Borow discusses ‘Canaan Trilogy’ at library


Pearl Borow, long a popular teacher and speaker while residing in St. Louis, and now living in Israel with her husband, Rabbi Aaron Borow, was in the community last week, where she was the featured speaker on The Canaan Trilogy: Three Novels by Marek Halter, at an event sponsored by the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library. An overflow audience of over 180 people filled the newly refurbished board room of the Jewish Federation Kopolow Building for Borow’s presentation.

Borow discussed The Canaan Trilogy, three novels on Jewish women by the French Jewish novelist Marek Halter, including: Sarah; Zipporah, Wife of Moses and Lilah: A Forbidden Love, a People’s Destiny. Pointing out that in the past she has reviewed several books about biblical heroes, such as The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and books about the wives of King David, Borow pointed out that Marek Halter, a French Jewish novelist is popular in Europe and America, “by and large does not appeal to Israeli readers, and some of his books are not readily available in Israel.” She added that Diamant’s The Red Tent, which deals with Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, “has made it as a popular book in Israel.”


Borow said that she “brings greetings from the Land of Milk and Honey,” using a description of the Land of Israel found 15 or 16 times in the Hebrew Bible. “Torah is as sweet as honey, but it is also nourishing like milk. Torah needs to be under your tongue like those lozenges that dissolve on your tongue before you can get the full benefits. We cannot swallow the Torah whole; we need to study it, go to classes with good teachers.”

She added, “in reading these three books, I tried to deal first with them as literature, and then describe them in relation to what is said in the Torah or other sources.” Borow pointed out that each book includes a question and answer section with Marek Halter, in which he is asked how his works relate to the Bible. “Halter wants to tell stories of women who lived in very different times and each interacted with three important men. Halter chose to write a trilogy about Sarah, the wife of Abraham; Zipporah, the wife of Moses and Lilah, a character described as the sister of Ezra, but for whom I could not found a confirming source that she existed or even that Ezra had a sister.”

Borow took note of the fact that the three books were based “on the age-old premise that behind every great man there is a great woman, which is often true, but it is also true that there are many, many great Jewish women who attained greatness in their own right. In order to make his books credible as being from the perspective of the women he describes, he went to several female friends to ask them to descibe such events as their first menstrual flow or other major events in their lives in order to lend his descriptions a certain authority.”

Borow praised Halter’s descriptions of the Babylonian city of Ur in Halter’s book. “The author’s descriptions of the buildings, the towers and palaces give Ur a kind of vivid, fairy tale feeling.” She added that Halter added several “midrashic” elements to his book about Sarah which are not found in the actual biblical text. “Halter describes Sarah as the daughter of a powerful lord in Ur, who runs out and meets a young man named Abram. She secretly drinks a posionous potion which makes her incapable of bearing children….All of these are elements invented by Halter. He describes Sarah as a kind of modern woman, who controls her own reproduction, who reconciles Ishmael and Isaac and who chose her own husband.

“In fact,” Borow said, “Sarah was barren; she had no interest in reconciling Isaac with Ishmael (Abraham’s son by the Egyptian handmaiden Hagar) and she did not choose her own husband. It is true, that when she was initially barren, she introduced the concept of surrogate motherhood with Hagar bearing Abraham’s child Ishmael.”

Regarding Halter’s book, Zipporah, Wife of Moses, Borow pointed out that in the Bible, Zipporah is a Midianite, the daughter of the Midianite priest Yitro, or Jethro. “In Halter’s book, Moses, after he kills the Egyptian soldier and becomes a fugitive is described as simply wanting to marry Zipporah and live quiety. Zipporah convinces Moses to return to Egypt, and she later runs into hatred and intrigue; her two sons are trampled to death and then Zipporah is killed by a member of her own tribe.”

Borow said that the original title of Halter’s book was Zipporah, the Black Wife of Moses, because of the reference in the Bible of Miriam gossiping that her brother Moses had “married a Cushite woman.” The term Cushite is a synonym for Ethiopian, but the text is clear that Zipporah herself is a Midianite. Borow pointed out that some biblical scholars believe that the “Cushite woman” might have been a second wife to Moses in addition to Zipporah. “We don’t know much about Zipporah from the text,” Borow said, but we do know that she was not black and was not adopted. We also know that she was a powerful woman in the actual text, who herself circumcised her second son.”

As to the book Lilah: A Forbidden Love, a People’s Destiny, Borow pointed out again that she could find no biblical or historic evidence that such a person, described as the sister of Ezra, who with Nechemia came back to Israel from Persia to rebuild the Jewish community and the Second Temple, even existed. “We do know that King Cyrus the Great, Koresh, did allow Jews under Ezra and Nechemia to return to the Land of Israel after the Persian king conquered the Babylonians, who had taken the Jews into exile. “Halter gets his history wrong in this book. He has Ezra arriving first, but it was Nechemia who came to Israel before Ezra.”

In the book, Lilah, the sister of Ezra, falls in love with a Persian soldier named Aniois, but realizes that she must help her brother. Ezra listens to the Zealots and insists that the Jews end their marriages to their non-Jewish mates during this 70-year period between the First and Second Temples. According to the Talmud and other sources, the Jews built a very successful community there during this period,” Borow said.

Summarizing her general impressions of the three books of Halter’s Canaan Trilogy, Borow said, “I found all three books to be fast-moving and interesting.”

Borow said that while writers and other artists are free to interpret Bible stories and personalities, “it would also seem that there is an ethic of inventing texts. We can question the ethics of an invented text to drive forward an underlying agenda or motive of the author which may distort the true meaning of the texts. It is a question that deserves to be pondered.”