A masterful autobiographical novel

Individuals who dislike reading novels and feel they could get much more information and insights by reading non-fiction will lose much when they ignore autobiographical novels, especially one such as S. Yizhar’s 1991 “Preliminaries,” which is by a master writer, whom the newspaper Haaretz called “The great master of Hebrew lyrical prose,” a story about a young boy from age two to his early teens, a novel that tells the truth about Yizhar’s early life and the early life of Israel, what the German newspaper Zuericher Zeitung called “This book is one of the most beautiful childhood memories ever written,” a novel that L’arche said “is worthy of a place in the most demanding anthology of contemporary literature.”[1]Readers of this book will learn much about the difficulties faced by the early Jewish pioneers during the start of the twentieth century in Israel.

Writing style

The novel is written in the lyrical style of the1949 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature William Faulkner and the 1998 Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Jose Saramago, all three of whom sometimes wrote long sentences, sometimes a page or more in length, which in the hands of an average writer would be tedious, but lyrical when used by a master writer. Yizhar’s most famous book was the multi-paged 1959 award-winning masterpiece Days of Ziklag.

Yizhar knew his subject

Yizhar (1916-2006) knew the history and problem of Israel. He was born in Israel to a family of Russian immigrants who were members of the Zionist pioneer intelligentsia. He fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. He was a member of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament for seventeen years and a professor of education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and professor of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University. He is considered Israel’s most illustrious writers and won many prestigious awards. He wrote this book when he was seventy-six years old. It was not his last book.

The story

The book is divided into five parts, five early events in Yizhar’s life and the early pre-1948 life of the State of Israel. Dan Miron gives readers a 28-page introduction in which he describes the seven methods in Yizhar’s lyrical writings, including his oft-used stream of consciousness writing.

The story begins in 1918 when Yizhar was two-years old. His father who came to the promised land in 1891 when he was only sixteen and a half, is working in the desert trying to plow the hardened crust of a piece of land with the aid of a reluctant mule, land that has perhaps never before been broken by human tools, while watching his son, symbolic of the other Jewish pioneers at that time working to reclaim Israel in other parts of the land, and symbolic also of the clash between Zionism and what was then called Palestine, and also the unavoidable victimization of children by the blind idealism of pioneering parents. The innocent infant is playing in the shade of a carob tree. Suddenly, his father hears pathetic screams of agony. The infant has been attacked and horribly stung by attacking wasps. His body is swollen, he is hardly breathing. Should the infant be wrapped in cold water or warm water? Neither the forty-five-year-old nor thirty-year-old mother knows. All they know is that their second child hurts terribly. The nearest doctor is a three-hour drive from the scene by cart led by two reluctant mules. And the doctor himself may not know. This terrible early attack is symbolic of the attacks that will follow by Arab neighbors. Why do they attack? Did the infant pock a finger into a hornet’s nest Certainly not! We haven’t harmed the Arabs. We are working on unclaimed or purchased land. Our improvements of the land will benefit all; “what have we done to them, apart from bringing them medicine, enlightenment and a culture of cleanliness.”

The second part of the novel takes place three year later in 1921 and describes how the family, now living in Jaffa along with other Jews are surrounded and attacked by Arab neighbors including Arab police who were the leaders of the rioters, and Jews are killed, including the great novelist Brenner, whose novels made a great impact upon Yizhar when he grows up. During the riots and murders, Yizhar’s father had to go out of his house, out of the area of safety, with an iron bar in his hand to fetch milk for his children; “now with these big, strong, empty hands, he stands there and it is clear that he wants to say one thing, quietly, only he is not sure of his voice, that he can say quietly what cannot be said, and Brenner too, Daddy says now, Brenner too says Daddy, and his voice breaks, he cannot, Brenner too, says Daddy, oh Brenner, says Daddy/”

Part three describes Yizhar’s life when he was six-years-old, in 1922, and Israel at that time. The family is living in peace in Tel Aviv for a short time. The future seemed bright. Daddy had a good job as an accountant. Yizhar sees his first movie, He is enchanted by a girl at school, but she does not seem to notice him. The family is building a new house on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. “Only a stranger would think that there is nothing here but a cluster of desolate sunbaked sand dunes.”

Part four describes the depression that hits Israel. Daddy is filled with anxiety because of the debts. IOUs, mortgages. He loses his job. The family must sell their home and move. He is a broken man of fifty-five. Then because of connections, he becomes a supervisor at an orange grove, but this bothers him. He did not come to Israel to supervise, but to be a worker. This was his dream, being a worker had been all he was until now.

Much has changed since the pioneering days of 1918. Has Zionism managed to realize its early dreams? Or, did the early pioneers create a State very much unlike what they had dreamed to create?

[1] S Yizhar, Preliminaries, translated by Nicholas De Lange with an introduction by Dan Miron, The Toby Press, 2007. The original Hebrew name was Miqdamot.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 40 books.
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