This book is about a first century couple: a woman, Rachel, and man, Elazar, who make an eternal vow with God, exchanging the right to have their own lives end for the healing of their son Yochanan, who fell deathly ill while still a baby. It could have been philosophically dense, but instead it is a love story (on many levels) that is full of wit as well as trenchant observations about the meaning of life. It is told from the point of view of Rachel, who is – in her current “version” – an 84-year-old Jewish grandmother in present-day New York. But of course Rachel has been around for much longer than she appears. (She doesn’t “look” 84, which she tells others is because of “good genes.”)
The story begins in Jerusalem 2000 years ago during the era of the Second Temple, so this book is somewhat of a retelling of ancient Jewish history. Three of the main characters have real historical antecedents, including Elazar, governor of the Temple at the time of its destruction; Elazar’s father, the high priest Hanania; and the son of Rachel and Elazar, Yochanan, son of Zakkai, who lived to become an important Talmudic sage in his era. The early part of the story includes the Jewish revolt against Rome, and destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.
Since Rachel and Elazar live on and on, it is also a story about memory. What stays with you over the years and what doesn’t? In one of the funniest motifs of the book, Rachel is still mad about something Elazar did two centuries ago. But in addition, how does current technology change the whole dynamic that determines what and who gets remembered? Does everyone live forever now, in a sense, when you can find them – dead or alive – on social media?
Fans of Dara Horn may recall that in her book A Guide for the Perplexed, she tackled the topic of memory as well. In that book, the main character created a computer program which she called Genizah, designed to store personal memories. (A Genizah is a storage area in a Jewish synagogue or cemetery designated for worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers on religious topics prior to proper cemetery burial. It is, in effect, it is a physical memory storage area.) The character Josie in that story hypothesized that if we can “recreate” people from these memories, haven’t we in some senses “resurrected” them from the dead? Haven’t we made them immortal?
Rachel might answer: yes, but at least they are only immortal in virtual form, and don’t have to live through immortality.
Rachel occupies the centuries mired down in the minutiae of every day life. She used to wonder if these trivial activities actually concealed something godly; whether “miracles” were actually manifested in the ordinary:
“Many days and years and people had passed before she understood that the details themselves were the still and sacred things, that there was nothing else, that the curtain of daily life itself was holy, that behind it was only a void. Yet some days she still wondered.”
She has considered the reasons for being alive, and comes up with a number of theories: To love the Lord; to serve others; to experience joy; to build for the future; to correct mistakes; to avoid regret; to accept regret; to change; to make oneself superfluous. About this last, she thinks: “And therein lay the root of the problem. There was no point in any of it, none at all, unless one had plans to leave.” So she spends her life having children and chasing them around when they are young, “running after another reason for living.”
Her current son’s girlfriend has a different twist on that theory:
“Children are a gift from God, right? Why? Because they’re so wonderful? Honestly, they aren’t so wonderful. They’re a gift because they give us permission to fail. Because then we can at least imagine we’ve done something for the future, and we can die without thinking about what we haven’t done.”
But Rachel doesn’t have that “luxury.” She is haunted by thinking about not only her own apparent lack of purpose, but by how many children she has lost, because they could die but she could not:
“New parents think of each day as a cascade of beginnings: the first time she smiled, the first time she rolled over, her first steps, her first words, her first day of school. But old parents like her saw only endings: the last time she crawled, the last time she spoke in a pure raw sound unsculpted into the words of others, the last time she stood before the world in braids and laughed when she shouldn’t have, not knowing.”
And every few years – sometimes after a few centuries – Elazar finds Rachel. (She tries to stay mad at him, however.) This time he warns Rachel it’s not as easy to “die” and take on a new life as before. He tells her: “…this is the fifty-eight century, Rachel.” She says, “Or the twenty-first.” “‘Fine,’ he responds. The point is, he explains, the technology governing international security, including biometric identification requirements, make starting over ever more difficult. But he will take care of arrangements for her. (As he told her when they met, 2000 years ago, “You need me. You just don’t know it yet.”)
But Rachel doesn’t want to “start over” anymore. She wants to die. She goes to a psychiatrist, Dr. Moskowitz, who asks her “What brings you here today?” Rachel answers, “I’m repeating old negative behavior patterns, and I feel it’s very destructive.” She tells Dr. Moskowitz she can’t die, to which the psychiatrist replies, “Everyone feels invincible when they’re young.” Rachel tries to summarize her many lives. The doctor gives up and prescribes an anti-psychotic for her.
Some readers might be reminded of “The 2000 Year Old Man,” the comedy skit persona originally created by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in 1961.
Mel Brooks played the oldest man in the world, who was interviewed by Carl Reiner in a series of comedy routines. (One of my favorites: “Did you know Joan of Arc?” “KNOW her? I WENT with her!”)
