“The Convert” by Stefan Hertsman. New York: Pantheon Books: 2020. 304 pages. $26.95.
This wonderful book is based on a few ancient documents, which, combined with the author’s scholarly perseverance, give it its outline; his imagination fills in the holes. “The Convert,” thus, is a historical novel, apparently based, at least loosely, on historical fact.
The documents, which the author used as the basis for his novel, come from ancient genizot, depositories in synagogues of books, letters and papers with the name of God on them, which, according to Jewish law, may not be destroyed.
In essence, this is a story of forbidden love.
We’re in Rouen, France, at the end of the 11th century. Vigdis, the daughter of a wealthy Norman aristocrat, and David, the son of the chief rabbi of Narbonne, who is studying at the yeshivah in that city, spot each other and a mutual attraction develops.
In medieval France, however, getting married “without parental approval is almost inconceivable and a sure road to violence and slaughter,” writes author Stefan Hertmans, through his translator David McKay.
Any inter-religious union “is beyond the imagining of the upper classes. Yet forbidden love is ever-present in human hearts — as it has always been.” The two begin to see each other on the streets and one day speak.
“Their first conversation cannot have been easy at all — her first true greeting stiff and formal, his more flamboyant, in the southern style,” Hertmans writes.
Their early tete-a-tetes must have been awkward. “His style of courtship would not have fitted the culture of a genteel Christian woman,” the author notes.
“His upbringing required that he resort to age-old formulas and rituals: ‘O my Jewish bride, let me lead you to the altar as Moses led our ancestors out of Egypt.’ … Vigdis can’t have understood half of what he said.”
Both her father and the head of the yeshivah find out about the love affair, and she is sent to a convent. David arranges her escape, and the young couple leaves Rouen, traveling 900 kilometers (560 miles) to David’s hometown, Narbonne.
When knights seek Vigdis in that town, the couple flees again, this time to the isolated village of Moniou.
Even that village is not remote enough to provide safety for them. In 1095, Pope Urban issued a call for the First Crusade, promising those who took part would get “plenary indulgences”— remittance for punishment for their sins.
And, according to the author, the pope said in his speech that participants need not wait until they get to Jerusalem to earn their get-out-of-hell-or-purgatory passes by killing enemies of God. As Jews were the only non-Christians in Europe that the Crusaders might encounter on their way to the Holy Land, his meaning was clear: Crusaders were encouraged to murder Jews.
A huge army — some 200 knights and hundreds of hangers on — descend on the village on the way to the Holy Land, and the couple’s luck runs out. David is killed and two of their three children are kidnapped.
The description of the damage this mass of people did to the village is frightening. The knights and the others took over many homes, throwing out the residents, so they would have a comfortable place to sleep. They butchered, cooked and ate almost all the livestock in the area and devoured most of the other food in the village. They stole what they could find. Then, after getting drunk, they raped Jewish and other women, murdered many Jews of all ages and others, and set fire to the synagogue and other structures.
The army left the following morning, its leaders oblivious to what they had done. The village had been left poverty-stricken, with little to eat and no way to repair the damage.
Soon, Vigdis, now the Jewish woman Hamoutal, is on the move again, this time on her own and extremely vulnerable, as she searches for her children. Her journey takes her to Fustat, the first Muslim capital of Egypt, now part of Cairo, and eventually back to Europe. The hardships and abuse that she had to endure finally broke her physically and mentally.
From the beginning, I, and I’m sure other readers, had an overwhelming feeling that this would not end well. And if there was any doubt, the author explicitly assured readers that our suspicions were not unfounded.
“The Convert” was difficult for me to read. I identified strongly with Hamoutal — as does the author — and the tortures of her body and soul were almost painful to me.
Fortunately, the historical fiction is punctuated by descriptions of the author’s attempts to verify historical facts and retrace the journeys of the main characters, mainly Hamoutal. These long asides provide psychological relief from an intense, even nerve-wracking, tale.
It also gives the author the opportunity to write poetically, in this instance about the village he lives in almost 1,000 years after Hamoutal was a resident.
“The landscape smells sublime in these early hours; it breathes an ethereal beauty. On this spring morning all the irises are open, the wild cherry tree is in blossom, the rosemary is dense with bright little flowers, and the scent of thyme rises with the warmth of the dew.”
Such beautiful prose helped mitigate my anti-Semitism-induced depression.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.