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A New Leaf

Seventy years after the release of his first book, the bestselling ‘As a Driven Leaf,’ Rabbi Milton Steinberg (posthumously) offers a sophomore effort

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Milton Steinberg with his wife, Edith. (Photo courtesy of Dr. David Steinberg and Behrman House)

In 1939, the same year Scarlett O’Hara mourned her lost Tara on the silver screen, a prominent Conservative rabbi named Milton Steinberg published a near-500-page work of historical fiction—never, for reasons that surely have to do with anti-Semitism, made into a movie—set in the era of the Talmudic sages.

The novel, As a Driven Leaf, tells a grandly elaborated version of the story of Elisha ben Abuya, a historical personage whose excommunication on charges of apostasy in the second century is described in the Talmud. In Steinberg’s reading, Elisha is a progenitor of modern man, torn between faith and reason, group loyalty and assimilation. But where most rabbis would analyze those themes in an essay or sermon, Steinberg—the philosophically trained spiritual leader of the elite Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan and a disciple of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionist Judaism—gives us cinematic visions of desert armies, crumbling temples, and even the occasional ripped bodice. At the end of the novel, Elisha, cast out by both the Romans and his own people, says goodbye to his remaining disciple, mounts his horse, and rides off into the distance.

“It’s so out of nowhere, so sui generis,” said Josh Lambert, a professor of Jewish literature at New York University and Tablet Magazine contributor. “It really doesn’t fit—unlike Henry Roth or most of the other [American Jewish] writers we can name from the same period, it doesn’t even seem to aspire to being a literary text. If someone wanted to place Steinberg in a literary tradition, it would probably go back to these very flat ‘life of Christ’ novels from the late 19th and early 20th century—with Steinberg saying, ‘We can do the same thing for Jewish history.’”

Not knowing what to do with it, Lambert said, critics have never paid the novel much attention. And yet, As a Driven Leaf has never been out of print; it remains so popular, in fact, that Steinberg’s publisher has taken the unusual step of posthumously releasing the rabbi’s unfinished second novel, The Prophet’s Wife, which comes out this weekend.

Rather than finding a place in the American Jewish literary canon, As a Driven Leaf has become part of an unofficial reading list shared by young adults from liberal Orthodox and traditional Conservative backgrounds. Along with books like Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, an entire demographic, it seems, reads As a Driven Leaf by the end of college. “Just like every American reads Johnny Tremain or The Grapes of Wrath, it was assumed that everyone had read it,” said David Lerner, now a Conservative rabbi in Lexington, Massachusetts, of the novel’s ubiquity during his time at Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox high school in Manhattan. Lerner is 38; his father, Stephen Lerner, also a Conservative rabbi, is 70 and read As a Driven Leaf while in rabbinical school. Both Lerners still give or recommend the book to students.

The obvious reason for the novel’s endurance among young readers from observant backgrounds is that they can relate to its protagonist’s struggle to define his religious identity. But there is another layer, too, one that has not escaped Jewish educators who now teach the book: It brings to life a historical period central to Jewish thought but not much represented in literature. By putting new words in the rabbis’ mouths, and endowing them with personal lives, Steinberg turned the Talmudic sages into people. “How do you identify with Rashi?” asked Ron Gejman, a Columbia senior and Conservative day-school graduate who read As a Driven Leaf after his freshman year of college. “He’s this brilliant guy who you can’t possibly fathom. And you read Steinberg, and you get this glimpse into these few scholars’ lives, and they have the same problems you have, the same struggles you have. It means the traditions were molded and I can mold them too.”

Steinberg died of heart failure at the age of 46 in 1950. He left behind an incomplete 400-page manuscript of The Prophet’s Wife, which his sons David, the president of Long Island University, and Jonathan, a historian, have been trying to figure out what to do with since their mother’s death four decades ago. Over the years, David said, they approached luminaries including Potok, Elie Wiesel, John Hersey, and Hermann Wouk to write an ending for the novel; some of them tried, but ultimately, according to David, “they all said, ‘I can’t finish another man’s work.’ ” Meanwhile, the manuscript sat in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, its existence known to very few; the entry on As a Driven Leaf in Lambert’s anthology of American Jewish fiction, published early last year, notes specifically that Steinberg never wrote a second novel. Behrman House, Steinberg’s publisher, will release The Prophet’s Wife on Sunday, Steinberg’s 60th yahrtzeit.

