The Last Ember

Daniel Levin
  • Review
By – October 27, 2011

Daniel Levin’s first nov­el is a fast-paced his­tor­i­cal adven­ture that takes us through the span of Jew­ish his­to­ry from the Bible through today as the char­ac­ters try to solve the rid­dle of the where­abouts of the fabled Taber­na­cle Meno­rah. This price­less arti­fact, which was stolen from the Tem­ple in Jerusalem and is depict­ed on the Arch of Titus in Rome, has been miss­ing for 2000 years. The search for it involves fol­low­ing clues left as hid­den mes­sages in ancient Rome and Jerusalem by Flav­ius Jose­phus, Titus’ his­to­ri­an. The author posits that Jose­phus, a Jew who rose from pris­on­er of war to trust­ed pub­lic rela­tions man for Titus, was a dou­ble agent whose decep­tions cause dif­fi­cul­ties for mod­ern archae­ol­o­gists. Jonathan Mar­cus, a lawyer and for­mer clas­sics schol­ar, and Dr. Emili Travia, an antiq­ui­ties preser­va­tion­ist, com­bine their tal­ents to chase after the ancient Jew­ish arti­fact. Mean­while, Sheik Salah ad-Din, alias for an evil archae­ol­o­gist, is also pur­su­ing the meno­rah while try­ing to oblit­er­ate all Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian archae­o­log­i­cal ties to the Land of Israel. He is part of the Waqf, the secre­tive Islam­ic land trust that has had full con­trol of the Tem­ple Mount in Jerusalem for 800 years. This sto­ry includes action, con­spir­a­cy, and romance while edu­cat­ing the read­er about cur­rent events and the impor­tance of pro­tect­ing our lega­cy. What more could you want in a book?

More on The Last Ember

by Miri­am Brad­man Abrahams

Meet­ing Daniel Levin could have been an intim­i­dat­ing expe­ri­ence; after all, his resume is quite impres­sive, he is a grad­u­ate with hon­ors of Har­vard Law School, a schol­ar of Roman and Greek civ­i­liza­tions, and his first book is already a New York Times best­seller. But when we met for this inter­view I found him to be charm­ing, patient, and eager to answer all my ques­tions. Levin has prac­ticed inter­na­tion­al law, has clerked for the Chief Jus­tice of the Supreme Court of Israel, and was a vis­it­ing schol­ar at the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my in Rome. He is pro­fi­cient in Latin, Hebrew, Span­ish, Ital­ian, and Greek. Levin has brought all this expe­ri­ence and his pas­sion for Jew­ish his­to­ry and her­itage into this excit­ing first book, The Last Ember.

The sto­ry is about the fast paced search for the ancient Taber­na­cle Meno­rah, which was stolen from the Tem­ple in Jerusalem when the Romans sacked the city two thou­sand years ago. Jonathan Mar­cus, a for­mer clas­sics schol­ar, and Emili Travia, an antiq­ui­ties preser­va­tion­ist, are hunt­ing for clues hid­den in arti­facts and man­u­scripts. The holy object is also sought after by Salah ad-Din, a mys­te­ri­ous archae­ol­o­gist who has been dig­ging ille­gal­ly under the Tem­ple Mount and pur­pose­ful­ly dis­card­ing archae­o­log­i­cal trea­sures sacred to both Jews and Chris­tians. The tale touch­es upon near­ly all of Jew­ish his­to­ry as the char­ac­ters explore ancient and mod­ern Rome and Jerusalem. The depth of Levin’s sto­ry is breath­tak­ing and his pas­sion for his sub­ject is contagious. 

The author says he cre­at­ed the con­cept of Jose­phus as a dou­ble agent. A Jew­ish cap­tive of the Romans whose sur­vival defied log­ic, Jose­phus rose up to become his­to­ri­an to the Emper­or Titus. Although his cred­i­bil­i­ty is ques­tioned, Jose­phus’ writ­ings have pro­vid­ed crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion about that peri­od. Levin begins with Jose­phus’ quote His­to­ri­ans are forg­ers” and posits that Jose­phus forged in order to tell the truth, and rather than being a trai­tor, he left hid­den clues to enable future gen­er­a­tions of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty to find the Taber­na­cle Meno­rah. His the­o­ry is sup­port­ed by the many ambi­gu­i­ties that have trou­bled schol­ars for the past 500 years. 

