Wednesday, October 25, 2017

By Light of Hidden Candles - a review

5 Cheshvan 5778.

Finding a really good book is one of the sweet pleasures of life.

Daniella Levy's first novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, is by turns a troubling love story, a glimpse into two related religions and their practices, a mystery, a study in the tragedy of our brothers and sisters hidden in the world of the anusim (forcibly converted Jews), a romp through five hundred years of history.

My favorite thing about Ms. Levy's writing is her ease with dialogue. I feel that I know her characters. I can see them in conversation, and I care about them. I wanted so much for their individual and their collective stories to work out, the way you do when you hear a friend's story. There were so many ways for it to go... and I wanted all of my peeps to fare well. Of course, life doesn't always work out that way...

Listening to an interview of the writer (by her husband, Rabbi Eitan Levy), I heard something that made my eyes roll. I should not have been surprised: we live in The Age of the Protest.

Apparently, both Christian and Jewish readers (some of each, not all) expected Ms. Levy to cater to their views on how relationships between Jews and Christians should be written. My understanding, through at least fifty years as an expert reader, is that an author's job is not to make you happy. That may in fact happen... but her job is to make you think. To challenge. To help you grow. At least, this is what my favorite books have done. They also may be entertaining. But the best novels have helped me, through their study of the human condition, to see my fellow human in more detail, to appreciate his struggles, to make us more real to each other.

Not only do Alma, Manuel and Míriam come alive on the page (as do all of the supporting cast of their half-century and transcontinental story), one is offered the opportunity to respect them and their viewpoints and wrestling-matches with their beliefs. The young protagonists share their often acerbic commentaries with each other, and with the reader; these people authentically speak with the unguarded opinion of young people everywhere. The rabbis and priests in the story are all fully-drawn and believable; there are no glib religious caricatures here.

The leitmotif of intermarriage is explored fully, from those who do and are shunned, to those who don't and must bear the heartache of martyrdom for the sake of a greater good. Each position is given its moment to be explored and felt from inside. While I (and clearly the author) have strong views on the subject, I feel enriched by the opportunity to "walk around in the other fellow's moccasins" a while. Understanding another's viewpoint doesn't threaten my own, but it makes me more compassionate.

A bonus: If you love stories about hashgacha pratit -- the hidden hand of God, cv"l, moving things into place behind the scenes -- you will enjoy several subtle references woven throughout the book, as many things "just happen" at exactly the right moment to guide the unfolding of the story.

Another bonus: the loving care in the editing and publication by Yael Shahar and Don Radlauer of Kasva Press has resulted in a beautiful, nearly-flawless book. I recommend trying to get on their very tight list, if you are a writer who wants a very beautiful finished product.

You can read more to intrigue about this excellent story at Daniella Levy. I recommend it!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Yaakov's Teshuva

12 Tishrei 5778.

"Yaakov, dear father, if you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?"

He sits for a long, long time. I marvel that he is really here with me, in my humble sukkah. He said a bracha over the tea I brought him, and actually tasted Celestial Seasons Bengal Spice. The incongruity of that, of the traversing of millennia involved, probably strikes me more than anything else about our remarkable morning so far. Before he speaks, a tear rolls down his cheek. I feel horrible, because I caused one of our Holy Avot to cry. As if reading my mind, he speaks reassuringly.

"Do not suppose that this is the first occasion over the centuries upon which I have been asked to contemplate this question." He smiles ironically. (I am in awe of reading an ironic smile on the face of someone from the Bible.) "You at least query kindly, without accusation.

"So I will present you with an answer. I have had many and long occasion to turn the question in my mind, as a leaf turns and frolics on a turbulent stream. Please forgive me if my answer seems to your ears like a lesson. It is for me a penance.

"If I could return to that place in time when I placed on the shoulders of my beloved son Yosef the beautiful coat of many-colored weaving, I would not do it. I would will my hand to lose its cunning before I would act thus, cherishing this child above his brothers, thinking it an innocent and seeming quiet act of profound love for his dear mother.

"Little could I know at that moment -- as God is my witness! -- what jealousy and pain and death would be given birth in the world through the threads of that cursed garment."

I look at him sadly, feeling such pain for him. I realize with new humility that this is not his first such visit. He must have come to Earth -- or must have been sent -- many times, to go through this process. For himself? I wonder. For the good of the world? We are still so divisive. We children still fight so jealously.

I try to give him a crumb of comfort as he sips the still steaming tea.

"Surely, you did not bring jealousy into the world. It started at least with Kayin and Hevel."

He looks at me with eyes both frightening and haunted. "I could have ended it."

I don't ask him any more. I know that he is right. I have spent my entire motherhood trying to correct the jealously and bitterness created in my siblings the day my stepfather drunkenly announced to all of us -- his stepdaughters and even to his own precious children -- that I was his favorite. How dare he? How dare he cause such pain, and certainly give me no pleasure, with that careless remark.

Again -- I sense that my father Yaakov reads my thoughts.

"I am here, this time, to tell you and your husband that you are making a tikun for that mistake. Not merely the mistake made in your own life by others. But in a very small way, your children are aiding in binding the hole in the fabric of our people, and thus the world. And thus in my heart, daughter."

He smiles... and he is gone. I look at the cup of tea. I take it in my hands, and hold it to my lips, and drink a bit, like a tender kiss.

"Thank you, Abba."