The past might be another country, but which one?
Is it like Canada — we speak the same language, share some history, make many of the same assumptions about the world and each other, and occasionally are jolted by our differences? Or is it like, say, Fiji? Remote, exotic, almost mythic, but actually a real place filled with real people like us?
Lori Banov Kaufmann, a first-time author at 61 who will be speaking on Zoom for Congregation Beth Sholom (see box), is an American expat; she was born in Charleston, South Carolina, made aliyah decades ago, after having graduated from Princeton as an undergraduate and then from Harvard Business School, and has had an enviable career as a business consultant there. She’s married to Yadin Kaufmann, a wildly successful venture capitalist and social activist; the two met at Harvard, where he was at law school.
Until last year, her only publication outside her field was a book she and her husband co-wrote. That work, “The Boston Ice Cream Lover’s Guide,” got them a literary agent and a contract for a similar book about New York, until a job clerking for an Israeli Supreme Court justice brought the couple to Israel, Yadin’s mother’s birthplace.
The two have had what objectively seems like a wonderful life; they’re the parents of four grown children and are deeply involved in Israel’s business, social, and intellectual life.
But you don’t get to be Lori Banov Kaufmann without having an active imagination and openness to what you see around you. So when “I heard about a 2,000-year-old gravestone that was discovered in Italy — the gravestone of a Jewish woman who was taken captive after the fall of the Second Temple and was taken captive and sold as a slave in Rome — I was fascinated.
“I’ve always loved historical fiction, but for me it was about World War II, or maybe the Civil War – after all, I am from Charleston. It was not about ancient history.”
But that gravestone fascinated her.
Twelve years later, that find resulted in a book, “Rebel Daughter,” published by Random House. “It’s about one of the most momentous events in Jewish history,” the destruction of the Second Temple, the expulsion of the Jews from Israel, Judaism’s change from a Temple- to a more community-based religion. “And it’s told from a woman’s voice. The forgotten voices — women, children, slaves — are the voices people are looking to hear now. And the destruction of the Second Temple is an important event not just for Jews, but also for Christians,” a fact that can increase an author’s readership base significantly.
Ms. Kaufmann learned about the gravestone from a good friend, Dr. Jonathan Price; he ended up as her historical consultant during the 11 years is took her to write “Rebel Daughter.” Dr. Price, also American-born, is a historian who teaches at Tel Aviv University; he’s also her friend. “My husband went to high school with his wife,” Ms. Kaufmann said. “He’s a world-known classics professor and he’s working on a project to catalogue inscriptions from the ancient world.”
When she made clear how fascinated she was with the gravestone, “he sent me some information about the first century, and I realized that I knew almost nothing about it, and that the things that I thought that I knew about that period were wrong.”
For example? “I grew up with the myth of Masada — the idea that these were brave survivors taking their own lives instead of allowing themselves to be taken captive. I learned that these were fanatics, who caused the entire Jewish people to be banished. It was a total eye opener.”
She also came to realize that there “are so many parallels to our world now — the civil discord, the aggressive nationalism and tribalism, the religious fanaticism. The Jewish sects were fighting each other, so the Romans could sit back and just let them kill each other.”
This brings up the story of Tisha b’Av, the senseless hatred that caused Jews to turn on each other and eventually cause not only their own destruction, but their country’s as well. “The book deals with the destruction of the Second Temple,” Ms. Kaufmann said. “The Jews had stored enough food in Jerusalem to keep the population fed during the Roman siege, but the different Jewish groups burned each other’s food stockpiles, and that led to starvation and Jerusalem fell.
“That was something else that I hadn’t known.”
Ms. Kaufmann learned a great deal that she hadn’t known.
“The main character in my book was Claudia Aster, whose gravestone was discovered near the Bay of Naples,” she said. “On the epitaph on the stone, it said that she was a war captive from Jerusalem. That was the first archeological evidence that the Jews were taken to Rome.
“It says that it was from a Roman freedman named Tiberius, and this ancient inscription begs us to take care of the woman he loved. This find caused huge scholarly interest, because it tells a remarkable story. Historians and archeologists assume that Aster — which is Esther – was sold in Rome after the failed revolution.
“I wanted to know how a Jewish woman and a Roman man found each other and fell in love.
“Josephus” – that’s the Jewish-turned-Roman historian whose works tells us much that we know of the extraordinarily tumultuous times in which he lived — “is also a character in the book.”
Her characters were real-life people, Ms. Kaufmann said. Their emotions had to be imagined, of course, but their actions, bodies, clothing, food, houses, and lives were based on documented evidence from their period. “My book is very historically accurate, and that’s why it took me 10 years to write it,” she continued. “I felt an obligation to my historical characters.” So she worked closely with historians, archeologists, classicists, and other academics — that’s one advantage of being a high-level consultant, married to a venture capitalist, you know people — to ensure its accuracy.
“I felt an obligation to readers and to the characters,” she said. “I wanted to get it right. When I read a book, I want to know how much of is it true. I got obsessive about it.
“There are some scenes in the book that happen under the Temple, where there is a whole labyrinth of tunnels,” she added. “I could go into the tunnels, and I could walk on the same stones that my characters walked on.”
She learned a lot from her characters, and now that she’s finished with her book about them, “I miss them,” she said. “I felt like I was living in that world. Even though that time was so different from ours — slavery was ubiquitous, there was genocide and obviously a lot of sexism — yet there is so much about their struggle for survival, for freedom, for love that I could connect to.
“I think that a lot of the human elements in the book resonate today, even though it happened 2,000 years ago. I think that people still are struggling with the same things today.”
Who: Lori Banov Kaufmann and Dr. Jonathan Price
What: Will talk about Ms. Kaufmann’s book, “Rebel Daughter”
When: On Sunday, September 12, at 11:30 a.m.
Where: On Zoom, for Congregation Beth Sholom of Teaneck.
How: Go to www.cbsteaneck.org for details and to register