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‘More Life’ for Jeremiah

By Zoe Klein
Pocket, 368 pages, $25

Many debut novels are autobiographical, drawing upon personal experience in order to generate vivid and credible writing. But Zoe Klein, senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, has launched her novel-writing career with a different muse: her passion for Bible, and more specifically (her synagogue’s name notwithstanding) for the prophet Jeremiah. As the protagonist of “Drawing in the Dust” reflects: “Sure, Ezekiel had the visions and Jonah had the whale, but Jeremiah knew how to brood, which makes him a kindred spirit.”

Woven in with elements from archaeology, contemporary Israel and Jewish life, this theme provides a rich backdrop for the narrative. It also gains Klein’s novel entree into the coterie of literary works representing an interpretation of — or, at the very least, a riff on — the Bible, leading to the usual questions concerning the usefulness, legitimacy and faithfulness involved in such modern borrowings.

In the novel, we follow Page Brookstone, a non-Jewish American archaeologist, in her encounter with a young Israeli Arab couple from Anatot, the prophet Jeremiah’s hometown, just north of Jerusalem. Ibrahim and Naima claim to have seen ghosts in their house and want Page to dig beneath it. As the only archaeologist to take them seriously, she is soon rewarded by discovering a huge cistern below their house, decorated with stunning murals and containing not only the previously unheard-of Scroll of Anatiya but also the well-preserved skeletons of Anatiya and Jeremiah, intertwined.

This find naturally causes tremendous excitement both for its finders and eventually, when it is publicized, in the world at large, and we follow the twists and turns of subsequent developments involving a group of stuffy archaeologists, Page’s ex-boyfriend Itai, her best friend Jordanna and some other colorful characters. We are also privy to Page’s private story — her father’s suicide and her general fascination with death; how she generally feels both lost and empty; her unsatisfying relationships; and her new love interest, an atypical Orthodox Israeli Jew named Mortichai Masters, who brings fresh hope for happiness but also many challenges in his wake.

Apropos books that interpret the Bible, the publisher’s comparison, on the book’s cover, of “Drawing in the Dust” with “The Red Tent” and “People of the Book” is correct insofar as, like the former, Klein’s novel contains sections written in Biblical idiom and mouthed by Biblical characters, and yet, like the latter, is simultaneously a fast-paced modern adventure about a magnificent and ancient Bible-like manuscript beloved by a likable though slightly self-absorbed female protagonist who is looking for love. However, in contrast to those two books, the ancient text here, quoted at the start of every chapter and in lengthy excerpts throughout the novel, has been entirely invented by Klein. This fact will no doubt be seen by some as original and inspiring, while others will object to it as expressing an excessive confidence, in both inventing a 21st-century pseudepigraphical work and allowing it to overshadow the Bible’s own words.

The response to such objections would probably be: “This is fiction. The author can do whatever she wants.” In fact, Klein originally wrote the 52 chapters of “The Scroll of Anatiya,” her book within a book, as a stand-alone epic work. A lyrical and in some ways disturbing document reminiscent of Prophets, Song of Songs and other Biblical works, it is the first-person account of a mute woman who adored Jeremiah from her youth and eventually became his lover. Upon being told by the pros that her creation was “beautiful but not sellable,” Klein proceeded to write “Drawing in the Dust” as a vehicle for “The Scroll of Anatiya” (which has also now been published, by the religious press Wipf and Stock), providing us with not only a bridge to Anatiya’s world, but also an eminently readable and enjoyable novel.

The novel takes us on quite a wild ride through a redolent hodge-podge of elements: contemporary Israel (complete with gruesome suicide bombings and ultra-Orthodox emergency workers who pick up the pieces of bodies), IDF soldiers, Arab-Israeli confrontations, religious-secular divide, cosmopolitan Israeli youth with multiple piercings, archaeology, Judaism, Biblical passages, evangelists, wealthy Americans and more. Nonetheless, it all holds together and comes off as fairly authentic to the Israeli-Jewish ear, except for a few annoying inaccuracies (such as the use of “gever” for Mr., instead of “adon,” and the implausible description of a sizable Orthodox contingent attending the wedding of a Jew to an Arab).

Soaring eyebrows

The plot is carried by a clear prose liberally interspersed with a poetic idiom more layered than the lyrical simplicity of “The Red Tent” — as befits a modern voice rather than a biblical one — but also more convoluted. The dialogue works well, but also seems on occasion overly contrived. For example, even bearing in mind that Page is deep and thoughtful, with a facility for language, it is hard to imagine the following lines appearing in a real-life casual conversation: “The money I earn wasn’t minted for me; the land I buy wasn’t lifted out of the sea and quaked from the continents just for me”; or “He had these eyebrows that came together like a seagull against the sun.” Although we might find ourselves at times reading with our own eyebrows soaring like two seagulls toward the moon, we do understand the author’s desire to provide for her beloved Scroll of Anatiya a suitably poetic champion in Page, which she has.

