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Ha’aretz newspaper | 2007
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Ha’aretz newspaper Week’s End review

The concept of the shmita – the sabbatical year if the land – as a utopian, innovative notion is central to Michal Govrin’s novel ‘Hevzekim’ (‘Snapshots’). Its recent publication in English (translated by Barbara Harshav) coincides with the current shmita year 

Ilana Tzuriel, the heroine of “Snapshots,” is an architect, who plans to build a peace monument on the highest spot in Jerusalem, the Hill of Evil Counsel (Government House), inspired by the sukkah and by shmita. A passionate artist and woman, Ilana exposes her ideas to her colleagues and lovers, and shares them with her father just before he passes away. Yet, the spiritual dimension of her dream is far from implementation in 1991, during the first intifada and the Gulf War, when Ilana writes her “snapshots,” addressing them to her dead father. The contradiction between her vision of Jerusalem as a holy place of “release” and the harsh political reality, brings to an end her collaboration and romance with Sayyid, a Palestinian theater director, and is followed by her tragic end.

Following are excerpts from Govrin’s novel.

The study, I reach for our notebook, Father. Yes, I’m still busy with the sabbatical year. Coming back to those verses that always open onto a new meaning: “When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a Sabbath unto the Lord, six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit therof; but in the seventh year shall be a Sabbath of rest unto land, a Sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. That which groweth of its own accord of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, neither gather the grapes of thy vine undressed: for it is a year of rest unto the land. And the Sabbath of the land shall be meat for you; for thee, and for thy servant, and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant, and for thy stranger that sojourneth with thee, And for thy cattle, and for the beast that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be meat.” 

The Sabbatical Year and Jerusalem. The female, utopian place, as I explained to you. Like the Gihon spring bursting beneath the Temple Mount. A female tank, emptied and flooded. Bursting with gushing throbs, with rolling tremors of passion. The source of life of Jerusalem. In the plans I lead the ancient aqueduct arriving from the south, and crossing the site all the way to the Gihon Spring. I connected the mountain to the gushing of Jerusalem, articulating this dimension of Sabbatical, by the flow between the basins, the canals, and the waterfalls all around the site.

The moments with Claude in the room above Broadway. I’m between the sheets, lecturing freely, until he pulls me to him by my neck, “You’re so beautiful when you’re excited, Lana.”

“Let me talk,” I get away with a laugh.

“All right, but a little slower, don’t forget that it’s all recorded …”

“All right, all right.” I jump out of bed, waving sketches and hands, as if the room above Broadway were a lecture platform of a revolutionary forum. “Look at the talmudic discussion of Sabbatical Year. Here you can find the most radical definition of the relationship between nation and land, an unnatural relationship! There’s a precise formulation here of my old uneasiness with the Zionist story with all the love of the Land steeped in paganism or German Romanticism. Here’s a definition of place with no possibility of owning it. As it says in the wonderful chapter of Leviticus, ‘for the land is mine.’ Mine, God’s, not man’s. The land doesn’t belong to anybody! It was given as a promise to the nation that came to it from far away, and the promise is ‘on condition.’ It will be kept only if the nation is at an ethical level that will justify it. Otherwise the nation will be sent into exile. And how do you stay conscious of that condition? By the laws of the Sabbatical Year! Every seven years, in the year of Sabbatical, the fences around the property have to be destroyed, everybody has to be given food from its produce – the poor, the neighbor, the foreigner, even the beasts of the land – to let go of ownership – I found an amazing explanation of that in the Talmud: that 70 years of exile in Babylon were the punishment for seventy years of Sabbatical the nation had not observed since it entered the Land of Israel! Impossible to be in the Land without letting go of it, without opening your hand,” I reached out my hand in that movement of opening the fingers, of letting go of the hand, a gesture I had recently become used to doing while sketching. Claude grabbed my hand and hovered his lips over it.

“That’s only on condition, Claude, remember …”

“I’ve already let go.”

We laughed.

“And think of letting go of money! What a revolution in that notion especially today in the global village, with the triumph of capitalism! And as for the female aspect …”

I reached around Claude, took a cigarette from the pack on the other side of the bed, lit it from the match he held for me while running his other hand all along my back, as if reexamining the topographical data.

“Think about a place that can’t be owned! Especially the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the place everybody wants to conquer, to own! Jerusalem, the longed-for city, the woman, the place of yearning – to let go of her …” Unloading everything echoing in my head, my body.

