This is the story of Yehoshuah, who wandered Roman-occupied Judea giving sermons and healing the sick. Now, a year after his death, four people tell their stories. His mother grieves, his friend Iehuda loses his faith, the High Priest of the Temple tries to keep the peace, and a rebel named Bar-Avo strives to bring that peace tumbling down.
It was a time of political power plays and brutal tyranny. Men and women took to the streets to protest. Dictators put them down with iron force. In the midst of it all, one inconsequential preacher died. And either something miraculous happened, or someone lied.
Viscerally powerful in its depictions of the period -- massacres and riots, animal sacrifice and human betrayal -- The Liars' Gospel makes the oldest story entirely new.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown and Company|
|Sold by:||Hachette Digital, Inc.|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Alderman was selected for Granta's once-a-decade list of Best of Young British Novelists and was chosen by Margaret Atwood as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. She is the cocreator and lead writer of the bestselling smartphone audio adventure app Zombies, Run! She contributes regularly to The Guardian and presents Science Stories on BBC Radio 4. She lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
The Liars' Gospel
By Naomi Alderman
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2013 Naomi Alderman
All rights reserved.
There is a dead boy on the hillside, they say. Or maybe just almost dead. The herder Ephrayim found him when he was seeking a lost lamb, and does not know how long he has lain in the shallow cave between the pathways. Where has he come from? They don't know. The clothes look like those made in Shomron, but the shoes are Galilean. Sturdy shoes, said Ephrayim, laying thereby his claim should the boy be lost. Sturdy, but still he should not have tried to cross the hills alone. It has been six cold nights one after another. Snow has fallen although it is nearly spring.
Still, if he is dead he must be buried, and if he is not dead they must attempt, at least, to care for him. They bring him to Natzaret thrown over the back of a mule. This is where Miryam first sees him. He is breathing, just a little, very shallow breaths, and they have wrapped him in furs. As they bring him in, a crowd comes to see—is he someone's cousin? Someone's nephew? Why did he come to Natzaret at such a time of rough travel? No one recognizes him. They push Miryam to the front in any case, to take a good look. A mother would know her own son, however changed he might be. Though they know there is no hope and he is at least a decade too young. But just in case.
Her youngest son, Iov, tugs on her skirt and says, "Who is it, Ima? Who is it? Why does he look like that, Ima?"
She picks Iov up and passes him to her friend Rahav to hold as she stares intently at the man on the back of the mule. The half-dead man is not her son. How could he be? She notices that two fingers on his right hand are black. He'll lose them, painfully. If he's lucky.
They place him in Amala the widow's house and put him to bed with the dogs, for warmth. He sleeps the night, though they expect him to die, and in the morning begins to rouse, a little, enough to flutter his eyelids and take drips of water from a soaked rag. The pain from his blackened fingers keeps him moaning constantly, even in his sleep, a low keening wail like an abandoned newborn. He shivers and sweats and holds the injured hand like a claw. They fear a fever. They call for the blacksmith, who performs the necessary deed with kindness, that is to say: swiftly. He screams of course, a strangled, terrified howl, but that night he takes a little soup and sleeps deeply. He still has not spoken to say who he is, although he understands them when they say "soup" or "water." They wonder if he is a Jew at all, and not a Syrian or a Greek.
It is four more days until he speaks. They take turns feeding him bone soup or bread soaked in milk. Among themselves, they murmur. He is not as young as the light bundle of him crumpled in the cave had suggested, but not so old as the lines on his face. His beard has not come in yet, except in mottled patches. He is perhaps fifteen or sixteen. And where are his people? There is one obvious answer. Every year, some village rebels against the Romans, refuses to pay the tax, claims they cannot pay—often it is true, they cannot pay. And the tax collectors report the rebellion, and soldiers are dispatched. Every year, some village is burned, its men put to the sword, its women and children to flight. It is not likely that a boy as young as this would have been a ringleader, would be remembered by a soldier. It is not likely that it is dangerous to have him here. Nonetheless, the old men mutter.
