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Jewish Journal

Medieval Me

by Robert J. Avrech

November 11, 2004 | 7:00 pm

What books must every Jew read? What books are critical to informing your understanding of your faith, your culture, your people? With this issue, The Jewish Journal introduces a new weekly column: My Jewish Library. We've asked rabbis, scholars and thinkers to each pick the one book that was essential to their Jewish life. They will discuss the book and its impact, and explain why you need to add it to your Jewish library. You can join the discussion in our online forum. You can also purchase the book for yourself by clicking the link below.

For the rest of this year, My Jewish Library will replace the weekly Torah portion. Readers (and b'nai mitzvah students) in search of the weekly Torah portion will find several years worth archived and easily accessible at www.jewishjournal.com/MyJewishLearning.php.

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"The King's Persons" by Joanne Greenberg. (Henry Holt, 1963).

It is 1963. I am a 12-year-old ignoramus.

I am wandering around in a used bookstore in Brooklyn. I see a paperback with a lion and Magen David on the cover. A Jewish book! I inhale books, especially novels and I'm always looking for something to read on the long Shabbos afternoons.

I plunk down 25 cents for the book.

Twenty-five cents has irrevocably changed my life.

This was Joanne Greenberg's first novel. She gained some fame and a spot on the best-seller list a few years later with "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." Practically everyone I know has read "Rose Garden" or seen the movie. I have never ever met one person who has read, much less heard of "The King's Persons."

In the Christian year of 1182, Jews held a unique position in English society. Forbidden to own property, they were "the king's persons," whose lives were under his protection, and whose fate and fortune belonged to him and him alone. To support themselves, therefore, many Jews turned to moneylending, which was illegal but tolerated by the king for its contribution to the national economy. And indeed, for a short while this arrangement worked well; in York, Christians and Jews lived together harmoniously. When economic conditions began to deteriorate, the already overtaxed Christian nobles looked for a scapegoat. On the coronation day of Richard the Lion-Hearted, the London crowd erupted in mass attacks on Jews, which spread rapidly northward and culminated in the massacres at York.

Against this richly evoked background, the author, at the height of her powers, portrays the experiences of everyday people of the time: Baruch of York, the Jewish moneylender; his sensitive and questioning son, Abram, in love with their Christian servant, Bett; and the young monk Simon, Abram's best friend. The lives of Christian and Jew alike are twisted and changed, and we come to understand the myriad subtle forces at work as we see neighbor rise against neighbor in an irrational onslaught of hate. But what is most powerful, apart from the historic drama, is the elegant manner in which the author exposes the motives of the human heart with such insight that only compassion and sorrow are left.

Since childhood I have been a voracious reader, but no book has ever captured my imagination like this powerful and beautifully written novel. The fiction that is championed by the intellectual elite never spoke to me. I read Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow. Mysteriously, they are labeled Jewish novelists, but I feel nothing genuinely Jewish in their work. All I sense is an ugly nihilism that has nothing to do with the Judaism as I live and experience it; these are fashionable novelists who are blind to the rich and multilayered Yiddishkayt that has flourished in my America. Their work is stylish and so very polished -- but at the core it is void of any authentic Jewish spark.

Even now, as I read "The King's Persons" I weep for Bett, perhaps the most vividly etched character in the book. A Christian child, she is sold by her blunt peasant parents as a kitchen maid to Baruch of York's family. Over the years, she has learned to read and write Hebrew in a society where most women are illiterate. So thoroughly has Bett been saturated in the laws, customs, thoughts and feelings of her Jewish family that no Christian man will marry her. She is alienated from her own parents. They sense that she is ... different. Living with Jews has made her too fine, too smart and too verbal.

"Bett," says her confused father, "ye thinks too much for a common female."

And, finally, when the king proclaims that no Christian will be allowed to work for a Jew, Bett realizes that the world no longer holds a place for her.

"Perhaps I, too, must be afraid," she said.

Faithfully, I sit down once a year and read "The King's Persons." I still have the same dog-eared paperback that I bought for 25 cents. I do not so much read the words as breathe them in. I continue to marvel at the perfection of language, the totality of vision. I read the novel and I look around and I understand that this book, this story, these fully realized characters changed the course of my life. And just as surely as I am who I am because of who my parents are, because of who my wife and children are -- I am a screenwriter and a novelist -- because more than 40 years ago, "The King's Person's" gripped my soul, set my heart and mind aflame, and allowed me to follow a path that otherwise I never would have imagined.

Robert J. Avrech is an Emmy award-winning screenwriter. His first novel, "The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden" will be published by Seraphic Press for Chanukah. Photo of Robert Avrech by Hallie Lerman

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