By Robin Jacobson.
Every year at Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, we encounter one of the most fascinating, mind-bending, hard-to-wrap-your-head-around concepts in Judaism. At the transcendent moment at Mount Sinai – when God’s voice thundered the words of the covenant – all Jews were present, according to Jewish teaching. The awestruck crowd at the foot of the fiery, blazing mountain encompassed not merely the Hebrew slaves who had escaped Egypt but all Jews who would exist in future times. Rather wonderfully, this age-old belief is succinctly captured in the name of a 21st-century Jewish dating site: SawYouAtSinai.
Author Dara Horn says this Jewish notion of the elasticity of time, of the merging of the past with the present, was part of the inspiration for her latest novel. Eternal Life is about a woman who lived in ancient Jerusalem, took a mystical vow at the Temple, and, as a result, never died. While Eternal Life explores the ramifications of being immortal, The Immortalists, a novel by Chloe Benjamin, delves into the inverse situation: Benjamin’s characters know (or think they know) the dates they will die.
Despite these immensely imaginative premises, both novels, disappointingly, reach rather commonplace conclusions [e.g., death is what gives life meaning (Eternal Life) or a life spent worrying about death is a life wasted (The Immortalists)]. Nonetheless, both novels are rewarding reads. Horn marvelously evokes Jerusalem in the time of the Second Temple, while Benjamin creates interesting, unusual characters grappling with loss and uncertainty.
Eternal Life alternates between first-century Jerusalem and present-day New York. In Jerusalem, Rachel, the daughter of a scribe, spends her days as her father’s messenger, delivering scrolls and messages to the Temple and around the city. She and a young Temple priest, Elazar, embark on a love affair that leads them to take a desperate vow before Elazar’s father, the High Priest. The vow renders them both immortal. While thousands perish during the brutal Roman sacking of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., they survive, teaming up to sneak the sage Yochanan Ben Zakkai out of Jerusalem in a coffin. With the Temple in ruins, Ben Zakkai, an actual historical figure, forges a new path for Judaism.
In Rachel’s contemporary story, she is a 2,000-year-old woman who regards her immortality as a curse. Over the centuries, she has cared for numerous husbands and children and seen them all die while she continued to live (unbeknownst to her families, each time she “dies” she regenerates elsewhere, once again a young woman ready to start her next life). Periodically Elazar reappears; Rachel loves him but also hates him for an old betrayal.
Benjamin’s novel begins with four young Jewish siblings on an adventure in New York’s Lower East Side in 1969. They visit a fortuneteller who privately reveals to each child his or her death date. Benjamin then traces each sibling’s life, as each reacts to the prophecy – Simon runs away to San Francisco, embracing an exuberant gay lifestyle before falling victim to AIDS; Klara becomes a professional magician-illusionist famous for her death-defying stunts; Daniel, a military doctor, is determined to find and confront the fortuneteller; and Varya becomes a scientist researching (of course) longevity.
Reviewers have praised the novel for its “elegant ambiguity” – the reader is never sure whether the fortuneteller was truly clairvoyant or whether the death-date predictions simply influenced the siblings’ life choices and became self-fulfilling. How different would the siblings’ lives have been if they had never met the fortuneteller?