A novel inspired by the legendary spiritual master, Rabbi Yisroel ben Eliezar, known as the Baal Shem Tov, the Good Master of the Name, who beckoned forth love from the hearts of rag pickers, ruby merchants, midwives, and murderers.
Poor orphan. Simpleton. Harder to tame than the wind.
He hears what they call him.
But he listens to the presence his father promised would never leave him.
Yisroel finds his way to those who nurture his healing gifts and rare compassion—until he embraces a destiny he cannot yet fathom nor deny any longer.
Honoring women, children, and the poor as his teachers. Celebrating life’s simplest deeds as worship. Praying with joyous abandon. Loving without condition. Yisroel’s “irreverent” practices threaten the established authorities—among them an embittered rabbinic leader with a mission of his own: to destroy the irrepressible master known as the Baal Shem Tov and his growing community of followers.
I find myself at a disadvantage in reviewing this novel. The subject matter of the novel is the life of great Jewish religious thinker and founder of the Hasidic Judaism. I am not Jewish, nor do I have much knowledge of Jewish thought. The Tremble of Love: A Novel of the Baal Shem Tov is a long book (over 500 pages on my kindle) and one that should be read slowly, allowing for meditation. In some ways it is itself a mystical experience. Unfortunately reviewing one book a week is not conducive to such an approach. I therefore am sure I missed much and this review is not as complete as it could be. That said I still got a great deal out of novel, as Ani Tuzman's fictional account of the great man's life is a fascinating and comprehensive introduction.
One of the issues facing the author must have been the absence of historical data about the rabbi's life. Some of the evidence is closer to legend than historical fact. But we do have the legacy of his teaching and that combined with folk memories allows this book's account to feel authentic to his spirit. In any case this is a novel not a historical biography and this liberates the author to develop certain themes that may or may not be substantiated historically. The most obvious of these is the active role of women in the rabbi's life and teaching. The central character is often seen through the eyes of women, who find liberation in the rabbi's teachings and attitudes. Important in contributing to the book's authenticity is the portrayal of the society, buildings and everyday life in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 1700s. There are lots of small details which all come together to give the reader a sense of being there.
One of the highlights of last year's reading for me was the book Laurus. This was another long fictional historical biography of a holy man. It is perhaps unfair of me to compare the two books, but it is instructional. In Laurus we see inside the central character's head, understanding so far as it is possible the emotional turmoil and trauma that lead his pursuit of God. We do not get the same insight in this book, instead we see the central character from the viewpoint of others, and we see the transformative impact he has on them. Of the two approaches I preferred the former as I think it allowed for more drama, but then the character in Laurus is entirely fictional and perhaps Ani Tuzman did not feel she could take such a liberty with a real holy man. In other ways the two books have much in common – the theme of course, but also the sense of time and place.
Having read this novel, I want to find out more about the historical Yisroel ben Eliezar and his teachings.
I received this book free from the author in return for a fair review.