In a recent meeting with the Forward at the Hotel Plaza Athenee on Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side, French novelist Marek Halter sketched one stone tablet, then its twin. He fashioned an ark around them and announced, “The Ten Commandments came from Moses.” He paused, popped a wasabi pea in his mouth and set his napkin artwork aside. “My question is, who taught Moses about freedom, about respect, about being in a culture that is not your own?”
The recently published “Zipporah, Wife of Moses” (Crown) is the second title in Halter’s “Canaan Trilogy,” a series of novels inspired by the subtler stories of the Bible’s peripheral female characters. Invoking a conscience for Moses’ Midianite (read: Ethiopian, according to modern geography) wife, the novel is Halter’s attempt to imagine life as a black woman in the Bible.
While Halter creates Zipporah as a sage of biblical otherness, his own biography reads as one of 20th-century displacement. Born in 1936 in Poland, he escaped the Warsaw Ghetto with his family when he was 5. He lived in Moscow, the Ukraine and Israel before settling in Paris with his parents in 1950. From this scattered childhood he remembers reading only two books: “Bible Stories for Children’s Digest” and a worn edition of Alexander Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers” — fat pieces of literature that he would lug around in his mind for years to come.
Halter did not begin writing until the 1970s, establishing himself as a painter and a peace activist before publishing his first novel, “The Madman and the Kings,” which in 1976 won the Prix Aujourd’hui. In France, Halter remains a visible peace activist, keeping up with political dalliances dating to 1967, when he founded an international Middle East peace coalition, and helped organize the first official meetings between Israelis and Palestinians. Halter knows Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, and to this day he takes credit for introducing late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to his wife, Suha Tawil. (The next match made by Halter might happen on the big screen, when he introduces his old friend Gérard Depardieu to the role of Abraham in next year’s film remake of “Sarah,” putting the French star opposite another friend of the writer, Italian actress Monica Bellucci.)
In Exodus, as in Halter’s novel, Moses’ first wife is the daughter of a Midianite priest, Jethro. The couple betroths after 40-year-old bachelor Moses — on the lam after striking to death an Egyptian whom he saw beating a Hebrew slave — defends the woman and her sisters from marauders at a well (Exodus 2:16-21) and, as thanks, Jethro offers Zipporah’s hand. Popping up now and again in sermons and Bible lessons around the time of Passover, Moses’ first and only known wife has been learned largely, until now, in the context of Moses’ trials.
In one popular Exodus story, she saves her husband’s life by taking a sharp stone to her son and demonstrating his Israelite status with a hasty circumcision. In the Book of Numbers, Moses takes heat from his sister Miriam and brother Isaac for marrying outside the race. When Zipporah and Moses have a son, they name him Gershom, meaning “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.”
The “Canaan Trilogy” is structured around an ethic of historical invention. But in order to even attempt to hurdle the obvious time, gender and color differences between him and his biblical first-person feminine protagonists, Halter went to his friends, plumbing their memories to evoke the experience of a woman’s first period, or how it might feel for a black woman to marry a Jewish man. Based on the number of African-American book clubs already reading the tome, his efforts seem to have been successful.
Still, American publishers found Halter’s progressive spirit a bit too adventurous. Contrary to the cover of the British edition — which features a thin Zipporah who has high cheekbones, close-cropped hair and ebony skin — American editions show a longhaired and olive-skinned Zipporah, a wide approximation. (Let’s put it another way: The American Zipporah more likely would be cast in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” than in “Jungle Fever.”)
“Very interesting — 20 countries reprinted this book and all around the world she is black, but in the United States the distributor told the publisher that a black face won’t work,” Halter said. “‘Blacks in the United States don’t want to be closed into their blackness,’ they said. Then came the reaction of the politically correct: We wanted to write, ‘black wife of Moses,’ but people wanted ‘African-American.’” (No matter what Zipporah was, it’s unlikely that she was American.)
Not surprisingly, Halter has dealt with a far less skittish audience in his native France. Next up across the pond is a historical fiction account of King David’s mistress, published by the French magazine Elle: “Batsheva: An Apology of Adultery.”
Ariella Cohen is a writer living in New York.