Late into the night throughout 1993, Gothic novelist Anne Rice sat in a study in her shadowy New Orleans antebellum mansion, poring over stacks of books on ancient Babylon and Samaria.
The scene could have been lifted from one of Rice's best-selling novels about erotically charged vampires and witches. As she studied the ancient manuscripts on the floor of her office, she stumbled on what she now calls "a mystery so intense that I was ready to do violence to my career."
The puzzle that so gripped her was "the survival of the Jews," Rice said, sounding more demure than witchy in a phone interview. "I couldn't understand why these people had endured, when so many ancient cultures had vanished. And I began to see the hand of God in history."
The revelation led her to return to her Catholic roots and also to write a novel, "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt" (Knopf, $25.95) about the boy Jesus -- "a very Jewish Jesus," Time magazine noted. As the child struggles to understand his mysterious origins and abilities, he also joyfully prays at the great Temple in Jerusalem on Passover, relishes Shabbat and adores his rabbinic teachers. He avidly listens to discussions about the ascetic Jewish Essenes and how to renovate the crumbling family mikvah.
"I very much wanted to show that Jesus was a devout Jew, and that his extended family was Jewish," she said. "Many Christians think Christ brought love and compassion to the world, but I emphasized that Jews were already deeply concerned about that."
And so it is that the chronicler of sensuous vampires has taken a religious turn and joined the growing number of authors exploring Christianity's Hebraic roots in the philosophical aftermath of the Holocaust.
Although Rice's hero is meant to be every inch the Jesus of the Gospels (she says she's proselytizing), she views her book as a kind of antidote to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." She appreciated Gibson's film for its felicity to Catholic doctrine but disliked its portrayal of Jews.
"Gibson chose to present them as opera villains, but he could have made the same movie and shown all different kinds of Jews having different responses to Jesus," she said. "I struggled to write a book I could give to people who were upset with that movie and say, 'This is different.'"
While Gibson refused to allow Jewish leaders to see early screenings of his film, Rice personally mailed "Egypt" to rabbis active in interfaith work. One of them was Jonathan Miller, previously of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, who recently invited the author to speak at his Reform synagogue in Birmingham, Ala.
"Although the story Rice tells is not our story," he told The Journal, "it was fascinating to hear how Jews lived at the time, how people approached going to the Temple, and what religious life was like."
Some of the author's goth-lit fans are decidedly less pleased with the book and have excoriated her on the Internet. Rice -- who once arrived to readings in a coffin -- now lives in La Jolla and has sworn off undead protagonists.
The reviews, too, have been extreme, though mixed. Salon praised "Egypt" as "the most literary" of Rice's books, while the Chicago Tribune called it an "embarrassment."
Rice admits she is disturbed by the criticism. But she stands by her work, which sustained her through the death of her husband in 2002 and her own near-demise from a diabetic coma.
She also drew solace from the dark-complexioned, crucified Jesus that hung over her computer as she wrote.
"I'd made sure to tell the artist, 'He's a Jew of the first century, so don't make him look like an Aryan,'" she said.
During her strictly Catholic childhood in New Orleans, the images were blander: "Jesus certainly did not look Semitic, and we didn't really have a sense that he was Jewish at all," she said.
Although Rice was a devout child, her Catholicism began eroding after her mother died of complications from alcoholism, when she was 14. Her faith shattered completely when she arrived at a Texas university around 1960, curious about sex and other "sins" forbidden by her pre-Vatican II upbringing. She was drawn to Judaism and considered converting for a time. Eventually she married poet Stan Rice, an atheist, and became an atheist herself.
Rice had no religion to comfort her when their 5-year-old daughter, Michele, died of leukemia in 1972. Instead, she exorcised her grief by writing "Interview With the Vampire," in which a 5-year-old girl -- blond like Michele -- is infected by poisoned blood.
Over the next three decades, Rice penned some 30 books whose ghoulish characters were lost in spiritual darkness, much like the author herself.
The change came when the 64-year-old writer began studying about Jewish continuity in 1993. She read myriad translations of the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish historian Josephus and literature about modern-day Chasidism, among 400 other books. She wrote a 1996 novel, "Servant of the Bones," in which an immortal protagonist follows Jewish life from the Babylonian exile to contemporary New York.
Her sources for the current book include scholar Paula Fredriksen, who received a 1999 national Jewish Book Award for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity" (Knopf). While Fredriksen's theories about Jesus' Jewish upbringing helped inspire "Egypt," researching the book nonetheless proved daunting.
"Both Jewish and Christian scholars virulently disagree on how Jewish Jesus was, which was nerve-wracking," Rice said. "But I tended to agree with those who felt he was observant. Architectural material indicates that houses in Nazareth [the traditional childhood home of Jesus] and throughout the Galilee had mikvahs. And no pig bones were found in the excavations."
For the purpose of her narrative, Rice takes liberties where her account doesn't conflict with the Gospels. For example, she has the child Jesus and his family flee to Alexandria, Egypt, to escape the Jewish tyrant, King Herod the Great, whereas the Gospels don't specify a city in Egypt. Rice said she decided on Alexandria because that city had the largest Jewish community outside the land of Israel at the time.
To get Jesus' dialogue right, Rice said she studied Aramaic linguistics.
Not all the Jews of Christian Bible origins get a makeover: In her tale, Rice includes the greedy moneychangers at the Temple. That seemed acceptable, she said, because she based her account on passages from Mishnaic sources that describe Temple administrators as corrupt.
So how does Rice hope her book will speak to Jewish readers?
"I hope they will be pleased to see that someone has taken the trouble to show the rabbis and scribes as the great teachers and conservators that they were," she said. "Instead of trivializing and dismissing Judaism, I've tried to show the incredible richness and complexity of this culture that has endured throughout the ages."
Rice will speak Nov. 30 at 6 p.m. at Vroman's, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. For information call (626) 449-5320.
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