Almost one year ago I referenced Midnight Intruders (Artscroll 2009) by Avner Gold (pseudonym for Yosef Reinman). I said that I would review it shortly. Recently someone reminded me that 11 months later is not shortly. So here is my review.
Midnight Intruders is a historical novel set during the early period of Chacham Tzvi Ashkenazi's life, climaxing during his rabbinate in Amsterdam where he was initially popular and respected. It did not take long though before he made some enemies. An unsuccessful attempt was even made to dismiss him. Then when a genuine scandal/ machlokes erupted, Chacham Tzvi's enemies whipped up a situation to the point where he felt compelled to literally flee Amsterdam clandestinely.
In brief, Nehemiah Hiyya Hayun (sometimes described as a 'Heresiarch') appeared in Amsterdam in 1713. Hayun was in Amsterdam aiming to print a book called Mehemnuta de-Kula (which some think was actually written by Shabbetai Tzvi himself) with his own commentaries. Chacham Tzvi (and R. Moshe Hagiz, although we will leave him out of this abstract) examined the book and declared it heretical. He informed the Sephardim of this decision, and their rabbi, Solomon Ayllon, became very angry, insisting that it was a major slight to the Sephardim that Tzvi should feel that he can dictate to the Sephardim, who were the older and better community. The reverse should be true.
So the Mahamad (the lay leadership of the Sephardim) appointed a commission of 7 members, including Ayllon, who would investigate Hayun's book and make an independent judgment. Each member received a copy.
In the meantime, Chacham Tzvi (and Hagiz) were trying to procure a copy of the book so that they could set out the case against Hayun clearly, and wrote to those who had given approbations to determine the circumstances, if they were authentic, etc. Then they wrote an official ban on the book, which angered Ayllon further. In response, he and his committee declared that Hayun is free of guilt, and that the book was fine and should be considered a standard Kabbalistic book. They apologized to Hayun and then he was treated like a respected guest.
One thing led to another, letters from near and far, bans, broadsheets, insults, interest from the secular authorities - when all was said and done, Chacham Tzvi and his family slipped out of Amsterdam, lest he be arrested on grounds of disturbing the peace.
Midnight Intruders is set against this background, although the first part of the book takes place earlier in Chacham Tzvi's life. The main character of the book is a fictional person called Rabbi Amos Strasbourg, who Gold/ Reinman sets as a close personal friend of Chacham Tzvi. Rabbi Amos Strasbourg is a character in several other books of the same series. Therefore Gold is able to set him up as a witness to the events, and to a certain extent they are seen through his eyes. There's a bit of a thriller element to the plot, but I assume readers of this blog are not going to be particularly interested in my take on that, so I decided not to summarize it - except for a little bit at the end.
I will point out here that I have a possible quibble with Amos Strasbourg's name. The book is set in the late 17th and early 18th century. As far as I can tell Jews were not allowed to live in Strasbourg until the late 18th century, making this surname impossible, I think. But of course I could be mistaken.
The narrative is colorful, and full of historical tidbits, Jewish and non-Jewish. It is definitely of acceptable quality, and often even better than that. On the other hand, the book makes heavy use of what they call "the exposition fairy," that is, when characters explain things which in reality would not be explained by the real characters. "The exposition fairy" is when a cop tells another cop what an "alibi" means, or explains an interrogation technique to a colleague, or some such thing. So, for example, on pg. 45 we read of a conversation where young Chacham Tzvi explains the meaning of the acronym "zak" (zerah kodesh) in his grandfather's name to Amos, who says that it is "an unsual name." On pg. 127 there is a random aside where one character explains that the Italian minhag is older than both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic.
I'll admit it is somewhat odd to read of the youngish Chacham Tzvi "grin[ning]" and telling Amos "I can't let you carry your own bags. I mean, what kind of host would I be if I did that?" Actually, in my opinion Gold has Chacham Tzvi acting too young at first. He treats him almost like he's a little bit giddy, but he's 30 years old at the time. I guess the narrative could have been impossible if it had been set any earlier, but in my opinion Chacham Tzvi acts like he's in his 20, not 30. That said this is only my impression. It is evident that Gold did not mean to do this. As he writes in the introduction, "I would not presume to put words into the mouth of Chacham Tzvi other than ordinary conversation, which I labored to portray in a manner suitable to a rabbi of such stellar stature." As we shall see he does not *entirely* succeed. That's understandable. Gold asks for Chacham Tzvi's forgiveness if he unintentionally wrote anything which impinges upon his honor. I'd say he is covered.
