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HOW JEWS BECAME JEWISH



It took me seven years to write my first novel about the Hasmonean dynasty. Now after seven more years, I'm publishing another. Why take seven years of my life to write about the Hasmonean dynasty in the first place? Because during this period, the first century BCE, women were almost invisible in the historical record. Even an extraordinary woman, Queen Salome Alexandra (Shalom-Zion), a Jewish queen who changed the course of the history of the Jews, is barely mentioned. And the main account of her reign was written by Josephus Flavius, a Roman-Jewish historian who didn't approve of women gaining power. I wanted to hear the history from a woman's point of view so I had to imagine it in my novel QUEEN OF THE JEWS.

Then why spend another seven years writing another novel about the Hasmonean dynasty? I realized there was a big hole in my knowledge of Jewish history and therefore a big hole in my understanding of myself as a Jewish woman. In my Hebrew school education, ancient history ended with the Maccabee victory over Antiochus IV, the Macedonian Greek ruler of Syria, when Greek idols were tossed out of the Holy Temple. I didn't know that it was the Jewish High Priest and other priests who had collaborated to bring the idols into the Temple, as well as outlawing circumcision and other Jewish practices. The Maccabee victory was the beginning of a century-long process during which the Jewish people lost faith in the priests and in the efficacy of animal sacrifices as a way to be right with God. Instead, a group of teachers (called Sages by their followers and Pharisees by their enemies) rose in the esteem of the people by re-focusing attention on the teachings of the Bible. That is how we became the People of the Book. As a member of the People of the Book, I continue to probe that book for new meanings. After the Holy Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Judaism has persisted for 2,000 more years because we had a Temple of Words that could not be destroyed.

Power and wealth become temptations for political and religious leaders. The descendants of the Maccabees declared themselves High Priests and Kings and became corrupt. In ancient times as today, Jews had to hold their leaders responsible for living up to the values and teachings we hold dear. In this new novel, I follow the great Sage Shimon ben Shetakh. He led the Pharisee movement and founded the first Jewish schools, but he too was seriously flawed and needed to grow. I describe his actions from the point of view of his ex-wife. For until Jewish women's voices are part of the story, the Book will not be complete.




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