History and Fiction

by Mordechai Nisan

I remember seeing Yehuda in the library at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. We would exchange greetings, and he would plunge into his reading.  I didn’t know that he was working on a labor of love – a book about Herod.

The story of Herod and the era associated with him is cut from the historical cloth of three primary dates: in 167 BCE the Hasmoneans [Maccabees] fought their way to Jewish independence from under Greek Hellenic rule and the Jewish state arose again; in 63 BCE the Roman Empire quashed Jewish independence; in 47 BCE Herod of Idumean and Nabatean parentage became the governor of the Galilee and then King of Judea in 37 BCE until his death in the year 4.

Herod, as Yehuda’s book grippingly describes, “had to be king.” He was driven by a passion for power and used any and all methods deemed necessary in his view – murdering his own sons, causing the death of his wife, killing rabbis of the Sanhedrin, slaughtering Jews – in order to rule Judea even under Roman authority. His regime was based on terror and cruelty, intrigue and plunder, while yet adorning the country with the rudiments of Greek culture and Roman construction. He built – rather enlarged – the Temple in Jerusalem, the port of Caesarea, roads and theatres, gymnasia and fortresses. One of them, Herodion where he is buried, bears his name until today.

Yehuda Shulewitz wrote a historical novel of a dazzling and vicious historical personality. We do not easily know if the conventional historical record of Herod and his times is accurate: there are questions concerning the famous work The Wars of the Jews by Joseph Flavius (Yosef ben Matityahu). Writers of yore doctored their manuscripts; this author, Joseph Flavius, was no less indebted to the Romans, actually crossing the line from being a patriotic Jew to a Roman cultural agent.

This fictional work may be markedly more accurate by plumbing the depths of Herod’s soul. With creative imagination and psychological insight, Yehuda paints a portrait of Herod that animates his intense and fanatical ambitions. Coming alive, Herod is now a real person in fictional form; and it may be that the author of fiction captures the depths of the historical characters better than the dry text of history, and its questionable commitment to unbiased reporting. Fiction is no longer the opposite of reality but an authentic rendition of it. The work of fiction, as in the capable hands of Yehuda, can provide a realistic presentation of history, while a work of “history” may be more fictional than we can imagine or know.

Yehuda wrote about the things he loved: Eretz-Israel, Judaism, the Jewish people. His delicate and detailed descriptions of the land and its seasons and scenery reverberate in the chronological development of Herod’s life. We the readers find ourselves in Emmaeus [between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv], at Jericho in the Jordan Valley, and on the Temple Mount. Yehuda puts life into history and history into the light of contemporary life.

This book bears the stamp of authenticity and humanity. We observe Mariamne Herod’s wife and Queen Cleopatra his adversary, with all of the temper and vigor of women struggling to fulfill themselves and their goals. It is a painful picture, but one riveted with life-size people and their agonies.

Moreover, an author of fiction may use this genre of literature to convey his own autobiography. I think Yehuda was engaged in this endeavor, in the real sense of engagé, because he loved Israel, the land and its Jews, and the splendor of Torah, its law and homiletics. They are all resonating clearly from the book.

Herod: The Man Who Had to be King resounds with the author’s personal love of history, while he was working at his regular job. You don’t write a sweeping history, here close to five hundred pages in length, without a passion for the subject. But Yehuda was no Herod. With his suspicions and jealousies, always on the lookout for rivals and enemies, Herod was not able to be calm and behave with moderation. His manias were his greatest protagonist.

Yehuda was a man who radiated humility and doing good. He could relax from the conflicts of life because his soul was serene; he meant no harm to anybody, and believed in and spoke well of his people and country. Herod sought power and glory: but what was it really worth when his soul was tortured and wounded?

We can be grateful for Yehuda Shulewitz’s lasting contribution to literature and history with this extraordinary book, to read it and be educated, in the annals of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. After Herod came Christianity and the destruction of the Second Temple. But we now live in the period of the national renaissance of our people, and in our homeland and state. With millennia-tested patience and persistence, proud of whom we are as an ancient and great people, Yehuda was able to inject life into history, just as he was living a new chapter in Jewish history in modern times.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s