September 07

Snapshots: An Excerpt

Michal Govrin

This translation of Michal Govrin’s Snapshots appears by special arrangement with the publisher, Riverhead Books. Snapshots will be published in October 2007. For more information on this and other volumes by Michal Govrin, please see

Acclaimed author Michal Govrin’s Snapshots, excerpted here for the first time, received Israel’s 2003 AKUM Prize. Govrin’s hybrid text draws from traditional Jewish sources and both modernist and postmodern poetics. The novel’s collage of letters, drawings, and photographs reveals the impassioned life of protagonist Ilana Tsuriel. These fragments of Ilana’s life expose her multiple identities as architect, political visionary, prodigal daughter of an Israeli pioneer, wife of a Holocaust scholar, and lover of a Palestinian playwright. In this excerpt, Ilana recalls her reconciliation with her father as the buildup to the first Gulf War plays itself out as entertainment on worldwide television. While the Middle East inexorably moves toward war, Ilana describes her feminist vision of a settlement of sukkot--huts--that, as Govrin explains, present “a temporary structure of confidence in the midst of the threat, and fear of the unknown.”

-Adam Rovner, Hebrew Translations Editor

A quarter of a million American soldiers entrenched in Saudi Arabia.
On CNN, the apocalyptic musical clip at the beginning of “Desert Shield” news.
Bush declares, with uplifted face: “We are dealing with Hitler revisited. Totalitarianism
and brutality that is naked and unprecedented in modern time . . .”

”Shapes of Sukkah”
My preparations for the lecture, completely cut off from reality, Father, as in our conversation, started the moment I arrived from the airport. 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 gleizele 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.

“Good,” you smiled in surrender, wrapping me in a fresh, blissful look.

“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 up to your mouth from the body dropped onto the kitchen chair.

“It’s a peace monument.”

“Peace . . .”Now you were absorbed in my words.”

“I brought the plans to show you.”

“Excellent, I want to see everything!”

“But maybe tomorrow . . .” I returned to reality. “Rest now. Tomorrow we’ll look at everything,” I helped him get up from the chair, to find his balance, and then to advance slowly, leaning one hand on the table and the other on me.

“‘Give a hand,’ eh, Father?”

You smiled, muttering one of your old Zionist tunes between one choking cough and another.

And only to cover up the panic at the sight of your weakness, I hold on to you quickly from behind, “‘Give, give, give, give, give a hand, shut your eyes, dance the hora, and we shall now forget it all . . . ’”

“Well, what a hora dance,” you commented ironically, dragging another step. “‘You’ve got a pain, trample it with your feet again . . . ’”

And when we paused between the bathroom door and the corridor, you raised your finger with a puckish smile, still singing, “‘Ah, ah, all of us will go mad. We’ll live, we’ll see wonders and miracles . . .’”

”Site and Plant”
For two days you held on. We pretended that the routine continued between Gabi, the student who comes to wash you and run errands, and Rebecca, “the strong hand,” you call her jokingly, quoting Maimonides, for her devoted kneading of your body in physiotherapy exercises, and who kisses you goodbye on your forehead crowned with white curls.

On Tuesday, early in the morning, you had trouble breathing and said only: “I’m weak,” before the attack of choking started. And after that, the phone calls, the ambulance, and the panicky hospitalization, and Ella came up from the south, running to take care of all the forms, so much like Mother. And the waiting between the screens, in the turmoil of the emergency room. All the time I held on to the blueness you opened now and then, sitting on the bench next to your gurney. You slowly raised your finger, and only after a while did I understand that you were pointing to the window, to the view of the sea and the Carmel in the distance. “Yes . . .” I confirmed, stroking your hand, the skin hard, smooth, evoking a soft smile on your sunken cheeks. Until you were finally moved to the iron bed with the miserable nightstand and the bedpan.

And yet, next morning, your head leaning on the pillows crowned by the silvery curls like a halo, you whispered through the pallor, “Tell me again about your plan, Ilanka . . .”

All around, the hospitalized men in the room were groaning, the nurses passed by on the other side of the screen. Nothing there reminiscent of an architecture seminar, and yet I was concerned only with focusing my discourse when I started, “The term ‘monument’ means a ‘reminding structure,’ a ‘structure of memory.’ Hence the question, how to remember . . .” You hung on my words.” My plan is not a ‘monumental’ monument that rules over the landscape and to which tourists are brought in buses, have their picture taken, and go on . . . My site is based on the Hut, the hut, a completely different kind of ‘monument,’ the kind you don’t look at, but one you build and live in, as a special way of remembering . . . And, moreover, it is a temporary structure. Think what a statement there is here about memory, which is built and destroyed, that has to be rebuilt every year . . .”

“Nice, nice, Ilanka, there’s depth to that,” you said with an effort.

