Wednesday, January 26, 2011

love, loss, and a Jewish homeland

I met Yael Politis, author of the novel The Lonely Tree, through the excellent critique group Internet Writers Workshop, http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/.

 

Now that Yael's first novel has been published, I'm happy to recommend it. It's a good read for anyone interested in family relationships, courtship, marriage, cultural identity, and/or the birth of the modern state of Israel. Spanning the years 1934 through 1967, it follows Tonia Schulman from Poland; to British Mandate Palestine; to Grand Rapids, Michigan; and back across the ocean to Israel. Tonia is a strong young Jew who uses inventiveness and hard work to try to get what she wants.

 

Her father, Josef, is as determined as his daughter. Having rescued his family from Nazi atrocities in Poland, his goal is to help establish a new Jewish identity and society in Palestine. To that end he is instrumental in founding a kibbutz in the hill country near Jerusalem. Called Kfar Etzion, the kibbutz is crowded and uncomfortable, with a communal dining hall, water rationing, and work—always lots of work. Tonia hates the place. She's determined to finish high school, leave Palestine, and make a new life for herself in America.

 

At the same time, she's not indifferent to her people's need to carve out a better future for themselves.

 

Amos Amrani is more than aware of that need. He's a handsome young Yemenite Jew who fights in the Jewish underground. His and Tonia's goals and backgrounds are quite different. Nevertheless they fall in love.

 

Their budding romance is fraught with fear and danger as the Jews are repeatedly attacked by their Arab neighbors. In the spring of 1948, Arabs lay siege to Tonia's home, Kfar Etzion. Despite its defenders' heroic efforts, many of them die and the kibbutz is forced to surrender. Tonia's father, mumbling prayers, is killed by an exploding grenade. A day later, on May 14, 1948, the British mandate over Palestine expires and the independent State of Israel is declared.

 

Josef's long-held dream appears to be coming true, though the citizens of the new State will face many challenges. Will Tonia stay to share them? Not if she can help it. She clings to her determination to reach her promised land, America. She rejects Amos, the love of her life, and enters into a marriage of convenience. Her plan is to use her new husband's money to establish a restaurant that will earn her enough so she can emigrate. She achieves that goal, pays back the money her husband lent her, and divorces him. Then it's off to America, where the streets are paved with gold. Sort of.

 

Tonia arrives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in March 1953. She opens a bakery, buys the kind of house she always dreamed of, and finds herself miserable. She misses her extended family. She misses Amos. Tonia tries to make friends among the Americans around her. However, she feels like  an outsider among them. A wise counselor advises her to decide who she wants to be. Maybe then she'll know where she wants to live. When Amos arrives in Grand Rapids looking for her, Tonia immediately knows who and where. She wants to be Amos's wife and live where he lives—back in Israel.

 

Tonia and Amos's life there is far from easy. Tonia sometimes wonders why she left America. But deep down she knows she made the right decision. Money and material goods are far less important than love, moral obligations, and loyalty to one's people and culture.

 

The book is well written, with evocative descriptions, gripping action, well-realized characters, and authentic appeals to the emotions. It is suitable for senior high school through adult readers.

 

The Lonely Tree, published by Holland Park Press, is available online from the Holland Park Website. The url directly to the book is http://www.hollandparkpress.co.uk/book_detail.php?book_id=17 and it can be ordered from that page.

 

Thanks to Holland Park Press for sending me a copy to review.

 

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