When Abraham met Sarah

“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. Rashi’s son-in-law battles his inclination to love men.

Sound like the Jewish heroes and heroines of the Bible and 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 in depicting ancient time periods — star protagonists of old: from Genesis’ Cain, Noah, Abraham and Sarah to Exodus’ Moses, Miriam and Tzipporah, as well as characters from Prophets, like David, Nathan and Samson, and even from the megillahs, such as Queen Esther and Ruth (who already have books named after them).

Jewish pulp fiction features stories of love, adventure, sex, war, betrayal, politics, mystery, suspense, anguish, murder and death.

Where better to find such stories than in the Bible?

When King Solomon (who is not yet the protagonist of one of these books) wrote in his own holy book, Ecclesiastes, “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,” says 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, director of the Jewish Book Council in New York and one of the most influential people promoting Jewish books, sees many of these manuscripts 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.

“Everything is cyclical,” Hessel says 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.”

What does Hessel see as the appeal of Jewish historical fiction? “When you’re reading about Rebecca or Sarah you are reading about familiar characters that most of us know from childhood,” she says. “A new approach is welcome and inspiring.”

Cherise Davis, editor in chief of Plume, an imprint of Penguin Books, agrees: “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.”

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.

Though never mentioned by name in historical documents, Rashi’s daughters were reputed to be learned women. Anton is writing three books, one for each daughter. Plume recently re-released “Book I: Joheved,” along with the new “Book II: Miriam.” Anton is currently working on “Book III: Rachel.”

Plume is hoping “Rashi’s Daughters” — the first edition of which was 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,” says Anton’s agent, Susanna Einstein of LJK Literary Management. “In the Jewish market, people are interested in learning about Jewish women and history. In the secular market people love historical fiction.”

Einstein says 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 of real characters such as Marie Antoinette, Queen Elizabeth I and the last empress of China.

“The most popular historical fiction seems to be from a particular point of history but told from a woman’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 adds.

The woman’s voice is equally — if not more — popular in biblical historical fiction. Women dominate in Marek Halter’s Canaan Trilogy about Sarah, Tzipporah and Lilah; Eva Etziony’s books about Hannah and Ruth; Rebecca 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”).

According to David Waksberg, executive director of the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, these books provide an opportunity for women, especially Jewish women, to engage with tradition.

“The thing about Rashi’s daughters,” he says, “is that it’s long been known that they were very learned Talmud scholars in their own right. For women that is an empowering lesson. It’s great for Jewish women today to reclaim those sorts of role models.”

Not all Jewish pulp fiction is driven by female characters: David Maine tells Cain’s, Samson’s and Noah’s stories (“The Preservationist”), and Joel Cohen tells Moses’ (“Moses: A Memoir”) and Nathan’s (“David & Batsheba: Through Nathan’s Eyes”). Marek Halter writes about Abraham, in addition to his women-driven Canaan 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 a secret Catholic sect. So, too, does Paul Sussman’s “The Last Secret of the Temple,” blurbed as “the Jewish answer to ‘The Da Vinci Code.'”

In “The Last Secret,” 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.

Publishing house Grove/Atlantic bought Sussman’s book not because of “The Da Vinci Code” but because “it’s about archaeology and religion,” said Deb Seager, director of publicity at Grove/Atlantic. 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 prestigious 2007 Sami Rohr prize of $100,000. Yellin’s novel traces back four generations, from England to Jerusalem, and revolves around a Codex — a handwritten volume of the Bible.

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

The earliest biblical historical fiction was male-driven. Before Leon Uris’ “Exodus” and James Michener’s “The Source” was 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. For BJE director and former Soviet Jewry activist Waksberg, it was revolutionary.

“From 1981 until the fall of the Soviet Union, I was sending Jewish info of all sorts to Russian Jews,” recalls Waksberg. “I may have sent that book more than any other single book. It was great for refusniks to read, or for anyone grappling with Jewish identity in the modern world.”

How far can an author go when explicating a biblical story? For many of the female-driven Jewish pulps, there’s love, romance … and sex. Anton says she’s gotten some comments like, “How can you have these great tzadikim and go in their bedroom?”

“But when I read historical fiction, it would bother me when the authors would close the door on the subject,” she adds.

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 — like that a woman must have an orgasm in order to have a male child.

“When I found out those things I made sure I included them,” says the author. “Joheved is getting married — she’s 12, trying to have children! How can you close the

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 [evil inclination] is aroused by men as well as by women,” Judah tells his father-in-law about his feelings 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,” notes Anton, “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 plotted all three of her books in 1997. A chemist by profession, she came to writing later 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, and maybe even wore tefillin.

As she learned more Talmud and did more research, Anton decided on the arc of her three books (the third will coincide with the Crusades), and decided to make homosexuality — or “The Game,” as her characters refer to it — a theme in the second book.

“I didn’t realize then that homosexuality was going to be this cause célebre, and that I’d get a blurb off of [Rabbi] Elliot Dorff because of the subject I chose,” says Anton, referring to the noted expert on Jewish law.

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

In Genesis, Shechem takes Jacob’s only daughter, Dinah, 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 of his second book, “David and Batsheva.” And yet 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 adds, 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 figures with moral flaws — Abraham taking his son to be sacrificed, Sarah lying about being married to Abraham, Jacob’s sons slaughtering 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,” says Cohen. “I say these guys like Moses are flawed — and if we don’t recognize that, we can’t learn from it.”

Biblical historical fiction is just one of the ways that people connect to the stories of our past. But when it comes to Jewish historical fiction, is there a danger that readers will see these books as a substitute for the real thing?

“I don’t think anyone reads these books and says, ‘OK, now I’m not going to go to synagogue or Talmud study because I read ‘Red Tent’ or ‘Rashi’s Daughters,'” says the BJE’s David Waksberg. “I don’t think they lead people away from Torah. They’re leading people toward tradition. Anything that helps people relate to Torah is a good thing.”

 

J. staff writer Dan Pine contributed to this story.

 

Author Maggie Anton to talk here

Maggie Anton, author of “Rashi’s Daughters,” will be in the Bay Area next week speaking in several Jewish settings. The book has sold more copies than any other at bob and bob Judaica in Los Altos.