Jewish Journal

God gets a rewrite:
In the latest literary trend, authors fictionalize Jewish heroes

by Amy Klein

Posted on Aug. 9, 2007 at 8:00 pm

"I started fumbling with the layer of my wedding robes, though my hands were trembling and I had a difficult time of it. Heber's amused expression quickly turned to exasperation, and he grabbed me, untied my embroidered hagora -- the sash that held my beautiful red wool kuttonet in place.... And with no more care than a stallion takes a mare, and with just as much roughness, he took me." -- "Women of the Bible: Jael's Story," by Ann Burton (2006)

Samson is a blowhard; Sarah a rebellious, headstrong daughter who makes herself barren. Moses' wife is a freedom fighter, Nathan is a prophet beset by doubt and fear and Rashi's son-in-law battles his evil inclination to love men.

Sounds like the Jewish heroes and heroines of the Bible and the Talmud?

Not exactly.

That's because these are the new heroes of a burgeoning genre of modern literature: Jewish pulp fiction. These historical novels -- and they are novels, despite their various levels of accuracy to the ancient time period in which they are set -- star protagonists of old: from Genesis' Cain, Noah, Abraham and Sarah (they have their own books), to Exodus' Moses, Miriam and Tzipporah (separate and together), as well as characters from the prophets, like David, Nathan and Samson, and even from the Megillot, such as Queen Esther and Ruth (who already have books named after them).

Jewish pulp fiction, ranging in quality from a Regency Romance to commercial literary fiction, feature stories of love, adventure, sex, war, betrayal, politics, mystery, suspense, anguish, murder and death.

Where else can one find such stories but in the Bible?

When King Solomon (who is not yet the protagonist of one of these books) wrote in his own holy book, "Song of Songs," "There is nothing new under the sun," he hadn't read the latest in Jewish pulp fiction.

"This is the story of my life, and it's not a happy one," said the character Samson in "The Book of Samson," by David Maine. "My life has an abundance of frustration and pain, plus a fair bit of sex and lots of killing and broken bones, but it's got precious little hope and joy, comfort and inspiration.... You may think you know the story, but believe me there's more."

There's a lot more when it comes to Jewish pulp fiction. In the last five to 10 years, authors are churning out books exploring even the most minor characters of the Bible and the Talmud.

What is the point of all these books? Who reads them? Why do authors write historical fiction about real people from Jewish history? And, the most important question when it comes to mixing pop culture with religion: is it good for the Jews? Is it beneficial to take our ancestors, rabbis, prophets, kings and queens -- whom many revere and consider holy -- and fictionalize their lives?

Carolyn Starman Hessel, the director of the Jewish Book Council in New York, and one of the most influential people promoting Jewish books, sees many of this type of manuscript come across her desk. She called this genre of religious historical fiction a form of "midrash," like the body of commentary on primary Jewish text. Recently she saw one that was a take on Rebecca's untold story. The Red Tent cover art "Everything is cyclical," Hessel said about book trends. "This whole genre may have started in current times with Anita Diamant's 'The Red Tent,'" a fictional account of Jacob's daughter Dinah, which made the best-seller list when it was published in 1998. "I give her credit because she knew her readers, she knew who to write for.... Nobody has been able to do what she did," Hessel said.

What does Hessel see as the appeal in these books?

"The Torah is familiar to all of us. When you're reading about Rebecca or Sarah you are reading about familiar characters that most of us know from childhood. A new approach is welcome and inspiring," she said.

Cherise Davis, editor in chief of Plume, an imprint of Penguin, agreed: "I think religious fiction in general is a really ripe opportunity -- our foundation stories come from the religious texts, and then, being historically accurate and fleshing them out as full characters is really irresistible to a lot of readers." Rashi's Daughters cover art Plume recently won a bidding war over "Rashi's Daughters," Maggie Anton's fiction series about the daughters of Rashi, the foremost Torah and Talmud commentator. Never mentioned by name in historical documents, Rashi's daughters were reputed to be learned women, and Anton is writing three books, one for each daughter. Plume last weekend re-released "Book I: Joheved," along with the new "Book II: Miriam." Anton is working on "Book III: Rachel." Plume is hoping "Rashi's Daughters" -- the first edition of which was originally self-published and sold more than 20,000 copies -- will cross over into the mainstream historical fiction market. (Plume also published "Girl With a Pearl Earring.")

"There's an interest in a couple of different markets," said Anton's agent, Susanna Einstein of LJK Literary Management. "In the Jewish market people are interested in learning about Jewish women and history," she said. "In the secular market people love historical fiction."

Einstein said that while there has always been historical fiction, "I think there's definitely been a resurgence in the last five years," from imagined characters in a particular period, like Philippa Gregory's novels set in the Tudor period, to the portrayal or real characters such as Marie Antoinette, Queen Elizabeth and the last empress of China.

"The most popular historical fiction seems to be from a particular point of history but told from a women's point of view. There are not that many history stories told through women, so it's a chance to connect to history in that way," Einstein said.

