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Noe Valley Author Finds The Promised Land
By Jim Christie
With the November publication of her debut novel The Promised Land, Noe Valley author Ruhama Veltfort has unified a trinity of themes -- exile, spiritual seeking, and redemption -- themes she has been exploring for over a quarter century.
This might sound like weighty subject matter from a woman who is perhaps better known as an astrologer and by Noe Valley Voice readers for her column, "Aunt Hermione's Kitchen."
But in The Promised Land, Veltfort gives us an uplifting story with characters we can truly care about. The novel covers a lot of terrain, both emotional and geographical, as we follow a Jewish family from Poland in the 1820s to California during the Gold Rush era. It is a credit to Veltfort's poetic economy with words that she has crafted what amounts to a saga within a mere 300 pages.
The novel's central characters, Yitzhak and Chana, are established early on as outcasts destined to embark on a long quest together as husband and wife. Although they are equally estranged from their families, Yitzhak and Chana are very different personalities who grow closer over the years.
Veltfort uses subtle water imagery and a first-person voice in the chapters featuring Chana, to reveal her connection to the earth and nature. Yitzhak, on the other hand, is a visionary untouched by everyday concerns. Veltfort uses a third-person point of view and Yitzhak's fiery dreams to show his spiritual fervor.
"Together, they embody the tension between the security of tradition and the impulse to be a pioneer," says Veltfort. "People have always faced the contradiction of being part of a community while being called to individuality. I'm amazed by the fortitude of people like Chana and Yitzhak, who leave their homes and then adjust and adapt to a new world."
Veltfort wrote and rewrote The Prom-ised Land over a two-year period from 1992 to 1994. The next two years were spent trying to land a literary agent, without success.
Veltfort rethought her approach after discussing the situation with Nancy Peters of City Lights Publishing in North Beach. Peters asked to see the manuscript, and was impressed by what she read. She explained that City Lights takes on very few projects, but she offered some sound editing advice.
Veltfort agreed with most of Peters' editing suggestions and spent the next four months rewriting The Promised Land again. Then in 1997 she submitted the novel to a fiction contest sponsored by Milkweed Editions, a nonprofit literary press based in Minneapolis. First prize was a guarantee of publication.
Veltfort didn't win, but the Milkweed editors loved her novel. "They ended up publishing it," says Veltfort, "so I feel like I won anyway!"
Veltfort, still agentless, took the contract offered by Milkweed to an attorney who was referred by Bay Area Lawyers for the Arts. The attorney made some minor suggestions, and then Veltfort finalized a deal with Milkweed, which included a modest advance and royalties arrangement.
Veltfort is quite pleased with the way things turned out. "Milkweed has been more supportive and done more promotion than I ever expected," she says.
That support has resulted in an upcoming book tour, including radio interviews and appearances at bookstores around the country.
In retrospect, anything less than the author's current success might have been somewhat of a surprise.
Ruhama Veltfort was born 54 years ago in Cambridge, Mass., to Theodore Veltfort and Helene Rank-Veltfort. Her father was an electrical engineer by profession and had volunteered with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Her mother was a psychologist whose own father was the renowned psychoanalyst Otto Rank.
Veltfort never knew her grandfather (he died in 1939), but one of Rank's primary tenets influenced her novel. Rank believed that neurosis is caused by the separation that occurs during the trauma of birth. He saw many expressions in human culture and folklore of man's lifelong effort to return to the womb. Veltfort's theme of exile and redemption is an outgrowth of that philosophy.
The Veltfort family moved to Palo Alto in 1946 when Ruhama was 2 years old, so that her parents could attend graduate school at Stanford in their respective fields.
Veltfort credits her father's love of literature and wordplay for her own love of reading and writing. Like him, she was a self-taught reader at an early age, and she fondly recalls going to the Children's Library in Palo Alto for story hour. Her childhood favorites still spring to mind. "I loved dramatic children's stories -- Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, The Secret Garden [by Frances Hodgson Burnett], and Black Beauty [by Anna Sewell]."
Veltfort read D.T. Suzuki's Zen Buddhism in the eighth grade, which contributed to an enduring interest in religions. But during high school, she went through a rebellious phase.
"I was a bad girl," she declares, a mischievous smile on her face. "I was hanging out with dirty beatniks who lived in cars, with names like Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter [future Grateful Dead founders]."
She laughs and adds that she used to crash parties at Ken Kesey's house. "He was worried about getting in trouble for having underage girls around. He'd walk through and yell at us to get out."
