The Con­vert

Ste­fan Hert­mans; David McK­ay, trans.

By – April 27, 2020

This nov­el is the sto­ry of Vigdis Ade­laïs, a young woman from a pros­per­ous Chris­t­ian fam­i­ly in medieval France who con­verts to Judaism and must resolve her dual iden­ti­ty, both inter­nal­ly and exter­nal­ly. In anoth­er sense it is the jour­ney itself, which Ste­fan Hert­mans describes with emo­tion­al­ly charged lan­guage as he takes his own pil­grim­age in her foot­steps, not­ing the evo­lu­tion of the land­scape. Some of these changes are lit­er­al, such as the shift in build­ings and struc­tures of towns; oth­ers are more spir­i­tu­al, such as the areas Jews once inhab­it­ed but no longer have any phys­i­cal pres­ence in. The author often catch­es a glimpse of Vigdis in the cloth­ing or hair of a mod­ern woman, always seem­ing­ly just out of reach.

This sense of search­ing for some­thing so close, but yet seem­ing­ly unat­tain­able, is a major theme of the nov­el; whether it’s being a Jew seek­ing safe­ty and accep­tance, a woman seek­ing a place to call home and peo­ple to call fam­i­ly, a fam­i­ly seek­ing recon­nec­tion with a run­away soul, or a per­son seek­ing spir­i­tu­al under­stand­ing and enlight­en­ment in the reli­gion and cul­ture they were raised in. The theme of nev­er being able to grasp what you most desire weighs heav­i­ly in this text and in the phys­i­cal expe­di­tion and emo­tion­al evo­lu­tion of the characters.

Hert­mans doesn’t delve into char­ac­ter devel­op­ment; he applies his imag­i­na­tion very much to exter­nal events and sur­round­ings. He spec­u­lates about what his char­ac­ters think, but is care­ful not to put words in their mouths most of the time. This isn’t to say that his char­ac­ters lack devel­op­ment but there is a dis­tance in place out of respect for his­to­ry and the real peo­ple this sto­ry rep­re­sents; Hert­mans nar­rates the actions and feel­ings con­sis­tent with texts from the frag­ments of the Cairo Geniza, with some cre­ative license here and there. This serves to cre­ate a rich land­scape through­out the nov­el; one feels as if one can view the scene and play­ers, and under­stand their log­ic and perspective.

The Con­vert is an adven­ture through his­to­ry, laced with tragedy, and a pow­er­ful romance that defies the ages. It’s easy to under­stand Hertmans’s fas­ci­na­tion with Vigdis and her jour­ney, and read­ers will like­ly also find them­selves swept up in the fate­ful tide of her story.

Rebec­ca Zaret­sky works at a syn­a­gogue as the Youth & Fam­i­ly Edu­ca­tion & Pro­gram Coor­di­na­tor. She has a Bachelor’s degree in the study of Human­i­ties, pri­mar­i­ly visu­al arts and literature.

Discussion Questions

A stir­ring work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, The Con­vert by Bel­gian nov­el­ist Ste­fan Hert­mans trans­ports the read­er to eleventh-cen­tu­ry France. Sev­en­teen-year-old Vigdis Ade­laïs flees her pros­per­ous Chris­t­ian fam­i­ly after falling in love with David Todros, a Sephardic Jew and son of the chief rab­bi of ____. Dodg­ing knights ready to burn her as a witch, the cou­ple finds refuge in the Provençal vil­lage of Monieux. He stud­ies Torah; she, renamed Hamoutal, bears chil­dren and watch­es her hands grow rough. Unsure of her new Jew­ish faith, some­times she doesn’t know who she’s pray­ing to — per­haps to that voice inside her, a lost angel that some­times seems to land on her shoul­der.” A pogrom destroys their frag­ile peace and Hamoutal embarks on a trag­ic quest amid the Cru­sades. The author’s pas­sion for this sto­ry as a res­i­dent of Monieux com­pels him to touch some­thing David or Hamoutal touched. He goes on a par­al­lel jour­ney, draw­ing on Cairo genizah doc­u­ments now in Cam­bridge and med­i­tat­ing on the pas­sage of time and the elu­sive ties between past and present. Gor­geous­ly trans­lat­ed by David McK­ay, the book moves between fact and fic­tion, illu­mi­nat­ing the role that love and con­ver­sion played in the sto­ry of Sepharad.