When he discussed R. Elijah of Chelm's golem (pg. 47) Gold makes the all-too-common mistake of taking "zikni" literally, and calls him his "grandfather." But this "grandfather" of Chacham Tzvi died in 1583, or approximately 73 years before Tzvi was born. Nearly impossible, and very improbable. R. Elijah was not his grandfather, but his ancestor.
I also take issue with Gold's reinforcing the historical truth of this golem, as he does by having Amos react mildly skeptically, and then Tzvi assuring him that it is "Absolutely" true, since "everyone the story passed through was a reliable talmid chacham." He then seals the deal by citing the Gemara that Rava made a golem. Although I'm not fully within my rights to complain about it since obviously Gold believes it himself, in my opinion this is not a good thing to reinforce in children, because it endlessly creates generations of children, many of whom will go through various kinds of painful withdrawals from such beliefs.
On pg. 49 there is a nice little message, that "it's good to know something about the Jewish people outside your own little circle," which is placed in the mouth of Tzvi, explaining why his father sent him to the Sephardic yeshiva in Salonica. Gold clearly believes this, as he has written numerous books describing upstanding Jews with Spanish names and manners and so forth. I will go out on a limb and say that I believe more than one frum kid has learned a little bit about the diversity of the Jewish world and history from his books. Just to throw out one random example, on pg. 134 we hear tell of a young lady named "Signora Raquel Tarantella," who is obviously not a Bais Yaakov girl, but presumably a kallah nangeh vaasuda.
On the same page he - surprisingly, I think - has Chacham Tzvi say that when he was 8 years old - the year of Shabbetai Tsvi - he was disappointed, having held out hope that maybe he was the Messiah. As far as I can tell there is nothing historical to support this, but this is a didactic moment for Gold, who then has Tzvi saying that afterward "there was nothing more to talk about," people were disappointed, they went on with their lives, and continued to pray and yearn for the Messiah. This also is an opportunity to explain about the Donmeh and other Sabbatians.
There's nothing wrong with colloquialisms, and the characters certainly speak in a mixture of 21st century English and Yeshivish, but I have to smile at Tzvi saying "there were many talmidei chachamim in Amsterdam with whom to talk in learning" and the like. (pg. 51) Incidentally, on the same page Gold has Amos opine that 25 is a good age to get married, with the caveat that "there's no guarantee that you'll get married within six months" if you start looking at 25. Tzvi agrees.
On pg. 73 & 78 he indulges very mildly in a stereotype which made me a little uncomforable, when Amos promises a Dutch captain who helped him with a night of drinking on his tab. The captain agrees, but says he'll take two nights. Amos agrees once more. Then later he reminds Amos that he expects him to pay up, "I want those free drinks." To be sure, many good qualities of this captain, as well as the Dutch in general, are enumerated, and Amos specifically says that he knows that the captain helped him because of his kind heart, and not becuase he needed free drinks. And yet, we can well imagine a parallel scenario with a Jew and money or some such thing, and I've no doubt that Gold himself would feel uncomfortable by that. I don't think any harm was meant here at all. I'm just saying. Not being totally PC is not the crime of the century, but it rubbed me wrong, especially as this is a book for children and an opportunity to reinforce values and ideas, which is clearly not lost on Gold.
On pg. 85 Tzvi is telling Amos about the pain of losing his wife and child, and how he recalls her. He lists her good qualities, and then says that he remembers her sitting with pleasure at the Shabbos table, listening to him and his father discuss a very complicated sugya "even though she really couldn't be expected to understand what we were saying." Although from a historical perspective this is almost certainly true, one can't help but feeling that here the Chacham Tzvi is Gold commenting about the 21st century as well. The whole scene is actually very moving, but I had to mention it.
Referring to what I wrote earlier, that Gold labored not to put thoughts and ideas into Tzvi that you can't find in his own writings, he also writes that he took the liberty of including some of his own Torah, putting it in the mouth of Strasbourg, as he does for example on pg. 130-31. Clever, and nothing wrong with it, but I thought the idea of having Chacham Tzvi approve is a little . . . self-confident. To be sure, he actually has another historical rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Aboab, do the approving, while Chacham Tzvi stands by and listens (except to say "And I," seconding the rabbi's agreeing with Amos/ Gold's description of a certain human experience). Obviosuly Chacham Tzvi doesn't disagree. It's okay, really, but it is what it is: Gold says over his Torah while the Chacham Tzvi listens and does not object. On pg 182 - 3 he does this again, and this time Chacham Tzvi claps his hands together with delight upon hearing a Torah thought from Gold. He even says "I love [the explanation], and I believe it is true."
On pg. 138 we meet a "Rebbetzin," which I suspect (but I am not certain) is not a term in use yet. I know people will point to the Romance suffix -etze, but I'd need to see some proof. Since I know that the burden of proof can't be on him unless I have some good grounds for doubting that this word was used, I mention it only so that some reader might be able to set the record straight. He has this Rebbetzin say a certain Yiddish saying in the name of her grandmother. I doubt this saying goes back to the early 1600s.
On pg. 139 there is a little dig at early modern medicine, the four humors and so forth. Hm.
On pg. 149 Gold has one of his main protagonists in earlier books, Rabbi Shlomo Pulichev, clarify that some people don't have the temperament to learn Gemara all day, and that they should set aside some time daily, and learn what appeals to them. Further, if the main pillar in one's life is not Torah, then they should build up the pillar of kindness. If they cannot learn Torah every minute, then live Torah.
On pg. 157 he has Hayun taking in people by posing as a holy man. He declares a baby a gilgul (reincarnated soul). And herein lies the rub. You can't really tell the difference between a fake kabbalist and a real one, can you? Later in the book Gold will make an effort to explain that Hayun's teachings are only subtly different from actual kabbalah, but of course his are very bad and very dangerous. Of course he doesn't explain what those teachings are, or why they should be only subtly different from authentic kabbalah. Point of interest: Hayun's teaching combined a sort of Deism and a Triune conception of God. He felt that God is three; one is called Atika Kadisha, the Ancient Holy One. This aspect of God is removed from the creation, and indeed did not even create. But emanating from Atika Kadisha is Elohei Yisrael, the God of Israel who is the God of cretion and history who is not remote from creation, and Shechinah, or the Presence. Not sure what the Presence does, but of course Elohei Yisrael and Shechinah have to be united, etc. Is this is subtly different from Kabbalah?
On pg. 183 the fact that Chacham Tzvi constantly eschewed gifts and "extras" routinely offered to rabbis is stressed (as it is in several other places in the book) with the explanation that accepting largesse (apart from an earned salary) results in corruption and the tainting of leadership, even subtly. In case the point isn't clear, Gold mentions "money, honors, favors" as well as "support for our yeshivos and charities," all of which are in order to gain some control over [them].
This is an authentic view of Chacham Tzvi, at least how he conducted himself personally, and the reader can be forgiven for wondering if/ how it applies to contemporary times and the community which Gold himself lives in and associates with.
On pg. 187 he mentions the nature of Chacham Tzvi's klaus in Altona, as described by his son. There the study was "Gemara, Rishonim, Halachah, Aggadah, Midrash and even the rules of grammar." Again, thinking of contemporary times, what is a young reader supposed to think when his Beis Midrash studies, well, a very different sort of curriculum?
On pg. 198 the exposition fairy comes to explain to the reader what Sabbatians are all about (this time its Amos who suddenly knows nothing about Sabbatians). Chacham Tzvi tells him that "Believe me, they sound just like you and me. Even when they discuss Kabbalah, it's hard to recognize their true colors." He also states that their understanding of the nature of God "in a certain way, it has a strong resemblance to Christianity." In any case, this leads to an opportunity for them to dicuss a situation which would appear as #13 in Shu"th Chacham Tzvi.