In part, no doubt, because it is a fragment, The Prophet’s Wife lacks the allegorical clarity of As a Driven Leaf. It takes up the figure of Hosea, who, according to the book of prophecy from the eighth century BCE that bears his name, was commanded by God to marry a harlot so that he would understand the adultery Jews commit when they are not true to their creator. In Steinberg’s version, Hosea is a respectable but spineless scribe who falls under the influence of the prophet Amos, who has been imprisoned for decrying the corruption of the local Jewish kingdom. He returns home only to find his beautiful but unloving wife Gomer in the arms of his debased brother Iddo. (Columbia University journalism professor Ari L. Goldman, who helped bring The Prophet’s Wife into print, suggests that the relationship between Hosea and Gomer may have been partially inspired by Steinberg’s own tempestuous marriage and that the delicacy of the issue was one reason that the novel went unpublished for so many years.) The book leaves off with the suggestion that, after much indecision, Hosea will take his revenge.

Unlike the fainthearted Hosea, As a Driven Leaf’s Elisha, whose idealistic quest for secular knowledge devolves into an unholy alliance with the Roman government, is a larger-than-life existential hero—or at least that’s how many fans of the book read him. “The question is whether Elisha is a cautionary tale or someone to admire,” said Jordan Hirsch, a senior at Columbia University. That ambiguity has long kept the book off reading lists at more conservative yeshivas. In a 1996 foreword to the novel, Potok describes searching for Steinberg’s work in the library of Yeshiva University, the Modern Orthodox movement’s flagship educational institution, when he was a student there in the early 1950s.

“My query to the librarian elicited the terse response: ‘We do not keep his books here,’ ” Potok writes. “And to my further question as to why not, came the answer, laden with scorn: ‘He is from that other school, and a heretic.’ ” (“That other school” was the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.) “I don’t think my high school would ever stick it on its curriculum,” said Hirsch, who attended Yavneh Academy in Dallas. “There’d be some people who would think it sent a dangerous message to impressionable high schoolers.” He read the novel after his junior year of high school, when it was recommended by Bronfman Youth Fellowships, a program that takes American teenagers to Israel.

Whether Steinberg’s second novel will find favor with admirers of his first remains to be seen. “It’s a riskier proposition to publish an incomplete novel than a complete novel,” acknowledged David Behrman, the head of Behrman House. But Steinberg tapped into an apparent hunger for Technicolor epics about ancient Jewish life—witness the more recent success of Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent—that does not seem to have ebbed. The Prophet’s Wife, then, has a fighting chance.

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When I mentioned to my teacher, Dr. MIchael Meyer, at HUC in Jerusalem, in the fall of 1972, that “As a Driven Leaf” had been one of my favorite books as a youth, his quick and happy response was, “Mine, too!” The book had been recommended to me for my tenth grade Confirmation book report. Although this essay does not mention it, “As a Driven Leaf” also has its influence and devotees within the Reform movement. It is not about a struggle over the authority of halacha–as might be assumed by Brostoff’s inclusion only of Orthodox and Conservative reactions to the work. It is, as she says, about the need everyone has for faith–mathematicians, scientists and the pious alike. Steven Spielberg never responded to my suggestion that he put it to film, but the book brings alive, in its stilted style, a watershed period in Jewish history.

David J says:

I agree that book is magical in its own way. As a modern Orthodox father of three, I made sure that each of my children read As A Driven Leaf, because it provided unique insights into the period and the Mishnaic greats.

Every time I am in Israel, I ask the Hebrew U if they have this book has been translated into Hebrew. According to them, it never has been. If someone knows differently, could they post the name and publisher?

phylis steiner says:

I’ve been reccommending this book to adult as well as high school students for the past 20 years, and I’ve developed a three-session lesson plan to go along with it, asking students to bring along a haggadah as well as a high holiday machzor to relate to some of the scenes in the novel.

