A Guide for the Perplexed

By – May 13, 2013

A Guide for the Per­plexed is the title of a major the­o­log­i­cal work writ­ten by the Ram­bam, Rab­bi Moshe ben Mai­mon, in the twelfth cen­tu­ry. The Rambam’s strug­gle with des­tiny ver­sus free will is a theme of this his­tor­i­cal nov­el, along with Solomon Schechter’s dis­cov­ery of the Cairo Geniza. Horn delves into a host of inter­est­ing top­ics — sib­ling rela­tion­ships, social media, the Arab Spring, divine prov­i­dence, asth­ma, arro­gance, divine prov­i­dence, and more. There are also many bib­li­cal ref­er­ences. The nov­el switch­es between telling about the Ram­bam and his broth­er David, to Schechter and his deal­ings with the twin Vic­to­ri­an adven­tur­ers Agnes Smith and Mar­garet Lewis, and to Judith and Josie, fic­tion­al sis­ters who endure a dif­fi­cult relationship.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to read about the Rambam’s role as chief physi­cian to the sul­tan Sal­adin. In seek­ing a cure for his roy­al patient s asth­ma, the Ram­bam sends his mer­chant broth­er on a dan­ger­ous voy­age to pro­cure a spe­cial plant. Horn col­or­ful­ly describes Schechter’s quest from Cam­bridge to obtain entrée to the Geniza through shady deal­ings with the Grand Rab­bi of Cairo. Josie is a com­put­er genius whose Genizah soft­ware is a cut­ting-edge mar­vel and the cause of her invi­ta­tion to Egypt to con­sult at Alexandria’s mod­ern library. I hearti­ly rec­om­mend Dara Horm’s enjoy­able, intel­lec­tu­al new cre­ation, which cov­ers so many top­ics of inter­est and con­nects three dif­fer­ent peri­ods in Egypt’s his­to­ry – twelfth cen­tu­ry, late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and mod­ern day.


by Miri­am Brad­man Abrahams

Speak­ing with Dara Horn on the phone felt like con­vers­ing with one of my bright­est, most enthu­si­as­tic friends. Since I was the first per­son to inter­view her regard­ing her new book, I was her sound­ing board” as she excit­ed­ly dis­cussed A Guide for the Per­plexed. She will trav­el the coun­try dur­ing Jew­ish Book Month for JBC.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams: How did you come up with the idea for your new book?

Dara Horn: I had been asked to write fic­tion inspired by a spe­cif­ic abstract art­work for an exhib­it at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty Muse­um which showed con­tem­po­rary art inspired by the book of Gen­e­sis. I wrote a piece called How Did It Begin” about two sis­ters who destroy each oth­er, tak­ing my ideas about fam­i­ly and per­son­al iden­ti­ty from the sto­ry of Joseph.

MBA: There are ref­er­ences in the book not only to the sto­ries of Joseph being thrown into the pit by his broth­ers and sold into slav­ery in Egypt, but also to Tamar’s seduc­tion of Judah in order to main­tain the fam­i­ly, and Rachel and Leah’s sib­ling rival­ry. You have also woven episodes from the lives of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures in this con­tem­po­rary fic­tion. The dynam­ics in the rela­tion­ships of the Ram­bam with his broth­er David, Solomon Schechter with his twin broth­er, Sru­lik, the twin Vic­to­ri­an adven­tur­ers Agnes Smith and Mar­garet Lewis, live along­side the invent­ed mod­ern day sis­ters Josie and Judith. Why are there so many sis­ters and broth­ers in the novel?

DH: I have always been inter­est­ed in sib­ling rela­tion­ships, both bib­li­cal and per­son­al. I think sib­lings share a past but not a future. How­ev­er, the past shared is so dif­fer­ent based on indi­vid­ual mem­o­ry. For exam­ple, Schechter and his broth­er make life deci­sions based on their dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions of their father’s insight­ful advice. Josie and Judith remem­ber oppos­ing expe­ri­ences grow­ing up with their moth­er. By the way, my own sib­ling rela­tion­ships have been wonderful!

The nov­el also came out of my inter­est in the Genizah, the repos­i­to­ry of hun­dreds of thou­sands of stored doc­u­ments writ­ten in Hebrew from 8701880. I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to view some of them dur­ing the year I stud­ied in Cam­bridge and was espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in doc­u­ments which inad­ver­tent­ly record­ed the dai­ly exis­tence of the peo­ple of Fus­tat. I have kept jour­nals since I was a child and am fas­ci­nat­ed with the idea of record­ing and pre­serv­ing things.

