Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
For the most part, historical novels set somewhere other than America have been excluded from this guide (even if written by an American and relevant to contemporary Jewish life). There is no reason for this exclusion, other than the impossibility of doing justice to the vast number of such books, which retell biblical stories, fictionalize the Spanish Inquisition, and reimagine Eastern Europe. For As a Driven Leaf it is worth making an exception, though, because this is an extraordinary novel in so many ways.
One of the few novels of literary quality written by a practicing rabbi, it is also unusual for what it accomplishes: an imagined biography of a shady talmudic character, pulled together from narrative scraps strewn throughout the textual tradition. Steinberg invents a life for Elisha ben Abuyah, also known as Akher (“Other”), and familiar to talmudists as the archetypal apostate. In doing so, he offers a vibrant reconstruction of life under the Romans in Palestine around and after the year 100 C.E., replete with pagans, Christians, and the rock stars of the Rabbinic world, sages like Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Meir.
The young Elisha reads the Iliad with a pagan tutor and retains a wandering intellect into his adult years. Though he rises to a position on the Sanhedrin, the great legislative body of the Jews, he witnesses a bad thing happening to a good person, and that is enough to shake his faith to the foundations: “It is all a lie,” he proclaims. ‘There is no reward. There is no Judge. There is no Judgment. For there is no God.”
It is not exactly the kind of speech we expect from the great rabbis. After being excommunicated, Elisha sets out to find truth on his own-attempting to reconcile heartfelt Jewish belief in a divine creator with the rational principles of Greek logic. Two thousand years later, many Jews are still trying to work out an answer to that same problem.
Steinberg studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary with Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, and served as a rabbi in Indiana and later at the Park Avenue Synagogue on the east side of Manhattan. He died when he was only 46 years old and left an impressive shelf of books behind him, including the widely used Basic Judaism (1947).
He never wrote a second novel–which is too bad, as the Talmud is filled with characters and tales ripe for fictionalization–but his first has been acclaimed for decades; most recently, it earned a spot on the National Yiddish Book Center’s list of the 100 best works of modern Jewish literature.
Further reading: Simon Noveck’s Milton Steinberg: Portrait of a Rabbi (1978) is a useful biography, if you can locate a copy of it. As for historical novels of Jewish interest, even aside from Anita Diamant’s colossal bestseller The Red Tent (1997), there are hundreds of examples: from Louis Unterrneyer’s Moses (1928) to the Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck’s Peony (1948), about the Jews of Kaifeng, China, to David Liss’s The Coffee Trader (2003), set in 17th-century Amsterdam. Rosalind Reisner’s Jewish American Literature (2004) contains a sizable list of such tides.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.