The Aleppo Codex • Matti Friedman • Algonquin Publishers, 2013, 320 pages
Murder? Theft? Smuggling? International intrigue? This is a description not of a spy thriller but of a book about a Bible. And not just any Bible, but the oldest and most accurate version of the Masoretic text extant, once owned by the rabbi, scholar and doctor, Moses Maimonides. Matti Friedman’s The Aleppo Codex relates the history of this precious version of Judaism’s most sacred text.
As Friedman explains, the codex was immensely valuable to our forebears, who as Jews in exile, without any political power, had only “a book that would connect them, wherever they were, to each other and to the power and protection of the King of Kings.” The Aleppo Codex, known in Hebrew as the Keter Arom-Tzova (Crown of Aleppo), was created in Tiberias, Israel, around 930 by a descendant of the Ben Asher family and the scribe Shlomo Ben-Buya’a. It was not written on a scroll as a Torah would be, but on pages bound together, like a book. The purpose of this version was to ensure that Jews were all reading the same book, because as Friedman explains, minor differences in the text could lead to diverging interpretations and a splintering of the faith.” Having an accurate version of the biblical text is still important in our day. The mystery Friedman tries to solve is why the codex, currently at the Israel Museum, which was known to have had over 500 leaves before it left Aleppo, now has 300. Where did the missing leaves go and who is hiding them?
The book, which won a Sami Rohr Prize, offers a fascinating account of the Jews of Aleppo and others who came in contact with this text – former Mossad agents, a resident of Israel, a cheese merchant, and antique dealers who will turn over secrets for a million dollars. All of Friedman’s writing and journalistic skills find a place in this spellbinding book.
A Guide For the Perplexed • Dara Horn • W.W. Norton, 2013, 342 pages
Dara Horn’s new novel is a multi-layered wonder, with stories taking place in three separate eras and parts of the world, all exploring the subject of memory and its storage. That one of the characters is Solomon Schechter, founder of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the first president of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, gives the book an added dimension for Conservative Jews. (Horn, who has won two National Jewish Book Awards, is herself a product of Conservative Judaism.)
The modern layer of the novel concerns two sisters, Josephine and Judith, whose story is a feminine retelling of the biblical story of two brothers at odds with each other, Joseph and Judah. Josephine, married to Itamar (a male variant of the biblical Tamar, who has a child with Judah in Genesis 38) is the dazzlingly accomplished founder of a Facebook-like social media company called Genizah, which allows users to store all the events of their lives. Judith, the less successful sister, convinces Josie to travel alone to Egypt, despite its obvious dangers, to set up her system in the library at Alexandria. Complications ensue and Josie is cast, like her biblical progenitor, into a pit and jail.
Another strand of the novel offers a fictionalized account of Schechter and the real-life twin sisters from Cambridge who convinced him to go to Egypt and examine the contents of the now famous Cairo Genizah, a synagogue storeroom that turned out to house a trove of secular and religious documents spanning 1,000 years of Jewish history. The Genizah, of course, is the historical equivalent of Josie’s computer program. That Schechter has a twin who chose a wholly different life by moving to what was then Palestine adds another layer of sibling tales. The story line that reaches the farthest back in time is about Moses Maimonides’ decision to send his brother on a dangerous trip to procure an herb that will cure the ruling sultan. The story is yet another commentary on sibling relationships and memory. As Horn’s Maimonides puts it: “We choose what is worthy
of our memory. We should probably be grateful that we can’t remember everything as God does, because if we did, we would find it impossible to forgive anyone.”
Sunburnt Faces • Shimon Adaf • PS Publishing, 2013, 472 pages
Sunburnt Faces is Shimon Adaf’s first novel to be translated into English. Adaf is a phenomenon in Israel, thanks to his three prizewinning volumes of poetry and six novels, as well as for having been the youngest senior editor at the esteemed Keter publishing house. The 2013 winner of Israel’s most prestigious literary prize, the Sapir Prize, Adaf brings his gift of describing the world through a poet’s lens into his fiction. The beauty of his writing is obvious in this translation by Margalit Rodgers and Anthony Berris.
The novel takes place in three parts. The first two concern ages 12 and 32 in the life of Flora (Ori) Elhayani, a girl of Moroccan origin who lives in the southern Israeli town of Netivot. As an adult, Ori moves to Tel Aviv and works in a used bookstore and then as a children’s writer. The charm of the novel is in seeing how Ori interacts with the world through the medium of literature, as well as the descriptions of both Netivot and Tel Aviv. As an adolescent, she hears the voice of God through a television set in the middle of the night and has to stop speaking for a month to cope with this revelation. Adaf cleverly blends the contemporary speech patterns and thoughts of modern adolescence with profound messages about how the Bible can be expressed in the modern world. There are snippets of children’s books that Ori has written – Double Doppelgangers and A Map to Getting Lost – in letters from a childhood friend. Readers also learn about Ori’s view of ’wonderlands’ in children’s literature, those mythical places hanging between childhood and adolescence, and her struggle to have meaningful relationships with her husband and daughter, despite her inclinations to keep to herself and pour her emotions into her writing.
The final section of the novel, titled only with the mathematical infinity sign, comprises chapters from a book that Ori read as a child and that may or may not exist, one of the book’s many fascinating mysteries. Adaf is both a serious thinker and an entertaining storyteller.
Even if you have never seen a page of Talmud, you will find something of interest and accessible in Ruth Calderon’s newly translated book, A Bride for One Night. Calderon, who holds a PhD in Talmud, is currently a member of Knesset with the Yesh Atid party. Since there was no place for a non-Orthodox woman to study and teach Talmud in Israel, Calderon helped create open and pluralistic study centers – Elul in Jerusalem and then Alma in Tel Aviv.
Calderon takes 17 Talmudic stories and discusses them, in fictionally imagined settings and then in a more distanced academic tone. Her exposition of the texts is often striking, getting at core issues. How do two rabbis, father and son, who live for years in a cave learning Torah and hiding from the Romans, integrate themselves back into the world of deeds? Is the true world the one in the cave or the one of plowing and sowing, life on the outside? Calderon’s answer is instructive. “Ultimately, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son demonstrate that those who remain devoted to a creative cultural tradition will emerge victorious against any conquering power.” Calderon has indeed realized her goal to teach and to promulgate the creative cultural traditions of the Talmud.