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TimeOut 28.7.05
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Larger than Life

Itamar Handelman Ben Kna’an

You don’t see many books these days like Pinchas Govrin’s We Were As Dreamers. At a glance the book looks foreign on a local bookshelf; it lacks all of the ingredients that turn today’s book into a mass-consumer product – and therein lies its magic. It has none of the tired exotica of the Oriental-style book-factory, no tupenny metaphysical wisdom and, believe it or not, it was written, Heaven help us, by a man. What went wrong here? What can we do; it transpires there are still some decent people around, like the editors of Carmel Publishing House, who published the manuscript written by Pinchas Govrin (originally Pini Globman-Hajes, a Zionist activist and among the public-sector leaders of the early years of the State).

This is a lengthy memoir, unfolded in a fluent Hebrew, of the style perhaps a person and a half speak today – as beautiful as it is strict, rich in quotations from the sources, pioneers’ slang and Yiddish. It tells the story of one Jewish family, from its Hassidic days in the Vholyn Region in the Ukraine (my own family’s provenance) through to the foundation of the State of Israel. We Were As Dreamers is a family saga of broad scope, but primarily a diary of the author’s own memories. The story begins during Pinchas-Pini’s childhood days in the Jewish Shtetls of Shpikov and Braslav, traverses the hardships of the First World War and the storm sweeping through these regions during the Russian Revolution, and continues to the days of the pioneering migration to the Land of Israel. Govrin’s language is informative, and rich in detail and in lavish, highly realistic descriptions of all the regions, scenes and visions that fell to his lot. He excels in depicting the landscapes of Ukraine and Israel, each dear to him in its own way, and brings a wide array of colorful characters alive before the reader’s eyes. Sentences such as: ‘My shtetl stands on top of a hill, slopping gently down to the river’, and ‘a large road crosses it, the High Road, coming from somewhere elsewhere, stretching from far-off places to undiscovered places’, draw the reader into Govrin’s poetic world. This is a real world, historical, based on facts, just as it is personal, naïve and somewhat childish. This type of literature – memoirs from the beloved Jewish Shtetl, of blessed memory – was popular with Jewish writers at the beginning of the century (albeit more in Yiddish than in Hebrew), and is always replete with historical facts. But in Govrin’s, the story rolls with humor and lightness, even when describing harsh events (and these are not lacking).

But what really distinguishes Govrin’s book is that it was written in the Israel of the 60’s and 70’s, at a significant distance from the Eastern European past, and from a deep bond (often, particularly in his disdain for Arabs, somewhat too deep) with the Zionist ideal, theory and practice. Yet, despite the flinching the whole issue of practical Zionism produces in a left-wing reader such as me, We Were As Dreamers remains engrossing, grandiose, fascinating, larger than life. In spite of its length (and it is as long as the years of Exile), it reads like a dream, in one breath.