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Monday, July 14, 2014

The Mixture of Hebrew and Hellene--Two Books of Ancient Magic and Folklore

A while back Jewish historical fiction author Maggie Anton shelved a few books on Goodreads . I saw them on my feed because she friended me after I reviewed her novel Rav Hisda's Daughter:Apprentice  on my previous blog The Unmasked Persona's Reviews.  That review was But Is It Really Jewish Magic?  I am now very much anticipating the second book Rav Hisda's Daughter: Enchantress which will be released September 2.  I received it from Net Galley this morning, but I expect to review it in the first week of September because I am part of the blog tour.

Since I had read the first Rav Hisda's Daughter novel, I recognized that two of the books that Maggie Anton shelved had content that was definitely related to her latest book series.  So I decided to review them together.  They are Sefer Ha-Razim and Divination, Magic and Healing.


In the introduction to Sefer Ha-Razim, I read that it was compiled from fragments in the Cairo Genizah which is an archive of Egyptian Jewish writings.  Even though I already knew this, I said to myself "What did I just read?" after I finished reading the book.  I needed some context for it.  When was this material written?  So I consulted The Jewish Virtual Library which said that it was written no later than the Talmudic period.  This would mean that it was contemporary with Rav Hisda and his daughter who were Talmud personages.  Yet it felt more ancient to me.  The Encyclopedia Mythica suggested that it resembles ancient Greek magical texts.  A news article from 1964 that was archived at is much more specific.  It states that it was written in the 2nd century C.E. by members of a gnostic sect.  Wikipedia's Article on Sefer Ha-Razim  says that Mordechai Margalioth, the scholar who discovered it at Oxford in 1963,  dated it to the late 3rd century C.E. or  the 4th century C.E.

Regardless of when it was written, it's very syncretic. I could easily see this being written in Alexandria by Hellenized Jews because the names of Greek deities are included in the text side by side with Jewish angels.  If it had been written in Persia in the time of Rav Hisda's daughter, I would have expected to see Zoroastrian influence. 

 One of the angels named in a spell in Sefer Ha-Razim is probably Bar Kochba according to a footnote.  Bar Kochba was the leader of a revolt against the Romans in 132-135 C.E.  This implies that it was believed by Jews that the dead become angels.  To my best knowledge, this has never been a Jewish teaching.  I was taught that Jews believe that the dead go to Sheol which is underground, and not to the heavens where the angels reside.  The ancient Greeks believed in the dead going to an underworld ruled by Hades and Persephone.  Yet they also believed in dead heroes going to the Elysian Fields or Elysium.  So Hellenized Jews might believe that a Jewish hero went to Elysium after his death, and that Elysium is where the angels live. 

Divination, Magic and Healing by Ronald H. Isaacs also makes reference to an instance of notable Hellenistic syncretism.  There was a mosaic on the floor of a Byzantine synagogue that depicts the Greek sun god, Helios, driving his chariot surrounded by the signs of the zodiac.  There's an image of this mosaic on Wikipedia which turned out to be public domain.  So I'm going to show my readers what it looked like.


I am accustomed to thinking of Hebrew and Hellene as being in conflict.  The Mycenaean Greek Philistines were at war with the Hebrews for generations. (For the connections between the Philistines and Mycenaean Greeks, see the section titled "Material Culture and Mycenaean Archaeology"   in the Wikipedia article on the Philistines .) The Macabees fought the Hellenized Syrian King, Antiochus, who desecrated the Jewish Temple.  This is the struggle commemorated by the holiday called Chanukah.  It's interesting to see this sort of Hebrew-Hellene rapprochement in the folklore and practices of  Jews in ancient times.


Monday, July 7, 2014

Wine Plays A Role In A Mystery That Goes Back To World War II

Deadly Tasting by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen is the first book I've read in the Wine Detective novels which were also made into a series for French television.  The edition I read was from Le French Book, a publisher which is making current popular French fiction available in English.   I received my copy from Net Galley, and here is my review.


Due to my B.A. in history, my favorite type of mystery is one that involves history.  When I found out that this particular volume in the Wine Detective series had to do with World War II, I was hooked.  Despite the fact that I have read other books taking place in France during World War II, Alaux and  Balen had things to teach me about that period of French history through their engaging mystery plot.  I learned about organizations for Nazi collaborators.  I found out about the weinführers whose mission was to send all the best French wines back to Germany, and a Portuguese diplomat who saved 30,000 Jews.  You can find out more about him from the linked article on the Yad Vashem website.  Yad Vashem is the Israeli Holocaust museum.  