MBA: A key con­cept in your book is hint­ed at by the title, A Guide for the Per­plexed, a major the­o­log­i­cal work by the Ram­bam, Rab­bi Moshe ben Mai­mon, writ­ten in the twelfth cen­tu­ry. How is this work reflect­ed in your book?

DH: The Ram­bam strug­gled with the para­dox of des­tiny ver­sus free will. My fic­tion­al pro­tag­o­nist, Josie, thinks she con­trols every aspect of her life, until she is kid­napped and tak­en hostage.

MBA: Arro­gance is also a major theme in your book; most of your char­ac­ters have quite a bit of it. Though it seems to be a neg­a­tive trait as com­pared with humil­i­ty, it is what dri­ves many effec­tive peo­ple to suc­ceed in their quests.

DH: Today, we are in dan­ger of think­ing we know every­thing because we can Google any­thing any­time. The bible shows us that Joseph was arro­gant in his deal­ings with his broth­ers. And the Ram­bam, believ­ing he could find a cure for asth­ma, sent his broth­er off on a dan­ger­ous voy­age. In my nov­el, Schechter heads off from Cam­bridge to Fus­tat in 1897 with lit­tle prepa­ra­tion, to find and recov­er the Cairo Genizah. These peo­ple all have bril­liant minds and their unwit­ting arro­gance and dri­ve are nec­es­sary to push ahead.

I was also heav­i­ly influ­enced by the explo­sion of social media, espe­cial­ly the ubiq­ui­tous use of smart phones. Sud­den­ly every­thing is on record and there is a denial of oppor­tu­ni­ty to shape one’s own sto­ry. Cam­eras are every­where, record­ing every­thing. Of course, fakebook“ing exists along­side facebook“ing. In my nov­el, Josie’s Genizah” soft­ware brings the past back to life, as when a dead child’s dig­i­tal­ly record­ed his­to­ry brings com­fort to his griev­ing moth­er. How­ev­er, recov­er­ing the past has hap­pened before; the Cairo Genizah includ­ed ancient let­ters, receipts, chil­dren’s writ­ings, legal doc­u­ments, lists, and holy texts. These were dis­card­ed in an attic space in the syn­a­gogue. So much was stored that some was sub­jec­tive­ly con­sid­ered to be garbage and aban­doned by dis­cov­er­ers. Schechter brought out sacks of the con­tents in 1897, ignor­ing the print­ed mate­ri­als. Schechter wrote about these dis­cov­er­ies, and many books dis­cuss the find­ings, includ­ing the recent Sacred Trash and anoth­er one named Sacred Trea­sure. These came out too late for my research, but I rec­om­mend them, along with Sis­ters of Sinai, about the twin Vic­to­ri­an scholars.

MBA: You say that yours is one of the first Amer­i­can nov­els con­cern­ing the Arab Spring.

DH: Yes. In fact I had to alter details in the plot to reflect the upheaval caused by the peo­ple’s rev­o­lu­tion. I was in Egypt fif­teen years ago, when the ultra­mod­ern Alexan­dria library was being built, look­ing like an alien space­ship in the desert. The entire inter­net archive back­up is locat­ed in Alexan­dria, which is inter­est­ing because Egypt has a cul­ture of pre­serv­ing the past. I write about the City of the Dead in the book, a slum filled with peo­ple liv­ing next to the tombs of ancient residents.

MBA: Three main char­ac­ters have asth­ma and three of your chil­dren do as well.

DH: We think we’re on the cut­ting edge of sci­ence today and that peo­ple in the past were super­sti­tious idiots, but it’s quite the oppo­site. Hip­pocrates wrote about this dis­ease and still there is no cure. In my sto­ry, the Ram­bam was search­ing for ephedra, which is relat­ed to the Sudafed we use today.

MBA: You recent­ly dis­cov­ered that you have always expe­ri­enced synes­the­sia and imag­ined that every­one else did as well. 

DH: This phe­nom­e­non involves a crossover of the sens­es, like see­ing a smell or hear­ing a col­or. I asso­ciate my books with col­ors that are unre­lat­ed to the cov­er art.

MBA: A Guide for the Per­plexed took about two and a half years to com­plete. What are you work­ing on now?

DH: I’m writ­ing short arti­cles for The New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal and The New York Times Book Review. I write while my chil­dren are in school. I am col­lect­ing ideas all the time and am start­ing to think about my next book. I don’t know what I’m doing with my char­ac­ters until I write about them, I live with my char­ac­ters like imag­i­nary friends.

MBA: What are you read­ing for plea­sure these days?

