Aaron Leibel is Washington Jewish Week’s copy editor and former arts editor. Copy editing is a job that requires him to confine himself to the minutiae of writing — syntax, spelling and the errant double space. But two years ago, Leibel decided to open himself up and let his imagination roam across the long span of Jewish history.
The result is “Generations, The Story of a Jewish Family” (Create Space, 2014, $12.95), a novel that encompasses 1,500 years of exile and return by following the fortunes of one Jewish family. Leibel self-published the novel after a year of trying to interest publishers in his three-part story — the first set in seventh-century Israel on the eve of the Arab conquest; the second amid a blood libel in 17th-century Poland; and the last part in the 20th century, when a young couple from Baltimore makes aliyah.
Leibel says he always wanted to tell the story of the Jews, in particular “the Jewish people’s closeness to the land of Israel.”
The reason, he says, is more than because it makes a good story.
“The vast majority of Muslims do not accept the Jews’ right to the land of Israel — some Christians don’t either,” he said. “But what really disturbs me is that some Jews, especially some young Jews, don’t seem to understand the connection between Jews and the land of Israel.”
Leibel makes the connections clear, as he places his seventh-century and 20th-century protagonists on nearly the same hillside west of Jerusalem. In 639, Meir ben Aryeh is a member of a family of successful vintners in the village of Elim. The family receives top prices for its wines, thanks to Meir’s father, whose gift it is to know precisely when to harvest the grapes.
The Arab conquest of the Middle East — unseen but anticipated — threatens to overturn the uneasy peace the Jews have made with their Byzantine Christian rulers. Will the new conquerors treat the Jews better than the Christians? Or will they be crueler and impose an alcohol ban, fulfilling Muslim observance but depriving the Jewish family of its livelihood?
Meir leaves, taking his wife and small children to Constantinople but not before unlocking a family secret that makes facing the unknown in exile preferable for his wife to the unknowns that await the Jews in Israel.
In the 20th century, Meir’s descendant Alan Sacks, a Baltimore native, falls in love with Miriam from Silver Spring. She agrees to marry him only if he will make aliyah with her. Miriam is a committed Zionist. Alan has no Israel background at all. But he agrees to her conditions, and in 1974, after the Yom Kippur War, they make Israel their home.
“Well, when you describe him like that, Alan is me,” Leibel said.
Like Alan, Leibel was born and raised in Baltimore and attended the University of Maryland, where he received his Ph.D. in government and politics. He and his wife, Bonnie, made aliyah in 1972 and raised their family there. They lived in Israel for 16 years, where Leibel worked as a journalist. Back in the Washington area, he joined the staff of Washington Jewish Week in 1997.
And while Alan Sachs is more gregarious than his creator, Leibel says they share some of the same adventures. One is a soldiers’ strike while Alan is on basic training in the Israeli army. When soldiers from Soviet Georgia are threatened with having their leave canceled for their perpetual lateness, they announce to Alan and the rest of the unit that from now on, no one will follow their officers’ orders.
One of the men reacts with an incredulous, “We can’t do that,” and a Georgian responds by running his finger slowly across his throat. Message received: When an officer orders “right face,” no one moves.
In these two segments, Leibel exiled his characters from Israel and returned them there. That just left the 1,500 years in between.
Leibel found his middle section in the true story of a blood libel in the Polish town of Ruzhany. In 1657 a Christian boy was found dead, and the town’s Jews were accused of committing the murder and using the boy’s blood to make matzah.
The town’s Roman Catholic priest wants to punish the Jewish community collectively. The local duke tries to mediate. The presence of the Jewish community is good for the local economy and for his bottom line.
Knowing that innocence or guilt is immaterial, the town’s two rabbis, Tuvia ben Yosef and Yisrael ben Shalom, agree to undergo a sham trial after the duke promises the rest of the community will be spared.
Leibel calls this “the best part of the book.” In “Generations,” Rabbi Yisrael is a descendant of Meir the vintner and an ancestor of Alan Sacks. The rabbi, if one genealogist is correct, is Aaron Leibel’s ancestor as well. There are Sackses in Leibel’s family tree, and they are thought to be descended from the rabbi executed for the crime of being a Jew.
Perhaps the family line can also be traced back to a hillside near Jerusalem.