I’ve been aware of this book for years. I think I even picked it up and paged through it when we lived in Nashville (the main library there is seriously awesome; if you’re ever in the area, stop in and take a walk around. The collection is pretty good- some slightly dated material, but still pretty phenomenal, and the building is gorgeous. There’s even a large outside courtyard with a huge fountain, a large stage for performances and talks, and a children’s puppet theater. It’s been almost six years since I was last there, so who knows what other updates have been made since then!), but for whatever reason, I chose not to read it at the time. But during our first week in my Introduction to Judaism class, the rabbi recommended it and I figured it was finally time to pick up As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg (Behrman House Publishing, 1939). I’m always a little nervous reading older books, since I still have a little bit of holdover fear from being made to read things like The Scarlet Letter in high school (I still can’t stand Nathaniel Hawthorne), and I’ve had some not-so-great experiences with dry, dusty historical fiction, but that wasn’t at all what I found between the covers of this book.
Elisha ben Abuyah, the son of a lapsed Jew, is raised adhering more to Greek tradition in the years of Roman rule in Palestine, but when his father passes, his uncle insists he study the Law of his people. After becoming a rabbi and becoming part of the Sanhedrin, doubts about his faith begin to appear, and though he tries hard to hold on, his questions can’t be ignored. Willing to risk everything for solid answers, Elisha begins a journey of discovery, of finding irrefutable evidence of what the truth really is, but this search will have devastating effects on him, on history, and on the lives of everyone he knows and loves.
This is an incredible book, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Elisha ben Abuyah (an actual historical person, though this is a fictionalized account of his life, with much conjecture and imagining) is an engaging, thoughtful character, and the era in which he lives is vividly alive in Steinberg’s elaborate, yet not overdone, description. Elisha’s arc is tragic; his unhappy arranged marriage and his search to view faith solely through a lens of logic ends disastrously for nearly everyone, even those not immediately involved, and there are some seriously gruesome scenes in here (torture, Roman murder, and a lion-versus-gladiator fight scene that turned my stomach and had me wide-eyed while reading in public). Steinberg doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of life under Roman rule, nor does he tone down the more hedonistic aspects of the society Elisha found himself in after his excommunication and abandoning Palestine for Antioch.
It’s difficult to elaborate how fascinating I found reading fiction set in this time period (I believe the only other book I’ve read set during Roman rule is The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth Speare George, also a fantastic read). I haven’t ventured too much into the world of historical fiction; it’s not that I dislike it, but I’ve encountered some that have been dry, and so much of it seems to be centered around World War II that As A Driven Leaf seems absolutely…modern…by comparison. A breath of fresh air in that genre, if you will, despite the book being eighty-one years old. It’s an era I haven’t literarily-traveled to that often, so I really enjoyed my journey back in time to admire Elisha’s intelligence and dedication while still wincing at his bullheaded perseverance despite the consequences. (And because of the book being set during this time, I’m counting it as my pick for the BookRiot 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt to read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII. Finally, I’m on the scoreboard with this one!)
This isn’t an easy book to review, as there’s so much going on and Steinberg’s messages are so profound, but it’s a deeply enjoyable read, one that can be read on multiple levels. It’s a glimpse into the past, an inspiration, a warning, an encouragement to search and an injunction to be prepared for the consequences. It’s thought-provoking in a multitude of ways, no matter if you agree or not with Elisha’s final conclusions. As a Driven Leaf is beautifully written and will leave you intrigued and wanting more from this thoughtful author, or at least for the book to never end.
Milton Steinberg passed away in 1950. You can see his other books here on Goodreads.