When I moved to Israel and frummed-up, the fiction books got the heave-ho, along with a bunch of other things like movies and internet in my home, which I’d come to realize weren’t so good for my soul or my aspirations to be a good parent.
Did I miss the fiction? Yes and no. Yes, I missed the pure escapism, but no, I really don’t miss the thought that I just wasted a day reading the product of someone else’s imagination.
But every now and then, I make an exception to my ‘no fiction’ rule, and one of those exceptions was for the book ‘By light of hidden candles’, by Daniella Levy.
The prose is very easy on the internal ear, the story is just fast-paced enough to keep you reading avidly, and the subject matter - a Jewish girl who almost gets swept up in a romance with an apparently Catholic student, set against the backdrop of a research project exploring Spain’s crypto Jews - is definitely captivating.
Here’s what I really liked about the book: It’s not at all pretentious, it’s extremely well-written and well-researched, and it explores the issues of intermarriage, interfaith relationships generally, and the always fascinating subject of conversos, in a way that I think most Jewish readers would really appreciate.
(The converso, or crypto Jews were Spanish subjects who were given the choice of converting to xtianity or being forced to leave the country as penniless wanderers. Sadly, many Jews put their bodies ahead of their souls, and they and their descendants have paid an extremely heavy price for that for coming on for 600 years’, already.)
Here’s what I was less keen on: all the detailed xtian stuff it contains, including descriptions of catholic mass, xtian teachings, and the general tolerance and even, dare I say it, respect for xtianity.
In terms of the book, if the author Daniella Levy had been a jot less detailed, or a touch less tolerant and respectful of xtianity, her artful depiction of the characters involved, and the integrity of the book, would have definitely suffered as a result.
And yet…as a frum Jew, I have to admit to wincing through a couple of the passages, and wishing there was a kind of ‘third way’ where Levy could accurately portray the main protagonist without having to drag the reader straight up the baptismal font after him.
But let’s be clear that most people, most frum Jews, even, probably won’t have the same strong reaction to those scenes that I did.
If you find all things ‘xtian’ distasteful, this may not be the book for you to settle down with this Autumn. If you can at least tolerate references to xtianity, then I think you’ll find this book a very good read, and a thought-provoking excursion into the deeper questions of what really makes a person a Jew, anyway, and how much most of us would be willing to sacrifice to hang on to our Jewish faith.