Reviewed by Elisheva Rina Aufrichtig
Just in time for Chanukah, Yehudis Litvak’s debut novel, Swords and Scrolls, has become available from Jewish Children’s Book Club!
During the period of the Second Bais Hamikdash, two young protagonists experience a simultaneous invasion of Hellenistic philosophy and the military force of the Syrian-Greek army. Both threaten to destroy the Jewish nation. Fifteen years old and impatient with traditional learning, Elisha is quickly lured to Greek temples and philosophy study groups. He also feels as though his father pushes him away through a lack of understanding. Meanwhile, Elisha’s cousin, the newly married Rivka, worries about the physical danger of the invading Greeks and the impact the political turmoil will have on her family.
Their two parallel stories unfold chapter by chapter, providing both a male and a female angle into this time period. Though the cousins never interact, they are in conflict: Rivka and her husband fight the Greeks physically and spiritually, while Elisha joins the enemy as an acolyte and soldier. This double perspective reveals to readers a broad range of the circumstances suffered by the Jews.
However, both storylines develop so rapidly that neither character arc feels fully realized. Either Elisha’s story or Rivka’s story could have been its own book. Instead, the two characters share about 177 pages of narrative, which results in relatively spare depictions of their actions. Given the nature of the material – Rivka’s plot details the first few years of her marriage and her accompanying struggles – I expected more realistic insight into Rivka’s thought processes. Rivka seems to resolve significant dilemmas too easily. For this reason, the writing style seems aimed at a younger audience. As an adult book with an adult perspective and rhetoric, Swords and Scrolls would have been able to explore a new wife’s emotions and travails much more in-depth and realistically.
An additional subplot regarding the codification of the Mishnah by vigilante scholars provides interesting fodder for discussion. Elisha, who eventually becomes a Hellenistic Jew, feels bored when he studies Torah. The deep, multidimensional discussions of the Gemara were not yet commonly known, and his father did not teach him the commentary that enlightens the Torah Sheb’chisav. Elisha’s inability to recognize idolatry highlights the extent of his estrangement from a real understanding of Judaism. As explained in the historical note at the end of the book, the unscholarly learned by repeating the verses of the Torah in a tune, and formed their main connection with Hashem through their korbanos. The Jews at that time did not even daven consistently; the siddur, like the Mishnah, was written down by later rabbis.
Occasional richly detailed scenes, such as the mayhem after a Greek attack on the inhabitants of Yerushalyim, make the familiar backstory of Chanukah new again. Such visual prose, distributed throughout the book, livens up the storyline; those samples left me wanting more of the same.
The bibliography lists multiple sources, including Rabbi Pinchas Stolper’s books about Chanukah, showing the meticulous research into the Midrashic connections and historic facts included in the story. The author uses no secular sources. Swords and Scrolls has been cleansed of any specific discussion of Greek philosophy and culture; mathematics and libations to idols is presented as the core of what Elisha learns.
Swords and Scrolls would make a thoughtful Chanukah present for teens and fans of historical fiction writers such as Henye Meyer, Avner Gold, Marcus Lehmann, and Etka Gitel Schwartz.