Today, the gleaming towers of Las Vegas have eclipsed the great American desert of southern Nevada. Author Joshua Max Feldman remembers an older, more primitive time in the epigraph of his novel The Book of Jonah:
—and Jonah saw in every direction the unbounded desert—the scrub clinging to its face giving the tracts the look of a vast, sea-like rolling. And he lay down with his back on the scorched sand and with his face toward the sun, relentless and colorless—and he unfurled for the Lord his sorrow.
The hotels and gaming centers of Las Vegas are symbolic of modern wickedness, and, of course, the towers reach high into the always blue firmament above the desert:
Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven.
— Genesis 1:6-8, New King James Version
Feldman finds inspiration for his debut novel in the Old Testament: he recasts the story of the biblical Jonah into the 21st century.
The novel begins in the New York subway. Jonah Daniel Jacobstein, a 32-year-old corporate lawyer, is about to be confronted by God’s messenger. Jonah is commuting home from his office in Manhattan when a sudden downpour closes the subway exit and Jonah finds himself exchanging comments with a tall Hassidic Jew. On finding out that Jonah works in New York, the Hassid asks for Jonah’s business card, and exclaims: “You’re Jewish, my friend.” The Hassid then asks: “And you study Torah, my friend?”, “Do you keep the Sabbath?”
The intimidated Jonah replied:
“I feel guilty on Yom Kippur.”
The Hassid’s grin broadened. “And you know, of course, the story of your namesake, Jonah, son of Amittai?”
Jonah’s knowledge of such things had been halfheartedly acquired in the first place, was half remembered at best. “There was a whale …” he ventured.
“Oh, my friend, there is much more than the whale!” The Hassid had now moved his massive frame a little closer to Jonah, whose back was already up against the side of the MetroCard machine. “Jonah was a man of the world too, just like you. Going about his business, making deals. Then one day HaShem came to him and said, ‘Jonah, go to the corrupt city of Nineveh and tell them ….
— P. 4. The Book Of Jonah
Yes, indeed. Jonah’s knowledge of things Jewish certainly exceeded mine. I had read the Hebrew Bible as literature years ago, but, clearly, I needed a little brush up— HaShem is one of many Hebrew words for God and Nineveh (an infamous wicked city of biblical times) was the capital of Assyria in ancient Persia.
In the biblical story, a messenger comes to Jonah and commands him to go to Nineveh to preach against sin. “Who, me? No, Thanks.” And Jonah tries to flee on the first boat leaving town. But, he can’t really escape—the Lord raised a storm and Jonah is thrown overboard. As Jonah is about to drown, the Lord changes his mind and sends a whale (or big fish) to rescue him. “Enough, already!” prays Jonah from the belly of the whale and the Lord sets him free on dry land so he can go to Nineveh and preach. Well, OK, I get it now.
One can have a bit of sympathy for Jonah. Who, nowadays, wants to go preach to the wicked— more interesting to join them, perhaps?
Having launched Jonah, so to speak, the author introduces a new story line: Judith, Or The Good Student.
The good student is Judith Klein Bulbrook. She is the 21st century incarnation of the biblical Judith, a widow who came up with a plan to eliminate an oppressive Assyrian General. For Judith’s story, I turned to the web:
Judith acts for the common good. Judith murders Holofernes, the enemy of Israel, a world-class bully who slaughtered his way through Put, Lud, the lands of the Rassisites and the Ishmaelites, the walled towns along Wadi Abron, and Cilicia; he set fire to the tents of the Midiantites and the fields of Damascus (Judith 2:23-27). Alone with him late at night in his tent, Judith beheads him with two strokes to the neck from his own famous sword—praying beforehand, of course (Judith 13:4-7)!
— Robin Gallager Branch, writing in the Biblical Archaeology Society journal.
Summing up the story of the biblical Judith, Ms. Branch concludes:
“Indeed her beheading of Holofernes, the invading Assyrian general—in his own tent, with his own sword, and surrounded by his own heretofore victorious army, no less!—marks her as a political savior in Israel on a par with David.”