So how could wine be a clue to a murderous grudge that goes back to Vichy France?  The murderer left twelve wine glasses at the scene of every crime with an ever increasing number of them filled with wine.  The Wine Detective, Benjamin Cooker, was called in by police to identify the vintage and the case develops from there.

The authors show that when terrible crimes are kept secret, the buried truth can surface even decades later to trouble both the living and the dead.  The mystery turned out to be somewhat predictable, but I appreciated the insights of the Wine Detective about history, humanity and wine.  I hope to discover other books in this series that interested me as much as this one.




Saturday, July 5, 2014

How The Water Falls: Individual Courage and Responsibility in Apartheid South Africa

I had been looking forward to How The Water Falls by K.P. Kollenborn for some time.  I had loved Kollenborn's first novel Eyes Behind Belligerence which deals with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. I reviewed it for The Bookplex on The Unmasked Persona's Reviews here.  I had read posts from K.P. Kollenborn about this second novel about South Africa's transformation from an apartheid police state to a more democratic society. I had also seen the book trailer for this book which I thought was a masterpiece and the most effective book trailer I'd ever viewed.  Take a look at it on You Tube .  It was created by the author herself and it's just amazing. When I saw the opportunity to review How The Water Falls on The Bookplex website, I immediately dropped everything and made this book my top priority.


I think it's very possible that I already knew too much about how South Africa's majority population freed themselves from apartheid before I read this book.  So there were relatively few revelations for me.  The characterization, however, was really wonderful.  Kollenborn delved for the truth at the core of her protagonists.  She was never simplistic.  They were all multi-dimensional human beings.  Another aspect of this novel that I really appreciated was the extent to which conflict was about family loyalties which have a far stronger hold on individuals than abstract ideals.

The cover shows us the three central characters.  First we see Lena, the political activist and aspiring writer.  Next to her we see Joanne, the established journalist and sympathizer with the aspirations of the anti-apartheid movement. Finally, we see Jared, a South African policeman who undergoes an unexpected crisis.  In the beginning of my reading process, I referred back to the cover because the artist’s conception of these characters helped to anchor them in my mind. 

Eventually, all three of the protagonists made a powerful impression on me.  I asked myself why I felt one character relationship was the emotional heart of the novel.  Since the characters were both white, I wondered if I was being racist.  I decided that I felt that way because of the barriers between the two characters.  Audiences have been transfixed by characters who have been divided by their backgrounds since Romeo and Juliet.  Kollenborn shows us that there could be huge chasms between white people in South Africa.    I did think that the central relationship of the novel was intended to be the bond of friendship that developed between the two female protagonists, but it wasn’t freighted with the kind of dramatic intensity that would have made it feel significant to me.  

 I also would have preferred fewer information dumps. I admit that some information was definitely necessary to the plot.  I discovered that “necklacing” was far more horrific than I had previously imagined.  Another revelation was a brief mention of the Irish Republican Army's assistance to a South African terrorist. After reading about that incident in Kollenborn's novel, I found an article called Black Provos: The ANC and the IRA .  I had thought that this relationship only existed in paranoid propaganda from the supporters of apartheid, but the IRA really did instruct and train South African terrorists. 

The study guide for book clubs asked questions that were thought provoking, but there was no question about the Truth and Reconciliation process.  The character Joanne wondered if this process really could heal South Africa.  Truth and Reconciliation is an offer of amnesty to those who murdered and tortured people with official government sanction on the condition that they describe and admit to their crimes in a public hearing.  I first encountered it in a novel called Red Dust by Gillian Slovo.  There has also been an excellent movie based on this novel starring Hillary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Find out more about it at IMDB.   I think that book groups will want to discuss how this novel depicts Truth and Reconciliation, and whether it’s an effective policy for South Africa.

How The Water Falls by K.P. Kollenborn testifies to the capacity of individuals to bring about social change. The protagonists are only a small sample of the type of courage and commitment that was shown by a great many individuals in South Africa during the period that brought about the end of apartheid.   Without them no change would have happened.  The stories of Kollenborn’s fictional exemplars are inspirational.