The Trouble With King David

Brandes' latest novel, her sixth, is a biblical novel about the split between the ancient kings of Israel and Judah, and their disparate models of leadership.

There is no lack of presumption in calling a book "Melachim Gimmel" - "Kings III" - as if it were a direct continuation of the Biblical "Kings I" and "Kings II."

"I am presumptuous," author Yochi Brandes quickly admits. "I write books not only so that people will read and enjoy them, but also to shake up readers and shift their views. I want them to have new thoughts about our society and culture."

Brandes' latest novel, her sixth, was recently released by Kinneret Publishing. It is a biblical novel about the split between the ancient kings of Israel and Judah, and their disparate models of leadership. Brandes, a Bible teacher, has become a best-selling author over the years. Readers consistently enjoy her books, but critics do not always share their enthusiasm.

Her first book, "Gmar Tov," which described the marital adventures of a young ultra-Orthodox couple in the religious town of Bnei Brak, was published by Menachem Peri's Sifriya Hadasha in 1997. That book was a success. Brandes then turned to the Yedioth Ahronoth publishing house, where she produced the best-sellers "Hagar" in 1998, "Quench Love" in 2001, "White Seeds" in 2003 and "Confession" in 2005.

This year, Brandes abandoned Yedioth for Kinneret Publishing. Professor Yigal Schwartz, a central figure in Israeli literature who edited her latest novel, has edited notable writers like Zeruya Shalev, Gabriela Avigur-Rotem and Aharon Appelfeld.

Brandes, who frequently takes a light approach to writing about the ultra-Orthodox world, Zionism, Jewish sources and Jewish identity, has now gained entry into a highly-respected group of local writers.

How did that happen?

"I was deathly afraid of Yigal Schwartz," she confesses. "When they told me that Schwartz wanted to edit me, I was happy because I knew that he chooses his writers with an eagle eye, but on the other hand, I knew that I wasn't [Israeli Prize-winning author] S. Yizhar. I write popular fiction for a broad public. I want to reach a lot of readers and move them. I'm not afraid of being described as kitschy. I want them to cry when they read my books. That's me.

"So when we met, I told him the truth, 'I am very honored, but you know who I am.' He told me that had I come to him 20 years earlier, my fear would have been justified, 'Because then I believed there was only one type of literature, everyone had to be S. Yizhar, and write canonically. But my taste has expanded. I now like more different styles of writing, and I will help you be the best you can be.' It was wonderful working with him."

Critics have written harsh words about Brandes' books on more than one occasion. Some accuse her of writing popular, light and shallow literature. Brandes reads critiques and is occasionally insulted.

"There are three types of critics," she explains. "There are critics who curse and swear, and I really don't bother with them. For example, Arik Glasner wrote that 'Confession' was disgusting and repulsive. I can't relate to that.

"There are critics who seriously examine a book and like it, particularly in literary journals, like Yehudit Orian or Professor Baumel. And there are critics who are somewhere in the middle, like Smadar Schiffman or Ziva Shamir. They write methodical critiques and it is fine if they also say some negative things about a book. But sometimes I feel frustrated. OK, I am a popular writer. But popular literature can be qualitative, profound and of value to readers. Some critics understand that and some don't, and in general, I am content with my lot."

Why did you leave Yedioth Ahronoth?

"I like the people at Yedioth, but I am very ambitious. I want to advance in every field, and I have other places to go."

For example?

"I'm striving to sell more in the Israeli market. To date, 'White Seeds' has sold 70,000 copies and 'Hagar' sold 60,000 copies, and I know that is a lot in Israeli terms. But I want to reach 100,000 readers. Another aspect is translating and distributing my books abroad. I read about the Salon du Livre Book Fair in Paris and I am green with envy. I read that 40 writers are going to the book fair, and some have written only a book or two. I have written six successful books, and not a single book of mine has been translated. Now I understand that if I do not do the work, no one will do it for me. I have been doing nothing but writing for 12 years. Now I intend to take a break and reach readers abroad. I believe that a book like 'Melachim Gimmel' could sell millions of copies around the world. I am entering the fray."

Brandes says achievement does not come easy to her.

"It may not always appear that way, but I work very hard and take a lot of blows until I achieve success," she says. "Writing is hard for me. Gaining acceptance by the literary establishment was hard, and I was pushed out more than once. Do you know how many times people have told me, 'We thought you wrote bedroom fiction about the ultra-Orthodox world until we stumbled upon one of your books, read it, and liked it'? Critics let worse authors off the hook. That only gives me additional drive to continue my work."

Brandes, 49, smiles frequently, and speaks quickly and generously. She is smooth and candid. She was born in Haifa and raised in Petah Tikva in an ultra-Orhodox family. She attended ultra-Orthodox schools affiliated with the Beit Yaakov education network. But unlike most of her peers, she continued on to university and completed a master's degree in Jewish Studies at the Conservative Movement's Shechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. She taught Bible in schools, colleges and cultural institutions for many years.

Her first published work, "Ma'adim," was published in the "Alpayim" (2000) multi-disciplinary journal of contemporary thought and literature. She is married to Ofer Brandes, a high-tech professional, and they have four children - two sons who are currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and two daughters who are still in school.

