2014 National Jewish Book Awards Finalist for Outstanding Debut Fiction.
2015 Great Midwest Book Festival Winner.
Mysterious words written over two hundred years ago connect two generations of one family through shared names, traditions and the causes they still hold dear.
The journals were small, dusty and delicate. “These tell the stories of our heroes,” my grandfather said, placing them reverently in my hands. “Find out who wrote these and what the stories tell us about how they kept our family alive.. Make sure we know their names. I want to know about them before I die.”
That is how my journey began. I set out to discover just my own family’s history, expecting simple diaries of daily life in tiny villages in Europe. What I found instead were hints of a secret group of Jewish fighters led by the fearsome “Angel of Death,” all recorded in code and puzzles by the mysterious Judah Halevi, a Sephardic Jewish doctor, who had begun these journals after personal tragedy forced him to travel to central Europe. Then he carefully hid them to keep them safe for 200 years.
The care he took clearly meant he wanted to have these stories told. He wanted people to understand how a small group of Jews had fought against oppression to create an oasis of peace and human dignity hidden in the forests of central Europe. But the story still remained a secret as I approached the last journal with no clue yet of how and where to begin unraveling the tales.
I wanted to scream in frustration, “Damn you, Judah Halevi. You left all these stories behind! All these unnamed people! All these cryptic words and arcane puzzles! Was it a treasure or a curse that my grandfather laid on my shoulders when he made me responsible for telling these tales? For learning all the names?”
The journals had already consumed years of my life as I pored over the tiny Hebrew written during the Napoleonic wars. My grandfather was so sure that these fragile old books would contain stories of his family’s heroes. I began to question his faith in them.
As I reached the last journal, I thought, it would be now or never. I riffled the pages gently, before parting its fragile leaves. A document fell out. I adjusted the light then unfolded it with tweezers against the protective cloth, still wearing my cotton gloves to preserve the delicate paper. Then I picked up the magnifying lens.
It was a map! Faded and drawn by hand, with many places marked with tiny Hebrew letters and an arrow pointing north labeled “To Prague” with a single Hebrew word: “Bereshit”—”In the beginning.” Was Judah Halevi telling me where to start my discoveries?
I saw the river’s distinctive S-shaped bend, drawn so carefully on the map. My grandfather’s tales of the old country centered on an old Jewish village near such a curve in the river in Bohemia, southwest of Prague.
I called my wife. “I found it! Judah Halevi has pointed the way for me. I will learn their names at last.”
That was where the journey began. I am still traveling the pathways marked out for me in the Judah Halevi Journals.
Learn more about me and my discoveries on TellingOurTales.net.