“This book is incredible; the main character is besties with Rabbi Akiba.”
“That makes no sense… what are you talking about?”
“It’s this classic book that all the kids read in Hebrew high school, it’s historical fiction from back in the day. Like, back in the Greek day. With Jews and Greeks.”
“Are there rabbis’ wives?”
“Yeah! It’s really cool, they talk about their wives and their families and their friends and everything!”
“Are the rabbi’s wives complex characters?”
“Well… not really. Except for the main character’s wife; she’s complex.”
“Is she a positive character?”
“Well… I mean… she’s really ugly and selfish and is mean to the slaves. So, no.”
I raised my eyebrows and said nothing.
“Oy! Stop ruining my books by pointing out the sexism!”
My brief thoughts on the first part of Milton Steinberg’s As a Driven Leaf:
I took a look at the first couple of pages of the book. It’s well written. However, the mother dies in childbirth in the prologue. (if you’re confused as to why this is sexist already, there are some lovely critiques of the absence of positive mother figures in Disney films that you might find interesting. Positive maternal figures are important–and too rare in literature.)
Also, the book was written in 1939. Suzie’s main issue with the text so far is that it doesn’t give the Greek philosophies a fair chance. However, I think the subtle anti-assimilation message is readily explained by the fact that some people believed the German Jews in the 1920s were vulnerable because they had become too assimilated–and the book itself was written during the Holocaust.
I don’t have an issue with the anti-assimilation thing happening in the book. However, I have an issue with the lack of women in the book.
The book is written, and it’s a classic for a reason. It’s lovely and complete in itself. I don’t want the book to be different. What I want is a companion book to be written; I want a book written from the perspective of the main character’s childhood crush, Theopompa.
I want to hear what it was like for Jewish women at that time. I want to hear about how assimilation affected going to the marketplace and cooking. I want to hear about codes of modesty, and I want to hear about marriage. Were Greek attitudes regarding male homosexuality misogynistic? How did that affect a preteen girl’s experience of the world? What messages did she receive from society regarding her worth? Did she care what the rabbis said? Did she care what the Greek philosophers said? How did what the rabbis and philosophers said affect her life? How did what they said affect her clothes? How did it affect her interactions with family members? How did it affect her interactions with other people in her community?
I’m glad Suzie has a good book to read. But I want more from it.