When Allen Feiglin, 66, talks about the deer, foxes, squirrels, and other creatures that frequent the open field behind his home, one gets the sense that the Baltimore-area author enjoys this encroaching of the wild upon suburban order. Frequently breaking into a wide smile and even more frequently employing unmistakably Australian expressions, Feiglin’s appreciation and enthusiasm for the unexpected among the mundane shines.
This is also apparent in his new book, “I Am the Witness: Exodus,” which he produced and published himself. He hopes to make it the first in a series.
The inspiration for “I Am the Witness: Exodus” was Feiglin’s frustration with not knowing what happened between the lines of biblical narratives such as the Exodus story.
“What did they do in the desert for 40 years? Between the bits that we know about, they were living there for 40 years,” he said. “Why don’t we know where kriyat Yam Suf [the splitting of the Red Sea] happened? Why don’t we know who the pharaoh of the Exodus story is? So I went hunting into that.”
Feiglin also wanted to write a book that would capture the contemporary reader’s attention without resorting to the “wanton violence or schmutz” prevalent in popular fiction, he said.
Feiglin was born and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Melbourne, Australia. He attended public school followed by Talmud Torah lessons every day, an ad hoc version of the dual curriculum experience at today’s Jewish day schools. As Feiglin tells it, he was the first teen at his elite Melbourne high school to defy the prohibition against headgear and wear a kippah in the school buildings This was during his junior year, in honor of the memory of his father, who died suddenly due to a blood clot during a routine surgery.
The loss of his father reverberated through Feiglin’s life in multiple ways. His grades dropped, but he also began to write. “When my father passed away, I couldn’t do anything, so I wrote stories,” he said. “They are the core of what I’ve written today.”
Feiglin was already working on this book in the 1990s when he came up against a creative wall. Until this point, Feiglin focused on Jewish texts and commentaries as sources. He later proceeded to follow leads, suggested by friends, from secular historical research available on sites like YouTube. Thanks to these sources, acknowledged in the final pages of the book, Feiglin incorporates details into his story rarely seen in a Jewish recounting of the Exodus but convincingly supported by the historical record, he said.
Feiglin didn’t want to produce a dry historical book, however — he wanted it to have some mystery, he said. And he achieves this aim in
“I Am the Witness: Exodus.”
The premise of the book is that in every generation, there is someone recording history as it happens in the Witness Scroll. Existing across millennia, multiple people have access to the scroll at different points in time in the story, with some characters watching the words appear on the page and others actively recording. Readers see the world through the eyes of a 13-year-old Levite in ancient Egypt, archaeologists in Jerusalem — even a novelist in Australia.
The nature of their connection is just one of the ambitious mysteries Feiglin sets up for the reader in what he plans to be a series of
Historical fiction novels based on biblical stories, in the vein of Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent,” often take liberties with sacred texts in a manner that can raise the hackles of Orthodox Jewish readers. Feiglin said that his book is compliant “as much as I can be” with the traditional reading of the Exodus story. The fictional embellishment of Witnesses aside, details like a pharaoh who is a dwarf and the exact location of the Red Sea crossing are
evidence-based, he said.
“The evidence I brought here can’t be argued by anyone, because it’s there,” he said.
The book is also rich with humor. It includes fun takes on the origin of modern-day expressions and object names, from “all in the same boat” to “spreadsheet.”
Feiglin wanted the book to be funny to show that “Judaism doesn’t have to be cut and dried,” he said. “‘Do this, do that, or you’re going to go to hell’ — that’s not what
Judaism is about.”
Feiglin hopes readers across the spectrum of Jewish background and practice will read and enjoy the book for both its research and its messages. One of those messages is that all Jews are connected and responsible for one another, he said.
Future installments in the “Witness” series will cover other epochs in Jewish history while continuing narrative threads established in previous books.
Who will be the Witnesses during the Purim saga and the tumultuous years of early Christianity? JT readers will have to stay tuned to find out.