On a Clear April Morning
Reviewed by Irena Karshenbaum. This review first appeared in the Winnipeg Jewish Post and News. Irena Karshenbaum is a writer, historian and heritage advocate who led a project that gifted one of the last surviving prairie synagogues — the 1916 Montefiore Institute — to Calgary’s Heritage Park. irenakarshenbaum.com
On a foggy December afternoon in 2021, I accidentally stumbled on a fascinating website, The Baron Hirsch Jewish Farmers Community. The golden field, on the home page, illuminated by the sun seemed to shine a ray of light into my gloomy living room. As I clicked through the different pages: Argentina, Brazil, USA, I was intrigued to discover that these countries had Jewish farming colonies and that they had received funding from Baron Maurice de Hirsch, one of 19th century’s wealthiest men and the most significant Jewish philanthropist of his time who wanted Jews to become farmers, then seen as the most honourable of occupations, and which, he believed, would be the answer to eliminating anti-Semitism.
Engrossed by the stories — the Catskills’ Grossinger’s resort had its start as a Jewish farm located on rocky soil that just could not make a go of it as a farm? Who knew? — I noticed conspicuously missing was a page on the Canadian Jewish farming experience. Since most Jewish farms in Canada received at least some financial assistance from the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA), the philanthropic organization Hirsch established, I thought a Canadian chapter was warranted.
I found an email address and wrote away asking if I can contribute a story on Jewish farming in Canada, specifically about a Jewish farming colony in eastern Alberta that was once home to a synagogue — the 1916 Montefiore Institute — which had received $300 towards its construction from JCA.
Then I waited and waited.
Weeks went by and not a word. I forgot my offer and moved on with other projects.
In October of 2022, 10 months after my initial inquiry, I received a frantic note bursting with apologies that my email had somehow escaped the recipient’s eyes. Being so happy to finally receive a reply, I quickly wrote back. A few weeks later, over Zoom, I met the owner of the website, Merrie Blocker, living in Maryland. A retired U.S. diplomat, Blocker was once posted to Argentina and Brazil, among other countries, and proceeded to explain that when she was living in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which had a large Jewish community, she befriended Moacyr Scliar.
I repeated the name to make sure I had heard her correctly. “The Moacyr Scliar, one of the greatest Brazilian writers? Author of Max and the Cats?”
It was the same Moacyr Scliar and it was he who introduced her to a gem of a book, On a Clear April Morning. Written by Ukrainian-born, Brazilian author, Marcos Iolovitch, it was a biographical work of fiction, published in 1940, and the first literary work to document the early Jewish experience in Brazil. Blocker explained that it was this book that inspired Scliar to become a writer. “Let me send you a copy,” she said, and yes, I could also contribute a blog to her website about The Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project.
A memory swept across my mind and I could see, years earlier, while searching through book shelves at Chapters, my hand coming to rest on a slim novella, Max and the Cats. Even back then, I was on the hunt for the obscure, the antithesis of a best seller, a great literary work from some far away place. I purchased a copy and the story unfolded of a German boy escaping Nazi Germany, in the 1930s, who found himself on a dinghy with a jaguar sailing across the Atlantic Ocean before finally finding refuge in Brazil. It became one of my favourite books. I was not the only one who understood its simple brilliance. Yann Martel borrowed the storyline for his novel, Life of Pi, — where a young Indian boy finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutang, a zebra and a Bengal tiger — which won him the 2002 Man Booker Prize.
A copy of On a Clear April Morning eventually appeared in my mailbox and I proceeded to read a moving and heartbreaking immigrant account that began with a relatively abundant life in Zagradowka, a village in the Ukrainian province of Kherson. Yossef Iolovitch, the author’s father, began to worry about his children’s future while at the same time being slowly seduced by brochures depicting rural Brazilian life of “a soft, blue sky, a farmer, with a wide-brimmed hat… wielding the handles of a plow pulled by a team of oxen turning the virgin land… highlighted in vivid and bold colours, was an enormous orchard, composed principally of orange trees.” The father who “had little education,” but “had no doubts about the truth of the offerings…[and] had complete trust in the goodness of mankind,” sold his business (despite his wife’s objections) and forced his family to endure an arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to finally arrive in Brazil — to take up the noble profession of farming.
Settling on a farm in Erebango, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Iolovitch describes the family’s beginning, “One of the first visits we received in the new land was from Death who carried away forever my youngest brother.”
Eventually failing at farming, the family moved to Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul. Disembarking off the train with no money, with almost no Portuguese, they were luckily saved by a blind Jewish cart man who “saw the suffering of others” and “generously offered his modest hospitality.” The move to the city did not ease the family’s dire poverty, which continued for years as they struggled to eke out a bare existence.
Scliar republished Iolovitch’s book in 1987 writing a preface to that edition, in Portuguese, that first began by explaining that in any body of literature there exists for some obscure reason a work that is underestimated, On a Clear April Morning “falls into this category.” He continues, “This book’s value as a work of documentation is priceless. It speaks to us of an age, it speak to us of a human experience that decisively marked Judaism and also left an indelible mark on the history of this state, Rio Grande do Sul, and of this country, Brazil.” Scliar reminds readers that emigration, as an experience, over the last two thousand years, has not been a rare occurrence in the Jewish timeline and that the “confessional dimension” of the book, “can move the most indifferent reader with its innocence and sincerity.”
After reading On a Clear April Morning in a single sitting, Blocker made a promise to herself that she would one day translate the work from Portuguese to English and get it published. (This was the reason for the existence of her beautiful website that I accidentally stumbled on, as writers who want to get published, need to have a website.) Blocker kept her promise for over 30 years. She translated the book into English and found a publisher, Academic Studies Press, in Brookline, Massachusetts, that released the book, in 2020, to English-speaking readers — 80 years after its initial publication in Brazil.
I urge readers to discover for themselves this unassuming masterpiece.