On the fourth day, when they come to give him his soup, they find he has woken and is patting the dog with his whole hand, keeping the injured one close to his chest. He is murmuring to the dog in good, intelligible Aramaic.
He looks up guiltily as Amala and Rahav enter the room with his soup. He knows they have heard him speaking. His good hand is twined in the dog's fur and the animal stirs and whines as it feels him tense.
Rahav puts the tray on the floor, just out of the boy's reach. Her arms are folded. She glares at him. Rahav's children are the best behaved in the village, mostly out of fear.
"Well," she says, "we've fed you. Now, who are you?"
The boy glances between Amala and Rahav. He looks hungrily at the soup.
"Is this Natzaret?" he says. "Did I reach Natzaret?"
They tell him it is. He did.
A change comes over his face. He sits up a little straighter, sets his jaw, as if facing a difficult job.
"Natzaret in the Galil?"
They tell him yes, again. And they cannot discern whether he is glad or afraid, such a shining-eyed sharpness comes over his face.
"The village of Yehoshuah the Teacher?"
And Amala and Rahav glance at each other with a sort of sad surrender. Of course, this. Out in the street, the little boy Iov is playing with some of the other children. Rahav sends him to fetch his mother, Miryam.
The rabbis say: when a loved one dies the sword is at your throat, and every way you turn your head it is there, in front of you.
So, this is how she is. When she grinds the wheat, she thinks of him. And when she soaks the cloths, she thinks of him. And when her youngest son, Iov, comes running to her, yes, it is her Iov, the foolish child who got his hand stuck in a jar because he would not unclench his fist to let go of the dried fig he'd found. But it is also that first little boy, her eldest son, the first child who ever skidded to a halt in the muddy place by the chicken enclosure shouting "Ima, Ima!"—"Mummy! Mummy!" She is distracted by the constant double image.
Iov is saying something. He kicks at a stone. The snow has turned to slush and the thin rain will soon wash it away entirely. He digs his toe into the hole left by the stone.
"Don't do that," she says, "you'll wear out the leather."
And he looks at her sadly, because she spoke more sharply than she'd intended.
"But Ima, Ima, did you hear me? They're looking for you, at Amala's house, they're looking for you! They want you to go and see that man with half a hand!"
She asks him why, and his mouth twists and his eyes open very wide and she understands that he does not want to answer. So she has an idea, already, of what it is.
The women waiting outside Amala's home aren't waiting for her. They say nothing when she comes, most of them can't meet her eyes. One or two touch her on the back or shoulder as she passes. The rest are simply afraid. They want to know if this boy is a curse she has brought on them.
Inside the smoky, dark room, he is sitting on a heaped mattress. Someone has given him a woolen jerkin, with a thick robe on top of it. They add bulk to his thin frame. When she enters he stands, a little shakily, to greet her.
She says, "Who are you?"
He looks into her eyes. He has an unsettling trick: that every word he says, he seems to mean with a profound depth of feeling.
"I am Gidon," he says, "from Yaffo."
"And why have you come here, Gidon of Yaffo?"
His eyes are so clear and innocent that she becomes afraid. Innocence can destroy three times as quickly as guile. At least the cunning can be reasoned with or bribed.
"I have come to seek the village of Yehoshuah the Teacher, to find his friends and family here, to meet them and to befriend them."
She breathes in and breathes out.
"He was a traitor, a rabble-leader, a rebel, a liar and a pretender to the throne. We have tried to forget him here."
"Did you know him?" Gidon says.
She remains silent.
"Did you know him?" he repeats.
The fire spits. Some wet log sending a shower of sparks past the circle of stones onto the moist earth floor.
"I was his mother," she says.
A wetness is starting in his eyes, he is shaking.
"Oh, blessings are on you," he says, "blessings are on you, and on your womb and breasts, because of the son you have given the world. A thousand thousand blessings from He Who is in All Places, for your son Yehoshuah."