The humor in this book as well as the basic plot remind me of their routines. The idea of eternal life has such hilarious potential for comedy, although Horn adds poignancy to the mix. She also feminizes it, by focusing on Rachel’s life as a mother and a wife. (Rachel has always avoided doing something more “public,” so as not to draw attention to herself.)
Rachel’s current granddaughter Hannah is a geneticist, and gives Rachel the idea that she might be able to find a way to die, after all. Ironically, Hannah, “who looked more like [Rachel] than anyone else had in two thousand years,” is trying to solve the problem of how to achieve eternal life, which would also, as a by-product of that research, illuminate the processes that end life. (Rachel says to Elazar, “High priests used to have this power. Did it ever occur to you that Hannah [feminized form of Hanania] and people like her are the new high priests?”)
Rachel cautions Hannah: “The hard part isn’t living forever. It’s making life worth living.” As she once complained to Elazar (after 300 years): “We don’t grow. We’re like an old book, full of stories and also full of errors, and no one can completely understand us. . . . But the problem is that we don’t change. Only the people around us change.”
But this time, maybe Rachel can die. Or maybe she can find something new that would make life worth living.
Discussion: This is not a long book, but it is dense with thought-provoking ideas. An underlying theme of this story is one of the most important stories of the Old Testament: the Akedah, or Binding of Isaac, told in Genesis 22:1-19. God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. Abraham agrees, but then is stopped at the last minute when God sends an angel who tells him to sacrifice a ram instead.
The Akedah became in Jewish thought the supreme example of self-sacrifice in obedience to God’s will.
In this book, the characters do a reversal of sorts. They agree to die themselves an infinite number of times to save their child. Rachel, at least, thought the vow she took was “metaphorical” like other religious teachings. And if she just agreed to give up on her child instead? What if God felt that way, and gave up on His children?
The high priest Hanania (Elazar’s father), tells Rachel at the time of her vow: “This vow will make you die without dying. If you make this vow, your son will live, but so will you.” The sacrifice, he explains, is her death. She tells him: “I would gladly die for my son.” “‘No,’ he explains. You will live for him.” Rachel almost smiled. “I’m already living for him. All mothers live for their children.”
And over the years, Rachel does indeed live for her children, hundreds of times.
[Horn points out in the book that in around the ninth century, the Jews came up with the Kol Nidre declaration during Yom Kippur. The formula proactively annuls any personal or religious oaths or prohibitions made upon oneself to God for the next year, so as to preemptively avoid the sin of breaking vows made to God which cannot be or are not upheld. (The Kol Nidre declaration can invalidate only vows that one undertakes on one’s own volition. It has no effect on vows or oath imposed by someone else, or a court.) In any event, this somewhat conceptually extraordinary ceremony came too late for Rachel and Elazar.]
In another theme, just as there are different “versions” of Rachel, there are different versions of her children. Some remind her of past children, but of course she could never tell them. One reason she likes her own current incarnation so much is that her son Rocky reminds her more than anyone of her first son, Yochanan. Rocky is not quite as successful, however; he is 56 and living in his mother’s basement after several failed businesses and marriages. He doesn’t make any sense to Rachel, just as Yochanan did not. Both of them – Rocky with his ongoing study of “blockchains” and money mining, and Yochanan with his ongoing analysis of Torah passages are connected in a way we don’t fully discern until the end of the story. Rachel may not understand bitcoins or the Torah like her children, but she sees both Yochanan and Rocky as “trying to achieve what [their] mother already had: a permanent record of the past that can never change….”
Eternal love plays a role as well. Rachel’s love for Elazar abides even through centuries of anger. Her love of her children, especially her first child, never leaves her. Elazar, too, does not find time a barrier to love. Tweeting in the hashtag thread #EternalLife he complains: “After 2000 years she still doesn’t love me like I love her. In a normal lifespan I might not have noticed. #EternalLife’s a bitch.” Someone responds, “Um, maybe it’s time to move on? 2000 yrs seems like long enough to get over your ex.” But Elazar answers, #EternalLife: I will love her until the end of time. Every man on earth will tell her that, but I am the only one who will ever mean it.”
The changing roles of men and women over the ages inserts itself intermittently; for Rachel, perhaps the biggest miracle she has ever witnessed is men starting to help with household chores.
And the meaning of parenting is always in play. In some ways the novel is an ongoing joke riffing on the theme that motherhood and the sacrifices one must make for it seem never-ending.
Finally, on a higher level, there is God’s meaning. Yochanan theorized that every story in the Bible or Talmud was “kind of like a secret message,” because “people aren’t as smart as God, so everything is like a stupid version of the real story.” Maybe all we can ever hope to know is “the stupid version.”
Evaluation: Besides the themes mentioned above, there are others worth contemplating, but too many to delineate in a review. Horn incorporates so many clever references and topics into this story that it would take a book of my own to explicate them all. Or one can just read it as a love story that lasts through all of time. If you like intelligent fiction – fiction that makes you think about religious, philosophical, political, technical, and personal issues and how they intersect – Dara Horn is one of the best authors I know who makes this happen.
Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2018