Geraldine Brooks’ historical novel, The People of the Book, is based on the mysterious past of the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks intersperses the modern-day adventures of a book-restorer with a fictionalized account of the Haggadah’s creation and its movement from one destroyed Jewish community to another.
The first historical chapter, about a group of partisans in the forest during World War II, was moving. I even cried at one scene. But as I continued reading I found both the present-day plot and the historical plots to be more and more fantastical.
One chapter takes place at the time of the Spanish Inquistion. Brooks describes how the nondescript daughter of the Haggadah’s scribe
. . . had a secret life of which her father could not conceive. For more than three years, Ruti had been immersed in the study of the Zohar. . . Alone, in secret, she had become a practitioner of the kabbalah.
Ruti had listened secretly while her father, from a family of kabbalists, taught “a small group of trusted scholars.” Then she borrowed the required books from the neighbor.
Micha, the binder, was a young man grown too soon old. . . his wife . . . was frail and drab, often ill, worn out by the bearing of children, several of whom always seemed to be trailing after her, crying. . . .
Micha guessed what she was about, and he knew the weight of the taboo that she was violating. If she was prepared to break such weighty rules as these, he reasoned, then perhaps there were other areas of transgression into which she might be tempted. In return for the use of the books, he had lain her down upon the soft scraps of hide. . .
All I have to say to that is “oy.”
I read the passage to my husband, knowing he would find the idea of a teenage girl who studies Kabbalah on her own and enjoys sleeping with the neighbor less than convincing. I asked him whether he thought that observant Jews in medieval times ever had premarital sex. “They did,” he said. “Just not as often as they do in these novels.”
See Chaviva’s review.
More book reviews:
She Got Up Off the Couch, by Haven Kimmel
Run, by Ann Patchett
Through the Narrow Gate, by Karen Armstrong
Show, Don’t Tell. Features a writing exercise based on a passage from another of Brooks’ books.
Rashi’s Daughters, Book I, by Maggie Anton.