Literary fiction, Yedioth, 2019
Combining the breadth of Olga Tokarczuk’s THE BOOKS OF JACOB and the magical realism of Yaniv Itzkovitz’s THE SLAUGHTERMAN’S DAUGHTER, Yakov Mayer’s NEHEMIAH is a fabulous fictionalized account of the 17th century Polish Rabbi Nehemiah HaKohen’s journey to Istanbul to meet the messiah, Sabbatai Zevi. His journey comes in the aftermath of 5408, “the year of Chmiel (may his name be blotted out), a time of trouble for the Jews of Poland.” Writing in a singular prose that breathes life into ancient idioms, Mayer has turned a scantly documented figure into a complex character who transcends his peripheral place in World History.
Reb Nehemiah is a pariah in a world of pariahs. An eleven-fingered man, he is described by his wife as “one-third street peddler, one-quarter itinerant preacher, one-sixth scribbler of charm, topped off by smaller fractions of country doctor, street hustler and scam artist.” To keep borscht on the table, he makes the rounds through the taverns and markets of Eastern Europe as a traveling miracle-worker, but his untamable passion is for manuscripts—in any language.
Nehemiah’s penchant for the word lands him in the company of drunkards, scholars, statesmen and monks, propelling him into hilarious, rollicking—if sometimes catastrophic—adventures in places where no sane 17th century Jew would dare step foot. NEHEMIAH is the story of a man who would swap life, religion, identity, and salvation just for the chance to hold a great work of literature in his hands, a misfit rabbi who finds himself in the center of history and at the breaking point of belief.
“Sometimes it seems to me that a story can be told over and over again depending on the perspective we take. This is also the case in this picaresque novel. We are presented with the seventeenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in one of the most dramatic moments of its history, seen through the eyes of the involuntary adventurer, cabalist and vagabond Nechemia, entangled in the history of the false Messiah from Smyrna. Great fun and a lot of non-obvious knowledge.”
—Olga Tokarczuk, Nobel Prize winning author of FLIGHTS and THE BOOKS OF JACOB
“Mercurial, inventive and irreverent, Yakov Z. Mayer’s masterful novel NEHEMIA is a rare literary occurrence. Mayer’s vast knowledge, confident hand and wild imagination turned this delightful picaresque novel into a true page turner that leaves the reader breathless and dazzled at the end of Nehemia’s early modern odyssey.”
—Ruby Namdar, author of Sapir Prize winning THE RUINED HOUSE