Were I a librarian specializing in Jewish children’s books, I would warmly recommend Habibi’s Adventures in the Land of Israel to young readers and their parents. Its clear, unadorned prose, ornamented by a series of equally straightforward black-and-white illustrations as well as a map, follows the exploits of a red-headed, blue-eyed, pre-bar mitzvah age American boy with the improbable name of Habibi. Together with his frisky dog, Yow, a little black spaniel who understands Hebrew, they travel the length and breadth of pre-state Israel, where generous, kindhearted people abound at every turn and “everything is wonderful.”
But then, I’m not a librarian. More to the point, Habibi’s Adventures in the Land of Israel is not readily available. First published in 1951 by Bloch Publishing Co., it is out of print. Still, the book is worth noting—and saluting—both on its own terms and as an indication, a proof-text, of Zionism’s allure among earlier generations of American Jews.
The volume’s sprightly content was based on the experiences of its author, Althea O. Silverman, who visited the yishuv in the late 1940s. “My young friends,” she wrote in a preface, “you may read this book simply as the tale of Habibi’s exciting adventures. But you will be interested to know that these stories are built around events that really did happen. What Habibi saw, and all the incidents, are true.”
Whether grounded in reality or enhanced by Silverman’s yeasty imagination, what Habibi saw put paid to the notion that American Jewish children’s literature tended exclusively toward the dull and the dutiful, or, as one critic put it, encompassed little more than “images of Shabbes, chala [sic] and candles.” In Habibi’s universe, there’s no challah or candles and only the briefest of references to the Sabbath. Instead, he careens from one fun-filled activity to another: riding a camel, taking the wheel of a tractor, bumping along from Tel Aviv to Modin in a jeep, even outwitting the British on a Netanya beach where he, along with hundreds of other kids from a children’s village, mingle with refugees from a ship that just ran a blockade.
In the course of his year-in-the-life-of-the-yishuv, Habibi comes to understand that the modern-day halutz was close kin to America’s pilgrims: “Petah Tikvah is the Massachusetts of Palestine,” he exclaims at an early point in the narrative, referring to one of the country’s earliest settlements; his Uncle David adds, “Just as the American colonies prospered and multiplied, so did the settlements in Eretz Yisrael.” Little wonder, then, that Habibi comes to value the importance of farming. “‘How can anyone get so excited about tomatoes?’ Habibi thought to himself,” before learning to appreciate the fruits of hard labor as well as the importance of the common good.
His eyes and ears wide open, this receptive American youngster also acquires a new vocabulary, learning to say metzuyan (excellent) or nehmad (pleasant) or Heidad! Heidad! (untranslatable but “hip, hip, hooray” comes close) when the occasion warranted, which it often did. In Mandatory Palestine, Habibi tells us, “anything can happen”—and does: Habibi comes of age and so, too, does the future homeland of the Jews.
Suffused with wonder and a sense of boundlessness, Habibi’s Adventures in the Land of Israel complemented an array of textbooks that sought to familiarize American-Jewish school children with the Zionist project in the years before Israel came into being. From Ben Edidin’s Rebuilding Palestine, a 1939 Behrman Jewish Book House publication, to Dorothy Zeligs’ The Story of Modern Palestine, which was published a year later by Bloch Publishing Co., much was made of nation-building and its implications for the modern Jewish experience. “No preparation for Jewish living can be complete without a thorough understanding of Palestine,” Rebuilding Palestine cautioned.
As Brandeis University historian Jonathan Krasner explains in a richly detailed study of the early years of Israel education, these texts made a point of focusing on the sturdy, rugged masculinity of the halutz, linking him to and evoking the presence of familiar American characters such as the cowboy, the frontiersman, and Gary Cooper. Although women were not entirely absent from their pages—Henrietta Szold loomed large, as did female agricultural laborers, mothers, and ambulance corps nurses—hearty, hale men drew the most attention. Like their American predecessors, they, too, worked the soil until it bore fruit and responded with “stern discipline” to marauders. The halutzim, though, did their American counterparts one better. Where the latter were apt to curse, drink, and whoop it up, the men of the yishuv were models of restraint and civic virtue.
But they weren’t much fun, which is where Habibi’s adventures came, adventitiously enough, into play. No matter how carefully delineated, the textbook yishuvniks read as case studies; those whom Habibi met up with during his travels, though fictional, read as real-life people. Textbooks provided information about the country; Habibi brought it to life. Heidad! Heidad!
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Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.