Acclaimed Canadian author explores dark side of pioneers’ Zionist utopia

In 2015, Canadian author Alison Pick decided it was time to visit Israel for the first time. While promoting her memoir, “Between Gods,” about her decision to convert to Judaism, she was told that experiencing the Jewish state first-hand was a necessary next step in solidifying her Jewish identity.

Pick grew up in southern Ontario believing that her family was Christian and began a personal journey upon discovering as a teenager that her paternal grandparents were Holocaust survivors. They and her father had hidden the family’s Jewish roots from her.

Pick based her Man Booker Prize-nominated 2010 novel “Far To Go” on her great-grandparents’ escape to Canada from Czechoslovakia on the eve of Nazi occupation in 1939. She followed that up with the acclaimed “Between Gods,” in which she dealt with her coming to terms with her family’s long-held secret and her decision to formally convert to Judaism.

The excellently crafted and psychologically complex “Strangers with the Same Dream” begins with the voice of a dead person, a ghost:As with the other stages in her Jewish journey, the Toronto-based Pick’s visit to Israel gave rise to a book, this time a historical novel set during the Third Aliya, the post-World War I wave of immigration to pre-state Israel. The newly published“Strangers with the Same Dream”focuses on the clash between the utopian socialist ideals and the harsh daily struggles of young European pioneers draining the swamps and establishing the first large kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley.

“This story begins with a lie. I killed myself. That’s what they said. They made me pay with that particular shame. When our descendants spoke of me, I was not named but instead called ‘the suicide,’ or sometimes ‘the first suicide.’ A cautionary tale.”

The truth about this supposed suicide is eventually revealed, but only after the events of several months in 1921 are recounted from the perspectives of three different characters — two female and one male — each struggling with their own personal demons.

Pick said the strong feminist voice of this novel was deliberate.

“I did want it to be a feminist book. I don’t think I would have articulated that to myself in a conscious, upfront way, but it was the first book I had written being a mom and having a daughter, and I knew I wanted the gender politics to come into it, and it would be interesting to have different points of view and voices from that perspective,” Pick told The Times of Israel.

The first character is Ida, a Zionist teenager who flees to Palestine after her father is murdered and mother raped in a pogrom. Ida, on the cusp of womanhood, falls in love with earnest and staunchly idealistic fellow pioneer Levi. Insecure and not totally committed to the ideals of the collective, Ida hides her mother’s valuable candlesticks with an Arab woman in a neighboring village, opening her up to blackmail and leading to unforeseen unfortunate consequences that spiral out of control.

The second section presents the perspective of David, the charismatic leader sent from the established, smaller Kvutzat Kinneret to oversee the creation of this new, large kibbutz further south in the Galilee. David, 28, is a decade older than the newly arrived pioneers. He is with his wife Hannah and young daughter Ruth, but his attention is more on Sarah, one of the new pioneers with whom he steals away to have sex at every opportunity. Although regarded as a leader, David’s lack of empathy, and his impulsivity lead to dangerous situations, especially when it comes to relations with neighboring Arabs.

The final part of the book is told from Hannah’s perspective, and it is a strong feminist antidote to her husband’s point of view. While David, lost in books and philosophy, is a slave to his sexual drives, Hannah is grounded, emotionally and physically connected to both her family and the Land of Israel. The bond Pick evokes between Hannah and Ruth, especially as the girl tragically dies of sepsis from a cut to her leg, is visceral and exceptionally moving.

The kibbutz in the novel is modeled on Ein Harod, founded in 1921 at the foot of Mount Gilboa. Pick read about the kibbutz in Ari Shavit’s hugely popular 2013 book, “My Promised Land.” She was inspired to research the early kibbutzim movement and visit Ein Harod, delving into its archives for a significant portion of the six weeks she spent over three visits to Israel in 2015-2016 on an Ontario Arts Council grant.

“Shavit’s chapter on Ein Harod and the early days of the kibbutzim struck me as very novelistic. There was drama and intensity and difficult conditions and everything you can use as a backdrop for a novel,” Pick told The Times of Israel.

Upon arriving at Ein Harod, Pick was amazed to find an extensive archive stored in cardboard boxes.

“None of it was digitized, at least not when I was there,” she said.

Ein Harod archivist Ilana Bernstein showed Pick helpful primary sources, including early diaries and letters.

By combing through the archives and listening to oral histories of older members of the kibbutz, Pick discovered key nuggets that would eventually make their way into “Strangers with the Same Dream.”

“I sort of used little bits of things. People would tell me different versions of the same story, like there was a charismatic leader who was known for sleeping with lots of the women, there was a suicide, or two suicides maybe, a hint of a murder — but none of the plot points were transposed. I just used them to inform the feeling,” Pick said.

Pick’s research on the kibbutzim’s baby houses and collective child rearing practices, as well as her viewing a documentary film on the early kibbutz movement with a strong feminist perspective helped shape the novel, especially the section told from Hannah’s point of view.

Pick was interested not only in the Jewish Zionist experience, but also in that of the Arabs living in the areas being settled by the pioneers. She did extensive reading (in English translation) of available materials on the subject.

“I was interested in the early psychology of two groups of people that were there and what that must have been like,” she said.

“Strangers with the Same Dream” is a work of historical fiction, and not documentary history. But as often happens with any book about Israelis and Palestinians, it has been criticized for being unbalanced.

A review by Bill Gladstone in the Canadian Jewish News accused Pick of political revisionism and a left-wing (pro-Palestinian) bias.

“‘Strangers with the Same Dream’ seems to reflect a level of political insight and consciousness that has more to do with the present moment than with the period it is supposed to be describing,” he wrote.

“Political revisionism is the filter through which too many people view events in the Middle East these days. Among the left-leaning crowd, it’s fashionable to cast the Jews as colonizers and Arabs as victims. These attitudes seem embedded in many passages of the novel,” Gladstone wrote.

From the outset, Pick was willing to risk critique of her portrayal of a place and time so central to the national narratives of two peoples living in conflict for more than a century. She remained undeterred in tackling a subject that captivated her.

“I felt acutely aware that it was a challenging topic, that I would have to work really hard to get it right… By choosing a short period of time and going deeply into it, I felt I could do it. It would be hard, but I could do it,” Pick said.

“The book is what it is. It’s a piece of art first and foremost,” she said.

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