In this riveting historical mystery set in 16th century Prague during the Inquisition, Benyamin Ben-Akiva, the newly arrived shammes (religious leader), finds himself embroiled in the investigation of a murder that threatens to tear apart the Jewish community. It all begins when the body of a young Christian girl is found in the shop of Jacob Federn, a Jewish businessman. Despite his pleas of ignorance, the Christian sector of Prague, who already hate and lambast the Jews, believe Federn has killed the girl in order to use her bodily fluids for a blood ritual. This incenses the Christians, and soon Federn is in custody and the segregated Jewish ghetto is under lock-down. Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a newcomer to the town, immediately begins to investigate the strange case, but due to his status as a Jew, he must rely on a bevy of Jews and Christians alike to bring the girl's true killer to light. As he carefully uncovers clue after clue, he discovers the improbable status of Jews in his new homeland and gains insight into his own religion through the help of other like-minded rabbis who are also considered dangerous freethinkers. As the hours wind down and the Jews fate begins to look inescapable, Benyamin Ben-Akiva enlists the help of a group pf ragtag villagers, prostitutes, and a Christian girl with the heart and mind of a Jew, culminating in a shocking conclusion that will change the city of Prague, and Benyamin Ben-Akiva, forever.
When I initially started reading this book, I was worried that I had too little knowledge of Jewish history and culture to be able to fully appreciate what Wishnia was trying to do with this story. But from the moment that Benyamin Ben-Akiva hears the wailing cry of a mother looking for her daughter piercing the city's early morning tranquility, I knew this was going to be a story that not only moved me, but that kept me reading late into the night. Though this book dealt heavily with Judaism and particularly the academic side of it, it was at once enlightening and unfamiliar. Wishnia has a way of not only generously pouring out information, but of explaining it in a way that almost anyone could understand.
At the heart of this story is the conflict between the Jewish and Christian populations of Prague. During the 16th century, the Jews were segregated into their own community, and though they were allowed basic freedoms and protections under Emperor Rudolph, they were also harassed, reviled and often the scapegoats of the community when anything went amiss. The hatred eminating from the Christians was almost too hard to read about, and once again, I realized it was not only in Nazi Germany that the Jews had suffered at the hands of others who thought themselves superior to them. This book reminded me a little of The Mistress of the Art of Death in the way it related the plight of the Jews. In both books, the Jews were at the center of a controversy after a child was killed and the Christians believed the Jews had committed the murder in order to use the blood of the slain child as an ingredient in a ritual. In both books, the outrage and anger from the Christian sector was similar. It's interesting to note that this motive for the murder would be impossible, as the Jews as a whole look upon blood as unclean and would have been at great pains to avoid it, but the Christians use their influence and prejudice to ascribe monstrous qualities and intentions on these people.
Wishnia also reveals himself in this book as a superior scholar. A vast amount of the dialog and narrative revolves around quotes and ideas represented in the Talmud, the Torah, the Kabbalah and other Jewish writings. These sections of theological debate exist right alongside the story, and often, the two embrace and imbue the story with allegorical and symbolic meanings that further heighten the plight of the Jews, both in the immediate and historical sense. I felt these sections melded together beautifully, and though at first I was intimidated with all the knowledge that was being passed to me through the pages, I grew to trust what Wishnia was doing and what he would create. I can't adequately express how academically potent this book was to me, and not only was it extremely edifying, it also turned the story into a complex and astute work of art.
Another thing that impressed me was the range of unusual characters that passed through the story. There were wise women and prostitutes, a giant mentally challenged man, and inspectors who had hidden hearts of gold. There were brave men and cowardly ones, stubborn and recalcitrant wives, and Christan girls with forbidden passions. All of these characters felt very well rounded and three dimensional and they were intrinsic to the value of this strange and wonderful tale. Though I liked all of the characters and felt varying degrees of attachment to them, it was Benyamin Ben-Akiva who was the star of the show. He was just so human and his impulses to disobey and follow his own path were constantly at war with his spiritual beliefs and leanings. There were times when he bent the prescribed law and times he played it by the book, but it was his vibrancy and his duty to the Jews of his newly arrived home that I found most interesting. Benyamin Ben-Akiva's altruism played dangerously with his selfishness, which to me was very human.
Though this was a rather intense and dense book, I thought Wishnia did an incredible job of not only telling his story, but backing it up with an undeniable atmosphere and flavor that not many historical novels can deliver. The book had the ability to be a fast paced page turner and a slow introspective read, which is also unusual. I think the scope of the story was impressive, and the fact that Wishnia never falters in his narrative makes this a book that a lot of reader will enjoy. I certainly did, and I look forward to plowing through it again, with an eye to disseminating some of the more theological aspects in greater detail. Highly recommended.
|About Kenneth Wishnia
Kenneth Wishnia has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. His crime fiction has been nominated for the Edgar and Anthony awards. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, where he lives with his wife and children.
Find out more about Kenneth at his website.
|A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.