Ot MeAvshalom (“A sign from Avshalom”) is a historical novel about Avshalom Feinberg, who was one of the first members of a Jewish spy network that helped the British fight the Ottoman rulers of Palestine before and during World War I. Makamal-Atir conducted a three-year research for purposes of writing this book and, as she readily admits, fell in love with Avshalom. This love is evident on every page of this well-written book.
Every Israeli of my generation grew up on the story of NILI, especially through the reading of the 1967 book by Devorah Omer, Sarah Giborat NILI (Sarah, Heroine of NILI). That book was written from the perspective of Sarah Aharonson, daughter of the founder and leader of NILI, Aharon Aharonson. My son read the book recently and I believe it is still part of the school curriculum. NILI, Feinberg and the Aharonsons remain one of the few untouched myths of Israel, and the Aharonson House museum in Zichron Ya’acov (where Sarah committed suicide rather than continue being tortured by the Turks) is still a very popular site for visitors.
Makamal-Atir’s story does not focus on NILI. In fact, most of the books takes place before the spy network was put in place, and touches only marginally on its activities, mainly the first contact with a British officer in Egypt. The focus is rather on the life of Avshalom Feinberg himself and his great, unfulfilled, love to Sarah Aharonson.
The story begins with Feinberg’s parents, who moved to Palestine from Russia to join the small Jewish community of Yaffo (Jaffa). The family moved to Chadera, where they toiled and suffered in drying the swamps and setting up a new settlement. Avshalom was sent to study in France, where he absorbed much of the literary culture of the time, dabbling himself in poetry, which is evident through his love letters to Sarah. Only after trying his luck in Egypt, then again in Europe, did he find his place in Aharon Aharonson’s agricultural laboratory in Atlit (south of Haifa), where eventually the spy ring was formed. Avshalom got engaged to Rivkah, the younger sister of Sarah, but they never got married. He was captured and tortured by the Ottomans, but was released. He found his death in the Sinai desert in 1917, on his way to try and establish contact with the British forces. He carried dates in his pocket, and a palm tree grew out from the sand where his murderers buried him. After Israel captured the Sinai desert from Egypt in the 1967 war, his remains were dug out from underneath the tree and buried in Jerusalem.
The story of Avshalom in this book starts with an imaginary encounter between him and Avshalom Shoham, a wounded IDF soldier who dies in a New York hospital in 1974. Through this encounter, the older Avshalom tells the younger Avshalom (who is called after him) the story of his life. The “research” into Avshalom’s story is done by a modern-day graphologist who receives a hand-written letter and follows the story through by travelling to France and Turkey. This back-and-forth between Avshalom’s time and modern day provides a framework for the unveiling of Avshalom’s life, perhaps echoing the process Makamal-Atir underwent herself.
There is much more to this wonderful story and the way it is masterly woven by Makamal-Atir. Read and enjoy.