Her heart is a stone. Her mouth is a closed door.
His eyes are shining. She thinks he might be about to embrace her or kiss her hand or fall to his knees before her.
"Go home," she says again, before he can do any of these things. "We do not want you here."
And she leaves the room before he can say any more to her.
She remembers the screaming trees that night.
She thinks of them many days, and of what happens to those who challenge and fight and argue. And how little this boy seems to understand of where his words will lead.
She remembers the screaming trees and she thinks: if I can bear not to speak to him, it will be better for him. But she knows she does not have that strength.
The boy will not leave, of course. They do not understand how one simple, addle- headed, half-handed boy can be so stubborn. They offer him food for the journey. They offer him the warm clothes as a gift. When Sha'ul the merchant passes by on his way to Jerusalem, they suggest he take the boy with him as a help against bandits, and Sha'ul, whom they have known for twenty summers, is not unwilling—but the boy refuses.
He will work, he says. He will repay the kindness they have shown him. He will sleep in the stone shelter made for the goats. The weather is becoming warmer, it will not be a hardship to sleep there if he builds a small fire. His hand is mending, look, the wound has healed clean. He can work. If they will give him a bowl of food each day for his trouble, he will tend their crops and mind their animals and mend their gap-toothed walls. They shrug their shoulders at last. If he wants to be the madman of their village, so be it.
All of them know which house he will choose to settle by. Which byre will be his dwelling place. Whose fields he will clear of stones. Miryam is unsurprised when, one morning, she awakes to find him sitting patiently on a rock by her door.
He watches her stumble, morning-stiffened, to the well. She lowers the bucket and twists the rope just so, to make it dip under the water and fill, but when she tries to pull it up he is by her elbow.
"Let me do it."
And she is old and tired and her knuckles and wrists ache. It is easy to let him. If he wants to, why not let him? He hauls the full bucket up. He is a little clumsy with his half-hand, but he is adapting quickly, as children do. As she watches, he tests out different ways of gripping the rope, settling at last on using the arm with the injured hand to trap the rope close to his body and secure it, while the other hand works to bring up more. He reminds her of a blind man she saw once, reading his way along a wall with a light and interested touch, as though his fingers were eyes.
He carries the bucket for her, a little unsteadily, slopping out more than she would like. He brings it into the room where little Iov and his sister Michal are still sleeping, wrapped around each other. They do not stir. Gidon puts the bucket by the fire. Looks at her. Like a sheep, she thinks, looking for its flock.
"If you pour it into the pot," she says, "and put the pot on the fire, we can make hyssop tea." She nods at the bundle of dried leaves hanging from the ceiling beam. "There is bread from yesterday still."
Favoring his good hand, he hoists the bucket again, pours the water into the pot. Lifts the pot onto the raised stones over the fire. She pokes at the logs with a stick of wood.
"You do not want to talk to me."
His voice is not accusing. He is calm.
"No," she says.
"But you let me help you."
There is no trace of bitterness.
She shrugs. "Do we not read: 'The Lord will recompense you for the work you have done'?—and so is it not good to work?"
He starts, and stares at her. It is true, a woman of learning is not a common thing, but neither is it entirely unknown. All the people of the village know their letters; one or two of the other women could best her in quoting Torah passages. She knows it is not this which interests him.
"Tell me again," he says, "or again another thing."
She shakes her head.
"If you want to learn, there are better teachers than me. Go and seek out a teacher."
And he says, "I have already done so. My teacher cannot teach me anymore."
The water begins to boil. She dips in a jug, breaks dry leaves into the water and pours some into a small clay bowl for him, and for her. The well water is good, thank God. It is clean and pure and tastes of old stones.
"If you are willing to work then you are from the Lord. If you work then I will feed you, until the spring, when you should go back to your people."
There is such happiness in him when she says this that she knows what she has done.
