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Holy Amnesia 2011

May 22, 2011 by Reader's Connection

In my first Holy Amnesia post in 2009, I recommended Leon R. Kass´s The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. I had first come across Kass while watching the Genesis discussions put together by Bill Moyers. One of the books I´m featuring in 2011 is Genesis: The Beginning of Desire by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, whom I first came across on the Bill Moyers discussions. I´m obviously in a rut.

Genesis: The Beginning of DesireKass was fond of quoting midrashim in his book, and Zornberg does so almost uninterruptedly. When reading her reflections on these rabbinic commentaries on the scriptures (written between A. D. 400 and 1200), some of you may think, “That’s not in the Genesis that I remember.”

Who knew that Satan was so involved with Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, or with Sarah’s subsequent death? Or not. It depends on which midrash you’re reading.

Zornberg also weaves in all manner of modern authors, and I’ll admit that at times, during paragraphs peppered with modern philosophers or whoever they are, I found myself wandering on the web, catching up on details about the Mitch Daniels marriage. But paradoxically, when Zornberg sticks to her medieval sources,  her commentaries are more intensely meaningful for me, more surprising and upsetting.   


Heir to the Glimmering WorldIf you don’t find Zornberg’s midrashim as riveting as I do, you might try Cynthia Ozick’s 2004 novel Heir to the Glimmering World, which features Professor Rudolf Mitwisser, “the scholar of Karaism.”

Who were the Karaites? They thought that midrashim were rubbish, and that only the Bible as it stood, sans commentaries, was the true word of God. (I shouldn’t use the past tense when referring to them, even if characters in the novel refer to them as a dead, unknown sect. Check out The Karaite Korner and

Rose, our novel’s narrator, enters the Mitwisser household at age eighteen, in 1935, to serve as . . . Well, it takes her a while to figure that out, and her role keeps changing. The Mitwissers are Jewish refugees, displaced to Albany, NY, and then to a weedy, obscure sector of the Bronx.

Rose comes from a wrecked family, herself, and she’s a funny, perceptive narrator–so perceptive that she narrates stretches of story that she didn’t witness and about which no one told her. She’s writing her tale decades after the events took place, though, and–unless we’re supposed to think that a nameless third-person narrator is periodically taking over–this older Rose must be looking back and doing her own sort of midrash.

The book is a terribly sad story which ends happily for some characters, a vivid look at a moment in history, and a delight.


  1. Laura Mendelsohn says:

    I just finished Ozick’s “Heir” a few weeks ago. I enjoyed the book- but I agree, several of the characters were in a very sorry state. Life really didn’t improve for them. But I was impressed with the way the Ozick bound the two families together- the storybook; the narrator, Rose; Rose’s father; and the benefactor.
    I did wonder why Rose stayed with the family for so long, especially if she was such a gifted typist, why didn’t she seek something else for herself instead of living with this very disturbed family? Perhaps dysfunction was her normality. But I enjoy Ozick’s books- this was my third.

  2. Glenn Halberstadt says:

    Thanks for the comment, Laura. Your question hadn’t occurred to me. I assumed that Rose was financially destitute–or at least thought she was–and in need of a family. So she was scared to move on once she’d found a nest, even a nest as weird as this one. She wants Rudolf and Elsa to be the parents she never had.
    I agree completely about the way Ozick brings the elements of the story together. And I loved the reappearances of characters who had (I thought) finished playing their parts.
    Glenn Halberstadt
    Reader’s Connection

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