[from the author of “Rashi’s Daughters”]
A historical novelist myself, of course I was intrigued to learn that an unfinished novel by Milton Steinberg had been discovered and was going to be published. The author of “As A Driven Leaf,” the brilliant story of a Talmudic sage struggling with his faith in 2nd-Century Roman Palestine, had died in March 1950 at the age of forty-six. So for nearly 60 years, his myriad fans could only sigh and sadly wonder what great literature his untimely death had deprived us of.

I eagerly accepted the offer to read, and review, a galley of his new work, “The Prophet’s Wife.” Like “As A Driven Leaf,” “The Prophet’s Wife” is also taken from Jewish holy texts – in this case the biblical Book of Hosea. But the Talmud contains only a few tantalizing mentions of Elisha ben Abuyah, Steinberg’s first protagonist, while the Bible devotes fourteen chapters to his second, the Prophet Hosea.

Hosea lived in Northern Israel in the 8th century BCE, during the end of the First Temple period. The most intimately portrayed of biblical prophets, Hosea is told by God to marry a harlot, Gomer, which he does. Their marriage will symbolize the relationship between God and Israel, where the Northern Kingdom has betrayed God by whoring after other gods and violating the commandments that God has given her.

The bible tells us of Hosea and Gomer’s divorce, which mirrors God’s rejection of the Northern Kingdom, soon to be destroyed by the Assyrians and its population exiled [hence, the Ten Lost Tribes]. But God commands Hosea to take Gomer back, although the couple must refrain from marital intimacy. Despite this, Gomer apparently gives up her lovers, for after much preaching of God’s anger to the sinning Israelites, Hosea concludes his prophecy that one day Israel will indeed repent and thus God will renew the covenant and take Israel back in love.

“The Prophet’s Wife” begins with a prologue in which an unidentified man nervously approaches a rostrum in Samaria’s city square. Angry and disgusted with its sinful inhabitants, the man forces himself to climb up and address the people, “The word of the Lord thou shalt know, that came unto me, Hosea son of Beeri.” After introducing our hero, already a grown man, already a prophet, Chapter One takes us back a generation to describe Beeri, pious and prosperous, and his household. The child Hosea makes his appearance in Chapter Two, after a chilling depiction of his oldest brother’s cruelty and a brief display of his middle brother, Iddo’s growing proficiency with arms. Hosea manifests neither of these traits, and Steinberg paints a poignant portrait of a boy who is acutely sensitive and compassionate to those around him.

The elder brother soon receives his just desserts, and Iddo, after avenging the death, runs off to be a soldier. But before he leaves, he dances provocatively with beautiful young Gomer during the festivities of Sukkot. However it is Hosea who becomes smitten with Gomer, the niece of a local ne’er-do-well. Here Steinberg’s story diverges from the biblical, as Hosea marries the virgin Gomer with no intervention from God.

Hosea, now a scribe for the king, must travel throughout the Northern Kingdom. Here Steinberg’s masterful writing makes the reader one with Hosea as he is increasing confronted with, and revolted by, the corruption and idolatry of the land’s inhabitants. We also share Hosea’s longing for home and his shock when he does return only to find his brother Iddo in bed with Gomer. This is where Steinberg excels, forcing the reader to whipsaw between Hosea’s myriad emotions – outrage, betrayal, pain – along with the sorrow of knowing that he must put aside the wife he still loves.

Despising his own cowardice, Hosea cannot bring himself to denounce the adulterers and have them executed. He moves out, taking his children with him. He tries to devote himself to his scribal duties, but suffers humiliation from his colleagues when Iddo makes Gomer his concubine. Then suddenly, there is an attack against the king, sending Hosea to grab a bow to help defend the palace. But who is leading the rebels and promptly shoots an arrow straight at Hosea? His brother Iddo.

Abruptly, Steinberg’s stirring words stop, to be followed by essays by Rabbi Harold Kushner and novelist Norma Rosen, who posit how they imagine that The Prophet’s Wife should have ended. The switch from Steinberg’s vivid prose to these cerebral commentaries is like replacing a full-bodied glass of wine with a cup of weak, tepid tea.

