August 9, 2007
God gets a rewrite:
In the latest literary trend, authors fictionalize Jewish heroes
(Page 2 - Previous Page)"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." 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" 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.