The woman's voice is equally -- if not more -- popular in biblical historical fiction. Women dominate in Marek Halter's Cannan Trilogy about Sarah, Tzipporah and Lilah; Eva Etziony's books about Hannah and Ruth; Rebbeca Kohn's books about Esther ("The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther") and Miriam and Tzipporah ("Seven Days to the Sea: An Epic Novel of The Exodus"); Ann Burton's Women of the Bible series about Abigail, Deborah, Rahab and Jael; and Orson Scott Card's Women of Genesis Series ("Sarah," "Rachel and Leah" and "Rebekah"). "I think that women have been unexplored until recently," said Abigail Yasgur, Director of the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, a department of the Bureau of Jewish Education. "So why not put them under a microscope -- why not take a figure who you don't know much about?"

Yasgur finds all historical fiction appealing because it brings to life the day-to-day activities of historical people, from the manners, costumes and foods to the politics and customs of a previous time. From Jewish biblical fiction in particular, she likes learning about ancient rituals, such as the herbs and amulets used in "Rashi's Daughters," or the fact that women were mohalot, ritual circumcisers. "I want to know my people did this. I think it makes us much more interesting as a people." Moses: A Memoir cover art Not all Jewish pulp fiction is driven by female characters: David Maine tells Cain's, Samson's and Noah's story ("The Preservationist"), and Joel Cohen tells Moses' ("Moses: A Memoir) and Nathan's ("David & Batsheba: Through Nathan's Eyes"). Even Marek Halter writes about Abraham, after his women-driven Caanan series.

But it's women who generally buy fiction -- and women who read historical fiction. Check out men on airplanes, and you'll see they generally read thrillers, suspense, adventure and books about war. In historical fiction, men, as a general market, are more interested in adventure. Consider Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," which although modern, travels back in time to uncover the mysteries of the Opus Dei, a secret sect of Christianity. So too does Paul Sussman's "The Last Secret of the Temple," blurbed as "the Jewish answer to 'The Da Vinci Code.'"

The year is 70 C.E. The Second Temple is about to fall, and a young boy is given the secret of the Jewish people. The book takes us through Nazi Germany, modern-day Egypt, Palestine and Israel in search of the secret.

Grove/Atlantic didn't buy Sussman's book because of "The Da Vinci Code" but because "it's about archaeology and religion," said Deb Seager, director of publicity at Grove/Atlantic, Inc. For them, it's just another literary thriller, taking place in biblical times. The Last Secret of the Temple cover art "The Last Secret of the Temple" is one of a number of books that traverse time between present-day Judaism and the past. Also in this group is Tamar Yellin's "The Genizah at the House of Shepher" (Toby Press, 2005) which won the Jewish Book Council's new, prestigious 2007 Sami Rohr prize of $100,000. Yellin's first novel traces back four generations, from England to Jerusalem, and revolves around a Codex -- a handwritten volume of the Bible. It might appeal to both men and women.

Does this mean all male historical fiction will be thrillers? Not necessarily.

Consider this: The earliest biblical historical fiction was male-driven. Before Leon Uris' Exodus (which fictionalized a contemporary period), before James Michener's "The Source" (about an archeological dig that unearthed centuries of Jewish history) came Milton Steinberg's "As a Driven Leaf." In 1939, the Conservative rabbi wrote a novel about Elisha Ben Abuya, mentioned in the Talmud as an apostate. Steinberg brings the Talmudic period to life and draws out the full story of how Elisha came to doubt.

It was so powerful that over the years some have considered the book itself apikorsut, or heresy.

"The book raises the most troubling questions about theodicy and about what it means to be a Jew and what it means to have faith," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "As a Driven Leaf" is one of Diamond's favorite books, and he led the yearlong discussion of it in "One People, One Book," a Los Angeles Jewish reading program.

"It is threatening in a certain way -- but to be a Jew is to wrestle with these challenging questions and concerns."

How far can an author go when explicating a biblical story? How far is too far? For many of the female-driven Jewish pulps, there's love, romance ... and sex. Anton said she's gotten some comments like, "How can you have these great tzadikim and go in their bedroom?" about the righteous people. "But when I read historical fiction, it would bother me when the authors would close the door on the subjects."

Besides, she said, from her research she learned that people didn't shy away from talking about sex back then, not even in the Talmud. She liberally cites many Talmudic passages about sex (and other subjects). For example, a woman must orgasm first in order to have a male child.

"When I found out those things I made sure I included them: Joheved is getting married -- she's 12, trying to have children! How can you close the door on the wedding night? It's one of the most important days of her life."

Anton pushes the envelope further in her second book about Miriam, whose husband Judah is plagued by his lust for men.

"My yetzer hara is aroused by men as well as by women," Judah tells his father-in-law about his evil inclination toward his study partner. "We've tried to channel our passion for each other into passion for Torah study."

His father in-law sends him to a Christian monk for consultation and thinks, "Ah, the greater the scholar, the greater his yetzer hara."

Rashi's son-in-law a latent homosexual? True, the character Judah is fictional, but still ... it's Rashi. "In Rashi's time it was a sin, but the desire was considered normal. Frankly, everything anyone wanted to do in those days was a sin. It certainly wasn't worse than adultery. It was amazing to me how the attitude was very different," Anton said. She thought a character with this problem would have lots of angst, cloistered with men.