It was a case Levin heard at the Israeli Supreme Court that sparked his inter­est in his­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ism. The Israel Antiq­ui­ties Author­i­ty brought in a case against the Waqf, a secre­tive Islam­ic land trust that has admin­is­tered the Tem­ple Mount in Jerusalem for 800 years. They were accused of unau­tho­rized dig­ging and dump­ing of 20,000 tons of archae­o­log­i­cal­ly rich soil. Levin, who calls this archae­o­log­i­cal ter­ror­ism,” wants read­ers to know his book is not sim­ply a spy nov­el but is deal­ing with a very dif­fi­cult idea. He says Jew­ish his­to­ry is frag­ile as fire and peo­ple are try­ing to snuff it out. He needs the hero­ism of the read­er to keep it aflame by react­ing with words. Elie Wiesel says his book is a much-need­ed lit­er­ary protest against ancient and mod­ern revi­sion­ism. Levin under­lined the sig­nif­i­cance of pre­serv­ing her­itage with an anec­dote: on vis­its to dif­fer­ent ruins for his research, he observed fam­i­lies strolling about, chil­dren enjoy­ing ice creams, etc… and remem­bered a quote by the ancient Roman poet Horace we tread on the thin crust of ashes.” 

The book’s many poignant ref­er­ences make the sto­ry come to life. Mose Orvi­eti is an impor­tant char­ac­ter, par­tial­ly based on Ange­lo Pavon­cel­lo, a Holo­caust sur­vivor who once lived in the Syn­a­gogue in Rome and gave Levin a tour of the Ghet­to. Mose, who lost all his fam­i­ly in the Shoah, is deter­mined to see the meno­rah and the con­tin­ued lega­cy of its flame. Salah ad-Din’s cousin, Ramat Man­sour, is a devout Moslem who believes in hon­or­ing the past and pre­serv­ing arti­facts of all reli­gions. He is vehe­ment­ly against the defile­ment being per­pe­trat­ed by his cousin. Levin points out that there is a dis­tinc­tion between a pas­sion for reli­gion and ethics ver­sus archae­o­log­i­cal pol­i­tics” and revi­sion­ism. Levin acknowl­edges an anony­mous mem­ber of the Waqf author­i­ty who guid­ed him around the Tem­ple Mount with integri­ty despite fear of pos­si­ble consequences. 

Levin is a dis­ci­plined writer, begin­ning by 5:30 am and work­ing 10 hours a day in his home. [He excit­ed­ly claims to have writ­ten the rare spy sto­ry tak­ing place in West Jerusalem.] He spent three years work­ing on this book, part of it at the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Rome where he had valu­able resources at his fin­ger­tips, the com­pa­ny of oth­er schol­ars, and an inspir­ing set­ting. Levin cred­its his mother’s sto­ry­telling for much of his Jew­ish knowl­edge and has ded­i­cat­ed this book to her. He looks up to his father for his encour­age­ment and the unwa­ver­ing belief he has in his son. He also names Raoul Wal­len­berg as a great hero. Levin’s favorite books are John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Umber­to Eco’s Foucault’s Pen­du­lum. The launch cel­e­bra­tion for The Last Ember was held at Sotheby’s, the set­ting where pro­tag­o­nist Jonathan Mar­cus had been rel­e­gat­ed to cler­i­cal duties after his expul­sion from the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my in Rome. Levin is well into his sec­ond book, which also fea­tures Jonathan Mar­cus, whose work is not done.” His web­site www​.daniellevin​.com, includes infor­ma­tion about pro­tect­ing the past in loca­tions around the world. Levin looks for­ward to his JBC Net­work speak­ing tour across the coun­try this November. 

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.

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