Gila Almagor, the author of Under the Domim Tree, placed bits of her personal life into several characters in her first book, but most of them for the narrator, who tells the story in first person. Here are some of the basic elements that are autobiographical and define the character:
- A mother who is collapsing mentally under the weight of what happened during the Shoah.
- A father who was dead before the daughter was born.
- A group home for orphans, that includes both sabras (people born in Israel) and refugees from Europe.
The book is a coming of age story for a group of young, mostly orphan, teens living in a children’s village in Israel. The story is set in 1953, just late enough after the war that some of the children remember segments of their life in Poland and some don’t. During the course of the novel at least four of them have to revisit (and face the darker parts of) their personal history in various ways. This process helps them heal on the long turn, but is painful in the short. What helps them the most is the friendship and solidarity with the other girls and boys.
The book is probably most enjoyed by young teen girls, after all a lot of the book is dealing with hopes, dreams and aspirations of that group. I enjoyed the mix of humor, the interpersonal and group dynamics, the inspiring strength of the young people mixed with their concerns that are often prematurely adult in their nature. The Domim Tree itself stands strong as a real place and a symbol of a solid point in the universe where they can pour their heart out. With their previously transient life and recurring nightmares they sure need something like this.
Hillel Schenker’s translation (from Hebrew to English) is adequate but I got the sense that the original Hebrew might have been more poetic. The content of the book certainly allows more colorful language, although I have to keep in mind the target audience’s age. As far as I know the book’s sequel (Summer of Aviya) hasn’t been translated to English. Interesting to note that the film version of the second book (1988) came out seven years before the film version of the first book (1995). The author who is one of the most well-known actors in Israel is playing in both, although not herself.
This is a recommended book for 12-15 year olds as they can learn about problems and problem solving, the value and advantages of friendships and the importance of being honest to yourself.