An epic historical novel dives deep into the less-tested roots of Zionism in Western Europe
Hamutal Bar-Yosef, 82, was tired of the legitimacy of the State of Israel being questioned or attacked.
“As an Israeli, I am insulted and angry when I am asked to justify the existence of my country,” said Bar Yosefretired literature professor and accomplished poet, short story writer and translator.
The octogenarian’s response was to write his very first novel, a 474-page epic. The tome makes the case for Zionism and Israel as it covers two centuries of the lives of members of a Western European Jewish family in three countries on two continents.
“The Rich: Chronicle of a Jewish Family (1763-1948)” was originally published in Hebrew under the title “Haashirim” in 2017. The English translation by Esther Cameron was released earlier this year.
In an interview from his home in Jerusalem, Bar-Yosef explained his motivations behind the highly sought-after novel about a fictional family, but populated by many real-life historical figures.
“I wanted to write about Zionism and the birth of the State of Israel from an angle that is not usually put forward, an angle that many are unaware of,” Bar-Yosef said.
“When I was growing up, we learned at school about the Holocaust, the pogromsand the young Eastern European socialist halutzim [pioneers] who came [in the late 19th and early 20th century] working the land, and who founded the kibbutzim. But that’s not the whole story,” she said.
In his novel, Bar-Yosef examines why Zionism also appealed to a segment of Western European Jews in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It shows how it was these Jews, with their dedicated efforts and financial resources, who made the land purchases in Ottoman and British Mandated Palestine that gave modern Jews an important and critical foothold in their ancient homeland.
Without these facts on the ground, the fledgling state of Israel would have had no base from which to defend itself against invading Arab armies during the 1948 War of Independence.
Bar-Yosef’s novel is divided into three sections, set consecutively in Germany, England, and the Land of Israel (pre-state Israel under British rule). The narrative, however, does not begin in either of these places.
It starts with a Jew in what will become the settlement area of the Russian Empire. His name is Meyer Heimstatt and he lives in Brisk (today Brest in Belarus). Marrying in 1763 at the age of 13 to avoid military conscription, Meyer finds himself standing under the wedding canopy next to a girl he does not know.
Meyer, a peddler, loses this woman when she dies in childbirth, and a second who withers with grief when their son is drafted and killed in the Napoleonic Wars. At that time, the family lived in Trendelburg, near the Prussian city of Kassel.
Meyer marries a third time and has a son named Albert. Thus begins the centenary stay of the family in Germany.
As the story moves beyond the lives of the poor, uneducated, and religiously traditional Meyers, it becomes increasingly clear how the Heimstatt family saga is tied to Bar- Yosef and the creation of Israel.
Meyer’s descendants are models for the progression of Western European Jews from poverty to prosperity – and assimilation – as they embrace the advances brought about by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
But the achievement of equal civil rights in Western democracies has not immunized these Jews against an age-old and deeply rooted anti-Semitism. Unlike the violent attacks on Jews in Eastern Europe, this was “soft” hatred of Jews, but it was hatred of Jews nonetheless. Eventually some of these Jews turned to Zionism as a solution to what the founder of Zionism Theodore Herzl named “The Jewish Question”.
As the story progresses, Albert Heimstatt falls under the wing of a Jewish family of fabric merchants in Kassel. He marries one of their daughters and eventually takes over the business, making it more successful through expansion and innovation.
Albert’s wife introduced him to European culture — music, art, languages, museums — but he continued to live by Jewish laws.
The couple’s son, Gotthold, is growing up at a time when the German government says it will only grant equality to Jews if they renounce their particular customs and traditions. Albert believes that wealth and education are essential for Jews to flourish, so he sends Gotthold to the University of Heidelberg to study chemistry, a subject for which he has a natural affinity.
However, after his freshman year, Gotthold comes home with a dueling scar on his cheek and a bad grade in Latin. He does not want to stay at university and prefers to apprentice with his maternal uncle in Cologne, who does chemistry for manufacturing. Gotthold is particularly interested in how to clean up the environment by developing positive and safe uses for industrial by-products.
