Judy's Reviews > The Orchard

The Orchard by Yochi Brandes
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

really liked it
Read 2 times. Last read January 2019.

This is an ambitious historical novel, translated from the Hebrew, about the life of one of the most monumental figures in Jewish history. Rabbi Akiva lived in a tumultuous time, during the Second Century CE, when the Jews were under harsh Roman rule. In fact, Rabbi Akiva was brutally murdered by the Romans as part of their "payback" to the Jews during the Bar Kochba rebellion, a rebellion that Rabbi Akiva seemed to support.

This will be a challenging book for anyone unfamiliar with the famous Jewish sages of this period in history. Many of their names sound alike (Elazar, Eliezer, Azaria), and while the author does an admirable job of fleshing out their different personalities, there are still a lot of characters to keep track of.

Akiva was believed to have been an illiterate shepherd, and only to have learned to read and write at the age of 40. His wife, Rachel, was the daughter of the most wealthy man in the land of Israel at the time, and according to the novel, he disowned Rachel over her insistence that she marry this unschooled shepherd and not the Torah scholar her father had selected for her. The evidence is that Rachel suffered greatly in her life for her decision; she sent Akiva away to study in yeshiva, leaving her impoverished after her father cut her off. In this novel, Brandes attributes a boldness to Rachel that will probably offend many Orthodox readers. But who knows? There is no written record that would prove or disprove this version of Rachel's efforts to marry Akiva.

For me, this book was a valuable primer, helping me to distinguish much better among all the famous names of the sages who we read about during the Pesach seder who sat and studied together in Benei Brak, and who are quoted in Ethics of the Fathers. It also helped clarify the growing dispute among Jewish leaders at this dismal time after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when Jews no longer had a central address for worship. Akiva was instrumental in creating an innovative form of "rabbinic Judaism," which allowed for individual interpretations of the law.

Akiva was also one of the sages (later known as rabbis) who made Torah study central in Jewish life, and after his ordination at a rabbinical academy at Yavneh, he founded his own academy in B'nai Brak. Brandes portrays Akiva as distant, and even a loner, who abandons his wife entirely for a dozen years after he goes off to study in yeshiva, not even sending letters. Yet somehow he becomes a magnetic teacher for young men eager to learn his innovative thinking on Jewish law. Nowhere does she portray him as having a true love of God, but only for having a drive to do what he believes God wants. The lack of any sense of personal warmth for either God or his wife is troubling.

It's impossible to know how far off the mark Brandes' characterizations are of Akiva, Rachel, and the other personalities in this novel, but it's hard to believe that Akiva the real man was as cold and intellectual as he is portrayed here. Still, if you enjoy learning about early Jewish history and some of the key players, this book can be a satisfying read.
3 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Orchard.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Finished Reading (Kindle Edition)
January, 2019 – Started Reading
January, 2019 – Finished Reading
March 28, 2019 – Shelved (Kindle Edition)
March 28, 2019 – Shelved

No comments have been added yet.