There is a thing she often remembers. It was a little thing. When her first son was only a baby, and she was a new wife, and her husband was so young and strong that he lifted great boulders to make the walls of their sheep pen. In that part of their lives, she remembers, they passed evenings gazing at their little son sleeping. Every first baby seems like a miracle. The old women laugh and say: by number six she'll forget what name she gave the new one.
But this was their first child. Yosef, her husband, made the baby a cradle of woven branches. Yehoshuah was snug in there, on a bed of fur with a lamb's-wool blanket.
The thing she remembers is that there was a scorpion. It happened between one moment of looking and the next. The baby was sleeping, she looked away, and then there was a small yellow scorpion in his cradle. Poised over his heart. Yellow scorpions are the most dangerous. When she was a child, a man in the village was stung by a yellow scorpion like that, its tail dripping venom. He died of it, shaking and sweating and crying out for his mother. He was a man of forty and strong in himself.
She looked at the scorpion, sitting on the chest of her sleeping child, and there was not a thought in her head. Every mother knows how it is. There is no thinking or weighing one thing against another. She reached her hand into the cradle, plucked out the scorpion, threw it to the ground and crushed it beneath her shoe to oozing yellow muck.
She had been fast, but scorpions are also fast. It had grazed the skin of her hand with its sting, leaving a faint red score on her flesh. As the day passed, her hand grew hot and heavy, her limbs ached. Her heart pounded, her knees buckled. She thought: I shall die like that man in the village, but it is better that I should die than my baby. When Yosef came home from the fields in the evening, expecting his supper, he found her lying on the straw-filled mattress with hot dry skin and glassy eyes and the baby crying in her arms.
It was three days like that. Yosef brought her well water and she drank a little, and vomited, and the baby would not cease from crying though Yosef fed him goat's milk from a skin bag. But at the end of three days the fever broke. Yosef had to bring her a pot to piss in because she could not walk to the stone outhouse. Her right arm and right leg, the side the scorpion had stung, were numb like a fallen branch.
She recovered slowly. It was hard, with a small baby, but she was young and strong then and with God's help she grew well. Her right hand never regained all its cunning. Still it is slower than its fellow, still it will not close into a tight fist only a loose one. She cannot use a needle with the right finger and thumb and had to teach herself to use the left. But she never regretted her action, not as she saw him grow tall and wise and strong. When he was a grown man of twenty she would thank her own hand sometimes for his life. Her hand, and the guidance of God.
But this past year, she thinks: what was it for? What had been the point of all those thousand thousand acts of work and love that go to raise a child? What was the point of any of it, seeing what has happened, and that he has not left even a grandchild from his body to comfort her?
The boy Gidon works hard, there is that at least. Her own grown sons will help her if she is ill, but they have their families now, and Iov, the littlest one, is too small to be much use lifting and carrying. He minds the sheep, but he can scarcely keep his thoughts even on that. Gidon has the single-mindedness that impressed and frightened her the first time they met. He has cleared the back field, which has lain untended since her husband, Yosef, was with them. They will be able to plant wheat in it, or barley, in a month's time.
Excerpted from The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman. Copyright © 2013 Naomi Alderman. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
The Mind of a Different Era: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Naomi Alderman
Every decade Granta magazine names its choices for the Best Young British Novelists, and the English-speaking literary world takes note. The most recent list justly includes Naomi Alderman, whose literary output has ranged from her 2005 novel, Disobedience which garnered her the Orange Award for New Writers to her co- created collaborative "alternate reality game," Perplex City. The Liars' Gospel is a gimlet-eyed retelling of Jesus' life and death from the perspective of his mother, Mary, the disciple Judas, a priest, and a revolutionary, none of whom are convinced he is the Son of God. The resulting story is visceral and sharp, full of food and drink, of compromise and rebellion, and of belief and doubt. The Jerusalem of Jesus' day, its bloodbaths and its compromises, emerges in astounding detail.
