There is no frigate like a book To take us lands away
Over the past few months, I’ve started seeking out historical novels with a Jewish theme. I’m defining “historical” arbitrarily as pre-20th century: No Holocaust books. No Israel books. No bildungsromans a la Call It Sleep set on the Lower East Side.
I’m looking for books set in a past that is too distant for journalism, too distant for handed-down family stories.
I’m looking for novels that will bring to life parts of Jewish history that I barely know.
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is a wonderful example. I read it years ago when it was just becoming a
word-of-mouth bestseller. A reinterpretation of part of Genesis from a woman’s perspective, it tells the story of the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. Diamant paints a vivid picture of life in tribal Canaan, including the red tent where women secluded themselves during their menstrual periods. She’s written other novels since then – including a new one called Day After Night about Jewish refugee women who immigrate illegally to Palestine in the 1940s – but none, in my opinion, as good as The Red Tent.
Some others I’ve read in the past year or so:
- David Liss’ economic mysteries – Jewish protagonists in early mercantile Europe (1600s to early 1700s). I love these! Three of Liss’ novels feature a former boxer named Benjamin Weaver who has a love-hate relationship with the Jewish community that he grew up in, and a wonderful noir-type outsider’s perspective on the aristocratic ballrooms and fetid slums of London. The first novel in this series is called A Conspiracy of Paper. In addition to the British series, he has a novel called The Coffee Trader set among the Portuguese Jewish commodity traders of Amsterdam.
- People of the Book. Geraldine Brooks wrote a non-fiction New Yorker piece in 2007 about the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was written and illustrated in Spain in the 1300s and amazingly survived civil wars, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain etc. With People of the Book, she uses fiction to imagine the people who might have created and preserved the Haggadah. I’ve loved Brooks’ other non-Jewish novels – March and Year of Wonders – and this one was interesting historically but didn’t quite work for me as a story.
- Rashi’s Daughters by Maggie Anton. I was so excited to stumble across this – the first book in a trilogy about the women surrounding the famous 11th century Talmudic scholar Rashi. “Another Red Tent!” I thought – but I was disappointed. There’s lots of detail about daily life in the Jewish quarter of a medieval French town, but very little plot. Basically Rashi’s oldest daughter grows up, studies Torah with him, gets married: Things move forward without any narrative arc, no driving conflict, no build-up to a climax. Plus the writing was pedestrian. I didn’t like it enough to look for the sequels.
- The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia. Another one that gave me high hopes – Jews! Prague (where Sam and I are going on vacation this summer)! Sixteenth-century political intrigue! Murder! But alas, another disappointment. The lead character is a young Talmudic scholar, and Wishnia did a good job in integrating Talmudic references into his thoughts. But I felt there were gaps in his portrayal: I didn’t quite understand his past or what was going on with him internally. And the murder-solving part of the book seemed to involve a lot of rushing hither and thither, without much ingenuity.
- As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg. Rabbi Steven Chester, with whom I’m doing my Bat Mitzvah study, calls
this the best Jewish historical novel ever. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I just finished it and really enjoyed it. It’s set in the rabbinic era of Jewish history – the early 2nd century when Rome occupied Palestine but Jewish legal-religious structures such as the Sanhedrin were still functioning. The lead character is a young rabbi who is torn between faith and reason, between his Jewish roots and Greek philosophy. I must admit this period of history had been a grey fog to me – I’ve never really known what people meant when they talked about “the sages” or the Sanhedrin or people like Rabbi Akiva – and As a Driven Leaf really made this much more visible and clear. The author, Milton Steinberg, was a brilliant American rabbi who died in 1950 at the age of 47 and had a pulpit at the Park Avenue Synagogue, across the street from where I grew up in New York.
That’s all for now! I just ordered a thriller called The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (set in 1506 Spain), and am trying not to set my hopes too high. I’ll give you a full report once it arrives and I’ve read it.
How about you – do you have favorite literary frigates that have carried you happily into the seas of Jewish history?
Or maybe a Titanic that you wish you’d never boarded?