On pg. 204 the fine quality of printing in Amsterdam is mentioned, along with R. Moshe Frankfurt, who published the 1724 Amsterdam edition of the Mikrah Gedola, called Kehillat Moshe.
On pg. 210 there is mention of a character (known from earlier books, apparently) formerly called Felipe, now known as Rabbi Pinhas Dominguez, an up-and-coming Dayan. "Who knows? Maybe someday they'll be calling him Chacham Pinhas?" says a character. In my opinion this is a mischaracterization of the nature of the Western Sephardim, using the behavior of present-day ba'alei teshuva as a model. Today ba'alei teshuva are likely to take or begin using a Hebrew name. As far as I can tell, the Western Sephardim used their Hebrew name in Hebrew, whether in writing or when called to the Torah, but their Spanish name when the language was spoken or written. This is not in fact substantially different from the Ashkenazim, who also used Hebrew names in Hebrew and their Yiddish (i.e., Germanic) name when that language was spoken or written. Don't be fooled by the Hebrew letters. Thus I don't think that Felipe to Pinhas was a sign of a change for the better, of increased piety and religiosity. I think that Haham Pinhas probably continued to be called Felipe - as long as Spanish (or Portuguese, of course) was being used.
On pg. 214 there's a black man dressed in a cape and a wide white felt hat with purple plumes. I'm sure Gold meant well, as the character (who is also from earlier books) is clearly meant to be portrayed positively, and Amos and the man embrace. Nevertheless, the imagery is interesting, albeit unintentional I'm sure.
Pg. 238 is interesting, because here Chacham Tzvi talks about the famous case of the "chicken with no heart." Gold has Tzvi says that "It most certainly had a heart. Chickens cannot live without hearts. Any rational person can understand that, but I wrote back many proofs from the Zohar and the Maharal to make sure they accept my ruling. Can you imagine what I have to contend with?" - which encapsulates his position very well, but is a little surprising in view of the fact that other rabbis disagreed, including most famously a young R. Yonasan Eybeschutz, who presumably is considered a rational person.
The treatment of Rabbi Solomon Ayllon is interesting. On the one hand he was the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardim of Amsterdam, a very important community and rabbinate. On the other hand he really was a Sabbatian, and an antagonist of Chacham Tzvi. Yet I am guessing that in a book for children, to portray him as totally a bad guy does not do wonders for the institution of the rabbinate. So Gold downplays Ayllon's Sabbatianism, only allowing that he dabbled in it in his youth. Give this, his youthful - rather than ongoing - Sabbatianism, how to explain his support for Hayun? Was it stupidity? Honor? Gold concocts an explanation that Hayun had something on him and forced him to support him. He even has Ayllon refuse to write a haskmah for Hayun outright.
Furthermore, Ayllon was one of the early "recognizers" of Chacham Tzvi's worth as a great scholar, dating to his time in London, and Gold realizes that this is useful. So why do away with him? Instead of portraying him as you'd expect, a really bad guy, he portrays him as basically innocent, kind of doddering (at age 50!) and the object of blackmail. In my opinion this works for fiction, but doesn't match the history.
On pg. 281 once again the "subtle" differences from the teachings of Hayun and Sabbatian kabbalah from the genuine article is stressed. The youthful reader must be awfully intrigued at this point!
On pg. 284 - 86 a meeting between Tzvi and Hayun is described (indeed, the meeting is depicted on the book's cover).
