The Blue Mountain – reviews

The Blue Mountain is the English name of the first Novel of the Israeli author, Meir Shalev.

Called Roman Russi in Hebrew (literally “Russian Novel”), the original was published in 1988 and became a best-seller. It was translated to English in 1991, by Hillel Halkin.

The narrative is told by a fictional character, Baruch Shenkar, who has lived with his grandfather in a moshav in the Jezreel Valley, since losing his parents at a young age. His grandfather, a Russian immigrant, was one of the founding fathers of the moshav.

In his 40s, after leaving the moshav, Baruch tells the story of his family history, and the history of the moshav, from its establishment during the Second Aliya and up to the older generation of the settlers, in the post-state of Israel years. The novel describes the historical and geographical background of the Jezreel Valley in those years.

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The Second Aliyah was an important and highly influential aliyah that took place between 1904 and 1914, during which approximately 40,000 Jews immigrated into Ottoman Palestine, mostly from the Russian Empire[1], some from Yemen.

(An Aliyah (Hebrew: עלייה Translit.: ʿAliyah Translated: “ascent”) is the immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). It is one of the most basic tenets of Zionist ideology. The opposite action, emigration from Israel, is referred to as yerida(“descent”).[1] The return to the Holy Land has been a Jewish aspiration since the Babylonian exile. Large scale immigration toEretz Israel and later Israel began in 1882. )

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The prime cause for the Second Aliyah was mounting antisemitism in Russia and pogroms in the Pale of Settlement, notably theKishinev Pogrom and the Pogroms that attended the 1905 Russian Revolution.

Although the aliyah contributed to Jewish settlement in Palestine in many ways,  many see it as a failure, as nearly half of the immigrants left Palestine by the time World War I started.

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NY TIMES
The Blue Mountain By Meir Shalev Translated by Hillel Halkin. 375 pages. Aaron Asher Books/HarperCollins. $22.95.In “The Blue Mountain,” Meir Shalev uses fictional characters and folkloric wisdom to depict the pioneering life of Jewish families thrown together in a small cooperative village decades before the birth of the State of Israel. The villagers have gladly traded one hardship for another: the fear of living almost as aliens in their native Russia for an alien wilderness in Palestine. The untamed land these settlers inhabit before and after World War I stands in marked contrast to the developed country encountered by the recent arrivals from the Soviet Union. The stubborn characters in Mr. Shalev’s novel may well remind readers of some of the tough-minded old-timers with similar backgrounds in modern Israel.It is noteworthy that several of Israel’s leading writers — Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman — keep shifting back and forth between the past and the present thematically. Some have dipped into the well of their own experiences as soldiers or Holocaust survivors. Even fledgling authors do not have to travel far to find contemporary themes; they can step outside their front doors, adjust their gas masks and watch the rocks or Scuds fly by. All this is the stuff of storytelling and verse from such writers as Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s outstanding poet.

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Amazon reviewer:
The Eastern European emigrants to Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century assured that what would become known as the ‘Second Aliyah’ would bear a Yiddish accent, a socialist ethic, and a hard-nosed disdain for the religious Zionism of some fellow travelers.  Meir Shalev provides us an angle on their experience that makes it difficult to reduce their exploits to those of secular saints and impossible not to love them for their deeply human foibles.In Blue Mountain, Shalev has given us a great read, portraying the intersecting loves and hates of his semi-fictional village with an unflinching eye and a deeply sympathetic voice. Halkin’s English translation comes off the page as anything but a translation, and so places this moving novel into the hands of a public many times broader than the original.The narrator poses as the grandson of one of the original pioneers, bequeathed by his parents’ early death into the legacy and kindness of two such oldsters. One is his grandfather, the other the village’s hilariously didactic schoolteacher. Growing up as they grow old, ‘Baruch’s’ narrative voice conveys to us his guardians’ memory of the Second Aliyah even as we look in on that scene with considerably less innocence about the consequences of Jewish immigration to Palestine than his fictional villagers could have imagined.With reason, Shalev’s style is compared to Gabriel García Márquez’ ‘magical realism’, though the flights of fancy in Blue Mountain are fewer than those in García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. They also owe more to the no-nonsense raw edges of the pioneers’ gritty socialist experiment than to the porousness of metaphysical boundaries. Transplanted to their unpromising environs by events as much as by choices, these Jews from Russia and the East had little time for the cultural adjustments and incremental synchronization that easier times allow. They drained the swamps and hauled orchards out of dry land by means of certainties that, if they seem quaintly humorous in hindsight, get no apology from those who felt compelled by the tenuousness of survival to exercise them.That is not to say they lacked affection for the Arab inhabitants of the land they cultivated, for these appear from time to time on the margins of village life as respectable passers-by. Rather, they simply had no time, nor could pausing to reflect upon the pogrom-punctuated Russia they had left behind accomplish much but distract them from the new thing to which they had put their hands.Time, such as it was, existed in order to invent a better way to milk the cows, apply folk genetics to the citrus, and cultivate the large loyalties and enmities that flourish in small towns. Shalev narrates those times.He speaks through Baruch, who should have been a farmer but instead earned millions by turning the family farm into a cemetery for the Second Aliyah’s finite number of dead, those who arrived pale from New York and were buried for thousands, as well as those buried fresh and for free from the village’s old folks home.Shalev is a widely-read Israeli author of essays, novels, and children’s books. To some, he is best-known for his compelling newspaper columns that, not surprisingly, argue that grace and sanity like those with which Baruch narrates the history of the Blue Mountain, ought to be cultivated in the hot zone of the Palestinian-Arab conflict. (See ‘In the end, it is the violin that wins’, […])

‘Uncle Baruch’ finishes his tale only when a new generation, sprung from the union of Uri, the village’s randiest returned exile, and Nehama, the daughter of the alarmable village cantor, returns to grow up on the land that their forebears had turned to green and to call him ‘Uncle’. Perhaps Shalev would tell us that it is by such affectionately-termed traditioners that the story passes from one generation to its successor, so that it remains tell-able and well-told to those who will never drain swamps or walk with as much certainty as the Second Aliyah’s ‘Movement’ found it necessary to do. Or perhaps he simply enjoyed telling the tale.

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