Arabian Nights, Jewish Dreams
By Martin Berman-Gorvine
Janice Weizman’s The Wayward Moonmarks a refreshing departure in the Jewish historical novel, which is all too prone to focus on a limited range of well-known subjects and the theme of Jewish victimization. The setting in the 9th century Middle East is one that even avid readers of Jewish-themed history and historical fiction are unlikely to be familiar with, if they have thought about
it at all. Weizman, a Canadian immigrant to Israel and managing editor of The Ilanot Review, a literary journal affiliated with the creative writing program at Bar-Ilan University, brings this time and place vividly to life with lively descriptions of the sights, sounds, odors and tastes of the region.
Our heroine, a 17-year-old girl named Rahel, lives in Sura in what is now Iraq, a famous center of Talmudic learning. When her physician father is murdered by a Muslim rival jealous of his appointment as advisor to the local ruler, which he has reluctantly accepted for the sake of the Jewish community, Rahel kills the murderer in self-defense and immediately flees the city to escape the vengeance of the killer’s family. The novel consists of her adventures traveling alone through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Galilee. It is an exciting story, as the pampered Rahel draws on inner resources she didn’t know she had to survive in a hostile world.
One of the many virtues of The Wayward Moon is that it avoids both of the fashionable extremes with regard to Jewish-Muslim relations—the gauzy sentimentality centering around the “Golden Age” in Muslim-ruled Spain, according to which Muslims were supremely tolerant of their Jewish neighbors until, it is implied, the Zionists came along and ruined everything, and an equally one-sided and historically unfounded view of the entire sweep of Muslim-Jewish relations over a dizzying range of cultures through more than a millennium as an unrelieved hell. Instead, Weizman shows the nuances and conflicts that existed within Islam, and quite reasonably suggests that individual Muslims held different views of how they should relate to their Christian and Jewish neighbors.
A generous humanism pervades the novel, as Weizman suggests that Jews, Muslims and Christians of good faith can find common ground. Without criticizing this spirit, however, I found it unconvincing that 9th century Muslim and Christian intellectuals would have expressed themselves in post-Enlightenment terminology, accepting all of the “monotheistic” religions as at least potentially equally worthy. The hardest task of the historical novelist is to get into the different mentality of his or her chosen historical setting, and while Weizman has clearly done her research, she has not made this leap with complete success.
Moreover, one gets the sense that Rahel’s adventures are driven at times by a perceived need to offer the reader a travelogue. Sold into slavery? Check. Visited a monastery? Check. Traveled with a caravan? Check. Stayed in a colorful inn? Check. Similarly, some of the characters seem to be there for their pedagogical value, and the Jewish characters except for Rahel tend to be two-dimensional kindly and pious cutouts. It’s a little odd in a Jewish historical novel to find that the non-Jewish characters are frequently more fully realized than the Jewish ones. I also found myself getting impatient with Weizman’s overuse of the timeworn plot device of the woman disguised as a man, the fantastic ease with which a girl who has never ridden a horse becomes a skilled horseman literally overnight, and the deus ex machina conclusion that suggests the author really didn’t know how to end the novel.
These flaws should not deter readers from buying this entertaining and thought-provoking novel. I hope Ms. Weizman will bring us more spunky, smart, strong Jewish heroines like Rahel.