Book Review: Spies & Scholars by Yehudis Litvak (published by Jewish Children’s Book Club), 209 pp.
Reviewed by Tamara Sambrowsky
Yehudis Litvak’s latest book Spies & Scholars is a great family read for the Chanukah holiday season. Mrs. Litvak presents a fictional story with a colorful array of characters behind the backdrop of the many events that took place in ancient Israel while Bnei Yisrael were under the rule of the tyrannical King Antiochus.
This book is a riveting and entertaining read for young history buffs, lovers of fiction, and those who want to enjoy a read that intrigues and inspires. The characters are complex and multi-faceted, and the plot is both captivating and thought-provoking.
The story is a sequel to Litvak’s previous book Swords and Scrolls and begins shortly after Mattisyahu’s death. The story references many historical facts, some well-known, some less so. The many interesting characters include a mother hiding her circumcised son, scholars-turned soldiers in Yehudah HaMaccabee’s army, Jewish farmers, Hellenists, female spies, Greek soldiers, recalcitrant children, and worried parents. It is difficult for the reader to discern with conviction who is friend or foe and where the plot will lead. Can Elisha be trusted? Is Nechemia a repentant or renegade? Whose motives are sincere? Why does Shaul act with kindness and then turn abrasive? Will spirited Miriam find a suitable match?
Yehudis Litvak, a familiar name among readers of Ami and Binah Magazine, is recognized for her niche in well-researched, historical fiction among readers of Jewish literature. Aside from being an entertaining read, I felt the book’s merits went beyond the characters and intricate plot. Firstly, her story provided clarity in terms of the timeline of events that transpired before the actual Chanukah miracle. Often children (and even adults) do not expand their knowledge of the Chanukah story further than what they learned in middle school and are content with a skeletal frame of the story enjoyed alongside the devouring of donuts, dreidel-playing, and Chanukah parties. In fact, the Chanukah story occurred over many years with battles in the canyons and hills leading from the coastal plains to Yerushalayim. The Hellenists’ strong grip took hold before the rise of Antiochus and the weakened spiritual state of Bnei Yisrael was the harbinger to Antiochus’s power and harsh decrees.
While reading about Litvak’s multi-layered characters, I was struck by the parallel between the challenges they faced and many we face today. Intelligent young men were lost to Hellenism because the methods by which they were taught Torah lacked meaning and depth. Poor Jewish farmers were sometimes drawn to the fleeting but decadent material delights that Greek culture provided. Well-meaning parents were unsure how to approach the perils of a new era. Reading a more detailed account of fictitious characters of the time provided insight into their hearts and the battles raging within.
The story also underscored the fact that the civil war among Klal Yisrael was perhaps the greatest threat to its physical and spiritual state, more so than the Greeks. Clashing values turned Hellenized Jews against their Torah-abiding brothers, empowering the Greek army and inciting violence and death.
The timeless messages delivered a powerful punch. Unity is essential to the survival of Klal Yisrael. Mitzvah observance needs thought, meaning, and joy. One can never understand the battle and challenges another person faces. And when Jews hold steadfast to their values, Hashem the Omnipotent can deliver salvation in the most unimaginable ways.