The most lasting stories are the ones that transcend circumstance–geography, culture, even linguistic and temporal idioms. An amazing, mind-blowing story about a refrigerator salesman will read as an amazing, mind-blowing story about a refrigerator salesman even in cultures that have no refrigerators, salesmen, or an economic system. Granted, some of the details may be hard to follow (as they are in any instance; I just read a book about Muslim prayer not knowing what salaatul-Ishaa was [it's the time of the morning when it's okay to start praying])–but the emotions should ring true, on some level at least, no matter the context that they’re presented in.
Gidon Rothstein’s new book, Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel, attempts to do just that. It’s not that he’s stripping Biblical stories of their context and time period. Instead, he’s rewriting those stories in contemporary, or contemporized, versions–creating the literary equivalent of cover songs, if you will.
Its subtitle, Untold Tales of the Prophets, is telling, if not entirely accurate (stories hail from the Torah and other early writings, including Greek histories). What Rothstein is doing is creating simple and purposeful anachronisms: colloquial English being spoken by Israeli prophets and handmaidens; a family dinner amidst the tumult of the Israelites fleeing their slavery in Egypt. The conceit is a clever one, and the characters that Rothstein selects for his portrayals are well-planned and thoughtful. His stories have overtures of clichÃ©. The interaction between parents and children is nearly always endearing, lecturing (“You should do this”) or disbelieving (“You did this?”), and the dialogue between a man about to die and his loving family, sincere though it may be, is stiff and at times, though infrequently, painful to read.
What Cassandra lacks in style, it more than compensates for in mood. The first story, “You Can’t Change Human Nature,” opens with a family dinner. “Experts claimed family dinners brought everyone closer,” it begins. “They said all the fighting and commotion would pay off in the unbreakable fellowship forged among those who had shared that table.”
Its purposeful anachronisms have the odd effect of both throwing us out of the story and then launching us full-throttle into it. If this was a science fiction book, I’d have a multi-layered criticism of the story breaking its own rules–who are the experts here, and where did they come from? How do behavioral science studies fit into the Egyptian society of Torah times, and where did the Children of Israel know to get their hands on them? There are several layers of affectation to the background setting, from the characters’ names (wife: Penny; husband: Rock; youngest son: Little Rock) to the rituals. As Penny and Rock take their children on a walk through the Israelite camp, they witness sacrifices being offered to idols, teenagers copulating with middle-aged people–definitely not the stuff of Hebrew School memories (although, hey, all this is based on actual Torah verses and midrashim).
With one foot in modern American contrivances, the touches in Cassandra yank us out of the story. The other foot maintains a convincingly well-informed and serious tone, however, and it’s exactly this nonchalant tone that catches us off-guard. In “Human Nature,” the family’s evening walk through the destruction and depravity makes the reader do a double-take and freak out; the all-too-beaucolic picture of a family and their young children out for a stroll is suddenly shattered when they come across the teenage son in the middle of being seduced by a much-older woman, and they get it on right in front of the Golden Calf. It’s disturbing, it’s gross, and it’s the only conceivable way to portray the inconceivable events that happened on the eve of receiving the Ten Commandments.
Against this dark tableau, we find life carrying on as normal for Penny and Rock and their family. Rock “put Kory on his shoulders, but forgot to preemptively calm Little Rock. ‘Daaaaaad! How come Kory gets to go on your shoulders and not me? It’s not faaair!'”
Because this is Biblical history, we know what’s coming next–the Golden Calf is constructed, the Jewish people have a resounding orgy, and then, when Moses returns, justice is meted out. In this case, Penny and Rock’s teenage son is put to death. It’s a sharp, quick, ugly death, communicated to Rock by the sad and guilty looks of his son’s friends, but it’s no less disturbing–and that, more than anything else, catapults the reader into the gristly middle of the scene.
Subsequent stories cast the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in the guise of terrorist attacks (the story is called “5/9, the Aftermath”) and the trials of becoming a prophet as grad school exams (“Haggai was the only one who was sure the Interview would end in rejection. With so few graduates since the Return from Babylon, he knew the Program’s administration would not waste scholarship resources on an unproven, unlineaged kid from the hicks”).
It’s not surprising that Cassandra, instead of being published by a major Jewish press such as Artscroll or Targum, is self-released (via booksurge.com, where copies are available). Both provocative and thought-provoking, Rothstein doesn’t hold back. A more enterprising author might title the book “The Bible Uncensored,” with or without several exclamation marks. It may not be the most sanitized Bible-influenced reading out there, but it’s definitely among the most legit.