“The Woman Beyond the Sea” by Sarit Yishai-Levi. Translated by Gilah Kahn-Hoffmann. Seattle: Amazon Crossing, 2023. 404 pages. $16.99.
The author of this wonderful book tells a riveting story.
But the novel also demonstrates vividly how social rigidity, prejudice and ignorance — fueled by ethnic (Ashkenazi-Sephardi) and religious (Orthodox-secular) differences — can cause suffering that spans several generations.
In this case, it is not the bigotry of non-Jews toward Jews but rather intra-Jewish hatred and bias that is at the heart of this story.
Unfortunately, the rifts within the Jewish community, graphically laid bare in “The Woman Beyond the Sea,” still divide the Jewish people and still disrupt lives.
But the novel also highlights the power and the beauty of forgiveness in human relations.
Lily was left in a basket on the steps of a convent in Jerusalem by her mother who, in a note attached to the newborn, implores the Sisters to care for her.
As a child and as an adult, Lily is haunted by her obsession to know her mother. That — plus the death of her son at an early age — sours her relationship with her daughter and others in her family.
When her daughter Eliya was born, Shaul, the proud father, calls his daughter “a beauty … a doll.” In contrast, “Lily didn’t think she was beautiful and certainly no doll. … She felt nothing for the baby, neither love nor hate. Her heart was empty, and all she wanted was for someone to take the baby away so she could sleep.”
Her need to find her mother also ruined her relationship with her devoted husband, Shaul, who loved and cared for Lily without receiving any affection in return. He might have seemed like a “doormat” for his wife’s abuse, Eldad, Eliya’s true love, noted, but he was a “strong man. It was his resilience that held together the shaky foundations of the strange family… . Without Shaul, the family would have shattered. Shaul Zoref was a gentle man with an iron will.”
Eventually, Lily came to understand that she loves Eliya. With her daughter, Lily decided to try to find her mother. They learned the woman’s name, Rachel Townshend, and that she was living in England.
With their two men, Lily’s Shaul and Eliya’s Eldad, they traveled to Rachel’s town and the two women confronted their mother and grandmother.
Rachel told her daughter and granddaughter her story, a young woman alienated from her family, betrayed by her fiancé, a teenage girl alone on the streets of British-ruled Jerusalem, with no one to help her and with no resources who reluctantly gave up her daughter so that her offspring would have a chance in life.
Lily and Eliya rejected Rachel’s explanation.
Later, Rachel visited them prior to their return to Israel, trying again to make amends, to ask for forgiveness.
Both women reject her overtures, but Eliya suddenly changes her mind.
“All at once, with no inkling or intention that it would happen, my heart filled with compassion for the strange woman who was my grandmother. For the first time since I’d met her, the alienation gave way to closeness. I studied Rachel Townshend leaning on her cane, and she was no longer the evil woman who had abandoned Lily but my grandmother, whose terrible life story and cruel fate had led her to behave as destiny determined she would. I thought about the wrenching decision she had made to abandon my mother, believing that by doing so she was saving her from a life of poverty, shame and contempt. And for a fleeting moment, I felt for her.”
(One of the fascinating undercurrents in this book is the complete transformation of Eliya, from a meek, frightened girl, pushed around by her first husband and her mother, to a strong, loving, self-confident young woman.)
The author is a magician, pulling the reader into the vortex of the novel’s plot until his or her only desire is a resolution of this family’s problems.
I prayed for a happy ending, cared so much for these fictional characters that I was greatly moved when resolution came with the last word of the book.
Usually, when I review a translation of a book written in another language — this one’s mother tongue was Hebrew — I debate whether it was the author or translator who should be credited or lambasted. But not in this case. What makes this book so memorable is not the word-smithing but the storytelling.
This is the best novel I have read in years. I recommend it to the extent of advising that if you intend to read one work of fiction this year, make it “The Woman Beyond the Sea.” ■
Aaron Leibel’s memoir is “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s” (Chickadee Prince Books).