That was back in 1997, when Anton plotted all three books. A chemist by profession, she came to writing late in life -- after she began studying Talmud. Raised as a secular Jew, Anton took a women's Talmud class in Los Angeles with Rachel Adler, and was fascinated when she discovered that Rashi's daughters were reputed to have been learned -- maybe even wore tefillin. As she learned more Talmud and did more research, she decided on the arc of her three books (the third will coincide with the Crusades), and decided to make homosexuality -- or "The Game" as they refer to it -- a theme in the second book.

"I didn't realize then that homosexuality was going to be this cause cél?bre, and that I'd get a blurb off of Elliot Dorff because of the subject I chose," said Anton, referring to the rabbi, an expert on Jewish law.

So are these authors of Jewish pulp fiction trying to rewrite history? To make women more powerful than they were, make issues like feminism and homosexuality more prescient than they actually were? Are they trying to change biblical history?

For example, in Genesis, Jacob's only daughter Dinah is taken by Shechem, and her brothers avenge her by killing him and his tribe. But in "The Red Tent," Dinah's is a love story. Samson, who is a wise Israelite judge in the Bible, is portrayed in Maine's "The Book of Samson," as delighting in his murders; Delilah, described as "a piece of work," canoodles his secret strength from him to stop him.

Attorney Cohen -- who was inspired to write "Moses, A Memoir" after Norman Mailer wrote "The Gospel According to the Son," a fictional autobiography about Jesus in heaven -- said he's not trying to change history.

"I don't present David in a positive light," he admits about his second book, "David and Batsheva." And yet, he's right -- it's all there in the text: David steals another man's wife, and has the man killed so he can marry her. "The midrash tries to defend him," Cohen said, referring to the commentary. "The rabbis can't deal with it effectively so they find excuses for him."

Cohen thinks that because children would have difficulty seeing biblical

Books mentioned in this article The Last Secret of the Temple by Paul Sussman, Atlantic Monthly Press (October, 2007)

The Genizah At The House Of Shepher by Tamar Yellin, Toby Press, 2005)

As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg (Behrman House Publishing (1996)
The Da Vinci Codes by Dan Brown Anchor (2006)
The Source, by James Michener (Random House Trade Paperbacks (2002)
My Glorious Brothers Panther (1960)

By Marek Halter
Sarah: A Novel (Canaan Trilogy) Three Rivers Press (2005)
Zipporah, Wife of Moses: A Novel (Canaan Trilogy) Three Rivers Press (2006)
Lilah: A Novel (Canaan Trilogy) Three Rivers Press (2007)

By Orson Scott Card
Women of Genesis Series
Sarah, Forge Books (2001)
Rebekah, Forge Books (2002)
Rachel and Leah, Forge Books (2005)

By Ann Burton
Women of the Bible: Deborah's Story, Signet (2006)
Women of the Bible: Jael's Story: A Novel (2006)
Women of the Bible: Rahab's Story: A Novel (Women of the Bible) Signet (2005)
Women of the Bible: Abigail's Story: A Novel Signet (2005)

By Eva Etzioni-Halevy
The Garden of Ruth Plume (2006)
The Song of Hannah Plume (2005)

By Rebecca Kohn
The Gilded Chamber: A Novel of Queen Esther Penguin (Non-Classics) (2005)
Seven Days to the Sea: An Epic Novel of The Exodus Penguin (Non-Classics) (2005)

By David Maine
The Book of Samson St. Martin's Press (2006)
The Preservationist, St. Martin's Griffin (2005)
Fallen, St. Martin's Griffin (2006)

By Joel Cohen Moses
A Memoir, Paulist Press (2003)
David and Bathsheba: Through Nathan's Eyes Paulist Press (2007)
figures with moral flaws -- Abraham taking his son to be sacrificed, Sarah lying about being married to Abraham, Jacob's sons slaughtering the Shechem's tribe -- rabbis erase the flaws. "I don't put much credence in what the rabbis have done over the last 2,000 years. I say these guys like Moses are flawed -- and if we don't recognize that, we can't learn from it."

Rabbi Diamond agreed: "I think the more we have serious and thoughtful Jews reading and discussing Jewish themes, it's to be praised. It's a wonderful and important endeavor."

Biblical historical fiction is just one of the ways that people connect to the stories of our past, he said. For example, many communities, including Los Angeles, put biblical figures on trial. Some have community members write journals of what a biblical character is thinking. Others read Jewish historical fiction.

Besides, what are the options? Diamond joked. "Nobody wrote non-fiction back then. Nobody wrote the official or unofficial autobiography of Rashi or of Elisha Ben Abuya,"

All kidding aside, what if people believe these stories are real? Is there a danger that authors are rewriting the Bible?

Yasgur, of the Jewish Community Library doesn't think so. "I truly believe that books and writing repair the world, especially when you take the subject and treat it respectfully."

But, she said, while authors like Anton take great care to explain what is real, "Let's remember this is fiction!"

The Jewish Community Library will hold an evening with Maggie Anton, author of "Rashi's Daughters, Book II: Miriam," on Sept. 5 at 7 p.m.

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