The Ultimate Jewish Road Novel, Set in First-century Rome, Judea and Beyond

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The Judean Desert (illustrative).
The Judean Desert (illustrative).Credit: © Vladimir Blinov |

“Captivity,” by György Spiró, Restless Books, 864 pp., $29.99

György Spiró’s novel “Captivity” was, at least according to its promotional materials, a best-seller when originally published in Hungarian in 2005, and the recently published English translation by Tim Wilkinson has also received considerable attention. Spiró is a well-known playwright and literary figure in Hungary who discovered late in life that his father was Jewish. “Captivity” was the first of two works to delve into explicitly Jewish themes. (The second, “Messiahs,” has yet to be translated into English.)

The 860-page tome follows its Jewish protagonist, Uri, known officially as Gaius Theodorus, through his travels and daily life in first-century Rome, Jerusalem, the Judean countryside and the port cities of Alexandria, Caesarea and Puteoli (today’s Pozzuoli). Spiró has re-created (or created) the magnificent minutiae of the Mediterranean Roman world during what’s commonly known as the Julio-Claudian dynasty, from the Roman emperors Augustus to Nero. This was a time of expanding Roman imperial power, and also of conflict between Rome’s emperors and senate, which periodically sought to restore Rome to a republic. Through Uri’s travels we see Spiró’s vision of how families, especially Jewish families, subsisted, and the forces that regulated their lives, from the calendar to the mob.

Uri seems to serve as a vehicle for Spiró’s desire to write a thick description of Jewish life from top to bottom at this key moment in both Jewish and world history, encompassing the birth of Christianity and the end of the Temple in Jerusalem. As Spiró vividly renders every aspect of the Roman Empire’s architecture, diet, religions, violence, the personalities of emperors and kings and, most of all, commerce, the empire itself appears as a key character. The empire is Uri’s universe, and one so vast the creator must have a purpose for it. Nonetheless, in Uri’s words, he “had often wondered what the sense was in having a single power rule over the Great Sea and all its coasts and the inner lands — to wit, all the known world, beyond which there was little, not counting the Parthians, India, and China, which were so far away that their existence seemed unfathomable beyond the silk that came from there.”

Uri is born to a freed Jewish slave and his converted wife, but because he is a free male born in Rome he is entitled to the coveted benefits of Roman citizenship, including enough food to feed his parents and sisters. His extreme nearsightedness makes Uri unable or unwilling to learn a trade, and he spends his days at home, reading, until his father engineers a place for him with the Jewish delegation from Rome that annually delivers the community’s financial contribution to the Passover sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. It is on the trip to Jerusalem that the real story of Uri’s life begins.

Uri is arrested and taken into custody in Jerusalem and subsequently held prisoner in the Judean countryside because of the mistaken impression — perhaps intended by his father, perhaps not — that Uri is there as a messenger of Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, who has ambitions to be king of Judea. It is during Uri’s captivity that he learns he exists as a tool of imperial politics, a fact that is to become the dominant theme of his life and is perhaps the broader metaphor Spiró intends for the Jews, as the book’s title seems to suggest.

Uri discovers during his months in Judea that Jewish society there is wracked by messianic yearnings and internal divisions. The Judean Jews obsess over the purity of Jerusalem and Judea, which they contrast constantly to the impurity of Edom (Rome) and the Jewish Diaspora. Uri internalizes the idea that he is cut from a different cloth than the Judeans and yearns to leave Judea’s strangely fanatical provincialism, and its corruption — not to return to Rome, but to visit Alexandria, the empire’s cosmopolitan center of learning and culture.

Uri is freed when he is used by Jerusalem’s Sanhedrin and high priest in a plot to frame Pontius Pilate for a massacre, and when Uri acquiesces to falsely witnessing the lie he is rewarded with passage to Alexandria. When he eventually makes it there, the misperception that Uri is well positioned with Agrippa, which led to his captivity in Judea, is seen as potentially useful to Alexandria’s wealthiest and most powerful Jewish family. As a result, Uri is adopted into this family and forms a bond with the famed Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, a relationship that becomes the determinant one of Uri’s adulthood.

The utility of religion

For all that we see through Uri’s eyes, we learn fairly little of his character or personality. Uri is neither particularly interesting nor complex; he is bookish, he seeks the approval of his father, he marries for convenience and falls in love out of passion a couple of times. And the fact that he is always only somewhat in control of his life, and often not at all, is precisely the point. While living in Philo’s house in Alexandria, Uri, who had thus far viewed the will of God as deterministic in his life and that of all others, falls into a conversation with Philo’s nephew Tija about the utility of religion.

György Spiró, a well-known playwright and literary figure in Hungary, discovered late in life that his father was Jewish.Credit: Gaspar Stekovics

“‘Is there a need for a religion in Judaea?’ Tija asked. Uri mused. Alexandria, by giving a person time to think, must be a place that was agreeable to God.

