Lea Goldberg at 16 years old, circa 1927.(The National Library of Israel)
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Coming of Age

And This Is the Light, the sole novel by the prolific Israeli writer Lea Goldberg, recently released in English, imagines adolescence and romance on the verge of World War II in Lithuania

Adam Kirsch
July 19, 2011
Lea Goldberg at 16 years old, circa 1927.(The National Library of Israel)

This year marks the centennial of Lea Goldberg, a writer known to all Israelis—it was recently announced that her face will appear on the new 100-shekel note—and very few Americans. Goldberg was born in Lithuania in 1911 and decided as a teenager to become a Hebrew writer; she had already been writing stories (and keeping a diary) in Hebrew for a decade when she made aliya in 1935. From then until her death in 1970, she wrote prolifically in a number of genres, especially poetry, and taught literature at Hebrew University. Goldberg published only one novel, Vehu Ha’Or, in 1946—it has the distinction of being the first modern Hebrew novel by a woman. Now the indispensable Toby Press, which does more to bring Hebrew literature to America than any other publisher, has issued the first English translation of Goldberg’s novel, titled And This Is the Light ($24.95) and translated by Barbara Harshav.

Another of Goldberg’s many literary contributions to Hebrew was as a translator—she knew seven languages and brought many Russian classics into the language for the first time, including War and Peace. The year before her novel was published, Goldberg translated Chekhov’s stories, and you could almost deduce this from the beautifully restless and nostalgic atmosphere of And This Is the Light. Nora Krieger, the 20-year-old heroine, is based fairly directly on Goldberg herself: Like her creator at the same age, Nora has a mentally ill father, is a precocious Zionist, and studies at a university in Berlin. But she seems equally modeled on Chekhov heroines like Masha in Three Sisters and Sonya in Uncle Vanya, passionately sensitive young women marooned in the provinces, longing for the great love or opportunity that will rescue them.

Nora is not quite as badly off as those characters, as she is only back in Kovno, Lithuania, for the summer vacation. But even on the train carrying her there, she begins to feel suffocated by the weight of home. Goldberg expertly evokes that phase of adolescence when all young people feel embarrassed and outraged by the very existence of their families. But for Nora, as a member of the tightly knit, parochial, embattled Jewish community of Lithuania, every Jew she meets feels like family and provokes that same queasy urge for escape. The very first paragraphs of the novel show her reaction to a Jew who sits down in her train compartment, with a “smug expression,” and promptly spits “a lush gob of saliva onto the floor”: “I’m back in my native land. At home. A thought of derision went through Nora’s heart, whose bitterness wasn’t yet mature.”

Nora’s shame is compounded by the presence in the compartment of an urbane, sensitive Swede. She wants to talk to this handsome stranger, but the Jewish trader immediately stakes a claim on her, insisting that he must know her family. When she denies it, he scoffs, “So where are they from? Africa? All the Kriegers come from one place.” It’s only because this is the truth that Nora is so angered by it. “It was as if she stood on display naked between the two of them: the Jew and the Gentile. Damn them, why can’t I just be me?”

Beyond pride and adolescent rebellion, Nora has a darker, more private reason for not wanting to be associated with her family. We soon learn, through her family’s whispers and euphemisms, that her father is incurably insane, a paranoid schizophrenic whose rages scarred her childhood. The morning after her arrival, her mother tells her that she has divorced him, and Nora’s instinctive reaction is to blurt out, “You did well!” But as in an Ibsen play—it’s no coincidence that Nora is named after the heroine of A Doll’s House—she is haunted by the fear that she might have inherited her father’s madness. By escaping home, Goldberg shows, Nora is also trying to outrun this frightening legacy, which only gets worse when she uncovers a family secret—her uncle, who she thought died of tuberculosis, turns out also to have gone mad. When old Aunt Zlata tells Nora the truth on her deathbed, she seems to be pronouncing a curse:

“And then, dropping back into the pillows, weary and old, she lay among them like a cat, her eyes extinguished, and her lips still muttering, ‘It’s in your blood. In the blood of the whole family. All the Kriegers. I’m telling you this for your own good.’ … Filth, filth, [Nora] thought, filth and bondage. And there’s no way out, no way out. And I don’t want to go crazy. That’s the verdict. I don’t want to…”

