Cruise ships to the Jewish past

There is no frigate like a book To take us lands away

-Emily Dickinson

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

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

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

    As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg

    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?

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13 Responses to “Cruise ships to the Jewish past”

  1. johnmangels Says:

    Too modern for your purposes. But my favorite Jewish novelist is still Chiam Potok. I’ve read most of his stuff at least a couple of times. I’ve always thought he offered an authentic window of the Jewish experience in this country, and he’s made the tradition more real and vital to me (as an outsider).

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Chaim Potok wrote the forward to the paperback edition of As A Driven Leaf. John, I think you would really enjoy that book — both the historical window and the aspect of a religious leader struggling with faith versus reason, which I think would hit home with Christians as well as Jews. Some reviews have criticized the lead character for being too modern in his thinking, and they may have a point, but it’s still really interesting.

  2. Judy Pace Says:

    Has anyone read A.B. Yehoshua’s A Journey to the end of the millennium (a novel of the middle ages)? I have it, have not yet read it, but want to someday. I love his contemporary novels, set in Israel.

  3. Susie Wallenstein Says:

    Ilana, several years ago i read a book called “The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi”, which your post reminded me of. I remember enjoying it—it is a story of a Jewish woman in 16th C Florence, who becomes a physician. your post prompted me to dig it up, and i did find it. if you are interested, i can loan you my copy. As i recall, it was a good one for historical setting. along the veins of the Liss books and the last jew in lisbon. I like reading historical novels, its an easy way to get the benefit of someones historical research.


  4. Elliot Eder Says:

    The best Jewish historical novel I’ve ever read is also, I think, the best novel, period. Almost nobody thinks of it as a Jewish historical novel. But Joyce’s Ulysses is. When in the groove, you’re inside the head/heart-space (and world-view) of a diaspora Jew on June (Jewin’) 16, 1904.
    It’s an inside-out book. You’re reading – sometimes within the same bloody paragraph! – (a) from the inside of a Jew out and about in the goyishe world on June 16, 1904; and (b) from inside the circle of goyishe Irish geezers opining (often over a Guinness) about that Jew in their midst.
    Huh? Ulysses is told simultaneously from inside the head/heart of that Jew Leopold Bloom wandering through his Dublin haunts while haunted by his cheatin’/lovin’ wife, his teenage daughter, and a shiksa who responds to his help-wanted ad — not to mention by the blessed memory of his deceased son (and by Stephen Dedalus, who emerges from the renegade Jesuit world as Bloom’s substitute son). At the same time, Ulysses is a series of configurations of Irish blokes and lassies reacting to Bloom as a stranger in that strange and wonderful land known as Dublin.

    There’s also a more subtle Judaica: Sephardic-Irish Molly Bloom is surely one of the world’s greatest literary singers/lovers/subjects of men’s fantasies. Throw in a bunch about kabbalah, Torah and Zionism, and you’ve got a take on Jewish life and zeitgeist for the ages.

    But who can read it? You. The Bloom-focused chapters (as opposed to those in the aesthete/academic headspace of Stephen Dedalus) tend to be the most accessible. So despite Ulysses’ rap as mind-numbing stream of consciousness writing, the Jewish stuff is fairly straightforward. Plus, it’s the funniest novel I’ve ever read; you’re laughing at your own brain making sense of Joyce’s word-play and puns. Check it out.

  5. Vanessa George Says:

    Hey Ilana!

    What a coincidence. I just (finally) had the chance to take a look at your blog and saw your question about books that cover Jewish history.

    Today my friend Nathen told me that his mother gave him James MIchener’s book “The Source” to read when he was a kid and wanted to find out definitively if they were Jewish. His mother’s only answer to the question was to give him the book. When he finished the book, he asked again and his mother then confirmed his suspicions (now that would make a great story in itself!)

    Anyway he said it was great,although I have never read it. He said it goes waaaaay back in time (to the Stone Ages!) and seems to cover everything up to modern day Israel! So, food for thought!


    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I read The Source when I was a teenager and *loved* it. It was particularly great for reading during or before a visit to Israel, since it makes the archeology and history of that land over the past couple of thousand years really come to life.

      I haven’t read it since then, so I don’t know how it would stand up under my all-too-critical adult English-major eyes. I was thinking of getting it for Becca, who will be spending a month in Israel with her Jewish youth group this summer. I recall it being an easy read. But it is looong — about 1,000 pages — and I fear that may turn her off before she even starts it.

  6. mTp Says:

    As a driven leaf is fabulous. I read it during my conversion process and for an adult ed class. Both times I enjoyed it.
    The Red Tent is also excellent.
    I also liked:
    Sarah: A Novel, (Canaan Trilogy)
    Lilah: A Novel ; (Canaan Trilogy)
    Zipporah, Wife of Moses: A Novel (Canaan Trilogy) by Marek Halter
    Queenmaker: A Novel of King David’s Queen by India Edghill

  7. Lydia Schultz Says:

    Hi Ilana–

    There are a number of books written for children and adolescents in these earlier time periods that are often quite charming:

    Rivka’s Way, by Teri Kanefield
    The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela, by Uri Shulevitz
    My Guardian Angel by Sylvie Weil
    The Apprentice’s Masterpiece by Melanie Little

    Even adults might find them delightful–I know that I did.

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