THE PURE ELEMENT OF TIME

Haim Be'er, Author, Barbara Harshav, Translator, Arnold J. Band, Foreword by , trans. from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav. Univ. Press of New England/Brandeis Univ. $26 (282p) ISBN 978-1-58465-277-9

Haim Be'er is both writer and narrator of this memoir-novel tracing the upbringing of a Jewish boy from a religious Jerusalem family and his formation as a writer. Born into an Orthodox family in 1945, Haim is an only child and the sole recipient of a vast flood of stories. His maternal grandmother, suffocatingly pious and stubborn, teaches herself to read and regales Haim with tales of their European forefathers, some real and some legendary. His mother, a rebel who abandoned the ultra-Orthodox Hungarian Houses where she grew up and lost two daughters before she gave birth to Haim, is also self-educated and fiercely independent. Her relationship with Haim's father, a devoted synagogue-goer and a fearful refugee from Soviet anti-Semitic attacks, is strained and difficult. Underlying the marital tensions between mother and father and the strife between mother and grandmother is the tension between ultra-religious Jews and secular Zionists. But none of Be'er's characters are merely types: kibbutznik Zionist Uncle Jacob supports no political movement, and Haim's devout Sabbath-observing father ultimately does not believe in God. Divided into three loosely chronological sections, the novel tracks Haim's gradual assertion of writerly independence and the development of his literary career. So clamorous are his family members, however, that they nearly drown out Haim's story. Be'er's experiment yields an intricate blend of human relationships, aspirations and—most candidly—limitations, but the blend of fact and fiction leads to some murky storytelling. Perhaps most compelling is Be'er's take on Israeli history from the perspective of the country's Orthodox minority. (Dec. 20)

Reviewed on: 12/02/2002
Release date: 12/01/2002
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