My Father's House

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Novel by Meyer Levin, 1947

Based on Meyer Levin's screenplay for the movie of the same title and year, My Father's House (1947) employs any number of heavily symbolic, quasi-cinematic scenes in a vaguely propagandistic allegory in support of a Jewish state in Palestine. Part of Levin's technique—and it is hard to say just how much of this is indebted to the novel's cinematic origins—is to render the entire fictional world of this novel subject to the rules and logic of fable, assigning his characters singular and highly symbolic meanings. The impulse, it seems, comes from the mythic soil upon which the novel is set, quite as if Levin had been unable to imagine contemporary Palestine other than through the lens of the biblical imagination. Among the main characters it is especially the Zionist hero Avram who represents the novel's fabulous design. As the head of a Jewish settlement into which a number of survivors of the Holocaust have been smuggled illegally, Avram plots the incorporation of these living remnants of European history into the promise of the biblical, yet also modern and socialistic, homeland. Standing strong against the political adversities imposed by British rule and the varied ambivalences and hostilities of the indigenous Arabs, as also against the weighty sorrows and effete cultural heritage of the European Jewish past, Avram embodies the hope of the Jewish people. Thus he persistently foresees—at times seeing for others—a redemptive future into which all of the Jewish people, no matter how abject their personal histories, may be incorporated.

In later years Levin would note that his largely overlooked novel had anticipated the tremendous success of Leon Uris 's Exodus (1958), and indeed it might be said of Levin, as of Uris, that he employs the Holocaust in service of Zionist politics—at the expense of Holocaust history. Levin and Uris share the impulse to search for redemptive meanings in the midst of immense historical catastrophe, and each testifies to the endurance and dignity of the Jewish people by creating Zionist characters who seem less human material than the stuff of future legend. Yet even as Levin's novel works toward a redemptive future, it also resists the trajectory of its own plot. My Father's House delineates a conflict between Holocaust consciousness and the Zionist project, thus remembering a real tension within the emergent Israeli state. As Tom Segev and others have noted, the requirements of nationalist ideology meant that a cultural memory of the Holocaust was slow to take root in Israel, as was also the case, for different reasons, in America. In Levin's novel two survivors, Daavid and Miriam, have an especially hard time reconciling their Holocaust past with the promises of Palestine, and their struggle signifies Levin's apprehension of the chasm that lay between the Holocaust and the usable past of Jewish religion and culture. For Miriam, a young woman who we eventually learn has been a survivor of Nazi medical experiments and becomes sterile as a result, it is the memory of what has been done to her and to those Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis that forbids any belief in the mythic language of rebirth advocated by the Jewish settlers. Conceiving a special attachment to Daavid, the maternal connotations of which are unmistakable to almost everyone in the novel except herself, Miriam is nevertheless adamant that Daavid not be allowed to persist in his delusionary belief that his father and family have survived the war and are waiting for him somewhere in Palestine. For his part, faithful to this delusion and to a father whom he was too young to remember, Daavid soon flees the settlement and comes for a while under the guardianship of a man who shares with Daavid the surname Halevi. Recognizing that this boy has come to him looking for family, the gentle-hearted man pretends to be Daavid's uncle, takes him into his home, and agrees to help Daavid continue his search for his father. Eventually Daavid discovers the man's well-intentioned lie and departs for Jerusalem looking for the Search Bureau, an agency responsible for listing the dead and locating survivors of the Holocaust.

As the boy finally confronts the full horror of history, Levin employs an extraordinary device to deliver him from the trauma of the past. Having learned that everyone in his family has been killed at the hands of the Nazis, Daavid walks into the middle of a group of children who are singing a Purim song and playing a game that reenacts Haman's persecution of the Jews. With this device Levin incorporates the Holocaust into a biblical story of oppression and suggests the historical continuity of anti-Semitism. Suddenly Daavid's search for his identity in the past of the Holocaust has been placed in a larger context of Jewish identity and suffering, and the novel's fabulous trajectory within the mythic resources of biblical lore. Still Levin recognizes that the Holocaust is on a far greater scale than any previous injustice suffered by the Jews. When Daavid collapses as the children sing gleefully of oppression, the contrast between this more immediate catastrophic history and the injustices of the mythic past could not be more starkly emphasized. Yet this will prove to be the device through which Levin delivers the child from his recusant Holocaust memory. Only through a mental breakdown brought on by extreme grief can Daavid find his way to a new identity. Attributing to Daavid what are more symbolically apt than clinically precise symptoms, Levin shows the boy regressing to a younger age—to a time, as it were, before the Holocaust—in order to be reborn a child of the emergent Jewish homeland. While the Zionist Avram foresees a future for Daavid and Miriam, and Levin ostensibly supports such a vision, what the novel fails to imagine is how the Holocaust can be included in the triumphalist and redemptive narrative of Zionism. Beginning anew from an earlier innocent age, Daavid is reborn absent the memory of the Holocaust, his memorylessness offered in the service of a cultural continuity of Jewish identity.

—R. Clifton Spargo