Alderman grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household and remains interested in Judaism and in fundamentalism of various kinds. I've followed her work since Disobedience, which centers on a young woman who seeks to reconcile her belief in God and desire for community with her desire for other women. As a writer who grapples with the evangelical Christianity of my upbringing, I, like Alderman, am fascinated by and sometimes wary of the church's borrowings from Judaism. She and I met recently at the Jerusalem Book Fair and were amazed to learn, despite our very different backgrounds, how much we have in common. We conducted the following interview by Skype and email. Maud Newton
Maud Newton: So we're here to talk about The Liars' Gospel,J which is a great, great book, but first, if I understand this correctly: you were just in Cuba with Margaret Atwood?
Naomi Alderman: We climbed up into the mountains where Che Guevara hid during the Cuban Missile Crisis to see the Cuban Solitaire (a bird); we took boats through the Zapata Swamp; and our bus broke down on the way from the Zapata Swamp at a police checkpoint where Margaret Atwood and I sat on the steps and talked about God.
MN: Oh, to be a gecko on the wall! What else did you talk about?
NA: My new novel is-well, I have bitten the bullet and admitted that it is a feminist science fiction novel of the 1970s and '80s, of the kind people wrote a lot then, but don't seem to anymore.
MN: So it owes something to Atwood?
NA: It's influenced by Le Guin, Zimmer Bradley, Piercey, Butler, and indeed, yes, Margaret Atwood! She picked me for the mentorship based partly on my synopsis for this novel. so it's sort of?"we're working together because she's the perfect person to talk to about this."
MN: You two have a lot in common. You're both feminists, both literary writers interested in SF and technology, both concerned with religion and its effects on the culture.
NA: It's just really a wonderful thing a gift. Also, everything I say about it sounds like a strange dream I'm relating to a therapist. "I went to Cuba with Margaret Atwood to watch birds but one day I got a migraine and then Margaret and I went swimming in the sea and a brown pelican came down and took a fish from the ocean. What does it mean, Dr. Newton?"
MN: Ha! Did working with her influence The Liars' Gospel at all?
NA: Well, in fact, The Liars' Gospel was all done before I applied for the mentorship she did read the manuscript, though. She said she thought I was a little bit too easy on religion in the opening section, which is probably a fair comment. Maybe I'll get tougher as I get older-and become less of a people-pleaser!
MN: You grew up with religion, right in an Orthodox household?
NA: I was raised in what they call a Modern-Orthodox household, so our practice was very Orthodox. My mother covered her hair, there was no tearing of toilet paper on the Sabbath. But my family were also intellectual, and we had many interesting books in the house. They were determined for me to have a proper education. Eventually, if you educate your girls and also tell them they have to live an Orthodox Jewish life?something may have to give.
MN: So true. I can relate, a little bit, though my background was evangelical. How did your family's attitude toward women and education go over in the community?
NA: It has to be said, we were a bit...unusual in our community. My father's an outspoken historian who believes in telling the truth not a thing that goes down well in general. He got into trouble in the late '80s for publishing a book which revealed that during the war prominent Jewish people in the UK pressed the government not to allow boatloads of refugees from Nazi Germany into Britain. It was the truth, but people don't like the truth, so we were always.... I don't want to use the word pariah. I think the word is weird.
MN: Was the grandfather who made the notes on the same passage you did, the who put the same question mark alongside it, your dad's father?
NA: He was my mum's father maybe she married my dad because he reminded her a little bit of her dad? My mum's father, Eliezer Freed, was a self-taught polymath, educated himself in Hebrew and ancient languages, wrote music, sang, was an illustrator, even an inventor! His design for a gas-proof pram was purchased by the British government during the war. He also wrote books, especially children's books. We have an unpublished manuscript of his about Josephus. It's a history of the Jewish people as told by Josephus, who, in the story, has himself sealed in a lead-lined coffin during the Roman occupation, takes a special draught which will make him sleep for 100 years, and awakens again and again at different points in Jewish history. So I guess that deep engagement with history is something that my mum's dad and my dad had in common.
