BOOK REVIEW; The Lonely Tree, by Yael Politis
“The Lonely Tree” by Yael Politis is a novel about the early days of the state of Israel as seen through the eyes of its protagonist, Tonia Shulman. Throughout the novel, one is moved to wonder if the author was trying to write the Israeli version of “Gone with the Wind” or whether it’s just a coincidence that the Tonia is so easily comparable (for good and bad reasons) to Scarlet O’hara.
The story begins in 1946, immediately after the end of the Second World War and, in the story, 12 years after Tonia and her family flee Poland to come build a new life in Eretz Israel. Told in flashback mode, the first several chapters of the book tell the story of how Tonia’s father Josef is not content to begin a new life with his young family, but instead aspires to build an entire new society and a new identity for the Jewish people.
A vociferous advocate for the Labor Zionist movement, Josef spends many years caucusing his fellow Labor Zionists to take the Jewish Agency’s offer to found a new kibbutz in the rugged hills between Jerusalem and Hebron, known to history as Kibbutz Kfar Etzion.
Josef’s wife Leah and his daughter Dina are long suffering but ultimately enthusiastic followers of their husband and father, while Josef’s only son Natan is moved by loyalty to his father to go along also.
Only Tonia is angry and resistant. In fact, from the opening sentence of the book Tonia’s anger at her father, the situation he has forced his family into and the world at large are palpable in the extreme. All she wants to do is finish high school so she can get a job and leave Palestine for America, where she hopes to buy a house like the one in the picture she keeps by her bed over several years and living in different places.
As time passes and Israel’s War of Independence draws closer, another man enters Tonia’s life. Amos Amrani is a Yemenite Jew whose family has been in Palestine much longer then Tonia’s. He is a tireless worker for the Zionist cause and a fighter in the illegal underground organization Irgun. Tonia falls in love with Amos, despite her fierce desire to flee everything he represents, while Josef Shulman takes an instant dislike to him, partly because they are so much alike and partly because he has a hard time sharing Tonia, who is his favorite child, with any other man.
The story is violently disrupted by the novel’s other main characters, war and fear.
The heroic resistance of the resident’s of the Etzion Bloc to the attack from the Jordanian Arab Legion is vividly and accurately described, as is the “Battle for the Roads” which Amos barely survives.
Through the rest of the novel Tonia goes to America and fulfills her dream, only to discover that it doesn’t make her happy. Returning to Israel and marrying Amos she builds a family and a life, only to have it once again violently disrupted by the Six Day War, which sets up the books final, heart rending yet satisfying scene of a reunion with her father who reminds her of the vision which caused him to bring his family to Eretz Israel in the first place.
Often sad, sometimes funny and always melancholy (making it a good metaphor for the Israeli life it depicts), “The Lonely Tree” by Yael Politis is the story of the first generation of Israelis, a stereotypical (in a good way)love story between Jews from vastly different ethnic backgrounds and a rejection of the widely held view that all Israelis want to flee to America where they can have a better standard of living. It is also a reminder that not all Israelis of that first generation were the selfless, brave pioneers our collective memory has made them into, but rather ordinary (yet complicated) people with hopes, fears, loves and flaws.
It is also a story about the importance of family that is, in my humble opinion, a badly needed reminder in our increasingly secular, disconnected world.
Last but not least it is the story of a group of people who hate war and take up the sword only because their Arab neighbors refuse to let them live in peace, and a reminder that the most powerful weapon Israel has, is hope.
“The Lonely Tree” is available from Holland Park Press.
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