"Before his eyes ran images of sects, devotees, idlers, sacrificers, mourners, grieving relatives, mutilated corpses, activists, hustlers, robbers, the ambitious. ... Before his eyes appeared the throng of people he had witnessed on the road from Caesarea to Jerusalem. The people who stood in line at harvest-time, happily chanting psalms. It was a good feeling to be together. Mourners in the cemetery. Everyone feared dying: better to live in the hope of eternal life than to believe that death was a total extinction — that was unimaginable.”

But in the course of the conversation with Tija, in which they consider the possibility of a monotheistic Roman emperor and of a Jewish messiah, his interlocutor ends the discussion abruptly with the declaration “politics is all there is.” Tija continues: “Jostling for position, hatred, envy — that’s all. Only madmen rave nowadays, and they will never lay their hands on power.”

With this, Spiró lifts the veil to show that what Uri had slowly been coming to realize is now nakedly apparent: that his life was determined by imperial politics, not God.

Jewish sovereignty

This is not to say that the Jews in “Captivity” have no agency. If anything, the Judean Jews are too blinded by messianic expectation and anti-Roman resentment to realize, as Uri observes of Judea at one point, “It was a free country, but its inhabitants were unaware.” As for Alexandrian Jews, Uri later comes to determine their responsibility — or at least that of his elite patrons — for the wave of violence that surged through Alexandria’s Jewish quarter under the city’s prefect Flaccus: “They needed to come to terms with their Greek neighbors, not place their trust in faraway imperial help.”

Here it is impossible not to see current-day concerns intruding into the story. In fact, “Captivity” evokes an idea first put forward 30 years ago by the historian David Biale in his influential and controversial book “Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History.” Biale argued that Zionist historians were blind to the limits and restraints on Jewish sovereignty and power during periods of state independence — ancient and modern — and did not sufficiently appreciate the power Jews held during much of the period in between. Spiró similarly hits at assumptions about homeland and Diaspora equating power and powerlessness in his depiction of both imperial politics and Jewish ambitions. He does so by letting us in on what the Jewish Judeans fail to understand, that they have more power under Rome without a Jewish sovereign; if Agrippa became king of Judea he would in fact owe his position (and money) to the Jews of Alexandria and Rome.

Throughout the book the religious fanaticism of the Jews of Judea is contrasted to the necessarily more-accommodating attitudes of Diaspora Jews. Nonetheless, the messianic fanaticism of Judea manages to intrude on the Diaspora through the rise of a dangerous new sect, the Nazarenes, early Christians whom Spiró depicts similarly to a modern-day cult. When back in Rome and settled with a family Uri’s own son joins the group, and the Roman Jewish community’s assumption of Uri’s association with the Nazarenes leads to the entire family’s expulsion from Rome.

Uri is not a Nazarene, but he does have an intimate familiarity with their martyred prophet Jesus, having shared a cell in Jerusalem with the man who years later would be worshipped as the Messiah. In exasperation Uri tells his son, “Your Anointed hero was a man! A man! I was jailed with Him, saw Him from an arm’s length away!” As we see Uri through old age and the Judean Jews through the catastrophe of rebellion against Rome, Spiró continually contrasts the open-minded cosmopolitanism of Roman Jewish identity to the narrow-minded fanaticism of the direct descendants of Judean messianism, the followers of Christ.

Reading “Captivity” can be taxing. Given its length, detail and the patience required to get through it, the book’s success in Hungary may attest to a particularly sophisticated Hungarian reading public. But I am inclined to believe that for a book like this to gain a wide readership it must resonate — consciously or subconsciously — with an issue troubling society. Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” after all, became a best-seller in both French and English despite its length (700 pages) and density as an academic book about the topical yet unglamorous issue of economic growth and inequality. Perhaps many Hungarians simply have a taste for historical fiction and an interest in ancient Rome and Judea, or perhaps Spiró’s preexisting celebrity as an intellectual and literary figure in Hungary was enough to draw readers.

But as “Nabucco,” Giuseppe Verdi’s opera about Jewish slaves in Babylon who yearned for their homeland, was widely understood by Italians as an analogy to their own desire for national unification, perhaps Hungarians, who have their own nation-state, diaspora and troubling persistent questions about what makes a Hungarian, might find resonances in “Captivity.”

Certainly for Spiró, a Hungarian who now identifies as Jewish, the story of “Captivity” is not merely a historical fiction set in the first century, but also a meditation, and critique, on the meaning of diaspora and homeland today. It also includes hints about the paradox of Jewish identity in the Diaspora. When Uri asks his Greek friend in Alexandria why Greeks so hate the Jews, he replies, “It might be better, perhaps, if you were very different from us, but in fact you’re just the same. That’s the trouble.”

Simon J. Rabinovitch teaches history at Boston University. His most recent book is “Jewish Rights, National Rites: Nationalism and Autonomy in Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia.” Follow him on Twitter @sjrabinov.

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