Sunday, May 13, 2007

Echoes of Glory

The Book:
Echoes of Glory by Rabbi Berel Wein. Nonfiction.

The Review: By "Skeleton", our reknown commenter who once again shares her incredible talent with us!

The artist paints with a wide brush in this sweeping literal canvas encompassing Jewish history from Beis Sheini (c. 350 BC) to the Geonic period c. 750 AD. Civilizations rise and fall, empires explode and implode, and nations and ethnicities appear and disappear, like so many prairie dogs sniffing the climate before burrowing underground once again. These form the vast backdrop for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly that are the history of our Nation, Israel.

Rabbi Wein provides the structural elements in a bare-bones historical narrative that draws on Jewish sources like aggadata and Josephus and contemporary secular literature to fill the gaps. Photographs of archeological finds and classical works of art and architecture add a thoughtful touch of life to subjects that are long dead, living on in the legacies they left behind.

The stories are specific; the themes are universal and eternal. When we abstract the glitz and gore, the story of the two warring brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobolus of the Hasmonean family easily parallels our elef hashishi ‘politics’. The hatred, lust, and will to power that was Israel’s force of destruction then has remained her nemesis, a Teflon-like substance that sticks to you but won’t stick to anyone else. The Zealots, those self-destructive Kannaim are still easily identified, burning down the storehouses so that none of us eat unless we join their fundamentalist fight. Then we have our own brand of Essenes, moral and righteous to the nth degree, yet a dying breed, upholding impossible standards in their righteousness.

There are of course the major players. The Pharisees (פרושים) and Sadducees (צדוקים), the former pretty much our Rabbinical precursors. Contrary to the fizzy drink mix schoolgirls are fed, the schism between the Pharisees and the Sadducees wasn’t merely one of theology, although perhaps theology was the driving force. The Sadducees were made up mostly of the upper class, the royals, priests (Kohanim), and many of the Sanhedrin. It was a power play between the ruling and governed classes, with the Torah and the Temple being the battleground. An interesting “what if” game would be if the situation was reversed and the Pharisees were comprised of the upper class. Orthodox Judaism today would have had a distinctly different face, if one at all.

Several interesting figures no yid or yiddene should go to sleep without knowing about:

Ptolemy ben Chovov – talk about hating the in-laws. This oldest son-in-law of Shimon, the son of Mattisyahu the Hasmonean, hacked his shver and brothers-in-law Yehudah and Mattisyahu to pieces at his palace in Jericho after inviting them on the pretext of participating at his son’s bris. Then he imprisoned his shviger, Shimon’s wife, where she was publicly beaten on a parapet as her son Yochanan Hyrcanus*, who had escaped being hacked to pieces by fortune, watched. At then end of all of it, Ptolemy kills his mother-in-law and vanishes. They just don’t make soaps like this nowadays.

Shlomis (Shlomtzion) Alexandra – the sister of R’ Shimon ben Shatach and wife of king Yehudah Aristobolus (son of aforementioned Yochanan) who died childless after reigning for only one year. She was then married to his brother Alexander Yannai in a levirate marriage (yibum). An esrogim attack and a civil war later, Alexander Yannai died and Shlomis became ‘king’. For ten years, until her death, she brought peace and prosperity back to the war-torn and troubled Judah with her fair and even-handed reign.

Agrippa I – An almost-Dickensian character. Grandchild of Herod who had his grandmother Mariamne (מרים), his father, and uncle executed by Herod at the age of 3 for allegations of treason, he was sent on to Rome for his education. He returned a half-breed, Roman yet Jewish, perhaps the modern-day equivalent of an American Conservative Jew. In spite of his violent background, or perhaps because of it, he provided Judah with its last peaceful years before the scheisse irretrievably hit the fan.

Shimon ben Kosiba (Bar Kochba) – Called “Son of the Star”, he was indeed a fallen star. Initially widely successful in spearheading the rebellion against the Romans, and endorsed by Rabbi Akiva as being the Messiah, things headed downhill quickly and the fall of Beitar resulted in a slaughterhouse probably unparalleled until the 20’th century death camps.

Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, R’ Meir – For shining through in tragedy. Interestingly, both were descended from geirim, who are supposed to be קשה לישראל כספחת. They proved that “He who laughs last, laughs best”. In the good ‘ole tradition of דער אונגארישער היים, Klal Yisroel is still chuckling centuries later when Greece and Rome are past their last hiccup.

Footnote: Besides for a glaringly obvious whitewash of Jewish slavery on pp. 56-57 and bit of a tendency at one-dimensionality and glibness, the historical veracity of the contents [of the book] have not cross-referenced by me.

*This is the “Yochanan Kohen Gadol” mentioned in Brachos 29A who became a Sadducee after serving for 80 years.


gevezener-illuy said...

i agree to everything, except to heralding AGRIPPA as a hero. i also considered him one, until i came across halevi's doros harishonim. where i think he makes a great case (albeit filling up 100 pages instead of 5, which is his style all over...) portraying him as a traitor, who was only interested in himself & his power.

the comparison to present day politics, is true but to a historian no news. as all machloks yiddishe & goyishe, religious & secular, all had and have the same echoes, of lust of power, money & but at least in elef hashishi, the aronis have yet to complete a assassination, on their nemesis zalman. and mendel should have his stepmother hanged, before being fully compared.

Skeleton said...

Are you referring to Agrippa I or Agrippa II?

It's All Good Now said...

I've always maintained that our history is racier than anything MTV can conjure.

Semgirl said...

This is one of my all time favorite books. Although, to fully appreciate it, especially some of the somewhat revisionist parts, you should read Graetz's History of the Jews first...

gevezener-illuy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Antigonos said...

If you liked R. Wein's book, you might like Moshe Shamir's "King of Flesh and Blood" (Melech Basar v'Dam).

Anonymous said...

semgirl, graets dosent have a clue of what he is talking about as has been wel documented by doros horishonim, rsr hirsch and others he is not a historian he just was out to creat a scene of history to fit his agenda into, just as our perverted host attempted to distort history by implyng that kol beisha wasnt an issue at yetzies mitsrayim while in fact miriam knoked on a drum so that the womens singing shouldn't be heard

Anonymous said...

rabbi wein is very entertaining and informative (though not 100% accurate)his tapes are even better than hes books but his books are quie expensive