Love stories, highway robbery, adultery, controversy over a school for girls, investments from American Revolution money, a debate with Moses Mendelssohn – all these are part of the dramatic novel The Origin of Sorrow by Robert Mayer. When the publicist offered to send me a digital version of the book, I responded the only time I have to read is on Shabbat, so digital won’t work. He was nice enough to send me an old-fashioned book. Little did I know that I would be drawn into the drama and characters of this thick historical novel, and I finished reading it in three days.
The setting is Frankfurt, Germany in the late 18th century. As of 1458, the Jews were required to live behind walls and stone gates along a lane called Judengasse. In the back of the book, the author notes two books in particular that helped with his research on the novel: Founder by Amos Elon and The House of Rothschild by Niall Ferguson. Both are now on my to-read list.
There were many times while reading the book where I said to myself, nah, that couldn’t have happened that way, or I doubt she really said that to him in that manner. So if you prefer realistic historical fiction, this may not be the book for you. However, after a while I let go and just enjoyed the tale.
One description in particular that I found striking was the engraving of a pig on a city entrance, called Judensau:
On the face of the Fahrtor, travelers entering the city saw a large painted stone engraving. It was famous — or notorious — far and wide as the Judensau — The Jews’ Sow. The engraving was dominated by a large female pig. Beneath the pig several human figures will were seated, sucking at its teats. At the rear of the pig, one man was holding up its tail while another, with his tongue protruding, was preparing to eat the pig’s emerging excrement. To the rear, two men with hats and long beards, clearly representing Jewish elders, were watching. All the figures were wearing the pointed yellow hats that until recently had been mandatory for Frankfurt’s Jews. Lettering under and through the image said: “Drink it, Jew, drink its milk/Rabbi, eat its excrement.”
There was an abundance of discussion of Jewish women’s issues in the book. The controversy over the opening of a school for girls was just one. How to deal with one’s hair upon marriage was another issue. It seems that some Jewish women in Frankfurt previously had shaved their heads before marriage – nowadays, shaving of the head seems to happen only among certain Hassidic sects. A majority of Orthodox women do cover their hair, but the shaving is a different story. I did find once source who said the Hatam Sofer(1762-1839) required women to shave (or is it just cut?) their hair. On the Main Line blog says as far as I know the only Jewish women who maintain the custom of shaving their heads today are descendants of Hungarian-Romanian and Ukrainian-Polish Chassidim. However, it appears from the following source that at one time Yekke, German Ashkenazic, women did so as well.. Here’s a post on Women Who Shave Their Heads that relates to modern day halakha. None of this is covered in the novel, but it is an example of how a novel can get one curious about real history and current practices as well.
Other topics explored in the book include the origins of the famous Rothschild family and the matching of Marie Antoinette in marriage. The initial scene is a discovery of a dead body that turns into a murder mystery: A young girl finds a man dead as she goes to borrow milk. If you like novels with lots of action and historical drama, you will probably enjoy The Origin of Sorrow.