“I tried to explain to Sayyid that it’s not us or you. It’s beyond ownership, robbery, argument about who was here first, who expelled whom,” the words kept pouring out. “If there’s any meaning at all to the return of the Jews to their land – that aberration in history – it’s to make a new revolution in the concept of nationalism, reformulate the connection between nation and land, give up the passion to conquer, to own … In this land, there was always somebody. Always coming from beyond the river, beyond the sea, and wandering back to exile. Nation after nation. Maybe that’s what the Jews wanted to expose. The place you let go of. A place of dream, of utopia, a place with another dimension …”

Our conversation started at the moment I arrived from the airport, Father. I put down the suitcase, follow you into the kitchen. Immediately surrounded by your joy, forgetting for a moment that I came because of Ella’s alarm, that the doctors had lost hope.

“So, let’s drink a glessele tea?” the smile floods your wrinkled face.

“Only on condition that I make it,” I dash to put on the eternal kettle, before you start the long operation of getting up from the chair where you just dropped.

“Father …,” I put the two clinking cups on the table, placed the sugar and the spoon next to you. “Father …”

“Yes,” you raised your penetrating blue eyes to me, sensing immediately that I had something important to say.

“I won an international competition – for a monument in Jerusalem.”

“Interesting! Very interesting,” you leaned forward, with a jolt that had nothing to do with the effort of bringing the cup with a stiff hand to your mouth from the body dropped onto the kitchen chair …

On Tuesday, early in the morning, the attack of choking started. And after that, the phone calls, the ambulance, and the panicky hospitalization. And yet, next morning, you whispered through the pallor, “Tell me again about your plan, Ilanka …”

That day you almost couldn’t make a sound. You tried again. With a supreme effort, “I thought about your plan – in Jerusalem,” I read your lips, “in Jerusalem …”

“Yes,” I quickly picked up the thread of our conversation, as if we still had time to unravel the whole issue. “Yes, in Jerusalem, of all places … And think about the site, the Hill of Evil Counsel. The view from the south …” You nodded, your face as white as the sheet with the hospital stamp, holding onto the thread of our thought as the thread of life.

I was afraid I had exaggerated, had offended what was precious to you. I went on only out of great anxiety, checking whether your heavy breathing didn’t require hooking you up immediately to the oxygen mask. “A temporary, rickety Sukkah of David, that’s all a letting go, a Sabbatical …” I hold out my hands in a gesture of opening a fist, spreading my fingers to you.

Silence prevailed between the cloth screens. You gathered up all your strength and through your heavy breathing, I managed to decipher, “You need love, Ilanka-love. Love … only what you love … can you let go … love of Jews – of Zion – of Jerusalem …”

Your head dropped onto the pillow. And your hand also let go to the side of the bed. I gathered it up in my hands, stroking the twisted palm, that for months had cleared the rocks of the Jezreel Valley, that plowed, that hoed, that held the pen for so many years. Until the room grew dark. And the nurse, one of those who was fond of you, took the thermometer out of your armpit, wrote down the result, checked the intravenous, and whispered, “He’s sleeping quietly.”

Paris. In the office.

A few days of work with Colette and Fernand before the trip to Jerusalem. Savoring our rare space of conversation. “Yes, I’m sinking more and more into those ancient texts. Coming to the Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud, as if they were concrete poetry, which also formulates questions of architecture within a system of gestures, relations, behavior.” Fernand listened intently as soon as I started quoting. I remembered that even before my trip to America, he had declared his intention to go to a Jewish bookstore to buy a French translation of the texts I mentioned. And from his shy smile, I understood that he had already done that.

“It’s precisely in the traditional explanations that I find the boldest sayings about the relationship between a nation and a place. Rashi, for example, envisions that the legitimacy of Israel will be undermined as it settles in a place already settled from the first by others, who will claim against them ‘You are robbers.’ Because the promise of the Land of Israel isn’t natural, it’s only settling on condition.”

I moved my hand between the drafting tables and the rolls of paper, and if I had had a beard, at that stage of the sermon, I probably would have stroked it.

“Yes,” murmured Fernand.

“You understand the radicalism?! The People get the Land to let go of it, get a place that will never really belong to them. You get an estate and every seven years you have to remove the fences around it, so that anybody who wants to can come in and eat from its fruit. That’s the freedom in the ability to give up, despite the fear of ‘what shall we eat the seventh year?'”

The light in the office began to grow dim. The short winter day withdrew from the windows. Colette played with a pencil.

