Wednesday, April 15, 2009
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book is a novel about a real 500-year-old Haggadah. The Haggadah is a Hebrew text used during Passover. Haggadah means “the telling.” It tells how Moses freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt and led them towards Israel. The beauty of a Haggadah is that every family has their own and passes their particular traditions on to future generations.
Although my paternal grandparents were raised in kosher homes, they were not very religious. My grandfather, Harold Lamport, was a scientist who avoided temple but respected his Jewish heritage. He was a blood circulation specialist who developed the precursor to the space suit and was on the faculty of Yale School of Medicine. We gathered at my grandparent’s house in Westport, Connecticut for Passover because it was a holiday that is observed in the home. We chose the night for our Seder by convenience. A Seder is traditionally held on the first night of the eight days of Passover.
After my grandparents died, my parents started hosting Passover in NYC for our extended family. Our Haggadah (below) features the wonderful art of Ben Shahn. The artist is Lithuanian-American like my father. Shahn published an illustrated Haggadah for his family in 1947. My mother assembled ours from assorted material at Temple Emanu-El. Our ceremony is short enough for the youngest child to sit through easily. It has a few prayers in Hebrew with the rest in English. Only my children have been to Hebrew School and not long enough to read it well.
The purpose of a Seder is to pass on the story of Passover to the next generation. The youngest child at the table asks four questions about the meaning of Pesach (Passover.) The leader answers the questions by holding up symbolic objects (pictured below.)
lamb shank: for God freeing the slaves
moror (bitter herbs): bitter lot of enslaved Jews
parsley dipped in salt water: tears of the slaves
roasted egg: Temple sacrifice
matzo: fleeing the Egyptians, there was not time to let the bread rise
haroses (chopped fruits, nut and wine): mortar used by the slaves
Everyone takes a turn reading a praise to God for the many miracles that led the Jews to freedom and to Israel. All respond “dayanu.” This translates roughly from the Hebrew as “that was enough.”
The highlight of the evening for the kids is letting in Elijah through the front door and racing back to see if the invisible angel drank his wine. My father brought back our silver chalice from Israel. Afterwards the children search for the afikomen (a piece of hidden matzo) and win a prize of money (or chocolate coins.)
I wonder if this is the origin of the Easter egg hunt? The Last Supper was Passover. I search for these common lines between Judaism and Christianity because my mother, my uncle and my husband are Christian. Our children are being raised with dual faiths as I was too.
What I especially loved about Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book was its inclusion of many religions. The Haggadah survived during times of persecution against Jews and their artifacts thanks in part to the help of Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. This may be a story about a Jewish book, but it is a tale that will appeal to people of all faiths.
People of the Book would also appeal to anyone who loves old books because the Sarajevo Haggadah in the novel truly exists (pictured below on the BBC.) The illustrations/illuminations, unusual for a Hebrew text of that time, make it special. The fictional protagonist is a rare book restorer. Hanna is called to Sarajevo when the Haggadah miraculously resurfaces after the Bosnian War. The novel is rich in detail about old book restoration.
Hanna uncovers five clues in the Haggadah. These traces from the past tell us about the Haggadah’s journey from Africa, to Spain, to Venice, to Vienna and then to Bosnia. For example there is a salt water drip on one page – is it from a Seder or a sea voyage? The fictional stories go back in time, each one better than the last until we witness the Haggadah’s imagined conception.
The five historical stories could have easily been expanded into separate books. I wish that this novel had been a series of five books because we only get fragments of fabulous stories. Brooks makes us fall in love with her characters and inhabit their ancient settings. Other than the gruesome torture scenes, we are reluctant to leave them behind.
Excerpt in Hanna’s voice: “I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it.”
People of the Book reminded me of an excellent movie, The Red Violin, which followed a violin through its 300 years. One minor criticism I have of the People of the Book is that the Haggadah is never used in a Seder. The reader wants to hear the violin make music. An Haggadah isn’t just a book or a precious artifact; it gains character through its use. This is why I began my book review with a description of my family’s Seder and our Haggadah.
A bigger flaw in the People of the Book is that the contemporary story, which holds all the historical stories together, is weak. This narrative device would have worked better if the central story had been as well crafted as the others in the collection. Hanna and her librarian-hero-lover are compelling characters, but Hanna’s mother is a silly caricature of a selfish brain surgeon.
The antagonistic mother-daughter plotline feels trite and melodramatic and does not belong in this subtly nuanced book. The writing loses its poetry and resorts to women’s fiction clichés. There are weak similes: a crocus full of snow does not look like cappuccino.
Even worse, the Hanna story suddenly changes pace and genre in the last chapter to become a Da Vinci Code suspense thriller. None of this was necessary and only detracts from an otherwise near perfect book.
Brooks shines as a writer of historical fiction. She won a Pulitzer Prize for March, which tells the fictional story of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women during the Civil War. I’m interested in reading that earlier novel and more from this brilliant author. I’m also interested in hearing your take on the People of the Book as several of you mentioned that you’ve read it.
Blog Watch: DoveGreyReader Scribbles and A Book A Week also reviewed People of the Book. If you want to learn more about Passover and how to design your own Seder, visit Jennifer Mirsky's Interactive Haggadah. Today is Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day hosted at May Dreams Garden. Nothing(!) is blooming in my northern garden, but I shot some spring action around my old NYC home. Happy Spring!