The protagonist of the novel, Judy Klein, is a precocious teenager when she is introduced to the reader. She certainly has her work cut out for her:
Judith had one of those happy, complete-unto-inself childhoods that seem to exist as a sort of aspirational fairy tale in the American mind.
Her parents were upper middle class, steadily employed, stable people, in love with each other and in love with their only daughter, committed to giving Judith as perfect a girlhood as possible. The family took ski trips to Colorado, beach trips to Hawaii, culturally edifying trips to Paris and London and Athens and Israel; they went on safari in South Africa when Judith graduated junior high. Her birthdays ….
— P. 57. Chapter 2. Judith, Or The Good Student.
Judith is the perfect academically gifted student, but at 15 she begins to wonder if she is missing something:
The fact that she couldn’t find a boyfriend made Judith feel stupid. As a fifteen-year-old, Judith did not think of herself as lonely; she had several friends at school, and she had two best friends she lived with, Mom and Dad. Yet she understood that there were forms of companionship she was missing. She was, after all, a young woman who strove to be well rounded.
And then she fell in love with her English teacher.
— P. 65.
Gabe is 28, tall (six foot four), dark-haired, and Grecian-nosed. He enters the classroom, gets their attention, takes a faded book from his bag and reads:
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
— Song of Myself, I, II, VI & LII, Poets.org
Then, closing the book and dropping it on the table as he pulled the messenger bag off his shoulder, he asked them, “So, ladies. What is Walt Whitman talking about?”
And with these words, Gabe seals his doom; Judith launches a subtle but relentless campaign of seduction that will strain decorum and the mandated separation of student and teacher.
Back in New York, Jonah is now at the top of his game. He is about to become engaged, his infidelity has been resolved, and he has won an important litigation for his firm. He is on the verge of becoming a partner (he will be a made man, as they say). But, the Lord has other plans for Jonah.
When Jonah loses all, he is shaken and depressed; he leaves New York for Amsterdam where he encounters Judy Kline, who is now an art buyer for a powerful Las Vegas Gaming developer. They don’t see the big picture being played out and they separate in rancor and mistrust. Judy leaves Amsterdam to return to Las Vegas. Jonah does not have her address, nor does he know her last name. What an oversight.
Our advance work with the old testament has paid off for us— we readers are not surprised when Jonah’s fortune takes a turn for the worse and we know that Las Vegas is calling Jonah Daniel Jacobstein just as Nineveh called the biblical Jonah.
We suspect that Jonah will find Judy in Las Vegas, but what is the mission planned for them in Sin City?
Choosing to bring a classic story of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) into the 21st century must have taken courage on the part of the editor and the author. Surely, there are many ways the project could have failed, but The Book of Jonah works for me. What sold me on the novel was the author’s story telling skills: Joshua Max Feldman can describe anything and make it interesting to read— the pages of his novel turn easily.
There were a few slow parts and some dragged out philosophizing, but I was always anticipating the next turn in the plot. The secondary characters are also well written and not dominated by stereotypical New Yorkers. The author surprised me by interweaving into his text the second biblical story, that of the widow Judith who decapitated the Assyrian General Holofernes (think of the painting of her by Caravaggio). Jonah and Judith, what a pair they make.
Thoroughly a pleasure to read this novel; I recommend it, but first refresh your knowledge of the biblical Jonah (and perhaps Judith too).
Note 1: The chapter headings of the novel are captioned to tell you how the modern protagonists activities correspond to those of their biblical counterparts.
Note 2: The complete text of Walt Whitman’s poem: Song of Myself, I, II, VI & LII is available at Poets.org
Note 3: The Harmon Hotel tower, a half-built project on the Strip, is now likely to be demolished. The Harmon was one of five hotel and residential high-rise buildings within the $8.5 billion CityCenter complex, which opened in 2009. The tower was designed to be 48 stories and included both luxury hotel rooms and residential condominiums. The faulty work is a boon for corporate lawyers who are reaping a windfall as the litigation grows in Las Vegas. Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal