Review of Feathers
"The Art of Tempting Memory to Speak" www.forward.com
A classic of modern Israeli literature in English for the first time.
When first published in 1979, Haim Be’er’s "Feathers" was a critical and commercial success, ushering in a period of great productivity and expansiveness in modern Hebrew literature. Now considered a classic in Israeli fiction, the book is finally available to English readers worldwide.
In this, his first novel, Be’er portrays the world of a deeply religious community in Jerusalem during the author’s childhood and adolescence in the 1950s and '60s. The novel is filled with vivid portraits of eccentric Jerusalem characters, chief among them the book’s main character, Mordecai Leder, who dreams of founding a utopian colony based on the theories of the 19th-century Viennese Jewish thinker Karl Popper-Lynkeus.
Similar high-flying dreams inspire the family of the narrator, strict Orthodox Jews with impractical minds and adventurous souls — men such as the narrator’s father, who periodically disappears from home on botanical expeditions meant to prove that the willow tree of Scripture is in fact the Australian eucalyptus.
Experimental in structure and mood, "Feathers" features kaleidoscopic jumps in time, back and forth in the narrator’s memories from boyhood to adulthood. Its moods swing wildly from hilarity to the macabre, from familial warmth to the loneliness of adolescence. Jerusalem and its inhabitants, as well as the emotional life of the narrator, are splintered and reconstituted, shattered and patched. This fragmentation, combined with a preoccupation with death and physical dissolution and dreamlike flights of imagination, evokes an Israeli magical realism.
"Feathers" was chosen one of the 100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature by the National Yiddish Book Center.
"Haim Be'er resembles the adolescent hero of his novel in wanting to preserve in hard-won modern Israel some of the quirky obstinacy of earlier European-Jewish utopians. As a result, we find in Feathers the quality that Saul Bellow calls characteristically Jewish — "laughter and trembling so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two."
— Ruth R. Wisse Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard
Haim Be'er offers us a phantasmagorical portrait of Jerusalem. Following in the footsteps of Bruno Schulz, he explores the tension between fantaticism and lunacy, between secularism and evasion, and between what's tangible and what's imagined. FEATHERS is as unsettling as it is rewarding. It should be a treat to fans of Israeli fiction.
— Ilan Stavans, author of "On Borrowed Words" and editor of "The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories"
Haim Be’er was born in Jerusalem in 1945 to an Orthodox family. He is an editor at Am Oved Publishers. A writer of prose and poetry, he has received several literary awards, including the Bernstein Prize, one of Israel’s most prestigious literary prizes. He has published three novels (including "The Pure Element of Time," UPNE 2003), one book of poetry, and one work of nonfiction.
Hillel Halkin is a well-known translator of Hebrew and Yiddish. A writer, essayist and critic, he has published two books and appears frequently in such publications as Commentary and The New Republic.
This book can be purchased directly through the University Press of New England.