Getting to America is just the beginning

THE PROMISED LAND By Ruhama Veltfort Milkweed Editions 290 pp., $23.95

The author of this first novel, we are told, set out to write a work that would be "inspirational." Ruhama Veltfort is a San Francisco woman who has been writing poetry and fiction for more than 30 years. And, indeed, her first full-length novel, "The Promised Land," shows the sure touch of a poet and the kind of emotional depth and understanding that can take a lifetime to develop.

Veltfort tackles two classic, sometimes interrelated, American themes: the story of the millions of men, women, and children who emigrated from Europe to seek a new life, and the story of the pioneers who settled the American West.

"The Promised Land" unfolds over the first half of the 19th century. It begins in a tiny village in Poland, one of the poor, primitive shtetls where generations of Orthodox Jews barely managed to eke out livings as cobblers, woodcutters, or shopkeepers.

Veltfort's two main characters are a man and his wife, whose adventures are presented in alternating chapters. Chana, the heroine, speaks in the first person; her husband Yitzhak's story is told from his perspective, but in the third person.

As a child, Chana is mistreated by her mother. Her already low status in the village is further diminished by what the villagers consider to be her "crazy" love of nature. When a ragged stranger named Yitzhak wanders into town, Chana's kindness makes a deep impression on him.

The son of a rabbi, Yitzhak ran away from his father's house to avoid an arranged marriage and to seek a more authentic form of religion. He joined a group of Hasidim, the kind of mystical Jews of whom his father strongly disapproved. Now wandering on his own, he is a gentle, intense, somewhat absent-minded young man who sees visions. He and Chana marry and become a devoted couple, although their lives are filled with poverty and antisemitic persecution.

Yitzhak's visions of a better life inspire him to take his wife, and some other friends and family members on a voyage across an unknown ocean. None of their little party has any idea of exactly where America is or what kinds of people live there.

At first, they are overwhelmed by the bounty of this new land: the plentiful food, the comforts, and the bracing air of democracy, and freedom so different from the constraints of the old country. But in time, they feel ill at ease. Mr. and Mrs. Cohn, the wealthy Jews who employ them, constantly urge the newcomers to shed their arcane ways and to strive for worldly betterment. Chana is also disturbed on learning that the Cohns' black servants are slaves, just like the Israelites in Egypt.

Still searching for a life of spiritual rather than material riches, Yitzhak, Chana, and their little group decide to journey west in a wagon train to Oregon.

Not only has Veltfort succeeded in evoking the historical past: the vanished world of the East European shtetls, the energy of 19th-century St. Louis, and the dangers and splendors of the western wilderness. She has also succeeded in imagining her way into the minds of her two main characters.

She explores the conflicts that arise among the immigrants, as they react, in very different ways, to the pressures and challenges of the unknown. Although her sympathies are clearly with the idealistic, genuinely altruistic Yitzhak and his loyal wife, those who question or quarrel with Yitzhak's leadership are also portrayed with compassion.

This is a rich and rewarding novel, a tapestry of many closely interwoven themes, including religious identity, faith and doubt, tradition and innovation, exile and return. It is also a poignant portrait of an extraordinary marriage.

*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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