This new novel by Tova Reich (Counterpoint, $25) is a shockingly daring and cuttingly brilliant portrait of a fictional Bible scholar known as Ha’Rav Ima Temima Ba’alat Ov of Brooklyn. She is accompanied by her wry prophetess the Kol-Isha-Erva (who lifts her “woman’s naked voice” — a literal translation of her name — to record the teachings of Ima Temima), and her priestess the Aish Zara (formerly known as Essie Rapoport, whose “strange fire” burns fiercely by Temima’s side and who wears “the tall white mitre of the high priestess with an Urim and Tumim jewel-encrusted breastplate…. ordered on the internet from the Yale University website”). The names of the characters alone attest to Reich’s dazzlingly allusive prose style, which frequently echoes, invokes and puns on Biblical verses and classical rabbinic interpretation.
Ima Temima, who grew up as Tema Bavli, daughter of an abusive rabbinical father and a well-intentioned but sickly mother in Boro Park, moved to Jerusalem as a young woman along with the Zionist calligrapher and erstwhile kosher deli waiter Howie Stern of Queens, whom Temima marries solely to escape her father’s grasp. Once in Israel, Howie re-invents himself first as the scribe Haim Ba’al Teshuva (a name signifying the new life he finds when he “returns” to Jewish religious tradition) and then as Go’el HaDam, the fanatical “blood avenger” who makes his home in Hebron, violently persecuting “Muslim extremists and latent jihadists….Christian proselytizers, Mormon baptizers of dead Jews, Jews for Jesus, Jewish left-wing intellectuals, homosexuals, Israeli historical revisionists, women rabbis…..”
It is this latter category Ima Temima joins when she refuses to join her husband. After a brief stint as one of the many wives of Abba Kadosh, the black cult leader of a patriarchal commune in the Judean Desert, she amasses a group of devoted followers. Ima Temima, who had the privilege of learning Torah as a child by listening in through the walls of a converted outhouse adjacent to a boys’ yeshiva, teaches her followers her own radical feminist “mother Torah.” Literally, she teaches from a small scroll she wrote herself and which accompanies her even when she is bedridden, “the two wooden rollers of its scroll poking out from the covers like rabbit ears perked up at attention alert to danger.”
Reich, like her heroine, is steeped in the cadences of Biblical language. She treats us to (or scandalizes us with) many of Ima Temima’s teachings, such as the notion that it was God who impregnated Sarah with Isaac (an ingeniously irreverent parody of the conventions of rabbinic interpretation, whereby one can read the Biblical word “pakad” as “dafak,” which is contemporary Hebrew slang for “knocked up”) — which would explain why Abraham was so reluctant to banish Ishmael, and so amenable to sacrificing Isaac. Her political critique, too, could not be more timely — in an era when women are still being arrested for wearing prayer shawls at the Kotel, Reich’s novel features a feminist Bible scholar with “friends in high places” parading through the Haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem trailed by hundreds of devoted followers, herself avoiding the “mosh pit” that is the Western Wall because of the “flabbergasting idolatry of praying to stones.”
Then there is the unforgettable moment when Temima, working as part of a Hevra Kadisha to prepare the dead for burial, recognizes the body of her stepmother, a consciously twisted allusion to the gravedigger scene in Hamlet. Reich does not wear her erudition lightly; she does not seem to mind that this book — which is a marvelous read for all — will have a core audience of readers sufficiently learned but not too traditionally minded to appreciate her unique blend of midrash and chutzpah — provided, of course, that they are not too faint of heart.
“A feminist novel like no other”
Out of Tova Reich’s untamed imagination — ferocious, searing, and always on the mark — bursts Temima, a prophetess both majestic and vulnerable, her vision teeming with biblical champions, harlots, and sages, who ascends out of a mundane and hurtful Brooklyn to holy veneration in Jerusalem.
True to its startling title, One Hundred Philistine Foreskins is a feminist novel like no other — tumultuous with pageantry and pregnancy, wisdom and farce, tenderness and fanaticism, wild faith and earthy folly. If Thomas Mann, with all his anthropological and scriptural vigor, had chosen, instead of Joseph the dreamer, a woman of similar powers and changes of fortune, he might have created Temima. In giving us a visionary Hebrew hero, Mann missed his chance at an oracular Hebrew heroine. But Tova Reich, herself a daring seer, has not.
