June 14, 2013 § Leave a comment
I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to fulfill my promise of bi-weekly posts throughout the summer, as I’ve been working hard on filling out the Slash site over the past weeks, but then I finished a book I’d been making my way through slowly for most of the spring and thought to myself, “Hey, that was actual quite enjoyable and thought provoking—I should recommend it.” It’s a recommendation with qualifications, though, as One Hundred Philistine Foreskins certainly isn’t for everyone.
Let me, first off, go ahead and call it early: Best Title of 2013 goes to this satirical juggernaut by Tova Reich. It was on the strength of the title alone that I gave it a try, but the title also hints at the specific audience of this book.
I was at my neighborhood independent bookstore, the incomparable Common Good Books, special ordering a compendium of New Testament Apocrypha for some research I’m doing for my next prkect. A little surprised I was into biblical scholarship—but well acquainted with my juvenile sense of humor—my friend who works there pointed it out to me as a title to giggle about (and possibly read).
The title refers to the bride price David paid for one of his wives in the Book of Samuel; the novel summarizes:
“And while we’re on the subject of women at windows and all the troubles this position has brought down upon them, let us not neglect to mention King Saul’s daughter, the princess Mikhal, for whom that extravagant show-off David had actually overtipped with two hundred Philistine foreskins though the asking brideprcie for her, true, had been the bargain rate of the mere one hundred at which her value had been assessed. Two hundred Philistines for a yield of two hundred foreskins, think about it, maybe circumcised after they were killed, maybe while they were still alive like Dinah’s rapist Shekhem and all the men of his town, a major bloodletting, a wild scalping, but David liked to do things big, he liked to make a splash, and Mikhal, after all, was a princess, a Jewish princess, worth every foreskin.”
This should give you a pretty good feel for the tone of the novel, which chronicles the life of Ima Temima, a radical feminist rabbi, while continually turning back to the stories of the Torah for deeper understanding and humor. Exploring a woman’s role and worth (100 gentile foreskins) in Jewish society, the humor is dark, cutting, bitter—and often dead on.
But it is also incredibly specific. As I’ve discussed before on the blog, every joke has an ideal listener, and the more chance there is that a joke will be lost on a general audience, the more intimate and powerful it usually is. For a guy who grew up without religion, I feel I’m generally familiar with what I know as the Old Testament, and many of the jokes in this novel hit me really hard, giving deeper insight into stories I thought I’d already understood. But as the novel is firmly couched in Jewish culture, many of the interpretations, much of the vocabulary, and some of the cultural references were lost on me. But then I sort of enjoy that experience of trying to fit the pieces together; it made me feel like I’d worked my way into the point if view by the end of the book.
If you’re a Jewish feminist, I think you’ll find this book hilarious and personally affecting—and if you’re not, you might just find yourself a Jewish feminist by the time you finish it.