The Book of Splendor


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An epic tale reminiscent of Anita Diamant's "The Red tent, " this is a historical novel about the most unlikely of lovers, interwoven with the mysticism of the Jewish occult.

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Feb 28, 2017

A Book Not Splendid

The Zohar, or "Book of Splendor" is the central work of Jewish mysticism. In common with most forms of mysticism, Jewish mysticism encourages an experiential, contemplative approach to the divine. In Judaism, the Zohar and contemplative practices often served as a counterweight to the rationalistic approach of philosophers such as Maimonides. Rabbi Jacob Lowe of early 17th century Prague was a leading scholar and practitioner of Jewish mysticism. He figures prominently in Frances Sherwood's novel, "The Book of Splendor". As recounted in this book, Rabbi Lowe had difficulty, with all his efforts, in capturing something of a transcendental experience. He does so near the close of this novel.

For all its origins in the deep world of mysticism and contemplation, this novel falls far short. Sherwood describes her book as a "historical fantasy." The book is neither a historical novel because of the fanciful elements it includes nor a work of unfettered imagination because of the attempt to root it in a historical period and in historical event. The two elements, the history and the fantasy, are ineffectively combined, and the story, for me, collapses under its own weight.
Furthermore the book is more than a historical novel and a fantasy. It includes strong elements of polemic. The polemic is the weakest part of the book and contributes strongly to the dissatisfaction I felt with it.

The book is set in Prague in 1600. A major theme of the book is Jewish-Christian relations. The Jews were begrudgingly allowed to live in Prague. In this book, they live precariously in a ghetto and are live in constant danger from the government as well as from peasants and hostile townspeople and clergy that the government cannot effectively control.

The book also has as a major character the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II who ruled Prague at the time. The book portrays his combination of madness and evil. Rudolph wishes to become immortal and enlists the help of alchemists from England as well as Rabbi Lowe. The book includes as side-characters Tycho Brahe and Jonathan Kepler who become leading figures in the incipient scientific enlightenment.

The book has as its chief female character a young woman named Rochel of uncertain origins. She marries a cobbler named Zev who is substantially older. Rochel respects but does not, for most of the book love Zev.

These disparate plots are tied together by the legend and figure of the golem. The golem is a legendary creature that was said to have been created by Rabbi Loew to save the Jewish community from harm in Prague. The golem does that in this book. He also does much else, including becoming the lover of Rochel and allowing her, the story goes, to come to some form of peace with herself.

The story is cluttered, slow moving and does not hold together. I found the various components of the story working at cross-purposes to each other making the book confusing and unfocused. The most unconvincing portions of the book, and the portions which receive the most attention in the novel, are those involving the young woman Rochel and her relationship with the golem. I want to discuss this briefly.

The character of Rochel I found entirely anachronistic in a historical novel of this period or in a historical fantasy. I mentioned that this book has strong elements of polemic, and Rochel is a polemical figure. Rochel is a poor, illiterate woman who has been raised by her grandmother. When she makes her marriage with Zev, we find that she is impatient with her lot. Through her voice, Sherwood makes many criticisms of the status of women and of the alleged patriarchal character of the Judaism of the day of the story. I find these criticism out of place for a novel of this time period. Rochel bemoans her illiteracy and dreams of becoming a scholar. She objects to the practice of the traditional Judaism of her day that required women to cut their hair and wear wigs. She objects to the Jewish rituals of purification for women. She finds her husband's lovemaking efforts clumsy and unrewarding. She longs for passion in her life. In a book that focuses heavily on the precarious character of Jewish ghetto life and that also tries to portray the Jewish experience positively and warmly, I found this proto-20th century feminism distracting and out of place. Rochel does not come alive in the book, and I had no sympathy for her many adventures and distresses in the course of the novel.

After Rabbi Loew creates the golem, a relationship develops between Rochel and the creature. They have an affair, after which Rochel is condemned as an adulteress both by most of the Jewish community and by the Christian community outside the ghetto. Given the time and place of the story, and the strong biblical prohibitions against adultery, the book fails to convince me that the public reaction, Jewish and Christian, was entirely wrong or out of place for the time.

The affair between Rochel and the golem, a creature of legend, is implausible and unconvincing. Further, I felt uncomfortable with what, to me, the author was conveying in her story of a passion between a beautiful but frustrated young woman and a robot, for want of a better word. I found that by making the golem an outlet for Rochel's passion, the book deprecates the relationship between women and men. More specifically, the story -- and the liason the author creates between Rochel and the golem -- deprecates men. It makes an assumption, common to other literature of this type that I have read, that men are themselves incapable of a loving responsible relationship with a woman. This is why, I think, Rochel comes to herself in this book after the affair with the golem, rather than with, say, a relationship with a human being -- a man, whether a Jewish man within the ghetto or a non-Jewish man outside it. Too much of this book is simply a chapter in the modern version of the war between the sexes set in Prague in 1600. As I indicated, the sexual polemic does not fit well with the historical setting of the book or with the sympathy the author tries to convey for Jewish life in the ghetto in these times.

In summary, the novel moves very slowly and I grew impatient with it. I didn't find the book enjoyable or elevating to read. The various components of the story don't hang together well. The story of the golem is a rather overworked legend at best and it doesn't work well in the context of this novel. The book is spoiled by its use of too many overtly feminist themes during a time and a place in which these themes did not and could not have played a large role.

I enjoyed reading various comments of other reviewers of this book. For me the book was a disappointment.

Robin Friedman

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