Thousands of Lithuanian Jews emigrated to South Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to escape conscription, the pogroms and other manifestations of anti-Semitism under tsarist rule. History also tells us that just a few years later, during the World War II Nazi invasion of the country, 90-95% of the almost quarter-million Jews living in Lithuania in 1940 were murdered.
A large majority of today’s South African Jewish community is descended from those Lithuanian immigrants and how ironic that their grandsons would have been drafted into this army to help preserve its own racial oppressions. What déjà vu our ongoing xenophobic attacks on the Somali, Zimbabwean and Congolese people living here?
Judith Shreiber, young wife and mother, escaped Europe to join her husband in South Africa. She could only bring what she was able to carry and one precious item was the notebook she hid away in her new home to fill with poems about life in the old. Her poetry records her people’s history, life in Lithuania, her just-in-time emigration. During the course of Hazel Frankel’s novel, the fierce love she had for her country of birth slowly becomes nostalgia and then dwindles to a silence which is echoed by that of the family and friends she left behind.
Cally, Judith’s granddaughter and named for one of her grandmother’s sisters who died in Lithuania, is a soferet – scribe – a skilled practitioner of the ancient art and exacting science of calligraphy. She too, writes throughout this book and during its course she inscribes three texts.
The first is an anniversary gift, a sampler of love poems that she copies onto a scroll for her husband. As she describes the progress of the project, so she also tells of her years spent in an oppressive and abusive marriage. Cally is busy too, with intricate work on the ketuba or marriage document of promises she has been commissioned to inscribe, illuminate, and gild with burnished gold leaf, for a young couple just starting their lives together.
And Cally copys, with an especially chosen calligraphic script, the poems from Judith’s tattered notebook onto folios of parchment that she will bind together with a leather cover and emboss with the title, ‘After a Long Silence’.
Cally must fit her writing and her successful business into her ‘role’ of housewife and mother – not let it intrude into her husband’s comfort zone. Her writing becomes her secret place of ‘self’ that, as her grandmother did, she must hide away in order to survive the circumstances in which she finds herself. Her grandmother’s silence (so as to not burden her children or hinder their assimilation into their new country) about the atrocities in Lithuania mirrors the attempts of Cally’s community to silence the fact of marital abuse.
Frankel crafts Illuminating Love from these various, and gently narrated, strands of story which, together, both illuminate aspects of Jewish tradition and history and also offer powerful commentary how oppressors are ‘allowed’ to oppress.
Illuminating Love, by Hazel Frankel
Publisher: Jacana, 2011
Review first published by Cape Times, 13 January 2012
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