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Mysteries of Israel

Four unexpected thrillers from the Jewish state.

Sep 13, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 48 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
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The Last Ember
by Daniel Levin
Riverhead, 480 pp., $16

The Last Secret
of the Temple

by Paul Sussman
Atlantic, 560 pp., $24

The Hidden Scroll
An Archaeological
Adventure 

by Avraham Anouchi
Xlibris, 376 pp., $19.99

The Menorah Men
by Lionel Davidson

Jonathan Marcus, the hottie hero of Daniel Levin’s religio-thriller The Last Ember (2009), is back in Rome seven years after a tragedy cut short what was supposed to be his brilliant archaeological career. A high powered New York law firm has jetted Marcus, a former star classics student and Rome prize-winner, to the Italian capital to defend a client accused of stealing antiquities. The case brings Marcus face to face with his old flame Dr. Emili Travia, and lands him deep inside a complicated and dangerous thrill ride in this cross between Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code.

Marcus and Travia race around, but mostly underneath, Rome and Jerusalem trying to piece together a 2,000-year-old mystery. What really happened to the eight-foot solid gold Menorah that supposedly stood in the Holy of Holies of the second ancient Jewish temple destroyed in 70 A.D., the menorah so famously depicted on the Arch of Titus? Was Flavius Josephus really the most famous Jewish turncoat, or some kind of double agent? What “mistake” was Emperor Titus referring to on his deathbed?

First-time novelist Levin does a great job of weaving together fast-paced action sequences with a mass of historical detail. But rather than keep his story planted in 70 A.D., he makes his tale relevant to present day controversies. “Archaeology is politics,” one character avers. Levin’s heroes risk their lives, not to solve an academic puzzle but to thwart an ideologically motivated effort to erase what Levin calls the “Judeo-Christian past.” As the novel’s villain Salah ad-Din exclaims, “Let other people talk nonsense about religion and mythology .  .  . who controls the past controls the future.” 

Indeed, recent news reports support Levin’s thesis. Concerns have been mounting about excavations under the al-Aqsa Mosque, which was built over the destroyed Jewish temple, while at the same time denials of Jerusalem’s centrality to Jews are commonly repeated among Palestinian leaders. Sheikh Tayseer Rajab Tamimi, chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, declared last year that Jerusalem is solely “an Arab and Islamic city and it has always been so.” His comments followed those by Shamekh Alawneh, a lecturer in modern history at al Quds University, who on a Palestinian Authority TV program said that Jews invented their connection to Jerusalem. 

“It has no historical roots,” he said, and opined that the Jews are engaging in “an attack on history, theft of culture, falsification of facts, erasure of the truth, and Judaization of the place.” Just the opposite is, in fact, happening; and The Last Ember, though a fantasy, does a good job of highlighting the urgency of the problem. 

Levin’s book isn’t the only example of this type of religious/archaeological thriller-with-a-message. It also isn’t the only recent story obsessed with supposedly uncovering what happened to the Menorah that used to stand in the Jewish temple sacked by the Romans. Whereas Levin imagines that Josephus was the one who helped to save the Menorah by secreting it out of Jerusalem, Paul Sussman, in The Last Secret of the Temple (2007), has the Menorah under the protection of generation after generation of Jewish caretakers. Sussman’s story also has a strong message, but it is less about the politics and power of archaeology and more about the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

Sussman’s book weaves together four stories: one about a shattered Jerusalem police officer who lost his faith because he lost his fiancée; an Egyptian detective who, in his search to uncover the truth about Nazis who received shelter in Egypt after the war, ends up fighting his anti-Semitic instincts; a Palestinian journalist with a secret and a serious daddy fixation; and finally a crazy, right-wing Jewish zealot who spends some of his time leading similarly minded Israelis to take over Arab homes in Jerusalem’s Old City. 

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