Book Review: Herod: The Man Who Had To Be King

Herod The Man Who Had To Be King

From the Life in Israel blog:

This book, “Herod: The Man Who Had To Be King” is not a history book, but a novel. It is an historic novel, where the story is based on the actual history, but some parts are made up and details are made up as poetic license, but as stated in the introduction, Shulewitz, as a historian who spent much of his work researching Herod, insisted that all facts available be included in the story and he minimized his use of poetic license. Shulewitz did use imagination to fill in some gaps, but the story itself is very true to history.

Yehuda Shulewitz was born and raised in Peoria, Illinois. That makes us practically landsmen.

For some background, from his bio in the book – Yehuda (Louis) Shulewitz moved to pre-state Israel in 1947 to study Jewish history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He had previously received a degree in economics from the University of Illinois and served in the U.S. military in Europe during WWII.

The murder of the Hadassah medical staff on its way to Mount Scopus and the subsequent Arab invasion of the nascent Jewish state put his studies on hold. Yehuda remained alone and hungry in a friend’s Jerusalem apartment during the siege of the city. Later, he courageously made his way over the hills until he reached Tel Aviv, exhausted but safe. There he enlisted in Mahal — the overseas volunteer regiment of the Israel army.

After Israel’s War of Independence, Shulewitz returned to his beloved Jerusalem and, apart from occasional visits abroad, continued to live there until his passing in 2007. An observant Jew and gifted writer, his published materials include articles, short stories, and academic papers, as well as radio scripts, which were broadcast in many different languages. He also worked as the English editor of the Bank of Israel.

Following his retirement, Yehuda Shulewitz researched and wrote this historical novel set during the Herodian period in the largely Roman-dominated Mediterranean region of that time.

The book is fascinating. It is not a fast read like a Stephen King novel or the memoirs of a famous president or Prime Minister, but it is a fascinating book. The book is set in the times of Herod, and the style used is one that feels old – the style, the language, the nuances. It makes for a slower read, I think, but it also throws you back in time – it makes you feel as if you are there with them, watching the story unfold in front of you. Herod is not turned into a modern day ruler or warrior, the Roman leaders are not turned into modern-day leaders, in the attempt to make it a modern book. Instead of bringing these historical figures to us, the author brings us, the readers, to them.

While I trust the story remains as true to known history as possible, and one could approach the book almost as an historical guide, it is also a fascinating story, as a novel. We follow Herod’s career, his rise to power, his relations with other people, we encounter many other figures, some of them with very familiar names, from already being familiar with Jewish history and from Talmudic knowledge, while many unfamiliar names and characters are also introduced and woven into the story.

Reading this as a story helps one see the people as part of a broader perspective – they were people, they had families, they had motivations behind their decisions and actions, whether it was to advance a career or for some political benefit or as part of a greater scheme… Oftentimes you read about events in a history book and it almost seems technical and disconnected to the broader picture of who the person was and what motivated him. Ghengis Khan did this and that, conquered that country. Attila the Hun led his troops over the mountains. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Vietnam. Iraq. George Washington. You don’t really get to know the person. Setting the story in the form of a novel gives you more of the broader picture.

Herod is an intriguing figure in history, and in Jewish history in particular. He was a strong man, a dominant and powerful leader, and a very controversial personality. Reading this book will give you both more of the fascinating history of the times, as well as a broader picture of many of the people who played such vital roles in our history.

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