Veltfort was enjoying the Beat scene, perhaps a little too much, when her high school principal suggested that she think more seriously about her future. Veltfort did just that, heading off to Barnard College in New York, where she studied anthropology and Sanskrit.
"My fascination with eastern religions and linguistics led naturally to the study of Sanskrit, and I've had a constant interest in anthropology, especially the theory of culture change," Veltfort says.
Readers of The Promised Land will find a number of cultures undergoing change -- Poles, Jews, Christians, Mormons, African-American slaves, and native Americans among them.
After college Veltfort returned to the Bay Area, and she has lived in the same house on Sanchez Street since 1971. She has two children from an early marriage, Ben and Zena Hitz, now 28 and 25.
Although The Promised Land is Veltfort's first published novel, it is not the only one she's written. Her first, titled Passing Through, was begun when Zena was just two weeks old.
How did she find time to write? "I got up early!" Veltfort exclaims. (And she means early, as in 5 a.m.) "That's when it's quiet and the phone doesn't ring."
Back then, Veltfort's husband was teaching full-time, and for a while they had a part-time babysitter. "But it was still difficult to write and care for children," she says. "Maybe that's why I wrote poetry -- it required a shorter attention span." (Veltfort has published two chapbooks of poems: Whispers of a Dreamer [Hollow Reed Press] and Miles on the Bridge [Wordrunner Chapbooks]).
"I also raised my kids to be independent," Veltfort adds. "There are simple childhood experiences -- things like scraping your knee, or losing a nice jacket, or getting into a fight -- that kids should be able to experience on their own. When every decision is made for them, children don't gain the self-confidence they need in today's world."
While Veltfort was fostering independence in her children, she was developing in her first novel the themes that would become central to The Promised Land 25 years later. "Passing Through is set in the '60s, '70s, and '80s," says Veltfort, "and it's about finding truth and peace within yourself, rather than in outside things."
The idea for The Promised Land blossomed while Veltfort was doing some research on the pioneering days of the American West. "I was intrigued by the Mormons, who had unusual, separatist beliefs," she says. "They took their vision of Zion to the right place at the right time -- the wide open American West -- rather than becoming marginalized."
Veltfort saw parallels with the persecution of Jews who emigrated from Europe and ended up on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. Toward the end of The Promised Land, Yitzhak and Chana encounter some Mormon settlers who play a pivotal role in their fate.
While Veltfort is Jewish by birth, a secular upbringing encouraged an openness to other religions. Her novel's central characters could have been of a different faith, but Veltfort found that her theme of exile and return was more deeply developed in Jewish tradition.
"But this story is not only for and about Jews," says Veltfort. "It's for anyone who's ever felt alienated or exiled from home."
Veltfort herself has no intention of becoming an exile like the characters in The Promised Land. "Where would I go?" she asks rhetorically. "San Francisco has such a vibrant mix of people and cultures, and I've been blessed to live in a neighborhood with so many artists and writers. I love it in Noe Valley!"
Clearly, Veltfort is here to stay, and she's hard at work on a number of proj-ects. She's writing a series of pieces she calls a "heavily fictionalized" memoir; she's in the midst of final editing for Aunt Hermione's Kitchen, a spiral-bound collection of her Voice recipes due out this spring; she's seeking a publisher for that "first" novel, Passing Through; and she's preparing for her book tour.
Veltfort also continues to offer freelance editing services and astrology readings, and she works half-time for a public interest law firm downtown.
Otherwise, she's not busy at all.
Ruhama Veltfort will sign copies and read passages from The Promised Land at Cover to Cover Booksellers on Saturday, Dec. 5, beginning at 2:30 p.m. Further information about her novel and book tour is available online at Milkweed Editions' web site (www.milkweed.org).
Excerpt from The Promised Land, by Ruhama Veltfort:
Although the physical side of our marriage had begun so awkwardly, gradually Yitzhak and I grew familiar with each other, and came to know the joy that the Holy One, blessed be He, intended for all his creatures. My heart began to fill with wonder that there was another human being in the world who thought and felt as I did, who also preferred the company of trees to the loud talk and laughter of village social life.
He was kind and gentle and didn't tease me when I spoke to our horse as if she was my dearest friend. I assumed he was an orphan like myself. He never talked about his life before he had come to our village except when he mentioned the Cracower rebbe, Shmuel Salomon, his teacher. And sometimes at night he woke sweating in terror from a nightmare that he told me had been with him since childhood.
From The Promised Land by Ruhama Veltfort (Milkweed Editions, 1998)