Ruhama Veltfort: The Promised Land

Ruhama Veltfort
The Promised Land
Milkweed Editions

VAL KILMER PARTING a computer-generated Red Sea? Plastic Moses action figures free with the purchase of a McRib sandwich, perhaps? In DreamWorks' zeal to turn the flight from Egypt into a picaresque adventure and package it for mass consumption, something of the story's deeper significance seems to have been sacrificed. One might easily forget that aside from being an easily digestible adventure story, the Exodus is the central historical metaphor of Judaism. In a sense, The Promised Land, by first-time novelist Ruhama Veltfort, is a reclamation project: an ambitious retelling of the ancient story that explores the cultural significance of the Exodus myth without turning it into a romp.

Thankfully, Veltfort is savvy enough not to tell the old story in the old way. Rather than taking on the Biblical version of the Exodus, she disguises her archetypal narrative in the historical context of the mid-19th century. There is no nasty pharaoh in The Promised Land, and no plague of locusts. Veltfort's enslaved Jews are residents of a Polish shtetl and their captors are poverty, cholera, and the pogroms of the Cossacks. It is a world of extreme suffering, in which epidemic outbreaks take nearly every firstborn child and madness takes most of the adults. The only moments of solace from a life of misery and toil are the fervent prayer sessions in the house of the local rabbi.

Veltfort enters this isolated world through two narrators who offer alternating accounts of the endless misery of village life. The first, Yitzhak, is the son of the rabbi and the Moses of Veltfort's Exodus. Like the rabble-rousing prince of Egypt, Yitzhak is born into an orthodox culture that frustrates and restricts him, but to which he is also inextricably tied. As a young man, he has visions of the coming apocalypse that will sweep Europe. "Once a boy dreamed of the end of the world," he explains to his disciples. "He dreamed, night after night, that first his town, then the country, and soon the entire world was covered in flames, and that the people he knew, his beloved family and friends, were pushed into great boxes, as if they were chickens, and there burned alive."

Yitzhak's wife, Chana, is Veltfort's second narrator, and her simple yet reflective account drives much of the second half of The Promised Land. In yet another analog to the biblical story of Moses, Chana is the orphaned daughter of the village meshuganah, abandoned as a girl in the reeds by the riverbank, and eventually taken in as a servant by the village's wealthiest family. After much misery, she falls into an arranged marriage with Yitzhak. Together with a small group of devotees, the couple flees Poland and crosses the ocean in search of a new promised land: the American frontier.

Naturally, all is not milk and honey on the Oregon Trail. As Veltfort recounts the tribulations of this lost tribe wandering in an unforgiving wilderness, she deftly weaves together the ancient threads of the Old Testament story with the myth of the immigrant. In her hands, The Promised Land becomes a re-creation of Judaism's oldest tale and the founding mythology of the Diaspora in America.

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