MN: And you have this in common with both of them!
NA: I do! It's been a topic of conversation in my family for a long time: how can you understand the present without understanding the past? Like therapy! We always live in a house built by an earlier version of ourselves, either our own selves or an earlier version of the human race. We can't be building the house fresh every day.
MN: And so, the story of Jesus. Did you always know you wanted to tell it? Retell it?
NA: I've been thinking about this book for a long time, maybe twenty years. I started thinking about it when I was sixteen or so, and was studying Latin and Hebrew at the same time, Rome and Jerusalem, and I was struck by how neither set of writings really had anything to say about Jesus, and the little bits there were very uncomplimentary.
NA: I said to my Hebrew teacher: "Someone should write a book about the Jewish Jesus." And she went, "No no! No one should write that book." Which is a perfect way to make me want to do it. And the idea kept coming back to me, pretty much every Easter. I would hear the Gospel story on the radio or something and seethe internally and go, "But I am a Pharisee! We're alright, Pharisees."
MN: Which part made you seethe the most?
NA: For me it was the focus on the salvation through the suffering on the cross. I knew from my Josephus that the Romans on occasion crucified 2,000 people in a single day and lined the roads to Jerusalem with them. At which point, dude, nothing so very special happened to Jesus, nothing that would, like, redeem the whole human race through suffering. I mean if Jesus can redeem all those who believe in him by those few hours on the cross, how incredibly redeemed must the Jews be, given that tens of thousands of us went to the cross?
MN: Did your granddad's Josephus manuscript emphasize this, too?
NA: Nah, my grandfather's Josephus is kind and loving and not angry like me although there is this one great bit in that book where he talks about seeing a Christian turn the other cheek and how the gesture puzzles and sickens him. The idea of asking for punishment is sickening and that stayed with me. A reversal. Another way to look at it.
MN: I'm interested in your current thoughts on religion in general. Or rather, your beliefs.
NA: Hmmm. Well, I do not believe that the Torah was written by an infinite and omniscient and all-loving God. I think it's a book of much stuff that was very useful in its time, some of which is still useful today, written by men. Do I believe in God? I don't really. Not really. I'm quite happy, I think, to accept that God is my imaginary friend and that I've made him up. And yet I still occasionally have a chat with that imaginary friend. I mean, I'm a novelist, I spend as much time with imaginary people as real ones.
MN: Are you drawn to many historical novels or novels that reimagine history or myth?
NA: I have read quite a bit of historical fiction, everything from Ellis Peters to Umberto Eco, Hilary Mantel to Rosemary Sutcliffe. I am impressed by all those four what I'm unimpressed by is writers who fail to imagine how minds were different in different eras. I think one sees it more in film than novels in novels you have to put yourself inside the mind of the characters, perhaps in movies you can get away without doing it. So you get horrors like the moment in Gladiator (which is in general a very good, very Roman-feeling movie) where Commodus berates Marcus Aurelius for not having loved him as a boy. What nonsense. No Roman man would have asked for this from his father, nor would a Roman father have apologized for it. A Roman man might have been justly condemned for not teaching his son the manly virtues, but love...? Irrelevant. One has to understand that people really did think differently in the past. MN: As you can probably tell, since I've already mentioned it twice, I'm fascinated that you and your granddad both underlined and drew a question mark alongside the same passage, and that you discovered this not so very long ago. Which passage was it?
NA: It was this bit, from Josephus: "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day." Highly unlikely that Josephus actually wrote this. It?s far more likely that the passage was inserted by monks copying the text to make it more Christian-friendly.
MN: What do you think of the idea that the God of the Old Testament is a vengeful God, and the God of the New Testament is all about forgiveness?
