Though prolific as writers, readers, and hostages of history, modern Jews have rarely produced serious fiction based on the Jewish past. A famous but only partial exception to this is Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf. Steinberg's novel tells the story of rabbinic Judaism's classic heretic, the 2nd-century rabbi, Elisha ben Abuya, on whom the compilers of the Talmud famously bestowed the pungent epithet Acher, or "other."
The 36-year-old rabbi of New York City's Park Avenue Synagogue when the novel was brought out by Bobbs-Merrill in 1939, Steinberg was a trained philosopher who had been a favorite student of both Morris Raphael Cohen, at City College, and Mordecai Kaplan, at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He was known more widely as the author of 1934's The Making of the Modern Jew, which concluded (lucidly, given the time) that history had left 20th-century Western Jews high and dry: their insular but sustaining past had been lost as a consequence of their having eaten from the fruit of the Enlightenment, while their way forward was blocked by Christian anti-Semitism. What Steinberg was not, however, was a storyteller, and the first submission of As a Driven Leaf was politely returned with the complaint that it was "almost entirely intellectual," which was not a bad description of Steinberg himself, who then (with the help of his wife Edith, it's said) reworked the novel into publishable shape.
The book received mixed reviews, and though it sold out its small first printing within two years, it made little money for the author. Stung, Steinberg told a friend he would never write fiction again, which turns out to have been almost true. After Bobbs-Merrill informed Steinberg it had no interest in a second edition, friends of the author urged the book on Behrman's Jewish Book House, which then (as today, as Behrman House) specialized in textbooks for the Jewish day school trade. Behrman reissued the novel in 1948, and it has been in print ever since. Since 1980, it has sold more than 100,000 copies, according to the publisher. I tracked Driven Leaf on Amazon.com during February and March 2010 and found that it sold a little better than Marjorie Morningstar and lengths ahead of Exodus, Call it Sleep, Elie Weisel's recent memoir, or any book by Martin Buber, Bernard Malamud, or Sholem Aleichem.
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