‘Sacred Sto­ries as Metaphor’: A Mod­ern Retelling of Bib­li­cal Stories

This post was originally published by the Jewish Book Council.

 

jeanne-blasberg-writing-the-nine-with-dog-brady-based-on-sacred-story-of-hannah-and-samuelMy nov­el, The Nine, will be pub­lished on August 20, and as with my debut, Eden, I took inspi­ra­tion from the Torah in writ­ing it — not in lit­er­al terms, but using our sacred sto­ries as metaphor. I don’t write in an ancient set­ting, but in a mod­ern one. I am a believ­er that the themes in our ancient text con­tin­ue to repeat them­selves to this day, and in that I find some com­fort, as well as res­ig­na­tion, toward what it means to be human.

Judaism pro­vides a beau­ti­ful struc­ture for con­tin­ued learn­ing and study of text. I’ve par­tic­i­pat­ed in many class­es at Tem­ple Israel Boston, includ­ing Mod­ern Midrash with Rab­bi Elaine Zech­er. Not only do the stu­dents around the table dis­cuss the many sto­ries in the Tanakh, we point out what’s miss­ing; often times the gaps and voids relate to the woman’s point of view.

One ques­tion that real­ly reared its head for me was regard­ing the sto­ry of Han­nah. She was bar­ren and want­ed a child ter­ri­bly. When she went to the tem­ple, she prayed with such fer­vor that the priest assumed she was drunk. She even­tu­al­ly bore a son and named him Samuel, mean­ing I asked the Lord for him.” When she was pray­ing to God, how­ev­er, she vowed that once her son was weaned she would turn him over to the priest at the temple.

We point out what’s miss­ing; often times the gaps and voids relate to the woman’s point of view.

I was con­sumed by what Hannah’s emo­tions must have been dur­ing this peri­od, hav­ing want­ed a child so bad­ly and only to hold him for such a short peri­od of time. As she had promised God she turned her son over, to the very priest who rebuked her — to me it seemed like the ulti­mate sac­ri­fice. Per­haps this sto­ry struck me so because I stud­ied it at a time when I was also turn­ing my own son over to the world. He was four­teen, but still, in a mod­ern con­text four­teen is just bare­ly weaned! I was turn­ing this son over not to a tem­ple, but to an acad­e­my; not to a priest, but to a head­mas­ter. The insti­tu­tion might’ve been dif­fer­ent, but I was putting my trust in a per­son, a man, an author­i­ty fig­ure, and I had to take a lot on faith.

family-is-sacred-jeanne-blasberg-son-jackI also thought about Han­nah in rela­tion to all women, who are ulti­mate­ly val­ued in terms of fer­til­i­ty, their abil­i­ty to bear chil­dren, and even­tu­al­ly by how right­eous their chil­dren turn out to be. I thought about Han­nah as an ear­ly por­tray­al of a moth­er who had to say good­bye to her son after what is inevitably too short a peri­od of time and is nev­er­the­less judged by her son’s actions.

I took it one step fur­ther out­side the Midrash class. I turned her into a con­tem­po­rary fic­tion­al char­ac­ter who was a well-mean­ing, hard-work­ing woman, from a mod­est back­ground, who over­came infer­til­i­ty and gave birth to a son. She makes him her career. She has great plans, intend­ing to launch him toward even greater endeav­ors. You might call her a heli­copter mom, but she’s not a bad per­son — as that con­no­ta­tion often invokes. She is just very deter­mined that things will go a cer­tain way. She is a believ­er in hard work, study, and earnest­ness and con­se­quent­ly being reward­ed for those traits.

You might call her a heli­copter mom, but she’s not a bad per­son — as that con­no­ta­tion often invokes. She is just very deter­mined that things will go a cer­tain way.

When her son arrives at the revered insti­tu­tion, he gets caught up in a whole new world. She is under the impres­sion he’s going to live out her Ivy League hopes and dreams, but he gets wrapped up in a secret soci­ety and a fast mov­ing crowd. He uncov­ers a crime, and is more con­cerned with doing the right thing and solv­ing the mys­tery than ful­fill­ing his mother’s col­le­giate aspirations.

jeanne-blasberg-family-young-childrenI real­ly enjoyed writ­ing this com­ing of age, cam­pus nov­el, with a strong mater­nal point of view. It can be frus­trat­ing to read Hannah’s char­ac­ter, but in the end many read­ers have com­pas­sion for her and under­stand she only wants what’s best.

I want read­ers to learn Hannah’s les­son with­out hav­ing to make the same mis­takes she did. It is said one can sum­ma­rize the Torah while stand­ing on one foot with the sim­ple phrase, Love thy Neigh­bor.” What Han­nah learns at the end of The Nine is that all the par­ent­ing gospels that once lined her book­shelves could be sum­ma­rized sim­i­lar­ly — it all comes down to love. Love your child, but also love your­self. Don’t use a son or any child to fill your own empti­ness. Par­ent­ing is over in a minute; just appre­ci­ate the mir­a­cle of their being.

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