This brings us back to pg. 11, where Gold writes that "there seems to be some confusion [in the historical sources] about whether Chacham Tzvi and Chayun had met previously in Sarajevo and if they had a face-to-face confrontation in Amsterdam. For the purposes of this book I have assumed that both events took place, and I have described them." In my opinion there is no confusion. Before Hayun even arrived in Amsterdam, but his impending arrival was known, Chacham Tzvi initially thought that he was the very same Hiyya Hayun - a different man know as "ha-Arukh," "the Tall One" - with whom he had an argument earlier in his life in Sarajevo (and as a result of which he had to leave that rabbinate). Hearing that Hayun was set to arrive, Chacham Tzvi informed the Portuguese Jews that he was a bad man and no assistance should be given to him. When he was refused entry to the synagogue by the Sephardim, he came to Chacham Tzvi, who realized that he had been mistaken, and so he retracted his statement. Of course this got everything off to a bad foot. However, it is difficult to argue that what resulted would not have occurred anyway. That this occurred can be proven by documents published by Freimann, in which the episode concerning Chacham Tzvi's initial warning about Hayun, and then his retraction when he realized that he mistook him for his earlier enemy are published.
Gold portrays the whole situation very differently. I can only conclude that Gold decided to assume that he was the same man because if he wasn't then Chacham Tzvi looks a tiny bit bad. Yes, he was right about Hayun in general, but before reading one word he wrote or meeting him, he declared him treif-possul - thinking he was a man that he himself had quarreled with previously. The fact that he retracted his criticism might make him look very honorable, but the problem is that the real Hayun turned out to be someone who you would not want to apologize to. So the matter disappears entirely if you assume that they were the same person, and don't mention anything about the initial accusation and retraction.
In any case, when all is said and done the book ends with a deathbed confession by a fictional character called Gunther Wieselthier, a German printer, who appears throughout the book and is described as a very nice guy. It turns out that he was really a character called Sergio Setubal, from an earlier story. Apparently he had a personal problem with one of the characters, and so he decided to reinvent himself and plotted for nearly thirty years to take his revenge, not only against this man, but against the entire Jewish community of Amsterdam. He confesses that he basically used Hayun in Amsterdam, and that he was responsible for many of the broadsides on both sides once the controversy erupted. He had used his knowledge of the community, gained by a network of spies whom he had employed, to set people against one another. In other words, the entire Hayun episode was really orchestrated by this fictional character. He does express regret as he lay there dying, and Gold even makes the man's conscience cause him to make sure that Chacham Tzvi know that he was about to be arrested, enabling him to sneak out of Amsterdam. But there is something unsettling about an entirely invented character, who happens not to be Jewish, responsible for a series of unfortunate events which, sadly, all indications are that they were the responsibility of those involved.
A couple of more comments and then the bottom line. The primary source for the historical events is the account provided by Chacham Tzvi's son R. Yaakov Emden in Megillas Sefer (I will review the new English edition soon). Obviously this source is one-sided, but Gold also acknowledges that he used "secular sources" or "general sources which I have not enumerated." An explanation of this might be nice. There are a few dozen footnotes and, as indicated, the only historical source cited is Megillas Sefer (apart for Shu"th Chacham Tzvi). I don't know which other sources he used. Did he use the Encyclopedia Judaica? Freimann's Inyanei Shabbetai Sevi (which is a collection of primary sources, so I'm not sure why it would be "general" or "secular)? The articles on Hayun or Ayllon in Sefunot (including the latter's Sabbatian writings)? Judith Bleich's MA dissertation on Chacham Tzvi in Amsterdam? Elisheva Carlebach's The Pursuit of Heresy? He doesn't say. So on the one hand, it would have been nice to know what he used. On the other hand, it is good that he acknowledged that these sources exist and that he used them. The footnotes are a positive step for historical fiction, and especially for a book for frum kids. Even the very fact of referencing Megillas Sefer is a good thing.
When all is said and done, the book is acceptable. I think on balance it does more good for kids than not. I will acknowledge that I myself was very drawn to certain books by Avner Gold when I was a child. He certainly succeeds in whetting appetites for historical knowledge of a very interesting period in Jewish history. His own love for history is apparent. His use of responsa to derive historical information is sound. The plot and narrative are fine for children. The prose is uneven, but sometimes it's very good. I obviously have my quibbles, but when all is said and done the balance sheet is in Avner Gold/ Yosef Reinman's favor. I know some will say that I am damning with faint praise, but I like to think that I used תוכחת מגולה ואהבה מסותרה (Ramban's introduction to the Torah, regarding Ibn Ezra). I commend and encourage Avner Gold/ Reinman to keep on keeping on.