A collection of novellas offers three tales drawn from the rich soil of Jewish history.
This book finds its origin in a handful of artifacts: a pair of letters from medieval Europe, a stone inscription from imperial Rome, and an assortment of papyri from ancient Egypt. These treasures bear traces of the lives of a trio of extraordinary women: a convert to Judaism forced to carry on after her husband’s death; a Jerusalemite captured and sent to Rome after the fall of the Great Temple; and an Egyptian slave who builds a family and a home with the Jewish priest who takes her as his bride. In this collection, Stock (In Place of Me, 2015, etc.) takes the stories—whose contours are merely hinted at in the artifacts themselves—and fleshes them out, extrapolating lives and worlds from ancient etchings on rock, paper, and parchment. For too long, the history of Jews (and gentiles, for that matter) has focused on men, and one of Stock’s goals in building out her tales is to give voices to the women whose lives made up so much of the rich tapestry of Judaism. As Senior Rabbi Stacy Friedman writes in her liner notes, these voices have been “long suppressed by the larger currents of history.” Stock’s excavation, then, is an extremely worthy project. But it’s clear her fascination with these tales is not only political; it is also imaginative, and she breathes life and energy into the narratives these artifacts imply (“The destruction of the Great Temple in Jerusalem flickered through her. Often when she closed her eyes some part of the horror would rise up, tilting crazily then turning in her mind, until she seemed to be seeing it all under water”). A skilled prose stylist, the author pulls off a delicate balancing act between the modern and the ancient; her rendering of these lives feels both contemporary and of their own time. The enterprise’s only weakness is its structure. Stock decides to set her stories in reverse chronological order, and the effect is a bit confusing: presumably, the culmination of these tales comes in the experiences of Jewish women today, so it’s a bit odd that the end of her collection leaves readers on an island in the Nile two and a half millennia ago.
These stories about remarkable women deliver an elegant blend of history and art.