NA: It took me reading a great book called The Misunderstood Jew to start to think that that way of thinking about the Old Testament versus the New Testament is part of an anti-Semitic way of thinking about the Bible. Jesus gets angry, is viciously unpleasant to people, says "I come not to bring peace but the sword." The God of the Old Testament is the one who says, "Love your neighbor as yourself," who talks about beating swords into plowshares. Not to say that it's a total reversal of what you say, just that there's been cherry- picking. For Christians, it's important to say: the Old Testament is vengeful, the New Testament is forgiving because their whole thing is about God forgiving mankind through Jesus.
MN: The forgiveness offered in the New Testament is pretty conditional.
NA: Yeah, honestly, Jesus is totally obnoxious to the man whose father has died, and you can quote me on that if you like. The guy wants to bury him, which means, according to Jewish custom, that his father had died that day, and Jesus goes, "Let the dead bury their dead, come now and follow me," as if to say, "WTF do you want to bother with the dead for?" This is the controlling, insensitive behavior of a personality-cult leader.
MN: I was really struck by that in your telling. And by his treatment of Mary and his brothers, which had always troubled me, even when I was a kid who was trying to convince myself that I believed what I was told about it all.
NA: Haha! Don't you love that, the sense of relief when you realize you don't have to force yourself to believe something anymore?
MN: Yes I never believed it, really, in my heart of hearts, although I was filled with anxiety about not believing! And you know what? If there is a hell and I have to believe that sex between people of the same gender is an abomination to avoid going there, then I am happy to go to hell. I view it as my obligation, in fact. It would be wrong to go to a heaven that would require me to believe this.
NA: We all have our bottom-line positions. For me, I don't believe that an all-knowing, all-loving God would say that the right thing, if a woman has been raped, is that if at all possible she should marry her rapist. Which is in the Torah. I start from that as a solid axiom on which I can build. When I was giving up Orthodoxy and freaking out periodically, I would go back to that to calm myself.
MN: Tell me about that, if you would, about leaving Orthodoxy. What that was like for you. How your parents reacted.
NA: Sometimes I would have to go and sit in the bathroom for a few minutes, and just go "Naomi. Do you believe that God wants women to marry their rapists? No. Then is the Torah divine? No. OK. So then let's work from there" My parents-they're not happy but they're OK. I'm a grown-up, they respect that I have to make my own choices.
MN: Do you miss it ever?
NA: Ah, man, I had panic attacks for the first time ever. I didn't realize that religion is an anxiety-control mechanism. And when you give it up?. Woo, there comes the anxiety.
MN: Yes! I see this so much in my mother, who is an incredibly smart, sensitive woman, who...started her own church in a warehouse. Jesus gave her certainty. And being an anxious person myself, I see the appeal.
NA: Yeah, and it's woven tight into my early brain.
MN: It's very difficult for people who haven't experienced religion in that way to understand why people who have but who leave it continue to have a conversation with it.
NA: Ah, yes. It's lonely, right? We leavers have to stick together, because the people who are still in think we're evil, and the people who were never in don't understand us, not in that place. In other places of course.
MN: The people who stay think leavers are evil, and the people who never were in don't get it and often to portray all believers (and I use that term broadly) as ignorant and stupid. Which is wrong.
NA: It feels lonely when you're asked or expected to mock your former self. I'm not that person anymore, but it doesn't mean I think that person was an idiot.
MN: I see the appeal of religion, and used to be so afraid I would one day have a religious conversion.
NA: I used to be afraid of going into churches lest I suddenly be struck by Jesus. In fact, The Liars' Gospel helped me get over this fear. I used to find Jesus really threatening, and now, having spent some time really coolly appraising him, I find that I really admire some of the things he said, really disagree with others?but have brought him back to an ordinary size for myself.
MN: Have you heard from a lot of readers of The Liars' Gospel?
NA: Yes, some lovely anti-Semitic email about Jews controlling the media. And some very kind and loving email from Christians and Jews praising the book and saying it had helped them with some difficulties. So the whole gamut!
MN: I haven't read Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary, but I saw the stage adaptation in previews on Broadway, and it was...overwrought. Have you read his book?
