A story used to circulate among members of the Russian intelligentsia: boxing contests in Hamburg, it was said, were rigged so that the popular boxers would win, thus pleasing the public. Yet the boxers were keen to know who the real champion was, and once a year they used to meet in a secret cellar for a serious match, to which only the professionals were invited. Similarly, in an avant-garde secret poetry contest, the story had it, Velimir Khlebnikov was the champion, not the more popular Vladimir Mayakovsky. He was the true choice of the poets: the poets’ poet.
S. Yizhar, a native Israeli writer (1916–2006), is the native Israeli writers’ writer, the champion of the literary cellars of Israel, even though writers more popular than he are much better known to the public. With the appearance of some remarkable translations of his works into English, there is a chance for him to be more widely known not only as a powerful writer but also as an incarnation of the spirit of Israel’s birth sixty years ago—an event that Israeli Jews celebrate and Palestinian Arabs lament.
S. Yizhar is the pen name of Yizhar Smilansky, the name he used to publish his precocious first short novel, Ephraim Goes Back to Alfalfa, in 1938. At the time, no one suspected that the novel was written by a young man of twenty-two. But all of Yizhar’s distinctive characteristics were there—a vast Hebrew vocabulary, rich with references to flora and fauna, an unhurried, expansive syntax, powerful descriptions of open landscapes, long inner dialogues, and the ever-present theme of the individual vs. the collective, in which young members of the Labor Zionist aristocracy were the main characters.
There is not much plot in this novel, or in any that followed. It is about a kibbutz meeting that deals with the request of a longtime member, Ephraim, to switch from working in the alfalfa fields to working in the orange grove. The kibbutz turns him down.
“And why is the orange grove better than the alfalfa?” asks Nehama, the woman with whom Ephraim is in love and who is supposed to be sympathetic to him. (“Nehama” in Hebrew means comfort, consolation, even redemption.)
“Well, Nehama, what can I say? I don’t know, whether it’s better or not, but all the same…”
…But all the same, the sun again stood high in the sky, glowing with a luster dimmed by the heat, and the ends of the fields quivered by themselves.
It may very well be because of the sun that Ephraim wants to switch to the shade of the orange grove. “Orange grove” in Hebrew is pardes, and from it, the word “paradise” derives. Yizhar’s great-uncle, Moshe Smilansky, a well-known writer, was also an agricultural entrepreneur who owned large orange groves in Palestine. Yizhar’s childhood, in the little colony of Rehovot, was spent in the shade of his uncle’s trees. Orange groves were Yizhar’s …