

The crumbling family is joined by MalkaFrisch, a young immigrantwho supports herself as a nurse. Salzburg falls inlove with her andis filled with feelings of guilt, as Malka is his wife'sniece. Inevery sense, his old age shames his idealistic youth, and in theendhe comes down with pneumonia, deteriorates and dies.

Indeed, Nefesh's work deals with the rejects and failures of the Zionist project:  pioneers stricken with malaria, delicate women trappedin a moshava underthe burdens of hard work and violent husbands, women pioneers in a HashomerHatzair movement commune whose babies do not survive their first year, dreamers who have despaired of thehunger, the drought and the Arab riotersand have returned to theDiaspora. And as compared to them - theself-satisfied Zionist functionaries and wealthy farmers who, far more thanthey succeedin building up the new homeland, succeed in building themselvesup from it.

 

Devastating criticism

The sense of failure and despairdescribed here, almost in the styleof Yosef Haim Brenner, had scorn heapedon it in its day. One of theearliest critics of Nefesh's workssarcastically counted up 17 deadcharacters in the short collection ofstories she published in 1911.  

The devastating criticism, especially on thepart of people from the Second Aliyah (which began in the first decade ofthe 20th century),heroes of the Labor movement's parties, pushed her intothe realmsof literary isolation and this is strongly felt in the novelbefore us: The isolation and loneliness of writers among the pioneers andfarmers is a main theme in the work.

The quality of the novel is notonly evident in the way it presents a realistic picture of the Zionistsettlement at the beginning ofthe 20th century, with all its faults or thecriticism it expressesof the leaders of the movement, but also in the lookinward - intothe realms of writing and literary creativity. What iscreativity? A cure or a disease? One of the characters, Shalom Schatz - ayoungpioneer and an amateur writer - compares writing to a prayer that has the power to cure the soul's longings, a refuge from the misery oflife, since the writer recreates his world in words. However, theinner "mending" is devoid of meaning because it is cut off from thebleak realityaround him.
The trap in which the writer is caught is seen in the faulty communication that existed with the small audience of readers of Hebrewat the beginning of the last century: They expected him to play theroleof wrathful prophet or emissary of the public, who served asa mouthpiecefor the settlers and brought the hardships of their livesto the Jews of theDiaspora in order to awaken their consciencesand stir them to help.

Oneof the pioneers complains to Schatz that the Jewish writers, with theexception of Brenner, who touched upon it briefly, areignoring the malariathat is decimating the inhabitants of the country, while "Pashboshevsky thePole is crying bitterly over his Vistula, the river that is spreading damnedmalaria." However, the naive Schatzdoes not understand the role that isintended for him and answersseriously that "a writer writes about what hedraws from his innersoul and not according to what is commissioned fromhim or accordingto what people on the outside say." And in a conversationwith hisbeloved, Penina Perlman, it becomes clear to Schatz that sheexpectshim as a Hebrew writer to produce "a genuine Land of  Israel work,"
whereas he is detached and a dreamer and "the odor of the Diaspora
arises from his works".


The confused expectations of a demandingaudience, together with the arbitrariness of the few publishers who wereactive at the timein the Land of Israel, turned writing into a nightmare: "Writingcondemns us to double torture: the pangs of creativity, which areharder than splitting the Red Sea, and tortures and insults in seekingaplace to publish what has been written".
Writing is transformed from apleasure to a torture, and from a cure to a sickness - a madness that pushesthe writer to the impractical, feckless margins of the national existence: Schatz "writes and erases, deletes and adds, and he has no certainty thatthe thing will beprinted ... As he continues to write, strange and peculiarideas cometo him ... and when he reviews what he has written, he thinksthathe has gone insane. He ponders it, but decides to continue in thesame spirit, because why should he be afraid? After all, Edgar AllanPoeand Nietzsche are both suspected of insanity and Maupassant ended his lifein a state of confusion"…

Within this despair and depression glitters acrazy hope that his writings will be published after his death and win himeternal fame, but this illusion is not comforting. After a short while he isovercomeby the tortures of art and the tortures of love and when hisbelovedPenina gets engaged to another, he falls ill. He recovers, despairsboth of life in the Land of Israel and of art, returns to Russia andismurdered by the Bolsheviks.  

Prophetic sense
Does art have the power togrant immortality to the artist? Nefesh'stestament indicates that shewondered about this all her life. Intoher novel she integrated herprophetic sense that the manuscript would only be afforded publication afterher death, and she put into themouths of her characters expressions of hersense of inferiority towell-known writers - audience favorites like Brenneror S.Y. Agnon. And possibly it was precisely her lack of popularity thatafforded her the freedom to express explicitly what was a deep, dark secretamong the lions in the pack - the difficulties of writing in Hebrew.  
These difficulties sprang from the simple fact that the Hebrew writers of the beginning of the 20th century had not been born into Hebrew speech, but rather had learned the written language, and until theirdying day their spoken Hebrew sounded artificial.  

In "On the Decline," this distress is revealed in the confessionof the poor and miserable MalkaFrisch, who is in love unrequitedlywith a man. Like Haim Salzburg andShalom Schatz, whose delicacy andthwarted love made them weak and helpless, Malka to tends to exaggerateher weakness and to blame herself. Among otherthings, she isembarrassed by her hesitant conversation with small childrenwho wereborn in this country, who speak a fluent and natural Hebrew whileshe "stands there like a mute if some question is addressed to her" because "speech does not live in her mouth and she lacks words".

Theinarticulateness of the Hebrew writers and their inability to do anythingabout the situation are the implicit decline that is hintedat in the titleof the novel: Literature is damned if it reveals thebleak truth from theLand of Israel, as it is liable to deter thefew who are planning toimmigrate to the Land of Israel and the Yishuv(pre-state Jewish communityin Palestine) is likely to dwindle even further. And literature is alsodamned if it conceals the truth underthe wordiness of false propaganda, because then it will betray its
mission.

To what extent is it committedto truth? It is here that the nationaldimension joins thepersonal-autobiographical dimension of the plot, which echoes the complexrelationship between Nefesh and her husband, Yehiel Michael Pohatchevsky, the deaths of their first two childrenand the emotional price that wasexacted from her both by family lifeand by the Zionist project, to whichthe couple's life was devoted. And indeed, her great-grandchildren, who haveseen to the publicationof the novel, assume that "the extensive intimaterevelation in thenovel was one of the reasons for keeping it out ofthe public eyeduring her lifetime and the lifetimes of her son anddaughter".

The somewhat naive revelation of the naked truth, which led tothe novel being set aside unpublished, once again casts light on thequestion that concerns writers in every language: To what extent arethey permitted to expose the psychological, social and national truthand what is the price that they are required to pay for this exposure? For the historical perspective at least, an answer is given here: Thepublication of "On the Decline" after 70 years teaches something about thevictory of Nefesh's vitality, as the executors of herliterary testament areher great-grandchildren, who live in the Landof Israel and write in Hebrew.

The End