“The plan is for a ‘Settlement of Huts,’ and individuals or groups will come to it. They’ll build their Huts, and they’ll live in them for seven days. People can come from all over the world, without visas, without a police check, it will be an open area. For seven days they’ll live like that, in the heart of Jerusalem. They’ll leave their normal lives to study, discuss, think, remember. And also to eat and drink, pray or sing, love . . . and to live by the sun, in that enclave of memory, in the midst of Jerusalem . . .”

You raised your eyebrows to me.

“It’s a little like your pioneer camp in the Jezreel Valley, in the twenties, eh?” I said.

You confirmed that with a smile that flooded me, knowing that nobody would ever listen to me as you did. And so I continued even when the nurses came, changed the intravenous and turned you over. I clung to the capering of your look, assuming the disputatious tone of the yeshiva: “Well, and the teachings of the Talmud, that’s something! A Hut with four walls, fine, but also with three it’s possible, in fact even two and a half are enough with openings in completely imaginary walls, a whole mind structure . . .”

We laughed. That is, I laughed, and a flicker trembled on your face. And then you said, chuckling to yourself, “They say . . .” And immediately the coughing cut you off. Struggling with its waves, you went on with lips almost shut. “They say that in a certain city in the fall, during Sukkoth, the inhabitants called the mayor and complained: ‘The Jews are violating the law . . .’”

”Shapes of Sukkah”
“What?” I bent over.

“Violating the law . . . the city laws,” you managed to say before the next wave of coughing. “‘They’ve enlarged their houses, added some structures in the yard without permission!’” You sneak in an amused look, in the pause before the punch line. “The mayor called in the head of the Jewish community, ‘What’s this?’ he shouted, and you kept up your imitation of the mayor. ‘There are laws against unapproved building! I’m informing you that I’ve issued an order for immediate destruction!’” “‘Honorable Mayor,’” you changed to the voice of the rabbi, in a hoarse phlegmy whisper. “‘You’re absolutely right, and I promise to tend to the matter personally! In seven days there won’t be a trace of anything the Jews built in their yards. Everything will be taken down! I give my word . . .’” You choked, the cough immediately covering the laugh.

“Great, that’s great, Father . . .”

You beamed, raising your eyes to me.

“I promise you I’ll add that joke to the project. Great . . .”

You shut your eyes, accepting the compliment shyly, sinking into rest after the enormous effort. And the nurses come in again to take care of you. You’re their favorite patient.

The next day, I came back to replace Ella who spent the night in the easy chair next to you. You dozed off and a team of doctors and nurses hovered around you in white coats. I sat in the corridor, among the other people waiting. They didn’t let me in until the afternoon. The blue stream of your look greeted me, welcoming without moving your head. And then, as if we were still sitting together in the apartment, you pointed with your eyes to the nightstand with the box of candy Ella had brought, along with the drawing Netta and Nimrod had made for you, encouraging me with your eyes to have some. Three days before you passed away. Only after I filled my mouth with chocolate, to your satisfaction, did you concentrate, try to tell me something.

That day you almost couldn’t make a sound. You tried again. With a supreme effort, “I thought about your plan . . . Huts . . . 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 . . .” I saw how you passed in your mind’s eye the slant of the light on the slopes, the villages, and I said aloud what was going through you, “The view from the Governor’s Palace of the Old City, the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, the Mount of Olives . . .” You nodded, your face as white as the sheet with the hospital stamp, holding on to the thread of our thought as the thread of life. “Yes, and there of all places, a Hut! And that’s the connection with the Sabbatical year. To remind that to live in this Land you’ve got to know how to let go. A
dimension not yet realized in the return to Zion, in Zionism, in the whole renewal of the connection between the people and the Land. And to remind that in Jerusalem of all places . . .” I was afraid I had exaggerated, had offended what was precious to you, but your clear look rose to me, intense, attempting to get to the bottom of my mind, or to the secret chambers of my heart, demanding I go on. “I saw in the sources, Father, the universal dimension of the holiday of Huts. Throughout the reading of the Torah and the Prophets during the holiday, from Ezekiel, Zechariah, Ecclesiastes, with images of the End of Days, of seventy nations ascending to the Temple Mount, and the Mount of Olives will open with ancient waters flowing out of Jerusalem . . .”

I went on only out of great anxiety, checking whether your heavy breathing didn’t require you immediately to have the oxygen mask. “A temporary, rickety Hut 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.”


Images by Michal Govrin.

Zeek's Hebrew translations are made possible with a grant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.


Michal Govrin, a novelist, poet, and theater director, chairs the theater department of Emunah College, Jerusalem. Among her works in English are her novel, The Name (Penguin-Riverhead, 1998) and Body of Prayer (Cooper Union, 2001), a dialogue with poet and architect David Shapiro and philosopher Jacques Derrida. Snapshots will be published next month by Penguin-Riverhead.

Barbara Harshav has translated more than thirty books of fiction, nonfiction, theater, and poetry from French, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Her translations include Yoram Kaniuk’s The Last Jew (Grove, 2006), The Labor of Life: Selected Plays by Hanoch Levin (Stanford, 2003), S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday (Princeton, 2000), and Michal Govrin’s The Name.