But this is a luridly melodramatic moment in a novel that is, for the most part, modest and realistic, in the Chekhovian style that turns plainness into a kind of compassionate poetry. Nora may be held back by her family’s past, but she is also full of instinctive longing for the future, painfully keen to all varieties of beauty. Goldberg writes lovingly about the natural world, evoking a Lithuanian landscape of forests and rivers that for centuries was the backdrop of Jewish life:

“The water was green and deep, and the river was very broad in that place. Beyond it was the bank with its oaks and pines, suffused with lushness, and here and there the cattails stuck up through the greenery with their velvet-brown heads. The heavy boat sailed lightly, and passed fields whose stalks were mostly harvested by now, and piles of yellow-green hay in meadows, whose good smell rose.”

Goldberg’s prose, as rendered by Barbara Harshav, is always clear and unpretentious, allowing her to evoke natural beauty without self-conscious rhapsodizing. This restraint is especially valuable when it comes to writing about love, which descends on Nora in the shape of Albert Arin. Arin is an old friend of her parents who’d gone into exile 25 years earlier and ended up living in California. Now, for reasons that are unclear at first, he has returned to Kovno, where he troubles the hearts of Nora’s mother, her dutiful maiden aunt, Lisa, and most violently, Nora herself.

Goldberg shows that Nora’s passion for Arin is quite overdetermined. She built up a romantic image of him during her childhood, based on his letters from exotic locations—so much so that she is chagrined to learn that he ended up owning a prosaic tobacco shop. More important, Arin is clearly a fantasy replacement for Nora’s mad father, a middle-aged man who could give her the secure love she missed as a child: “Nora walked and was suddenly sure that everything would be good, that there was nothing to worry about, that he would take care of her.” All this is obvious to Goldberg and the reader, but touchingly hidden from Nora herself, who simply luxuriates in the pangs of unrequited love: “What a musical night! Perhaps the nightingales are singing joyfully in the depths of the forest. … Because his hand was on my shoulder, because he is so mature. Because I, I, I will see him tomorrow.”

The plot of And This Is the Night centers on the unraveling of this fantasy, as Nora comes to learn more about Arin’s real past and his reasons for visiting Lithuania. But if her love turns to disillusion, Goldberg presents this as part of an all-around, necessary coming of age. The drama of this summer is mostly interior, as Nora gains a new, more adult perspective on her relatives, her childhood, and her Jewishness. By the end of the story, she has experienced death up close, and learned not to romanticize it, in the way that sensitive adolescents do. She begins to appreciate the wisdom of Arin’s words: “I said life is precious. In spite of everything. Because there is no disaster and no disease of body or mind that can lower its value. None.”

This principle has one meaning for Nora, hearing it in the summer of 1931. For Lea Goldberg, writing after World War II, it has another, much more terrible meaning. She wrote And This Is the Light, and we read it, with the knowledge of what is waiting just around the corner for Nora and her family: Starting in 1941, almost every single Jew in Lithuania would be murdered by the Nazis. Goldberg (and her real-life mother) escaped this fate by emigrating, but she alludes to it several times in the novel. The Krieger family has a meek, devoted gentile servant named Thekla, whom Nora treats with compassionate condescension. But Arin warns her that “that Thekla of yours, who loves you so much … would be ready and willing, during some pogrom, to murder you and your family with the same simplicity and that same sense of righteousness.” He is right—in Lithuania, local collaborators played an especially large role in the Holocaust.

But Goldberg is determined not to turn her coming-of-age novel into a premature elegy. The story she tells so beautifully is one of youth discovering its commitment to life, and she refuses to say that this commitment is mocked by the millions of deaths lying in wait. Public history cannot falsify private memory, as Arin tells Nora: “The facts of our lives, marvelous as they are at times in a person’s life, are nevertheless common property. We share them with others. And only what is kept in memory, unimportant things, as it were, they’re what constitute our real being.”

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.