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Mar 18, 2013

Book Review: Letters to Talia, by Dov Indig

NOTE: I was not paid to review this book. It is an unbiased and objective review. If you have a book with Jewish or Israel related content and would like me to write a review, contact me for details of where to send me a review copy of the book.

Book Review: Letters to Talia, by Dov Indig

Letters to Talia is an interesting type of book. It first was published in Hebrew in 2005, but the content of the book was actually written in a two year span many years earlier from 1972 and 1972. It was translated and published in English in 2012 by Gefen Publishing.

Letters to Talia is a book of the correspondence between a young soldier, Dov Indig, and a  high school girl, Talia (an assumed name), in the 11th and 12th grades and was form a secular kibbutz. Talia's father had met Dov in the army and had been so impressed with him through their conversations on Judaism and Zionism that he suggested to his daughter to correspond with Dov. They corresponded for two years, while Dov was in the army and in yeshivat hesder, on a broad range of topics, and the letters have been turned into this book.

Back then, correspondence was by regular mail via the post office. Letters were hand-written and mailed. It was far more personal and more involved than our correspondence nowadays, via email or other means which is designed for, and used mostly, for brevity and quick correspondence. Reading such correspondence from a bygone era can be fascinating, even if simply because we rarely correspond like that any longer. When the content is intriguing and fascinating, it makes it even better.

Letters to Talia is not like other books of correspondence that I have read. It is not a debate between two people, and it was not written with the publishing of a book in mind as the outcome. It was really a correspondence between two people, with both asking questions of the other and sharing their own thoughts in their respective responses, though most of the correspondence is Talia asking Dov for his perspective on matters and his responses. What makes the correspondence especially evocative is the way they ask each other to be open and ask questions, state opinions, without concern or shame, and they do. They really hash it out, asking tough questions, giving strong answers.

Dov, it is clear from his letters, is a young man of high moral standards, an intellectual who loves to read and study on a wide variety of subject matter, and he retains a tremendous amount of what he read. And he integrated it into his life, as per what he believed in. It was not just intellectual fodder, but it became part of him. He is presented through his letters as such an intelligent and thoughtful person, with tremendous command of his beliefs and actions. Much of what he said, what he predicted would happen in Israel with the development of the kibbutzim, the approach of the next generation of secular youth, has come to be pretty accurate.

Talia is a confused secular young woman. She has been closed off from the world in her kibbutz for her entire life that she knows little of other perspectives even within her own country. She is curious, and develops a strong personal spiritual relationship with Dov through their correspondence. To her credit, she is open-minded even though she is writing to a religious man and is expecting answers based in religion and religious thought to her questions. She does not take anything Dov says as a given, and at times argues with him and questions him, especially on issues of morality within her community. Such as, Dov had spoken about true morals form the Torah lifestyle rather than man-made morals. Talia argued with him about how the people on her kibbutz have strong morals despite not being connected to the Torah. That is but one example showing how Talia was not just asking the questions, but through her arguments and defenses of her lifestyle we are given a glimpse of her perspective on life, Zionism, morals and Torah.

Besides for the opportunity to read so much Jewish philosophy written in such an easy-to-read manner, one also can broaden one's perspective by seeing how different communities approach Zionism, Jewish culture, Land of Israel, Torah study, army, love, Jewish thought and life in general. It is not just Talia asking questions, and Dov answering, but Talia offering her opinions or explaining why she disagrees or agrees or argues or does not accept a certain idea, and one gets a glimpse at the perspective of a secular kibbutznik.

Some of the side characters in the book are also interesting. Hagai Ben Artzi plays an important role in the correspondence. he was a close friend of Dov, and is quoted often, as well as having gone with Dov to Talia's school as guest speakers. Hagai Ben Artzi published the Hebrew edition of Letters to Talia, and is also the brother in law of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Another interesting character in the correspondence is a friend of Talia's named Maya. Maya went through an upheaval of her own and was on the path to becoming religious, causing even more inner turmoil to Talia.

The book concludes with Dov's death at the very beginning of the Yom Kippur War. The last letters were one that was written by Dov to Talia a week before Yom Kippur, and one written by Talia to Dov on the day before Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur war broke out. Dov rushed home to Jerusalem to gather his stuff and went right to the front lines, and was killed in an heroic battle on the second day of the war in the Golan Heights.

Unfortunately, the book does not go any further - we do not see Talia's reaction to the news of Dov's death, nor do we know what became of her. It is almost like leaving an open wound to fester. I really wanted to know. I wanted especially to know how she received the news of his death in battle, and what happened to her down the road.

I did some research and discovered that Talia has been very careful about her anonymity all along and has never since revealed her true identity. She did not want the book to become about her. Interestingly, she gave one interview, to a niece of Dov's, in which she talked about the book and what became of her. It turns out she went back to the kibbutz she had grown up on and has lived there her entire life. She did not become religious, unlike her friend Maya, but she considers herself a woman of faith and belief. Dov was a very powerful influence on her life, especially at the time of the correspondence, but she says she went through a very traumatic period at the time of Dov's death and a large block of time from that era is very blurry in her mind. She was not even told of Dov's death until half a year after it had happened. At the same time, she had  lost a number of good friends and classmates, and the first few years after the war were very traumatic and have been blocked out of her memory. Interestingly, she mentions her brother who had been one of the soldiers involved in the raid on Entebbe to release the hostages in Uganda.

If you are wondering, as I was, how the letters were put together, as each side only had half the correspondence, and perhaps it was not all saved at the time, she explains that as well. She says that a few years after the war Hagai called her and asked her to send him the letters in her possession.  She right away agreed and sent them, because she realized how important the correspondence would be to those close to Dov, as she had gone through something similar after her brother died and his friends shared the correspondence with the family. Much later Hagai called again and said they were considering printing the letters in a book. he asked her permission. At the time of the correspondence she had been very forthright in saying that Dov was not allowed to show the letters to any other person (though she agreed to allow him to verbally discuss the content), but now 40 years later, with a request for publishing the letters in a book, she immediately agreed to their publication as long as her real name would not be revealed - she says her name is very unique and she is well-known, and if her real name would become known, the entire word would begin to look at her as the young girl in the book rather than as the woman who she is..

You can get Letters to Talia from:

NOTE: I was not paid to review this book. It is an unbiased and objective review. If you have a book with Jewish or Israel related content and would like me to write a review, contact me for details of where to send me a review copy of the book.

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  1. The original Hebrew version of the book, מכתבים לטליה, is a platinum book meaning over 40 000 copies sold.

  2. the cover of the English book says the Hebrew version sold over 50,000 copies

    1. I got the info from the book industry site where they only have gold list (20k) and platinum (40k) lists but not actually up to date numbers.

      Bestsellers usually tend to keep selling themselves by the momentum. I remember a few years back, the Rosh Yehudi outreach group was selling them for buy one and get the second at half-price if you will give it to a non-religious person.

  3. Great review Rafi. I would really like to read the book.

    Rabbi Chaim Sabato was a good friend of Dov Indig z"l. Dov is a key figure R' Sabato's book "Teum Kavanot".

  4. Rabbi Sabato is mentioned in this book, though he does not play any major role in it.


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