"Melachim Gimmel" tells the story of Shalomam, a boy from the city of Tzeredah in the tribal region of Ephraim, who sets forth on a journey in search of his identity and his roots. The book portrays central Biblical figures and depicts their personalities in ways that sometimes contradict accepted commentary.

"For me, the Bible is and has always been the most precious cultural creation," Brandes says. "And one of the biblical characters to whom I feel the closest affinity is Saul's daughter Michal. I consider her the most tragic figure in the Bible. She is the only biblical woman who dares to love and decides to marry the man she loves. She is daring and strong, but she suffers a tragic fate. She is left with nothing. The only man who loved her is taken from her. The only man she loved, David, did not love her, exploited her, and killed her family and her children. That hostility drove me crazy. And it drove me even crazier when I discovered that the sages said Michal put on phylacteries. Why do they say this about Michal and not about the Prophets Deborah or Miriam?

"I gradually came to realize they said this because Michal was so daring and strong. The Bible punishes her by means of her fate, and the sages strengthen that as if to say, 'Do you want to act like a man? Do you want to put on phylacteries? You can, but remember that you might remain like Michal, loveless, childless and without family. When I teach about Michal, I show how David annihilated Saul's dynasty and people are astounded. When they teach Bible in schools, those verses are omitted from the curriculum, as if the Israeli education system doesn't want pupils to know that David was actually the first man who divided Israel. He was the one who founded the Judean Kingdom."

When Brandes sat down to write, her vision of a personal story about Michal was replaced by a book about the entire period.

"I invented very little in the book," she says. "Ninety-five percent of what I wrote is written in the Bible, or by Biblical sages, other books, the New Testament and translations of the Bible. I wanted to tell the story from the vantage point of Israel, because the Bible we know is Judean. It says that God granted David his kingdom, and that David took pains to avoid killing Saul. And then there is a verse, 'There was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David. David grew increasingly stronger but the house of Saul grew increasingly weaker [Samuel II 3:1].' This is a bloody war in which David systematically murders members of the house of Saul."

Nearly every Israeli pupil learns that Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, was a terrible leader who committed a despicable act in the eyes of God, when he divided the kingdom. But Brandes' book depicts him as an enlightened figure. "Jeroboam was a giant on par with Moses," she says. "We still fantasize about a messiah who comes from the house of David 3,000 years later. But certain voices in our culture talk about different models of leadership, about Saul and Jeroboam. These are entirely different styles of monarchy. I am not, heaven forbid, saying that we should erase the David model, but that we should try to think about the option of a messiah who comes from the house of Joseph. The sages talk about it, Rav Kook talks about it. It is an option."

How do the two models differ?

"Leadership by the house of Joseph is far more pluralistic. The David model calls for concentrating ritual in one location."

Didn't religious pluralism call for preservation of paganism in that era?

"During that period, paganism and monotheism were still integrated. Didn't our matriarch Rahel have teraphim [household idols]? Jeroboam's model of leadership is monotheistic, but it is far more open. It permits freedom, and is much less threatened and much less violent. Jeroboam rebels against the house of David in a bloodless war. He engages in a tax rebellion and the only person who dies is Adoram, who is in charge of revenues. But David's revolt against Saul was soaked in blood. He wants all of Israel, from the Euphrates to the Hiddekel, and a single Temple for everyone. The fantasy of a Greater Israel in which everyone does the same thing and there are no variations, the fantasy of vanquishing the gentiles by force and waging a war of Gog and Magog to take control, is a Davidistic fantasy. Even the Bible offers other fantasies."

This theory might be considered absolute heresy in the world from which Brandes hails. But she considers herself religious in her own way.

"I do not follow halakha," she says. "I know halakha and continue to study it, but I am not committed to it. I enjoy observing certain mitzvot, and Jewish culture is my only culture. I am truly ignorant and illiterate when it comes to other cultures."

She was raised with five siblings, but is not in contact with most of them.

"The ultra-Orthodox world then was very different than it is today," she notes. "Only 10 percent of the ultra-Orthodox Jews lived in the ghettos of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. All the rest lived open lives, the fathers worked, they went to their neighbors' homes to watch television on Independence Day, and went to movies. But the fanatic ultra-Orthodox world won, 30 years ago, and ultra-Orthodoxy became closed and separatist.

"Most of my siblings are ultra-Orthodox, and their children are even more extreme. I maintained relations with one sister until my daughter's bat mitzvah, half a year ago. She attended the bat mitzvah, where I took a critical tone in my discussion of the prophet Elijah. She cut off ties with me because of that. As far as she is concerned, my new book is really a red flag."

The book repeatedly emphasizes the power of stories, and demonstrates that they are greater and mightier than the sword, because they determine who will live and who will die in future generations.

"History teaches that cultures are ultimately preserved not by military victory and occupation, but by myths and stories," Brandes concludes.

But what room does she leave for historical fact and truth?

"It doesn't interest me. Professor Finkelstein will read this book and say, 'What? There was no literacy and they did not write books in the time of David and Solomon.' That is true, but I view the Bible as literature."

There is some significance to factual truth in the Israeli reality and the war between Israeli and Palestinian narratives.

"Absolutely, what happened during the last 100 years is significant. The closer we are to the events, the more relevant it is. But what will determine the victory in the long run is the story that we tell of what happened. Judaism was preserved not because of what really was, but because of the story that it told and continues to tell its children - because of "You shall tell your son on that day [Exodus 13:8]."