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A Centennial Salute to Lea Goldberg – Poet and Novelist

Dr. Avraham D. Horowitz, Posted Nov 9, 2011

“And This Is the Light” by Lea Goldberg, The Toby Press, New Milford, CT & London, England, translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav, with an Introduction and Afterword by Nili Scharf Gold, 2011, 222 pages. $24.95
Lea Goldberg (1911-1970) was born in Konigsberg, East Prussia, now Kaliningrad, Russia.   During War World I, her family was exiled to Russia but returned to Kovno, Lithuania, where Goldberg studied at the Hebrew High School.   She started writing poems, first in Russian, then in Hebrew at an early age. In 1930 she continued her studies at the University of Berlin and University of Bonn, receiving in 1933 a doctorate degree in Semitic languages.   She immigrated to Palestine in 1935.  Best known as a poet, Goldberg was also the author of plays and essays, and a translator. At the end of her professional career she served as chairperson of the Department of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She was awarded many literary prizes, including the Israel Prize for Literature, posthumously, in 1970. She died of lung cancer at age 58. 

Her novel “And This Is the Light,” published in 1946 is one of the first novels in Hebrew by a woman. The semi-autobiographical novel describes the summer of 1931 in the life of Nora Krieger, a 20 year old student, the author’s age that year. Upon her arrival home for vacation with her mother after her first year of studies in Berlin, she discovers that her father, who was interned for years in a hospital for the mentally ill also returns to town. Nora recalls the circumstances leading to her father’s mental problems:  In 1919, after WWI, Nora’s family was part of a convoy of refugees coming back to Lithuania, when “ignorant peasants in army uniforms, staring at the father’s yellow shoes (p. 16),” said that those shoes were a clear sign that he was a Bolshevik spy.

Then they locked him in an empty barn, and day after day, for ten straight days, they simulated his execution.  Nora and her mother were witnesses to the father’s suffering and humiliation. The father was mentally broken. Nora’s parents divorced after a few years.  

In 1931, Nora falls in love with Arin, a friend of her father, who arrives in town from America for a visit.   After one of the many friendly meetings with Arin, “she knew… that she did love him, only him, even though that love was absurd, even though he was almost the same age as her father, even though she didn’t want to love him (pp. 123-124).”  Her love for Arin is not reciprocated.
Nora is haunted by the physical similarity between her sick father and beloved Arin. One of her dreams focuses on Arin’s image in the mirror as he’s approaching and stands smiling behind her. When she turns to face him, she discovers that it was her father’s image that she saw.
On the connection between Arin’s  and her father’s images in Nora’s mind, the reader of the novel is assisted by the afterword of Nili Scharf Gold who brilliantly shows how Lea Goldberg was influenced by Sigmund Freud’s study “The Case of Dora” (1923).  Nora and Dora are young women who are emotionally involved with a contemporary of their father, unable to fulfill their hearts’ desires. 
 When Nora is haunted by night dreams she picks up a book of Hebrew poems, and reads a poem by medieval linguist and poet Ibn Ezra, starting with “It is the light that goes on glowing through my youth,    And glows yet brighter as I grow old (p. 167).”
Ibn Ezra’a poem has an unexpected effect on Nora: she identifies the light as her love for the Hebrew language.   The light in the novel’s title, reflects the unique role that the Hebrew language plays for the heroine Nora as well as for the author.  Russian, Yiddish and German are loaded with terrible memories; Hebrew is the new light!  Those two lines from Ibn Ezra’s poem are the motto of the novel!
The English translation of the novel by Barbara Harshav is faithful to the source. The Toby Press is commended for adding the afterword by Nili Scharf Gold, Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
In Palestine of 1946 the reaction of Jewish writers and reviewers to the new novel was cool, because Hebrew literature at that time was nationalistic emphasizing the struggle towards the establishment of an independent state and the ideal image of the sabras. Nowadays, 65 years after the publication of the novel, it’s easier to appreciate its literary value.   
The 100th anniversary of Lea Goldberg’s birth has been celebrated in an international and interdisciplinary conference at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University in May of this year.  


Dr. Avraham D. Horowitz lives in Florida, where he lectures on Modern Hebrew Literature and publish reviews in the Florida Jewish Journal.   He grew up in Israel where he served in the Israeli army and studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.S. degree). Later he was awarded M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Experimental Psychology at the University of North  Carolina in Chapel Hill. 

Horowitz worked for 27 years at General Motors Research Labs in Michigan in consumer psychology research. Parallel to his research career, he started in Michigan and later in Florida Modern Hebrew Literature Book Clubs, in Hebrew and in English.   In Florida he lectured on Modern Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Federation, the ELDERHOSTEL program, the Distinguished Lecture Series of the Jewish Education Committee, and at Adult Education Programs of various Temples.  

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