I was aware that Steinberg had left “The Prophet’s Wife” unfinished, but that advance knowledge did little to assuage my disappointment and frustration. Surely the climatic scene would have been Hosea’s encounter with God, and I was keenly anticipating how Steinberg would have written it. Yet Kushner and Rosen say nothing of this, concentrating instead on what kind of relationship Hosea and Gomer would, or should, end up with. Kushner seems confident that Hosea will go to become a prophet, never to reconcile with Gomer. “God may be able to forgive a chastened and repentant Israel, but Hosea … is not capable of bestowing such forgiveness.” Rosen creates a feminist, and happier, ending. Hosea and Gomer do reconcile, and the pair share his prophetic travels.

Steinberg has written another beautiful and moving novel, one that delves deep into Hosea’s mind and heart. The historical novelist’s task is to take the reader on a mental vacation back to a time and place that is otherwise inaccessible, while simultaneously providing a compelling story populated with fascinating characters. If the novelist manages to educate the readers, as well as entertain them, so much the better. In “The Prophet’s Wife,” Steinberg admirably fulfills all these tasks.

On every page Hosea’s 8th-century world is brought vividly to life. We see through Hosea’s eyes why the Northern Kingdom deserved to be destroyed. And not just through his eyes – we share all Hosea’s senses. The feel of a drunkard’s slimy hands; the seductive tinkling of harlot Gomer’s ankle bells as she walks past him; the vile smell of whores’ perfume on men leaving a brothel; the taste of Hosea’s own vomit after being forced to watch animals being sacrificed to Baal. Yet despite never giving us Gomer’s point of view, Steinberg lets us experience her thoughts and feelings through Hosea. We know her shame and guilt, and that deep inside she loves Hosea too. The Prophet’s Wife allows those readers familiar with the bible to understand how Hosea and Gomer’s relationship so well symbolizes that of God and Israel.

And this is why I believe that it is probably just as well that “The Prophet’s Wife” remained unpublished until now. Rabbi Steinberg died just after details of the Holocaust in Europe had demoralized the Jewish world. Surely his likely audience would have recognized a parallel between the destruction of European Jewry and God using Assyria to annihilate the ten tribes of Northern Israel. Publishing a novel on the Prophet Hosea, who warned the Northern Kingdom that God would destroy them as punishment for their sins, could be seen as tantamount to saying that the Holocaust occurred because of its victim’s sins – a view that Steinberg undoubtedly found abhorrent.

Today, sixty years later, when the shadow of the Holocaust no longer so completely darkens the Jewish world, we can read “The Prophet’s Wife” with sufficient distance between Northern Israel’s fate in the 8th century and that of Europe’s Jews in the 20th. So I gladly welcome this final work in Steinberg’s corpus, frustratingly incomplete as it is. However my review would also be incomplete without this historical novelist’s version of how The Prophet’s Wife should end.

Obviously Steinberg intended for Hosea to kill Iddo, and thus Hosea achieves justice and revenge, as well as acclamation as a hero. Coming back to the biblical story, which neither mentions Iddo nor a revolt against the king, Hosea now receives the call from God, Who tells Hosea to take Gomer back, that their marriage will embody the covenant between God and Israel. Hosea returns home to his patrimony to find that Gomer is still there, continuing to manage the family estate that Iddo had neglected. She begs Hosea’s forgiveness and beseeches him not to force her back to harlotry. Hosea shares God’s words with her, and she swears that she has repented all the evil she did Hosea, and henceforth will be the most faithful of wives. They remarry, but Hosea, determined to remain pure to receive God’s word, will not cohabit with her. Gomer soon finds that she is pregnant, and Hosea, realizing that this child would be Iddo’s heir otherwise, claims the pregnancy as his own, thus fulfilling the Bible’s text that gives the couple three children. The final scene, a mirror of the opening, shows Hosea climbing onto the town rostrum [perhaps with Gomer watching from afar]. Only this time we hear the words that God has put in his mouth, including those that Jews read twice a year on Tisha B’Av and Shabbat Shuva:

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
For you have fallen because of your sin.
Take words with you and return to the Lord.
Say to Him: “Forgive all guilt and accept what is good”
… [then] I will heal their affliction,
Generously will I take them back in love.

As I loved “As a Driven Leaf” many years ago and shared it with Christian friends, I am hoping to read ” The Prophet’s Wife”

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A New Leaf

Seventy years after the release of his first book, the bestselling ‘As a Driven Leaf,’ Rabbi Milton Steinberg (posthumously) offers a sophomore effort

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