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Who Wrote the Story of Abraham and Isaac?

Monday, September 16, 2013 | Permalink
Last week, James Goodman wrote about God and child sacrifice and how he came to write about Abraham and the binding of Isaac. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb, is now available from Schocken Books. He has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“I didn’t think he’d do it. I really didn’t think he would.” That’s how I open my book, with a short “midrash” – a short readers and writer’s response to the story in the context of all the Abraham stories that come before.

And then, in the next chapter, I introduce the author of Genesis 22 and the writing of the story. Those pages are pure speculation. No one knows for sure who wrote those nineteen lines of scripture, let alone what he (I explain much later in the book that no one thinks the story was written by a woman) was thinking as he wrote, let alone his interaction with his editors or his wife, or even when the story was written or what parts of the cycle of Abraham stories (of which it is the climax) were written before (in my version it is late to the Abraham cycle) and what parts were written afterward.

Jane Smiley called those pages amusing and shameless, and I would add wholly anachronistic. There is, I believe, plenty of literary and figurative truth in them, starting with the first line of Chapter 2 (“He was a writer”: no one who appreciates the story as a story would deny that) but the historical truth comes later.

And already people are asking why? Why open a non-fiction book with speculation. The answer is pretty simple: The subject is as close to infinite as a subject can get. In a book of 250 pages I have probably not even sampled one percent of one percent of the exegesis that’s been translated into English, and the vast majority of it probably hasn’t been translated into English. My book moves chronologically but it is less a survey than a series of soundings. There is, inevitably, a lot of repetition, and for it not to be tedious (or more tedious than it is) it had to be written from a point of view.

But what point of view? I struggled with that question for years, and in fact I probably have more than half a dozen versions (not drafts, but very different versions) of the opening 30 pages, the pages which I establish the narrator’s point of view and voice. They are still on my hard drive. One is simply from my point of view, James Goodman, writer and professor of history, from soups to nuts. But I was never happy about the way that version sounded, the way I sounded as narrator. It was too serious, too straight, too stiff. One is from the point of view of the author of the story, an author who feels he wrote a pretty straightforward story about obedience to God. He likes the story, which makes it all the more frustrating as he discovers that every Tom, Dick, and Harry (or Jubilees, Philo, and Josephus) feels free to revise it, add characters and dialog and scenes and thereby twist the story and its meaning in every imaginable way, including versions in which Isaac actually dies. Another is from four points of view, Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and God. There are, alas, others.

In the end I settled on the perspective of writer (and reader, since all writers are the first readers of their own work) who thought the author got the story wrong and who wanted to revise it. He is not able to revise it (for reasons you need to read those pages to understand). So he pins his hope on (and takes some consolation from) the idea (provided by his wife) that the story will ultimately be revised by others. “Someone will revise it,” she says. The perspective of a writer who thought he got the story wrong provided the moral center I wanted (grave reservations about the story) as well as the tension I wanted (Was she right? Would the story actually be revised? If so, how, when, and why?). It also provided the forward momentum I thought my narrative needed (as I watched the history or life of the story unfold).

“But where,” my real wife asked recently, when she started reading the book, for the first time, “did your narrator’s voice come from? Who is it? I like it, but it isn’t you.”

“No, I said it isn’t.”

“It never is,” she said. “But this one is more so.”

“I think that’s right, I said.” My narrator is, like all narrators and then some, a character all his own, some amalgam of voices, a writer, a reader, a father, a historian, a skeptic, and a Jew.

James Goodman is a professor at Rutgers University, where he teaches history and creative writing. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb?, is now available. He is also the author of two previous books, including Stories of Scottsboro, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Keep up with him here.

September 2013 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Monday, September 16, 2013 | Permalink

What we're reading this month:


Miri: The Tin Horse (Janice Steinberg) | Carolyn: Hothouse (Boris Kachka)
Naomi: The Property (Rutu Modan) | Suzanne: Sinners & the Sea (Rebecca Kanner)
Mimi: Dancing with the Enemy (Paul Glaser) | Nat: Kafka: The Years of Insight (Reiner Stach) 

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, September 13, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Interview: Martin Fletcher

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 | Permalink

by Sarah Shewchuk

Martin Fletcher is the author of four books, most recently Jacob’s Oath. A five-time Emmy-winning television news correspondent who has worked for decades as the NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv, he is cur­rently a Special Correspondent for NBC News.

Sarah Shewchuk: Martin, your first two books are works of non-fiction that examine contemporary events in your own life, namely your career as a television news correspondent in Breaking News and a walking trip that you took down the length of Israel’s coastline in Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation. In turn, your two most recent books, The List and Jacob’s Oath, are works of fiction that explore the Holocaust and its aftermath. Why did you choose to use fiction as the lens through which to examine the past?

Martin Fletcher: I did so much research for the two novels that I could probably have written them as non-fiction. But in these novels I wanted to reach something you can rarely tap into in non-fiction, namely, what was it like to be that person? To experience those dilemmas? To meet those challenges? I wanted to enter the hearts and minds of the char­acters, not just to tell their stories, which is what I do as a journalist. As a novelist I hoped to take the reader not only on the external journey, but the internal journey. It’s actually a very hard thing to do and I can only hope I managed it. When I started out I thought it would be easier: I can just make it up! But it doesn’t work that way, every nuance and development and action must have its own relentless logic or it won’t work, and that takes the writer into uncharted territory. Each character takes over his own story. I loved the process.

SS: How have your experiences as a television news correspondent impacted your choices as a writer?

MF: They have guided me toward wanting to be very truthful in my stories and characters. I want to create a sense of authenticity, not through period details but through the reality of the situations and the characters’ reactions. My work in all kinds of disaster zones has helped me to visualize terrible scenes from the past. For instance, witnessing the genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia helped me imagine the reac­tions of people in the Nazi Holocaust. And above all, it does make me like happy endings.

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Understanding Genesis 22: God and Child Sacrifice

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, James Goodman wrote about how he came to write about Abraham and the binding of Isaac. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb, is now available from Schocken Books. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Like many people I know, I first heard the story of Abraham and Isaac as a child. I couldn’t have been older than thirteen. I was probably closer to ten. But I learned the story differently from many if not most of the Christian and Muslim and even some Jewish kids my age. The Christian kids learned that the story was about Abraham’s faith in God, who could, if need be, bring Isaac back from the dead. Abraham’s sacrifice was a prefiguration of a greater sacrifice to come. The Muslim and many Jewish kids learned that the story demonstrated the very essence of what it means to be a Muslim or Jew, complete submission or obedience to God.

I learned that the story was God’s way of proclaiming his opposition to human sacrifice.

Our Hebrew-school teacher explained it exactly as our Hebrew-school textbook did: God, he said, had brought Abraham to a new land. A good and fertile land, where it was common for pagan tribes, hoping to keep the crops and flocks coming, to sacrifice first-born sons to God. Then one day, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the beloved son of his old age. Abraham set out to do it, and was about to, when God stopped him. He sacrificed a ram instead. In the end, Abraham had “demonstrated his—and the Jews’—heroic willingness to accept God and His law,” and God had “proclaimed” that “He could not accept human blood, that He rejected all human sacrifices.”

That interpretation goes back at least as far as the thirteenth century. I found it in the writings of Ibn Kaspi, who argues not just that the story’s purpose was to uproot, undermine, and weaken the heathen practice of child sacrifice, but also that Abraham himself (even before he looked up and saw the ram in the thicket and decided, on his own, to offer it) understood that child sacrifice was an abomination to God. But as far as I can tell it didn’t gain traction until after the Enlightenment and it becomes especially prominent in nineteenth century biblical scholarship (see for example the work of Abraham Geiger) and then popularizations of that scholarship in the twentieth century. Today the notion that the story was a polemic against child sacrifice is as widespread as any interpretation save perhaps the Christian idea that the story is a story of faith and a “type” of the passion of Christ. You can still find it in scholarship, and it is everywhere in popular histories of religion, biblical and prayer book commentary, encyclopedias of religion, guides to religious literacy, and more.

It is not hard to understand the appeal of that interpretation. It puts God and Abraham on the side of the angels, civilization, and progress, in the battle against the scourge of child sacrifice waged by some of the greatest Jewish prophets in the sixth and seventh centuries B.C.E.

But among the first things I discovered when I began doing the research for my book is that the idea that Genesis 22 was a polemic against child sacrifice drives some biblical scholars to distraction. They see it is a kind of wishful thinking or anachronistic apology that can’t survive a close, critical, and clear-eyed reading of the text in the context of the Hebrew Bible and numerous other ancient Near Eastern sources, sources which suggest that child sacrifice was sometimes practiced and for centuries celebrated, by the ancient Israelites as well as by their neighbors: “You shall give Me the first-born among your sons,” God declares in Exodus 13 and again in Exodus 22. God didn’t always demand what was his, but sometimes he did.

Have a look for yourself, not just at Exodus 13 and 22, two places where God lays claim to the first born, but also at the much more familiar Genesis 22, where God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then rewards him for (links his blessing to) Abraham’s willingness. Nowhere does God tell Abraham that he never wants him to sacrifice children. Nor does God command the substitution. What’s more, the scholars say, the story lacks the kind of phrase we might expect if its purpose were to explain the origins of substitution: (“and Abraham offered up the ram as a burnt offering instead of his son, as is done to this day”). And later tradition does not refer back to the incident as the reason for the redemption of the firstborn—as (say) the story of the Pascal lamb in the Passover story does. Might the story have signaled the permissibility of substitution? Perhaps, but (the biblical scholars argue) only modern distance from and enlightened distaste for the ideal of sacrifice could make it possible for readers to imagine that a story in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then rewards him for his willingness to do it was intended to reveal God’s unequivocal opposition to human sacrifice.

Others scholars disagree, and even those who agree that the story was probably not meant to demonstrate God’s opposition to child sacrifice (or even to explain the transition from human to animal sacrifice) don’t agree on what the story originally meant. But regardless of who is correct about the history, it is important to remember that the history is just that, history—an argument about what that story meant back then, not what it has meant at various times since then or what it means to people today. The Christian idea (first expressed in the Letter to the Hebrews) that the story was about Abraham’s faith that God would come through (as opposed to his obedience, willingness to do whatever god asked) was also a reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Taking the story into their hands as if it were a chunk of soft clay and remaking it in their own image is what readers have been doing with the story for thousands of years.

Today an extraordinary number of Jews and Christians believe that the story was a polemic against child sacrifice or an explanation for its abandonment. Since I myself prefer not sacrificing children to sacrificing them (in all the forms that the sacrifice of children takes), I don’t see anything wrong with that. Many people believe that the Bible contains practical lessons, teaches how we should behave. I would much prefer that those people believe that God thinks we shouldn’t sacrifice children than he thinks that we should.

James Goodman is a professor at Rutgers University, where he teaches history and creative writing. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb?, is now available. He is also the author of two previous books, including Stories of Scottsboro, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Keep up with him here.

What You Lose Writing a Novel

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 | Permalink

This week, Michael Lavigne, the author of The Wanting and the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award novel Not Meblogs for The Postscript on the difficulty of editing and what he lost along the way. The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Michael at your next book club meeting, request him through JBC Live Chat

Dear Book Clubs!

One of the hardest things about writing a novel is how much you lose – in pages, that is.  In the case of The Wanting, well over two hundred went by the wayside.  Some things had to go because they slowed the reader too much, others because they took journeys through time that got overly complex, and others because the book simply refused to go in that direction.  

For instance, at one point, Roman’s desert odyssey took him to an abandoned village where he experienced a religious epiphany in a sand quarry – a 20 page adventure that ended up as four sentences in the finished work: I sang to the bright sky as to a child, as I used to do to Anyusha, every night in fact; long after she had fallen asleep, I would steal into her room, lean over her bed, place my lips beside her ear, and -- not sing, because I can’t sing – but whisper my incantation, Papa will always take care of you.  Papa is your best friend.  Papa will never leave you.  Anyusha will never be alone again.  A version, by the way, of something I used to say to my own son, Sam.  Other losses:  The tale of beating up Dima Chernapolsk once ran many pages and involved Roman’s friend Fima, who also was a far more developed character.  Collette’s history was at one time fleshed out by at least thirty more pages – actually in a very early draft, more than one hundred additional pages were dedicated to her, including an elaborate description of her grandfather’s life and his house in Paris and the entire story of her father’s tribulations in the days just before and after her birth.  But the lost words I regret most were to be found in a fairytale, now condensed to a single paragraph and utterly changed, that I invented for Roman’s drunken dream when he fell asleep watching Good Night Children (a real show, by the way, that three-year-old Sam loved during our Moscow stay).  