And maybe it was only because of the intense unbroken silence that I added: “I see that with the boys now. How I’m slowly learning to keep my distance, not to hold onto them, to let go of the umbilical cord between us, despite the fear. To send them gently, with faith, to their freedom – especially now that I’m alone with them …” Moving my eyes from Colette to Fernand, and back to Colette. Their eyes hung on me, waiting attentively, even when I shrugged and added, “I feel quite alone with those thoughts. Far from the ideologies of the right, far from my friends on the left, far from the dream of the Zionist founders, like my father, and also far from Sayyid’s dream of independence, which doesn’t even begin to deal with the multilayered uniqueness of the Land of Israel, and remains in the original definition of ownership, tsumud, a Jihad liberating the Muslim holy lands …”

By the end of the afternoon, when we went back to the drafting tables, sitting in cones of lamplight, Colette addressed me as if casually: “Lana.”


“You know, you really can postpone your trip to Jerusalem until the situation is clarified.”

Fernand nodded from his table. “Yes, Lana, maybe you shouldn’t take on too much risk, especially with the boys …”

Fernand’s soft voice crossed the office.

“It’s not too late to cancel,” Colette repeated almost in a whisper.

I stroked the sketch of the Hut’s rope hinges and said into the space between the drafting tables, rolls of plans, and photos of projects we carried out together in all those years of friendship: “It’s hard to explain … I need that trip now. Before the year of mourning for my father ends … I’ve got to be there. Something’s wrong inside me … Maybe I can call that the need to enter the Hut myself, or to let go … I’ve got to renew some connection. Maybe so I can let go… And maybe it’s all the same thing …” I raised my eyes to them. “And that Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait just now doesn’t really have anything to do with my trip.”

[Alone in the car. Hill of Evil Counsel]

Every single morning on the way to the office, I turn east, to the site, with the secondhand Fiat I bought in the car lot in Talpiot. “Now you’ve come here? Everybody’s going and selling. And you’re buying …” The lot owner didn’t calm down, a virile man with a broad body tilting to the side.

Driving to the site. Stopping each time at another point of the 360 degrees of the open site. Give myself to the deceptive, bitchy beauty open to the gleaming ridges around the Old City. And in between the turrets, domes, roofs rising inside the walls. And the descending slopes of dry streams; the Valley of Hinnom, the Kidron, the Shiloah.

At my feet, the steep slope is etched by the River Etsel. A grade of more than sixty yards. Here I planned the library and the seminar rooms of Mount Sabbatical. Overlooking Mount Moriah: a direct view of the Foundation Stone, but with the distance necessary for thinking of Sabbatical, of aiming at, with no holding.

I continue the conversation with you, as if everything (like the deceptive presence of your absence) were conducted here by different laws of time. I moved the car another hundred meters to the east. The landscape changes completely. Like a new deck of cards in the hand of a seer.

The desert is open to the horizon. The Syrian-African rift draws it all the way up to the abyss of the Dead Sea. And behind it hangs the transparent ridge of the mountains of Moab.

What an intoxication at slowly opening, while driving, the folded infinity of the place here, confronting dream with reality.

This is the place that, for all the months of planning, was for me the multinational urban texture surrounding Mount Sabbatical. What was supposed to become the community of local support for the residents of the Settlement of Huts. The Jewish and Arab groceries that would supply food. The electrical and water connections. The paths going around the site, alongside the neighborhoods, connecting them with gardens, in the shade of groves and water fountains. And the community projects that would run together between the international groups that would live in the Huts and study on Mount Sabbatical and the inhabitants around the mountain on the other. A first pilot group for the “establishment of a life of Sabbatical” …

And yesterday, there were “disturbances of the peace” here. Stones were thrown from Jabal Mukaber toward the buildings of East Talpiot. The windows of an apartment and a car were shattered. The driver, a pregnant woman in her fifth month, was interviewed from her hospital bed on the evening news.

(And yet, here of all places, alone, in the dryness between the rocks, in the late morning, the dream is dizzying, Father.)

Once again, I’m choked by the joy of belonging to this place. That “atavistic” feeling I’ve tried to deny all the years. For how to deny what this place does to me. Now, for the first time without an excuse of visiting Mother or you. The body is charged all the time, and the heart suddenly rises, as at a meeting. Never have I denied the beginning of love.

Reprinted from “Snapshots,” by Michal Govrin, by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., copyright (c) 2002 by Michal Govrin. Translation copyright (c) 2007 by Penguin Group (USA), Inc.