Over the course of the novel we encounter several recurring motifs and metaphors. One is the use of archaeology as a symbol for Page’s inner life. This connection is often made explicitly (“it is an appalling and horrible thing to be an ancient scroll … buried deep in a cave … where no one can find you, or touch you, or know you”), and sometimes is implied — for example, the huge underground cistern hinting at the mysteries of our heroine’s subconscious, which, once delved into, might give up its precious secrets. Moreover, while surrounded by the ghosts of Anatiya and Jeremiah, Page is busy exorcising her own ghosts; and when Mortichai, the “bone-hunter” (he both works for the Zaka victim-identification organization and is obsessed with bones) teaches Page that bones are not hard, they are spongy and yielding, he thus invites her to approach death in a different fashion. Mortichai’s very name, which at first blush appears to be a silly misspelling of Mordechai, represents a transition from “mort,” death, to “hai,” life, via the “i” in its middle (although in Page’s case, this transition is made via the “we” that she finally, at age 40, manages to create with him).

These metaphors are poignant, but also over-explained. The novel, like its protagonist and her fellow archaeologists, is only too willing to lay bare hidden mysteries, rather than leaving them to work their magic within the fertile earth of our imaginations. Nonetheless, there are some slightly less blunt allusions. Page’s first name (Mortichai asks: “Isn’t your name missing an ‘i’?”) echoes her zeal for texts; her last name, Brookstone, hints to her craft. Perhaps a little more intertextuality, involving creative parallels between Jeremiah’s story and that of the characters, might have kept things subtle and also kept us in closer direct contact with the Biblical work, which gets only a brief mention from time to time and is mostly experienced through the Anatiya scroll. One such parallel can be seen when Page is treated as a pariah by her colleagues for abandoning an excellent job to go dig up a house full of ghosts. But ultimately we must suffice with the half-shadows that enshroud Jeremiah — for this is Anatiya’s story, not his; and therefore presumably the parallels with Anatiya are more to the point, as the excerpts at the head of each chapter suggest.

The choice to create a non-Jewish heroine for a book set in Israel grants perspective and, again, prevents the novel from becoming overly autobiographical. And yet the author’s concerns and enthusiasms — to experience a living Bible, to insert missing female voices into the text using “modern midrash,” to promote a tolerant version of Judaism, and to bridge differences between individuals and faiths — come through clearly. A loving yet critical relationship with Israel is filtered through the character Itai, a proud Zionist whom Page eventually leaves because, although she loves him, she cannot compete with the ever-present “other woman” — Israel, which will always come first for him. The initial behavior of Ibrahim, hurt by numerous rejections of his ghost story, is reminiscent of the wounded behavior on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; yet his wife Naima is able to understand that Page’s doubts, however frustrating, are reasonable, and thus patience is required.

The Orthodox characters in the book range from the intransigent zealots who want the skeletons buried immediately, to Mortichai’s wise rabbi and the admirable, if anonymous, men of Zaka, to Mortichai himself. It is a refreshing change to have a black-hatted Jew become an object of fantasy (his jacket releases “an aroma of citrus and clove”) instead of revulsion, as is too often the case. However, the depiction of Mortichai — our hero, once we recover from an early description of him as “creepy” — as an Orthodox (but not really) man deep in a relationship with a non-Jewish woman plays to certain biases in modern fiction. Today’s novels almost never seem satisfied with allowing Orthodox Jews to exist as they see themselves, adhering to their lifestyle rather than struggling with it or just plain subverting it in bizarre ways, as writer Wendy Shalit complained back in 2005.

The novel also, of course, panders to the eternal Hollywood theme of love-conquers-all. Indeed, the fact that the Israel that wafts from the pages of “Drawing in the Dust” is ultimately a sweet one partly results from the fervent love that grips everyone who comes into contact with Anatiya and Jeremiah — Jew for Jew, Arab for Jew, Jew for Christian — causing Page to remark, tongue-in-cheek, “I have opened Pandora’s lingerie drawer.” Klein’s transformation of the fiery prophet — from doomsayer to Cupid — is a little twee and will offend some readers. Her portrayal is certainly faithful to Jeremiah’s passionate nature, if not to the general tone of the Biblical book, which is so tragic that portions of it are traditionally considered permissible reading on the 9th of Av fast day.

In any event, those who can suspend both cynicism and pious reflexes will appreciate the author’s utopian vision of more to love and “more to chai’ — this oh-so-Jewish blessing of “more life!” which echoes the grande finale of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (“And I bless you: More life! The Great Work Begins.”) And in the end, when all’s said and done, a flamboyantly utopian vision is the only type worthy of a Jewish prophet.

Yael Unterman is an author and creative educator. She recently published “Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar” (Urim Publications).

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