My fairytale was called  The Story of Prince Oleg And Young Ekim Efiv, and it ran nine pages before Roman was awakened mid-dream  by his very annoyed mother.  I even sketched the conclusion of the story which I intended to introduce later in the book.  When we were living in the Soviet Union, I read dozens of these tales to Sam or saw animated versions of them on television, so it didn’t take much for me to jump into the role of Russian storyteller.  In my draft, the evil witch Baba Yaga grants a barren queen two children, on the promise she will give one of them up to the witch.  When the day of reckoning comes, the queen hides one of her sons in the forest, trying to fool the witch into believing she gave birth to but a single child – but the furious witch steals that one anyway.  When the queen goes to find her hidden baby, it too is gone, leaving her childless.  Unknown to her, the boy was found and nurtured by an old peasant woman and her husband.  They name him Efim Efiv and he grows strong and happy in their village home.  Eventually, though, he must leave this little paradise and find his way in the world – to confront the witch and his lost brother (Prince Oleg, now a wicked sorcerer), save (and lose) (and save) the woman of his dreams with the help of an enchanted bear, carp, and falcon, all tropes in Russian fairy tales, and finally reclaim his rightful place as prince – which he never quite does since the tale was constructed as a reflection of Roman’s unconscious and his true feelings about Collette. 

What a joy this was to write -- and so painful to lose.  But cutting it was the right thing to do.  First drafts are an explosion of story.  Real writing, though, is in the editing.  So the question is, would any of these lost sections have deepened your understanding of the book, or is it enough that I, the writer, know them as back-story?  My knowledge of all this unreported history gives my characters a reality, a grounding, that surely is felt by readers.   In writing, as in life, loss deepens in unseen ways our journey toward truth.    

To read more from Michael, see his posts for The Visiting Scribe here. 

The Ultimate Sacrifice: James Goodman on Abraham and the Binding of Isaac

Monday, September 09, 2013 | Permalink
James Goodman is a professor at Rutgers University, where he teaches history and creative writing. His most recent book, But Where Is the Lamb?, is now available. He is also the author of two previous books, including Stories of Scottsboro, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

Many people ask me, “What’s a nice guy like you doing in a field like this?” By which they mean: What’s a modern U.S. historian doing writing a book about the history of a Bible story. They know I have always been interested in stories, how and why people tell the stories they do. My first two books are both narrative histories of events written from multiple points of view. But it is a long way from the Scottsboro Case and the NYC blackout of July 1977 to Abraham and Isaac, more than two thousand years and about a dozen academic fields in which I had absolutely no prior experience.

The truth is that I had been looking for a story to track and retell over a longer span of time. Scottsboro focused on a few decades of the twentieth century. Blackout focused on a few days. I was wondering what it would be like to track and tell a story over centuries. But what story? Events far beyond my study ultimately shaped my choice, as they so often do.

It was 2004. Dark days. Terror attacks had sparked a global war on terror and there was no end to either war or terror in sight. Wherever I turned, I heard the word “sacrifice.” Eulogists praised soldiers for making the ultimate sacrifice. Proponents of staying the course in Iraq in the face of a fierce insurgency and the threat of civil war argued that if we withdrew, our dead would have sacrificed their lives in vain. Opponents called for the repeal of recently enacted tax cuts, and perhaps even a reinstatement of the military draft, to ensure that the sacrifice exacted in two surreally distant conflicts was not borne entirely by a few. Americans accused the parents of Afghani, Pakistani, and Iraqi suicide bombers of sacrificing their children. Afghanis, Pakistanis, and Iraqis accused coalition commanders of doing the same. One American antiwar activist stalked pro-war congressmen and prominent political commentators, video camera in hand, asking them if they would sacrifice one of their children to retake Faluja, a city they had not heard of before 2004.

I started doing what scholars and creative writers do: reading about sacrifice, and then child sacrifice, in history and literature, sacred and profane. I wanted to know who had sacrificed children and when and why. I found a slew of accusations (one group of people accusing another of sacrificing children) and a lively scholarly debate (truly heroic efforts to tease experience out of scant evidence) about which of those accusations were true. I also found the story of Abraham and Isaac, the ground zero of Western child sacrifice stories. Before long I had turned from books and essays about the story to the story itself, and then to all the Abraham stories in Genesis, then to commentary on those stories, starting in antiquity.

In short, I fell into the bottomless well of biblical literature. I figured that the only hope for me was to write a book about the story. I now have, but I am still not sure there is any way out.

Keep up with James Goodman here.

Researching and Reimagining Margot Frank

Wednesday, September 04, 2013 | Permalink

Yesterday, Jillian Cantor wrote about religion and having children. Her most recent book, Margot (Riverhead), is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my novel, Margot, I reimagine Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister, having survived the war and come to Philadelphia where she works as a legal secretary living under the assumed name of Margie Franklin. My book takes place in 1959, just as Anne’s diary is coming to the silver screen, and where Margie Franklin’s present and Margot Frank’s past begin to collide.

