The Orchard by Yochi Brandes, Gefen Publishing House, US $24.95, Pp 380, March 2018, ISBN 978-9652299307
The destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 left a great cultural vacuum that threatened to obliterate the nation of Israel. Two new religions emerged — Judaism and Christianity — from out of this chaos. Both were birthed by the ancient Sages of Israel, generally referred to in English as the Sages or the Rabbis, and in Hebrew as Hazal, an acronym that stands for our Sages of Blessed Memory. This is the theme of Yochi Brandes’ new historical novel The Orchard. Yochi Brandes believes that were it not for these Sages, the Bible would perhaps have been lost, and we would have neither Judaism nor Christianity today. We can say without exaggeration that it is thanks to the Sages that what we call “Western culture” exists.
Yochi Brandes is an author who writes about Jewish culture. All of his nine books tell the stories of momentous and significant revolution in the history of the people of Israel. The Orchard tells the story of the momentous and most significant revolution of all, both for Judaism and Christianity. Yochi Brandes writes, “I take Jewish culture, in all its richness and complexity, and turn it into a work of contemporary literature that every person, even without previous knowledge, can read with ease and pleasure. The Sages in my book are no vague abstraction, but rather flesh and blood human beings – great ones, to be sure, but also impulsive, status-conscious, cutting, and damaged.”
It is impossible to understand the revolution wrought by the Sages without understanding the religious and intellectual disputes between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, between the school of Hillel and the School of Shammai, between text and homily, between the early Christians and the Jewish establishment. These are complex disputes that require patience to comprehend. Yochi Brandes says that it was important for him to translate them into contemporary language and a suspenseful story without losing their depth. And it is what he has tried to do – quite successfully.
It is not easy to write such historical novels. One of the difficulties is the names. Yochi Brandes says that the Sages are thousands of individual people. He chose to focus only on the most prominent of them. But even among these, more than a few have similar names. Even native Hebrew speakers struggle to distinguish between names like Eliezer and Elezar, to say nothing of the name Simeon, which was especially popular back then. He writes, “I gave each sage his own unique traits, usually in personality and sometimes in appearance.” Yet, nevertheless, they still might be confused with one another at first.
The orchard tells the stories of the Sages of Israel in the second half of the first century who played an important role in saving both Judaism and Christianity. Writing historical novels is not easy. It becomes particularly difficult when the theme is the history of religion. A lot of research has gone into writing this novel. Yochi Brandes has total command over both religion and history. He is a natural and gifted storyteller. The orchard is a captivating novel everybody will enjoy. You will enjoy it even without having any knowledge of the history of the period, in which case it will be the beginning of your interest in the history of the period.