“Judah the Pious” is a richly told fable based upon a real-life character, Judah Ben Samuel of Regensburg, a 12th-century German rabbi, scholar and mystic who made predictions about the future of Israel.
The novel is a story within a story and tells the tale of an old rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer of Rimanov, who volunteers to approach the young king of Poland, King Casimir, to teach him about the Jewish traditions. Several prominent townspeople had witnessed Jews throwing dirt onto a grave at a funeral, and they were alarmed that the practice had evil connotations that could taunt ghosts into coming back and haunting innocent people.
When Rabbi Eliezer comes to court, a bargain is struck with the Polish monarch: If the rabbi can show the king of “… all the fallacies in a system which does not allow for the unseen and the improbable,” then Jewish people will be allowed to continue the practice.
Within minutes, the smooth-talking rabbi convinces the monarch to switch places with him, so that the rabbi is seated on the throne. With this subtle transference of power, the rabbi proceeds to tell the magnificent tale of Judah ben Simon.
Judah was the son of Hannah and Simon. After years of not being able to carry a child, Hannah becomes pregnant with a son after a visit to the prophet, Judah the Pious. Thrilled by their miracle, Judah ben Simon becomes a source of pride for the couple.
As he grows older, though, Judah becomes disenchanted with religion and his parents and goes off to live in the woods, studying the environment and becoming a naturalist. Rachel Anna, a six-fingered woman from a far-off city in Poland hears about him, and she travels to be with him.
Judah and Rachel Anna have a carefree life in the woods, but eventually, Judah leaves to study with renowned scientists. When he returns, he is anguished to find that Rachel Anna has borne a child, a child she insists was conceived in a dream. Judah leaves her and wanders the country, becoming a mountebank (a charlatan and ancient “pharmaceutical rep” who sells fake medicinal potions) and having countless outlandish adventures.
The book contains all of the elements of a superb fairy tale with fantastical elements.
Not only does the book eke out bits of insightful wisdom about faith, but the author includes some humorous observations. For example:
“Death itself seemed less fearsome than the shame of appearing inhospitable.”
“For marriage was the only weapon which the villagers thought powerful enough to stamp out such unbridled passion.”
The author, Francine Prose, was the recipient the Jewish Council Book Award for “Judah the Pious” in 1973 when she was only in her mid-20s. Relatively unknown at the time, Prose went onto become a successful and prolific writer. Other Prose novels containing Jewish themes are “Hungry Hearts,” for which she won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award in 1983, and “A Changed Man,” published in 2006. Prose was a finalist for the National Book Award for “Blue Angel.” Currently, Prose is on the faculty at Bard and is a frequent book reviewer and essayist.
Prose has said that “Judah the Pious” was based on a series of Jewish folk tales. The book delves into questions of miracles and faith versus science and addresses religious tolerance.
One question the book addresses is: Simply because we have no explanation for something, does it mean it isn’t true or doesn’t exist?
“Go look at those violets on my table,” I told him. “Notice the deep purple color of the petals, their velvety softness and sweet fragrance. Then, if you still have no understanding of miracles, I will know that no wonder in the world can make you a religious man.”
The novel is a maze of twists and turns, with the story appearing to veer off down unconnected pathways. However, just when the reader wonders how the rabbi’s story will circle back and relate to his original purpose, the author manages to tie the book up neatly, treating the readers to more than one surprise revelation at the novel’s end.
After the rabbi is finished telling Judah Ben Simon’s story to King Casimir, he says:
“I only hope that your heart may remain just as open, always ready to change your position on the possibility of impossible things, and to declare me the winner in our bargain.”
Despite Prose’s exemplary body of work, “Judah the Pious” unfortunately, remains largely unknown. A swift and riveting read, “Judah the Pious” is as good as storytelling gets.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.