DH: The Worlds of Sholem Ale­ichem: The Remark­able Life and After­life of the Man who Cre­at­ed Tevye by Jere­my Dauber, In the Court­yard of the Kab­bal­ist by Ruchama King Feuer­man, and We Are All Com­plete­ly Beside Our­selves by Karen Fowler.

Reprint­ed from by Dara Horn. Copy­right © 2013 by Dara Horn. With per­mis­sion of the pub­lish­er, W. W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny, Inc. All rights reserved. 

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of W.W. Nor­ton & Co. 

  1. Josie’s Genizah soft­ware cat­e­go­rizes mem­o­ries by themes like enter­tain­ment” and trav­el” and care­ful­ly curates what it records in order to bury the unpleas­ant and the ugly. Do our minds work this way? Would you sub­scribe to Genizah? How have oth­er tech­nolo­gies already changed how you expe­ri­ence things and remem­ber them?

  2. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of dreams in the nov­el? Does it make sense to cat­a­log them in Genizah along with day­time mem­o­ries, as Nas­reen wants to do? Do you think they are men­tal garbage” or a win­dow to a world beyond what a wak­ing per­son could perceive”?

  3. Mai­monides tried to rec­on­cile faith and rea­son in his writ­ings. What role do reli­gion, ratio­nal thought, and intel­li­gence play in how the char­ac­ters see them­selves and others?

  4. Josie designed her soft­ware to record pat­terns in human behav­ior, which she thinks can be used to pre­dict future out­comes. Mai­monides believed that, as the ancient rab­bis expressed it, Every­thing is fore­seen, but free­dom of choice is grant­ed.” Are their beliefs com­pat­i­ble? Do you believe that you are in con­trol of the choic­es you make?

  5. When Josie is putting togeth­er a Genizah of Tali from mem­o­ry, she real­izes that the Tali who emerges is very dif­fer­ent from the one cap­tured by the soft­ware at home. What does this sug­gest about Josie’s feel­ings toward her daugh­ter? How does their rela­tion­ship dif­fer from Tali’s rela­tion­ship with Judith?

  6. One of Cairo’s unique fea­tures is its vast necrop­o­lis full of liv­ing squat­ters, but Nas­reen says, All cities are real­ly cities of the dead.” Do you agree with her? Do you live in a place where you can feel the gen­er­a­tions that came before you?

  7. How do Josie and Judith and their rela­tion­ship change over the course of the nov­el? Which of the sis­ters do you most sym­pa­thize with?

  8. Schechter says, Every human being, in the end, becomes the oppo­site of an archive.” He also describes him­self as a palimpsest — a piece of parch­ment on which one text has been inscribed over anoth­er. What does he mean by using these metaphors, and how do they apply to him­self and oth­ers? Do they also apply to the nov­el itself?

  9. The book is full of encoun­ters between peo­ple of dif­fer­ent back­grounds: Judith and Ita­mar, Schechter and the Scot­tish twins, Mosheh and the vizier, and Josie and Nas­reen, to name a few. How do these peo­ple view each oth­er? What cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences and world­views come to light in their conversations?

  10. There are four pairs of sib­lings in the nov­el: Judith and Josie, Schechter and Sru­lik, Mar­garet and Agnes, and Mosheh and David. How does the nov­el explore themes of jeal­ousy, ambi­tion, suc­cess, and love through the sib­lings? Did their rela­tion­ships remind you of your rela­tion­ships with your siblings?

  11. In what ways does the novel’s nar­ra­tive par­al­lel the bib­li­cal sto­ry of Joseph? Do you think this cor­re­spon­dence enhances the pow­er of the nov­el? In gen­er­al, are bib­li­cal sto­ries rel­e­vant to the present or to under­stand­ing the chal­lenges of mod­ern life?

  12. Did Judith deserve Josie’s for­give­ness in the end? Did Josie deserve Judith’s? Did the final chap­ter about Tali change the way you felt about the out­come of the story?

  13. Like his­to­ri­ans piec­ing togeth­er the past, sev­er­al char­ac­ters wish to bring the dead back to life” through bits of mem­o­ry, writ­ings, pho­tographs, and record­ings. Is this pos­si­ble? How have you dealt with the death of some­one you loved and the arti­facts — such as let­ters and pho­tographs — that were left behind?

  14. How do the three sto­ries — of Josie and Judith Ashke­nazi, Solomon Schechter, and Mosheh ben Mai­mon — inter­sect and relate to one anoth­er? How does Maimonides’s Guide for the Per­plexed echo through all the lay­ers of the novel?