Cynthia Ozick, from the dust jacket
The opening of the novel will give you a sense of what awaits in the pages to follow:
It is a matter of record that certain living creatures, feeling the end of life squeezing them in, make one last desperate attempt to break free and do exactly what they want to do and express themselves exactly as they wish to be understood, on their own terms, without consideration of the desires or pressures or disapproval of family and other enemies, or of any being at all who claims ownership over them.
As she readied herself to carry out such an action, HaRav Temima Ba’alat Ov, the renowned Jerusalem Bible teacher and beloved guru revered as Ima Temima by thousands of disciples, called to mind the case of the most godlike of all mortal creators, the writer Lev Tolstoy, who in a grand final gesture took flight from the unbearable materialism and vulgarity of wife and other hangers-on and bolted from his estate Yasnaya Polyana in search of the purity he preached and needed — yes, he had to have it right now, he could not put it off another minute, this was his last chance, his final statement — only to be reduced by an old man’s illness in the once insignificant train station of Astapovo, where he died the ignoble but fitting death of a holy fool.
Tolstoy was a Russian, as everyone knows, but under the same heading of striking out at the last moment in a pure gesture of unrestrained, desperate fidelity to self, as Temima was preparing to make her own radical statement on this order, she also called to mind a German—a German Shepherd to be precise, her gentile neighbor’s dog known as Germy from the earliest chapter of her life when she was a girl growing up in the ultra-Orthodox Boro Park section of Brooklyn and was known in those days as Tema. Howling raggedly day and night, lunging at the end of his rope inside his wretched cage of a yard due to the surrounding Jews’ fear-of-dogs gene, Germy’s fur thinned and faded as Tema bore witness year after year until one day, when they both turned twelve and Tema was legally and halakhically considered a woman accountable for her own sins, and Rabbi Manis Schmeltzer, the principal of the girls’ school she attended, maneuvered his member into her mouth to her wonderment that such a curious idea could even be contemplated—Germy finally shut up once and for all. Casting off his chains with the recklessness of nothing more to lose, he leaped wildly through the gate, staggered down the alley that separated their two houses straight into the street to keep his appointment with the oncoming truck driven by Itche the junkman, which smashed into him, killing him instantly, leaving nothing but a pulped and liquefied mess.
From dead dogs Temima’s thoughts glided seamlessly to her area of universally acknowledged expertise, the Hebrew Bible — Tanakh — with her specialty, its difficult women, problems one and all, coming to rest on one of her dearly beloveds, her pet, the majestic Queen Jezebel — in Hebrew, Izevel, island of garbage, female spam — who, as the very strict prophet Elijah the Tishbite had foretold, was recycled first into dog food and then, in the natural course of bodily processes, into dog shit in the fields of Jezreel. Jezebel was the model to whom Temima now turned as she made her preparations for a public demonstration that would finally bring clarity to all who took note of it. Nothing remained of that proud old queen but a skull picked fleshless, a pair of inedible feet, the palms of her idolatrous hands — leavings that even the dogs had spurned. The bitch got what she deserved — Jezebel, a name translated on the tongue of posterity to harlot, but oh how noble and true to herself she was in her final hour, Temima could only bow her head awestruck. Staring straight into the eye of her doom without a speck of self-deception or self-pity, her murderer already at her door, even so this proud old dowager makes him wait, takes her regal time, applies her eye makeup like war paint slowly and artfully for this last battle, the outline of black kohl punctuating her death mask, she helmets her hair as befits a warrior queen, she arranges herself at the upper story window of her palace as for a royal audience — and from that elevation she talks down to the killer of her sons and her own designated assassin — Traitor! Usurper! Murderer! Her eunuchs arrayed behind her take stock of the situation, consider their options, give the old lady a little push, flick her out the window, skirts flying up to expose the withered queenly jewel box, blue blood splattering all over the walls, the absurd indignity of that tough old carcass splayed on the ground to be mashed under the hooves of her executioner’s mount.
Her eyes rimmed with black kohl expertly applied by Cozbi, one of her two full-time personal attendants, the unwholesome glow of her skin calmed with white powder, Temima Ba’alatOv sat at her window that morning in her private chambers on the upper floor of her house in the Bukharim Quarter of Jerusalem, gazing down on the street below. Her richly embroidered white silk yarmulke was pulled low over her nearly hairless skull, her phylacteries box from the morning prayers was still affixed to her forehead, the tefillin straps still wrapped around her slack arm, her great talit draped over the shoulders of her loose white robe. Women at windows were never good news, she reflected, they never came to a happy end, you didn’t need the Bible for that insight.
Copyright © 2013 by Tova Reich from One Hundred Philistine Foreskins. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.