Consuming a years-long love for his much younger cousin Minna, Gotthold marries her at the age of 19. Although no date is given for the wedding, the account suggests that it was 1866, the year of the Austro-Prussian War, the second war of German unification under Bismarck.
The families hope Bismarck will win the war, as they believe German unification will bring equal rights to Jews.
“We are German in every respect. We just have different holidays and a few different religious customs,” the father of the bride explains.
Author Bar-Yosef explained that the Germans weren’t particularly keen on granting full rights to Jews.
“I read 50 years of debates during the period between the end of the Napoleonic wars and unification under Bismarck [in 1871]and they revealed to me a deep-rooted anti-Semitism,” she said.
By the time Minna gave birth to a son named Richard in 1868, she and Gotthold had moved to northern England for better business opportunities. Gotthold chooses not to have his son ritually circumcised.
Gotthold becomes a major chemical manufacturer with operations in Britain and other countries, but this does not protect his family from prejudice. Confronted with anti-Semitism at school, Richard is confused about his identity.
“But I’m not Jewish,” he protests. “My parents aren’t really Jewish either. They don’t go to the synagogue… My parents didn’t circumcise me.
Gotthold and Minna eventually move to London, and Richard studies at Cambridge, concentrating on law and politics. While in Cambridge, he and a friend talk about their desire to be completely accepted as English. They know the political Zionism of Herzl and Baron Edmond de Rothschildfund agricultural settlements for Russian and Romanian Jews in the Land of Israel, but they disagree with the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
“Once we are finally out of the ghetto, should we go back to a Jewish ghetto in Palestine? I think Jews have a special talent for adapting to any country they live in and becoming just like the people of the country,” says Richard.
Richard marries Violette, a Christian of Huguenot origin, in a church. Richard is elected to parliament while expanding the family manufacturing business. The couple are raising their children Claire and Ralph as Christians.
As Claire and Ralph grow into young adults during World War I, “The Wealthy” shifts the focus from England to the Land of Israel. After a long journey away from Judaism, the Heimstatts reconnected to it through Zionism as a response to the oldest hate in the world.
Bar-Yosef said she was surprised to learn through her research how xenophobic English society was at the time of the First World War. She illustrates this point in the novel by the baseless accusations of war profiteering directed at Richard who, as a loyal government minister, works day and night to procure supplies for the army.
Richard meets World Zionist Organization President Chaim Weizmann, and became a supporter of Zionism. He makes significant financial contributions and raises funds from other people. But he is not a fan of the efforts of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) buy land in Palestine in trust for the Jewish people. He was a firm believer in private property and bought his own land for an agricultural colony and planned to build a villa there for his retirement.
Richard’s daughter Claire, who married a Jew, sometimes joined her father on Zionist fundraising trips to America. Son Ralph arrives in Palestine as a British soldier and decides to stay – first as administrator of the British Mandate, then as founder of “Heimstatt Hill”, a fictional settlement reminiscent of Petah Tikva.
This last section of the novel deals with the complex relations between Jews, absent effendis (wealthy Arab landowners), fellah (Arab farmers) and Bedouin regarding the sale and purchase of land in Palestine between 1917 and 1948.
“I learned a lot about this from the oral histories of Jews who bought or helped buy land from Arabs during the British Mandate period at Hebrew University,” Bar-Yosef said.
She gained an understanding of the economic factors behind the effendis to sell, and the Zionists to buy. The Jews had ideological motivations, but buying land in Palestine was also a good financial investment.
“The Wealthy” is a novel of descriptions and dialogues. The characters don’t share their inner thoughts and the narrative voice is non-judgemental. The author herself called the style of the book “dry” and “unmotivated”.
“I represent historical processes with this novel,” Bar-Yosef said.
The historical detail in “The Wealthy” makes up for the lack of emotional drama. The book is the author’s chosen vehicle for defending his country and arguing that Jews living in Western democracies needed – and still need – a Jewish homeland in Israel as much as Jews in other parts of the world.
Moreover, had it not been for the well-connected, educated, and wealthy Western Jews like the fictional Heimstatts who support Zionism, the real story might have turned out differently.