My love of historical fiction began as a young pre-teen, after having read Louis Lamour’s “The Walking Drum,” about a young Druid named Kerbouchard who travels throughout 12th century Europe in search of knowledge, fortune, and his long lost father. The novel was a recommendation and gift from my own father, who had recently read it himself. I was instantly mesmerized by how Lamour’s writing brought a multitude of historical figures and events to life from the primarily Muslim culture of Moorish Spain with its love of knowledge and learning, to the Greek Orthodox Christian based society of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, with its long history of authoritarian rule. It awakened me to a world I barely knew existed and inspired me to read more.
I’ve always loved reading, writing and history, so it wasn’t a big leap for me to set my sights on becoming an author of historical fiction myself. Like Lamour, I drew upon my Jewish heritage (just as he looked to his Irish, French, and Native American ancestry) for inspiration and story ideas. I publicly stated that my goal was to be the “Louis Lamour of the Jewish world.” This was not stated out of ego, but out of admiration for and a desire to replicate the abundant research that went into the writing of each of his novels. My goal was (and still is) to not only entertain my readers, but to educate them also, with as accurate a portrayal of the history contained in each of my books as I can possibly write. This is the approach I took in writing my novel True Identity, about an undercover Mossad agent, who is knocked unconscious and experiences past-life visions of being a follower of the Biblical Patriarch Abraham.
I more recently gained a greater understanding of the long-time Jewish tradition of writing Midrash, stories meant to further explain and add detail to the characters and stories of Torah. So, what exactly is Midrash? And is Jewish-themed historical fiction a form of modern Midrash?
The term Midrash comes from the root word “derash” which in Hebrew means “to search, to examine, or to investigate.” The addition of the Mem (m) prefix to the beginning of the word turns the word into a noun, making its meaning to be “the search, the examination, or the investigation.” Originally oral tales meant to expand upon, or add details to Biblical stories, Midrashim (plural of Midrash) were most likely compiled and written down between the 4th and 9th centuries A.D. They generally fall into two categories, Halachic Midrashim and Aggadah. Halachic Midrashim are legal works meant to answer legal questions of the day through rabbinical interpretations of laws of the Torah. They are the Jewish equivalent to court rulings and precedents. Aggadah, or legends, are the stories told to flesh out Biblical characters and happenings. A popular example is the story of Abraham’s breaking of the idols in his father’s workshop (a Midrash that is included in True Identity). This story is not found in Torah. So, did it really happen? We cannot say for sure whether the oral tradition is rooted in truth or myth. But the question itself misses the point of Midrash. As stated by Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish scholar and author of the Guide for the Perplexed, Midrashim are not meant to be understood literally, but allegorically. They bring the characters and stories of Torah to life, just like historical fiction!
True Identity as modern Midrash:
As mentioned earlier, my novel, True Identity, tells the story of an Israeli Mossad agent working undercover in Iraqi Kurdistan, who’s knocked unconscious during a raid by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp and experiences past-life visions of being a follower of the Hebrew Patriarch Abraham. I make use of the Jewish mystical belief in reincarnation, or Gilgulim HaNefesh, to explore who the ancient Hebrews really were and how much of a revolutionary figure their leader, Abraham, actually was for his time. The challenge faced by my main character is to recall his “true identity” in time to prevent the assassination of the newly-elected American president. All the while, he’s being hunted by the Iranians and their allies. So, is it a modern midrash? I’ll leave that to the reader to decide. Obviously, the majority of my characters are fictional, but like the midrashim of old, my goal is to elaborate upon and provide new meaning to the tales of Torah.
Samuel Griswold, Author
True Identity… A David Jezreel Story