January 23, 2019

Rabbi’s novel idea draws inspiration from geniza

Some people cap a career by writing a memoir or an exhaustive magnum opus based on a lifetime of research.

But after eight books and 30 years at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as rabbi and professor, Burton L. Visotzky decided to write a novel. A work of Jewish historical fiction, to be more precise.

While historical fiction can include a broad range of methods — from simply placing a novel in certain time period to actually fictionalizing a person in history — “A Delightful Compendium of Consolation: A Fabulous Tale of Romance, Adventure & Faith” (Ben Yehuda Press) goes one step further: It might be the first to use the discoveries from the Cairo Geniza for fodder for a novel. (A geniza is a place where religious Jews store holy works before giving them a proper burial, because such objects are not allowed to be discarded.)

According to the book’s introduction, in 1896 two women brought manuscripts from Cairo to England, where Solomon Schechter deciphered a fragment as the Hebrew original of the biblical book of Ben Sirah. Schechter then went to Cairo and discovered the Geniza, which contained some 220,000 documents. He brought 140,000 manuscripts to the Cambridge University Library. The entire holy trove is now disseminated among libraries around the world and includes biblical manuscripts, rabbinic texts, Hebrew poetry, personal letters, business agreements from 11th and 12th century Cairo, a time, the editor’s note says, “when Egypt and its Faitmid Empire held sway over the Mediterranean Muslim world.” This book is a fictional elaboration of one document, “A Delightful Compendium of Consolation,” 11th century midrishim (rabbinic tales) authored or collected by Rabbeinu Nissim in North Africa.

book cover art, A Delightful Compendium of Consolation

Visotzky, the JTS’s Nathan and Janet Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, reimagines Rabbeinu Nissim and intersperses many of the stories into an epistolary novel of consolation.

The year is 1031. Nineteen-year-old Karimah, the Karaite daughter of Dunash HaCohen al-Tustari, a merchant, runs away with Ismail, her Muslim lover, leaving Dunash to mourn her as dead. The story is written as letters between Karimah and her brother and mother sharing of her Arabian-Night adventures, as well as and letters between Dunash and Rabbeinu Nissim, who tries to comfort the father.

The rabbi shares, for example, a story of Rabbi Meir, whose two children died on Shabbat, but his wife didn’t tell him until after the Sabbath was over so as not to ruin his joy and peace; there’s the story of Nahum who took jewels to a king as a present — but thieves had replaced the jewels in the sack with dirt. When the king saw the dirt he threatened to kill the Jews, but Elijah suggested it was “miracle dirt” to vanquish enemies. The king used it, and rewarded Nahum with jewels. When the thieves saw he’d returned with jewels, they tried to give the king dirt, but their dirt was not magic, and so they were killed.

“These are stories about rabbis to teach us ethical lessons how to live and not to live our lives,” Visotzky said in an interview.

Using this historical material, Visotzky creates his own story.

“It’s a great way of learning Jewish history,” he said. “Stories stir the human heart. Stories bring us closer to God and community. Narrative is a profoundly rabbinic way of confronting the universe.”

As a student at JTS, Visotzky was inspired by Milton Steinberg’s fictional novel, “As a Driven Leaf,” about Elisha ben Abuya, a contributor to the Talmud who lost his faith.

“Fiction moves me,” Visotzky said. “Some of the most important truths we learn by reading fiction.”

While cataloging manuscripts from the Geniza library himself, this particular period fascinated him.

“It struck me as a beautiful moment of Jewish history to write about,” Visotzky said.

It was a period when Jews did reasonably well within a predominantly Muslim society. Visotzky wrote his book from May through December 2001 in New York, as he was experiencing close-hand the devastation when the World Trade Center’s towers were destroyed. He was devastated, and as he counseled many who had suffered from the Sept. 11 attacks, he found his writing in the book darkened as well, he said. “But in the end it strengthened my desire as a Jew and a rabbi to engage in interfaith dialogue,” Visotzky said.

He is active in Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue internationally, working in Warsaw, Rome, Cairo and Doha, Qatar.

“My message as a modern — and I think that it’s a message that the Jews of that period felt as well — [is that] we’ve got to get along with our neighbors. The more we can get along with our neighbors, the more rich our Jewish life can be.”

Rabbi Burton Visotzky will be speaking at 3 p.m. on Feb. 24 at Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles (310) 652-7352; and Feb. 25 at 12:15 p.m. at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles.

For more about Jewish historical fiction, visit http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/preview.php?id=18026.