NA: I have read it, in fact I reviewed it! It's hard to look clearly at a book that covers similar territory to your own. For me he stuck a little too closely to the Gospel stories, but then I'd just decided to do the complete opposite. I think his is the book of someone brought up Christian, and mine is not.
MN: I loved the way you humanized Judas in particular. Mary, too, but especially Judas.
NA: Ah, I love Judas. I above all know what it's like to lose your faith.
MN: And the revolutionary character: Bar Avo.
NA: I love Bar Avo. So much so that I'm doing a bit of an organized crime section in the next book because I didn't quite want to leave that world. Well, I say I love him. I loved writing him but I do disagree with him. I came down, for myself, on the side of Caiaphas, but hopefully the reader can't tell. I think the "just keep the peace" argument is pretty good.
MN: There is a deep understanding of Bar Avo's motivations, but also you showed where that leads.
NA: Obviously there are modern-day parallels.... I am a dove, not a hawk, but I'm well aware how much sacrifice is involved in being a dove.
MN: Were you motivated by modern-day parallels as you set out to write? Or did you just think more about them as you wrote?
NA: I think I wasn't motivated by them, so much as that I found them in the writing. I didn't really want to! Because I don't know enough about Israel really to comment on the current situation. But there they were in the history from, essentially, the invention of terrorism (the daggers in the cloaks) to the politics of occupation, the inevitable escalations as time goes on, even the thing about building a wall around Jerusalem and then the Jews digging tunnels under the Roman wall! There it was in the texts. So I put it in and decided I wouldn't press it a moment harder than just relating it as it was, and readers can draw their own conclusions.
MN: It felt uncannily timely to me, especially because I read it after you and I were in Jerusalem together for the Jerusalem Book Fair recently. It was my first time in Israel, but not yours. How many times have you been? How much time have you spent there?
NA: Hmm, I've probably been about fifteen times. My first visit was when I was four! My family lived there for a few months when my dad was on sabbatical to write a book. I went back a lot as a child, a teen, a young woman, and then when I stopped being Orthodox I stopped going. Israel for me was part of my Orthodoxy, and it took a long time for me to feel like I could experience it afresh. So when I saw you there, that was my first visit in more than ten years!
MN: Wow. So how does being in Jerusalem make you feel, and has that changed over time?
NA: It's overladen with symbols for me. It's full of my mother, who lived in Israel when she was in her twenties, and full of the things I learned from Orthodoxy about it and my childhood learning Hebrew and thinking that maybe one day I would move there. The Talmud calls it the navel of the world. The first place that was created in God's creating the world. A frum Jew is supposed to experience it like that, as full of holiness, and it lends itself to that. but that kind of belief is also an assertion of ownership.
MN: How do you feel about the fact that so many different people, of so many different religions, have also asserted ownership, mapped their own religious and cultural beliefs onto it, over thousands of years?
NA: Oh, God, this is really beautiful now, seeing it without that harsh sense of "I have to be angry about the fact that it's not all Jewish" is just so calm and wonderful. I went up to the Temple Mount for the very first time, the Muslim section. That place is serene. Like a clear eye looking at the sky. And I thought, no wonder the frum people teach their children not to come here, because if they let us come here, we'd see how beautiful it is and then we couldn't any longer hold onto this dream that the Dome of the Rock should be destroyed and the old Temple rebuilt. You and I too have a complicated legacy, like Israel. Things that have claimed ownership of me, which still have a kind of uneasy tenancy, stuff I might never have wanted to go through, but which has nonetheless left its mark one can read Jerusalem that way. I understand a place that cannot cut off parts of itself or its history.
MN: Yes. My main thought, coming away, was just amazement that so many different people, especially the people who aren't Jewish, had gone there over the millennia and seen it as a validation of whatever weird religious convictions they have. I saw it as the opposite!
NA: Well, you know what they say: a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. (Written by a couple of Jews.)
May 7, 2013