As I was writing the novel, I had trouble finding much information about the real Margot Frank. Though Margot also kept a diary when the family was hiding in the annex, hers was never recovered after the war, and very little is known about her today. I could gather only small tidbits from the descriptions of Margot in Anne’s diary and from a few other books published about the family.

But one thing that stood out to me in my research was the reason why the family went into hiding when they did: Margot received a call-up notice from the Germans to report to a forced labor camp. The family moved up their plans, and went into hiding the next day, essentially to keep Margot safe.

I read that Margot Frank left for the annex separately from Anne and their parents, so as not to arouse suspicion. She layered on clothes and rode her bike (which Jews were restricted from doing at the time) in the pouring rain. She rode to the annex with Miep Gies, as if the two of them were simply Gentile secretaries, on their way to work.

The fictional events of my novel are far removed from this bike ride that the real Margot Frank took, but that was the vision I began with of Margot – a young woman terrified and without her family, but composed enough to ride her bike through the pouring rain to go into hiding, to save herself. A woman who was brave even when she must’ve been deeply afraid. A woman who understood how to hide herself, even when she was out in the open.

Jillian Cantor is the author of award-winning novels for teens and adults including, The September Sisters, The Life of Glass, and The Transformation of Things. Her latest novel for adults is Margot (Riverhead Books). Read more about Jillian here.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Wednesday, September 04, 2013 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:


Find more of the latest reviews here.

Jillian Cantor on Religion and Having Children

Tuesday, September 03, 2013 | Permalink

Jillian Cantor is the author of award-winning novels for teens and adults including, The September Sisters, The Life of Glass, and The Transformation of Things. Her latest novel for adults is Margot (Riverhead Books), a reimagining of Anne Frank’s sister in post-war America. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My grandfather was a Kohen, which I’ve learned (thanks to Google) means he was a Jewish priest, a descendant of Aaron. I never really knew what he meant when he told me this (repeatedly), when he was alive, only that he had been raised deeply religious. But as an adult, as my grandfather, he was more of a cultural Jew. And this was how I was raised, filtered down even one more generation. As a child, I didn’t attend Hebrew School (though one year I begged my parents to send me, just so I’d have something to keep up with all my Catholic friends who regularly attended CCD). We never went to synagogue. We’d go to Passover and Rosh Hashanah dinner at my parents’ friends’ house each year (the only other Jewish people we knew who lived nearby), though I can’t remember my parents ever cooking their own holiday dinners. We celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas, of course, but my sister and I only sang “The Dreidel Song” as we lit the menorah.

My grandparents lived six hours away when I was growing up, and we only saw them a few times a year, but whenever we did, it was my grandfather who would remind us about being Jewish. As a kid I’d roll my eyes when he’d tell me that I’d care more about my religion when I grew up, when I had kids of my own. I couldn’t understand what he meant. His version of religion, by that point, was socializing at the JCC and reading The Jewish Chronicle. He also was fond of calling all us Bubbelah in public – an endless embarrassment to all the cousins in our teenage years.

My grandfather died almost five years ago, so he never got to see what happened when my children got old enough to talk, to start asking me questions. (Why doesn’t Santa Claus come to our house? My youngest son swore it was because our house didn’t have a chimney. . .). It was around this time that I started to understand what he meant, about religion feeling more important to me when I got older and had kids of my own. I didn’t suddenly start attending synagogue or learning Hebrew, but I did suddenly feel the need to teach my children about where they came from. I read them books about the Jewish holidays and cooked dinners for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. I bought a children’s version of the Haggadah so my oldest son could read from it at age four, when he was a budding reader, and I helped my youngest son memorize the four questions to recite. My husband, who is also Jewish and was raised more religious than I was, taught all of us the Hebrew prayer to say when we light the menorah, which we now sing in addition to “The Dreidel Song.”

When I was writing Margot, I did a lot of research about the Holocaust and the Frank family. But some of what I had to learn had to do with aspects of being Jewish that I never really learned growing up. At times I felt a little bit like an imposter, wondering if I really had it in me to write about being Jewish, when I was still figuring so much out for myself. But as I researched and wrote, I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather. If he were still here now, I can just picture him saying, I told you so, Bubbelah.

Read more about Jillian Cantor here.