Authors like Anita Diamant, Marek Halter, and Orson Scott Card have created a new genre using sparse biblical stories as the basis for full-bodied popular fictional works.
Within this niche, Eva Etzioni-Halevy holds the distinction of being the only Israeli biblical novelist writing in English. A sociology professor born in Vienna during World War II, Etzioni-Halevy became fluent in English while living in Australia during a time when she was alienated from things Jewish.
"As a child, I was very religious; I spent three years in a youth aliyah village in Israel," said the author, who will be making two Bergen County stops on a book tour of the United States next week. "When I grew up, I left Israel and religion, and I lived in other countries and other cultures."
In time, she said, she realized that fleeing her roots "didn’t work."
Eva Etzioni-Halevi feels her new novel, about Deborah, has special relevance these days. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
"Some years later, I went back to Israel and back to the Bible. I fell in love with it. It contains the most dramatic stories about people who lived thousands of years ago and yet are so similar to us in their hopes, desires, and anxieties. This is what attracted me to write about it."
She said that she was particularly drawn to the women of the Bible. "I started to identify with them. I wanted to take a journey back in time and feel what they felt."
Her first foray into biblical fiction, "Song of Hannah," was published in ‘005 by Plume/Penguin. "It took only a couple of months to write, and a couple of years to rewrite," she said with a laugh. "I had written academic books before, but I had to learn the trade of writing fiction."
"The Garden of Ruth" came out in ‘006, and "The Triumph of Deborah" in March, both from the same publisher.
"I chose to write in English because the market is a lot bigger," said Etzioni-Halevy, who lives near Tel Aviv and is a professor emerita at Bar-Ilan University. "Also, I felt the market would be more receptive than in Israel. Here, people are religious or secular. Secular people, I thought, might not be interested, and some very Orthodox people might take exception to some of the suggestive scenes in the novels. It’s the ones in between who are interested in my books."
Although she maintains that her plots are faithful to the biblical text, she does take literary license. For instance, in "The Triumph of Deborah," she writes that the heroine is divorced and holds romantic interest for the heroic general Barak two details that are not in the ancient account in Judges.
"The Bible is usually brief, and leaves gaps in stories," Etzioni-Halevy said. "I fill those gaps with my imagination. I didn’t feel there was anything wrong with that; some people may think otherwise. Deborah was the national leader at a time when Israel was in big trouble, when the Canaanites were engaged in terrorist activities, so she calls this warrior Barak and says he has to go out to fight, and he says to her, ‘If you come with me I will go, but if you don’t come with me I will not go.’
"This is a very strange statement. Warfare was a man’s affair; women were not conscripted, so why did he want her there? The Bible also says she went to his hometown, and this is very odd for a married woman with children, so I thought this must have created problems between herself and her husband, who was left behind to do the babysitting."
The author said she is intrigued by the female personalities of the Scriptures.
"They are mostly side characters and I wanted to bring them center stage and hand them a loudspeaker to amplify their voices, so they can be heard clearly across the generations and enhance the feminine aspect of the Bible," she said.
Etzioni-Halevy feels her novel may be of special relevance in an American election year in which a female candidate is a powerful contender, and also during the 60th anniversary of Israel at a time when female political leaders are increasingly prominent.
"The message that emerges between the lines is that a woman leader is capable of leading her nation to war whenever necessary, and to peace whenever possible," she said. "The novel also shows that although she was a highly charismatic leader, in her own life Deborah was very much a woman."
Scheduled to appear at the Glen Rock Jewish Center on May ” at 7 p.m. and at Temple Beth Israel in Maywood on May ‘9 at 6:30, the Israeli author said she plans to discuss the process of writing and the plots and religious messages that readers may glean from her books.